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.
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.
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.)
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?
- Rethinking Initiative (Newbie DM.com)
- Understanding Initiative and Surprise in D&D
- The New Initiative – Talk then Fight