Player characters in the D&D game often go looking for trouble and, more often than not, they find it. When trouble arises, combat is sure to follow. The action during a round of battle in the D&D game takes place more or less simultaneously; however, resolving everyone's activities at the same time isn't too practical, so everybody must take turns. That's where initiative comes in.
Initiative doesn't pose too many difficulties for players and DMs. Nevertheless, situations often arise that can make even something as simple as initiative seem hopelessly confusing. These series examines those times when the action in a D&D campaign makes the initiative rules break down.
A complete tour of the initiative rules requires several stops. Pages 136-137 in the Player's Handbook cover initiative fundamentals. The descriptions of special initiative actions, which begin on page 160 in the Player's Handbook, add considerable depth and complexity to the initiative rules. The rules for starting and running an encounter on pages 22-24 in the Dungeon Master's Guide include additional information on initiative. A look at the introduction to D&D combat on page 133 in the Player's Handbook and the general information on acting during combat on page 138 also would prove helpful in understanding initiative.
Here's an overview of the initiative rules and some key concepts relating to initiative:
The initiative rules exist to make sure that everyone involved in a battle gets a chance to act once during each round of combat. A round remains 6 seconds long no matter how many combatants become involved in a battle. This is possible because, as noted earlier, everyone who acts in a round is assumed to act more or less simultaneously.
As noted on page 136 in the Player's Handbook, an initiative check is a Dexterity check. Few other things can affect an initiative check. Feats such as Improved Initiative can improve your initiative bonus. Any improvement or impairment to your Dexterity score that is in effect when the battle begins affects your initiative for that battle. If your Dexterity score changes during the battle, your initiative result doesn't change. For example, if you receive a cat's gracespell before a battle begins, you get the benefit of the improvement to your Dexterity score when you make your initiative check for that battle. If a foe dispels your cat's grace spell after the battle begins, your Dexterity score decreases appropriately, but your initiative number doesn't change as the result of the decrease.
The initiative order in a battle isn't completely set in stone, however. The ready and delay actions both have the potential to change a combatant's place in the order (and they usually do). Part Three considers these actions in more detail.
As noted earlier, one pass through the initiative order constitutes one 6-second round. One could say that a round of combat begins just before the combatant with the highest initiative number acts and ends just after the combatant with the lowest initiative number acts.
Despite the foregoing, remember that the term "round" can be relative. It can refer to one complete initiative cycle, or it can refer to the period of time between one combatant's turn and that combatant's next turn.
The rules leave identifying an encounter's start to the DM's good judgment. As a rule of thumb, however, an encounter begins when two groups are close enough to each other to perceive each other and at least one of the two groups has done so. As we shall see in Part Two, it is sometimes best to call for initiative when a group's meeting is merely imminent, such as when a party opens a door in an unexplored dungeon. In any case, it's usually best to call for initiative checks whenever you find that establishing an initiative order might prove helpful. For example, establishing an initiative order could prove useful during an encounter in which several different creatures are trying to deal with a series of traps or negotiations with several different creatures.
When one group surprises another, a surprise round ensues. During a surprise round, the character or group that has achieved surprise can take one standard action. Creatures that have been surprised cannot act during a surprise round.
At times, some creatures in a group will notice a foe when the others do not. In such cases, an encounter still begins with a surprise round, but everyone who has noticed the other group gets to act during the surprise round, though the acting creatures still are limited to one standard action each.
It's usually a good idea to keep characters in initiative order until all danger to them (at least from the current encounter) is past. Players might pick up on this, so sometimes you may want to keep using an initiative order for a little longer than strictly necessary just to maintain a sense of danger and tension in the game. Once a party has dealt with the challenges and obstacles an encounter offers, however, you'll probably find that maintaining an initiative order slows things down. For example, after the party defeats a group of monsters in an encounter they'll probably want to distribute some healing magic among the player characters, loot their defeated foes, and look for treasure. It's usually best to simply allow the players to handle those tasks outside of the initiative order.
Sometimes, it's not entirely clear just when actions in initiative should stop. We'll consider some of those situations in Part Three.
The rules don't allow you to "take 20" or even "take 10" on an initiative check. Your initiative check result initially represents your character's ability to react when an encounter begins. (That's why characters are flat-footed until they take an action in an encounter's first round.) You have only one chance for an initial reaction to an encounter, and the rules don't allow you to prepare yourself for an encounter when you don't know it's coming.
If you're fortunate enough to notice potential foes before they notice you, you achieve surprise over your foe, which is a great advantage for you. See page 137 in the Player's Handbook. Even so, if your foe survives your initial action, you could lose your advantage. That's why you and your foe must make initiative checks after a surprise round.
The rules make one very valuable suggestion for any DM trying to handle combat smoothly and efficiently: Write down the initiative order. Many DMs I know keep a pad of paper or a small dry erase board for jotting down initiative. This is a great idea, especially if you can prop up your writing surface when you're done -- if you do so, everyone can see the initiative order and will know when their turns come. I use a particularly large vinyl mat (marked in 1-inch squares) to regulate combat and I jot the initiative right on the mat.
I also use another trick. When preparing for a game, I jot down the game statistics for everything the PCs will meet onto index cards. I also have each player record key information about their characters (ability scores, Armor Class, base attack and grapple bonuses, saving throw bonuses, and key skill scores) on index cards as well. When an encounter starts, I place all the cards into initiative order. When someone delays or readies an action, I can remove the appropriate card from the order and place it back in the correct place when the combatant finally acts. If I happen to drop or somehow scramble the cards, I can easily reset the cards by referring to the written initiative order, and the players also have the written order for reference.
I find this method well worth the effort it entails. One of the biggest advantages of the D&D game's initiative system is its potential to speed up combat, and the combination of cards and a written initiative can make things speedy indeed.
That's all the time we have this week. Next week, we'll consider the fine art of deciding just when an encounter begins.
About the Author
Skip Williams keeps busy with freelance projects for several different game companies and was the Sage of Dragon Magazine for many years. Skip is a co-designer of the D&D 3rd Edition game and the chief architect of the Monster Manual. When not devising swift and cruel deaths for player characters, Skip putters in his kitchen or garden (rabbits and deer are not Skip's friends) or works on repairing and improving the century-old farmhouse that he shares with his wife, Penny, and a growing menagerie of pets.
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