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.
In my experience, DMs train their players to do this.
Back in the 80s, the DM for my group loved his 5-10 minute villain monologues – at the end of which the villain would invariably attack with surprise. He was also famous for “helpless” NPCs who would attack the instant the party let its guard down.
Talking was a fruitless exercise in allowing the DM to showcase his writing skills and his brilliant set-piece scenes. It never had any impact on what was actually going to happen. The players grew impatient because they had effectively ceased to play the game and were relegated to watching it.
Naturally, they started to attack every NPC the instant a monologue or set-piece “role-playing” scene started, or if the DM went out of his way to make an NPC look sympathetic. The longer they had been playing with the DM, the more likely that was to happen. I came late to that game, and used to object to the other players pre-emtive strikes, until I had been there long enough to realize that those players were ALWAYS right.
Now, an individual DM may not do that, but he or she runs games in a world where those DMs are out there, and he or she has to account for that. For that matter, a sizeable number of published TSR/WotC modules since the 2e era have actually baked those scenes into the adventure, so DMs are being trained to do this by official publications. I run games for some of the people I played with in the 80s, and it took me years to break them of the habits they picked up playing with that DM (who still runs games the same way, I recently discovered to my regret).
In that environment, you run a villain monologue at your own risk, and getting attached to your “role-playing” scenes can be a red flag for your players. It makes them think you are scripting the scene for yourself, not allowing it to run its course for the players. It may not be fair, but if your players may have been damaged by previous DMs, you have to adjust your style to accommodate that fact.
This is excellent advice. There isn’t a normal circumstance I can think of where a villain would speak to heroes without both sides being ready for imminent combat. Stealth, cunning, sure. But when a hero attacks a villain, zero people are surprised. I jump into initiative instantly, which helps, but that instigator is often the character with a +17 to initiative and goes first anyway. C’est la vie.
This exact issue came up on Matthew Colville’s Youtube. He mentioned slowing down time, using the power as DM to describe the scene and give others in the party a chance to jump in. The scenario above is not a surprise attack, everyone knows where everyone is, everyone is watching…on edge, so there is no reason at all for a surprise or free attack. So the impatient character says they draw their weapons and kill the Queen. DM says, right. The party sees the character shuffle impatiently then finally draw their weapons, what do you do? Now, if no one leaps up to move the action in another direction (like telling impatient one to stop) then it would be initiative. 80s DM sucked, sorry. Speech, draw weapon initiative.
Matt Colville released a video on this very topic last month, and had the same advice as Teos.
I’d disagree in part.
Just as the Viper Queen is paying attention without you stating it, the PCs are trying to hide their intent without the player mentioning it. So I’d allow a roll in any case.
And other PCs also need to beat the same roll in order to either try and stop the PC, or benefit from the surprise round.
The opposite amounts to not allowing a surprise attack during a conversation, unless the player specifically roleplays it. And let’s face it, while my favourite players could roleplay it, many players never could.
In the same vein, many players would describe a wide, winding up swing with an axe as a first strike when facing a spearman, but I’d allow them to roll an attack without first facing an opportunity attack.
Then again, if my players think that “kill all NPCs” is a good plan, we need to talk OOC. And yes, I’ve seen players who were taught to do that by Referees, which is why we need to talk even more.
Even if initiative is rolled normally. At the very least, the surprise attack PC should get advantage on his initiative.
Disagree, with respect. If there was some element of stealth or deception for instance as the post addresses, then the rule mechanics would inherently provide the advantage of those preparations. If the character has done nothing of consequence until “I hurl my axe” then, per rules, combat is initiated and the Initiative dice must roll. As the combat model is abstract and nearly simultaneous action the dice determine the results.
That character, even if initiating the shift in action, gains no benefit to the situation. Both RAW and RAI are against that.
Pointing that out is the great elegance of David’s solution.
I think this is very dependent upon the group and the circumstances. If it’s the first time a player tries something like that in the campaign I’d probably stop and verify that’s what’s going on. Otherwise I’ll just let things continue as they players describe. But most likely it wouldn’t happen a second time.
As for gaining surprise, without actually attempting to gain surprise through deception, it’s not likely to work in my campaign. And even less so with a weapon like an axe or a sword. The historical assassins (the medieval Nizari Ismailis: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Assassins) would use tactics like this frequently. But it almost always involved a dagger which could be concealed. Regardless, it is much easier to surprise somebody lunging forward and attacking with a concealed dagger than swinging an axe, for example, when you’re standing right in front of them.
Of course, we also don’t roll initiative at the start of a combat. Instead we use it as an opposed check when needed. Here it wouldn’t be needed. We also have a surprise check for circumstances like this, and if your deception check was successful you would have advantage on the surprise check. If you didn’t make a deception check, or it failed, then the target would have advantage on their surprise check or you would have disadvantage on yours. Without a deception attempt, the targets passive Insight +5 due to advantage would be used.
Ultimately though I agree with your assessment that one impatient player shouldn’t ruin the rest of the group’s fun. But like I said, that type of event shouldn’t happen more than once.
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Thank you, David, for unpacking a knotty problem. With all my experience, I was caught last year in just such a situation and I let it go forward and let the character get the drop on my major villain. A simple pause, initiative, and the fight going down or not may have saved a good deal of preparation.
I did fold it in. In my defense the move came from the player I least expected such a thing from and some of letting it go forward was that it was clear he had been plotting that move with good reasons for many sessions. It was less “I’m tired of roleplaying” or a long speech and more “We have a chance to end this *now*, a really strong chance and I don’t know if I’m going to get it again.”
The lesson I am coming to learn, and some of my continuing struggle, is the item or knowledge that I gave and that the player connected to the situation in a way I hadn’t considered, is often the thing that “hoists me by mine own pitard”.
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