D&D Ideas — Initiative
Welcome once again to the weekly newsletter. This week’s topic is initiative, which we discussed in our weekly live chat. We hangout every Monday evening at 8 p.m. EST on Nerdarchy Live to talk about D&D, RPGs, gaming, life and whatever nerdy stuff comes up. Speaking of initiative in Backstabber an unusual trap buzzes around a chamber and it can really sting when it lands on an adventurer’s turn. A cloud of flying knives combine with a magical moving pit trap to assail unwary delvers along with 54 other dynamic scenarios in Out of the Box. Find out more about it here. You can get the Nerdarchy Newsletter delivered to your inbox each week, along with updates and info on how to game with Nerdarchy plus snag a FREE GIFT by signing up here.
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Delving Dave’s Dungeon
When you hear those magical words from a Dungeon Master — “Roll for Initiative” — it’s a signal the action is about to occur. But is there a better way to do initiative in fifth edition Dungeons & Dragons? I’ve seen initiative mechanics change from edition to edition. It used to be rolled every round making things more dynamic but it’s more bookkeeping and is going to slow down combat. In other systems everyone literally just says what they are going to do and it kind of goes in the order of who has an idea first.
Initiative as a group check for 5E D&D could be fun and interesting. Done this way I think it could be faster or slower depending on your D&D group.
Let’s look at how it could work. Monsters and players roll initiative and if half or more of the players roll higher they go first. If not then the monsters are up to bat first.
The advantage of this is players then choose the order they go in, maybe even some of them going together at the same time to pull off cool moves they’ve got in mind like the Colossus and Wolverine Fastball Special. This could allow players to more easily coordinate their combat tactics as a group. This is the part that could end slowing down the combat but if you’ve got players who generally know what they want to do and are good at working together it might not affect the speed of combat at all.
Another twist to this is having the sides roll initiative every round. It should be relatively fast. As each player takes their turn they just drop an extra d20 to determine their initiative check for the next round and the DM does the same for the monsters. This way it could be a dynamic back and forth as to what side acts first and also allow the players and monsters to more easily coordinate among themselves for tactics.
From Ted’s Head
Are you looking to make your 5E D&D game more tactical and reactive in combat? Do you need a more complex combat system giving you options to thwart monsters’ and other adversaries’ actions? If so then allow me to offer Reactive Initiative for 5E D&D. This system is not for everyone but if you like it please enjoy.
In this variant initiative system for 5E D&D all participants in the combat roll their check as normal and add all the bonuses before initiative is assembled as normal. Here is where things go a little sideways and allow new tactical choices.
Starting with the lowest initiative each participant declares what they are doing. Your Dungeon Master might allow the use of Deception if you could potentially hide what you were really doing countered by Insight or Perception. Continue from last to first so the character with the highest initiative sees everything going on and is able to react the fastest with the knowledge of what the battlefield looks like.
Too many times over the many years of gaming have I seen a player declare an action contrary to what the party is interested in doing. While more complex Reactive Initiative allows for a game where using a battle mat with hazards and obstacles allows players to work together more effectively but monsters and foes can also use the battleground combined with knowing what is likely to happen to their own advantage.
The other thing I would like to say about initiative is if you are a player, even though the DM is likely tracking the initiative it can be helpful that you know what the order is as well. In the game I play in on Thursday Nights — The Dawnbringers over on the Mini Terrain Domain on Twitch — Jeremy (Talmud) always records the initiative for the party in case support or healing is needed. Working together is very helpful. After all, you do want to win the combat right?
From the Nerditor’s desk
When Nerdarchist Ted and I discussed initiative in 5E D&D during the live chat I brought up how it was the only sort of indicator in the game that something else is happening. When a DM asks everyone to roll for initiative there’s a shift in demeanor — things are serious now. Initiative is conceptually tied directly to combat but Ted was quick to point out my own experiences using it for other purposes.
In a broader perspective initiative aims to keep things organized when timing is crucial. Have you ever found yourself in a situation where everyone in the game group begins talking over each other and stating their characters intentions? Particularly when characters’ actions oppose each other or the sequence of events is important there’s a great opportunity to call for an initiative check. When a DM asks for initiative it tends to get everyone’s attention. Initiative also provides an impartial decision maker for who acts in what order. The dice speaketh.
Like Dave and Ted I feel there’s lots of potential to use initiative interactions as rewards, boons and other ways to shake things up. For example a party of highly skilled adventurers might receive a boon from their DM allowing them to swap places in the order after initiative is rolled. This could represent the group’s experience together. Everyone generally knows or has a good idea what their longtime allies can do and when it’s most beneficial.
I also like to track initiative separately for distinct adversaries or groups along the same lines as Lair Actions. It absolutely makes a combat scenario more dynamic for one thing. A DM can also use staggered initiative counts for all sorts of things like a secondary monster group entering the fray or to mark when environmental effects go off. A really easy example is the often overlooked violet fungus (or any creature with camouflage or false appearance). Adventurers engage in combat and it turns out the purplish mushrooms all around start making 1d4 Rotting Touch attacks on their initiative. Uh oh!
At the end of the day what most intrigues me about initiative as a conversation topic is like so many core components of 5E D&D there’s wonderful design and creative space to explore surrounding it. With the volume of content creation we do for the game we’ve been able to stretch our imaginative design muscles in lots of fun ways simply by seeing what we can do with mechanics like this.
One last thing before you go is a reminder that initiative is an ability check. This means character features, spells, magic items and so forth granting bonuses to these apply to initiative as well. All of a sudden the stone of good luck looks better than ever, right?
*Featured image — When adventurers step inside a trapped chamber the fun begins courtesy of an swarm of stinging animated daggers and a devious pit trap moving about the space in Backstabber, one of 55 dynamic encounters ready to drop into your game in Out of the Box. [Illustration by Kim Van Deun]