Rethinking Initiative

Posted on January 28, 2015 by

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“You enter a room, the smell in here’s musky.  The ground is covered in a fine dust, and you can see footprints, along with a few drops of fresh blood.”

“The creatures must have come through here. I want to roll perception, maybe to see if I hear something… 15… Anything?”

“You do, you hear soft breathing noises from the shadows in the far northwest corner.”

“I tell my companions.”

“When you do, the creatures step out from the darkness, revealing themselves. Roll for initiative.”

Another player looks up from his phone… “Wait, what??”

A twitter conversation caught my eye the other day:

“A disruptive smash cut”, to use an film editing term, is a great way to describe the effect of calling for initiative. Usually, in my home game, the call for initiative wakes up one or two players from their cell phone induced trance. That’s a topic for another day, sure, but it ties into this. The initiative roll tells my players that story time is over, now we get into a fight. It’s attention grabbing, it makes people pick up their dice, it’s part of D&D, it’s a call to action. But I think i might get rid of it entirely. Precisely for those very same reasons. I want flow, I want focus, and I want smooth transitions, not smash cuts.

Here’s a thing… I thought about writing this article without having read the section on initiative variants in the DMG (which I picked up to read 5 minutes before writing this post at 1 AM).

I threw this on twitter today:

And I got a ton of responses. How would that play? Here’s what I’m hoping to get. I’ll use the same example from the top there…

“You enter a room, the smell in here’s musky.  The ground is covered in a fine dust, and you can see footprints, along with a few drops of fresh blood.”

“The creatures must have come through here. I want to roll perception, maybe to see if I hear something… 15… Anything?”

“You do, you hear soft breathing noises from the shadows in the far northwest corner.”

“I tell my companions.”

“When you do, the creatures step out from the darkness, revealing themselves. They are walking towards you, their claws pointed in your direction. They are coming closer, 15 feet, 10 feet, if you’re going to act, now would be a good time.”

“I’m rushing towards them, and slashing the leader with my sword. 15”

“Good, the sword strikes its side, the creature coils in pain, it’s going to attack you. The other two are going to move toward Larry…”

Not the most evocative description, fine, but you get the idea. Everything just kind of flowed. Page 270 of the 5e DMG has a section on initiative variants, and one calls for Passive Dexterity as the way to determine initiative order (10 + Dex Modifier). I was thinking more of Dexterity score as the way to determine initiative order, with ties with NPCs going to the PC’s, and allowing the PCs to determine who acts when in case of ties amongst themselves.

So if Jack, Jill and Larry are fighting a trio of Orcs (12 Dexterity). Their dexterities are Jack 16, Larry 15, Orcs 12, Jill 10, I can already have an order of how things should progress during the encounter, and I’ll give Jack a verbal cue that he can act first.

And how about adding the alternate plot point mechanic found in page 269 of the DMG to this? So Jack goes, but the DM wants to have his orcs jump ahead of Larry for tactical reasons… he rewards Larry with a plot point in exchange for taking over his initiative slot. Now Larry can alter the game a bit on his turn, maybe finding a weak spot on the orcs, or a vial of poison in his belt pouch…

I know for many of you I’m probably trying to solve a problem that doesn’t exist, but that smash cut analogy really resonated with me. Marvel Heroic and Dungeon World both have non-traditional initiative systems, with the former having a great system where players themselves pick who goes next. Read about it here.

I’m still formulating my thoughts about this, and perhaps this post isn’t very clear, but I think I want to move in this direction. Maybe just taking Marvel’s approach completely, (although it may may things wonky) or simply going with the one I describe above.

How about you guys? Anyone using alternate initiative systems in their 5e games? What? Is it working well? Let me know in the comments… and check out Ameron’s article about it over at Dungeon’s Master too. He was one of the people I was talking with this about on twitter…

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