Where we take the initiative on re-thinking Initiative.

Due to some scheduling conflicts and illness the group is stuck in a bit of a month long hiatus between sessions, which sadly means that this week there is no new Adventure Blog for the Big Fish Campaign.

Instead we are going to talk with our DM Jon about Initiative. I’m in black, Jon’s in blue.

The Way It Normally Is

Initiative is one of the most jarring mechanics of almost any roleplaying game. In most of the game, players are either speaking in character, or narrating what they’re character is doing. “I search for traps”, “Hail and well met!”, “I cast Zone of Truth!”, and so on. Most rules are designed to provide mechanics for narration.

This changes when you enter combat. There’s an extra out of game mechanic that kicks in to determine the combat order. Everything stops and the DM asks everyone to roll for their Initiative.

The official Dungeons & Dragons 5e rules are (in TL;DR format): everyone makes a Dexterity Check, high roll goes first and you go down the line based on the results. That order stays the same for the rest of the combat. Obviously, because this is D&D there are all kinds of Feats and Powers and whatever that can buff the Check.

My first thought has always been that a D20 for Initiative is too high and a straight Dex modifier is too low. I’m playing a dexterous dude, with one of the higher modifiers in our game at the moment (a +6). I’m sure there’s better ways to do the math, but with a +6 that means my average Initiative roll is a 16. A log lump with an Initiative modifier of 0 has an average roll of 10. I’m sure my math doesn’t make perfect sense but the log lump has a 20% chance of beating my average roll.

Initiative has the advantage of following the stat + skill rule of DnD 5th ed.  You can complain about it, but it is internally consistent with the system.  Bards who get a bonus to all unskilled checks (½ proficiency) get it to initiative.  I guess they’re good at going first for some reason.

When I think of inspiring performers I think “damn, they must be quick in a fight”.

It should almost be a static stat. I’ve watched enough UFC to know that the quicker fighter controls the pace for a huge portion of the fight. But that would be boring.

You’d have your high Dexterity characters always acting first, combat order would rarely change.

Because the same person goes first in every fight?  In every fist exchange?  If you measured someone’s speed then the faster guy would 100% of the time act first?

I said “almost” a static stat. I feel that if you were in a fight with Conor McGregor he would punch you in the mouth before you could react 100 out of 100 times. The only time you would get the first shot is when he let you (by holding his action until you took a swing). You aren’t that out of shape to have a negative initiative modifier in real life, but Conor’s modifier would render whatever speed you had completely null.

Other Ways to Order Combat

As cumbersome as it would be (so much dice rolling), there’s something to be said for some kind of a mechanic that involves re-rolling Initiative every round. Possibly dishing out Advantage or Disadvantage depending on the circumstance. Maybe you get Advantage if you Bloody and enemy, and Disadvantage if you’re the one who’s Bloodied? Or something?

Probably I’d prefer that everyone rolls every round, and then in the long run people with high dexterity will go first more often than not.  The problem is that is too much work to just tell who is going first.

Agreed, that process is hardly streamlined. There are not a lot of players who want to roll even more dice during a combat, things would get bogged down.

Maybe you reduce the modifier die? Instead of a D20, let’s say you use a D10. A +6 Initiative modifier then becomes a way bigger deal. That would put the average roll to be an 11. Log lump would have an average roll of 5. The log lump would have a 0% chance of beating my average roll. Doesn’t that kind of make sense? A creature with nearly no reaction time should basically never go before a Dexterity high character.

Are you making up the words “log lump”?

I want “Log Lump” to be in the next Monster Manual.

I pretty much disagree entirely.  You could argue that dexterity has less to do with reaction time and that it is mostly a function of someone’s cleverness and thus intelligence.  Or at least equally between the two.  Also, the circumstances will change every round.  Maybe it’s more about unconsciously understanding the battlefield, maybe Wisdom would help too?

Initiative is one of those things that is going to be kind of gamey no matter what system you decide to use.  Hence experimenting with wacky experimental initiative rules like popcorn initiative.

Modified Popcorn Initiative

Early on in the game, Jon employed a version of “Popcorn Initiative”. If you’re not familiar, Popcorn Initiative works like this:

At the start of each combat, each PC, NPC, monster, or group of monsters rolls initiative. The highest roll goes first. That is nothing new. After the high roller has finished their turn, they decide who goes next (PC, NPC, monster, or group of monsters). That creature or group of creature takes their respective turns and then nominate who goes next. Thus, each and every PC, NPC, monster, or group of monsters gets a turn. Once everyone has gone, the last person who goes gets to decide who starts the next round. That last person can choose themselves.

Jon tweaked it a little bit so that at the end of the round, we all re-roll initiative. A change that I like a lot in theory. It means occasionally a “slower” character will kick things off, but odds are the faster characters will be setting the pace of combat.


Yes and no.  I mean, the guy who invented Popcorn Initiative  (Angry DM) foresaw the “always pick all your team” problem.  It’s why they don’t reroll initiative on consecutive rounds, the last person to go is supposed to pick the team who starts the next round.  Having played in that system in another game I found that discussing “ok, who wants to go next” every round is some kind of nonsense.

I watch a lot of wrestling (stay with me on this). One of my favorite things in tag-team wrestling is when the wrestlers set each other up with quick tags in and out of combat. Wrestler 1 hits a move to set up an opponent, tags Wrestler 2. Wrestler 2 dives in immediately with a devastating move made possible by the set up.

It’s cool and it demonstrates teamwork. Popcorn Initiative sets up those possibilities and can create dynamic moments in combat. A player can knock an enemy prone and immediately set up another player to hit a move that has added damage to prone enemies. One player can drag an unconscious character out of the fray and immediately give the Initiative to the healer to bring him back.

It provides opportunities for the group to really act as a group, attacking and supporting each other in tandem.

It also provides a bit of an X factor when an NPC picks your character to go next. In the crazy fray of battle you don’t always have the luxury of knowing when your opening for an attack will come.

The problem?

As Jon mentioned, it is almost always tactically advantageous to make your entire side of the combat act and then let the enemies attack. If the heroes are going first, they can pour all their damage onto a target and maybe drop him in a single round. That means the target doesn’t even get a turn because he’s dead before his Initiative comes up. The reverse is true for the enemies.

We’ve tested this out for a few sessions and there’s rarely any instances where this isn’t true.

Which is a bummer.

Even More Modified Popcorn Initiative

We talked last session about another modification to the Popcorn Initiative.  What if you could only pass to an ally once? Here’s the example: A PC wins the Initiative roll and acts, he then has a choice to hand the action to an ally, or an enemy. If he chooses an ally, that ally MUST choose an enemy to go next (if he can do so). The enemies would have the same restriction.

We’re going to experiment with exactly this for the Underdark Times.  I’m also going to restrict discussion during turns too so it’s more of a nomination than it is a strategy.  The one-two punch initiative could be the exact solution to the problem of balancing:

  1. Is fun
  2. Allows for some randomness
  3. Doesn’t take too much time to set up

You’d still have the chance to set up 1-2 punches, and the order would keep shifting around and be dynamic. But you would never have a “side” acting more than twice in a row.

Do you think that would fix the issues/stagnance with the standard “by the book” initiative method (and the inherent issues in Popcorn)? Does the book version even need fixing?

Yeah, for sure.  Initiative has always sucked.

Remember White Wolf?  Everyone makes a Dex+Wits, counts down the number of successes each declaring their action.  Then you count up the initiative in reverse order and actions take place and you take a penalty if you change your action from what was declared.

We could be doing that, a whole extra cycle of calls and rolls before each set of actions.  Obnoxious, but it does allow quick people to make decisions that matter before other people and then penalizes the slow thinking folks.  The popcorn we did was the absolute fastest roll-roll-roll and go system.  I’d say it went too far into the fast and game side.

I might actually like to try a session where everyone rolls every round.  No trading or whatever, just everyone goes when they rolled.

Maybe not every round, but what about like every “event”? Ie: When a PC or enemy drops, or a new enemy shows up. Maybe even when a Critical Hit is rolled? Those kind of “holy crap” moments from movie fight signs where there’s a pause in the fray and everyone regroups for a split second? You’d re-roll maybe 2 or 3 times in combat.

Do you have any alternative takes on initiative? Hit us up in the comments, or on Facebook, or on Reddit or wherever else you’d like to.

Keith does all sorts of things here on 9to5.cc, he works with the other founders on 9to5 (illustrated), co-hosts our two podcasts: The 9to5 Entertainment System and Go Plug Yourself and blogs here as The Perspicacious Geek.

Jon is a Master of Dungeons of the highest caliber. He podcasts with me over on 9to5 Entertainment System and occasionally blogs here in Jon’s Junk.

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