Every dungeon master sees an impatient player spoil a scene sooner or later. Or sooner. The party talks with the Viper Queen when a player grows restless and blurts out, “I hit her with my axe!” If you have yet to deal with such a scene, I hope your second turn in the DM’s chair goes as well as your first.
Instigators who interrupt role-playing scenes expect to end tiresome banter and be rewarded with a free attack. While everyone was talking, they struck by surprise! As they see it, they earned first strike. Cheating them of a free attack just makes you a bad DM who wants to screw over the players.
Except the rules say something else: When a character makes a hostile move, roll initiative. The instigator takes a turn when it comes. If a player with higher initiative wants to stop the attack, then they gain their chance. If a foe with higher initiative wants to stop the attack by, say, bashing the instigator’s skull, then they get a chance too.
To picture how initiative works, imagine a Western where two gunslingers face each other. Each dares the other to draw, but the first to move may still fall to someone quicker to shoot.
Instigators argue that the Wild West showdown differs from the scene in the game. The gunslingers stand ready, but the characters in the game are just talking.
Nope. The players at the kitchen table are just talking. In the game world, the Viper Queen faces a group of hardened, armed killers. While the woman with the lute seems agreeable, the ranger keeps an arrow nocked and the dwarf fingers his axe and glowers. (Charisma was his dump stat.) The Viper Queen knows these types by bloody reputation. When the dwarf hurls an axe, he takes no one by surprise.
Sometimes, players actually work to surprise foes by launching an attack during a conversation. Perhaps the characters wear cult robes, someone adopts a disguise, or the murder attempt happens at a festival. Before the players earn surprise, these scenes call for Charisma (Deception) checks to seem friendly and to hide deadly intent.
Most of the time though, the sudden attack comes from one player’s impatience. When someone interrupts a role-playing scene with an attack, I explain that despite their “surprise,” everyone will act in initiative order. Then I offer the instigator a chance to take back their action. I hate seeing role-playing scenes cut short even more than I love screwing over the players.
Often, instigators recant their attack. When they don’t, their action may call for more discussion.
If a scene runs its course, and the party grows tired of the villain’s monologue, and someone attacks, then fine. Roll for initiative. But if someone finds a scene tiresome and doesn’t care if anyone else likes it, then starting a fight rates as a jerk move. Players who enjoy role playing and cautious play deserve their fun without some instigator launching an attack.
The excuse of “that’s what my character would do” does not entitle a player to spoil the other players’ fun.
On the DM’s Deep Dive show, Elite DM Teos Abadia explains how he lets the party intervene in-game. “I’ll freeze time. ‘Everyone can see that your character is about to kill this person. Everybody has a chance to stop this. What do you all want to do?’” Teos makes it clear that the single player stands alone against everybody else in the party.
Ultimately though, the game’s social contract does not allow one character to drag an unwilling party into a battle. Players bear responsibility for imagining a character who can cooperate with the other characters on the adventure. (See A role-playing game player’s obligation.) For the game to work, all the players must decide on a mutual course of action.
If you happen to be playing when some player picks a fight that you want no part of, and your DM fails to follow my advice, then try persuading the rest of the party to abandon the instigator to die alone. That’s what my character would do.