Can players in 5e ready an action before combat begins? If so, does this impose any penalties?

(I saw this, but it is written for 4e and IMO the answer left something to be desired)


1 Answer 1


This is the general case. Chapter 9 gives rules that tell what you need to do when a encounter requires the characters to resolve their actions within combat.

There is nothing that forbids a referee to apply any or all of the combat rules while the characters are exploring a dungeon or moving around. But there is nothing specific either so the referee has to fall back to the general rule of How to Play as described on Page 6.

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

The effect of readying a action is that the player forgoes their normal action in favor being able to use their reaction to do a specific action under specific conditions. If the conditions do not occur by the start of the player's next turn then it is effectively lost. This especially important in case of casting a spell.

Keeping a spell ready outside of combat is not practical as the caster will quickly lose all of their spells before an encounter. Readying a bow or another weapon is more practical. So lets look at that situation.

A typical character gets a movement and a action. This action can include a dash which increases the character effective movement rate. So the first effect is that character can't dash and keep their bow ready at the same time.

Now we have a party moving slowly and the character has their bow ready. Perhaps with a condition that they shoot anybody who attacks the party. Remember the person doing a ready action has the option of ignoring the trigger. The party enters into a combat encounter.

First off what if there is surprise? On page 189 it clearly states that during surprise no character or monster can take a move or action during the first turn of combat if there is surprise. Furthermore it says that those who are surprised can't take a reaction until that turn ends.

Since you determined the initiative order at the start of combat. This means the person with a ready action will lose if they are surprised. During the first turn the initiative will eventually pass to the surprised character who is unable to use their reaction until the end of the turn, and is unable to take any actions on their turn. So, in my example the character with the ready bow is unable to fire.

If the character isn't surprised, then having a Ready Bow (or weapon) could be a help as the character can take their reaction immediately at the beginning of the turn provided that the condition is met.

The rules don't address this specifically. But they do have an example of movement with stealth checks on page 182, specifically moving at a slow rate of speed. It would be reasonable to rule that if a character is moving slowly they can have a ongoing Ready action. However I would also rule it is one or the other. Either you moving slowly and effectively taking the Hide action to make a stealth check, or you're moving slowly and effectively making a Ready action to be on alert for something.

The Ready Action and readied spells

A readied spell require concentration with no time limit specified. All good, except six seconds later when your turn comes you have to take an action. Your Ready action no longer applies and you have to take another Ready action. The way the rules read, your character action status resets at the beginning of their turn.

What happens if you have a readied spell? The rules don't specify. Thus, leaving it up to the referee to make a judgment call.

  1. The spell is already cast, if the conditions of the ready action are not met the spell dissipates. This is because the only option outlined in the Ready Action is to cast a spell. To hold over a readied spell is not given as an option. This in my opinion is what the literal reading of the rules means.
  2. The spell is already cast, if the conditions of the ready action are not met then player has the option to renewing the ready action. In my option this is not unreasonable and reflect that the condition of maintaining concentration is not given a time limit.

A case could be made for both, and which one prevails depends on the referee personal view of what happens to the spell energies when it is readied. Is there is a time limit? Or it can be held indefinitely as long as concentration is maintained.

  • 1
    \$\begingroup\$ Let's do a detailed example to make sure I got it. Bob readies a bow. A golem clunks down the hallway. Neither is surprised. Initiative order is Bob, then golem. Bob's reaction triggers and he shoots the golem. Then normal order proceeds, with Bob's turn since he is first in initiative order. Right or wrong? \$\endgroup\$
    – Taejang
    Dec 14, 2014 at 20:42
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    \$\begingroup\$ Yup you got it provided that Bob set the right condition to act as the trigger. \$\endgroup\$
    – RS Conley
    Dec 15, 2014 at 1:43
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    \$\begingroup\$ "...as the caster will quickly lose all of his spells..." What's the logic there? I don't take the action when I ready the action, I prepare to take the action when I ready the action. How would being prepared to cast a spell cost me a spell slot if I don't actually cast it? \$\endgroup\$ Dec 15, 2014 at 14:15
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    \$\begingroup\$ As far as I remember, reading a spell in 5e is essentially 'casting' it without releasing the spell untill the trigger is met. You also must maintain concentration on readied spell. \$\endgroup\$
    – DM Nailz
    Dec 15, 2014 at 14:34
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    \$\begingroup\$ Basically, choose not to release the readied action. It penalizes itself in that the character cannot act at all until they use the spell or give it up. \$\endgroup\$
    – Aviose
    Dec 15, 2014 at 17:40

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