The New Initiative – Talk then Fight

by Ameron (Derek Myers) on September 17, 2012

“Everyone, roll initiative.” When the DM speaks these magic words we all know that it’s time for combat. This is how D&D works. The players determine who goes in what order and then you have at it. Since initiative is tied to Dexterity, PCs with the highest Dex almost always go first. And what do you know, the powers for most strikers – Rogues, Rangers, Sorcerers, Monks, Vampires – are generally tied to Dex so this is usually their best stat. The result is that the PCs who have the best chance of inflicting the most damage will act first in combat more often than not. This is all well and good if your objective is to kill everything you come across, but every now and then don’t you think there should be an opportunity to talk to your opponents before the hot-headed striker does something stupid like acting first and killing something?

We have it so engrained in our D&D mindset that rolling initiative is the natural precursor to killing monsters that very few PCs will take a second to try and defuse a combat situation with words. And those that do usually act so far down in the initiative order that by the time they get to go the fight is already well underway. Yet talking is a free action. In-game, your PC can talk even if it’s not his turn – even if he didn’t win initiative. However, players I’ve gamed with rarely take advantage of this before combat begins. Players roll initiative and want to act in that order. So why not roll two initiatives – one for talking and one for fighting?

When I was at GenCon I had an interesting discussion with a few other gamers about initiative. One of them was telling me about the way initiative works in the Doctor Who RPG. Now I’ve never played this RPG and I don’t have any of the books, but as it was explained to me (rightly or wrongly), the initiative goes through three phases.

  1. Anyone who wants to talk has the opportunity to do so. A character can try to appeal to their opponents not to shoot. They can do this through reason or intimidation, for example.
  2. When talking doesn’t work, anyone who doesn’t want to fight can move. When your opponent is clearly not a talker or not convinced by your silver tongue, you can flee or dive for cover.
  3. Anyone left in the line of fire can engage in combat.

Now I’m the first to admit that D&D and Doctor Who are very different games. D&D is built around combat. The fighting is an integral part of the game and players want to kill stuff. Doctor Who is not a combat-heavy game. If you’ve ever watched the TV show you know that The Doctor is always trying to calm everyone down to defuse potential combat before it ever starts (which is obviously why the initiative system is set up as it is). But there is something to be said for at least looking into this approach to initiative.

I’ve played in many D&D games where someone wants to try and talk to the monsters in an attempt to resolve a situation without combat. And in most of these situations someone else, usually a character who is optimized for combat and isn’t good at the talking parts, decides to attacks. In my experience the character with level heads are not usually Dex-based builds and rarely go at the top of the order. So in order to let them try to talk their way out of a fight why not introduce a second initiative? Here’s what I’m thinking.
The next time the DM says “Everyone, roll initiative,” you’ll roll twice. The first initiative is the talking initiative, which is resolved before combat since talking is a free action. Make a Diplomacy, Bluff, or Intimidate check (depending on how you plan to handle the situation) to determine the talking initiative order. This check is just to determine who acts first and has no bearing on the success of your impassioned plea to avoid hostility. The second initiative is the normal combat initiative. No changes there.

Characters that want to act during the talking initiative have a chance to quickly address their opponents. Remember that this is a free action that is happening while everyone is drawing their weapons and getting ready to engage in combat. You can’t give a formal address that runs on for hours, but you can call out a few carefully chosen words to try and defuse a tense situation. Participating in the talking initiative is optional. After a PC acts during the talking initiative they follow it up with the most appropriate skill check.

The monsters may respond with words, they may not. All PCs can make Insight and Perception checks to determine if the foe is willing to talk or if they just want to fight. This isn’t usually going to be a hard check. Once everyone who wants to talk has done so, the normal combat initiative is resolved and things run as they normally would.

If the talking worked, it’s unlikely that the PCs will need to fight. Of course, someone on team heroes may still want to kill something, and that’s certainly allowed. This is when the other players, especially those with PCs good at Diplomacy, need to remind the combat guys that there are advantages to not fighting and killing everything you see. The DM should also encourage PCs to be mindful of their alignment. It’s unlikely that good PCs will attack opponents who have willingly surrendered.

The only exception that immediately comes to mind regarding the new initiative is when PCs and monsters begin in adjacent squares. The idea with the talking initiative is that no one is close enough to an enemy to attack them before a few words can be exchanged. In the unlikely scenario that PCs are already adjacent to monsters when initiative is rolled, I’d allow only those characters to insert their combat initiative into the talking initiative. This way they can still take a quick swing at their opponent before or while the talking is happening. The idea is that no matter what’s said, it’s not going to sink in faster than my blade.

How do you handle situations in your game today when someone with a low initiative wants to talk before the fight? Do you see value in introducing a talking initiative? Do you think that if there were a formal mechanic for talking before combat more PCs would take this option and try to defuse combat before it starts? Do you think that adding a new mechanic is just another level of recordkeeping that will slow things down or do you think the benefits outweigh this obstacle?

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1 mattdomville September 17, 2012 at 10:38 am

There’s a “Doctor Who” RPG?! (runs off to store carrying a wad of money)

2 Rik September 17, 2012 at 10:39 am

I have personally learned to take my time before saying ‘Roll initiative’ to my players. They get their chance to talk and they know they either screwed up (saying the wrong things to a person doesn’t help, no matter the check) or plainly failed their checks horribly enough to make the initiative dice start flying.
Then again, I’m also a big fan of ‘taking them alive’. Causing the guards to roll initiative is announced by the guards going ‘arrest them!’. Making the bandits roll initiative is followed by ‘you’ll give us a pretty penny’, etcetera, so that even IF they fail during combat, the chance for a TPK is smaller.
And when you’re going for the mindless, kill them all kind of monster… Well, talking wouldn’t have helped, anyway.

3 Madfox11 September 17, 2012 at 11:21 am

Since talking is a free action, I always ask openly whether or not PCs want to try and reason with the monsters before the PCs act. If the strikers still want to fight and others want to talk, I try to resolve the potential player conflict before starting with the actual fight. After all, your sollution does not solve the problem. It merely moves it from the aggressive PCs to the talkative ones since now your diplomancers are dictating the actions of those favoring a fight 😉

4 anarkeith September 17, 2012 at 11:52 am

I suppose it has to do with how the encounter is framed. Why is the monster or NPC there? Is there information either party might want or need?

If the encounter isn’t plot-related, I try to provide a discussion hook of some sort. A troll with culinary aspirations, but a limited variety of available food. Something the players can observe. Then I reward their inquisitive efforts …

5 Dustin Cooper September 17, 2012 at 11:54 am

I have the Doctor Who rpg and I love how it is written (you are correct in your summary of Initiative).

We deal with these kinds of situations as they come up. If a PC wants to attempt at some sort of diplomacy/intimidate/bluff, they just roll on their turn. They usually have to come up with a good story (either through roleplaying or dictating the idea at least) when they do this after combat starts.

I have even had a DM give us a chance to do something like this half way through combat after we were getting our butts served to us (lol).

But, I have never really thought about what happens when one player really wants to avoid combat, but not run.

Good article!

6 Kyle Long September 17, 2012 at 12:14 pm

I haven’t run a game from a module since my wee days of DM’ing back in AD&D, but I remember reading something once that always stuck with me. In this module, the heroes were meeting with someone who claimed to know more about their mysterious enemy and would share it for a price.

The situation was tense, and while it could turn to combat, this NPC would flee immediately if it did so. Nonetheless, they recommended making your players roll for initiative JUST TO STRESS THEM OUT AND PUT THEM ON EDGE.

It was brilliantly simple, a way to manipulate this idea that players see a room laid out before them and roll for initiative and start salivating like Pavlovian dogs.

And really I think that this is what being a Dungeon Master is all about; learning what the triggers are for your players and finding ways to play with them that allows them to overcome the “kick in the door” mentality so prevalent in a system as combat-heavy as 4th Edition.

Make players roll for initiative as they enter the spooky cave to start the hair on their neck tingling. Begin combat with a surprise round that gives them little chance to react. Base initiative order on the results of a skill challenge. Challenge your players, and don’t let them get into this Initiative > Combat > Experience mindset.

Like everything else, initiative is just a tool at the DM’s disposal, and we need to use that tool as we see fit. While I personally am not a big fan of adding rules to the roleplaying portion of the game (such as conversation before combat), things like a conversation initiative are exactly the sort of experiments that we should feel free to be making.

7 shortymonster September 17, 2012 at 3:27 pm

I don’t really play much actual D&D these days, and I hope that this doesn’t sound like I’m laying the fault at that game, but outside of that game, I often find either players I’m in a game with or GMing are more than happy to diffuse a combat with words, even after a first attempt fails and blood may have already been spilled.

In certain games it comes down knowing that no matter what the perceived advantage is, a fight could still kill you, and as such should be avoided if possible.

8 wlkeR September 17, 2012 at 3:55 pm

I use the initiative system of the D&D Adventure System – a Hero phase, followed by a Villain phase. There are times a villain gets to act in between the heroes’ turns, but usually, all heroes can act in an order determined by one simple rule: “who knows what to do with his or her turn may act.”

In this system, initiative is more of a player thing, but since all heroes get to act first, there aren’t many complaints and everything runs much more smoothly than with regular ini. Also, if the talky player calls dibs on talking before the butchers start cleaving skulls, a few turns can be spent talking.

9 Jesse September 18, 2012 at 8:33 am

I’ve had this very same problem (as I think most GMs have) with the dissociative aspect of RPGs – There is role-playing and then there is combat – and the trigger is that word: Initiative. However, I’ve been practicing with initiative-less combat, meaning that I simply don’t ask them for it but instead simply ask them “what do you do” and limit them casually to their action times – Usually cutting them off with a simple “Well, first let’s see what wants to do” will suffice. Only when the majority of the players chose to take a more aggressive front towards their possible adversaries do I then ask for a formal initiative.

I’ve found that this lessens the polarity of the two components, while also allowing for some bleed through of the RP into combat.

10 Sunyaku September 18, 2012 at 10:27 pm

HAHA! I am currently working on an LFR adventure (that will eventually be available for free to download on my website) that has a scene that completely fits the bill here. Sparing you the details, players crashland in a courtyard filled with creatures who serve two dragons. As the players are coming to their senses, the dragons are discussing what to do with them. I wrote “pauses” into the dialog to give players a chance to get a word in, and after pauses worth of quick dialog, if they don’t try to convince the dragons otherwise, they challenge each other to a game of “who can kill the most adventurers the fastest, and everyone rolls initiative.

In the first playtest I ran last weekend, the party successfully convinced the dragons that they wanted to join the hordes the dragons were soon going to lead into battle. It’s a 16th level mod, so instead of fighting two level 12 Solos with an endless horde of minions closing off escape (spectators who interfere every round), the players only had to fight the dragons to bloodied value, and the minions did not interfere. And the challenge for the dragons was that whichever dragon is bested first, the other dragon gets to add the adventurers to their army.

Needless to say, afterwards the party was REALLY GLAD they talked through to an easier fight. I don’t think encounters have to be ONLY skill challenge or ONLY combat. Even if players want to talk their way out of combat, their debate partners may still want to “test” their physical prowess for sport/honor/fun/etc.

Unless there are specific plot reasons why talking might be silly, talking should always be an option. Talking tends to encourage more roleplaying than combat does.

11 Craig Oxbrow September 23, 2012 at 9:28 am

Hello! I was linked here through Siskoid’s blog roundup on the unofficial Doctor Who RPG page.

For the record, you actually missed out a phase of Who initiative – “Acting” comes after Talking and Running, and is a chance to defuse the situation in any other way (like slamming a door in the monster’s face) before the final phase of Fighting.

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