Messing with Initiative

Since a certain Unearthed Arcana, initiative has become a bit of talking point. I’ve never claimed to be an original writer, so I may as well join the crowd.

Crawford’s Initiative

Last month, Jeremy Crawford (one of the lead designers for d&d) wrote an Unearthed Arcana article, focusing on his new system for initiative. It was pretty terrible in my opinion, and other people who are much better than me (at writing and d&d) pulled it apart quite savagely.

But it was an interesting idea: rather than initiative be a fixed thing where everyone takes turns in a set order every round, it might be more fun to make it a bit more chaotic and less predictable. It also involved more discussion and planning amongst the players (good), more tactical play (good?), and more dice rolling (excellent). So maybe it was worth trying to fix?

Reddit to the Rescue

I’ve probably said this a few times on this blog: Reddit is brilliant. So long as you avoid the red pill (don’t ask), Donald Trump, and incel (no seriously, don’t ask) sections, it’s a great community, and an amazing resource for ideas. And it’s here that I found a better version of Crawford’s initiative.

For those of you that don’t like clicking on links, and for the sake of my word-count, here’s how it works:

  • At the start of each round, the players have a chat, talk tactics, and decide what they’re going to do with their turn (it’s a good idea if the DM does the same).
  • Everyone then rolls a die, the size of which is based on their chosen action(s):
    • Dodge only (standing still): 0
    • Move: d4
    • Bonus action: d4
    • Dash, Disengage, Interact with Item, Class Feature, etc: d6
    • Attack: weapon damage die
    • Cast Cantrip: d8
    • Cast Spell: d12
  • Here’s the important bit though: each player only rolls one die – the largest for their chosen action (NB: greatsword is still 2d6 not 1)
    • For example, if the paladin wants to move, prepare a smite as a bonus action, and then attack with a longsword, she’ll only roll 1d8 (for the longsword attack).
  • Everyone takes a turn in number order (lowest rolls first), and dexterity score breaks ties.
  • If you’ve changed your mind by the time your number comes up, roll the new dice for your new action, add it to your previous, and wait for your new number.
  • Repeat saving throws (i.e. any time a spell or something says “at the end of their turn a creature my repeat the saving throw…”), death saves , and things like that happen at the end of the round.

This system actually works really well, keeps everyone involved in the combat (rather than sitting there bored waiting for their turn), and gives a little tactical nuance to combat. There are times when going first in a round is really important, e.g. to break a spellcaster’s concentration, get away before you get clobbered, or deal the finishing blow to a mortally wounded enemy. There’s some interesting effects, especially for the ‘fast’ classes, who don’t rely on swinging a big weapon: e.g. a rogue could disengage as a bonus action, move and then attack with a dagger, all on a d4 initiative roll

House Rules

I really like this system, but in practice I’ve found the following additions are needed:

  • If you’re unconscious (e.g. making death saves), you have no actions, so no initiative. If you get healed or whatever during the round, you still essentially ‘miss’ this turn, but will get an action next round.
    • This also makes hitting zero hit points be a larger problem, as characters don’t just get straight back up after a healing word or similar, but miss at least one whole turn. Which is good!
  • If you’re under the control of another creature (e.g. domination), they decide your action and so they roll your initiative. If this effect stops (e.g. the wizard loses concentration), you may roll your initiative at the point it happens, adding the current initiative ‘count’.
    • This is probably too complex, and confusingly different from the above. Maybe better to pick one and apply it consistently?
  • A lot of monsters can do several things in a turn e.g. breathe fire, bite and claw. If in doubt (and they aren’t casting a spell), roll a d10.
  • If a monster has (what 3.5e would call) spell-like abilities, e.g. a Beholder’s eye rays, roll a d10.
  • If a creature’s attack has a larger amount of damage dice because they’re big, e.g. a giant’s club does 3d8 damage, roll them all for initiative. Big things move slower.
  • If a creature’s attack has some damage rider, e.g. a vampire’s bite does 1d6 piercing, plus an extra 2d6 necrotic damage, just roll the ‘normal’ damage die.
  • If you’re an incredibly lazy DM, just roll dice based on the creature’s size: d6 for small, d8 for medium, d10 for large etc.
    • Or just pick a number and cheat like the filthy DM you are.
  • Lair effects happen on initiative count zero, only beaten by the dodge action.
    • lair effects should be an “oh shit!” moment, that ruins the player’s plans.

Sorry for the rule-heavy crunch post, but it’s been occupying my mind for a while, and featured in my current games. What do you think?

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