How to handle time when a separated party member enters combat alone?
Several party members are in a dungeon together, but one party member has (perhaps foolishly) run off by themselves, and is now separated from the rest of the party by several hundred feet. This solo party member then encounters a monster and enters combat, but the rest of the party is too far away to be aware that there is combat taking place.
I'm wondering what is the best way to handle "combat time" in this situation:
The solo party member rolls for initative and enters combat, but the rest of the party remain in free-form "narrative time". This accurately reflects the fact that the rest of the party don't know that combat is happening, but also allows the solo player to wait indefinitely on his turn until the rest of the party have time to catch up (e.g. moving their tokens on a VTT). This effectively means that time is moving at a different rate for different party members, which seems like it could cause problems.
Everybody rolls for initiative. This solves the problem with inconsistent time tracking, and requires the rest of the party to use their turns to move their speed and catch up with the separated player. However it also implies that the rest of the party are somehow magically able to react quickly to combat that they cannot see or hear, which requires some suspension of disbelief.
Only the separated player rolls initiative, while the other players enter combat with an initiative of zero. A compromise solution which allows time to be tracked in rounds for the whole party without implying the whole party is magically aware of being in combat. The initiative of zero reflects the fact that the rest of the party is unaware of combat and does not have a chance to react quickly.
I'm leaning towards the third option myself, but would like to know how others would handle this and if there are any better options (or if the rules specify a particular approach).
- Ask for what everyone is doing. (Action declarations.)
- After everyone has declared and thereby initiated their actions, that is, their characters have committed and are starting to do their thing, you can start processing how the actions go.
- Process the actions starting from the one who is the most likely to get a decision point next, either due to a monster, a trap, meeting a crossroads in a corridor, or just because they are doing a quick action.
- Then, you (the entire group) know what every character is doing know how long those actions are going to take. When someone meets a monster, you know where the other characters are. If you are using a map, ask them to place their tokens there, helping as necessary them to remember what their characters were doing.
- Those who are aware of the fight enter initiative. Those who are not in combat do not do anything with their characters.
- After each combat round, figure out whether the other characters are aware of what is happening. (Depending on which edition of D&D you are using, you might want to use some combination of common sense, perception, listen and surprise checks for this.) A clever or scared character who yells when attacked might very well alert the others pretty quickly.
- Any characters who have become aware of the combat roll initiative and are now part of the combat.
- Any characters who are not aware of the combat continue doing whatever their player committed them to doing; given that a combat round takes 6 seconds or maybe up to about a minute, depending on the edition of D&D, characters of the other players are probably continuing whatever they were doing for as long as the combat continues, unless they notice it.
Suppose the action declarations (step 1) are:
- Agder is searching the abandoned storeroom, using half an hour on it. (The referee or dungeon master should ask how much time they are committing if the player does not say it themselves.)
- Buskerud is on watch at the T-intersection to the map east, at least until the wound dressing and resting is done (below).
- Colin is checking and treating the wounds of a torchbearer, which takes ten minutes or so.
- The torchbearer (a hireling) is resting and having their wounds treated.
The referee tells that okay, this is what you start doing.
A giant crab spider sneaks along the ceiling to attack Buskerud, who is surprized. This happens 5 minutes from the action, and as such is the first thing to happen. (The referee has also determined that Agder is not finding anything before 20 minutes have passed.)
We now know that Buskerud and the spider are in combat, while the others are not. We also know what everyone is doing.
Buskerud and the spider roll initiative.
We resolve their combat actions as usual; Buskerud avoids the spider's attack and manages to yell out. Neither combatant goes down. Agder is moving stuff in the storeroom and does not have visual contact and is also making a fair amount of noise, so the referee rules a 4/6 chance for them to hear the combat, which they do not. (Or use skill rules if your edition of choice has those.) The other two do actually see and hear Buskerud fighting against a spider, though they are some distance away; there is only straight corridor between them.
So now the torchbearer decides to fetch Agder, while Colin enters the combat.
Agder is not aware of the combat, so continues with rooting through the storeroom, as declared earlier.
I have used this for various editions of D&D and related games, including Holmes basic, various B/X or BECMI-based OSR games, Pathfinder 1 and D&D 5, and it works. First figure out what everyone is doing, then resolve them starting from whoever is the next to get to make some decision.
Also note that the players whose characters are not involved in the immediate situation can still participate in table talk to the extent that is usual for your gaming group. You might also have them run hirelings or henchfolk, or even the enemies, or generally help with managing the initiative or other table tasks if their character is completely out of the situation, as sometimes happens.
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