Roll for Initiative… or Don’t – Alternative Approaches to Initiative

by Ameron (Derek Myers) on January 28, 2015

We’re all very familiar with these magic words: “Roll for initiative.” When the DM say this you know something big is about to happen. Many players live for these three magic words, because in their minds it means it’s time to fight monsters.

In D&D (and pretty much all other role-playing games) there is some kind of initiative mechanic; the means by which everyone can figure out who acts in what order. In some cases winning initiative can mean the literal difference between life and death for some characters.

Normally initiative is determined by rolling a d20 and adding your initiative modifier. The round begins with the highest initiative and proceeds to the lowest with each PC or monster acting when their initiative number is called. This has pretty much been the standard way of running initiative since D&D was first created. However, it’s not the only way to determine the order of action. In fact some of the initiative variants are proving to have noticeable in-game benefits which is causing more and more DM (me included) to adopt an alternative approach to initiative.

Initiative Score (a.k.a. Flat Initiative or Passive Initiative)

In the 5e DMG one of the initiative alternatives suggested is using a initiative score. It’s simple, rather than rolling for initiative, PCs act in order based on their initiative scores. You can either use the PC’s Dexterity as their initiative score, or use the PC’s Dex modifier + 10 (sort of a passive initiative).

There are two huge advantages to doing this kind of initiative. First, initiative scores are based on numbers that won’t change during a gaming session. This means the players can sit around the table in the order their characters are going to act. It makes it obvious when a player’s turn is coming up and they can prepare accordingly. This is especially helpful for new players. Second, by eliminating the rolling things move a lot faster. In 5e where you may have a lot of smaller combat encounters this can save a noticeable amount of time.

Monsters get an initiative scores using the same method as the PCs. As the DM I then point to the spot where the monster would be sitting if they were at the table and we proceed. In the case of two or more creatures (PCs or monsters) having the same initiative score, I usually let the PCs go first. I also let the players decide which one will go before the other but they have to keep to that order for the session.

What we’ve noticed is that very few monsters have a high Dexterity so they rarely go at the top of the order when we use an initiative score rather than rolling for initiative. This puts the monsters somewhere in the middle or bottom of the pack most of the time. Some PCs always seem to go before any of the monsters, and in a few cases this let the fast-acting PC thin the monsters’ numbers before any of them could hurt the party – the benefit of having PCs with high initiative scores.

The down side is that when you eliminate rolling, the PC with the lowest initiative score (the guy with the lowest Dex, and most likely the party’s heavily armored tank) will go last every single time. The way I see it, that’s just too bad for him. He chose to make Dex his dump stat knowing that he was playing a melee combatant with heavy armor that wouldn’t benefit from a high Dex. Well you know what, going last just balance the scales. If you want to go earlier in the round, pump up that Dex.

I’ve been using the iniative score method for determining order in my home games and during public play for the past month (about 10 sessions). Most people love it, especially the new players. The only naysayers are the aforementioned players running a PC with low Dexterity.

Side Initiative

This is another alternative presented in the 5e DMG. It’s quite simple, one PC representing the players side rolls a d20 and the DM rolls a d20. The side who rolled higher acts first. So if the players rolled higher it would look like this. All the PCs go, then all the monsters go. Then all the PCs go, then all the monsters go. Super-simple. This gives the players incredible freedom to work together to try amazing things on their turns. However, when all the monsters go uninterrupted by any PC’s turn, it can lead to a blood-bath. I’m not particularly fond of this approach for exactly this reason. But it does eliminate the need to track who’s turn it is, you just have to know if it’s team heroes acting or team monsters.

Popcorn Initiative

This method is a bit complicated but it can be a lot of fun. You determine who goes first using whatever normal rules you like. Whomever is at the top of the initiative goes first. When they’ve finished their turn they get to decide who goes next. They can choose a PC or a monster. When the second person completes their turn they get to decide who gets to go next, and so forth. The only stipulation is that everyone has to get a turn every round.

Here are some popular and powerful tricks that I’ve seen used when using popcorn initiative.

  • Let your party’s spellcaster go first in the round and then cast a spell that lasts until their next turn or has a effect that lasts 1 round, then hold off picking them to act for as long as possible during the following round. It’s possible to almost double the spell’s usual duration this way.
  • Chose the Cleric to act before an unconscious character so that PC doesn’t miss his next turn. This can be especially helpful if the unconscious PC already has two failed death saves.
  • Let the monsters go first early in the combat if they don’t have ranged weapons or line of sight to all the PCs. They’ll either run closer to the party putting themselves into melee range for the party’s fighter-types or waste their first turn doing nothing but readying actions.
  • Let the PCs with the highest damage output go last, then have him pick himself to go first on the following round. Now he just had two back-to-back turns. Say goodbye to some powerful bad guys.

I’ve used this alternative approach to initiative a few times with mixed results. In one case it quickly just became side initiative with all the PCs going and then all the monsters going. This really defeats the purpose of popcorn initiative. On the plus side everyone has to really pay attention because you never know when you may have to act. Great for super-intense players, not great for new players still learning their character and the rules.

The Angry DM wrote a great article about using popcorn initiative. If you think this is something you may want to try using at your gaming table, check it out. (Some NSFW language, but that’s just the Angry DM’s style.)

Other Alternatives

There are certainly other ways to determine initiative beyond the three alternative approaches I’ve described above. However, they often include a crazy amount of record keeping, a lot of unnecessary rolling, or radical changes to what we know and accept as initiative in D&D. Here are few more alternative approaches to initiative.

  • Speed Factor – In AD&D 2e each weapon had a speed factor. You would add all of your weapons’ speed factors together and that was the initiative modifier you added to your roll (which I believe was a d10 back then). It allowed the PC with small, light weapons (like a dagger) to act before those with heavy weapons (like a two-handed greatsword). Monsters had speed factors assigned to their natural weapons and spells had speed factors that usually aligned to the spell’s level. I was not a fan of this approach so we didn’t use it for very long.
  • Names in a Hat – Put all the names of each participant in a hat and draw randomly. This gave everyone in the combat an equal chance of going first or last. It’s simple, and may be more effective with newer players just learning the game, but it disregards any stats or abilities. We tried this briefly but too many players hated it so we stopped.
  • Wisdom, not Dexterity – Although I’ve never used this approach, it was mentioned on Twitter recently. The idea is that you act based on instinct and an awareness of your surroundings. Those in the know act first. It’s intuition and observation that determine initiative, not Dexterity or quickness of body. I suppose if your gaming group is ok with making this fundamental change to the initiative stat then go for it.
  • Fluid Initiative – For the groups who really, really like to roll dice, you can roll for initiative every single round. This should see the PCs with the highest Dexterity scores go first most often, but it does add additional random elements to combat. I tired this when I was younger and it was fun but slow. It certainly made each round different, but every encounter just dragged on and on. I’d strongly discourage doing this on a regular basis.
  • Popcorn on the Side Initiative – Just like side initiative described above, but it must alternate between monsters and PCs. The player chooses the PC who acts next after the monster. The DM always chooses which monster goes next. We’ve tried this variant with moderate success. We decided that if we were going to go this route we should just go all out with either popcorn initiative or side initiative and not this mediocre combination version.

A few last words

If you want to try a different approach to initiative at your table I’d recommend that you talk to everyone about it first. Springing change on an unsuspecting party can cause in-game and out-of-game problems. Although some of these alternatives approaches to initiative can improve play, some players may not like it. Especially if they’ve built their PC a certain way to take advantage of the way normal initiative works.

Reminder: In 5e D&D initiative is a Dex check, so if your PC gets a bonus to Dex checks when it’s time for initiative remember to apply that bonus to the roll. This may not be applicable very often, but make sure you don’t miss it when it happens.

Have you tried alternative approaches to initiative? Which ones have you tried? What worked and what didn’t? How would you fix any problems you encountered?

Related reading:

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1 dani January 28, 2015 at 9:30 am

Another option is to base initiative order on wisdom and adding the dex modifier. I like this method as it favors mind over body.

2 Todd January 28, 2015 at 11:07 am

The “one roll/one party” Initiative mechanism was what we’ve using up until now, three sessions in with D&D 5e. When starting out, I was concerned about the flow of the game (especially since at the time we were all new to the 5e ruleset). The ever fleet-footed Rogue in the party rolled and made sure that they had the Initiative more often than not. Far more often the Rogue’s high DEX meant that even the very slow (low DEX) Cleric had the jump on far faster creatures, for example.

It was a slight shortcut that I don’t think we need anymore, so I’m going with the Classic “Everybody roll individually, PHB-Style” for our next meet-up in two weeks. When I put the word out to the guys via chat, they were good with this, since it meant their characters initiative would not be shackled to another player’s luck with the Initiative roll (or lack of luck, as it were).

(Aside: the “Fluid Initiative” method mentioned in the article I’m saving for when the party goes to another Plane — to help further emphasize the differences in combat in Hell compared to their home turf, for example. Different plane of existence = different physics)

But I did give the guys a heads-up: any folks putzing around not remembering what their Initiative modifier is automatically go to the end of the line. 🙂


3 Alphastream January 28, 2015 at 11:17 am

Gumshoe has a slight variation of the “Popcorn” method, and the variation is really key: the person that goes last gets to choose who goes first next round. So, I might have a fighter, cleric, wizard, and then enemy skeletons and a lich. The DM chooses who acts first based on a judgment call: the players might be surprised, so the lich goes. After going, the lich could choose the skeletons, but that might mean the players will all go twice, so the lich chooses the wizard. What is nice about the system is that the choice often drives the story. The lich might challenge the wizard, and the player responds. The wizard takes their turn and shouts a command to the fighter, who storms forward and calls for healing from the cleric. The cleric acts and turns to see the skeletons rise…

I find this is far superior to the popcorn model. It reduces shenanigans, but still gives players the ability to shape the fight. They can take some hits in order to chain their actions, though it can be risky. After the lich goes, the wizard might choose for the skeletons to go, so that then the cleric and fighter go, and they could choose all three of them to go first in the next round. If they can end the fight, it pays off. If they don’t, they may take serious damage.

As much as I like that better than “popcorn”, I like the Gumshoe initiative system for modern genres only. For D&D I like normal initiative rules. I don’t find it to be a big issue, so long as the players are already engaged. When players are engaged and with the use of initiative tents (folded paper with numbers on them) it all goes really quickly for me. I don’t find initiative to be an issue at all.

4 David January 28, 2015 at 11:23 am

One of the things I liked about the Star Wars role-playing game was how they did initiative. Everyone roles initiative the normal way but it is used to determine which side gets to act in that slot. Then each side can decide who acts during that slot following rules similar to popcorn. It allowed randomness (all the players rolling poorly) while still fitting the story telling (a player revived could then act).

5 Milarky January 28, 2015 at 11:37 am

how about roll int ahead of time at the start of the session then when the surprise Attack happens just default to this , then your not giving away the surprise attack as much…
re-roll at any lull or after combat for the next combat.

6 Alphastream January 28, 2015 at 2:10 pm

Something else worth considering is the system described by Rob Schwalb for his upcoming RPG, Shadow of the Demon Lord. He describes it here: Players do not not roll. In brief, there are three combat phases and players get to choose which phase they use. Players act first in each phase. If they go in the Fast action phase, they get one action. If they go in the Slow phase, they get two actions! The third phase is where all ongoing effects are resolved, which would hopefully streamline bookkeeping during player (and monster) turns. Interesting!

7 Matthew January 28, 2015 at 7:56 pm

I actually use charisma for initiative. I use an old school kind of morale system (table), and i’ve lumped initiaitve in there as well. Rather than reflexes or acuity affecting how early you act, it’s about morale and excitement for the fight. When an important combatant is bloodied or defeated, i roll on the morale table to see how the losing side reacts. Sometimes this means rerolling initiative. I figure surprise rounds (or the lack thereof) represent acuity and reflexes enough in a D&D combat.

8 QuirkyDM January 29, 2015 at 1:56 pm

Ours is sort of side initiative, with the opportunity for those with good initiative to get first blood:
1. Players roll to beat the monster initiative score +10.
2. Anyone does so can act before the monsters in the first round. (in any order)
3. All the monsters go.
4. All the players go.
5. Repeat steps 3 and 4.

Pretty simple and easy.

9 John Lewis January 29, 2015 at 2:05 pm

I’ve experimented with a couple of alternatives but ultimately I’m back to “standard” 5E initiative. The only difference for me is that I use initiative cards (one per character/enemy/enemy group) instead of writing them down. I appreciate that a character’s initiative doesn’t change during the round (no delay etc.). That has helped me eliminate the need to write down initiative because I like to stay focused and present with the players (no DM screen, rolling dice in the open, etc.).

That being said I think I might try the following: Fixed initiative based on this formula, 10 + Dex modifier + Wis modifier. Might be interesting.

10 Suddry January 29, 2015 at 8:17 pm

Interesting article. Nice to see so many options. I’d like to comment on something if I may:

“The only naysayers are the aforementioned players running a PC with low Dexterity.”

I respectfully disagree. Part of the excitement of encounters is their unpredictability. This includes who gets to go first.

As a high dex character there are times when having the low-dex tank go before me is a tactical boon and can add interesting effects on the encounter. That typically low-dex tank needs to get into the mix and protect the softies. Passive dex initiative means the party order is always -> every single time <- the same. So basically, as encounters get harder and harder, the first few players are going to have to start many encounters holding off which effectively lets the monsters go first.

Yes, on average the high dex characters will win initiative. But, as we all know from dice rolls, that doesn't always mean a lot when faced with big nasties. This method simple ensures that the low-dex guy never gets a chance to rush into the mix first screaming with his sword brandished.

In addition, suggesting that choosing a low-dex stat is "too bad" is too simplistic and, if I may be so bold, somewhat rude. Game mechanics and character generation shouldn't necessarily gimp a character in such and basic and integral part of the game.

Thanks for the great article.

11 Dorloran January 30, 2015 at 12:35 am

I came up with a method that really works for our group. Everyone rolls per normal, including monsters. Then high roll goes first. If the high roll was even, play proceeds to the right. If the roll was odd, play proceeds to the left. Nat 20 goes first regardless and then proceed per normal. Though some characters often have high rolls, it’s not always the high Dex character so you never know who’ll go first, or second, until the rolls are made. Saves a lot of time and tracking and is more random than you might think. Seems so far for us a good mix of good approaches.

12 GrandMoffNoff January 30, 2015 at 10:43 am

The more I thought about the “Wis, Not Dex” method, it really came down to the skills Spot, Listen, and Sense Motive already holding that value in 3.5e. What I did consider as a potential viable solution to that would be providing a character the ability to avoid a surprise round if their WIS check is higher than the initiative roll of the surprise attacker or perhaps a bonus to their initiative roll for being perceptive if their wisdom check is high enough that it would be considered giving them a better awareness of their surroundings that could benefit their ability to act in combat (nothing more than a +2 usually)

13 Nicholas Scotese November 15, 2015 at 1:05 am

I have recently thought of a way to use effectively the names in a hat method, and fluid initiative with the fluid initiative in a way that might make combat go potentially faster and still use peoples base attributes. The idea is that two names are drawn from the hat at at a time (or one from a bad guy hat and one from a party hat or two from the party and bad guy hat) One then makes those drawn act in order of passive initiative until all drawn go and then repeat until everyone has went. I think this will not be as slow as the fluid initiative, maybe not quite as fast as the hat initiative and a bit more complicated. The two from two is just to have people compared within groups as well between groups, and actually have a balanced order without everyone from one side going first, or at least not extremely so.

14 Jo-Anne October 31, 2016 at 6:48 am

We have tried the AD&D “speed initiative” but slightly different …

NOTE: this is only good for DMs who can trust their players to add well .. cos very slow if the DM has to check everyone’s rolls …

on a whiteboard , u have numbers 1 – 15 … you roll your d10 for initiative, then minus your dex mod, add speed factor for weapon/spell/etc. your name then gets written next to the number.
the Dm goes through the list number by number … when your number comes up you act … then you call out what your next action will be, you roll d10 again, minus your dex modifier, add that new actions’ speed factor and you erase your name and count down from that point and put your name at the new number (starting back up at 1 once you reach 15) and thus u create a loop where all players get turns based on what actions they are doing … and it kinda makes it more realistic… someone who is fast with quicker weapons can actually end up getting a couple hits in before a slower character gets one.
it works really well with players who know their characters… it is slow if players are new and DM has to help do the maths all the time ^^

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