Dynamic Initiative


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Dynamic Initiative: Combat


Battles are divided into 6-second rounds. Each round consists of the following phases that are progressed through in the following order.

Enemy Planning

During this phase, the DM examines the battlefield and declares the intentions of the creatures under his control. This description should be as short as possible. "The Skeletons are going to focus on taking out the Warlock", "The Dragon is going to ignore the party and attack the church", "The Bandits are going to try to block your escape, while the archers pepper you from out of range", "The Rogue is looking to get out of danger, it's unclear what his intentions are", ect.

What is happening is that the players are reading the battlefield and assessing the current situation. This allows them to make educated decisions and have the opportunity to thwart the enemy's plans.

Player Planning

Now that the players have a broad idea of what the enemy is planning, they come up with a plan themselves, and declare their own intentions. At this stage, actions do not need any more detail than what is needed to determine the initiative roll. Working together is encouraged.

Roll Initiative

Each player and enemy simultaneously rolls initiative. Players roll the largest dice corresponding to their actions. Low numbers go first.


The DM begins by announcing "Initiative Count 1" to the table. If there are any creatures that rolled a 1 for their Initiative are then able to act. If there are any ties, the creature with the highest Passive Initiative goes first.

After all creatures on Initiative Count 1 act, the DM continues counting. "Initiative Count 2", "Initiative Count 3", ect. This process continues until all creatures have acted.


Anything that needs to be be resolved at the end of a round of combat, such as status effects or magic durations resolve now. Begin the next round, looping back to the Enemy Planning phase.

Artwork by Eva Widermann

Dynamic Initiative is an initiative variant with the goal of creating extra layers of choice in combat by making different actions take different speeds, while being as quick and painless as possible. The rules of Dynamic Initiative are meant to be intuitive and simple, but here are the specific details of how the rules function.


The Dynamic initiative variant institutes the following rules, which replace the standard initiative system.

Rounds. Combat is organized into rounds. Each round, everyone involved in the combat has a chance to move and take actions, as with standard initiative. But the durations of effects are measured in rounds, rather than ending during a specific creature’s turn.

Variable Turn Order. Each round, every creature involved in the battle rolls initiative. The order in which creatures take their turns changes from round to round, making it impossible to predict how events in combat will unfold.

Initiative Dice. Rather than making a d20 roll for initiative, characters and monsters might roll a variety of initiative dice — normally d4 to d12. If you roll more than one initiative die, you add the results together to determine your initiative. The number and type of initiative dice you roll depend on the types of activities you want your character to undertake during the next round. Ideally, each player should roll only one die per round. However, casting spells and certain weapons may cause you to roll two.

Initiative Count. With this variant Dynamic Initiative, initiative runs from low to high. A creature cannot have an Initiative Score lower than 1.

Order of Operations. These rules make it more likely for certain actions to take place earlier in a round, and for other actions to take place later. As with the standard initiative system, the luck of the dice always determines exactly when combatants act. Now however, it is possible for players to thumb the scales on when their actions should take place.

Passive Initiative

Passive Initiative Score. Each creature determines their new Passive Initiative score. Passive Initiative is equal to a creature's Dexterity Ability Score OR their Intelligence Ability Score (NOT their Ability Score Modifier), plus any additional bonus they may get from features such as the Bard's Jack of All Trades ability, or the Alert feat.

Ties. Ties are very common with Dynamic Initiative by design. In the event of a tie, the creature with the higher Passive Initiative score acts first. In the event that the Passive Initiative scores are also tied, player characters act first.

Changing Initiative

Delaying. You cannot use the Ready action under these rules, but you can instead choose to delay your turn. Instead of taking your turn on your initiative count, you simply act on a later initiative count, before or after other creatures as you choose.

If two creatures who have delayed their actions both want to act at the same time, the creature with the highest Passive Initiative score goes first.

Changing your Action. If your turn comes around and you discover that the battlefield has changed, you may wish to take a different action. Roll new Initiative Dice in accordance to what you want to do. This number is then added to your current Initiative Score, and becomes your new Initiative Score.

Actions that do not contribute to Initiative

These rules are designed so that players need only roll once to determine their Initiative scores, without additional modifiers. Therefore they only roll once, according to the action they are attempting to take with the largest size Initiative Dice.

Movement. Moving during your turn does not contribute to your Initiative Score. If you are only moving during your turn, and not taking any other Actions, your initiative score is 1.

Bonus Actions. Does not contribute to Initiative Score.

Reactions. Does not contribute to Initiative Score.

Uses Outside of Combat

The "Click" rule

Whenever a trap is triggered, there is an audible "Click!". This is the signal for the players to spring into action. Relevant players may declare their intentions to avoid or sabotage the trap before it goes off. Everyone, including the trap, rolls initiative.

Traps by their nature tend to act quickly and have a very low initiative die size. However, all traps are assumed to have a Passive Initiative score of 1. Therefore, in the event of a tie, player characters always goes first.

Initiative die Severity
1d2 Setback
1d4 Dangerous
1d6 Deadly
Variant: Spell Disruption

For added AD&D flavor, you can introduce the spell disruption rule. This variant rule greatly reduces the effectiveness of all casters, so use with caution.

If a creature that wants to cast a spell takes damage during the round before it can act, it must make a Constitution Check. Make a Constitution saving throw. The DC equals 10 or half the damage it take, whichever number is higher. On a failure, the creature is restricted to casting cantrips on its turn.

If it takes damage from multiple sources, such as an arrow and a dragon’s breath, it must make a separate saving throw for each source of damage.

Dynamic Initiative: Thought Process

Initiative never quite sat well with me. There are a number of fundamental assumptions that I dislike about Initiative as written, and in the way that it influences play. However, the Initiative variant rules outlined in the DMG (pg 270-271) were either unwieldy or reduced strategic possibilities. I wanted an option that offered depth, without complexity.

One of the biggest problems I have with vanilla Initiative is the feeling that a call for initiative is a switch from the "Role Playing Game" to the "Combat Game". Switching into and out of combat can be clunky and rigid. Players may be in the middle of a combat when a surprising twist happens. Perhaps the bad guy isn't a bad guy at all! Suddenly this combat turns into a hostage situation! The players realize they are in way over their head, it's time to run! In these situations, it can be hard to break initiative order - both as a psychological barrier (We are in the "Combat Game", we must resolve this situation with combat) and as a mechanical barrier (what is the mechanical process of transitioning from a combat to a chase scene?).

My initial solution to this problem was dividing combat into rounds, and introducing the "Planning Phase", where players as a team decided their combat strategy. This worked reasonably well, and was an overall improvement to the vanilla Initiative rules, and I would recommend giving it a try in your game if you haven't.

However it felt like it was a half measure. The players having a planning phase makes much more sense if the plan they have is informed. To put it another way, the rules don't allow for a situation where the bad guy is going to take an action, and the players can choose to either prevent him from acting or take cover to avoid damage.

Imagine a situation that we have seen a million times before in films. A dragon is drawing in a deep breath preparing to destroy the foolish mortals in front of him. The Heroes, knowing the deadly dragonfire is coming, scramble for cover. How can we translate this into gameplay?

Greyhawk Initiative

Mike Mearls Greyhawk Initiative caused an interesting stir in the D&D community.

The mission statement of the rules have been copied below.

Why Experiment with Initiative?

The Greyhawk initiative variant takes a different approach. These rules add complexity, but with the goal of introducing more drama to combat. The order of actions changes during combat, making it impossible to depend on creatures acting in a consistent pattern. Moreover, this initiative system requires a certain amount of strategizing between players ahead of each round’s action.

If adding chaos and unpredictability to combat sounds like fun, you might like these rules.

I love this mission statement, and feel it addresses many of my perceived flaws with vanilla initiative. However, the overall conclusion by the D&D community was that Greyhawk Initiative was interesting, but flawed. Some of the objections were:

  • Slowed down play too much
  • Too complicated
  • Too much math
  • Too many dice being rolled
  • Rolling dice for movement felt bad
  • Dexterity no longer impacted Initiative speed

Dynamic Initiative is my attempt to keep the strengths of Greyhawk Initiative, while removing it's weaknesses.

Removing dice rolling for movement was an easy first step. Reducing the number of dice rolled to only one (two max) immediately makes the system much more simple and streamlined.

However, this created a narrow range of possible initiative numbers, meaning that having a tied initiative score became extremely common. But by having your Dexterity Ability Score become the tiebreaker, it provided a speedy way to resolve ties while also making Dexterity relevant to speed. From there, making the small change from Dexterity Ability Score to Passive Initiative also allowed features that can modify Initiative, such as the Alert feat, Guidance spell, or a Bard's Jack of All Trades to continue to function. Simply add those numbers to your Passive Initiative score.

DMing with Dynamic Initiative

Making all of these strategic decisions as the Dungeon Master seems daunting. A DM already has so much to keep track of, remembering what action each creature is doing, combined with what die size to use seems overwhelming. Fortunately there is an incredibly simple workaround.

By using Hit Die size as a guide, it became extremely easy to assign Initiative Die by size of creature. No matter the action the creature is going to take, they simply roll that one die. Intuitively, this means that the bigger and more powerful the monster, the slower they tend to act in Initiative. Adjust Passive Initiative score as desired (zombies should probably have a negative modifier, a Coatul should get a bonus) and you're done.

For actually tracking each creature, I like to have an index card with each monster or group of monsters labelled with their name and Passive Initiative score. I roll the Initiative Die for the entire group, and leave the die on each label. At that point, I have the initiative of all my combatants easily readable at a glance.


As evidenced by Mearls' Greyhawk Initiative, I'm not the only one who feels that vanilla initiative is a bit boring and could have additional layers of strategy. For me, this allows the maximum amount of strategy with the minimum amount of bookkeeping.


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