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Since I first read the Ready Action rules, the concept of a trigger rubbed me the wrong way. The idea that a character cannot adapt and improvise in the moment seems odd to me, and when I imagine them setting up to do something, I don't imagine them having to look for a very specific thing to happen before go time.

Take this example scenario:

Player: I ready my action to stab the incapacitated goblin!

DM: What's your trigger?

Player: If the other enemies step closer to me.

DM: Okay, enemy's turn. He draws his bow, takes aim, and shoots you.

Player: I stab the goblin then!

DM: Nobody approached you; that wasn't your trigger.

Player: >:(

I think most good DMs would allow the player to take the attack, but in doing so they render the "trigger" rule pretty useless. And in honesty, I'm not sure what problem the "trigger" rule even solves.

As a simple fix, I removed the requirement for triggers from my games. Instead, players simply state the action they ready, and when they want to use it, say "I go now!". If someone else is in the middle of something, I let them finish up, and then the readied action fires. This has gone well since I implemented it, but the people I've played with don't really use readied actions much, and are not exploitative power gamers. I would, however, like to identify and nip potential abuses in the bud if they are possible.

What potential issues or abuses could arise from this house rule?

In case it needs saying, any abuses that already exist under the current Ready Action rule aren't worth considering for this question. Also, the solution should not be "just pick a better trigger"; I don't want my players to have to formulate genie-esque wordcrafting to cover all possible scenarios in the middle of a fight.

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    \$\begingroup\$ If the Player just wants to stab the incapacitated goblin, why don't they do it on their own turn? Why are they readying an action to do it on the other goblin's turn? \$\endgroup\$
    – Kirt
    Apr 23 at 6:05
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    \$\begingroup\$ @Kirt Perhaps they're attempting a tense negotiation? "Stay back, or the goblin gets it?" \$\endgroup\$
    – gto
    Apr 23 at 9:47
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    \$\begingroup\$ Can you just use broader wording for the trigger? For instance "if the enemies take any hostile action"? \$\endgroup\$
    – enkryptor
    Apr 23 at 10:05
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    \$\begingroup\$ @enkryptor as mentioned in the question, "just pick a better trigger" is a non-solution. People describe triggers with flair in the heat of the moment, and shouldn't have to cover every possible outcome. I feel like the trigger system punishes lack of specificity with no real gain \$\endgroup\$
    – Alex F
    Apr 24 at 4:01
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    \$\begingroup\$ @Nacht they were in range. The trigger was if "the other enemies" get closer. \$\endgroup\$
    – Alex F
    May 25 at 13:58
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It probably doesn't break the game.

Ready actions that fail aren't (or shouldn't be) so enormously common that this is going to seriously change the game. At worst, this makes readied actions slightly more attractive when the situation is fluid and it's hard to determine what exactly you might want to react to.

That said, it's not a huge thing, but I don't like this rule, personally -- it feels like you're sucking the wind out of the whole concept of a readied action, reducing it to merely "I feel like taking my action later on" rather than the player proactively setting up a cunning plan.

In my experience, losing Ready actions is a non-issue.

Usually, either the readied action isn't relevant or you can easily handle it on the fly without going so far as a full house-rule.

Consider a few common scenarios:

1) The trigger is directly associated with what you want to do in a way that doesn't allow for that sort of disconnect; if the trigger doesn't happen, then the action isn't relevant.

"I ready an action to shoot the monster when it pops out of the ground." (or "comes out of cover", "becomes visible", "enters melee range", etc.)

If the monster doesn't pop out of the ground, or if it surfaces somewhere where you don't have a shot, there really isn't a problem that your rule would solve. The exact trigger is irrelevant, because there's nothing to shoot anyway.

Could the monster pop out behind total cover and then move on the surface to come attack you, thus avoiding your trigger by not being a valid target when surfacing? Yes, that could happen, but that feels like the DM is just intentionally messing up the ready action. If it just happens to go that way and it wasn't intentional, then the DM can pretty easily assume that "when it pops out of the ground" really meant "when I have a clear shot at it" and allow the attack to proceed. Which is the next scenario:

2) The stated trigger was overly specific for what the player is clearly intending to accomplish.

"I put my sword to the viscount's neck and tell the guards, 'Back off if you want your boss to live!' I ready an action to cut his throat if any of the guards draw their swords!"

And then one of the guards pulls a crossbow on you and tries to shoot you in the face, and another one pulls out an axe, which is not a sword, and--

Look, this is the perfect time for the DM to just say, "Okay, yes, you meant if they grab a weapon, not swords in specific. Do you want to go through with it and cut the viscount's throat?" There's no need to house-rule in order to follow the intent of the trigger rather than the letter.

3) The player is surprised when things don't play out the way they expected, and the fact that the character doesn't get to do their thing reflects that they were unprepared for this situation.

"I ready an action to hit the first guy that comes through the door."

This reminds me of one of my favorite anime films, Lupin the 3rd: The Castle of Cagliostro. There's a scene where the protagonists realize they're about to be ambushed and get on either side of the door with weapons, ready to clobber the first guy that comes through -- and then a ninja crashes through the skylight to attack from the other side, putting them on the defensive, and only when they're tangled up fighting that one does the door open to reveal more ninjas.

Did Lupin and Jigen lose their readied attacks? Yeah, they did! They were surprised and it messed up their ambush, and that's how it should be. It would be absurd for them to just spin around and clobber the new threat they weren't expecting.

I do understand the issue here. If the player had been less descriptive with their wording and said something like "hit the first guy I can see" or "hit the first enemy who enters melee range", then it would be hard to deny them the attack against this unexpected threat. That does seem like it tends to discourage flavorful descriptions of ready actions -- but I don't think the house rule actually helps since it does away with the description entirely, in favor of just "I ready a melee attack". A possible solution is if a player loses their ready action because they just described their situation too well, the DM could give them Inspiration -- they improved to the game to their own detriment, and that's often what Inspiration is good for.

Well, okay, I guess there's a fourth scenario:

4) The DM is metagaming to intentionally screw over the player.

"No, no, you said 'swords', specifically, and nobody drew a sword!"

I mean, yes, this is a problem, but it isn't one you can fix with a house rule, because the DM is the problem.

House-rules or Behavior?

So, am I suggesting using your house-rule, just without telling the players about it? Well... sort of, but not really. To clarify my thinking:

Interpreting your players' actions leniently on a case-by-case basis is just part of good DMing -- and I mean that in general, not only in reference to Ready -- so you don't need to construct a specific rules backing to do that. To me, implementing a house rule is a larger and more serious step, and in this case, it doesn't seem warranted. What you want to accomplish here really boils down to simply treating your players with respect and maintaining the fun at the table. A house-rule implies there's a mechanical issue in the system that is serious enough and comes up often enough that it needs to addressed loud and clear to the players before the game even starts, but this doesn't seem to be that kind of situation.

I also see a pretty big difference between lenient interpretation of a trigger and just take the action any time you want. If a bulette un-burrows behind some rocks and comes running out into view, and you decide to allow the archer to take the shot when it enters view rather than sticking to the letter of "when comes out of the ground", that's not really the same as letting the archer just hold his shot until literally any time in the next round. They can't just stand there and wait to see how the Fighter's turn plays out before they decide to take the shot. One is the DM making a judgement call; the other is changing the entire nature of Ready actions.

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    \$\begingroup\$ I think things like interpreting players' actions leniently on a case-by-case basis is just part of good DMing (and not just in reference to Ready), so it doesn't need to have a specific rules backing. A house-rule implies there's a mechanical change to the system that comes up often enough that it needs to addressed loud and clear to the players before the game even starts. To me, implementing a house rule is a larger and more serious step, and in this case it doesn't seem warranted when what you want to accomplish is really just not being a dillweed to your players. \$\endgroup\$ Apr 23 at 3:52
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    \$\begingroup\$ I guess I also see a pretty big difference between lenient interpretation and just take the action any time you want. If the Bulette un-burrows behind some rocks and comes running out into view and you decide to allow the archer to take the shot when it enters view rather than sticking hard to "comes out of the ground", that's not really the same as letting the archer just hold his shot until literally any time in the next round. They can't just stand there and wait to see how the Fighter's turn plays out before they decide to take the shot. \$\endgroup\$ Apr 23 at 4:03
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    \$\begingroup\$ The other aspect here though is that it’s never a bad idea to encourage players to state triggers in a practical manner. When I GM, I make a point to double check with the player when they state a trigger that sounds like it’s not actually what they want to do. When I originally started doing this, most of my players very quickly shifted how they stated triggers so that they were both accurately expressing the condition they wanted, and were generic enough to allow for reasonable flexibility to deal with surprises. \$\endgroup\$ Apr 23 at 13:55
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    \$\begingroup\$ As a side note, the "shoot the first guy to come through the door" readied action also can result in the fun "The door opens. Your crossbow twangs. Your ally, the Duke, looks very startled as he stares at the quarrel lodged in his chest and begins to collapse into the room" situation. \$\endgroup\$ Apr 23 at 14:23
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    \$\begingroup\$ @SeanDuggan "When the trigger occurs, you can either take your reaction right after the trigger finishes or ignore the trigger." A jumpy player might do that, but there's nothing in the rules that would force it to happen just because they said "first guy" rather than "first enemy". \$\endgroup\$ Apr 23 at 18:55
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Readying your action and allowing a player to activate their action whenever they like gets closer to allowing players to just delay their turn. Sage Advice discusses why the rules designers did not allow that. Some of those considerations may be relevant to the more limited change you describe:

  • Your turn involves several decisions, including where to move and what action to take. If you could delay your turn, your decision-making would possibly become slower, since you would have to consider whether you wanted to take your turn at all. Multiply that extra analysis by the number of characters and monsters in a combat, and you have the potential for many slowdowns in play.
  • The ability to delay your turn can make initiative meaningless, as characters and monsters bounce around in the initiative order. If combatants can change their place in the initiative order at will, why use initiative at all? On top of that, changing initiative can easily turn into an unwelcome chore, especially for the DM, who might have to change the initiative list over and over during a fight.
  • Being able to delay your turn can let you wreak havoc on the durations of spells and other effects, particularly any of them that last until your next turn...[this section is less applicable to this case, since "your turn" is still in the same place in initiative]

Two of our goals for combat were for it to be speedy and for initiative to matter. We didn’t want to start every combat by rolling initiative and then undermine turn order with a delay option. Moreover, we felt that toying with initiative wasn’t where the focus should be in battle. Instead, the dramatic actions of the combatants should be the focus, with turns that could happen as quickly as possible. Plus, the faster your turn ends, the sooner you get to take your next turn.

This describes considerations that are not necessarily attached to balance, per se, but are attached to making combat flow smoothly and be manageable for all players. Requiring readied actions to be attached to a trigger is a disincentive against always readying actions, against pausing other people's turns to hem and haw about whether or not they want to activate their action yet, and against trying to effectively rearrange PCs' initiative optimally in the middle of a fight scene.

In short: this isn't necessarily likely to unbalance combat. It might make combat slower and less fun, however.

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    \$\begingroup\$ The OP doesn't want to delay their turn. They want to ready an action, but be able to use any event as a trigger. The action still has to be stated beforehand. \$\endgroup\$
    – enkryptor
    Apr 23 at 10:03
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    \$\begingroup\$ @enkryptor As they said it gets closer to allowing the player to delay their turn - that doesn't mean it allows them to delay their turn, but it does introduce some elements of turn delay that could make it more difficult to manage combat. \$\endgroup\$
    – Zibbobz
    Apr 23 at 13:08
  • \$\begingroup\$ @Zibbobz that's true, but the piece from Sage Advice is mostly about delaying turns \$\endgroup\$
    – enkryptor
    Apr 23 at 15:10
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    \$\begingroup\$ Yes. And some of the commentary about delaying turns is relevant for this more limited change. I attempted to make that clear. \$\endgroup\$ Apr 23 at 16:49
  • \$\begingroup\$ The other major disincentives to Readying an action are: 1. It needs a reaction to actually respond to the trigger, and some characters have better things to do with reactions. 2. You only get one attack from a Readied Attack, and Readying a spell uses concentration. 3. you can't move & act, or ready a bonus action. That's already enough to make Readying with no trigger much worse than actually delaying your full turn, but yes, some of the points about human player dynamics are extra reasons to not increase the "problem space" for players to consider in their turn planning. \$\endgroup\$ Apr 24 at 3:08
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A DM should understand what the player's intention is

This particular issue could be solved without messing with Ready triggers.

PHB describes readying action in the "Action in Combat" chapter. This is important, because context matters:

In any piece of writing, context matters. If a rule has multiple sentences, they're meant to be read together.

The rules is a DM's toolset, not a strict framework they have to obey. Readying an action is fine within moments of combat, but it becomes odd when the context changes. When a rule becomes a burden, a DM is free to ignore or change it.

As far as I understand, the player tries to get a hostage. This is not combat anymore, the player tries to threaten the enemies instead of fighting them. There is no rule for that in 5e, but for some reason the player decided they had to choose a particular mechanic:

I ready my action to stab the incapacitated goblin

It probably comes from the "I use my X skill" mentality, which is not a part of 5e anymore. Players don't have to choose their actions from a limited list. See PHB page 193 "Improvising an action":

Your character can do things not covered by the actions in this chapter

[...]

When you describe an action not detailed elsewhere in the rules, the DM tells you whether that action is possible and what kind of roll you need to make, if any, to determine success or failure.

The better way for the player would be probably just announce what (s)he does, without explicit mention of Ready:

— I put my knife to the incapacitated one's throat. "Stay back, or he dies!" I shout. How do they react?

This is exactly what PHB page 6 suggests in the "How to Play" chapter:

  1. The players describe what they want to do.
  2. The DM narrates the results of the adventurers' actions.

The good practice for DM is ensuring the players are able to make informed decisions. In this particular scenario a DM has a couple of options, depending on the genre and the situation itself:

  • First option is to make enemies ignore the hostage. That's basically what happened in the example, but without the player understanding. Make it clear for the players here and now, don't play "Gotcha!" with them. "The goblins probably don't care. It seems they're fighting you to death". Since combatants act simultaneously, players don't have to wait for enemies' turn to understand that, so they should be able to reconsider their actions.

  • Second option is to start negotiations. "Whoa, take it easy! — the leader says, — What do you want?" At this point the combat is over. Now it's social interaction. Keep in mind the goblins could also try to deceive the players. Making it seem like you care is a good way to buy some time.

  • Third option is let the dice decide. "Okay, make an Intimidation check". This should probably expend an action, for the case of failing.

None of these options require an action to be Readied.

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    \$\begingroup\$ This seems like a decent frame challenge answer. \$\endgroup\$ Apr 23 at 12:29
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    \$\begingroup\$ Its not clear to me that you'd need to tell the players that the enemies aren't going to care about the hostage -- making it seem like you care is a good way to buy some time to get into position to surprise the hostage taker. (See also the "shoot the hostage" trope) \$\endgroup\$
    – RLH
    Apr 23 at 19:58
  • \$\begingroup\$ @RLH added more details to the example \$\endgroup\$
    – enkryptor
    Apr 24 at 12:46
  • \$\begingroup\$ Looks good. Upvoted \$\endgroup\$
    – RLH
    Apr 24 at 14:06

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