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I need some advice on how to handle a troublesome situation.

If my PCs are in a tense situation, and an NPC suddenly draws a weapon, should I ask my players to roll for initiative? Is this the most appropriate way to handle the situation?

In this case, the NPC isn't actually going to be hostile, but they don't know that. If I don't have them roll for initiative then they will "know" they aren't in combat. Obviously that's metagaming, but there is no way to avoid that.

By making them roll for initiative, if they win the roll it gives them the opportunity to strike first if they want, which would be a mistake. However, I'm worried it might be seen as misleading them, but it's the only way I know to give them the opportunity to make that mistake.

Also, the situation actually discourages violence because they are vastly out numbered, so I'm hoping that will discourage them from striking first, but I want them to feel thratened by the immediate action.

As a side note, generally when do you roll for initiative? Is doing it when weapons are drawn appropriate? Or is it best done when someone goes to attack?

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I think initiative rolls come after surprise rounds, so the lack of an initiative roll doesn't mean they aren't in combat. Even if that's not an official rule, that's how I rule. – Mooing Duck Apr 8 '14 at 17:48
I have a rule. Always roll. It instills a good sense of paranoia, and you never know when it could be useful. Your first "attack" after initiative could be negotiation. – JoshDM Apr 8 '14 at 21:25
up vote 22 down vote accepted

There are two main situations in which you could call for an initiative roll:

An enemy makes a hostile action

In the situation you described I'm not sure that drawing a sword would call for this. Instead, tell the players what he does and see how they react. If they say "I shoot him!", then you roll. If they say "I attempt diplomacy to calm the situation" then you don't.

  • The enemy says something obviously threatening (e.g. "Prepare to die!" or "Guards, seize them!")
  • The enemy goes to move (e.g. to flee, take cover, grab an item, charge, etc.)
  • The enemy makes an attack (this may be a surprise round if you think it appropriate)

The PC makes a hostile action

Similar to above, this is anything for which the enemy would not just stand by and do nothing.

Here are some scenarios which might make this clear

Casandra is confronting a rival in a dark alley. It is not yet clear if there will be bloodshed or merely threats and a parting of ways.

  1. Casandra runs her hand through her hair (no initiative roll).
  2. Casandra runs her hand through her hair and flings a shuriken which was disguised as a hair clip (surprise round, followed by initiative roll).
  3. Casandra says "If I see you in my territory again I'll cut your throat." (intimidation roll, but no initiative).
  4. Casandra flees (initiative roll if her rival wishes to pursue).
  5. The rival draws a dagger (initiative roll depending on how Casandra reacts, no surprise round).
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Yeah, there's nothing preventing leaving the initiate roll until it's required. – SevenSidedDie Jul 15 '14 at 16:19

The Danger Of Rolling Initiative

There is a danger in asking for initiative when combat is not about to start, and I wish to emphasize it here.

When you ask your PCs to roll initiative, it immediately shifts the tone of an encounter. What may have been a peaceful diplomatic scene instantly becomes focused on turn-based actions, as the PCs begin strategizing how best to use their turn.

Once open combat begins, it's very difficult to de-escalate the encounter. So unless combat becomes a clear inevitability, hold off on rolling initiative until the very last second.

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Good answer. (I do feel the need to point out that this is a matter of player expectations of what initiative means, though; Certainly, many groups do assume that "roll initiative" = "start combat," but not all.) – GMJoe Apr 9 '14 at 4:20

No, you shouldn't

Roll for initiative when all parties are aware of hostile tension between each other.

Your specific situation can be interpreted as a surprise attack. The party which has drawn their weapon(s) has no intention of using them to create a hostile situation. Yet, if your party opens fire, the receiving side would be caught off-guard. You could factor in the fact that weapons are drawn, so there is a possibility that the attack can be defended against, even if the attack is considered a surprise attack. Perhaps not 'flat-foot' the defending party.

When a combat starts, if you are not aware of your opponents and they are aware of you, you're surprised.

Sometimes all the combatants on a side are aware of their opponents, sometimes none are, and sometimes only some of them are. Sometimes a few combatants on each side are aware and the other combatants on each side are unaware.

Determining awareness may call for Perception checks or other checks.

In general, when one party surprises another party with an attack, you can consider it a surprise attack. After all members who have performed a surprise attack have finished their turn, then you roll for initiative.

To get your PCs to react immediately, you could straight-up ask how they respond to the weapon being drawn. That could go several ways:

  • "I nock an arrow on my bow" or "I unsheathe my sword", which would mean they ready themselves for imminent combat, but haven't actually taken an aggressive action; they readied an action. They (instinctively) simultaneously draw their weapons with your NPC, upon which the NPC or his bystanders could voice "Wow, wow, wait up guys... we mean no harm." = crisis averted. Movie-like drug-deal tensions come to mind: One guy pulls out their gun, everyone pulls out their gun, but nobody actually shoots and they talk it out.
  • "I shoot the guy" or "I want to charge at him", which would clearly indicate that your party or that person wants to initiate combat. For this, I would not let them roll for initiative, as you can consider this a surprise attack as explained above. If your party asks you why they don't roll for initiative, simply respond saying that they have caught them off-guard. Hopefully they can figure it out from there...
  • "I wait" or "I ask what's happening" (in character), which would indicate your desired situation. They do not act hostile upon the weapon being drawn, and given that the NPC actually means no harm, no combat would commence, and no initiative roll is required at all.

It could also help to have them discuss internally, and only ask the party leader (if they have one) for a definitive answer or action response. To take the drug-deal example of above, in this 'impasse' type of situation, the henchmen usually don't take it upon themselves to start shooting because of the consequences in hierarchy (if they survive the impasse). Let the leader NPC and the party leader talk while everyone has drawn their weapons in such a tense situation.

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I see what you're saying, but if I don't roll for initiative, how do I get my PCs to react immediately rather than doing nothing and waiting for me to continue describing what happens. "He draws his sword..." "ok.." "What do you do?" ".." – Jain_Mor Apr 8 '14 at 10:21
Because I need some space to respond to your comment, I have added it as an edit to my answer. – Marc Dingena Apr 8 '14 at 10:42
I don't think PF lets you prepare actions outside the initiative sequence. Does it? I think the only advantage of unsheating weapons is not needing to unsheat them after combat starts. – Zachiel Apr 8 '14 at 10:50
Cheers, I think you're right and answers my question. Asking them to roll initiative would probably be misleading like I thought. – Jain_Mor Apr 8 '14 at 11:07

I think initiative checks are vastly underused. I think that the DM should

Roll Initiative Early & Roll Initiative Often

If you're the DM and following the advice below, be absolutely clear with your players that initiative checks are commonplace before the campaign begins!

Pigeonholing initiative to actual combat instead of potential conflict needlessly removes a valuable DM tool for adjudicating the order of actions. Initiative should be rolled whenever the order in which participants take their actions is important. The DM can liberally define battle as conflict then call for initiative checks for everyday, non-adventuring occurrences that involve any kind of conflict.

The DM can call for initiative checks when...

  • one or more creatures whose intentions are unknown approach another creature (e.g. "The city watch approaches your position; make initiative checks").
  • one or more unknown creatures merely approach another creature (e.g. "The froghemoth wades through the muck toward you; make initiative checks").
  • one or more creature enter another creature's line of sight (e.g. "A farmer leading a cart on which is a cage containing a single penguin rounds the corner; make initiative checks").
  • two or more creatures have the opportunity to cause the same event (e.g. "Everyone has a bomb, but there's only one penguin; make initiative checks").
  • two or more creatures have the opportunity to prevent to the same event (e.g. "The timer says it's 12 second before the penguin explodes; make initiative checks").
  • an unanticipated event occurs (e.g. "The penguin explodes; make initiative checks").

This means the DM can ask for initiative checks when an urchin (street not sea) in town approaches the PCs, begging for money, and the PCs can whip out their weapons and murder the poor orphan before he's even said, "Please, sir." Or they could, y'know, delay and see what he wants. Or they could ready an action in case he's a pickpocket... or a disguised assassin. The world is a dangerous place. PCs fight shapechangers, teleporting wizards, ghosts, and other unspeakable evils--they're allowed to be always on guard. Potential conflict is everywhere.

Of course, a DM would be foolish, time-consuming, and metagamy to call for initiative checks all the time, but the PCs should be aware that drawing a weapon isn't any more of an indication that actual combat's going to take place than a snarky comment from a vagrant or a seductive glance from a hottie across the room, but PCs should also be aware that all of these can be signs of potential conflict which often requires the DM to impose some kind of order on the world. One of the tools the DM has for imposing that order is initiative checks.

The DM should ask questions like, "Are you wary of the creature?" or, "Do you think something's going to happen?" and if the answer's Yes then call for initiative checks, but insist that combat needn't ensue. Make the player, not you, responsible for the conflict. If both the PC and the creature are aware of each other, and the potential for conflict exists, the battle has started, just no one's fighting... yet.

Initiative isn't an excuse but a tool.

Your Situation

You asked, "If my PCs are in a tense situation, and an NPC suddenly draws a weapon, should I ask my players to roll for initiative?" To which I say No. Instead you should've had the parties involved make initiative checks when the tense situation began, before weapons came out... and then even if they never come out. The battle started when things got tense and both sides are aware of each other, so initiative should've been determined then. You probably should keep numbers secret until hostile actions are taken, though.

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+1 this is the answer I support. Paranoia to commonplace, baby! – JoshDM Apr 8 '14 at 21:25
But isn't the problem with that, that if you roll initiative when ANYTHING happens, you ruin the rogues sneak attack opportunity when combat actually starts? – Jain_Mor Apr 10 '14 at 8:50
The rogue can still just attack, like anyone else, and he'll have more opportunities to do so. The worst way for the rogue to get sneak attack damage is by winning initiative. – Hey I Can Chan Apr 10 '14 at 12:17
If you roll initiative while people are tense but still just talking, then you haven't actually rolled initiative at all, you've instead rendered initiative completely irrelevant for that encounter. Because people will ready actions to attack, and the order of results depends solely on who chooses what conditions to ready for, and not at all on anyone's reflex speed. Or if they don't use readied actions, then the first attack is automatically given to whichever side chooses to escalate to violence, even if no one is surprised by the escalation. – topquark Dec 6 '15 at 2:10
@topquark Speaking remains a free action that can be taken off-turn. That said, the technique suggested here (over a year ago, by the way--my stance has since softened) is to encourage the PCs to view things as possibly hostile more often. The problem with the game is exactly as you describe: When two sides are aware of each other, there's no surprise round. By rolling initiative more often, the PCs are made aware that there are non-allies within striking distance and they or the PCs could be hostile, but nobody must be (which is usually the case when initiative is rolled). – Hey I Can Chan Dec 6 '15 at 2:28

I'm pretty sure this hasn't changed from D&D 3.5 to Pathfinder. If it has in some way I could not realize, I'm sure someone who's more expert can tell me and I'll change my reply accordingly.

In 3.PF games, you roll for initiative when someone does something aggressive and noticeable*.
Let's say your party meets some guards, who unsheathe their swords but do not intend to attack (yet). They just want to be ready if they need to attack or defend.

So they unsheathe their weapons and you tell that to your players. You also tell them they are not immediately hostile, so to prevent your party attacking because of your miscommunication only.
Do they see this as an hostile act? They will probably announce they want to attack, or maybe they want to be cautious and ask why the unsheathing. You keep playing the game, back and forth, as if they were talking to any other non-hostile NPC. These npcs just have their swords out and won't need to unsheathe if combat begins.

Once someone declares its intention to attack, then you roll initiative. It doesn't matter who's starting the fight, whoever wins initiative notices the intention and can react before the actual attack takes place. Remeber that in the fiction all turns happen simultaneously and initiative is just a matter of a few milliseconds. partyman A decides the guards are hostile and wants to charge guard B. Guard C notices and attacks A, preventing him to charge B. A's turn, A is not forced to try and lose the charge, because something happened meanwhile and now he can react to the new situation.

I've had a lot of bickering with players stating that until A acted nobody was aware of the situation so B could only delay (making it so everyone who wanted to act won initiative automatically), but by a close reading of initiative rules (which are not so clear on this very point) and by seeing what other DMs did and how that would ruin the advantage of winning initiative, I've since them used the procedure I've explained earlier. It works and it's not against the rules, despite there being some space to interpret things differently.

*If you activate some spell and nobody notices, and it's not immediately harmful to anyone, well, my compliments, you start your encounter with your spell active.

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