Initiative, Exploration, and Narration


Running the Game


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Pathfinder Roleplaying Game Superscriber

Don’t want this to be too long, so I’ll try to be concise. How are people dealing with transitioning from exploration to encounter mode especially as it relates to the narration and implementation of initiative?

First, let me share how I have been doing it, based on my interpretation of the rules which still feel a bit vague at time, in hopes of sharing ideas, getting feedback, and improving my gamemastering of this playtest (and eventually PF2 down the line).

I’ve spent a lot of time in the past doing the typical process: group explores, combat happens, everyone rolls for initiative. I try to narrate this transition, but inevitably, it comes down to the usual thing: blah blah blah, roll for initiative. Everyone knows it’s going down from that point.

However, with PF2, I’ve taken a different approach. As part of the exploration/discovery process, players actively give me their actions and roll their perceptions. “I sneak to that pillar and look around.” “I head down that hallway, keeping an eye out for trouble. We know there’s orcs in these ruins.” “I study the ground, looking for tracks or other signs of orc passage.” These all become default initiative rolls regardless of whether combat begins or not. If the orcs aren’t there, then they move on and the next set or skill checks determine what initiative will be if combat ensues.

So as combat starts, it’ll be something like this:
I roll initiative for the 4 orcs just ahead. They get scores of 14, 12, 10, 5. Griblet the Goblin scored a 17 stealth, his initiative score as well. Gordray the Monk’s scouting down the hallway netted only an 8 perception. However, Jrey’s survival check for tracks was a solid 19, putting him at the top of the initiative tracker. Combat begins as such, with Jrey.

Me: Jrey. You see the distinct muddy tracks of the orcs you guys are pursuing, clearly fresh, leading to your west. At the edge of the torchlight, you see a shadowy shape that you have come to recognize all too well – Orcs!

Had Griblet been on top of the initiative tracker, combat would have ensued with something like “Griblet, as you slink along the wide hallway, keeping to the shadows and cover of the pillars that run along it, you come upon the 4 orcs your party has been hunting. Their readied weapons and angry expressions are clear indications of their ill intent. It does not appear they are aware of you yet, but they certainly have their eyes down the hallway where the light of the monk’s torch glows brightly.”

And so on, including if an orc had gone first, it would begin with them emerging and attacking the party first.

In this, the players have really come to enjoy it. There’s no sudden roll for initiative announcement to break the narrative immersion and indicate that combat has started – it just happens as part of the game flow.

In a bit of a twist, too, I sometimes allow for some additional tweaks to initiative rolls for players, though this is probably a little more of a departure from the core (though I find the rules vague enough to give me some latitude on how to play out combat initiation). For example:

Traveling through a dangerous forest, everyone is on edge, even Griblet, so perceptions all around. However, there's a strange, acerbic smell in the air that someone with Nature Training might be able to identify as Troglodytes - so I call for anyone trained in Nature to make a roll. A good roll there might boost their initiative as they at least recognize some additional danger from the evidence at hand. The troglodytes, who were all hiding using stealth, suddenly leap to the attack - fortunately for Jrey, something in the air had him wary (Nature roll resulted in a 19), so he reacted quicker than most. His perception initiative changes from the 9 he rolled to 19 now, moving him to the front of initiative once again! Combat begins with me describing Jrey's sudden awareness of the distinct stench of Troglodyte and proceeds accordingly.

How are others handing this and what do you think of this approach?


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That all sounds good when there are skills one can justifiably use, but it seems that all too often it's a matter of Stealth or Perception, and if one's Perception is better than one's Stealth, there's no point in Stealthing.

Now the example about Nature training (why Nature? plausible, but not explicitly detailed by monster type like it was in 1e) implies that you can use the best of two rolls if two skills are applicable, which kinda makes sense, but a) it involves a lot of die rolling and b) it might encourage fishing for any skill that might make sense. And best-of-2-d20 of equal skill level amounts to +5 on average, which is perhaps a bit much for 2e.


ShadeRaven wrote:

Don’t want this to be too long, so I’ll try to be concise. How are people dealing with transitioning from exploration to encounter mode especially as it relates to the narration and implementation of initiative?

First, let me share how I have been doing it, based on my interpretation of the rules which still feel a bit vague at time, in hopes of sharing ideas, getting feedback, and improving my gamemastering of this playtest (and eventually PF2 down the line).

I’ve spent a lot of time in the past doing the typical process: group explores, combat happens, everyone rolls for initiative. I try to narrate this transition, but inevitably, it comes down to the usual thing: blah blah blah, roll for initiative. Everyone knows it’s going down from that point.

However, with PF2, I’ve taken a different approach. As part of the exploration/discovery process, players actively give me their actions and roll their perceptions. “I sneak to that pillar and look around.” “I head down that hallway, keeping an eye out for trouble. We know there’s orcs in these ruins.” “I study the ground, looking for tracks or other signs of orc passage.” These all become default initiative rolls regardless of whether combat begins or not. If the orcs aren’t there, then they move on and the next set or skill checks determine what initiative will be if combat ensues.

So as combat starts, it’ll be something like this:
I roll initiative for the 4 orcs just ahead. They get scores of 14, 12, 10, 5. Griblet the Goblin scored a 17 stealth, his initiative score as well. Gordray the Monk’s scouting down the hallway netted only an 8 perception. However, Jrey’s survival check for tracks was a solid 19, putting him at the top of the initiative tracker. Combat begins as such, with Jrey.

Me: Jrey. You see the distinct muddy tracks of the orcs you guys are pursuing, clearly fresh, leading to your west. At the edge of the torchlight, you see a shadowy shape that you have come to recognize all too well – Orcs!

Had Griblet been on top of the...

Wow, I like this quite a bit, and I'm pretty tempted to try it. I've just been running the transition like I did in PF1, having creatures that successfully sneak up on the party (or vice versa) ready an action to trigger before initiative is rolled, and then using fresh rolls to determine the actual initiative.

But I really like the sound of your narrative blending. Question. How do you keep track of every roll the players make? And how do you factor in secret rolls? I am starting to really like the secret rolls (making up false into on critical failures is fun) but it seems like constantly rolling all these behind the screen would get tedious. If you leave it up to the players, do you run into the old "well he rolled a 2 on his perception check so therefore I will also roll" problem?

I think using my approach for overland travel (where the party is moving at full speed so most characters can't make perception or skill checks anyway) or sneaking up on someone who is completely unaware of you makes sense. But when more varied exploration tactics come into play, your approach seems super good.

Although, don't you often find the party likes to hang back and let the sneaky scouts actually scout?

Quote:
That all sounds good when there are skills one can justifiably use, but it seems that all too often it's a matter of Stealth or Perception, and if one's Perception is better than one's Stealth, there's no point in Stealthing.

Not necessarily. Rolling perception might give you better odds to go first, but stealth might let you catch a foe flat-footed for your first action. (Shade, does Griblet get this edge? Presumably the orcs spotted Jrey, but Griblet DID beat their perception rolls.)


Pathfinder Roleplaying Game Superscriber

@Captain: Yes, Griblet still gets his advantage because his stealth still "succeeded".

As for the tracking of rolls, this hasn't been too tricky because I only have to track the pertinent ones and, generally speaking, when we play and the group is in "exploration mode", we flow from scene to scene with a simple set-up: I narrate the environment, they narrate their interaction to it. So as they creep through the damp confines of a sunken city or wind their way along a tangled path in a dark forest, they give me a general idea on how their characters interact with the setting. IE: Griblet wants to slink ahead, using whatever cover and concealment he can find; Jrey might decide to just keep his eyes out or, as in the above example, he scouted for tracks because he knew what to expect; Godray always expects trouble as he's on point so travels looking for trouble; and finally Tawni doesn't like the dark, so she just keeps the light on the tip of her staff held high as she also nervously glances about looking for danger within the shadows.

Basically, everyone gets a roll based on what they intend to do and I keep it relatively simple until something changes. If Griblet is stealthing and the others seeking, I don't have them repeat these rolls (or if I do them secret, I don't keep rolling from scene to scene if it's repetitive - such as in a dungeon crawl). If we flow into another scene offering some inspiration to change character actions, they'll offer what they want to do within the setting and roll, if appropriate.

And quite honestly, the simplest solution for me has always been to keep a set of dice of differing colors for each character and leave them on their last number. Online, Fantasy Grounds is even easier, because the rolls are automatically saved in display (hidden rolls I can only read). What also makes it easy for me is that Perception is always a default skill if what they describe has no relevant use. So if Jrey indicated he wanted to look for tracks and rolled (secretly or not) a Survival check - if it wasn't appropriate or useful, that score was actually his Perception (even if he didn't know it) should combat arise.

I hope I am making sense in all this :D

@Mudfoot: Players can "fish" if they want, but it doesn't mean it'll work for them. If Tawni has a great score in Society or Occultism, she can say she wants to look out for signs of supernatural creatures, but she'll be really rolling her perception check and my narration will be based on that result.

In general, I *want* players to think outside the box and seek ways to use their characters in interesting ways. It may not always be effective, but it will always be encouraged.

Let me give a weird-seeming example:
Aedera the Ranger was created with a sort of Indiana Jones, action archaelogist vibe in mind. She's athletic, daring, and fearless in her pursuit of lost knowledge and forgotten artifacts from ages past. As the party navigates through a dense jungle purported to be domain of a ruthless tribe of weretigers, she hears me describe how water laden trees are draped with heavy vines of twisted vegetation. She decides it would suit her character to try to climb these vines to get a better vantage point and even wonders if she can't swing along these in a pinch. The group is all for this, hoping she can spot something from her vantage point.

Aedera's climb goes well, and rather than being out of breath and hanging on tightly, her total skill check of 18 indicates she did it well giving her ample time and energy to scan about to see if there's anyting of interest. As a reward for her ingenuity, she sees a small band of the hated lycanthropes laying in wait just off the path ahead. Combat is about to ensue, but her athletic prowess gave the group a heads up and that's her initiative score (actually, it's 19 because she took the Incredible Initiative feat). If her perception bonus was say +5, and her athletics was only +3, I would give her those additional 2 points on her initiative as well for a score of 21.

The bottom line, if it makes sense in the narrative approach, I'll let them try it. If their actions are inappropriate for the scene, then their rolls will just be perception checks regardless of what they think.

Geesh! I really need to work harder at trying to avoid walls of text! lol


The alternate skills for initiative system has some promise, but needs more definition.

It's pretty clear about how it works when you're doing something relevant to the immediate combat like keeping a lookout or sneaking around, or maybe even looking for tracks.

Anecdote:
Yesterday we were playing through the Mirrored Moon, and encountered the Red Dragon, we managed to talk to her Fire Giant bodyguard while she was away, and convinced him she might be deceiving him about attacking the nearby cyclops village. We hid in her lair while they argued and my character (A Paladin of Shelyn) Decided to make a sketch of the scene to capture the majesty of the dragon we would surely have to slay.

When fighting broke out, the GM allowed me to roll crafting for initiative, because that was what I was doing when combat broke out, on the condition that my weapon was not ready and I'd have to draw it (My hands would've been busy with drawing implements after all).

There's a lot of interesting applications in the concept, but it needs a lot stronger outlining of how permissive it's supposed to be. And if it's supposed to be restrictive, it then needs a list of what is definitively approved.


Pathfinder Roleplaying Game Superscriber
NorthernDruid wrote:

The alternate skills for initiative system has some promise, but needs more definition.

It's pretty clear about how it works when you're doing something relevant to the immediate combat like keeping a lookout or sneaking around, or maybe even looking for tracks.

There's a lot of interesting applications in the concept, but it needs a lot stronger outlining of how permissive it's supposed to be. And if it's supposed to be restrictive, it then needs a list of what is definitively approved.

Agreed. It was through some gameplay trial and error that I eventually arrived at how I approach moving from the narration of non-combat interaction into combat.

I like your GM's approach as it's similar to my own. Like the Athletics check I described, it allows the players' actions to dictate how that transition works, putting more agency into their decisions.


And what about a complete or partial departure from the standard dnd initiative? Something like a specific variable for who goes first when creatures engage, separated from a more group focused initiative perhaps. Let me expand a little to make myself clear.

Initiative as it is measure a lot o different things. How aware a given creature are, how sneaky it moves around; in general how good at something a given dice roller perform at a given and favorable situation. However, what it has in depth, lacks on impact. I think PF2ed could improve this concept a step further.

Assuming a two variables system as good starting point: one skill-based system that describes what rules to follow as exploration approach engagement, preferable one that could encompass all the situations was described here and more, and other system based on action types, for instance, to govern encounter turn order.

I believe this increase in complexity favors tactical thinking and gives players more control of the passing of the game.


How have you been finding the "one exploration tactic at a time" thing to work out?


Pathfinder Roleplaying Game Superscriber

@adresseno: It would be interesting if done well, but I think streamlining is the initial approach of PF2. I am definitely all ears to any innovated ideas that marriage the two.

@Captain: It's been doing pretty well because players still feel empowered to add extra actions on top of it or as appropriate. I think what has really leant itself to the positive feedback of how I approach Exploration Mode is because it has kept game pace going. Players are just describing their actions and I respond with what I deem as appropriate results (which often includes skill rolls).

Because we flow like this as a group, it stays much longer in the descriptive instead of the tactical (they aren't worried about fatigue and the like because that would only come into play if I described the results of the action flow to result in approaching that outcome).


OP: Good observations, ones I've found similar results with. What the PCs do during Exploration defines the terms of engagement come initiative. I've interpreted exploration rolls and initiative rolls before drawing the battlemap, and it's created some interesting scenarios. In "The Mirrored Moon", the party snuck up on the BBEG's minions, but became flanked from behind by the BBEG, who beat everyone else with Perception. The BBEG wasn't delaying her turn proper (she had the ability to attack the PCs at anytime), but she "started the encounter" when she jumped out from her hiding hole.

A contest of Perception checks simply determines how far away the winners catch sight of the other sight, similar to how engagement worked for random encounters in D&D 1st edition. If you win at Perception, it just means that you can plan a way to engage the enemy profitably, but winning a Perception check doesn't automatically get you into striking range of an enemy. If you can sense a foe, they can probably sense you, and if the highest rolling foe is close to your group's roll, both side will be sensed before fruitful engagement can begin. In my example, the BBEG sensed the approaching PCs, so she moved out of sight and waited for them.

Stealth OTOH allows a high roller to start combat wherever they want to begin. They can move away and pepper them with longbows and Acid Arrows, or get closer if melee weapons and Burning Hands are their thing.


Just to chime in, I'm a player in ShadeRaven's playtest, running Griblet the Goblin rogue. I really like the blurred lines between exploration, interaction and combat. I'm finding it pretty easy to immerse myself into the narrative. Also, not knowing when combat will trigger keeps us on our toes.

Shade's doing a great job encouraging us to make decisions in exploration using various rolls to chart perception when necessary.

Also, since my rogue has only a +1 initiative, but a +5 stealth initiative, I'm so much more inclined to sneak around. I actually feel like a rogue.

Got into a little jam the other night sneaking into some mold spores, and getting thoroughly confused, but that's part of the fun. Ended up stabbing myself with my short sword, twice, knocking myself into dying condition. lol. My buddies rescued me though.

As for fishing for skills to use, so far, some of us have tried different skills, but never have we strayed from what makes sense in the narrative. That might be just because we play that way, but even the "so called" optimizers/powergamers are not abusing it. (I don't mean those terms in a derogatory way...heck, I like to optimize and power game too as well as role play).


Pathfinder Roleplaying Game Superscriber

Poor Griblet ran into some trouble when the group came upon a room too well lit to sneak around in. That perception check for initiative doesn't favor him well.

As the party continues to get used to the new format, the flow from exploration to combat has really gotten smooth. Tonight, in an hour and 45 minutes of play, the group manage to explore a nice chunk of the orc caves they were trying to rescue a captive from. This included spending time searching three areas of interest, some very slow moving dungeon crawling (this group is a cautious one, with good reason), and 4 full combats (although one was a 1 crit hit affair) followed by two shortish rests to recover from the combat.

Honestly, we probably used about 30 minutes of that time up checking a couple of rules that we weren't familiar with and taking a short break in the middle.

Generally speaking, there's no jarring transition from exploration to combat and battles are going pretty cleanly as we get more and more used to the ruleset. I'd say that 3 challenging combats and one trivial one plus exploration, looting, and rests in about 75 minutes of playtime is a promising pace.


I might have on occasion called for a Perception roll very casually and only afterwards revealed that it was an Initiative.


Ediwir wrote:
I might have on occasion called for a Perception roll very casually and only afterwards revealed that it was an Initiative.

Yeah, I've used this one as well.

I'm now feeling a little undecided on how to handle my next ambush scenario. It feels like having the enemy roll a non-initiative stealth roll to see if they can actually get the drop on the party and get into a good position and/or use a surprise round, or just have it roll straight into combat from the stealth roll.

When you only have one or two party members stealthing and the rest of the group isn't, it feels pretty straightforward. Less so when one whole side is stealthing.


Pathfinder Roleplaying Game Superscriber

In an effort to avoid my usual wall of text:

Narration vs Rules: Since we play with narration first, then fitting the rules around it, the scene-to-scene flow (even if it's just the cautious dungeon crawl) makes this work for us. Players state character actions (modes, if you will) and appropriate skill checks are made - these affect initiative such that if exploration transitions into action, initiative is already done and the narration of the encounter begins without the need to break the flow.

Stealth and Perception: Stealth doesn't have to be contested against Perception. If our dear Griblet slinks up ahead where some Kobolds are also trying to hide and surprise, the contests isn't between perceptions and stealths but who did the best job of staying unnoticed. Instead of requesting rolls, an encounter will just be an extension of this contest. For those in a more seek/perceptive mode, then it is the classic how well A hid versus how well B perceived.

Other Modes: So one of the maybe more unusual rulings I've given is how a readied action works. We have a Dwarven Fighter who sometimes wants to have her Shield Readied or the Elven Ranger with his Bow drawn. With this, I have allowed it but at the cost of being able to react to events beyond that readied state. Yes, the Ranger can have his bow readied to shoot at the first enemy he sees as they open a door, but he won't be able to take stock of the situation as quickly as others who first observe than react rather than react then observe. Having a prepared action sets your initiative to 0 after the initiation of the encounter. If readied action isn't met (such as being unable to see an enemy around a corner), the Ranger still has a 0 initiative as they try to react to the changing environment.

This actually has worked well as players have to decide on the trade-off between having a single action readied at the risk of then being slower to react in the chaos of combat. I know the Dwarven Fighter now relies more on his quick wits and Reactive Shield more often than not now so he keeps his eyes open for trouble, searches for traps, or navigates through the underbrush.

Again, this is all done in an effort to let the story drive the flow of play rather than the rules and probably not as suitable for those who want to play this as a tactical, miniatures type game with very tight control of rules.

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