Q: Is it possible to “take 10” or “take 20” on an initiative check?
You can “take 10” on a check only when you are not threatened or distracted. Combat, even impending combat, is both threatening and distracting. So, in general, you cannot “take 10” on an initiative check. I can think of one possible exception: when a group plans an ambush and succeeds in surprising the foe, the GM might assume that the ensuing combat will go according to some prearranged plan, and in that case, the ambushers might be allowed to “take 10” when it’s time to determine initiative. Of course, the ambushers must have laid such a plan ahead of time. Anything that disrupts the plan, such as an enemy spotting the ambushers and being able to act in the surprise round, disallows taking 10…
I suppose also that if you want to save a little time during a game, you might assume everyone “takes 10” on initiative for the entire adventure. In that case, everyone has a static initiative value for the adventure. I don’t recommend this for campaign play, but for a quick game (at a convention perhaps), it could save some time.
“Taking 20” on any check represents trying the check over and over again until you get an optimal result. This is why “taking 20” consumes so much time (20 times the usual or two minutes for something that normally requires a standard or full-round action). You never have that kind of time available for an initiative check, which you make just as a combat begins. In cases where a group lays careful plans for an attack, apply the surprise rules or allow a small initiative bonus (generally +2).
Q: Is it possible to use the delay action during a surprise round? If you can delay when you have surprise, can you delay into the first full round of combat and, thus, get a full round of actions against your foes when they’re flat-footed (as opposed to the single action you get during the surprise round)?
Delaying is simply sitting back and seeing what develops. Delay isn’t an action, so there’s no reason you cannot delay during a surprise round. It’s possible to delay for a whole round and into the next, so you actually improve your initiative number at the cost giving up your action during the previous round. If you want to sacrifice a surprise action to guarantee yourself a high initiative score in the first full round of combat, I see no reason why you could not do so. You’re simply sizing up the opposition while they’re temporarily befuddled and still beating them to the punch. There’s a couple of things to keep in mind, however.
If you surprise a foe, you get a single action during the surprise round. If your foe is unaware and thus unable to act during the surprise round, you make an initiative check, and if you get a higher result that your foe gets, you’ll get to act against your flat-footed foe in the first regular round of combat. This gives you a single action during the surprise round and a full round’s worth of actions in the first regular round of combat. If your initiative bonus is higher that your foe’s (or if you’re just feeling lucky), it may be worth delaying in the surprise round and trying to beat your foe’s initiative result for the regular combat.
Foes who are aware of you during a surprise round get to act during the surprise round, in initiative order. If you delay during a surprise round when a foe is aware, that foe gets a single action while you delay. If you later act during the first full round of combat, you can do so with an initiative number higher that your foe’s; however, a foe who as acted during the surprise round is not flat-footed during the first full round of combat. You might be able to slip in your action early in the round, but your foe is fully aware of what’s going on and ready to react to you by virtue of his or her earlier action.
What is Initiative?
When my colleagues and I set out to revise the D&D, it wasn’t long before we realized that we needed to revisit the concept of initiative in some detail. We wanted to establish a clear procedure for starting an encounter and we wanted a system for deciding who can act when that worked quickly at the game table. The first thing we tossed out was the old, well-established practice of having everyone declare actions, then rolling initiative and running the round (more or less) according to everyone’s declarations. It seemed to us that in doing so, we were playing each round of combat twice.
After some experimenting, we settled on the straightforward method of checking initiative once as the combat begins and using the resulting order of actions for the whole combat. Under this system, your initiative check represents your ability to assess a developing situation, gather your wits, and act to affect it in some meaningful way. That’s why you’re flat-footed at the beginning of an encounter until you’ve taken an action. In cases where a situation is developing and you don’t know it, the surprise rules come into play,
After playing with the system for a while, it occurred to us that a high initiative score should be a resource you can expend to manage your actions more to your liking. That idea gave rise to the delay action (in which you literally burn off your high initiative number so you can act a time you choose). Once we had that idea in place, the ready action (in which you anticipate an event and prepare to act when it happens) seemed like a natural addition to the system.