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Situation: An enemy with a crossbow appears. On my turn, I shout "To your knees, hands behind your head!" and ready an action to shoot my own crossbow at him, if he begins to load his crossbow (or draw another weapon, or move, probably not relevant here).

Is "loading a crossbow" an actionable trigger for ready action? That is, does my attack go off before the enemy gets a shot off? Or is his single attack un-interruptable, so he gets his shot off before I can shoot him?

An extra point to consider:

  • The enemy might have Crossbow Expert feat, allowing them to ignore the loading property.
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  • \$\begingroup\$ A related situation, probably rpg.stackexchange.com/questions/102705 \$\endgroup\$
    – enkryptor
    Aug 15, 2021 at 19:10
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    \$\begingroup\$ Just as an aside, you should probably make the trigger be something like "If the enemy tries to attack with their crossbow". Otherwise, if they already have a bolt loaded, your reaction won't trigger even if they do try to attack. \$\endgroup\$ Aug 15, 2021 at 23:06
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    \$\begingroup\$ @AllanMills When I'm a DM, I rule that any "tries to..." or even "starts to..." is not a perceivable circumstance, it's just too abstract. I then ask "How do you know, when they try/start to do that?". YMMV. \$\endgroup\$ Aug 16, 2021 at 10:49
  • \$\begingroup\$ The specific trigger would be them starting to raise their crossbow to aim it at you, just like a gun. (Or starting to load it, if it wasn't already loaded). For other weapons, like a throwing knife, starting to move your hand quickly in any direction could be the start of a throw. \$\endgroup\$ Aug 16, 2021 at 14:30
  • \$\begingroup\$ @PeterCordes No "starting to..." in my games. If it is "move their hand suddenly", then they complete the triggering event first, meaning they finish the throwing move and get the attack off. YMMV obviously. Also not really relevant to this question. \$\endgroup\$ Aug 17, 2021 at 12:13

2 Answers 2

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Ready action says:

Sometimes you want to get the jump on a foe or wait for a particular circumstance before you act. To do so, you can take the Ready action on your turn, which lets you act using your reaction before the start of your next turn.

First, you decide what perceivable circumstance will trigger your reaction. Then, you choose the action you will take in response to that trigger, or you choose to move up to your speed in response to it. Examples include “If the cultist steps on the trapdoor, I'll pull the lever that opens it,” and “If the goblin steps next to me, I move away.”

When the trigger occurs, you can either take your reaction right after the trigger finishes or ignore the trigger. Remember that you can take only one reaction per round.

A single target loading a crossbow is an easily perceivable circumstance. I would happily rule that you can do this. For a spread out group of targets I would require a perception check to see whether you spot the loading enemy before they get their shot off, but that is just personal choice.

Crossbow expert

You ignore the loading quality of crossbows with which you are proficient.

Loading

Because of the time required to load this weapon, you can fire only one piece of ammunition from it when you use an action, bonus action, or reaction to fire it, regardless of the number of attacks you can normally make.

This doesn't mean you don't need to load the crossbow (it still needs a bolt to fire), only that someone with the feat has become practiced enough that they can load and still get an extra shot off (if they have an extra attack). So we've still got loading the crossbow as a perceivable circumstance as our trigger.

I would rule that a character who already has their weapon trained on the enemy (they've readied their action) can still spot the action and get their shot off. Again this would be harder with a larger group but the given situation is a single target, I wouldn't make a player roll to see if they can release an arrow quicker than the enemy can load, aim and fire their crossbow.

As a DM my thoughts would be: the player has already given up attacking on their round in favour of negotiation - don't punish your players for not jumping straight into combat. This is how murder hobos are born.

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What qualifies as a "trigger" is not defined well in D&D 5e rules, and is very much a DM call. I would let a readied action trigger on the target drawing a bolt/arrow/weapon before the target's attack gets made, and thus interrupt the attack (although of course if the target survives the readied action, he may then continue with his attack), but other DMs may differ.

I would apply that equally, regardless of what weapons the target or the readied-action-user is wielding.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Could you substantiate the claim that “trigger” is not well defined in the rules? My understanding is that it is pretty explicitly defined in the rules, or at least, there is an explicit condition that must be met for something to qualify. \$\endgroup\$ Aug 15, 2021 at 19:28
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    \$\begingroup\$ It is defined only as a "perceivable circumstance", which is very vague, and is run quite differently by different DMs. \$\endgroup\$
    – PhilB
    Aug 15, 2021 at 19:32
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    \$\begingroup\$ It’s very general, not vague. Perceivable has a pretty clear definition. \$\endgroup\$ Aug 15, 2021 at 19:33
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    \$\begingroup\$ @WakiNadiVellir “Starting to do X” is not perceivable unless you can perceive the future to see X. When a player suggests a trigger like that just ask them “How do you know they are starting to do X? What exactly are they doing so that you know they are about to X? That will be your trigger.” \$\endgroup\$ Aug 16, 2021 at 11:00
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    \$\begingroup\$ @WakiNadiVellir Your question is a good example of a trigger associated with the attack that means you can get your shot off before they do. Loading a crossbow shows the intent to attack - if your trigger was "When the enemy attacks" you can still use it but chances are you'll know it because the bolt comes flying at (or into) you. \$\endgroup\$ Aug 16, 2021 at 15:43

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