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D&D 5E Transitioning to Combat

Lyxen

Great Old One
Hi folks, I was wondering if I could get some good ideas as to how, at your tables, you deal with the transition to combat. At our tables, it's one of the very few areas where we have a house rule, as the 5e rules are generally flexible enough that we manage with the core rules and local rulings for edge cases. But in the case of transitioning to combat, we have a house rule that I'll explain later, but you might have a good idea what it is from the examples that I list below for you to tell me how you would deal with them at your tables, with RAW or house rules.

Just as a reminder, the 5e theory is that you can only attack while in combat, because it requires the attack action, which is a combat action (but again, some tables ignore this, which can certainly be a solution).

  • Example 1: Negotiation between the party and a troupe of adversaries (drows for example), everyone is seeing that this is going to get sour, and PCs and NPCs both want to be prepared for when hostilities start, but no one wants to be the one that actually start it. How do you deal with this ?
  • Example 2: An assassin wants to make sure to have the drop on his unsuspecting target, who is in the next room with a locked door and a potentially noisy lock...
  • Exemple 3: The target of an assassination contract suspects an assassin is lurking in the next room, he wants to ensure that there is as few chances of him being surprised as possible...
  • Example 4: Ambush ! The party wants to coordinate their attacks to that they all surprise the column of orcs in the ravine below. How do they achieve this ?
  • Example 5: Knifing in the street. A PC rogue wants to walk up to a politician at the agora and knife him in the back and make sure that he can achieve a quick get away despite the guards, both the bodyguards of the politician and the city guards around.

And I'm sure that you'll find plenty more examples. :)
 

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el-remmen

Moderator Emeritus
These all seem fairly straightforward - and in general, I would recommend just ruling with what makes sense in the scenario and worrying less about the specific rules:

Example 1: Once one side of the other actually moves to be hostile, I'd call for initiative OR if things are really tense, I might call for initiative BEFORE hostilities break out and let us go through initiative doing and saying things that either calm things down or heat things up until someone uses their action to attack or whatever.

Example 2: If the assassin gains surprise, roll initiative as normal, but the surprised person does not get to act that first round, thus the assassin potentially getting two attacks before the target goes once - if you think the assassin really should have the drop, let them roll initiative with advantge.

Example 3: This is totally up to the player or how you describe the NPC's actions - what do they specifically do to keep from being surprised? Details are needed.

Example 4: See example one: Roll initiative and the surprised orcs do not get to act the first round. If the PCs want to coordinate attacks they an do stuff like make readied actions (I allow for delay in my games too, but that is a house rule)

Example 5: Assuming he can get in close enough to the politician without being spotted as a potential assassin (let's say the politician is greeting a crowd of would-be supporters) then I'd let the attack happen outside of initiative and then call for initiative once/if the bodyguards notice the attack. In this case, I might even allow a surprise round after the initial attack, if the bodyguards are surprised by the politician suddenly collapsing or whatever.
 

Quickleaf

Legend
Example 1: Negotiation between the party and a troupe of adversaries (drows for example), everyone is seeing that this is going to get sour, and PCs and NPCs both want to be prepared for when hostilities start, but no one wants to be the one that actually start it. How do you deal with this ?
Sounds like this is a case of wanting to goad the other side into initiating hostilities? I'd actually need to know how each side (drow & PCs) intend to to do that – will it just be through roleplaying (e.g. leveraging known bonds/ideals/flaws or insult-slinging) or does someone intend to use magic (e.g. crown of madness)? In the former case, I'd let it play out until the breaking point and someone decides to attack, then roll initiative as normal. In the latter, I'd be inclined to roll initiative unless they had the Subtle Spell metamagic.

This would not be a case of Insight vs Deception, IMHO, because everyone is on high alert, suspicious of the other side, and anticipating a breakdown in negotiations, and also no one has declared intent to deceive the other side.

Example 2: An assassin wants to make sure to have the drop on his unsuspecting target, who is in the next room with a locked door and a potentially noisy lock...
The assassin is going to have to play smart to reach the target...
  • Cast silence on the door before picking the lock, or maaaybe using some kind of metal-dissolving acid that doesn't make noise.
  • Use scry + teleport tactics or other spells/magic to get inside.
  • Disguise themself as someone who is supposed to bypass the locked door, for example, to deliver food to the prisoner once a day or an official come to perform a followup interrogation.
  • Orchestrate a "lapse in the prison defenses" or even a "masse jailbreak" to lure the target into attempting escape... right into an exposed position where the assassin wants them.
  • Slip sticks of burnt othur fumes incense under the tiniest gap beneath the door and try to kill the target with poison gas.

Exemple 3: The target of an assassination contract suspects an assassin is lurking in the next room, he wants to ensure that there is as few chances of him being surprised as possible...
Like in the above situation, the target needs to play smart...
  • Pay off or blackmail a guard to keep him informed of anyone suspicious entering the prison.
  • Use magic like clairvoyance or arcane eye.
  • Send their familiar (or other invisible animal companion / conjured critter / homunculus / pet) to scout the main hall/area leading to their prison cell.
  • Rig some kind of a simple "bucket trap" on the door to make a bunch of noise (or potentially even splash rock dust/chalk on invisible intruders) when the door is opened.
  • Getting a message out of the prison to circulate among local crime guilds that he'll pay twice the contract on his head to not be killed.

Example 4: Ambush ! The party wants to coordinate their attacks to that they all surprise the column of orcs in the ravine below. How do they achieve this ?
Unless there are further details, this one is a pretty straightforward group Dexterity (Stealth) check opposed by the orcs' passive Perception. If half or more of the PCs succeed, then they collectively surprise the orcs in the ravine.

It's also entirely possible that certain players may have creative ideas, spells, or class abilities that they want to draw upon in order to ambush the orcs. In that case, I arbitrate those on a case by case basis – some may be narrative fluff, others might grant advantage, and others might allow them to auto-succeed. It depends on the resources expended, the player's idea, and the specific details of the scenario.

Example 5: Knifing in the street. A PC rogue wants to walk up to a politician at the agora and knife him in the back and make sure that he can achieve a quick get away despite the guards, both the bodyguards of the politician and the city guards around.
The PC rogue needs to do some advance planning. If this was impromptu, there would be no "quick getaway" – there would be an edge-of-your-seat chase scene, where I'd rely on my rewrite of the 5e chase rules.

Some things the rogue might do to set things up for a quick getaway might include...
  • Dosing the stew at the city guard's barracks with a long-acting lethargy-inducing poison.
  • Paying off some kids to drop marbles or caltrops when the mean bodyguards are in pursuit.
  • Learning that the local temple of Tymora has a procession to vespers during the politician's time at the agora, and having garments created which can quickly make them blend into the temple robes worn by the priests of Tymora.
  • Having an ally pre-cast longstrider, pass without trace, nondetection, or similar spells.
 

Charlaquin

Goblin Queen (She/They)
Example 1: Negotiation between the party and a troupe of adversaries (drows for example), everyone is seeing that this is going to get sour, and PCs and NPCs both want to be prepared for when hostilities start, but no one wants to be the one that actually start it. How do you deal with this ?
I continue running the negotiation scene until either one of the PCs declares a hostile action or something pushes the NPCs to attack. If hostilities are initiated, roll initiative.

  • Example 2: An assassin wants to make sure to have the drop on his unsuspecting target, who is in the next room with a locked door and a potentially noisy lock...
Not enough information. I’m hearing that the assassin wants to get the drop on his target and that a potentially noisy lock is an obstacle to that goal, but no action to resolve. What happens next would depend on what the assassin does to try and overcome the obstacle and accomplish his goal.

  • Exemple 3: The target of an assassination contract suspects an assassin is lurking in the next room, he wants to ensure that there is as few chances of him being surprised as possible...
Again, I don’t have enough to go on here. What does the target do to ensure he isn’t surprised?

  • Example 4: Ambush ! The party wants to coordinate their attacks to that they all surprise the column of orcs in the ravine below. How do they achieve this ?
That’s their job to decide, I just adjudicate the actions they declare.

  • Example 5: Knifing in the street. A PC rogue wants to walk up to a politician at the agora and knife him in the back and make sure that he can achieve a quick get away despite the guards, both the bodyguards of the politician and the city guards around.
Sounds like quite a task. They can tell me what preparations they want to make, and I’ll resolve those actions as they’re declared.
 

In every case I consider the actions, the environment, and the character(s) and then either narrate the outcome (that is, tell them they succeed or fail) or, if the outcome seems uncertain, ask for an attribute check.

For example, if someone sat with their back to the wall, holding a weapon, waiting for assassins, I wouldn’t make any rolls for surprise and just roll initiative normally. If they tried to do that all night long I might ask for a constitution check, and if they failed that (and fell asleep) I would do a normal stealth vs perception check to determine surprise.
 

Ovinomancer

No flips for you!
None of these are combat whoosh moments, but instead all seem like further action resolution is necessary to resolve.

1. The PCs can try to force the other side to "draw first" with a successful action, say maybe an intimidate or deception contested by a WIS save or WIS(Insight) as the GM wishes.

2. Assassin needs to declare some actions. It seems like he has some problems in his way and they need resolving. I don't see combat close enough here to worry about the whoosh.

3. Okay, what's the target doing about it? Again, no combat whoosh moment here.

4. This is closer, but seems like a straightforward group DEX(Stealth) contested by the individual passive Perception scores of the orcs. If successful, the orcs would be surprised. You could also do a group Initiative check (it is an ability check, if a special one) to see here as well.

5. This seems pretty hard, but the PC can try, certainly. Sounds like that player needs to declare an action so that it can be adjudicated. Might help to flesh out that scene a bit.
 

Umbran

Mod Squad
Staff member
  • Example 1: Negotiation between the party and a troupe of adversaries (drows for example), everyone is seeing that this is going to get sour, and PCs and NPCs both want to be prepared for when hostilities start, but no one wants to be the one that actually start it. How do you deal with this ?

So, everyone's aware, and nobody is really surprised. When someone finally declares a combat action, you roll initiative. This can mean the person who announced the attack may not actually be the first one to act. Some GM's will put the initial attacker in the top of the initiative order for the first round, and slip them back down to their initiative spot for second and succeeding rounds.

  • Example 2: An assassin wants to make sure to have the drop on his unsuspecting target, who is in the next room with a locked door and a potentially noisy lock...

You have some Stealth and Thieves' tools checks before you get to combat. If the assassin doesn't alert the target, they may get a surprise round. Otherwise, initiative as normal when they can actually interact.

  • Exemple 3: The target of an assassination contract suspects an assassin is lurking in the next room, he wants to ensure that there is as few chances of him being surprised as possible...

Kind of non-specific. The best way may be to open the door. They may lose initiative, but they probably won't be surprised, given the expectation.

  • Example 4: Ambush ! The party wants to coordinate their attacks to that they all surprise the column of orcs in the ravine below. How do they achieve this ?

Hold actions are probably a good way to achieve this.

  • Example 5: Knifing in the street. A PC rogue wants to walk up to a politician at the agora and knife him in the back and make sure that he can achieve a quick get away despite the guards, both the bodyguards of the politician and the city guards around.

Lots of variables - is the PC a known threat? Is it legal to carry weapons? Is the politician aware that someone wants them dead? In broad daylight? Bodyguards in general probably won't allow people to get within melee range, and likely have something like the Protection fighting style. The PC really shouldn't expect to be able to do this and get away clean unless they are rather high level.
 

Blue

Ravenous Bugblatter Beast of Traal
All of these seem pretty straightforward. Someone actually declaring combat starts combat. Then it's potentially a roll for surprise (or implementation of one already made), and then initiative. Except the last example, that includes a conclusion past the initiation of combat - that has to be worked out.

So the example with the negotiations break down but no one wants to start. It doesn't transform into combat until someone actually starts. A declaration from either side. It seems everyone knows it's coming so no real chance at surprise so it's just initiative.

To give a related example, say there's negotiations that aren't going well but it doesn't look like hostilities are imminent, and then the poker-faced assassin goes for a stab. In that case I would do surprise but with Deception vs. passive Insight.

Let's look at Example #4, the ambush. We've got the stealth checks and passive perception going. The party wants to coordinate - is this some unfulfilled wish floating in the aether or did they actually plan to do so by setting up a signal, even if it's "wait until I fire". If they had no plan for coordination, it is completely possible that some of party are caught off-guard as well.

We already know what the result of the stealth vs. perception check for surprise is, since the ambush-ees didn't see the party (else it would be different). So it's likely something like "They are riding into view around the far bend. Stop me when you want to do something. Okay, all are in view and about 200 feet from the closest of you. 150 feet. You can see orc warchief, he's leading from the front. 125 feet. Let me know when you want to do something. 100 feet. 80 feet. If they get within 30 feet it's more likely they will spot you. 60 feet -- what's that, you want to attack when they are 35 feet from the closest? Gotcha."

Now, by the book, initiative will determine the order, and the people before the person signalling will be readied since that is their effective declared action. But mechanically that will usually penalize the people who rolled well (no move+attack, no extra attack, etc) which is contrary to the spirit of the resolution system so if it's "wait for me to fire" I'll put them at the start of round regardless of initiative.

(Note for players with DMs who just roll initiative and don't want to chance getting penalized with "Ready" - make the signal something you can do outside combat, such as the cry of a native bird. That shouldn't be part of the initiative order, so then everyone just goes when they roll.)

Example #5 is only slightly about the declaration of combat, and that part has been covered. The rest is about ensuring one specific outcome, and really for me that's not something a game like D&D does. Other games you can lay out stakes and go for it in an atomic transaction, D&D wants to play out each bit.
 

Northern Phoenix

Adventurer
Personally, the moment combat is about to start for any reason, it goes to initiative. Various circumstances simply determine the "Surprise" situation. I don't let anything completely "skip" or otherwise bypass the initiative mechanic unless it's completely and utterly incidental (i.e if a level 10+ Ranger wants to kill a non-story-relevant regular wolf, i'd just say "roll to kill wolf").
 

GMMichael

Guide of Modos
I think a couple of the responses are missing the actual question here: when is combat?

My TL;DR answer: combat is when opposing parties can react to each other offensively. Unless both parties have offensive intent, there's no need to roll initiative.

And Kord himself would be offended by the notion that attacks can't happen out of combat, but that's another thread.
 

Steampunkette

Shaper of Worlds
Supporter
I like to shout out "Clickety Clackity Roll for Attackity!" so people roll for initiative!

More seriously:
  • Example 1: Negotiation between the party and a troupe of adversaries (drows for example), everyone is seeing that this is going to get sour, and PCs and NPCs both want to be prepared for when hostilities start, but no one wants to be the one that actually start it. How do you deal with this ?
Wait'll someone swings. Until that point combat hasn't started. Though if you wish to force the matter, have your players roll an "Insight Initiative" to act as soon as they recognize the enemy is about to draw steel with the NPCs rolling either Deception or Insight for initiative, as well.
  • Example 2: An assassin wants to make sure to have the drop on his unsuspecting target, who is in the next room with a locked door and a potentially noisy lock...
Have the assassin roll a Lockpicking Check and oppose it with the Perception of the unsuspecting target. If he gets through without alerting the victim, problem solved. Alternatively, present them both as initiative checks.
  • Exemple 3: The target of an assassination contract suspects an assassin is lurking in the next room, he wants to ensure that there is as few chances of him being surprised as possible...
Block the doors and windows from the inside. You can't "Pick" a heavy wooden dresser pressed to the opposite side of the door. Nor windows that are nailed shut.
  • Example 4: Ambush ! The party wants to coordinate their attacks to that they all surprise the column of orcs in the ravine below. How do they achieve this ?
Tell them to tell you what they're doing on the first round, describe it all happening at once if they manage to be stealthy enough to ambush, then run combat normally.
  • Example 5: Knifing in the street. A PC rogue wants to walk up to a politician at the agora and knife him in the back and make sure that he can achieve a quick get away despite the guards, both the bodyguards of the politician and the city guards around.
Players roll a Deception Check for Initiative against the Bodyguard's Insight Check Initiative. The Politician goes on a 1.
 



Lyxen

Great Old One
Hi guys, thanks for all the replies, and my apologies for taking so long to respond. I see that a lot of suggestions have been made, here are my comments:
  • @commandercrud, @DemoMonkey, @Charlaquin, @Bill Zebub, @Umbran, @Blue, @Northern Phoenix, @Steampunkette : when someone declares an action that initiates combat, roll initiative, initiative is king, everyone wants to be ready for combat.
    • While I agree that everyone would like to be ready for combat, some are not entitled to whereas others are, have prepared for it and are ready. Therefore, for me, it's a bit harsh to ignore the preparation, and I don't like the fact that combat suddenly wipes out everything that has gone on before. We've had many discussions with the DMs at our tables, and barring one exception, we all feel that it's a bit too much like a computer game switching to combat mode.
  • @el-remmen : Roll initiative before combat so that even discussion can be timed and done in order and last minute actions before combat can be taken into combat.
    • I honestly really like that one, and we have been using it now and then in particular because it also controls those situations when everyone wants to speak at the same time, some to inflame the situation, others to calm it down. My main criticism of it is that it makes the discussions a but unnatural and combat becomes almost impossible to avoid, but the structure is good.
  • @el-remmen : Advantage on initiative for assassin.
    • This one is a bit complicated for me, the assassin already has so many advantages linked to winning initiative, it becomes really overkill, and hard to tailor, why for him, under which condition, etc.
  • @Steampunkette : Roll initiative against Insight check of bodyguard, assign Inititiative of 1 to clueless
    • Again, a good suggestions, just some that are hard to assess as to their applicability, whether it's a very local ruling or something that can happen often, and the circumstances in which it is allowed.
  • @el-remmen : Making the (first) attack out of initiative
    • This is something that I have tried before, but it's slightly unsatisfactory, because it completely removes the effect of initiative, as well as being (as above) hard to assess what is the rationale for doing it sometimes and not all the time.
  • @Quickleaf, @Ovinomancer, @Blue, @Steampunkette : lots of good suggestions about problem solving in general and playing smart, which are excellent, but less about the actual transitioning to combat.
  • @GMMichael : Just a point, you don't need both sides to want combat, for me one side is sufficient... ;)
  • @Umbran: Hold (Ready, I think) Actions
    • This is the closest to the solution that I'm using. The only thing is that, theoretically, Ready actions are only combat actions, so combat must have started for them to be used.
    • So this is one of my very few departure from the RAW, I allow characters to ready actions outside of combat.
    • Some advantages: It's part of the game system, it's not a new mechanic, and it's easy to put in place, as well as easy to know when it's allowed.
    • It's also limited just like ready actions are, because you need to be specific about the trigger, and that trigger actually has to happen otherwise the action is lost. And you can ready a single action, which is a further limitation.
    • In turn this requires everyone to be clever about what they are looking for and about their response. It's also reasonably linked to roleplaying.
    • And of course, I allow it for NPCs too.
    • For me, it really solves each of the five examples in a fairly elegant way, assuming of course that whoever is playing in these situations thinks clearly and projects himself in the game world to imagine what could happen and how they would react.
I hope I have not forgotten or misrepresented anyone. In any case, thanks for all the really good solutions, would be happy to continue the discussion of course.
 

el-remmen

Moderator Emeritus
@Lyxen To be clear, my suggestion about advantage was not meant to be an "always" rule, but in the spirit of 5E's "rulings" and something the DM can grant when it seems reasonable given the situation but no specific rule applies.
 

Lyxen

Great Old One
@Lyxen To be clear, my suggestion about advantage was not meant to be an "always" rule, but in the spirit of 5E's "rulings" and something the DM can grant when it seems reasonable given the situation but no specific rule applies.
I know, and as such it is completely within the spirit of 5e, local rulings and using the advantage/disadvantage mechanics.

Just to be clear, it's just that I have an assassin in the campaign that I'm currently running, he's one of our few powergamers left (assassin/gloomstalker optimised for first strike sigh), and I'm reluctant to provide him with tools that he could consistently try to use to trigger all his first strike advantages.
 

Umbran

Mod Squad
Staff member
  • @Umbran: Hold (Ready, I think) Actions
    • This is the closest to the solution that I'm using. The only thing is that, theoretically, Ready actions are only combat actions, so combat must have started for them to be used.
    • So this is one of my very few departure from the RAW, I allow characters to ready actions outside of combat.

So, I'm glad, because I find part of the objection to this to be... torturous rules-mongering, no matter what Jeremy Crawford thinks.

In the rules Ready appears in the "actions in combat" section. However, Cast Spells, Help, Hide, Search, and Use Objects are all things characters can clearly do outside of combat, so merely appearing on the Actions in Combat list doesn't mean you can't do it other times! While Crawford has his take on it, the rules a written don't explicitly prohibit it.

The stronger argument, though, is that, "I ready to pull the lever as soon as the Evil Duke enters the room," should be a perfectly cromulent declaration for your character's action. Any rules interpretation that does not allow for such needs to go into the ashcan.

If that's not enough, we can note that in the case of ambush, the Readied action won't happen outside of combat. Bob says that he intends to start combat. Jill readies to go after Bob. John readies to go after Jill. Sarah readies to go after John. None of the readied actions will happen before Bob starts the fight! It's fine!

For those who are supremely picky, we can note that this can all backfire spectacularly if Bob doesn't get surprise.
 

Northern Phoenix

Adventurer
Hi guys, thanks for all the replies, and my apologies for taking so long to respond. I see that a lot of suggestions have been made, here are my comments:
  • @commandercrud, @DemoMonkey, @Charlaquin, @Bill Zebub, @Umbran, @Blue, @Northern Phoenix, @Steampunkette : when someone declares an action that initiates combat, roll initiative, initiative is king, everyone wants to be ready for combat.
    • While I agree that everyone would like to be ready for combat, some are not entitled to whereas others are, have prepared for it and are ready. Therefore, for me, it's a bit harsh to ignore the preparation, and I don't like the fact that combat suddenly wipes out everything that has gone on before. We've had many discussions with the DMs at our tables, and barring one exception, we all feel that it's a bit too much like a computer game switching to combat mode.

If you are sufficiently prepared, and your opponent is sufficiently unprepared, they will be "Surprised" and will not be able to do anything in the first turn of combat regardless of the initial initiative role, so there is still a benefit for setting up an ambush or whatever.
 

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