The Alexandrian

D20 – Starting Combat

October 25th, 2007

The rules for how to handle the beginning of combat, awareness, surprise, initiative order, and flat-footedness are some of the sloppiest and most poorly written rules I’ve ever seen in an RPG. A recent forum discussion at Giant in the Playground got me thinking about these rules again, and so I went through the muddle mess of the Dungeon Master’s Guide and tried to pull out all the actual rules for starting combat.

STARTING COMBAT – BY THE BOOK

Combat can start in one of three scenarios:

Scenario 1. Only one side is aware of the other.
Scenario 2. Both sides become aware of the other at the same time.
Scenario 3. Some, but not all, creatures on one or both sides become aware of the other side.

Determining Awareness: Use sight ranges, Spot checks, Listen checks, and so on to determine when combatants become aware of each other.

This is one of the places where the rules are vague: A multitude of sins can be covered by the phrase “and so on”. I would argue that the phrase is specifically there in order to allow for things like Mexican stand-offs, unexpected assaults during social events, and the like. If you walk up to a guy with a big smile on your face and then punch him in the gut, he may be aware of your presence but he is not aware of the combat. I would argue that a Sense Motive check, rather than a Spot check, is the appropriate way to determine awareness in this scenario.

Preparing for Combat: If one side is unaware of the other, the side that is aware may make preparations before combat begins. The DM may track this time in rounds to determine how much the aware side can accomplish before the unaware combatants become aware of them. If the unaware side becomes aware, combat begins normally. If the unaware side remains unaware, the aware combatants still gain a surprise round (see below).

So when, exactly, does combat start? Basically, there are four scenarios: (1) If both sides are aware, combat starts immediately without a surprise round. (2) If only some creatures on both sides are aware, combat starts immediately with a surprise round for the aware creatures. (3) If one side is completely unaware, then the aware side can choose when to start combat. And they can either choose to start it with a surprise round or they can all delay their actions and start it with a normal round in which they all get to go first. (4) If one side is completely unaware and only some creatures on the other side are aware, then the aware creatures make the choice of when to start combat (and they can wait to start combat while they make other creatures on their side aware).

Surprise Round: If only some creatures are aware at the beginning of combat, the aware creatures roll initiative and can take a single standard action during the surprise round. The unaware combatants are considered flat-footed during the surprise round. Once the surprise round is completed, everyone else rolls initiative and combat continues normally.

Couple of notes here: First, the rule that unaware combatants don’t roll initiative until after the surprise round is completed is an unnecessary rule. You can roll initiative for everyone at once and it won’t make the slightest difference in how combat plays out. In fact, I roll initiative for the PCs at the end of combat and use those initiative results for the next combat — this speeds up the beginning of combat, instead of immediately deflating tension by having everyone roll their initiatives.

Similarly, the rule that initiative is rolled at a different time depending on whether the two sides can immediately interact with each other or not — the only distinction drawn between these scenarios — is a waste of paper.

Second, the rules on being flat-footed are contradictory. The rules for the flat-footed condition in the DMG reads “a character who has not yet acted during a combat is flat-footed”. Following this rule, once a character has taken an action during the surprise round they are no longer flat-footed.

But the PHB says you’re flat-footed “before your first regular turn in the initiative order”, which means that EVERYONE is flat-footed during the surprise round.

According to the rules for errata, the PHB rule supercedes the DMG rule in this respect. But, of course, the PHB rule doesn’t make a lick of sense. It also makes it so that the last person to take action in the surprise round is highly motivated to simply delay so that they can take the first action in the regular round of combat — a decision which only makes sense at a metagame level.

This also points out another disparity in the rules: If the PCs completely surprise another group, they CAN’T delay their actions into regular combat because they haven’t rolled initiative yet. But if one of their opponents is aware of them and can take an action during the surprise round, they can now delay their actions and act first in the regular combat. So, literally, you are MORE capable of taking a full round action before your opponents do if one of your opponents is capable of shouting a warning to their friends.

Newcomers – Aware: If new combatants join the combat, and they are aware of the combat when they join it, they take their actions before everyone else in the round. The order in which they take their actions is determined by their Dexterity scores.

This is a bad rule. The reasons for having them act first in the round make sense — they can, after all, choose the moment when they enter combat if they’re aware of it. But the order in which they take those actions should either be determined by opposed initiative checks or, failing that, their initiative bonuses. Bypassing both of those mechanics and going straight to their Dexterity scores doesn’t make any sense.

Newcomers – Unaware: If new combatants join the combat,and they are unaware of the combat when they join it (e.g., opening a door and unexpectedly finding people fighting behind it), they roll initiative checks and take their actions normally during the initiative sequence.

I would argue that these rules should be scrapped entirely. The proper way to handle this is for ALL new combatants to roll initiative checks normally. (With a “new combatant” being defined as either someone who is aware of the combat or someone who the other combatants are aware of.) New combatants who are unaware, however, cannot take any action during the first round.

This rule neatly models all scenarios: When new combatants and old combatants become aware of each other at the same time, their ability to react to each other depends on their initiative checks. When new combatants are aware of the combat before they join it, they can choose when to join in at a time of their choosing (and will not be flat-footed when they do). And when the existing combatants become aware of the new combatants before the new combatants become aware of them, they have a chance to react to them before the new combatants can take an action against them.

Simultaneous Action: The DM can attempt to cope with the consequences of simultaneous action in a completely ad hoc fashion if it seems appropriate (e.g., having a trap triggered by a character during the round not take effect until the end of the round).

And that’s it. As you can see, my snide comments aside, the actual rules for handling this scenario only comprise about seven paragraphs of text.

STARTING COMBAT – THE WAY IT SHOULD BE

BEGINNING COMBAT

The way in which a combat begins depends on the awareness of the participants. If only some of the combatants have awareness, then combat begins with a surprise round (see below). There are four basic ways in which a combat can begin:

(1) If everyone on both sides are aware of the other side, combat starts immediately without a surprise round.

(2) If only some creatures on both sides are aware of the other side, combat starts immediately with a surprise round for the aware combatants.

(3) If one side is completely unaware, then the aware side can choose when to start combat. They can also choose whether to start it with a surprise round or they can all delay their actions and start it with a normal round in which they get to take the first actions.

(4) If one side is completely unaware and only some combatants on the other side are aware, then the aware combatants make a choice of when to start combat (and they can wait to start combat while they make other combatants on their side aware).

DETERMINING AWARENESS

A combatant has awareness if they know that combat is about to begin. At a bare minimum, this requires that the combatant be aware of the presence of their opponents. In most cases, therefore, awareness can be determined by using Spot check and Listen checks. In some cases, a Sense Motive check may be appropriate.

Spot Checks: A simple Spot check

Concealment: Even if a Spot check is successful, if the opponent has concealment the percentage concealment chance applies each round. (For example, if a party of orcs is approaching the party through a foggy forest, there is a 20% chance that — even if the Spot check would normally succeed — the orcs will not be seen.)

Cover: If a creature has total cover, it cannot be seen. (For example, if a party of orcs is on the other side of a solid wall, a Spot check cannot be used to become aware of the orcs.)

Sight Ranges: Use the tables below to determine the maximum range of sight in different terrains.

Listen Checks: If an opponent is not detected through a Spot check, it may still be possible to become aware of them with a Listen check. (Whether this results in an awareness that combat is about to begin will depend on how accurately the character identifies what they’re hearing and what action they take in response to it.)

Sense Motive: If a non-hostile encounters suddenly becomes a violent one, a Sense Motive check opposed by the Bluff check of the person initiating hostilities is the most appropriate way to determine if a character is aware that combat is about to begin. (The character initiating hostilities, of course, is automatically aware.)

Terrain
Maximum Spot Distance
Spot/Listen Checks
Move Silently Checks
Desert6d6 x 20 ft.-1 per 10 feet--
Desert (dunes)6d6 x 10 ft.-1 per 10 feet--
Desert (sandstorm)1d10 x 5 ft.-4 and -1 per 10 feet--
Forest, Sparse3d6 x 10 ft.-2 per 10 feet--
Forest, Medium2d8 x 10 ft.-2 per 10 feet--
Forest, Dense2d6 x 10 ft.-2 per feet--
Hills, Gentle2d10 x 10 ft.-1 per 10 feet--
Hills, Rugged2d6 x 10 ft.-1 per 10 feet--
Marsh6d6 x 10 ft.-1 per 10 feet-2 in bogs
Mountains4d10 x 10 ft.-1 per 20 feet-2 in scree
Plains6d6 x 40 ft.-1 per 10 feet--
Swamp2d8 x 10 ft.-1 per 10 feet-2 in bogs
Underwater (Clear)4d8 x 10 ft.-1 per 10 feet--
Underwater (Murky)1d8 x 10 ft.-1 per 10 feet--
Condition
Maximum Spot Distance
Concealment
Move Silently Checks
Darkness0 ft. (or light source)----
Moonlight--10%--
Starlight--20%--
Smoke or heavy fog2d4 x 5 ft.20%--
Undergrowth--20%-2
Undergrowth, Heavy--30%-5

INITIATIVE

Once combat has begun, all combatants roll an initiative check (1d20 + Dexterity modifier + initiative modifiers). Characters act in order, counting down from highest result to lowest. In every round that follows, the characters act in the same order (unless a character takes an action that results in his or her initiative changing. If two or more combatants have the same initiative check result, the combatants who are tied act in order of total initiative modifier (highest first). If there is still a tie, the tied characters should roll again to determine which one of them goes before the other.

SURPRISE ROUND

If some but not all of the combatants are aware of their opponents, a surprise round happens before regular rounds begin. Any combatants aware of the opponents can act in the surprise round, so they roll for initiative. In initiative order (highest to lowest), combatants who started the battle aware of their opponents each take a standard action during the surprise round. You can also take free, immediate, and swift actions during the surprise round. If no one or everyone is surprised, no surprise round occurs.

FLAT-FOOTED COMBATANTS

Combatants are flat-footed until they take an action during combat (either during the surprise round or during regular rounds). A flat-footed combatant loses their Dexterity bonus to AC (if any), cannot make attacks of opportunity, and cannot take swift actions.

NEW COMBATANTS

If a new combatant becomes aware of the combat after it has begun, the new combatant immediately rolls an initiative check. The new combatant takes their turn normally in the initiative order, but cannot take any action during their first turn. (Note that a new combatant may become aware of the combat without the existing combatants becoming aware of them. If this happens, the new combatant may be able to safely “burn” their turn of inaction without revealing themselves.)

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