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This is a follow-up question I had after reading the accepted answer in this related question.

A player is talking to an NPC and then decides to stab the NPC. Let's assume the tension is high enough that the NPC isn't "surprised" (they "noticed the threat").

The DM will ask for an initiative roll before the stabbing can take place, and the player will have to wait their turn in initiative before they can stab. At least that was the accepted (and most highly voted and undisputed) answer in the above linked question.

Let's say the NPC rolls a higher initiative than the player.

I can see two ways this could be ruled, but I don't know which is the "correct" one:

  • The NPC had the higher initiative, so they are first in combat. The DM narrates that the NPC saw the PC readying their weapon, so the NPC decides to act accordingly (dodge, attack first, disengage and run, whatever...)
  • The NPC had the higher initiative, so they are first in combat. However, they have no reason to be hostile yet, because the player has yet to attack. The NPC will use their turn resuming whatever they were doing before (most likely speaking to the PC)

Personally, I would tend to do the latter, seeing how in the other combat rounds we don't assume the characters can foresee the actions that happen in the round after their turn in initiative, but I'm not sure.

It might even get a bit more complicated even when the roles are reversed (as players are tipped of by the initiative roll, while the player character might not be)

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11 Answers 11

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Intent is not execution

I think the issue here is a disconnect between intent and execution. You might say "I'm done with this, Reynald pulls a dagger and stabs him, sneak attack." But that's not the execution of the action, that's only a declaration of what your character is going to try to do, and the dice rolls are going to determine whether it actually happens the way you said.

So how does that square with the enemy getting initiative and going first? Actually, it's simple: the shift from "argument" to "attempted murder" isn't necessarily caused by a dagger sliding between his ribs. Instead, that change in intent is as subtle or as telegraphed as the dice indicate. If the target wins initiative and gets to react before you attack, that's not reversing causality to react before the trigger; rather, that means something happened that tipped your hand too soon (or your opponent is just that fast).

You sort of skimmed past stating that the enemy isn't surprised, but that's a key point. If the transition from hostile argument to violence went unnoticed by the opponent, then you would have a surprise round, and you'd get your first strike even if your initiative was lagging. The fact that you didn't get a surprise round tells me that either something happened that let the other guy know you were going for your blade, or things were so tense already that he was prepared for you to throw down at any moment, and in either case that starts to explain the situation.

In any case, when the enemy wins initiative over you after you declare a sudden attack, it could mean your PC pulled a knife, but the target saw it before you could come in for the stab and got their weapon out faster (whether you were trying to be subtle and didn't realize you got spotted, or you were trying for speed and the target is just quicker than you, like a spaghetti western shootout). It could mean they saw your face change, or just sensed the surge of murderous intent like the hero in a Kung Fu movie, and knew instinctively that you had just decided to kill. It might mean that while your intent was an ambush, your character lost their cool and screamed, "THIS IS FOR MY FATHER!", which ruined the surprise.

As with many scenarios in D&D, the dice are telling you what actually happens, and it's up to your creativity to explain how that came about.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Thanks! I'm not 100% happy that this means a DEX skill check (that's what initiative is) determines whether a character keeps their cool, but I think this comes as close to a satisfying answer as I'm going to get. \$\endgroup\$
    – RHS
    Aug 17, 2021 at 15:52
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    \$\begingroup\$ That's entirely fair, and represents a limitation of the system. In some systems, "cool" is actually a separate skill based on mental fortitude, which acts as initiative when you're trying to launch a surprise attack. Really what I'm getting at, though, is that Initiative tells you who's faster to start acting; then it's up to you to determine what the reason for that is. One of the possible reasons is your character deciding to take a moment to posture and declaim rather than getting on with the stabbity bit. If that doesn't square with your character, then don't describe it like that. \$\endgroup\$ Aug 17, 2021 at 16:03
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    \$\begingroup\$ @RHS, if the character has a lower DEX than their target, they could easily fumble the dagger a bit when trying to draw, giving their target ample time to react since they can clearly see what's coming. They didn't lose their cool, they're just not as quick and smooth in their motions as they wish they were, which is very appropriate for a DEX check. \$\endgroup\$
    – Seth R
    Aug 17, 2021 at 19:14
  • \$\begingroup\$ +1 to @SethR's comment; failing a DEX check and your character screaming about vengeance don't match up, so as DM you should come up with something which is relevant; maybe they shimmy back quickly so you miss or only scratch them (they won the dex roll), maybe you stumble slightly as you move forwards, maybe (if you rolled a 1) you entirely drop the dagger and have to pick it up again, or cut yourself as you draw it and yelp in pain. The dice tell you what happened, but you can describe how it happened \$\endgroup\$
    – Joe
    Aug 18, 2021 at 11:01
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    \$\begingroup\$ The way I phrase it is that Initiative is the order that actions are resolved, not necesssarily started. \$\endgroup\$ Aug 19, 2021 at 21:39
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They noticed the threat.

Your second bullet simply does not fit the situation you have described. It says:

The NPC had the higher initiative, so they are first in combat. However, they have no reason to be hostile yet, because the player has yet to attack. The NPC will use their turn resuming whatever they were doing before (most likely speaking to the PC)

But when you were setting up the situation, you stated:

Let's assume the tension is high enough that the NPC isn't "surprised" (they "noticed the threat").

If I am tuned in enough to not be surprised that you have stabbed me in the stomach, then you have already given me every reason to be hostile. If you are ruling that a character is not surprised when an action initiates combat, then winning initiative means they are quick enough to react to the threat before they are actually stabbed. Your first bullet is correct:

The NPC had the higher initiative, so they are first in combat. The DM narrates that the NPC saw the PC readying their weapon, so the NPC decides to act accordingly (dodge, attack first, disengage and run, whatever...)

This is essentially repeating how you set up the scenario. They noticed the threat of hostile action and may act accordingly if they are quick enough (win initiative).

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  • \$\begingroup\$ Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. \$\endgroup\$
    – V2Blast
    Feb 24 at 19:32
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Initiative and combat rounds are an abstraction

Heroes and monsters in the imagined world aren't static statues not moving, reacting, or attacking when it's not their turn; they're constantly moving, probing, looking to gain the higher ground, etc. Initiative reflects the first chance to make a successful attack, attacks/round represent the numbers of chances that a character gets. Each actor is presumed to be swinging their weapon more than once every six seconds (can you imagine how silly that would look?).

So when the character who starts the combat doesn't act first all that means is that the opponents were alert enough that the attack doesn't create an opportunity to do real damage. Perhaps the PC pulled their sword and swung it, but the opponent stepped easily out of the way before countering, maybe the PC telegraphed their action and the NPC reacted before they could move.

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    \$\begingroup\$ To me that is the best answer. I will not post my own answer as I am in total agreeance with this one. upvote. \$\endgroup\$ Aug 18, 2021 at 15:04
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You mean, like this?

The Good, the Bad and the Ugly

Yes, the higher initiative character reacts faster so they complete their action before the lower initiative character completes theirs. It doesn't matter where you start: it only matters where you finish. In this case, Angel Eyes draws first, Blondie shoots first. Or, in D&D terms, Angel Eyes initiates combat, Blondie wins initiative.

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    \$\begingroup\$ I would have said the "Han shot first" clip from Star Wars would be a better fit. Greedo initiated combat by trying to shoot Han Solo, but Han rolled higher initiative, and actually shot Greedo first. The narrative says Greedo was the aggressor, but mechanically Han shot first! \$\endgroup\$
    – RHS
    Aug 17, 2021 at 11:41
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    \$\begingroup\$ Personally, I think this should be the canonical example of a three way standoff. \$\endgroup\$ Aug 17, 2021 at 12:41
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    \$\begingroup\$ @RHS not at all. In the unedited version, Han surprised Greedo because Greedo made the fatal mistake of not keeping Han’s hands where he could see them. The edited version makes no sense - even a stormtrooper couldn’t miss from that distance. \$\endgroup\$
    – Dale M
    Aug 17, 2021 at 22:40
  • \$\begingroup\$ @DaleM I see. I'm not a Star Wars fan, so I only knew it from the memes. I was under the impression the version where Greedo shot first was the original one. \$\endgroup\$
    – RHS
    Aug 18, 2021 at 9:14
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There is no need to overthink this. This is amply covered by "How to play" section of the PHB Introduction chapter:

  1. The DM describes the environment.
  2. The players describe what they want to do.
  3. The DM narrates the results of the adventurers’ actions.

At 2, player describes that they try to make a surprise attack with their dagger.

At 3, you have said that DM determines there is no surprise, so I can think of two options for them to say, which would fit the situation of no surprise:

  • "You draw your dagger, and now have it in your hand, ready to strike, but they were expecting it! Roll for Initiative."
  • "You reach for your dagger, but they were expecting it, and spring to action too. Roll for Initiative."

Rules don't have much guidance on which of these choices the DM should choose. While in initiative, drawing a weapon would be part of the attack, but this action started before the battle, so the DM is free to decide, or ask for some rolls.

Rest should unfold normally. It is the NPCs turn, so the DM looks at the situation, thinks of how to role-play the NPC, and decides what they do. There are many good options, depending if you have dagger in your hand or not. Especially if you don't have a weapon yet, a diplomatic NPC might draw their weapon and Ready an attack if you draw yours and say "Don't even think about it!". A bloodthirsty NPC would just attack with glee. A cautious/scared NPC would take Dash, Dodge or Disengage action and move away. If they are strong, they might grapple or shove you. Spells might be an option for them. And so on.

This is really no different from if the roles were reversed. If the NPC initiated the sequence, a player would have the same options and more. My personal lament is, that often it's just "attack attack attack", both from player and DM side, and all the other interesting options are forgotten.

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I believe that the answer by Thomas Markov is essentially correct, but there is another way to handle the situation according to the initiative and surprise rules that might be interesting here.

Let's say there is a tense and hostile scene unfolding during the session but it seems like violence is an escalation that is still unexpected.

When combat is initiated by one of the PC characters,

The GM determines who might be surprised

It makes sense that while a general hostility is clear, an escalation to direct violence is surprising. In that situation, you could just let everyone roll initiative but rule that everyone who is involved in the scene but the aggressor PC is surprised by the escalation, including other player characters.

I have had a lot of success with resolving certain situations this way, as it:

  • allows a smooth transition between roleplay and combat
  • allows the group to interact with the surprise rules which in my games don't often come up
  • this solution often sparked great roleplay and character development down the road when the rest of the party gets to react and talk to each other about how the situation unfolded because of one of the characters taking rash action.
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  • \$\begingroup\$ This is actually how I used to rule it, but the most upvoted, accepted, and undisputed answer in the issue I linked, suggested that if the NPC can see the PC and the PC isn't being "stealthy" there is no reason for surprise. That's what prompted my question. \$\endgroup\$
    – RHS
    Aug 17, 2021 at 11:25
  • \$\begingroup\$ @RHS I don't think it is applicable for every situation, but just because there is heated argument happening, it does not mean that people are automatically aware of a threat of being stabbed so in my opinion surprise could very well be applicable. \$\endgroup\$
    – Deeps
    Aug 17, 2021 at 11:35
  • \$\begingroup\$ I think this makes sense if the target is truly unaware of the potential escalation (not a wise assumption with most adventuring parties :P). But I would be concerned about setting a precedent of "whoever talks first acts first." There have been a few questions on here about groups with that mentality constantly talking over each other. \$\endgroup\$
    – MJD
    Aug 17, 2021 at 23:23
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    \$\begingroup\$ @MJD I wouldn't frame things like "setting a precedent". Each situation is unique and players should not expect all NPCs to be the same and react the same way. That is why I mentioned that this is only one of the viable options of resolution. I didn't want to reiterate what the one answers laid out well already. But I agree that when using an approach like this, it's a good idea to make sure the group doesn't develop an unhealthy approach to encounters in general. \$\endgroup\$
    – Deeps
    Aug 18, 2021 at 5:23
  • \$\begingroup\$ this is RAI at best and likely RAF. not as per the rule as written. \$\endgroup\$ Aug 18, 2021 at 15:07
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Other answers have already explained the simple, RAW way to handle this, but I want to offer an alternate way of handling this kind of situation, as it came up for my group recently.

I decided to initiate combat during dialogue by punching an NPC who was expecting trouble but not actively hostile yet. I was fourth in initiative, after 2 Enemies and 1 other PC.

The DM decided, the enemies would not be surprised, but had me roll a sleight of hand check to conceal my movements below my cloak. I succeeded on the check and got to roll a single attack before the start of initiative. Afterwards the combat ran as normal. Had i failed this check, i would not have gotten the first attack, as the enemies would have noticed my movement and reacted according to initiative.

Also, because it was not readily apparent that we were all a single group the enemies did not attack those PCs that had not acted yet.

So to answer your question: RAW, you just go by initiative, but in my experience it works well to allow the opening attack to happen outside of initiative, espcecially if balanced out by the need to make an ability check beforehand, so it doesn't work everytime and is reliant on the DM judging it possible.

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Initiative is rolled when something happens that makes combat begin. If there isn't surprise, then the thing that happened is presumed to be noticed by every party in combat.

If you draw your dagger and try to stab them, initiative might occur when your expression makes it obvious you are about to attack, when your hand goes to your dagger, when you draw your dagger or even when you start to swing your dagger.

Then you roll initiative. Whomever has the highest result and isn't surprised gets to react to this situation, which includes whatever triggered the start of combat.

If there is nothing that would trigger the start of combat before the first blow fell, then this is a case of surprise.

And yes, this might mean that in the time it takes you to stab, the foe might move right around you and kill the princess standing behind you before you get to complete your attack.

At what point, exactly, combat begins is up to the DM. But it should be a state where it is clear that combat has begun for everyone.

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Initiative assumes symmetry.

You're right that, if you decide to pull out a dagger and stab a dude in the middle of a conversation, and this leads to him stabbing you first, that's kind of counterintuitive.

But it's worth keeping in mind here that the NPC might also want to attack. I assume that tension and hostility are building in your conversation--something's motivating you to get all stabby, after all. The other guy can pick up on that too. He doesn't have to stand there and wait for you to make a move, and then say "Oh, wait, if you're going to attack me, then I want to do this other thing first." Initiative decides who initiates. The normal initiative roll assumes that, except for natural differences in quickness and reaction time, everyone's on an equal footing--everyone is equally willing to initiate. And so, all else being equal, half the time he should be the one waving the knife in your face.

Now there may be some reason for him not to initiate--maybe he's distracted, or averse to violence, or thinks this is a regular job interview and doesn't know you're an armed maniac. The D&D rules are designed for the typical adventuring situation in which most everyone you deal with can plainly see that you're an armed maniac, and many of them are too. But if the group agrees that something puts this guy at a disadvantage in taking the initiative, there's a readily available mechanic to represent that--it's called "disadvantage on initiative".

If he really has no chance to act first, then the mechanic to use is surprise. However, that's kind of heavy-handed, especially when you get to characters whose first move may be some kind of debilitating spell instead of a mere knife in the ribcage.

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If I start combat by making an attack, does a high-initiative enemy see it coming?

Starting an encounter follows the order of combat.

COMBAT STEP-BY-STEP

  1. Determine surprise. The DM determines whether anyone involved in the combat encounter is surprised.
  2. Establish positions. The DM decides where all the characters and monsters are located. Given the adventurers' marching order or their stated positions in the room or other location, the DM figures out where the adversaries are--how far away and in what direction.
  3. Roll initiative. Everyone involved in the combat encounter rolls initiative, determining the order of combatants' turns.
  4. Take turns. Each participant in the battle takes a turn in initiative order.
  5. Begin the next round. When everyone involved in the combat has had a turn, the round ends. Repeat step 4 until the fighting stops.

Making an attack doesn't happen until step 4. I think what you are actually asking is,

How do I transition from a social encounter to a combat encounter when a player decides to stab an NPC?

There are no specials rules, so you should follow the same procedure.

Let's assume the tension is high enough that the NPC isn't "surprised" (they "noticed the threat").

You have determined no one is surprised, and since

The DM determines who might be surprised. If neither side tries to be stealthy, they automatically notice each other.

However, from the question's title, and your assumption of option 2, it sounds like the NPC was surprised. Just because tensions are high doesn't necessarily mean people are prepared. Are they just emotional, or are they watching carefully, noticing signs of an impending attack? (Weight shifting on their feet, furtive glances looking for an opportunity...)

What you describe in option 2 is mechanically similar to surprise; where the NPC's turn comes up first in initiative order, but the NPC is surprised and unable to act.

Just because both sides can see each other, in a social encounter one could be surprised if they weren't anticipating violence. Perhaps a Wisdom(Insight) vs Charisma (Deception) or Dexterity (Sleight of Hand) might be a good method to determine if the NPC is surprised.

As other answers mention, the rules-as-an-abstraction concept is also important. Even though the combat round is divided into turns, and all of each combatant's actions take place on their turn, in initiative order, that isn't meant to be a literal representation, even though, as far as how each combatant is impacted, it is.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ "Just because both sides can see each other, in a social encounter one could be surprised if they weren't anticipating violence." That would have been my interpretation too, which is why my question was a followup to an existing question whose undisputed answer insists that if neither side was trying to be stealthy, there can't be surprise. \$\endgroup\$
    – RHS
    Nov 4, 2021 at 20:28
  • \$\begingroup\$ "The DM determines who might be surprised." \$\endgroup\$
    – Wyrmwood
    Nov 4, 2021 at 21:52
  • \$\begingroup\$ That's sort of absurd too, as it obviates disguises. \$\endgroup\$
    – Wyrmwood
    Nov 4, 2021 at 21:53
  • \$\begingroup\$ The full quote is: "The GM determines who might be surprised. If neither side tries to be stealthy, they automatically notice each other. Otherwise, the GM compares the Dexterity (Stealth) checks of anyone hiding with the passive Wisdom (Perception) score of each creature on the opposing side". It doesn't say that the DM determines freely. It tells that the DM has to make the determination and then explains how exactly the determination has to be made. And I don't see how disguises are relevant to the issue. Disguises have other purposes than being able to start a combat round with surprise. \$\endgroup\$
    – RHS
    Nov 5, 2021 at 11:47
  • \$\begingroup\$ @RHS Thus there's no point in having subterfuge, disguise or deception? Clearly the suggestion was meant for the most common situation, not to hamstring all situations to one unflinching model. \$\endgroup\$
    – Wyrmwood
    Nov 5, 2021 at 23:30
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I watched a video that talked about this. The video suggested that GM's tend to be too generous to give out surprise.

My personal answer to this is to ask the question "Did the enemy notice this is coming?"

If you are in the bushes and you are able to sneak up and stab the enemy before they even know you were behind them...give them the action to start combat. (remember to do stealth vs perception)

Maybe you are hiding and you decide to fire an arrow on an enemy from the shadows...give them the action to start combat.

If you are hiding in the bushes (I might be overdueing that) and you jump out screaming as you charge the enemy...The action of screaming notified the enemy. Roll initiative and use turn order since your players basically announced that they are attacking.

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