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I've been reading through various D&D 5e questions on rpg.se and this question (Does Sheathing and Unsheathing Separate Weapons Count As a Full Action?) has brought to my attention the free item interaction rule (from linked question's accepted answer/Basic Rules p. 70):

You can also interact with one object or feature of the environment for free, during either your move or your action. For example, you could open a door during your move as you stride toward a foe, or you could draw your weapon as part of the same action you use to attack.

If you want to interact with a second object, you need to use your action. Some magic items and other special objects always require an action to use, as stated in their descriptions.

Reading this and the accepted answer from that other question, I get that to switch weapons mid-battle means sheathing one at the end of one turn and drawing the other at the start of your next turn (I'm ignoring dual wielding in this question for simplicity).

I've always assumed that combat starts with weapons drawn, meaning you could use your free item interaction to draw your second weapon and attack with both (action and bonus action) on your first turn. It's perfectly reasonable to assume that the PCs have their weapons ready if they're expecting trouble.

But in a situation where the PCs are not expecting trouble, then if it's actually the case that you use that free item interaction to draw your primary weapon at the start of your first turn, then obviously that won't work (since that's two weapon interactions; this is all assuming you don't want to use an action, of course).

So, does combat start with at least one weapon drawn automatically when combat is not expected, or does drawing your weapon take up your first turn's free item interaction?

If the latter, this also raises the question that if an enemy wins initiative (or you're "Surprised" by them) then you can't do opportunity attacks since you don't have your weapon out yet (unless unarmed strike is an option), but I don't want that to get anyone side-tracked from my main question here, which is about the free item interaction thing.

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    \$\begingroup\$ That's a good point, I suppose probably all three, or more concisely, when the PCs are expecting trouble vs when they're not (i.e. dungeon vs tavern). I suppose in the former case, it could be assumed that the PCs have their weapons out already, so then my question is only relevant in the latter case - what about the tavern? \$\endgroup\$ – NathanS Apr 13 '17 at 13:06
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    \$\begingroup\$ @KorvinStarmast You should make that an answer. Imagine if combat start while you are taking a bath, you will have neither weapon nor armor. \$\endgroup\$ – Ling Apr 13 '17 at 13:06
  • \$\begingroup\$ I've updated the question slightly to bring the focus more to the latter scenario, when the PCs (or anyone, I suppose) is not expecting combat. \$\endgroup\$ – NathanS Apr 13 '17 at 13:10
  • \$\begingroup\$ [Related] When can I draw my weapon? \$\endgroup\$ – SevenSidedDie Apr 15 '17 at 18:00
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There are no specific rules vis a vis how a character starts combat. D&D5E attempts to avoid that kind of specificity when basic logic and reasoning will do:

  • If the character is hanging out in a tavern, his hands are empty... or full of food. Utensils are Improvised Weapons, by the way.
  • If the character is hanging from a chandelier, at least one hand very well ought to be weaponless (in so far as one does not wield a chandelier, it had best be making use of one hand).
  • If the character just finished picking a lock, his hands are empty.
  • If the character just finished picking his nose, at least one hand is empty.
  • If the character is dungeon delving and carrying a torch or lantern, he's probably got a weapon in his other hand or has a shield strapped to his arm.
  • If the character is dungeon delving and doesn't need a hand for a light source, he'd be smart to have both weapons out.

Either way, it's a matter of common sense and story description, not codified rules.

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There is no rule in the PHB or DMG that suggests you have your weapon drawn automatically and so the general approach of letting the fiction follow natural expectation applies. With no reason to expect a character to have a weapon in hand they must use their free action to draw the weapon, so a dual wielder is left with one hand free in the first round.

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    \$\begingroup\$ I don't think you can strap on a shield as a free interaction? Isn't that always an Action? \$\endgroup\$ – Erik Apr 13 '17 at 13:57
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    \$\begingroup\$ @Erik: Huh. You're right (PHB, p. 146). I've been doing it wrong all this time. \$\endgroup\$ – Jack Aidley Apr 13 '17 at 15:21
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Since the other answers have addressed your primary concern of the state of a weapon at the beginning of an encounter (largely situational and will vary from table to table), I want to address mainly your last paragraph, because there is a misconception there that I don't see has been addressed by other answers.

Surprise
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If you're surprised, you can't move or take an action on your first turn of the combat, and you can't take a reaction until that turn ends.

If you are surprised, it doesn't matter if your weapon is drawn or not. You don't get to move or act and you don't get any reactions until after your first turn in the combat. Since you can only use your free interaction with an object to draw a weapon as part of movement or an action (see Other Activity On Your Turn, PHB 190), you can't draw your weapon during the first round when you are surprised.

This also means, unless you already have your weapon in your hand when combat starts, you won't be able to make opportunity attacks in a combat where you are surprised until after your second turn, when you are first able to draw a weapon.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ Thanks for pointing out that part of Surprise whereby you don't get reactions. I guess my questions makes more sense for the scenario where the enemies win initiative but there's no Surprise. \$\endgroup\$ – NathanS Apr 13 '17 at 16:24
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If you are not expecting combat, you would very likely not have a weapon at the ready. Caveat: The weapon is being utilized as a tool for a different purpose.

This answer relies solely on logic.

If you are not expecting to be attacked or engaged in combat, you would not likely have a drawn weapon. There are certain exceptions to this that require a liberal application of common sense.

Examples:

  1. You're using your axe to split wood when you are attacked, obviously you have it ready;
  2. You are a Rogue performing a juggling routine and have 6 knives twirling in the air at once when somebody steals a gold purse and starts running away;
  3. You are spear fishing with your spear and a bear attacks you; and
  4. You are honing the blade of your weapon as part of it's maintenance when you are attacked...; etc, etc, etc.

This list keeps going. The gist of it is that if you're using the weapon for something other than combat, it would be at the ready.

As for drawing the weapon during a reaction, this would be a solid no. Both points below can be found on PHB pg. 190.

Other Activity on Your Turn: The explicit wording with respect to the free item interaction is during your turn, specifically during your movement or action. The action economy in 5e is broken down into four distinct pieces: Movement, Action, Bonus Action and Reaction. The only two you have by default are Movement and Action, whereas Bonus Actions and Reactions are granted/triggered.

The really important part, which I will emphasize again for clarity, is that this is an activity that you can do on your turn.

Reactions: Described in the PHB as being a momentary disruption in response to a triggering event. While a reaction may occur on your turn, an opportunity attack occurs only on a creature's turn. So you would not be able to draw your weapon as part of the attack.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ I like the caveat you mentioned, having a weapon out for something other than combat still means you're effectively armed, but I am confused as to where this talk of reactions came from. I didn't mention that in my question. I did mention briefly something about opportunity attacks, is that where this is coming from? Because I meant that more in the sense that you couldn't perform one if you didn't already have your weapon out; even if you were allowed to draw weapons as a reaction, that would then use up the reaction so you still wouldn't be able to do an opportunity attack anyway... \$\endgroup\$ – NathanS Apr 13 '17 at 14:26
  • \$\begingroup\$ Yes. An opportunity attack is the most common type of reaction, but the actual name of the action is called a reaction in the game's action economy. You could still make the opportunity attack unarmed since unarmed count as melee weapons to satisfy attacks that require a melee weapon. And you are correct, an opportunity attack is not an action to do what you like with. It's an attack or nothing. That's it. You couldn't draw a weapon as an opportunity attack. The best they could do is make an unarmed attack. \$\endgroup\$ – Lino Frank Ciaralli Apr 13 '17 at 14:30
  • \$\begingroup\$ Ah cool, that confirms that unarmed could be used an opportunity attack in the situation where PCs hadn't drawn their weapons yet. I suppose everyone is proficient with unarmed so it wouldn't make sense for that not to be possible. \$\endgroup\$ – NathanS Apr 13 '17 at 14:36
  • \$\begingroup\$ Yes, you are always proficient with unarmed strikes. The class that's more proficient is Monk, which has the Martial Arts feature demonstrating how much better they are than everybody else at it. \$\endgroup\$ – Lino Frank Ciaralli Apr 13 '17 at 14:43
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I agree with the other answers, just one thing to add though:

Some weapons would naturally be "wielded" all the time. For example a long spear, halberd or staff is most often carried even when just walking around (unless it's stowed on your horse) so you could easily justify that being already in your hand when an attack happens.

Something like a sword or dagger that is usually kept sheathed (and in fact would get you funny looks from the guards if you were running around with them out) is a different matter.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ The same is true in RL today. Walk around a small town in West Virginia with a pistol in your hand, you will get strange looks. Walk around with it holstered on your belt, no one will bat an eye. \$\endgroup\$ – Robert Columbia Jun 13 '17 at 14:36
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Generally no, you don't have a weapon out automatically.

At least there is no rule about it.

For specific characters it might be different or depending on the situation. Does a player always describe his PC as walking around with his weapon drawn? For example a dwarf who rarely, if ever, puts his ancestral war-axe away and even cuddles with it in his sleep will, most likely, have it out when combat starts.

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    \$\begingroup\$ He only cuddles it in his sleep because Momma Dwarf took away his stuffed frost giant toy. \$\endgroup\$ – KorvinStarmast Apr 13 '17 at 15:23

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