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As a fairly new DM, one thing that has commonly occurred in my sessions so far is my PC's starting combat outside of initiative. For example after a telepathic conversation with a Nothic was going south, my Rogue said 'I shoot him with my shortbow'. At the time I wasn't sure of the correct ruling for this situation so I allowed him to attack and then rolled initiative to start the combat proper. I ensured that the Nothic wasn't surprised though as it was clear that these were two hostile forces trying to work each other out.

Coming away from the session I knew this wasn't right and wanted to get the official answer before next time. I came across this question What happens when initiative allows a player to act before the player that started the combat?. The accepted answer here as per RAW is that after the Rogue announced his attack, everyone should roll initiative and if anyone of the party go before the Rogue, then they will just move and ready an action. However I don't like the sound of this as I believe it takes a bit away from the players agency of quick-drawing an attack before the other side has a chance to respond.

Therefore my idea is as follows. In this situation again, the Rogue attacks and then everyone rolls initiative. Then in the turn order, the Rogue skips this 'turn' in the first round as they have already taken it at the top of the 'round'. After the first round the Rogue's turn then falls back into place depending on their initiative roll.

My question. Is this balanced and practical? I know that as DM I have the authority to have this as a house rule. But I wanted to make sure that this is not over-powered and that it is not in conflict with any spells/feats/abilities etc. Will it work?

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    \$\begingroup\$ Re the question you linked: it sounds like you only read the top answer. That’s not necessarily the best answer for *you*—or even the most correct one. At least one of the answers there matches your house rule. \$\endgroup\$ – SevenSidedDie Jul 20 '18 at 16:47
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    \$\begingroup\$ I'd say if someone declares they wish to attack, you have everyone roll initiative. Then, compare the declarer's initiative result to the other combatants' passive insight check. Those that fail the passive insight don't recognize this guy is about to attack, and are thus surprised that round. Then you go by initiative after that. \$\endgroup\$ – Iter Jul 21 '18 at 20:31
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However I don't like the sound of this as I believe it takes a bit away from the players agency of quick-drawing an attack before the other side has a chance to respond.

Declaring an intent to perform a hostile action, mechanically, is not "quick-drawing an attack". Quick-drawing an attack is achieved through superior initiative. Allowing a player to narratively circumvent initiative devalues all initiative-increasing character options.

Consider instead a situation where you have a rogue in the party who is optimized for high initiative, but it is the slow-moving cleric with an initiative penalty who declares the hostile action. Should the quick-witted rogue have an opportunity to execute an action before the cleric?

Also consider that adversaries play by the same rules. Imagine a scenario where the rogue is negotiating the surrender of an orc warlord, and the orc spontaneously decides it would be better to just kill the rogue, and attacks. How does this house-rule impact player agency in this situation? [my rogue player would argue that it restricts it]

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    \$\begingroup\$ "Allowing a player to narratively circumvent initiative devalues all initiative-increasing character options." That's not necessarily a bad thing. But what we'd like is to narratively circumvent initiative by doing something interesting and risky. Setting up an ambush, for example, requires some creativity and can go wrong in exciting ways. \$\endgroup\$ – Mark Wells Jul 20 '18 at 20:38
  • \$\begingroup\$ @MarkWells agreed. Such an effort would probably lead to surprise if successful, which I think is outside the scope of this house rule. I'll clarify. \$\endgroup\$ – starchild Jul 20 '18 at 20:41
  • \$\begingroup\$ @Mark Wells And it doesn't circumvent initiative. It uses mechanics (stealth vs perception) and initiative to decide the result of the player's choices. A character that has been made Invisible, has been given Without a Trace, and used Hide in Plain Sight would be very prepared and have a great change at getting the drop on their quarry \$\endgroup\$ – Luke Jul 23 '18 at 2:46
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You don't need to house-rule this. Just roll initiative - if anyone acts before the rogue then they saw the rogue move (or guessed that they would) and got in there first. If you think the rogue really did surprise people then...that's what surprise is for... and you have a surprise round with just the rogue and follow that with normal initiative. Targets have reflexes too, and pulling out your bow and aiming it takes time.

The problem with your house rule is that you're noticeably devaluing initiative since in most cases initiative only really matters in the first round. It determines who gets to act first. Instead now you have set up a situation where the slowest person in the party just say "I run in and chop off his head" or "I move to defend the mage" and suddenly their terrible initiative stat doesn't matter since they've already got to move ignoring it.

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    \$\begingroup\$ There are no surprise rounds in 5e. There is a first round of combat, during which creatures may be surpised. \$\endgroup\$ – Clearly Toughpick Aug 20 '18 at 6:18
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Assassins

The main unbalancing thing I can see is that if your Rogue chooses to take the Assassin archetype, this house-rule may ensure that they go first in any given combat, which their Assassinate class feature can take advantage of .

Assassinate

Starting at 3rd level, you have advantage on attack rolls against any creature that hasn't taken a turn in the combat yet. In addition, any hit you score against a creature that is surprised is a critical hit. (PHB, pg. 97)

This means that the Rogue will always get advantage on their first turn (after the other party members have engaged, it's easy enough for the Rogue to find a way to get advantage again in subsequent rounds).

Also, see this question about surprise; this house-rule ensure they always succeed their crit attack (unless they roll really badly), which it appears would not necessarily happen RAW (going by J.E.'s answer).

That said, unless this starts causing a problem that impacts other player's fun (including yours as DM), it might make the Assassin player feel really cool that they can take people out like that, making the ensuing fight easier for the party. So it depends on how it plays out as to whether this is actually problem or not.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Good catch, if you are house ruling initiative like that you might want to house rule assassin as well. simple change of "hasn't taken their turn" to "those who have lower initiative" would solve part of the problem if limited to first round of combat, without effecting too much. \$\endgroup\$ – FenrirG Jul 20 '18 at 12:54
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In the first place, this house-rule is unnecessary

Either follow the usual initiative rules, or give the Rogue advantage to the initiative roll.

There are advantage/disadvantage mechanics in 5e that is supposed to be used at DM's discretion:

The DM can also decide that circumstances influence a roll in one direction or the other and grant advantage or impose disadvantage as a result.

Before introducing a whole new house-rule to the table, think about these things:

  1. What problem are you trying to solve using this house-rule?
  2. Can this problem be solved ad-hoc via DM's adjudication?
  3. Can this problem be solved using existing rules?
  4. Would this house-rule cause other balancing problems?

In your question you ask for point 4, but you're neglecting points 2-3 in the process. Apparently, you can easily adjudicate the described situation (and similar ones) without inventing new rules for your players.

a Nothic was going south, my Rogue said 'I shoot him with my shortbow'

The key difference between initiative and surprised mechanics is the difference between speed and readiness, between being simply faster than your enemy and catching the enemy flat-footed.

Shooting a crossbow is not an instant action, it requires a few seconds. When the Rogue is preparing his shot, time is not frozen. That's why all the combatants are supposed to roll for initiative as well.

The questions is — did the Nothic expect the attack? If it did not, it was surprised. In terms of mechanics, there is not much difference between "Rogue attacks, then everyone rolls initiative" and "everyone rolls initiative, then only not surprised combatants (read "Rogue") act". Use normal rules for surprise.

According to the PHB, in the beginning of a combat the DM have to decide, who is surprised. Game designers distinguish between "surprised" and "met a hidden enemy" though:

Q: Is a creature alsways “hidden” against a “surprised” enemy?

A: not always - sudden betrayal, for instance. surprise but not hidden

Sage Advice, Mike Mearls's twitter

If the Nothic expected the attack tho, let him roll for initiative too. If the rogue wins — he was fast enough, he gets his shot. If the Nothic wins — it has a chance to escape or retaliate proactively.

If other player gets higher initiative — ask him/her on their turn: "the Rogue is loading his crossbow and aiming it to the Nothic. What do you do?".

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  • \$\begingroup\$ I started to write an answer and realized it matched yours pretty much point for point. I abandoned my answer and upvoted yours. Could you consider if adding a few subheadings or a summary at the top might make the answer easier to read? \$\endgroup\$ – Jack Jul 21 '18 at 16:29
  • \$\begingroup\$ @Jack Tim B already has this point tho rpg.stackexchange.com/a/127815/27377 \$\endgroup\$ – enkryptor Jul 21 '18 at 17:56
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It looks balanced.

"Play first on a round instead of initiative order on the first round" Is something I've done before against my players. When they get ambushed, with or without surprise* the enemies play first and then all the players in initiative order on the first round. This can make an encounter harder than it should be so takes a little balancing for encounter building.

Doing this for the first character that wants to initiate combat should be fairly balanced. Just remember it might work the same for their enemies if they are in a reversed situation.

The logic behind the RAW initiative is that when you want to make a move to attack/start combat higher initiative characters react to you before you can complete your action(play your turn). So if they are surprised they can't react as fast and initiative matters little.

This rule here would assume everyone has something like a quickdraw skill that lets them act before anyone can react, regardless of surprise.

Additional benefit of this would be that the flow of gameplay will probably pause less:

Okay, everyone roll initiative while Bob the Impatient makes his attacks.


*: This is a further imbalance for surprise as having higher initiative to go before attackers is advantageous when surprised.

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    \$\begingroup\$ FWIW there are other game systems that explicitly do it this way; ie that the first character to aggress just goes first period, and things flow from there. Seems to work and is fun. \$\endgroup\$ – Paul Jul 20 '18 at 12:25
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    \$\begingroup\$ It works so long as nobody can use their uncontested first move to get an overwhelming advantage. If Bob the Impatient can fireball the entire enemy platoon before they act, just by being more impatient, that's a major shift in game balance. \$\endgroup\$ – Mark Wells Jul 21 '18 at 19:03
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Compared to surprise, this makes first strikes much easier.

If the player just says "I pull out my bow and shoot him really fast before he can respond", then they're trusting in their character's general quickness, and rolling for initiative already models that.

The canonical rule for being able to go first because you took the initiative is Surprise, which requires the one making the surprise attack to win a skill contest (Stealth vs. Perception).

With that rule as a guideline, giving someone a first strike should require them to earn some kind of situational advantage, in a way that has a risk of failure. This could be taking an ambush position (Stealth), or spotting the enemy from further off (Perception), or approaching while in disguise (Deception). (In this case, did the Nothic also realize that negotiations were breaking down? That should be an Insight check.) But it shouldn't be automatic.

Your house rule effectively lets anyone get a first strike, at the cost of missing their next turn. That's not a big problem when it's a rogue getting to shoot an arrow. It will be a much bigger problem when the warlock decides he's going to initiate every combat by casting Hunger of Hadar.

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    \$\begingroup\$ "which requires the one making the surprise attack to win a skill contest (Stealth vs. Perception)" — this is not exactly true. Stealth vs. Perception is the attack from ambush scenario, it is not the only one when surprised condition can be applicable. \$\endgroup\$ – enkryptor Jul 20 '18 at 21:30
  • \$\begingroup\$ The surprise rules talk about rolling Stealth vs. Perception. I agree that in practice there are many ways to achieve surprise. \$\endgroup\$ – Mark Wells Jul 20 '18 at 22:37
  • \$\begingroup\$ I didn't say you were wrong. There is indeed a rule involving the Stealth vs. Perception check. But it is not the only one possible scenario. In the first place, the PHB says "DM determines surprise". Is says this several times. See for example "If the adventurers encounter a hostile creature or group, the DM determines whether the adventurers or their foes might be surprised when combat erupts." In the end of the day, it is up to the DM, while the DM should use not only the Players' Handbook. \$\endgroup\$ – enkryptor Jul 20 '18 at 22:47
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This works fine

What we do is let the thing that starts the combat happen and then roll initiative, allowing for high-initiative characters that initiate combat to sometimes act twice in a row, even without surprise. (e.g. "I kick in the door", "I smash the car through the storefront, guns blazing", "I stab him in the kidney as we move together for the kiss", but not "I shoot from the hip", "I charge through the door and attack the first orc I see").

We have played dozens of separate games this way, with maybe a hundred combined sessions. It works fine. There are no problems. It fixes a genuine issue with the default initiative system.

Your proposed system is almost identical, except that theoretically the change in balance is even less, at the cost of some added complexity. The complexity might be a problem (I don't know, I haven't tried it), but it is certainly not unbalancing in any serious way. It just makes it possible to ambush people sensibly instead of only in a weirdly ineffective manner that highlights several underdeveloped aspects of the system (see e.g. If an attack alerts someone to your presence, can their initiative save them from being surprised in time?).

That said, ordinarily, I wouldn't allow "I shoot it with my shortbow" as a starting combat thing. If, mid-dialogue, a player wanted to draw and fire a bow, I'd let them draw it as the thing that triggered initiative and explain that to the other involved parties (e.g. "John grabs an arrow from his quiver and moves to attack with his bow. The Nothic, seeing this, immediately turns hostile. Roll initiative"). If, however, the player had notched and drawn an arrow beforehand, and was having a conversation at bowpoint, I'd rule differently.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ I'm a bit confused by your list of examples in the first paragraph. Maybe I'm misparsing something, but it reads to me like you're claiming that a character getting stabbed in the kidney when they were expecting a kiss would not be surprised at your table. I know for sure I would be. \$\endgroup\$ – Ilmari Karonen Jul 21 '18 at 8:49
  • \$\begingroup\$ @IlmariKaronen It's supposed to be the first three are yes you go first then combat, the last two (after "but not" ) are no, initiative then combat. Can edit to make more clear? \$\endgroup\$ – the dark wanderer Jul 21 '18 at 22:51

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