Hi, I’m Sean D. Francis and I’ve run RPGs since the early 80s. I do not pretend to have immense amounts of experience in game design, player psychology, or anything like that. I do not have revolutionary ideas on how to change games to make them better, in fact I err on the side of sticking with rules that are archaic and pointless out of an innate fear removing them will upset some gaming economy I don’t quite understand.
What I do have are my own systems for how I run the games which may or may not work at your table. I am a big believer in discussion and the synthesis of ideas. I am not drawing a line in the sand, and I am not saying “I solved the problem so everyone shut up about it.” This is simply my contribution to the discussion about using initiative in D&D.
Let’s Talk About Initiative in Dungeons and Dragons
I want to talk about initiative for Dungeons and Dragons Fifth Edition. I have seen many other esteemed DMs on YouTube mostly talking about getting rid of initiative or using weird dice systems for initiative. Mike Merles, the lead designer of 5e has been using a dice/class based initiative system from what I’ve been told.
I’ve seen Initiative Trackers being sold which look really nice but take up valuable table space and, while I am not knocking them, seem to be futzy. I’ve seen “game hacks” of using clips on the DM Screen to keep track of who goes next which also seems futzy.
On Critical Role, which we cannot ignore, sets a certain standard for the game, DM Matthew Mercer calls out ranges and then notes each person’s initiative.
So I will talk about why I still use and advocate rolling for initiative and I will show you how I run initiative for my D&D games.
WHY USE INITIATIVE?
Here’s a little secret — initiative is pointless. So all those DMs who have removed it from their games aren’t ruining anything. Let’s think about a round. In D&D it is 6 seconds. Everyone is taking an action in that 6 seconds. Arrows are being fired, swords are being swung, and giant balls of fire are being thrown all in 6 seconds. Dividing a round into let’s say 6 distinct actors — PCs, NPCs, and Enemies which might be clustered into groups, we are talking about roughly 25 distinct 240 millisecond events per round. Nothing happens during most of those events. Initiative only serves to put a lot of action into some form of order and it really doesn’t matter what order that is.
Since I agree initiative does not affect the game on a fundamental level, why do I still have players roll for it?
First, it gives the players a feeling that they have a role in their fate (pun intended). I’ve talked elsewhere about how rolling the dice is the work part of the game and while it is fun, because you physically get to do something, it bogs things down.
That initiative roll comes with very little risk so it is very fun. It also sets the tone for the combat for the player. A bad roll feels like it needs to be overcome. A great roll sets a high expectation for the upcoming encounter.
Second, I love the bright line created by saying “Roll for Initiative”. This let’s the players know that the game has shifted into a strategic/tactical phase away from a social phase. The stakes are increased and actions now come with the risk of potential character death.
And Third, I like the idea of allowing some home brew abilities to adjust initiative order. That will be for another post, but basically I don’t really like the idea that initiative is so reliant on Dexterity when Insight should also play a role. I also think PCs with specific experience in leading groups should be able to affect initiative order.
I will keep using initiative dice rolls in D&D because I think it adds to the game play, giving players a sense of suspense, and allows for some strategic thinking. This also allows for some class abilities to be really useful, like the bard’s Mantle of Inspiration.
HOW DO I RUN INITIATIVE?
One of the reasons people have been dumping on initiative is keeping track of it is kind of a pain. There are tips to farm the tracking of initiative out to one of the players. There are really pretty initiative tracker poles that can be used. Matt Mercer has a system where he asks for initiative based on ranges (25 to 20? 19 to 15?).
I have never found initiative to be that complicated. I have an initiative sheet.
It is super basic… It is 30 rows numbered 30 to 1 and 10 columns numbered 1 to 10. Now I ask my players to roll for initiative. I then go around the room, asking what each person rolled. I then slot them into the sheet. They say 17, I put their character name in spot 17. They say 5, I put their character name in spot 5.
DM: Roll for initiative!
Player 1: (rolls)
Player 2: (rolls)
Player 3: (rolls)
Player 4: (rolls)
DM: Player 1, what’s your initiative?
Player 1: 10.
DM: Player 2?
Player 2: 14
DM: Player 3, what’s yours?
Player 3: 16
DM: Cool, cool, Player 4, how about you?
Player 4: 12
There it is in a quick nutshell. What is missing is the initiative rolls for NPCs, monsters, etc. I never roll initiative for them. I either have prerolled/predetermined the initiative for the things the players will face, or I just use 10+Dexterity Modifier.
There are some valid objections to this method, like what do you do about ties. When running a game with 6 – 7 players with 2-3 encounters per session, I run into tied initiative about once or twice per game so it is a factor that needs to be considered.
Since the actual initiative number doesn’t matter, the highest Dexterity goes first. If Dexterity is also tied, then highest Wisdom goes first. If that is also tied, then the martial character goes first. If both characters are martial characters than the first player on my left (clockwise) goes first.
If both players have a 14 initiative then I slot one who won the tie in position 15. If Position 15 is taken, then I have to erase. There is a reason why I do this in pencil. So far the number of times I’ve had to erase has been — well, I haven’t had to erase yet. I’m sure it will happen eventually.
I write in NPCs/monsters/etc. after the PCs and adjust the ties there in a similar fashion, basically determining if I want them to go before or after the character who is occupying their initiative slot.
WHAT ARE THE BENEFITS?
Speed. This method is pretty quick. I don’t have to do any sorting after the fact.
Player Control. The players get to have a sense of control over their fate by rolling a dice. An initiative order allows for some strategic thinking. Admittedly not a ton, but some.
Tracking Conditions/Spells: If a player is affected by a condition or spell for a specific number of turns, you can easily mark on the sheet which round the effect ends.
There you go. That is how I deal with initiative. If you think this might help you, I’ve included a link to the initiative sheet I use below this article.
This is my first time writing on Medium about tabletop RPGs and I have no idea if this is a decent place to reach an audience who cares about this. It goes against my instincts to publish anything on a platform I don’t have full control over and I honestly wanted to make this and my other ideas into YouTube videos but with recent changes on that platform, I realized it has gotten too legally complex to merely dabble with.