“You have to have some kind of structure to combat in order for there to be a game, but it also sucks the vitality and energy out of something that should be fluid and dynamic and just sort of all over the place.” –Jim Davis, Web DM
I hate the initiative system in Dungeons & Dragons™. I hate it. I think it is clunky and dull and much too rigid to accurately portray the excitement and chaotic nature of combat. I firmly believe that the current initiative system is directly to blame for why combat tends to slow to a crawl, and why many Dungeon Masters succumb to the standard pitfalls of monster behavior being naught more than “I will fight you to the death because we are in combat and the initiative board has told me it is my turn.” I think the excitement that is generated from the split second of shouting “ROLL INITIATIVE” is immediately destroyed by the sheer halt in momentum that the act of tallying and tracking initiative creates. It’s a compromise of a system that has burdened my games for far too long, and I for one don’t want anything more to do with it. Initiative has always been a sacred cow of the D&D game, and with this article I plan to murder it!
Disclaimer: Let’s be frank, I’m not going to be nice about this. I really hate initiative. If you like it as a system that’s great, but this article is probably not for you. I am very biased against the current initiative system, and plan to let that bias show. This will not be a fair fight. I will sneak up behind it and use its own busted surprise round to tear that sacred cow to pieces and turn it into sacred burgers and eat it for supper. If that doesn’t sound like your cup of tea, leave now! You have been warned.
Roll Initiative, Initiative!
Initiative hasn’t really changed much since 3rd Edition: roll a d20, add your Dexterity modifier and any other relevant bonuses. Your result determines where in the initiative order you get to take your turn. Once determined, play proceeds in an orderly fashion down the list until it gets to the bottom, and then starts all over again. I attack you, you attack me, John casts a spell on Ashley, and Ashley shoots John with a bow and arrow but misses. I attack you again, you attack me back, John casts a buff spell on himself, and Ashley has to be woken up because she fell asleep waiting for her turn to come around. Rinse, repeat. For the most part, that’s it. It’s dull, predictable, slow, clunky, and boring. At least in previous editions you had the means to change it up by delaying your turn to reset your initiative score, but in 5th edition you can’t even do that anymore. Now, I’m actually in favour of doing away with the delay action as an option (it’s always been the band-aid of a rigid initiative system that shouldn’t exist in the first place), but to keep the old system without giving players the flexibility its past options provided is ludicrous.
The other thing about initiative is it sets combat scenes apart from non-combat scenes in your game. If you read this article by the Angry DM, you can quickly pick up on why initiative destroys the immersion in your game. It’s the Final Fantasy™ battle screen wipe of D&D. A moment ago you were playing a fun cooperative storytelling game, but now you are going to put that game on hold until you can resolve this turn-based Chess anagram that will probably take up most of your game night. D&D combat is supposed to be exciting. When you picture it in your head you see epic battles between stout heroes and gruesome monsters, interspersed with exciting scenes of swashbuckling swords and high magic sorcery! That is not Chess, and as much as I love Chess for what it is, I do not play D&D to play a more complex version of Chess with my friends.
So how do we fix it? Well, there’s several answers to that question, many of which we’ll discuss in greater depth in a moment. The important thing to remember is that these solutions might not work for you. These are not fixes so much as alternatives. The way combat works in D&D is inherently a compromise between structure and chaos, and no solution will be able to dance that line and simultaneously please everyone. Only you and your gaming group will be able to decide which one works best for your table. But give one a try. Heck, give several a try. Try them for a few sessions at a time; see which one sticks. If you still don’t like any of the available alternatives by the time you’ve tried them all, you’ll at least have picked up enough understanding of how each system works to craft a wholly original one yourself that does suit your specific table needs.
Variants, variants, and more variants
There are a lot of alternatives to the default initiative system as presented in the Player’s Handbook™. The Dungeon Master’s Guide™ alone has three interesting variants which drastically alter the way the base initiative system works. Beyond that, there’s the popular Mike Mearls’ Greyhawk Initiative variant “printed” in the pages of Unearthed Arcana, and even the Dungeon Master’s Guild has at least one alternative option to call its own. I’m sure the internet is chock-full of other colourful choices for you to find if you search hard enough. I’ve even come up with a couple of my own original systems, based in part of variants already available to me, which you are free to try at your leisure.
The Dungeon Master’s Guide Variants
As I said before, the DMG comes complete with three variants to initiative already built in on pages 270-271. For many of you, your search can stop there – unless of course you’re super anal like me and want to have your cake and eat it too. My biggest issue with these variants is that they correct one problem with initiative at the cost of making another one worse. But hey, maybe you don’t consider those other things problems. If that’s you, have at it!
Initiative Score. Instead of rolling initiative, try giving your players and monsters a static score (10 + Dex mod is what’s suggested, but do whatever you want). This is a great option if your number one problem with initiative is how much tracking it slows your game down. It will make your combats even more predictable, though.
Side Initiative. This option is by far the simplest one to run. If your main complaint with initiative is that you really don’t want to think about it at all when you’re busy running your monsters, then reduce the complexity of the initiative system to two sides: you versus them. In this variant, each “side” rolls a d20 for their entire group. Then, the winning side goes first and the losing side goes second. Rinse, repeat. It’s a nice and simple option because it lets all of the players go in whatever order they like, and then all of the monsters and NPCs go in whatever order you like. Simple. The downside to side initiative is that whichever side goes first can gang up on one monster or player and potentially take them out before they’ve even had a turn, but that’s a small price to pay for the simplest combat turn tracker you will ever have to run.
Speed Factor. Now, say what you will, but I really like this one. This option harkens back to 2nd edition, where your character’s race, the actions you would take, and the gear you possessed were all factored in to your initiative roll somehow. If you choose this variant, it breaks up the rigidity and predictability of combat by having players reroll their initiative every round, with bonuses or negatives based on the speed factors of everything involved. It’s a really fun system that makes players think more tactically about what they are going to do and gives them some iota of control over their speed in an ever changing battle environment. The downside, of course, is that this system is a lot more complex to juggle, and could even make the pacing issues of the default initiative system seem fair by comparison. NEXT.
Mike Mearls’ Greyhawk Initiative Variant
Mike Mearls has long said he doesn’t like the way initiative works either, and recently he shared his Greyhawk Initiative variant through Unearthed Arcana. The Greyhawk Initiative takes elements from the DMG Speed Factor variant and tries to streamline them. At the start of each round, players each briefly declare what they intend to do. This should be a simple declaration, like “I’m going to move and make a melee attack” or “I’m going to stay put and cast a spell.” Then the DM does the same with his or her monsters and non-player characters. Finally everyone rolls initiative dice, where the size and amount of dice you roll is based on what your declared action was. If you’re making a melee attack, that’s a d8. Ranged? D4. Casting a spell? Woah boy, grab that big d12. If you plan to move and do any of those things, you also roll a d6 on top of whatever the action called for. The goal is to get the smallest number, because whoever rolled lower will go first in the round. This might mean you really want to cast a spell, but you can’t risk the chance the Orc will be faster than you, so you choose to make a ranged attack instead (which, in Mearls’ system, is faster). It creates a dynamic, tactical combat that allows you to apply elements of teamwork and strategy to your initiative rolls mid-battle. Some people love it. Some people hate it. Try it and let your table be the judge.
Round Table Variant
This variant is relatively straightforward, and kind of achieves the same result as the Side Initiative in the DMG, with even less rolling. At the start of each session all the players and the DM each make an initiative check. Then you trade seats around the table until you are situated in order from lowest to highest so that when in combat everyone (DM included) can play their turns in clockwise order. The only thing that needs to be determined is surprise to see who goes first, the DM or the player to the DM’s left. This variant is ideal for playing with younger children who are used to the clockwise order of many board games, but it has all the same pitfalls of the Side Initiative variant.
The Angry DM Variant
This isn’t actually a variant for initiative at all. The Angry DM uses the default rules for initiative, but he tracks and manages the turn sequence of combat in a very specific way that streamlines everything to keep the pacing fast and the action exciting. If your only issue with initiative is that you feel it slows pacing to a crawl, maybe you don’t actually need a different initiative system, just a smarter way of tracking it. Read the Angry DM’s full article on the subject for more details, as he explains it better than I ever could. Warning: his language is not for the faint of heart!
The Chaotic Rogue Variants
Last, but certainly not least, here are two of my own homebrew variants on initiative. They are far from perfect themselves and probably could use many more hours of playtesting to get right. Take with a grain of salt.
Contested Initiative. When combat starts nobody rolls initiative. At the start of each round, players declare if they intend to negatively impact an opponent (with an attack, a spell, a grapple, etc) with their actions or not. Those who do not plan to impact an opponent (maybe they are healing an ally, or running away, or drinking a potion, etc) get to go first in whatever order they choose. Then, if any opponents wish to do actions that will have no negative impacts on the players or their allies, those opponents get to take their turns. Finally, the players and their opponents who are planning to affect each other all make opposed initiative rolls against each other, and the remaining actions play out in order based on those rolls. This variant purposefully favours defensive actions by allowing them to go before offensive actions every round, and only calls for initiative checks when necessary based on the decision of players and monsters to pursue offensive actions against the other. The downside is it requires the DM to adjudicate some timing things on the fly, but does streamline combat and makes your choices more strategic by giving you an iota of control over when you get to act.
Momentum Initiative. In this variant, players and monsters each enter combat with a static initiative score that is determined beforehand however you see fit to do so. Roll for it, make it a stat, I don’t care. If you must know, I use 10 + Dexterity modifier or Intelligence modifier (whichever is higher), but it’s your call, do whatever feels right for you. Just give them a static initiative score which determines where they sit in the initiative order. As DM, you keep track of the initiative order, which should be unchanged from the previous combat except for swapping out your monsters. As characters perform actions, their personal initiative score drops based on the action they are taking (a momentum cost). Lowering their score in this way has no effect on their actual place in the initiative order (which is based on their initial initiative score), but will impact how many actions they can take before they begin to run out of momentum and lose effectiveness in combat. Certain actions cost more momentum than others, and thus, characters who have a higher initiative score, or who are more frugal in their choice of actions, will be able to maintain momentum longer. You keep track of momentum costs and initiative scores for monster and NPC actions.
When a character’s initiative score drops to zero that character is out of momentum. A character who is out of momentum becomes incapacitated until the start of their next turn, after which they must use their action on that turn to Build Momentum. Building momentum is a special action in this variant which restores an amount to your initiative score equal to 1d12 + your Dexterity modifier, or 1d6 + your Constitution modifier instead if you are below half of your maximum hit points. You can use your action to build momentum even if you are not out, so as to avoid becoming incapacitated for half a round, but you can never raise your initiative score higher than where it started using this action. You can also restore an amount of momentum equal to your Dexterity modifier to your initiative score as a bonus action on any turn in which you used your action to Dash or Dodge. Once restored you can continue to fight until your momentum drops to zero again. Thereafter you must build momentum once more. Rinse, repeat.
I use the following chart to determine momentum costs for actions used, but feel free to come up with your own chart if this doesn’t suit the needs of your campaign.
|Actions in Combat||Momentum Cost|
|Cast a Spell (Levels 1 to 9)||1 per spell level|
|Cast a Spell (Cantrip)||1d6|
|Use an Object||1d4|
|Equip/Stow a Shield||1d10|
Remember, it’s your game – play it the way you want to
Whatever you do, don’t be afraid to try new things. Keep asking yourself what it is about the current initiative system that you don’t like. Is it the pacing? The rigid predictability? The interruption of the narrative? Something else? Whatever it is, keep digging until you get to the bottom of it. The more you examine the flaws in the system, the closer you will be to identifying a solution that will keep you and your players rolling initiative with renewed excitement in all the battles to come.
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