Greatest Hits 2012: The New Initiative – Talk then Fight

by Ameron (Derek Myers) on December 21, 2012

While the Dungeon’s Master team enjoys some well-deserved vacation time, we’re breaking out the greatest hits and shining a spotlight on a few of our favourite articles from 2012. We’ve searched for hidden gems that our newer readers might have missed and our long-time readers will enjoy reading again. Enjoy a second look at these greatest hits from Dungeon’s Master.

Nothing makes me happier than hearing a player say that his PC wants to try and talk their way out of a fight. I try to encourage my players to have their PCs pursue options for resolving conflict that don’t involve combat, but it’s usually a hard sell since they want to fight monsters. When someone actually thinks talking is a better option I will go out of my way to let them have their say before the swords start swinging and the arrows start flying.

In order for the new initiative I’ve proposed to be successful the DM needs to remember the importance of saying yes. Sure it normally takes a standard action to get a bloodied opponent to surrender, but if you’re going to allow for a talking initiative then you need to be flexible enough to allow an Intimidate check done at the beginning of combat as a free action to have a similar effect. If the DM rewards creativity and demonstrates that he’s willing to bend the rules to let something cool and interesting happen, more players will try acting during the talking phase of initiative.

A good DM will let the role-playing and a solid skill check lead to results that the PCs are not used to seeing. These results can vary from an all out surrender to delaying combat for a few rounds. Different skills should result in different outcomes as well. Bluff can be used to distract or misdirect, Diplomacy to negotiate surrender or non-aggression, and Intimidate to command into submission or scare enemies away. Words can be powerful and when delivered at the right time and in the right way PCs will see that a Diplomacy check can yield better results than all of their daily and encounter powers combined.

From September 17, 2012, Dungeon’s Master once again presents: The New Initiative – Talk then Fight.

“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 Karl December 21, 2012 at 2:30 pm

Great thoughts. I will admit, I think some of the issues with the roll initiative speech is partially the DM’s fault. In my experience, the DM always says something like “The dragon roars in anger, stomping the ground and preparing to attack! Roll initiative!” Sentences like that make characters want to reach for their weapons over trying to continue a debate.

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