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RPGs: The Readied Action

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The other day on twitter, I found myself (read: violently broke into) in a conversation about Readied Actions and their appropriate usage, with a few other players of various DnD brands.  A particular frustration expressed was when players used a readied action to constantly get a jump on baddies, trying to achieve surprise round after surprise round.

Being that I am somewhat of a blogger on RPG topics, I decide to dig into the readied action a little bit, and share my thoughts with the world, AKA “you guys.”

When I first started RPG-ing, I worried a lot about the stats, about trying to get advantages, about using the rules to max out my combat potential.  Keyword here is “worried.”  It was all about the numbers, it was all about ‘winning’ so to speak.  Okay, that’s fine, there are different ways to play, but I’m glad I grew out of that at least a little bit.  I still love to crunch my character stats and think of ways to creatively use and max out my abilities.  I’m developing a new Monk character for an upcoming Pathfinder campaign, and i’m very excited to have pulled together a number of feats, bonuses, and abilities that allow him to jump 9 feet straight up, or 30 feet distance, without blinking.  I’ve been exciting for this new campaign to start in a few weeks, and I’ve been imagining creative ways to use my acrobatic skills in combat.

So what does this have to do with the readied action?  The important thing here is how you look at your abilities.  Are your stats a means to ‘win’ a game, or are they simply a framework for your character doing creative things?  Do you think of a character as a list of numbers, or do you think of the numbers as a guide for your characters behavior and personality?

If you care only about numbers, if you care only about “winning” the game, then of course, it makes sense to use any available actions to get a jump on your enemies – even if that action doesn’t really make sense in the context of your character.  Readied Action is a perfect example of this.

The Readied Action is a function designed so that you can take a specific action the instant a specific event occurs.   I feel that the implication here is not a general expectation of danger.  Someone pointed out that while walking through a dungeon, of course one would expect danger around every corner.  This is true, but the system is built around that kind of thing.  Initiative rolls exist not just as a ‘turn order’ mechanic but to represent who reacts the fastest when danger suddenly is upon them.  Readied action implies not that there is danger somewhere nearby, but that you are ready for a very specific action to occur, that you know, or at least pretty strongly believe, is about to happen.  Doing so puts all your focus on that event happening – if not, you could not possibly react fast enough to gain the benefit of the readied action.  If so, this completely detracts from your attentions elsewhere, making it hard to walk in a straight line, let alone navigate a dungeon, avoid traps, or notice enemies coming around a different corner. 

So here’re my thoughts on the specific implementation of a “Readied action.”

1. Specificity

If a character has a readied action, this means that they expect something specific to happen.  Walking around a dungeon expecting danger is not nearly specific enough to ready an action.  The benefit of “readying an action” is an instantaneous reaction to an expected event.  If the event they are waiting for isn’t specific enough, they cannot possibly react fast enough to unleash their readied action outside of a standard initiative turn.  This means no surprise rounds.  If they are specific, IE readying an action to shoot the next baddie who comes around the corner, this means other triggers – a baddie coming down the hallway, a baddie coming from behind – does not trigger the readied action and standard initiative begins.

2. Focus

If the player’s readied action does have a specific enough trigger, this means their focus is on that specific condition.  If it is not, then they cannot possibly react fast enough to unleash their readied action.  If it is, this means they must take penalties on anything else they try to do, or lose the readied action.  If a player readies an action to shoot the next goblin that comes around the corner, and then they try to read some runes on a wall, they are not readied anymore.  You could even go so far as to say that if they try to walk their normal speed, they lose their readied action in order to not trip and fall.

3. Within character?

If a player seriously wants to ‘ready an action’ to attack the next bad dude they see in the dungeon, challenge them to think about their character.  This implies an extreme, debilitating skittishness.  They are so afraid of encountering an enemy that they have their weapon at the ready, studying every dark corner, every long passage, for sight of an enemy.  This is a distinct lack of confidence, the kind of person that would jump at a loud noise.  If this fits within the character, fine (though I still recommended the penalties to focus), but if the player is all captain bravado up until the readied action, I don’t think so.  Then again, if they roll a high perception check and hear a noise around the corner, they might ready a weapon to attack whatever is around the corner.

4.  False Triggers

If a player is focusing on a specific event within the realm of possibility, in a way that makes sense within their character, their reaction might be triggered by a similiar event.  Say a player readies their bow to shoot at the first goblin that comes around the corner.  But what if the next thing that comes around the corner is an innocent NPC running from the bad guys, or the party rogue who scouted ahead and was returning, unawares of the readied action, to report her findings?   At GMs discretion, the readied action may be triggered.  GMs could offer an immediate reflex save or perception check for the readied player to fail to carry out their action, but a failed check means that player is shooting their friend or the innocent NPC.  (Incidentally, extremely large amounts of kudos to the player who, playing the rogue and knowing the ranger is waiting around the corner with a readied action, still comes out knowing his character wouldn’t know the readied attack was there.)

5. Let it happen when it makes perfect sense

In some cases, readied actions make perfect sense.  Setting up an ambush.  Sneaking into prime position and waiting for the opportune moment to strike.   Spinning around a corner ready to attack anything that is there.  Sometimes these actions have little risk, sometimes there is more.  Players should be rewarded for creatively using their character, but not for gaming the system.  It can be tempting to refuse to allow players to use an action if they’ve been trying to overuse it in the wrong situations.  But, if you say “no” when it’s appropriate, and “yes” when it’s appropriate, players will soon learn to use the ability in an appropriate manner.

Other recommendations thrown out?  If your players are getting carried away, start throwing more false triggers at them. Give monsters readied actions.  Throw a ridiculous extra monster at the party that comes up from behind.  Make them fight an invisible creature.

What are your thoughts on readied actions?  Do you love ’em?  Hate ’em?  Got other ideas on how to keep them in control?  Leave a comment.

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Futurewolfie loves epic games, space, and epic games set in space. You'll find him rolling fistfuls of dice, reveling in thematic goodness, and giving Farmerlenny a hard time for liking boring stuff.

Discussion1 Comment

  1. Ah yes, the readied action. I won’t ever say it should be entirely thrown out. In an outside of combat it’s essential to the mechanics that a character be given the chance to get the drop on someone. One may remember the oft neglected rule in DnD 3.5 that during the first round of combat everyone is flat footed until they get to their turn. This rule implies that you are not walking around with sword drawn and legs bent and ready for battle. And any player that does is just asking to be treated as exhausted after an hour or so. Just as you said, it has to be specific and make sense.

    However, this inevitably leads to the problem of the surprise round. When do players get initiative, but monsters don’t. In my experience the only fair way to do this is by the 3.5 rules. If you are unaware of the enemy you don’t get to act in the surprise round. It doesn’t matter if you become aware during that round you don’t get to jump in mid-round. Everyone becomes aware when the party is attacked (except under exceptionally sneaky circumstances). It is a pet peeve of mine when a player starts whining that they want a surprise round during a standoff. Just deciding that you’re the first to act does no get you a surprise round. Here’s my reasoning. If you want to cast a spell or attack someone you need to do a little readying. You have to go for components or a weapon. That’s when initiative is there to check people’s reaction times and decide who is the faster draw.

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