In this episode of the RPGBOT.Podcast, we discuss initiative and surprise mechanics in TTRPGs. We examine how initiative and surprise work in DnD 5e and how people are using it wrong, we compare 5e to other RPGs including Pathfinder 2e and The One Ring, and we explore some variant initiative options which you might use in your own games.
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Materials Referenced in this Episode
- RPGBOT.Podcast Episodes
- Dungeons and Dragons 5e
- Pathfinder 2e
- Other Stuff
Every roll a d20 for me.
Oh, it’s off the table. It doesn’t count. Got it.
All right, what do you get?
19! I go first. Welcome to the RPGBOT.Podcast. I’m Randall James and with me is Tyler Kamstra.
and Random Powell.
I’m sure glad the initiative order worked out for that. Otherwise it would have been really awkward. What, what kind of dice are you rolling?
So I have these hollow metal tuning fork dice from Easy Roller Dice.
I picked up a set…
Can we get that by the mic again?
Okay, here, I’m gonna grab the whole set in my hand. And I’m just gonna hold these up gently and I can listen in very carefully. That’s, that’s not bells. That is the sound of my dice. Instead of Click Clack, Math rocks, I have jingle jangle math rocks.
Jingle jingle math rocks are pretty high up on my list now. That sounds pretty good. Nice. Where’d you get the jingle jingle math rocks?
So I picked these up from our friends Easy Roller Dice at Garycon last week. It was really cool. They… these are apparently kind of a hot ticket item for them. They sell out very quickly at every convention and they have trouble keeping them in stock online. So I was very lucky to pick up set while we were there.
Nice. All right, I guess, it… It pays to show up to the con early. Everybody take that lesson, I guess. Now. All right, Tyler, what’s happening?
Today, we are going to talk about initiative and surprise, especially. If you play a tabletop RPG, chances are you will likely have to determine who goes in what order at some point before a fight breaks out. And initiative is the system that you use to determine who goes first and in what order. Surprise is kind of a… offshoot of that same system, and determines who’s surprised at the beginning of combat. And depending on what RPG you’re playing surprise can be more or less important, have more or less effects. But in general, in my experience, people have no idea how surprise works in any RPG that they’re playing. So we’re going to talk about it we’re going to try and kind of explain the rules, set the record straight, and look at initiative systems across game systems.
Okay, I’m gonna go and hop in and be very honest, I actually have no idea how surprises supposed to work in 5e. I feel like I meant to at some point read about it and then I forgot to.
Well, you’re certainly not alone. I listen to a lot of actual play podcasts that I like a whole lot from very smart people and almost all of them do surprise wrong. Basically, every DM I’ve had in fifth edition has done surprise wrong. And, I mean, so it’s clearly nobody’s fault. If everyone is getting it wrong. Clearly, there’s a gap here, there’s a gap in understanding. So we’re going to try and simplify things, explain things and figure out how it actually works.
Alright, so before we hop into it, there’s almost an implication in what you’re saying. Do you think that the correct surprise rules are actually better than whatever folks have been doing to you as a DM?
I’m gonna say… yes, asterisk.
Okay. All right. Well, let’s hop into it. Let’s see, cause this seems like it’s gonna be worth it or worth hearing about.
Yeah, from my own perspective, coming in from longtime 3.5 were surprised was a much more common thing. And we’ll touch on that in a moment. I have literally never had a DM, like, like Tyler was saying, I’ve never had a DM deal with surprise correctly as far as the actual printed rules say. And that only, that only matters in some games, right? You know, if you’re very actively trying to sneak around, then having the mechanical payoff for that is very helpful. But if no one’s doing that, maybe it doesn’t matter so much in your game. But if someone is doing that, you really should. Or if you’re doing that, you really should and then take it to your DM. Really either listen to us go read the rules, understand stuff, so that you can take that and be an advocate for doing it as written to reward the effort put in.
Okay, that makes sense. And then we also talked a little bit about initiative. You talked about initiative kind of being the deciding factor for what order we go into going into combat and different systems handle that in different ways. I guess I’m trying to think are there other places where we use initiative? The only thing I can think of is I’ve listened to one 4th edition actual play where we were using initiative for skill challenges.
But outside of that, yeah. Is there anywhere else we use initiative?
Generally no. Typically initiative is only used in combat because everyone is trying to act as quickly as possible. Whereas in a social situation, or if you’re just exploring, usually how quickly people react isn’t super important unless it’s like a trap is coming at you get out of the way.
there absolutely can be times and this is a tool in your tool bag as a DM, where you want to call initiative, even when there’s maybe not strictly speaking combat. You could definitely use initiative to impose a sense of urgency on people. Let’s say that there is something like a trap, you know, like the room is filling with water. Roll initiative. You could also use it in a social situation. Basically, it is a way to get real granular about what’s happening when. There are times that you can absolutely use that outside of just when I want to fight something. If you do want to have, let’s say, a conversation where when people get to talk to different people matters. Or you know, if you have like if you’re solving a puzzle, and it’s important what steps people do things in. You, you can absolutely do this. And just like I said, remember that it’s a tool that you can use to refine granularity of when things are happening,
To call back to our neuro- neurodiversity in D&D episode. I believe it was Caleb suggested using initiative in exploration situations, because if your players are having trouble with analysis paralysis when they walk into a room, there’s five people all trying to figure out okay, what do we do here? Having people act in some semblance of initiative order, it doesn’t necessarily matter what order they go in. But having them have a distinct, like, it is your turn to do something, gives them kind of an impetus to act and also makes it less stressful because they don’t feel like they have to try and talk over the entire group to get something done. So that makes sure that people are passing the spotlight and makes sure everyone is doing something even if your characters just like, I don’t know what to do here. I’ll guard the door. That’s totally fine. But sometimes if your party needs help deciding when they’re in a complicated situation, yeah, roll initiative, even if it’s not a fight.
And I will say as a DM, if you’re in that situation, it might even make sense to like, I’ll call it passive. Just do that in the background. And just say like, Hey, you know, okay, Tyler, what are you thinking? I haven’t heard from you in a little bit. Don’t actually say that to somebody. That’s terrible. But, but yeah, Tyler, what are you thinking? And that kind of gives you cue to everybody else to kind of pause for a moment. Let’s let the next person have a little bit of thought have a go at this problem. 100%. So yeah, in the days of yore what was happening with initiative and surprise, the days of your being 3.x?
Yeah, so Random and I, we’ve spoken about this a lot, but we both came up on third edition 3.x. And if you’ve ever heard the term “surprise round,” that’s where it came from. So if you’ve never played third edition D&D, just stop using the phrase “surprise round.” all it’s going to do is confuse you. It’s not a thing in fifth edition. To quickly glance back at the third edition rules. The rules for surprise is when combat starts, if you were not aware of your opponents, and they are not aware of you, er, sorry, and they are aware of you, You’re surprised. So that’s it. Just Are you aware of them. If not, you’re surprised. If anyone is surprised, there’s what’s called a “surprise round.” And during the surprise round, you get a standard action instead of your full round action. So the closest we can get to that in fifth edition is like, you can take an action, but you can’t move, take a bonus action, or take a reaction. Now, I mean, that was kind of okay in third edition, but it also heavily favors spellcasters because most things spellcasters do is a standard action. But the concept of a surprise round has kind of bled over through the years, it’s made its way into the lexicon and that’s how people still talk about initiative. And while there are definitely some similarities between third and fifth editions’ surprise mechanics, they are very, very different. And again, don’t use the phrase “surprise round.”
Okay, so I’ve never played third edition. Based on what you’re describing, it sounds like the the spirit of that is you get to do something very quickly. But for instance, you can’t run up to the folks that you’re about to enter into combat with because otherwise you would ruin the surprise. But you could pop a shot off with a bow. You could cast a spell as long as it wasn’t, like, a ritual. I don’t know if rituals were thing back then. But you know, if I stayed in the corner chanting for like the next 30 seconds on yo yo, yo, yo, they’re probably going to hear me they’re gonna come after me. But you know, quick one word spell, I can fire it off. Is that generally what I’m… am I understanding that correctly?
That’s sort of accurate, although you could always drop your standard action into a move action which would let you move up. You just wouldn’t be able to then do anything else in the surprise round. The, the reason why it was called a surprise round is there was literally a round. So like the same way that we have six second rounds in fifth edition, there was literally just a six second round. But you would only get to participate in that round if you were aware of the combat starting. And you would only get the standard action
Wait, you just said a funny word to me. “Aware of the combat starting.” As in the entire party… Like let’s say, I have the Wizard and I was looking in my book. Am I aware of the combat was going to start?
I guess, technically speaking, that’s up to you. Because the answer is not a guaranteed Yes. It’s a probable Yes. But you know, if you are if you are, like, so unaware that your party is trying to set an ambush, okay. So a way that this might happen. Let’s say that you, you know, you’re… you come across a guard post at night. Every… the whole party sneaks up, and they take coordinated actions to try and shoot some of the guards. Okay, well, so as they were sneaking up, you know, like right before they got there, someone stepped on a branch. A guard heard it. And but when I say a guard, let’s say like 3 of the 10 guards made their per- made their listen at the time, unless we’re in Pathfinder, then perception. Three of the guards made their perception rolls to hear that branch snap. They are alert. So the surprise round starts. The party and those three guards roll initiative. They all get to take their one standard action, then the other seven guards all roll initiative, get added in, and then combat continues from there.
Okay, so it’s possible on either side that you could enter the combat, one. And two, you potentially might have two turns before the, you know, if they roll, worse than you an initiative you might get two rounds before the unaware creature actually gets to take a turn.
Yes. And so you have the surprise round where everyone is surprised. And then it’s generally assumed that after that everyone is alert. And then acts initiative order. I think what Randall was going for there is it is possible for some people to act twice before someone who was surprised acts once. Which, yes, is possible.
You take your standard action during the surprise round and your old high you go again, and then somebody else goes that is 100% possible.
Okay, now one more poke at this because this is fascinating to me. You just called out that it’s assumed everybody’s aware. But let’s talk about that guard situation you just described. So if I’m the DM in that situation, let’s say only one made the role. They’re not in line of sight of any other guard. And you, you know, three different folks like hit him in the chest with an arrow and take him down. Is it possible that I could then get further surprise rounds on the other guards? Or do the rules basically say no at this point…
That, that’s open for interpretation?
Technically, combat just combat as a blanket term has a amount of sound that it makes that is detectable via a listen check. Now, if somehow all nine other guards don’t hear the sounds of a dude dying to arrows. If you, uh, you teleport up there and you like stealth him down and really sure, yes. That is 100% feasible that that in fact at that point, I wouldn’t necessarily ask people to roll initiative. You know, if if you did something very skillfully and you just murder one guard you’re, you’re gonna Assassin’s Creed/Splinter Cell this. If you just go through one at a time and, you know, you manage to kill people before they can react. Okay, sure. Now that’s that’s a personal choice. Some DM’s would want you to roll initiative immediately. There’s no problem either way. But yeah, that’s, that is absolutely a thing you could do.
Now there is one more quirk I want to call out here. So our imaginary scenario where you have 4 player characters. 10 guards. If 4 player characters and 10 guards, everybody notices notices each other, everyone is aware. Fight breaks out. Everyone rolls initiative, there is no surprise round.
If one person is surprised at like any one creature in that combat. If they are surprised, there’s a surprise round, which means one person messes it up and all the spellcasters get an advantage.
Oh, because the because the turn and you called this out, but I’m just now internalizing this. The turn is different. It’s a single action, which not all characters will be able to… Oh, that’s nice. Okay.
Yeah, it’s a very strange quirk. So it… to compare it in fifth edition, it would be like the the spellcaster can spend an action to cast a spell, but your Fighter with extra attack can still only make one weapon attack. And they can’t move unless they trade down their action to dash. Anyway. Why are we telling you this? Very fair question. For people listening at home who don’t plan on going back and play third edition, the key point there is, again, stop using the term “surprise round.” “Surprise round” and the way people run surprise has been inherited from third edition with all of that baggage that we just discussed. Like, that is functionally how people run surprise in fifth edition.
I’m not gonna lie, all of that sounded pretty cool. And you’re gonna say that basically, none of that came with us and we have to like retrain ourselves
Pretty much yeah. Like, there are there are some similar quirks. I’m not going to say that fifth edition surprise, mechanics are perfect because they’re not. But they are different. They are very different. And if people are going to deviate from the rules as written, I want people to do that knowing what the rules as written are. So you’re making the intentional choice to choose something that’s a better fit for your table, rather than essentially running things how you read them in a Reddit comment or something like that.
Okay. It’s like, yeah, I’m not gonna say what’s better. What’s worse, I just, they sure are different. These rules.
Okay, good. All right. So what are they like that we built this up? We’ve gotten super excited about it.
Okay, so the fifth edition surprise rules are very, very simple. At the beginning of combat, everyone roles initiative if you’re going to be part of that combat. Even if you’re unaware, everyone roles initiative. Now, you essentially split up into sides. Player,s monsters, if there’s multiple sides, you separate them. If a creature is unaware of any opponent at the beginning of combat, they are surprised. Party of four characters. 10 guards. Party sneaks up on the guards. Any guard who doesn’t notice the entire party is surprised. Any player who doesn’t notice all of the guards is surprised. So if there’s one guard, like, hidden behind a post by accident, and the party just happens to not notice him, the entire party could be surprised, even though they’re trying to set ambush.
Okay, if one party member didn’t notice the person behind the post, then you’re surprised. So if you leave the squishy Wizard behind the wall and say wait here until the combat combat breaks out, effectively, you have induced surprise on yourself in 5e. That’s what you’re saying?
You’re surprised if you don’t notice an enemy. If one of your allies is hidden or whatever, you’re fine. But if there’s an enemy that you don’t notice, you’re surprised.
But the ally, likely wouldn’t notice some enemy because the ally is…
So you have induced surprise on every guard, and also your Wizard.
Oh, so, okay, surprise applies to the individual in this case.
Correct. So unlike third addition, where there’s a surprise round where everyone’s actions are affected, in fifth edition, the first round of combat, which is the only round where people can be surprised, rules is written and we’ll come back to that in a minute. Round one, creatures that measure their surprise individually. So me, Bob, the Wizard hiding behind that wall. Am I aware of all of the enemies? If the answer is yes, I’m not surprised. If there’s if there’s even one enemy that I don’t realize is there, I stand there looking shocked for the entire turn
Okay, good. All right. So what what is the mechanical impact of being surprised?
You take no actions on your turn.
None of them. Okay.
None of ’em, yeah.
Can you take reactions if a reaction would be?
Let’s see. So when an effect says that you can’t take actions, it means you can’t take an action. You can’t move. You can’t take a bonus action. You can’t take a reaction. Because all of those things are actions/
Oh. Okay. So I’m, I’m the Wizard. I’m the squishy Wizard. I’m hiding behind a wall. One of the guards starts to flee and runs right by me. Because I was surprised I cannot take an opportunity attack against that creature.
Okay, or a Wizard in this and starts to cast something and I’m like, I’m gonna Counterspell that. Except for surprise, I’m not going to exactly. Oh, okay. This is worse, actually. I want to make sure. Good, good. I’m catching up slowly. So I see the Wizard. I saw the Wizard the whole time. I’ve been spying on them. They go to cast a spell, but I can’t because I didn’t notice the guard cowering in the tower, when they saw my tank, like, rolling up.
Yeah, yes. being surprised in fifth edition is basically the same as being stunned. It is brutal. And actually… and we’ll come back to-
No shield? No shield?
No shield. No. So we’ll come back to how to take advantage of surprise later, but the short version is, and teaser for later in the episode, surprise your enemies. Don’t be surprised. And that’s I mean, this is one of the reasons why passive perception is so important in fifth edition, because if your passive perception is really high, you’re basically never going to be surprised.
Okay, maybe one more question on this, like, how… I’m the DM in this situation. I’ve got my four player characters, I’ve got my 10 guards. How… there is actually a table that basically talks about cover and then the passive perception or the perception necessary to take cover. Or to, to detect a creature undercover.
I think so.
That feels right.
I know there… cover provides bonuses to AC and dexterity saves. I can’t remember, like, because you need cover or concealment to hide. And it’s just assumed that if a creature is not fully, like, not fully concealed, not behind full cover, and if they’re not hiding, then you can generally observe them unless there’s some good reason you can’t. So like, if if a guy is standing behind a waist high wall, they have cover. But if they’re not intentionally trying to avoid notice, you’re probably still going to see them. The wall’s only waist high.
Okay, yeah, this makes sense to me. Maybe one more question. How would you adjudicate? Like, let’s say there’s three guards in a shack. So they’re behind a door, they’re behind a wall. Do you consider those folks outside combat for the sake of this combat and then they joined combat later? Or do you say, No, you didn’t know those folks were in or you didn’t know how many like you could hear people in the room, but you didn’t know how many. Therefore I’m gonna say the entire party is surprised because you didn’t guess correctly.
Well, technically speaking, there is no rules as written answer to your question, this is very much… Don’t be that guy. Right?
Okay, good. I like that answer.
As long as you noticed, there are people in the shack, I would give it to you. I’m not going to make you try and understand how many people are in the shack. That’s dumb. Think about this from an intuitive perspective, which is a terrible metric to apply to D&D, and I do it all the time. So intuitively, if you don’t know people are going to check and they come busting out, yeah, you’re surprised. If you note, that some number of people in the shack even if the whole clown car runs out of it. That’s more like, I’m gonna use a synonym of surprised. You know, I’m gonna say that. That’s… interesting.
I’m literally amazed.
Right? Exactly. I am I am gobsmacked that 20 guards poured out of a five by five shack. And yet, at least I knew that it was an expected vector for guards.
It’s like, 12 people just came out of there. I thought it was a toilet stall. What? What, what in the tardis hell is that?
Okay, and I guess maybe rules is written like it might even be up to you the DM, like, if there’s a reasonable perception whether rolled or passive to know that there were guards in the shack, maybe you tell them? Like you hear three distinct voices or something that actually it seems like it would solve what we’re describing. Well, the rules say you had to know how many. So I’ll give you how many.
Yeah, certainly an option.
It’s a reward for the good roll.
Absolutely. Certainly an option. I probably wouldn’t give someone a number unless they were intentionally trying to investigate it. You know, if if they’re just walking up, and yeah, I might point out Oh, yeah. And you hear some voices from a shack. Particularly if there’s like, if there’s a good passive perception in the group, reward the investment.
Luckily, you know, one of them sounds like Batman, the other is Kermit the Frog and two voices. I heard it.
Perfect. Now one of the few places I can actually contribute to a meaningful discussion about PF2 is in initiative, because it’s early on in the book, and so I’ve read it. So the interesting part. So there is no separate initiative stat in Pathfinder two, so it is always skill based, and 90 something percent of the time, it’s just going to be everyone roles perception. Now, weirdly, it can be other things. And the particular thing that’s worth noting is that it can be stealth. So if you are intentionally hiding before the start of a combat, you would roll stealth instead of perception to to have your initiative order determined. As we like to encourage player and DM creativity, you know, if you can think of some good reason for it to be something else. If I mean oh, I don’t know, maybe you built a upside down cardboard box for you to wander around in so that you can jump out of when combat starts. Maybe it’s a craft skill. Try and convince your DM. You know, I can’t promise they’re gonna go for it. But it’s certainly a fun way to try and make your character
Huh? What was that?
Everybody’s heard the exclamation point in their mind. You bring up using the stealth skill. So Tyler ran a couple of PF2 one shots for us and one of the folks that we play with was constantly trying to use the Stealth skill like justifying like, oh, this it’s like, you know, I’m sneaking up on the dragons. Like, the dragon sees you dude. Like there’s no there’s no hope for this. But yeah, that was that was a really cool thing to me. And it makes sense.
So Pathfinder, Second Edition has the this thing called down or not downtime exploration activities, which is a broad summary of what everyone is doing while you’re wandering around looking at things. One of those is avoid notice, which is literally just, I’m expecting there to be a fight. I just want to roll stealth for initiative so I’m just gonna, I’m gonna get my cardboard box, I’m gonna sit behind this coffin or whatever, and be sneaky and then we’ll roll stealth into perception, but-
I’m just gonna carry this door with me everywhere, like, nobody’s gonna notice. It’s a floating door, you know, we’re in a dungeon, whatever.
It says “War Games.” on it.
So one, one the strange thing about Pathfinder second edition. So we explained to the 3.x initiative and surprise rolls and they work the same way in Pathfinder first edition. In Pathfinder second edition, there is no mechanic for surprise, which, honestly, I looked very hard. And someone on the internet, please tell me if I’m wrong. But as far as I could tell, there is no mechanic for surprise, which is itself surprising. So if you and your entire party ambushed your opponents and you all roll garbage on initiative, it is entirely possible that the person you’re ambushing having had no idea that you were there the entire time still acts before you do and can just run away.
So like the vampire is laying in the coffin sound asleep. Snoring. Nightcap still on, and you have the dagger, like, ready to plunge. Magic, of course. And all of a sudden it pops out and like gets to attack magically in that scenario.
I guess our Game Masters just assumed that they’ll adjudicate that correctly and give you… yeah, I guess I want to ask this question for both systems. And I feel like with what you described for 5e, it makes sense. As a DM, I quite often find myself saying like, I’ll let one attack.
Yeah, that seems perfectly reasonable. You could rule it as whatever you could do with a single prepared action. So in fifth edition, you can prepare a spell, you can prepare to make a weapon attack, but only one even if you have extra attack. In third edition, you can ready a standard action. That applies to 3.x, PF1. And then I believe in PF2, you can, like, you can ready a single action action I might. I didn’t think to look this one up before the episode, so shame on me. But that’ll be like one strike, or maybe casting a quick spell. So you’re not gonna be able to do like, here’s my entire turn as a reaction. But yeah, using using ready to actions in place of a round where people might otherwise be surprised. That seems like a totally reasonable way to rule it.
Cool. So I, yeah, it’s really surprising that there is no surprise in Pathfinder to I guess we can definitely let Gamester should feel free to maybe lead an action in something like this, but I guess that’s fine. How do other systems handle this?
Every system has a completely different answer. So with the exception of systems that are based on the same rules, so like, 3.x and Pathfinder first edition are all built on top of the d20 system where it’s just d20 plus modifier, whoever roles the highest. Every system is going to have its own initiative system. We talk about Fantasy Flight Star Wars from time to time, you roll a skill check using one of two skills of your choice. It’s cool or vigilance. Vigilance is like the equivalent of perception. Cool is like keeping a cool head.
Yeah, it’s it’s not like I put on my sunglasses, and I roll for initiative.
Everything is awesome… Yeah, sorry.
But then it’s just whoever got the most successes on the roll wins. And there aren’t surprise mechanics there. So if you try to ambush somebody, your game master might say like, Okay, here’s some of these blue dice, which are the, like, circumstantial bonuses and stuff, because you’re trying to surprise these people. And that will be the representation of you having done something to try and ambush people.
So you have a better opportunity of winning because you have those blue dice in front of you.
So I actually just started reading the Mork Borg. And oh, yeah, it’s pretty cool. It is not a power fantasy. That is the thing I’ll say about it. But it is… yeah, it reminds me of like, the metal albums that my brother listened to when I was growing up. Like I actually started going and looking up White Zombie art. Because it was like, ah, you know, this is this is totally coming back to me. But yeah, so Mork Borg. One, it’s side initiative, and we talked about side initiative in other contexts before. The idea that basically an entire side goes and then the other side goes. So I’m not gonna say good guys, bad guys, but your party, and then probably the innocent creatures you’re about to murder. One side is going to go first. Okay, so Mork Bord side initiative.
Listen to this. Role of D six. one through three. The enemy start. four through six. No player characters start.
Do the players get like a modifier on that or anything?
No, absolutely not. Because screw you, that’s why! The game has a… not quite scheduled ending. But like, as best as I could read it, sure you you might have a total party kill, and that’s great. If not, the calendar will kill you. It’s cool. It’s real cool. Okay, you asked like, is there a modifier? Not only is there not a modifier for the player characters, some creatures like there’s a wraith, which just wins initiative. That’s it/
That feels like more work or at least what I understand of it. We’re gonna have to talk about that game more.
Yeah. Okay. So that’s a cool way to do it. Right?
Yeah. Sure. So another take on side initiative, one Ring also does side initiative. And its… players go first. That’s it. Unless the players are surprised, in which case bad guys go first. That’s it. Very simple. You don’t roll. And then within sides, it’s by stance. So forward stance, open stance, defensive stance, rearward stance in that order. It’s basically just how aggressive are you being lets you go earlier, within your side.
I actually really liked that when we played it, and then Random made his comment, it’s like, okay, so the one ring is a JRPG. And you can’t change my mind.
Fortunately, neither of them tried to.
Yeah, and at that point, it absolutely 100% in my head. It’s like I loved Jamba Juice growing up. This, 100, I now understand why I liked One Ring combat. It felt so natural.
The Hobbit is an anime.
Alright, well, that’s enough of that… so those two have been reading their stuff. I’ve been reading also from a Free League, the Alien role playing game, which will get an article here soon. But boy, let me tell you about an interesting version of initiative. So first off, I’ll start with surprise mechanics. There are some. Which makes good sense in a very kind of survival horror game. Both the players and the non players, which is you know, sometimes actual monsters. Sometimes people are the monsters. You can either be active or inactive. By the way when I say alien, I do mean like the literal movie, and game and novel franchise Alien.
Yes. Like that sort of alien.
I’ve got a head. And then out of my head comes another tinyer head.
A smaller head, yeah.
The actual… so Xenomorphs are basically never going to be inactive. But when you’re talking about humans, or Androids, or… anyway, he’ll, you’ll read that in my article. So when you’re talking about things that aren’t always trying to kill you, they could very reasonably be having downtime. And so if they are inactive, you can surprise them. And that functions a lot like a 3.x surprise round, actually. And the reason that is is because there is actual, like, a combat round. Now once you get into combat hole boy initiative is interesting. And it’s actually a pretty big mechanic in Alien. Take 10 cards, ace through 10 out of like your standard playing card deck. Shuffle them up, and deal one to each relevant thing that’s acting in combat. Every person will, like, every player character will get one. If you have a few enough other team characters, each one, you know, each character will get one. If you need to group things up. Let’s say you have a lot of UPP Marines on the other side. Maybe you say all UPP Marines act on one card of initiative.
Mob rules. Good.
Right? And then you just lay it out. Now, you then go basically top down so like if you have an ace you go first then two then three then four, etc. Now an interesting thing with that is that initiative is such a, like, the order that things happen in is so important because the game is so… like, combat is often very short and brutal. Both man demand combat and spaceship combat. Spoilers, you can have that. That there are rules about trading initiatives between people on the same sides is built in and easy. You can literally just do that. You can be like, Alright, I got a two, but my Marine friend got an eight and I really want him to go first to try and shoot that guy dead. Hey, it’s my turn. Let’s swap
Two goes first?
It’s low to high. Okay, good. Cuz otherwise, that didn’t make any sense. All right, right. Keep going.
I promise. Yeah. Anyway. But there’s also things that you can do so… it’s it’s a dice pool system. And like we’ve talked about for for final, er, Final Fantasy…. every time. For fantasy flight. Final Fantasy Flight, yeah. Yeah. Final Fantasy Flight Star Wars. Anyway, so there’s not exactly the seem like it’s not triumph, what’s the but the extra successes? Like, the little mini things?
There’s successes, boosts, triumphs.
Sight. So there’s there’s no version like that. But what it functionally is used as is if you get more than one success you can use them to boost basically. And one of the things that you can do for a lot of combat maneuvers is if you get extra successes on the thing you’re trying to do, you can steal their initiative. So if one of the enemies got a 2, it takes us turn it gets down to you at a 6. If you shoot them and you do really well on shooting them, you can steal their initiative and now you go on 2 next turn and they go on 6.
Interesting. So… so you can’t change your place in the initiative order in a lot of RPGs. So fifth edition, and you definitely can’t. I’m pretty sure you can’t and Pathfinder second edition. 3.5 you can by delaying. Same for Pathfinder first edition. And then, One Ring like we talked about, it’s based on your stance. So, like, you can move your stance, but the idea of actually trading initiative with another creature that way. That’s really cool and novel.
Yeah. So you talked about changing initiative. So I’m not sure for Shadowrun Sixth World because I haven’t spent enough time in the text. But in the previous edition of Shadowrun, I’m fairly certain you effectively, like, rolled initiative every round. And so your order would change each time you you went into a combat round. And I thought, I mean, exactly as you say. Like, there aren’t a lot of systems where it’s possible for it to change when you’re in combat. So that was pretty cool, too.
Yeah, that’s one of those things where like, it does add a lot of fun randomness. And yeah, we let’s talk about some variations on initiative for, like, D&D and Pathfinder. Because, yeah, looking at all of these systems, it’s not that hard to adapt them to D&D or Pathfinder if that’s what you want to do. So side initiative. Very popular and a lot of RPGs. Good guys go, bad guys. Go good guys go. Bad guys go. Sometimes the players are the bad guys. I don’t know.
Yes. It’s very simple. The players can choose like, Okay, we want to do this cool combo. Which order do we need to take our turns in in order to accomplish that combo?
Yeah, that would be in the Final Fantasy game, er… alright.
Yes. So big pro there is the players get to like hit really hard all at once. Con is so do the bad guys. The bad guys have to do the same things to keep challenges interesting. So the players all like focus fire on one enemy. Bring them down, and they’re like, Alright, there’s less enemies. Next round, this will be easier than the enemies, see the players doing that and say, Okay, we’re killing your Wizard this round. Let’s see. So there are some initiative variants listed in the Dungeon Master’s Guide. I can’t remember the page number. But we’ll have links in the shownotes to the page on D&D beyond. Some of these comes straight out of the fifth edition DMG and you can outright steal these for Pathfinder as well. So side initiative, you could roll it as either just each side rolls a d20. Whoever whoever rolls the highest wins. You could add someone from the party’s skill modifier or ability modifier. So fifth edition D&D, just who has the highest Dex modifier. Add that.
I am going to cut in and say that’s gonna very heavily favor initiative in favor of your players, because they’re going to optimize for it. So be wary of that one. Maybe if you are going to go that route, it can be very satisfying for your players, but just cheat a little bit. Maybe give all of your monsters 10% more HP to balance it out. Something like that.
That’s solid advice. Yeah. Yes. Obviously, with any variant you apply to your system, there are going to be pros and cons. There may be unforeseen consequences. Like we’ve talked about this on our variant rules episode. But yeah, random, that would be an awesome fix. Just 10% more hp for the bad guys. Initiative score is a thing suggested in the DMG. It just takes out the idea of rolling for initiative at all. Everyone’s initiative is just 10 plus your dexterity modifier, and that is it. And just go top down. If there are ties, you roll a d20. You roll a d20 and break the tie that way. Speed factor is the thing that’s in the DMG and I hate it. The concept is based on what action you’re planning to take on your turn, you roll some die to determine your initiative for that term. So if you’re using light weapons, then you’ll roll a really small die. If you’re using a really big heavy weapon, you’re going to roll a really big die. So it’d be like a d12. Compared to a d4. So heavily heavily advantages characters who are doing, like, two-weapon fighting, rogues, etc. Disadvantages big tanky fighters.
Oh my god. So we’re talking about JRPGs. This is just Lost Odyssey. Like, I don’t know if any of you have played last Odyssey, but there were like spells that would be cast over multiple turns, I’m sure Final Fantasy has some incarnation that does the same thing. And wow, that sounds terrible. I hate it.
Same! Nut it’s in there. And some people really like it. And that’s fine. It’s not for us personally. But you know, I’m not gonna yuck your yum.
It feels like it would make a lot of sense if you were, if you like, wanted to simulate, like that two person combat, right? Because that person who’s really sneaky with a dagger versus the person wielding like a giant great axe, when the greataxe finally lands hit, it’s gonna hurt a lot. But that person with a dagger is gonna be like, ha ha! You know. I stab ’em!
In real world logic, yes. But in DD logic, that person with the dagger is the Rogue who’s going to drop 10 d6’s on you and the Fighter is going to drop 2. That’s fair. And that hurts. Okay.
So one more variant on initiative. It’s not… this one’s not in the DMG. But it gets discussed as a variant a lot in online discussions. It’s called popcorn initiative. Basically, you roll for initiative at the beginning of combat. Whoever wins gets the first turn. After you take your turn, you pick who goes next. It can be any one of your party members. It could be one of the monsters. But if you pass it to one of the monsters, the DM now has control and gets to pick who goes next. So you could be like, I am the Rogue, I have the highest initiative. I am going first. I take my turn. I pick that homeless goblin to take their turn and the harmless goblin says okay, I’m going to take my turn and be fodder for this encounter. And then I’m going to pass initiative to the big bad standing behind me. And they’re going to pass initiative successively through all of their minions who are going to curb stomp the party.
So what you have just described is side initiative with extra steps.
Yeah, pretty much.
I wouldn’t even say it’s with extra steps that I mean, like, there’s no possible optimization of that beyond side initiative, where you get to apply the best initiative bonus in your group.
Yeah, pretty much. The, the intent is that, like, the monsters will do a couple of things and be like, Okay, we need to pass initiative back. Otherwise, all the players are going to take their turns all at once to do something crazy to us. But yeah, absolutely. It’s
That’s bad logic. Those monsters are dumb.
Agreed. Yes. Yes.
Fair’s fair, go ahead. Get in here.
Not all variants are good.
I understand. This is the anime, like, version of initiative. It’s like, I’m gonna honorably sit here and wait for you to charge up because I understand that it’s gonna be a better narrative if I do. Yes.
Oof. Oof, oof, oof. Like I… okay. So you say popcorn initiative. We do this in meetings from time to time, like, especially in the world of, you know, Google meets or zoom, where there’s 20 people on a call, but everybody needs to like, you know, Hi, I’m so and so when I do such and such, right? The next time this happens, instead of saying, like, say he goes next, I’m going to call it popcorn initiative. And I’m just going to look at the faces looking back at me in my meeting. One person tabletops. They’re like, yeah okay, now I’m in. Absolutely.
Wonderful. Real quick, I’m going to go into all of the initiative variants that are in the Pathfinder 2 core roles. And I’m done.
Yeah. Weirdly, like the Gamemastery Guide is full of wonderful variants on the rules. None of them touch initiative, which in a lot of ways makes sense, because initiative is so baked into the skill system for PF2. We talked about how you use perception primarily. Sometimes you can use other things like skills, stealth, etc. But yeah, if you change the way initiative works and Pathfinder second edition, it’s way more impactful on the rest of the system than it is in D&D 5e.
I’m going to figure out how to use my lore focus and alcohol to gain a bonus and initiative.
Who can drink this beer first gets their first turn.
Nah, man, nah. Lore focus in alcohol? That’s easy. You just you say alright, I’m going to create, like, an alcoholic mist to poison everyone in the room, dullinh their senses making them go slower.
Okay. So college basement. Is that…
Yeah, but college basement, like, in a grenade.
That’s the lair, right? My lair effect: old carpet. Just….
Yeah. All right.
All right. So real quick, was so we’ve talked a lot about like initiative and looping this back to surprise. Why? Well, so I mean, we talked about the condition that it causes, which is effectively stunned. But there’s some other things. There are some races, llokin’ at you, bugbear. And classes, super looking at you, Assassin, that trigger based on when things are surprised. And if you’re not handling it the way that 5e expects you to, it doesn’t really make sense. Particularly if anyone is doing that. This is very much why you should pay attention and, you know, reward the build power that went into choosing those things. If you have a bugbear assassin, well, that’s a problem. And we’ll we’ll discuss that at a later date in…
Although in the bugbear assassin’s defense, a bugbear assassin is terrifying.
Especially if they make you into sausage after.
So, okay, so what should folks take away? If I’m a player in a 5e game, if I’m a player in a PF2 game, how should I leverage surprise? What are the things that I should be doing to take advantage of the mechanics as they are rules is written.
If you’re trying to surprise enemies you want to act before they do. There are a handful of things like like you guys touched on, there are a handful of mechanics that give you a benefit for attacking a surprised enemy. But in general, the primary benefit of surprising enemies is that you get to act first, which is why when a creature is surprised they just basically don’t take their first turn in combat. So no matter how terribly you roll on initiative, if you surprise them, you still get to act before they do. Now, if you’re very lucky, and you both surprise them and roll really well, you might get to attack them while they’re surprised and then take another turn after they are no longer surprised, which… good for you. I hope things work out. But because the surprised condition essentially robs a creature of its entire turn, surprising your enemies is super powerful. It’s incredibly effective for any party. So if your entire party is doing the thing where like, you walk up to the bad guys and say, Okay, you’re going to monologue, we’re going to say something heroic, and then fisticuffs. Make sure your chaotic neutral Rogue is hiding in the corner to pop out and surprise the bad guys, because all it takes is one. You just have to have one person in the party to surprise the other side. They’re all surprised and your entire party benefits. And mathematically the best way to do that is just have as many of your party members hiding as possible and just hope someone rolls well. Like if you if you can cast Conjure Animals, summon a bunch of bats. Have them hide on the ceiling and as soon as combat starts, bats! Bats fly down from the ceiling! The enemies are surprised! startled! Alarmed! They don’t get their turn and you’ve turned a bunch of CR zero bats into stun the entire enemy side for a turn with no save.
Wait, so I have my gray bag of tricks.
I can take out my grab bag of tricks to turn those into creatures that do what I tell them to
I Can twin spell Dragon’s Breath on those creatures?
And then tell them to hide… And then have a surprise flame thrower ambush.
You sure can!
Well, our track record for describing sessions before they before we execute our plans hasn’t worked great. I did not, in fact, suplex that dragon, but we did perform an unsuccessful fastball special.
It sounded really cool. Everything was going great, right until you failed.
Yes. So if you’re a DM out there and you’re listening and thinking “Oh, no, my players are gonna start summoning bats.” You you very clearly spotted the flaw in the way that surprise rules work in fifth edition. It’s very, very easy to abuse. I don’t have a perfect answer here, unfortunately. So the possible alternative is, if a creature notices any of their enemies, they are not surprised. But that trades one problem for a different problem. So you have your Rogue hiding in the corner. They’re an assassin Rogue. They really want people to be surprised that they can use their assassinate feature and get that free critical hit. Feels great. You want them to have that. But the Paladin and full plate stomped into the room and said “have it you, villain!” and no one is surprised now. So because not everyone in the party was sneaky, you would then say the enemies are not surprised. Realistically the best answer is probably somewhere in the middle between those two extreme options. You could say… essentially, modify the surprised condition. Like, that is probably the best solution here. And say that a creature is surprised or may like one creature to one creature basis. So you could say turn one, big bad evil guy is surprised by the rogue. The big bad evil guy still gets to take their turn because they are aware that there are enemies, but the Rogue treats them as if they were surprised. So you could say big bad evil guys surprised by the Rogue does not get to take reactions that involve the Rogue. And any effect that the Rogue has, like bugbear surprise attack, assassin’s assassinate feature, those things still work on creatures that the character has surprised. Now, this does add some complexity because it’s no longer like a yes/no, it’s like a sometimes gray area. You can just say if a creature is completely surprised by all the enemies, yeah, just uses price condition, they don’t take their turn. Yeah, adding more complexity isn’t always the right choice. But if surprise is going to be a major feature in the game, you want it to work without immediately becoming an abuse case. So either you go for the social fix, and you say, like, look, guys, I’m going to trust you not to summon an army of bats to surprise every encounter, or you go for the mechanical fix. And maybe you sneak in a little bit of extra complexity for when it matters.
Yeah, like you get, you get the bats once every four sessions. And that’s it. I’m gonna put my foot down. I do think I like what you were saying and I want to try to pick it up, and I want to try to tighten it up. What if what you did is you said, Okay, you’re surprised. What character on the other side induced that surprise, that character if they wish, gets to get a, an attack off? You know, gets to use one, one action. And so…
On action. Hm….
So what you’re saying, is they get a round where you’re surprised.
No, no, that’s not what I’m saying. What I’m saying is, we go around the table. Around the table, and we let everybody it’s okay. Did you surprise anybody? You get this, you get this. And then on the flip side, if any of the bad guys had surprised… Okay, bad now, we were doing this. If any of the innocent guards. If you weren’t aware of any of the innocent guards, then they get that attack against you. But it’s basically like, look, there’s only one person who is surprised by you. So do you want to hit them or not? And if there were two or three that you had surprised, you get to pick one of them. But if a creature was not surprised by you, you cannot use that action to target that creature.
I feel like you just reverse engineered the same thing that Tyler went for, but made it harder.
Yeah. The short answer is, like, there isn’t a perfect way to do this. We have never designed an RPG. We have not played tested this suggested variant on the rules. So there’s going to be some rough edges. If you’re looking at the surprise rules as we’ve explained them and like you crack open your Player’s Handbook and go, “this is a problem,” sit down with your group. Talk it out. Maybe have them listen to this episode. And come to something that works for your group. Figure out a way to make surprise meaningful without making it crippling.
Alright, we did it.
We have a question of the week this week. Our question of the week this week comes to us from Twitter @Alexa38326031. @Alexa38326031. If you could make any one rule change to D&D, what would it be?
You can’t have more than two numbers in your name.
What you’re saying is I can’t go all the way up from Katyusha to Ka-24-shya?
No. And also you can only have 42 in your name. So sorry, Xbox.
Oh. Oof. Was that the one S or the 1x? Which one’s better?
No, no, no. The classic gamer tag thing like xx whatever their name is, 420, xx. Like, yeah, cuz like 20 Other people have the same Gamertags. Numbers.
I think you were just making fun of the fact that Xbox can’t count.
Oh, well, they did skip from one to 360, so…
Yeah. Okay, good. So, if you can make any one rule change in DnD, what would it be and why?,
Well, we’ve talked about a lot of rules that I’d like to change in D&D. I would like a complete rewrite on the mounted combat rules. There’s a lot of things that I really, really like in D&D. Most of my issues with it are fairly minor. So just like the systems that just outright don’t work, those need to be fixed. It would be nice if the adventuring day rules were reconsidered. We’ll we’ll talk about this on a later episode. But the D&D combat rules are balanced around the idea that you’re going to have six to eight medium encounters in a day, and I’ve never met a single person who runs a game like that. Unless you are just doing dungeon crawls and your party is like okay, we’re going to count to six before we take a long rest, like, no one does that. It’s an unrealistic expectation. Alright so for me and it… this, like my eyes were really broadened as I went and explored other RPGs after, you know, spending a lot of time growing up in 3.x, dungeon dragons XP system is terrible. It is really bad. Milestone is a little better. And I’m going to give that an upgrade from like a D to a C+. There are so many better options like Final Fantasy Flight seven XP Star Wars FFG. What?
You heard him.
You heard me.
It’s the new competitor to Dungeons the Dragoning.
See, he gets it. Perfect “Yes, and.” God bless. You know, they have a system where basically, as you do things, you get points and you get points not for like having fights you get I mean, some for having fights, but you know, it’s like, how did you participate in that? Alien, again, go read the article, when I write this. Alien is really cool. It’s it has zero things to do with how many fights did you have? How many battles did you solve? It’s basically how in character are you acting? And that’s the only way to get XP. Did you try to fulfill your personal mission at risk or expense to yourself? Good. Have XP. You know, there’s some nuance in there. But that’s functionally how you get XP is just do good roleplay. And they don’t care about combat. I love that.
It’s like, so as you know, more of came in here. And while you were sleeping human. Did you literally bawl yourself, you know, to sleep hoping that it didn’t eat you? You win! Good game.
Yeah, you know.
Like, you were talking about how brutal that combat is? And I have to say, Yeah, of course, because like, I’m gonna go in with a great axe against a xenomorph, and then I’m dead.
Correct! Yeah. So like, that’s, that’s why I say I… XP has been disappointing for a long time, once I realized that there were better options. And just as I’ve seen more and more options, that’s the thing that I mean, man, and you could work to put some of that in. You know, it definitely hails from the time when it was just chainmail plus, and it was all about fighting. But it feels like especially when, you know, maybe this is something we get in a 5.5 or sixth edition. Like, you know, you’re a role playing game. And you’ve been a role playing game for like three editions. Maybe try and… maybe tr and emphasize role playing more.
Meh. Okay, I think mine… controversial isn’t the right word. Unpopular opinion is probably going to be the right word. So let’s party, I hate as a person who primarily plays spellcasters, the one leveled spell per turn.
We’ve talked about this. There are so many reasons not to expand that. Like, spellcasters don’t need the help, man.
I understand what you’re saying. I still say… so, what would I change it to? Right quick, let’s get it out so we can burn the whole thing together.
Maybe like, you can cast another spell at half of the highest spell slot you have available if that’s how your character works, or half of the highest level spell that you know. And pick a fraction. Maybe it’s a third rounded down, something like this. Or maybe you have to burn an additional spell slot or you have to… it cost you something extra to do that second level spell.
Alright right, now, let’s dig in using things that we’ve talked about. Why do you want that?
Why do I want that? Because sometimes I have really cool spells and I’m like, I want to cast this. But then I can’t and I have to do a cantrip. And, like, my cantrips are okay, but I wish they were cooler.
So it sounds like…
I chose poorly on my spell list.
Sounds like maybe the social fix there is, uh… work with your DM to rewrite your spell list.
Yeah, that’s probably true…
Hey, Random and I learned to play on third edition where cantrips were expendable, not unlimited use, and things… your attack cantrips did a d3 damage and never advanced.
If you ran out of spells in a day, congratulations. You can use a crossbow.
Pull out your digger… your dagger and good luck with it. Like, diggers probably more right. Like, let’s get the grave going right now. Okay, here’s the deal. I know I’m wrong. The question was asked. I’ve answered it.
I can’t argue with that.
And now All hail the Leisure Illuminati.
All right. I’m Radnall James. You can find me at AmateurJack.com and on Twitter and Instagram @JackAmateur.
I’m Tyler Kamstra. You’ll find me at RPGBOT.net. Facebook, Twitter and Instagram at RPGBOTDOTNET, and patreon.com/rpgbot
And I’m Random Powell. You will find me desperately looking for an excuse to roll… Oh, I don’t know, arcana for initiative. But generally you’ll find me here contributing to RPGBOT and that both here on the podcast and also articles, including by the time this episode comes out, there should be my new article on the blade singer Wizard that has gone up if I understand how the timeline for this stuff works. So look for that. And in places where people play games, I’m often there as Hartlequin or Hartlequint.
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I was really worried I was gonna roll bad on the initiative at the start of the episode and I was gonna have to put my new into my new dice jail. Look, it’s got bars! It’s great!
That’s where you keep the dice who have misbehaved?
That’s just dice Forec Cage.
I’m gonna need a bigger dice jail.
You sure are, buddy. But hey, if you keep buying dice eventually you’ll get some that roll right.
That’s the gentle jingle jangle of metal dice. So nice!