Wednesday, August 21, 2019

A Better Initiative System

       I am a huge fan of side initiative and I don’t think a lot of people use it. As editions of D&D go by side based initiative has been slowly replaced with individual initiative. This isn’t some fly by night rule, it is an optional rule in 5e, and the standard rule in the oldest editions. Since this article might be reaching newer players who have never heard of side initiative, in brief, the sides of a combat roll against each other to see who goes first each round. I generally use a 1d6, but 1d10 was the standard in 2e and that worked well too.  Player should declare actions before the die is rolled, that way they can plan, but actions might not go according to plan. The group then rolls the die, the highest number goes first, and the players can figure out among themselves who will go and in whatever order they desire. In the case of a tie, both sides are going simultaneously. To me it is clean, efficient, and most importantly fun.

Reasons that I like side initiative:
1. Quick
2. Nothing to track
3. Creates comradery
4. Teamwork
5. It is dynamic

This might be controversial but, from my experience side initiative goes faster than any other method, which includes a 5e style where one roll is made for the whole combat. One person rolls a d6 and we move on, that takes about 5-10 seconds at most. If you do individual initiative each round it takes forever even with the most organized group. I used a countdown with that method, starting at 10 and working my way down. Players are constantly interrupting the count, or not speaking up when it is there turn, it is a mess. Second to that is roll once for initiative, keep that order. You still run into the issue of player not paying attention, or the GM accidentally going out of order, skipping a player, etc. Overall this all takes time, time I do not want to waste.

Nothing to track
I don’t like to write things down during game, maybe it is the sign of a bad DM, I am not sure? I do not like noting all the initiatives and then cycling through each round. This generally takes time, which noted above I do not like, and seems like accounting work that I do not need to do at the table. I have enough to track with hit points, spell effects, possible ticking clocks in a battle, I don’t need one more thing. Side initiative solves this problem and cuts down on things I need to track because it is either my turn or the players. 

The main reason I switched to side initiative is I read that it creates some great group moments at the table, and this is extremely true. There are times in the game where a lot rides on whether the players win or lose initiative, this creates a great tension at the table. The players are all rooting for the person rolling that round, and if they succeed, there is a great cheer at the table and the group bonds a bit more. There have been more nail-biting rounds at my table since I made the switch then in a year of games in the old fashion initiative style.

This allows both players and adversaries to work in a coordinated fashion. It encourages teamwork among the players and their actions. Ok, I am going to hit them with X spell, then you rush in for the kill. Which normally this is at the whims of the initiative order. The players start to communicate more at the table and working together, which is generally what I am looking for in my games. You often see people’s roles at the table shine through a bit more, with the abilities of the particular characters making a difference in the right context. 

I am not a fan of static initiative because it lets the players have too much information in a fight. They might not worry about a particular opponent because they know they go before it in the initiative order. When you are rolling each round that might not happen. You might go, you might not. This also leads to the dreaded double round. When one side lose initiative the first round, then wins it the second. This creates a scenario where you can be attacked twice before you can strike back or move, but the opposite is true as well. This means you cannot count on anything as given, the best laid plans are subject to the tide of battle. 

It's go time

One of the only augments against side initiative that I have heard that is relatively valid is that high DEX characters get a bonus and this is not reflected. I am not concerned with this, mostly because DEX has many other uses already, this small loss is not that big a deal. DEX adds to certain attacks, it helps with AC, it makes you good at DEX checks, and depending on edition it helps with one of the most popular saves. It is a wonderful ability without the initiative bonus, and frankly it might bring back down out of the clouds a bit as the best stat. 

Say you want to spice it up a little, one of the things I like from 2e was the Critical Event Table from Combat & Tactics. This table had many different results for when the groups rolled a tied initiative value. This added some really fun results to the activities in battle. I have created a truncated form of the table below, and I added a few options of my own. Before rolling on the table, roll 1d6. On a 1-3, it favors the enemy and on a 4-6 it favors the PCs.

Battlefields are crazy

Critical Event Table

Roll 1d10 

1 – Armor Trouble
2 – Battlefield Damage
3 – Item Dropped
4 – Shoved Over
5 – Lucky Break
6 – Luck Opening
7 – Slip
8 – Weapon Trouble
9 – Combatants Switch
10 – Freak Occurrence 

Armor Trouble
One random person in the combat has an issue with their armor. If they have a shield, it is lost and goes 1d6 x 5’ in a random direction. If they do not have a shield, something is wrong with their armor, a plate is missing or a strap comes undone. The combatant has a -2 penalty to AC until an entire round is spent to fix it. Note: This can only effect people with armor, if this is an impossible scenario, ignore the Critical Event Table result.

Battlefield Damage
Somewhere on the battlefield something is damaged. A table might get broken, a statue is smashed, or the wall to a tunnel collapses. 

Item Dropped
One combatant loses a random, non-weapon item. It will land 1d6 x 5’ in a random direction.

One combatant that is in melee combat range is shoved by an opponent. The shoved model moves 5’ back, and must make a saving throw or fall down.

Lucky Break
For the round, one random combatant gets a +4 AC and saving throw bonus.

Lucky Opening
For one round, one combatant gets a +4 bonus to attack rolls.

One random combatant that is in melee range, will slip and fall.

Weapon Problem
One random combatant has a weapon issue. If that combatant killed an opponent last round their weapon has become stuck, it will take an entire round to pull out. If not, the combatant throws the weapon unless they make a successful saving throw.

Combatants Switch
Two combatants in melee circle each other and switch places

Freak Occurrence
The DM determines an unusual situation on the battlefield. This will offer an advantage to one side, and a disadvantage to another. This could be a random monster appearing for a round, a magical effect that was not expected, or an enemy switching sides.

This is my thoughts on side initiative give it a try, if even for one night. I think a lot of DMs and players might enjoy it, and you can add the table in for a bit of flare.

I went ahead and created a Facebook group for the blog, if you are interested the link is here.


  1. What system would this be for? +4 seems high for BX. 1e/2e perhaps?

  2. Note: I like the idea and agree with pretty much everything. I would probably not use the Critical Event table but that's just me.

    Would allowing a +1 to the PC with high DEX be too much for this system? That's a pretty big bonus for a d6 roll IMHO but might be valid for someone with a 17-18 DEX.... Just thinking out loud here.

  3. You might be right, +4 is big, but it is rare.

  4. I like side initiative, I've used the Crit Table before, and it was ok. I would switch to a d10 if I used it, so the table is used more sparsely.

  5. Playing devil's advocate here. How do spell durations that last "until your next turn" work? How does the Alert Feat (assuming allowed) work? How do barbarians' ability to have advantage on initiative work? How does the assassinate ability work?

    This method may save some time, but it seems to create more problems then it solves.

  6. No, those are great questions. Until you next turn is just that, until the character goes again. The others are not as easy, generally they are not used. If there is a reason that the individual character is trying to act in a situation first, like the first to get to an object on the ground, if they had those abilities I would give advantage.

    Very thoughtful question, thank you!

  7. Maybe my first question wasn't clear. I think it is a huge factor.

    "When one side lose initiative the first round, then wins it the second." So our party lost the initiative, but the previously declared action was that the party wizard cast the Chill Touch cantrip, hits, and does the 1d8 necrotic damage -- and the target can't regain hit point / has disadvantage on attack rolls against you *until your next turn*. Cool spell in the regular initiative system.

    But in yours, since the party will win initiative in round two, the wizard goes again before the target, so the two additional effects come and go before the target ever needs to worry about either effect.

    There are a lot of such spells.

    As for the others not being used all that often, I had two barbarians and an assassin in my game just last Wednesday.

  8. In those particular cases I would just make it the target's next attack. It is generally designed to effect the target for a round. Variable initiative (using standard 5e initiative, but rolling each round) and side initiative are both optional rules in the 5e DMG, and would both have to answer these questions. Having played older editions where these styles were the standard, not an optional rule, this was how we generally conducted play. Rulings not rules.

    I didn't say the classes were not used often, I said I would just generally ignore their bonus. If you wanted to keep it an option could be to let them keep it when it is their turn to roll side initiative. I generally go around the table each round letting a new player roll the initiative for the whole side, if their character had a bonus like advantage, let them roll advantage, thus the whole side has a better chance of going first. If you have a party with a ton of characters that have it, so be it.

    I would still counter too with, "With static initiative how do you explain in game that the characters absolutely know when people will act, when exactly enemies will act, exactly when spells will go off, etc." Predictable initiative has just as many issues, but people don't see them because it is the default.

    Good questions, I like the dialogue.

  9. I started using side-based initiative in our online playtest games as a way to speed things up and make things easier (we don't use video or a virtual table), but I liked it so much it became the default rule in my own D&Dish game (though we use a d20 instead of a d6 or d10).

    In addition to speed, I'd say it also helps avoid a loss of tension: a monster suddenly appears, and instead of pausing, taking the time to figure out who goes when, note it all down, you just roll a few dice and the game resumes almost immediately.

  10. That's a good point I didn't think about.