Suppose the party suspects that combat is imminent, and some of the PCs ready actions (attack nearest hostile creature, attack first thing that moves). Then combat erupts. Some of the PCs are considered Surprised (for instance, because the attack came from enemies they weren't expecting).

When do the readied actions take place?

  • Before or after initiative is rolled and gaining any Warlord initiative bonus such as shifting?
  • During surprise round turns? If so at the PC's initiative or at the mob's initiative?
  • Or do they wait to trigger until the PC is no longer Surprised?

Is it possible to be Surprised while you have a readied action?

Also, what's the PC's initiative order after this? Can the PC wind up at a higher position than was rolled?


7 Answers 7


Here's my take on the situation you have described:

Readied Actions are meant for use in Initiative Order only.

Quote from Wizard's FAQ @ their community forum:

On your turn, you spend a standard action to ready an action. You then choose a target (if applicable), a triggering circumstance, and a specific action to ready. When/if the trigger action takes place, and it's legal for you to perform the action, you perform the action as an immediate reaction to the trigger action. Then you change your place in the initiative order so that you take your turn before the creature who triggered your readied action.

Your PCs cannot get around rolling Initiative just by saying "I'm going to attack the nearest hostile I see." Generally that's what everyone is going to do in combat, hence why we roll for Initiative. If you allow these out of combat Readied Actions, your PCs will always have readied actions like that set up and it will severely impact how your encounters will need to be designed from now on.

So, you cannot ready an action outside of combat. That fact should simplify much of issue you are dealing with.

Quick notes on Readied Actions: A Readied Action is an Immediate Reaction. It is not an Immediate Interrupt, so the enemy gets to complete its Triggering Action before the Readied Action happens. Also, when you change your position on the Initiative Order due to a Readied Action you can wind up in a higher position than you initially rolled.

On surprise:

It is possible to be surprised even when you are expecting a fight. Your PCs (especially that Rogue or Assassin) would want a chance to sneak up on an alert/ready to fight band of enemies, wouldn't they? The monsters get that same consideration. That's why we have the Perception skill and the Stealth skill.

  • 1
    \$\begingroup\$ The Quote from the FAQ says what you can do. Not what you can't. If you treat combat as some artificial state like this a player with BO could claim to be in combat with the fly's buzzing around him. I would allow readied actions to be held so long as they are concentrated on. But doing much else besides concentrating you'd have to talk me into. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Dec 6, 2014 at 6:08
  • \$\begingroup\$ I don't understand how this has any upvotes. It's a mixture of unsupported and false statements. The quote doesn't even suggest you can't ready actions outside of combat. Your PCs won't have actions readied all the time, they can't. Actions expire after a turn and they take a Standard to set up. If your characters have actions ready all the time, then they are standing still re-readying all the time. No, you can't be surprised if you're expecting a fight, surprised means that you're not expecting a fight. If you're expecting something, it doesn't surprise you. \$\endgroup\$
    – DCShannon
    Commented Dec 8, 2014 at 21:50
  • \$\begingroup\$ @DCShannon re-readying would only take your standard action, leaving you free to move and open doors and pick up things and everything a minor can do. But it is indeed very possible to be surprised even when you're expecting something that's for sure. Like the ATM blurting out its receipt. No matter how ready I was, it was so sudden it always startled me. \$\endgroup\$
    – Zachiel
    Commented Dec 9, 2014 at 19:47
  • \$\begingroup\$ @Zachiel Okay, that's a good point about still having move and minor actions. Still though, you're not doing a whole lot without any standards. As far as the ATM goes, A) you're not a PC so we'll forgive you, B) not being surprised when you're expecting a fight is not an extrapolation from real life, it's taken from the rule books. \$\endgroup\$
    – DCShannon
    Commented Dec 9, 2014 at 20:54
  • 2
    \$\begingroup\$ +1 for "Generally that's what everyone is going to do in combat, hence why we roll for Initiative. " \$\endgroup\$ Commented Jun 2, 2016 at 2:11

If the PC's are readied, I wouldn't have a surprise round. They are specifically looking for an enemy to show up, and these are heroes we're talking about, with better-than-human reflexes.

Here's how I would run the combat.

  1. Roll initiative, but do not start the combat until the monster appears.
  2. Take turns as normal. This means that any PC's that act before the monster could ready an action.
  3. Start the combat on the first monster's turn. This triggers the readied actions, and any readied PC's would take their actions before the monster can do anything.
  4. Continue turns as normal.

This makes it so that your initiative score (a measure of your reflexes and luck) determines whether you react before the monster gets an action or not.

  • \$\begingroup\$ I was thinking of the following scenario. The party is trying to diplo/bluff/intim the door guards to be allowed admittance to the castle. Negotiations aren't going well and the guards are getting angry, and the PCs suspect they're going to have to fight their way in. Suddenly dire hawks swoop down and a bulette emerges. \$\endgroup\$
    – Snowbody
    Commented Sep 23, 2011 at 17:08
  • 1
    \$\begingroup\$ In that case I think my answer still stands. Though you'd need to pay specific attention to the readied conditions. The rogue's readied Deft Strike for when the guard attacks would not trigger on a dire hawk coming out of nowhere. But still no surprise round because the PC's were expecting combat and their senses were already heightened. \$\endgroup\$
    – dpatchery
    Commented Sep 23, 2011 at 17:44
  • \$\begingroup\$ Just because they are expecting combat from one source doesn't prevent them from being surprised by the hawks and bulette. They just wouldn't be surprised by the guards. \$\endgroup\$
    – GMNoob
    Commented Oct 22, 2011 at 16:38

I'm predicating this answer on the theory that the action system (standard, move, minor; in initiative order) only makes sense in combat, and that out of combat you just "do stuff". I'm not certain that there are rules to support this interpretation.

With that notion in mind, out of combat you can't "ready an action" in the same sense as doing so in combat.

You can declare that you are on the lookout for enemies. In which case, you should get a better chance of observing unexpected enemies (though perhaps should not be able to roll diplomacy, bluff or the like against the creature being interacted with)

Or if you prefer (and I wouldn't) you could roll initiative at the very begging of the encounter, before it's clear that combat will erupt and try to run the social part of the encounter within the framework of the combat round.

This second option, however, has the disadvantage of both introducing some difficulty with regards to the monsters that attack by surprise (do they get a surprise round in the middle of combat?) and prevents players with "at the start of an encounter" style abilities from being able to use them properly.


My players ready actions outside of combat often, and I don't think that it ever occurred to us that it would work any other way than what I have written below.

I think this is a straightforward RAW interpretation, and it has worked out quite well for us in the past. The players only ready actions when they honestly expect enemies, and most of the time the actions never get taken, although it's pretty cool when it works out.

You have several questions there. I'll go through each of those, and one I added.

First though, let's review how readied actions work.

  • You take a Standard action to ready an action.

  • A the time you ready the action you choose the exact action and the exact trigger.

  • The action takes place as an immediate reaction to the trigger.

  • The action expires when your next turn starts.

Is it possible to be Surprised while you have a readied action?

No. At least, not normally.

The Rules Compendium says that

"If one side in a battle notices the other side without being noticed in return, it has the advantage of surprise,"

but the Dungeon Master Guide also says that

"The PCs can’t be surprised when they open a dungeon door prepared for a fight".

What I draw from this is that if the PCs are expecting a fight - they've noticed an enemy or suspect one is nearby - then they can't be surprised.

That being said, I could entertain the argument that even if they expect some enemies on the other side of the door, they could possibly be surprised by a dragon dropping from the sky. My response would be that although they are not so prepared that they have a readied action for the dragon (unless their trigger happens to include it), they are alert and prepared to defend themselves, and therefore not surprised.

When do the readied actions take place?

They take place immediately after the triggering condition, which would likely occur on an enemy's turn.

If the PC's turn comes up in the initiative order before the action's trigger occurs, then they miss the chance to perform the readied action. The Rules Compendium says

If the trigger doesn't occur or the creature chooses to ignore it, the creature can't use the readied action and instead takes its next turn as normal.

Before or after initiative is rolled and gaining any Warlord initiative bonus such as shifting?

Since this is in response to a creature's action, it is on the creature's turn, which is after initiative is rolled.

During surprise round turns? If so at the PC's initiative or at the mob's initiative?

If there is a surprise round, the PC is not surprised, and the trigger occurs during the surprise round before the PC's turn, then yes it will take place during the surprise round.

If the PC is surprised, then they cannot take any actions, including immediate reactions such as readied actions. I think this would satisfy the 'creature chooses to ignore it' clause in the above rule, and that the PC would then miss the opportunity to use their readied action.

So the PC would just take their turn on their initiative as if they had never readied an action.

Remember, readied actions don't occur on an initiative. They occur in response to a trigger.

Or do they wait to trigger until the PC is no longer Surprised?

As pointed out above, they occur once the trigger occurs, unless they expire due to the PC's turn beginning or the PC not taking the an action despite the trigger.

By the time the PC is no longer surprised an entire round has passed, and they've lost the readied action.

Also, what's the PC's initiative order after this? Can the PC wind up at a higher position than was rolled?

Immediately before the trigger of the readied action. Yes, they can.

The Rules Compendium says:

When the creature finishes the readied action, its place in the initiative order moves to directly before the creature or the event that triggered the readied action.

Usually, an action is readied in the previous turn of combat. If the action is taken, it is because the trigger occurred before their next turn, i.e. higher in the initiative order. Their new position becomes immediately before the person that just acted, meaning that they now do not get to act in this round.

So, if a character takes an action they readied before combat, they can indeed move up in the order, but they also don't get a full turn during the first round.

For how long do the actions stay readied?

Once your next turn comes up, you lose any action you readied the previous turn. We don't normally keep track of turns outside of combat, but a turn is only supposed to be a few seconds.

This means that you can't ready an action when you wake up and keep it ready all day. You ready it, and if the trigger doesn't occur within the next few seconds, then it's over.

  • \$\begingroup\$ I have major problems with this. Namely the fact that it lets the PCs completely ignore initiative whenever they are entering a room. A group of PCs who is moving room to room could say "we all ready actions to charge as soon as the door is opened" This effectively ignores the entire initiative mechanic. \$\endgroup\$
    – wax eagle
    Commented Dec 5, 2014 at 2:44
  • \$\begingroup\$ @waxeagle If the PCs like giving up their first turn every combat for the opportunity to run blindly into a room they haven't even looked in that may or may not contain enemies and traps, then they can go right ahead. That's a terrible idea. \$\endgroup\$
    – DCShannon
    Commented Dec 5, 2014 at 3:03
  • \$\begingroup\$ Let's use a less silly scenario then. Let's say we have a 2 man party. The door man and the charger. They open a door, the door man is at the door, the charger stands back 2 squares and says "I ready an action to charge if I see an enemy in range when the door is opened", the door is opened, iniative is rolled and the charger is at the bottom of the iniative order. There is an enemy on the other side of the door. He's now first in the initiative order because his readied action goes off and he keeps that position the remainder of combat. His initiative roll was pointless. \$\endgroup\$
    – wax eagle
    Commented Dec 5, 2014 at 3:07
  • \$\begingroup\$ @waxeagle But he doesn't get to go until the start of the next round, which is after the end of the first round, which is where he would have gone without the readied action. The result is a single action going off because they were prepared and planned well, and him going slightly later than he would have otherwise. \$\endgroup\$
    – DCShannon
    Commented Dec 5, 2014 at 3:09
  • \$\begingroup\$ You're still ignoring the initiative roll though, that's the part I'm getting at. \$\endgroup\$
    – wax eagle
    Commented Dec 5, 2014 at 3:11

Here's what I consider to be the case:

  1. You can only ready actions in combat. Outside of combat you're not in initiative order, everyone acts "whenever".
  2. Surprise rounds only happen when you're unaware of your opponent and they're aware of you. In a surprise round, only the "aware" creatures go -- and they only get one action and can't use APs.
  3. You can't ready an action against being surprised. The only way to avoid being Surprised is to spot the enemy before they attack, with a good Perception roll (or high enough passive perception) or some other means of detection like an alarm ritual.

I was having trouble with a similar scenario. This is what I've come to:

Characters can ready actions before combat. The characters readying their bow/spell/whatever on the door that they heard something behind is a pretty normal reaction for them to make. I'm going to allow my players to do that.

Characters can still be surprised, even by what they suspect is there. Just because you see giant spider webs and suspect there are giant spiders inside the building, it doesn't mean you aren't surprised when they climb over walls and through the windows.

A reaction interrupts the opponents action as soon as the condition is met, but the action continues afterwards. Surprise trumps reaction. If the character isn't surprised by the giant spider, the reaction occurs right as the spider meets the condition (is seen, moves past said point or line, or whatever), and the spider can continue its turn afterwards. Including surprise is maybe where it gets a little bit tricky. I'm thinking that a reaction won't happen during the surprise round (since the character is for 6 seconds taken aback), but will happen immediately after if the player so chooses. In my giant spider example, a ranger "ready" to shoot the next thing it sees might still be surprised by the spider climbing overtop of the building, and the spider can make its full surprise round. After this, the ranger can choose to take it's reaction and shoot at the spider. After surprise and after reactions, order goes according to initiative.

This is kind of my working theory at the moment. I've been caught in this situation two or three times now and kind of fumbled it, but this is what I think I'm going to do this week if the situation arises. Maybe not RAW, but it seems to me to be somewhat realistic and balanced. I just can't really justify not letting my players ready a combat action outside of combat, because it seems like such a strategic move for a group of adventurers to make.

  • \$\begingroup\$ This seems mostly correct, but it seems a bit confused where the surprise round is concerned. I added a more technical breakdown as another answer, might be helpful. \$\endgroup\$
    – DCShannon
    Commented Dec 5, 2014 at 1:50

Here's how I think about it. If two groups of creatures are aware of each other, and they have even the slightest suspicion that combat might happen, we could assume that they're all readying actions constantly. So, if combat does happen, everybody's readied actions fire at once.

We could try to resolve this by running a combat where everyone acts on the same initiative number, but that's sort of awkward. So what we do instead is we ask everyone to roll for initiative to decide which order to take their readied actions in. This is (approximately) equivalent to cancelling all the readied actions and going directly into the first round of combat.

If only one group was aware of the other ahead of time, we could assume that the one group all had readied actions which they take at the start of combat. We already have a mechanic for this, and it's called a "surprise round". Essentially the surprise round is giving us the same functionality as "everybody readies an action" but it's less awkward.

In summary: the "ready an action outside of combat" mechanic is already handled more elegantly by the surprise round. If someone asks to ready an action outside of combat, we should interpret that as a request to act during the surprise round.


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