Resolving the start of combat


Advice


So, I've been having a bit of a problem identifying what should happen at the start of combats.

My method so far has been to allow the PC that is initiating the battle to complete their action outside initiative, then go into initiative as normal. This means that sometimes the PC who started the battle ends up going twice in quick succession if their initiative roll is high, but this makes more sense than the PC turning out to roll low on initiative and then either having the action that starts the fight cut off or being able to wait to start the fight until everyone else's turns have passed.

But now, often the players while outside a room will say something along the lines of "we roll initiative then we all Delay for Bob's turn until everyone is Delaying, then Bob kicks down the door, then we all undelay after Bob" so that all of them act immediately after the door is kicked down in a single block, no matter what the initiative rolls are on either side. As before, if any enemies on the other side of the door roll higher initiative it doesn't matter because the fight has not yet been started (they haven't detected the PCs and the door is not open yet)

Now I know that I am technically allowed to say that the PCs cannot choose to start Encounter Mode until they have actually been detected and the fight has begun, but this seems rather arbitrary. They've argued that it simply represents "SWATting" the room and I can see that, although that is rather outside the modelling of the game system because in a SWAT raid the criminals do not stand around doing nothing while all the cops enter one at a time. But while it's a reasonable action it makes the whole initiative system void which I'm sure would not be the intention.

So how do people generally deal with the moment a fight starts and this kind of preparation by PCs?


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So I was running "surprise rounds" like your players were doing for a minute, and reached the conclusion that it isn't really worth it. The game is really designed around the idea that initiative is rolled when both sides become aware of each other.

Instead, I'd let players get more agency for what skill they roll for initiative. The person kicking down the door probably rolls athletics, and the people slipping in behind might be using athletics, acrobatics, stealth, or perception. They will probably choose whichever one is their best score, and that will increase their odds of going before the enemy anyway.


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As soon as it matters which specific actions happen in which order, I call for an initiative roll - including when it comes down to "now you're going to roll to see if you can sneak up and attack before you're noticed" or "now we see if your sudden change from conversation to violence is seen coming" because the rolls that determine those details can serve double-duty as initiative rules (and that's how the rules specify handling stealth, if not also deception-related surprise).

Neither side of the potential combat actually needs to be aware of the other side for this to be the case either, as I brought up in another thread on a similar target: you could have one side sneaking along unaware that anyone's watching, and the other side laying in wait for someone to step into their sight to launch into attack - so the players could move around an encounter map and their specific paths determine if they got spotted by the unnoticed enemies, or they spot the bad guys.


Maybe try Swatting like this:

The Party decides that Bob will kick down the door, then they will bust in and all shoot the placet up. Great. The idea is that the party is trying to get "the drop" on the folks on the other side of the door. This means the party has all their weapons drawn and shields readied prior to rolling initiative. The other folks may or may not, depending upon if you, the DM, decided that the party was Sneaky enough. This was perhaps decided with Secret rolls before Bob kicks down the door.

Roll Initiative. Bob rolls Athletics, the rest of the party rolls Stealth, the other folks roll Perception. One of two results occurs:

A) The Party "surprises" their enemies, who start the combat without their weapons drawn, their shields up, without their long-duration protective spells.

B) The Party does not "surprise" their enemies - perhaps they failed that Secret Sneak check from earlier - so it turns out everyone has their weapons drawn and shields up, etc.

Either way, resolve all turns in initiative order. The Party may certainly decide to Delay until after Bob kicks down the door. If their enemies heard them coming, they probably take advantage of the Ready action.


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Pathfinder Rulebook Subscriber

I typically let a person who wants to initiate combat act first without having to roll for Initiative. Then I have the rest of the characters on both sides roll reflex to see how quickly they react and place them below that character.

I use this when a player decides “enough talk, lets stab now.” I can see using it for the “Bob breaks down the door” scenario too. Bob is taking the first move no matter what, because the bad guys on the other side of the door aren’t breaking down their own door here... but the party only gets to SWAT the room if they are quicker on the draw than the enemies are.

If a player takes an action that they did not know would initiate combat... encountering enemies while exploring when they didn’t know the enemies were present, for example... it’s the normal perception/other defined by exploration tactic initiative roll.


I have always had problems on starting combat from “exploration” outside a room

I recently (apparently) annoyed / upset some of my players because I noted they were always standing bunched up nervously outside every single door , seemingly terrified of entering a room regardless of what was in their

I basically said once they unlocked the door that I would move them all in and then we would roll initiative unless it was a surprise (which it can’t be when you need to unlock a door over three rounds). This was to make things logistically easier on the map and not have players get in each other’s way

But at least one of my players has apparently reacted really badly to this (only really learning this now after a good few months)

This is PF1 mind. I haven’t played enough v2 to know if the formal switch from exploration to encounter mainly solves my issue or not. It doesn’t seem like it solves the issue on everyone quaking in terror outside of the room

But the suggestions above look interesting.
But parties refusing to enter rooms until they are sure of tactical advantage is not a new thing it seems . I have never liked dungeon crawls for this reason


Pathfinder Lost Omens, Rulebook Subscriber

Pf2 from the playtest onwards is all about the gm playing the npcs as if they were surprised rather than having a surprise round. In the very first playtest scenario how prepared the boss is for the fight is based on how noisy the party is, but the initiative rules dont change.

I like this well as it extrapolates easily to other scenarios. Last week my group got a round of setup based of their results in a chase sequence. Initiative was rolled the same, they just knew they had a 90ft lead.

Sovereign Court

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hyphz wrote:

So, I've been having a bit of a problem identifying what should happen at the start of combats.

My method so far has been to allow the PC that is initiating the battle to complete their action outside initiative, then go into initiative as normal. This means that sometimes the PC who started the battle ends up going twice in quick succession if their initiative roll is high, but this makes more sense than the PC turning out to roll low on initiative and then either having the action that starts the fight cut off or being able to wait to start the fight until everyone else's turns have passed.

I wouldn't treat all actions the same way. It's fine if someone starts a combat by kicking in the door, and then isn't automatically at the bottom of the initiative order. But if someone starts a combat by puling a knife and stabbing an NPC they were talking to, that's a proper combat turn and the PC should wait a whole round before getting another turn.

hyphz wrote:
But now, often the players while outside a room will say something along the lines of "we roll initiative then we all Delay for Bob's turn until everyone is Delaying, then Bob kicks down the door, then we all undelay after Bob" so that all of them act immediately after the door is kicked down in a single block, no matter what the initiative rolls are on either side. As before, if any enemies on the other side of the door roll higher initiative it doesn't matter because the fight has not yet been started (they haven't detected the PCs and the door is not open yet)

This isn't really how the rules work, and for good reason. It's a massive tactical advantage for the PCs.

hyphz wrote:
Now I know that I am technically allowed to say that the PCs cannot choose to start Encounter Mode until they have actually been detected and the fight has begun,

Not just "technically allowed"; that's the standard way of running the game.

hyphz wrote:
but this seems rather arbitrary.

Not really. Rolling initiative represents people looking left and right to see where everyone else is, being quick to spring into motion and all that. You can't actually do any of that until you've encountered the opponent.

It's entirely possible that opponents on the other side are super-fast creatures who can react at lightning speed to any sudden intrusion; why should an artificial initiative order trick completely negate that ability?

If your players all insist on delaying, it's reasonable to say the monsters on the other side of the door are also all in delay because they're not in fight mode until the PCs enter. Once the door goes open everyone tries to come out of delay, so ties are broken in initiative order, and we're basically back to normal.

hyphz wrote:

They've argued that it simply represents "SWATting" the room and I can see that, although that is rather outside the modelling of the game system because in a SWAT raid the criminals do not stand around doing nothing while all the cops enter one at a time. But while it's a reasonable action it makes the whole initiative system void which I'm sure would not be the intention.

So how do people generally deal with the moment a fight starts and this kind of preparation by PCs?

The thing about a SWAT team is that it's basically a group of high-level operatives with a lot of funding for gear being deployed to completely overwhelm lower level suspects. A SWAT team bursting in is almost never a fair fight. It's basically sending a level 10 team to arrest some level 3 criminals. And in Pathfinder 2, the level 10 PCs would have much higher initiative scores so most of the time, they would be faster than the perps.

Your players have basically found (or think they found) an exploit in the rules and are making up justifications for it. Take it with a pinch of salt.


I understand it can be an unfair tactical advantage, and I don't really like the "PCs delay" thing. But the issue with the raw system is that it fails to model the fact that (in the case of a door being kicked down), the PCs know exactly when things are going to kick off and the enemies on the other side of the door don't.

I don't think you can really give any comparison to a real SWAT operation because of the initiative and action system's abstractions. If a group of professional soldiers kick down the door of the barracks of another group of professional soldiers then you wouldn't argue that the group in the barracks are just as likely to be ready as the one kicking down the door because both are equally trained fighters. But then equally the ones in the barracks would likely be delayed by their preparations whereas in PF2, if they win initiative they get their three actions unbroken and can stand up, Interact to grab their weapon and fire without being in any danger while doing those things.

Part of the problem is that most of the fights in the sample modules are presented as set-pieces with the enemies linked to the terrain in the room where they are encountered. I understand the appeal, but it does mean that if the monsters do detect the PCs through the door, they either "assume defensive positions" and wait for the PCs, or burst through the door themselves.

I've had bad results from the former, since the intended approach then becomes "we wait until we think they're tired from standing on edge and have decided we're not going to attack after all, then attack" which is difficult to deny; how long are they going to stay in those defensive positions, assuming they're not guards on shift? Hours? Days?

If they do the latter, the set piece is broken and we end up with the old issue of "why don't all the monsters in the dungeon just come to the first room?". Plus if the PCs get wind of the situation they will be surrounding the door with readied attacks, and if the monsters see that and don't attack, then the same logic applies on the other side too and every dungeon door is a siege (which is not a good situation to try and simulate since most dungeon designs do not consider supply lines).

Essentially what I want is some way to not give an unfair advantage to the PCs while still keeping the rulesfeel that tactical approaches are valid.


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It sounds to me that it requires a conversation with your players as they seem to be determined to bend the rules as much as they can

For example your part with them saying “we’ll wait until they get tired” is honestly nonsense of the highest order. Because if the enemy becomes tired so should the players . Sounds like they want to play by different rules - something that is sadly not uncommon

It seems like they want to remove the random dice rolling element of initiative from the game and that needs to be nipped. I am having a similar problem in my current 1E game where I am getting the feel that some of he players really want to take the random dice rolling element out of the game (pumping AC, attack and initiative so high using every loophole possible so they can’t be hit, always hit and always go first). It is one of the main reasons I am looking forward to the eventual switch


Pathfinder Lost Omens, Rulebook Subscriber

So the kick down the door one is already solved. Firstly the pcs are all combat ready. Swat wins because they are ready to go against opponents who aren't. If your enemies are always lounging around with their weapons out then you aren't being realistic.

For the initiative roll itself, that is what using the athletics for initiative represents. Roll high and it's a clean force through happening in a flash. Roll low and it takes an extra push giving more time for the enemy to react. Roll too low and you dont even break the door and let the enemy react. The other party members readiness to this is represented by their own perception rolls and saying 'I was prepared for this' when your low roll contradicts this is like complaining a fireball hurt when your reflex roll was a ten even though you declared you dodge.


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The Ambushing PCs have three advantages:

1) They can roll initiative with different skills
2) They start combat with their weapons drawn
3) Or, they can simply decide to avoid combat completely

...

That said, I can see an argument for starting combat with "Kicking down the door". You, the DM, establish what the other PCs are doing (Avoid Notice, Defend, Scout). Then Bob rolls an Athletics check to kick down the door, succeeding (crack) or failing (thud). This roll doubles as Bob's initiative, and everyone else rolls initiative, and combat unfolds from the top.

In this scenario, the PCs are exploiting two of their three advantages outlined above.


hyphz wrote:
how long are they going to stay in those defensive positions, assuming they're not guards on shift? Hours? Days?

9 minutes and 54 seconds - because they become fatigued after 10 minutes (assuming "defensive position" is a two-action-per-round-activity, like "prepare an action to attack").


Pathfinder Lost Omens, Rulebook Subscriber

Being on guard is probably a one action per round. You seek once every 6s. Patrolling is harder because you stride and seek.

Sovereign Court

Lanathar wrote:
It seems like they want to remove the random dice rolling element of initiative from the game and that needs to be nipped. I am having a similar problem in my current 1E game where I am getting the feel that some of he players really want to take the random dice rolling element out of the game (pumping AC, attack and initiative so high using every loophole possible so they can’t be hit, always hit and always go first). It is one of the main reasons I am looking forward to the eventual switch

I've been tempted to just houserule initiative into a Flat Check in my 1st edition game. At least I have the consolation that since my home game is the Iron Gods AP, there's also a lot of "competitive to the PCs" initiative monsters.

Sovereign Court

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hyphz wrote:
I understand it can be an unfair tactical advantage, and I don't really like the "PCs delay" thing.

So you don't like how the players are trying to bend the system, because it's cheesy and you don't enjoy the outcome.

Okay, so you just need to put your foot down.

hyphz wrote:

But the issue with the raw system is that it fails to model the fact that (in the case of a door being kicked down), the PCs know exactly when things are going to kick off and the enemies on the other side of the door don't.

I don't think you can really give any comparison to a real SWAT operation because of the initiative and action system's abstractions. If a group of professional soldiers kick down the door of the barracks of another group of professional soldiers then you wouldn't argue that the group in the barracks are just as likely to be ready as the one kicking down the door because both are equally trained fighters. But then equally the ones in the barracks would likely be delayed by their preparations whereas in PF2, if they win initiative they get their three actions unbroken and can stand up, Interact to grab their weapon and fire without being in any danger while doing those things.

So if your players really get their ambush right, enemies lose 1-3 actions because they have to draw weapons and move into positions. Meanwhile, the players can start with shields up (switch to Defend exploration tactic just before bashing in the door), have weapons already drawn, and already have their squishy casters safely positioned behind the martials.

So even without cheesing the rules, the players really do have a credible in-game advantage. Being stealthy is worth it.

To some degree, this depends on you as a GM making it clear that their efforts are to thank for this. If they were noisy while getting to the door, the enemies are standing ready. If they managed to be quiet and suddenly burst in, describe how enemies are surprised and dismayed and start scrambling to respond.

hyphz wrote:

Part of the problem is that most of the fights in the sample modules are presented as set-pieces with the enemies linked to the terrain in the room where they are encountered. I understand the appeal, but it does mean that if the monsters do detect the PCs through the door, they either "assume defensive positions" and wait for the PCs, or burst through the door themselves.

I've had bad results from the former, since the intended approach then becomes "we wait until we think they're tired from standing on edge and have decided we're not going to attack after all, then attack" which is difficult to deny; how long are they going to stay in those defensive positions, assuming they're not guards on shift? Hours? Days?

If they do the latter, the set piece is broken and we end up with the old issue of "why don't all the monsters in the dungeon just come to the first room?". Plus if the PCs get wind of the situation they will be surrounding the door with readied attacks, and if the monsters see that and don't...

Many published dungeons aren't really realistic. Just like a lot of movies aren't really realistic ("what are the chances of those people being there, managing to do those thins blah blah"). But your players are trying to use realism against you.

There's a theory about game design that covers this subject: "combat as sport vs. combat as war". Combat as sport wants to have a game where fights are nice, well-balanced set pieces. What your players are trying to do is basically unsportsmanlike. Combat as war is no holds barred, both sides are using every trick to destroy each other. Enemies will have warning systems and if the players make any mistake, all the encounters from the dungeon will converge on them to overwhelm them all at once.

Pathfinder 2 is really more written in a Combat as Sport direction, what with the need for 10 minute rests to heal up and all. Notice how close by all those rooms are on the dungeon map, because the artist was told that he had to fit them all on a single flipmat or so that will fit on your gaming table. Realistically, encounters should bleed over into each other all the time. But we cut the players some slack to make the game playable. But that cuts both ways: the players also need to cut the scenario some slack and not try to bludgeon it into submission with appeals to realism.


Ascalaphus wrote:
...

Here here. Great post, would read again.


Thanks! That's really helpful! The only issue is..

Ascalaphus wrote:


So if your players really get their ambush right, enemies lose 1-3 actions because they have to draw weapons and move into positions.

Action economy seems to be less important to the players that who attacks first - because whoever attacks first potentially crits first. The issue they have isn't that the enemy doesn't lose 1-3 actions, it's that if the enemy rolls higher initiative than them after they kick the door down then they mysteriously have to stand and watch as the enemy picks up their weapon, moves over and potentially attacks the kicker. This is a rather uncomfortable abstraction.


Pathfinder Lost Omens, Rulebook Subscriber
hyphz wrote:

Thanks! That's really helpful! The only issue is..

Ascalaphus wrote:


So if your players really get their ambush right, enemies lose 1-3 actions because they have to draw weapons and move into positions.
Action economy seems to be less important to the players that who attacks first - because whoever attacks first potentially crits first. The issue they have isn't that the enemy doesn't lose 1-3 actions, it's that if the enemy rolls higher initiative than them after they kick the door down then they mysteriously have to stand and watch as the enemy picks up their weapon, moves over and potentially attacks the kicker. This is a rather uncomfortable abstraction.

Well no one is just standing there. Turns are simultaneous in the narrative they are sequential at the table to be maddening.

I also ask, have any of them actually been in these sorts of combat situations? It is absolutely for people to hesitate, if only for a moment even when they have the advantage. If they haven't been in combat scenarios, maybe they've played video games in which you can setup such scenarios. In those games, getting the drop absolutely is an advantage (see the numerous ones listed in the thread) but doesn't make it a done deal. Although that could just be that I'm terrible at games.


Pathfinder Companion, Maps Subscriber; Pathfinder Roleplaying Game Superscriber

Just because the PCs know (or suspect) there are bad guys in the room doesn't mean they know exactly where to be moving or aiming when the door is out of the way. Maybe while the door-kicker is scanning the room looking for his first target -- or focusing on one in his direct line of sight -- a bad guy against the wall that he hasn't noticed yet steps in from his peripheral vision and swings. There's always that scene in the movie, after all, where the hero is holding a gun on the main bad guy and an unseen minion slips up from behind and clocks him.


I understand they're sequential at the table not to be maddening, but that's exactly the simulation issue. If they were simultaneous in the narrative then that guy couldn't pick up his weapon and move over without getting shot on the way, which is the PCs want to represent by Readying/Delaying; but as you correctly point out, this then breaks it in the other direction where they can do everything while the enemies are still standing still.


Pathfinder Lost Omens, Rulebook Subscriber
hyphz wrote:
I understand they're sequential at the table not to be maddening, but that's exactly the simulation issue. If they were simultaneous in the narrative then that guy couldn't pick up his weapon and move over without getting shot on the way, which is the PCs want to represent by Readying/Delaying; but as you correctly point out, this then breaks it in the other direction where they can do everything while the enemies are still standing still.

Yeah I think to properly resolve this your looking to rework initiative majorly. I've got a rough idea based on something like a tick System but shifted to not muck about the action economy too much.

Sovereign Court

hyphz wrote:

Thanks! That's really helpful! The only issue is..

Ascalaphus wrote:


So if your players really get their ambush right, enemies lose 1-3 actions because they have to draw weapons and move into positions.
Action economy seems to be less important to the players that who attacks first - because whoever attacks first potentially crits first. The issue they have isn't that the enemy doesn't lose 1-3 actions, it's that if the enemy rolls higher initiative than them after they kick the door down then they mysteriously have to stand and watch as the enemy picks up their weapon, moves over and potentially attacks the kicker. This is a rather uncomfortable abstraction.

Well, no game system is ever 100% perfect, there's always some niggling thing that you just have to put up with.

And I think your players are panicking a bit too much. If enemies are really off-guard, then they have to get up (1 action), move over (2nd action) and draw a weapon (3rd action), so by then the PCs really do get to make the first attack.


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Ascalaphus wrote:


So if your players really get their ambush right, enemies lose 1-3 actions because they have to draw weapons and move into positions.
Action economy seems to be less important to the players that who attacks first - because whoever attacks first potentially crits first. The issue they have isn't that the enemy doesn't lose 1-3 actions, it's that if the enemy rolls higher initiative than them after they kick the door down then they mysteriously have to stand and watch as the enemy picks up their weapon, moves over and potentially attacks the kicker. This is a rather uncomfortable abstraction.

This situation is totally possible.

"Thud CRASH" (Door is kicked in by Bob. Everyone rolls initiative).

The enemies must use their first actions to draw weapons, ready shields, and position themselves effectively. The PCs are already ready, and may move in and start firing.

This is still a solid advantage for the party. Even more so if they also roll higher initiative!


Pathfinder Lost Omens, Rulebook Subscriber

The funny the thing is my players have been on a roughly similar situation and all preferred to delay after the enemy because that gave them the action and bottleneck advantage (they had more ranged capability than the enemy so the fighter being the sole point of melee contact was fine)


A major issue with the Initiative system is the numbers. If you are creeping up on a creature of roughly equal level. It's perception will usually be within 1 of the skill that you are using. On a D20 roll this makes so little difference in the grand scheme of things.

Example -

Halfling Rogue creeping up on a Storm Giant rolls Initiative on his +24 stealth (Dex +5, Master in Stealth).

Storm Giant (level 13 monster) has +24 Perception so this will always be down to a straight d20 roll, despite the fact that the halfling is actively sneaking up.

This seems wrong to me.


Talsharien wrote:

A major issue with the Initiative system is the numbers. If you are creeping up on a creature of roughly equal level. It's perception will usually be within 1 of the skill that you are using. On a D20 roll this makes so little difference in the grand scheme of things.

Example -

Halfling Rogue creeping up on a Storm Giant rolls Initiative on his +24 stealth (Dex +5, Master in Stealth).

Storm Giant (level 13 monster) has +24 Perception so this will always be down to a straight d20 roll, despite the fact that the halfling is actively sneaking up.

This seems wrong to me.

Two details: 1) a creature that is your level or higher is "boss" material, so it makes sense to push the character's capabilities a bit, and 2) other monsters that are the same level as the Storm Giant have perception modifiers as low as +20.


Talsharien wrote:

A major issue with the Initiative system is the numbers. If you are creeping up on a creature of roughly equal level. It's perception will usually be within 1 of the skill that you are using. On a D20 roll this makes so little difference in the grand scheme of things.

Example -

Halfling Rogue creeping up on a Storm Giant rolls Initiative on his +24 stealth (Dex +5, Master in Stealth).

Storm Giant (level 13 monster) has +24 Perception so this will always be down to a straight d20 roll, despite the fact that the halfling is actively sneaking up.

This seems wrong to me.

An equal level monster is supposed to be the equal of a PC.

Does a different PC with master in perception having the same chances to spot the rogue as the giant make sense to you?


Pathfinder Lost Omens, Rulebook Subscriber

Also that Master in stealth probably has a stealth increasing item and importantly only has to roll a 10 (sans item) to begin the encounter with the advantage of being undetected!

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