Optional rules for determining who kills what and when it happens.
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Within this document, I will present some alternate rules for initiative in the 5th Edition D&D game. This project was borne out of disillusionment with the usual cyclical initiative of the D&D game, a system that has persisted in much the same form for the last 20 years of the game's history. While it is a good way to represent the abstracted combat mechanics that D&D has refined over its lifetime, I think there are ways to improve upon it using other systems for inspiration.
The rules I present here are designed with the following in mind.
- The rule will not change the action economy -- there will still be movement, actions, bonus actions, and reactions.
- Players should feel like they have either A) greater choice in what to do with their turn and not feel penalized or B) work together in a more cohesive and tactical fashion without bogging down combats discussing what to do.
- The Dexterity ability score will be slightly decreased in usefulness as it pertains to reaction time in combat. Discussions as to whether or not Dexterity is "too good" are outside the scope of this document.
First Option: Counting Initiative
This system is based off of the initiative rules presented in the 2nd edition of the Hackmaster Roleplaying Game. While theirs is complicated and fiddly, requiring an extensive knowledge of weapon speeds, cast times, and breaking down each movement step taken into its own initiative count, I think there's something there to work into 5th Edition.
This doesn't change the abstraction of positioning and timing; all actors in a battle are always "in motion" and the cinematics of the fight do not change overall. Counting Initiative is useful for groups who stagger their actions in order to achieve greater tactical fidelity and not have to wait for an entire new turn to come around if all they did was move into position on their last turn.
Rolling for Initiative
In this system, players roll for initiative using a single d6. Class abilities or other situational modifiers that would give you advantange on initiative checks allow you to roll 2d6 and choose the lowest of the two, as it is more advantageous for the purposes of this system. Remember your starting initiative number, as it will constantly change each time you take a turn.
The Dungeon Master rolls a single initiative die for all creatures, and calculates actions a little differently to reduce bookkeeping.
Checking for Surprise
Under this system, you check for surprise normally. If you are surprised, you add 6 to your starting initiative.
Example, Alice is surprised in combat, having been woken up by a sudden clatter at the edge of camp. Struggling to get to her feet, Alice's player rolls 4 on her initiative, but adds 6 due to being surprised. Alice doesn't get to act until initiative count 10 in the battle (effectively taking 10 seconds to get battle ready).
The battle begins when the Dungeon Master counts up from 1. When your number comes up, it is your turn. You take actions on your turn as described below, which modify when you get to act again.
On your turn, you may perform actions based on what is tactically prudent at the time. Perhaps you only need to move. You may need to attack, or cast a spell, or ready another action. You may also be stunned and unable to perform an action. All of these things have an initiative cost, which determine when you get to act again.
|Bonus Action (any)||1|
|Cast a Spell (cantrip)||3|
|Cast a Spell (any other)||4|
|Disengage from Combat||3|
|Grapple, Escape from Grapple, or Shove||3|
|Help Another Character||2|
|Interact with Environment*||2, or Free as part of Move or Action|
|Move, 5 feet||1|
|Move (any other value)||2|
|Ready an Action||3|
|Stabilize the Dying||4|
|Stunned or Unable to Act||4|
|Undefined Actions (certain battle master maneuvers, etc.)||4|
|Use an Item (drinking a potion, etc.)||4|
|Use a Racial Ability or Innate Spell (dragonborn breath weapon, etc.)||4|
Interact with Environment
Asterisked above, this action type involves a lot of potential behaviors. For example:
- Drawing or sheathing weapons
- Opening or closing doors
- Getting something out of your backpack
- Retrieving a dropped item
- Taking something from the environment
- Removing a piece of easily-removed equipment, such as gauntlets, rings, necklaces, or helmets
- Putting out a torch or lantern
- Pull up or down the hood of your cloak
- Kicking a small object
- Giving something to another player either by handing it or throwing it (the latter may require them to catch it, DM's call)
There is a special restriction on bonus actions and reactions to prevent "spamming" of cheap and quick attacks and spells, or abusing the opportunity attack rules in unwholesome ways. You must take any Action before you may use your bonus action, reaction, or move again on any turn. This state can be shorthandedly described as Readiness.
Example: Alice the fighter is locked in melee combat with a pair of gnolls, the vanguard of a much larger pack now sprinting her way. Behind her, Brutus the cleric moves into position behind her and spends a spell slot to cast healing word to mend a minor injury. Brutus cannot then continue to cast healing word every initiative count until he takes an action such as attacking, casting another spell that takes an action to cast, or readies an action for something else to occur.
Obviously, tracking all of the above for half a dozen monsters in addition to the players is a lot of annoying bookkeeping. In general, monsters take their turns all at once and act again 5 ticks later in the initiative count, regardless of what actions they perform -- they are, however, limited one move, one action, one bonus action (if pertinent), and one reaction (if pertinent).
In short, monster turns don't change, unless it's a legendary monster.
Any monster with legendary actions is considered a legendary monster, and can freely operate outside of the monster initiative rules -- in short, behaving exactly like players.
Example: Bryxanthraxus the ancient black dragon confronts haughty treasure hunters in his lair, taking them by surprise as he rises out of the water and rolling a 4 on his initiative. On initiative count 4, the dragon acts and casts misty step to teleport to a more advantageous position and uses his breath weapon, spitting a stream of caustic acid over the entire band. Having used a bonus action to cast the spell (1) and used an innate ability for his breath weapon (4) Bryxanthraxus acts again on initiative count 9.
In the event a creature has lair actions, they may occur every 6 ticks in the initiative count. Thus, the first lair action happens on 6, then 12, then 18, and onward.
Some monster abilities, such as a dragon's breath weapon, have a recharge chance. This operates under the Readiness rules above; a recharge ability cannot check to recharge unless the creature has taken an action to put it back into Readiness.
In the event of a tied initiative on the opening actions, where determining who acts first is critical, the creature with the highest Dexterity modifier acts first or, if the two (or more) actors are players, they may decide who among them goes first. In the event of class abilities that modify initiative, that value adds to the tie-breaking number. In the event where there is an unbreakable tie, the default winner is a player.
On subsequent actions, when an individual finishes their turn, they go to the "bottom" of the tick count. For example, Alice finishes her action and goes again on tick 12. The monsters act, and go again on tick 12 as well. Though these monsters are faster than Alice, she arrived on tick 12 first, and gets to go again before the monsters when tick 12 happens.
Action Surge and Haste
These abilities/spells allow you to take a second action on your turn. Your initiative count is modified by the highest value of the actions you take.
Example: Alice the fighter moves on her turn, then uses her action to Dash so she can rush to the rescue of an ally. She then uses Action Surge to make two attacks with her greatsword. Her next turn comes 6 ticks later (2 for movement, 4 for attacking with a heavy weapon; dash is not considered since it is lower value than the highest value action taken).
This feat normally grants a +5 bonus to initiative checks. Under Counting Initiative, it instead gives you advantage on initiative rolls.
This class ability does not add to the initiative count. If you take the Attack action, you can take any and all attacks as normal, and your count is modified based on what you are wielding.
There are some changes to the effects of spells that may necessitate duration counting and effect ticks.
At Start and End of Next Turn Durations
These effects no longer apply at their stated point. Instead, convert all spells that have this function to instead have a duration of 6 ticks.
Example 1: Brutus the wizard casts shield in response to an incoming attack on tick 8. The effect of the boosted AC lasts until tick 14.
Example 2: Ellison the bard casts vicious mockery on an attacking ogre on tick 4, which fails its saving throw. The ogre suffers disadvantage on the next attack roll it makes until tick 10.
Damaging Effects At Start and End of Turns
The damage or other effect from a spell that persistently covers an area applies each time you start a turn within the affected zone. Step carefully and do not waste time standing in fire!
Who Wants This?
This optional initiative system is for groups who like their combat a little more "crunchy" and want greater tactical fidelity. It does somewhat increase complexity during battle, which is admittedly the antithesis of 5E's design theory. On the other hand, it does reduce some undesirable delay/ready behavior rolling in favor of greater control over when you can act again.
- Greater action fidelity. If all you do is move because it's not tactically sound to do much else right now, you don't feel like you've wasted your turn.
- If you don't need to spend bonus actions on off-hand weapon attacks, spells, etc. then you can act a little faster. This slightly improves combat speed for one-handed weapon and shield characters and may very slightly reduce the comparable damage output of dual-wielding characters over long combats.
- The Help action is deliberately cheap to encourage its use. In practice, I've noticed it used only extremely rarely because you "lose" your turn if you help an ally rather than do a measurable effect on your own.
- Increased moment to moment math as you perform actions.
- Increased bookkeeping of initiative numbers.
- A somewhat increased burden of knowledge of the action economy.
- Possible undesirable behavior where players "kite" slow enemies ad nauseum using the relatively cheap move action.
- Readying an action becomes less useful, but still good for triggering certain things to happen off of other events if you can't guarantee being "synced" to the thing you want to respond to.
Other Design Notes
Bonus Action Spells
There are plenty of spells with bonus action effects such as storm sphere, which necessitated the addition of the Readiness rule (lest you simply blast people with the lightning bolt effect every tick). This did add another thing to track during the battle, but I feel it's straightforward enough to not be too onerous.
The Dash action may seem comparatively expensive seeing as you can just move every 2 ticks on the initiative count if that's all you want to do, but Dash is there for when you want to cover all that ground right now. Rogues and other classes with abilities that turn Dash into a bonus action are naturally faster in this system.
Dash as an action also resets your Readiness, which is worth considering. It would therefore caveat that a bonus action dash does not reset Readiness.
Second Option: Group Initiative
This system is a somewhat greater abstraction than standard initiative rules, relying on an entire side taking turns before another. Once initiative is determined, there is no need to shift around in the order or perform undesirable readying so you can do something in response to another player. Group initiative is more about planning, talking about what you and the other players will do with your round, and executing tactics in an optimal fashion.
As with the other option, all actors are considered "in motion" the whole time and this simply helps keep groups together while abstracting the battle outcome.
Each side in a battle chooses a Captain. This individual is responsible for the group's battle tactics and positioning. It is helpful to determine a Captain at the outset of each adventuring day, but you can switch Captains as part of a short rest.
A Captain is responsible for rolling initiative for their side, and helping make decisions when no consensus can be made. There are no rules for this, per se; it simply obligates that individual to help others decide where they might best serve if they cannot determine the proper course of action for a turn.
Rolling for Initiative
The Captains roll for initiative using a d20 and adding relevant modifiers. As far as monsters and other enemies are concerned, the strongest among them is typically the Captain. Each side in a battle rolls its own initiative; in the event that there are more than two sides, there could be multiple sets of turns to take.
Group Initiative Modifiers
The modifier used for the Captain's initiative roll is the average of all characters' initiative bonus on their side, but not including NPCs fighting under the party's banner. Fast characters help contribute their reaction speed to the group's overall responsiveness, while slow characters aren't doomed to forever act last in the round and hold up their group.
Creatures and characters that are surprised do not act in their side's first turn. They are skipped completely and only act the next time their side gets a turn.
The group that wins the initiative roll acts first, with constituent members taking turns as they normally would under the rules. However, they may act in any order they choose.
Example: Alice the fighter, Brutus the wizard, Charlize the rogue, and Devin the cleric take their turn. Charlize is the group's captain. Brutus wants to take his turn first, so he can blanket the area in a fireball spell before everyone else charges up to fill the gap.
Once Brutus's turn resolves, Alice asks to go. She moves toward the nearest enemy, but does not have enough speed to reach them. While moving, Alice hoists her greatsword into her off-hand, drawing a javelin with her main hand, and at the end of her movement throws it toward the nearest enemy. It hits, but she regrets not being able to get in range to assist Charlize's potential sneak attack.
Charlize suggests to Devin that, since no one needs to be healed yet and this group of enemies is not a huge threat, that he close the gap with a Dash so he can provide Charlize with the partner she needs to perform her sneak attack. Devin does so, using his move and action to get into range of the enemy.
The rogue then Dashes as a bonus action, and in conjunction with her move, is now in range to use her dagger for a sneak attack. She does so, and the enemy is killed outright, before getting a chance to act.
The monsters then go, and there's plenty of them left to give the party a few dents before they get much further into the lair.
New Round, New Initiative
Once all actors on a side go, the next side in the initiative order goes. At the beginning of a new round, Captains roll initiative for their side again; in this way, a slow group is not always condemned to act last. The tide of battle changes quickly, after all.
Who Wants This?
This option is for groups that are rules-savvy enough to grouse about not being able to do the thing they want on their turn because their friends clumped up before they could cast a spell, or groups who ill-understand or dislike the restrictions imposed by the Ready action. There is still a place for the Ready action, but it is somewhat more situational.
- Easy to understand. Not much change from core, everything just happens on a side at the same time.
- Discourages strange behavior as it relates to players going out of sequence with one another.
- Provides a useful, if unoffiical, role in the Captain to give the group a discreet combat leader. This can assist with roleplaying, as well as assign a more tactically-sound player to help guide newcomers on a good course of action.
- Really fast characters might feel like they can't jet across entire battlefields and do everything before everyone else goes.
- Might encourage players to ask "what if I don't recognize him/her as my Captain?" and then do the above anyway. It stands to reason these could be problem players to begin with if that is their first go-to response, but it's not an invalid complaint.
- Jerk grognard players might use the Captain role to bully and cajole new playes who don't perform actions to their exact specifications.
- A side that loses initiative might end up being completely eradicated before it has a chance to respond, rather than possibly acting before one or two members of the other side and doing at least a little bit of damage before going down.
- Discussion of plans on the player turn can run long. Players who abuse the time, or are paralyzed by choice, should be given a time limit else they lose their action.