4 Ways to Improve Initiative in D&D 5E
Get notified about new articles and get PhD20's Adventure Design Document, a one-page guide to help you design better adventures.
Crow’s Nest by maxprodanov (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0)
“Roll initiative.” Two of the most exciting words in D&D. Almost always followed by two of the least exciting minutes of a game session.
Initiative in Dungeons & Dragons 5th Edition can put a real damper on the excitement of starting combat. Everyone needs to roll. Then comes the imperfect algorithm of humans sorting themselves. While far from broken, it’s certainly an inconvenience for most tables that aren’t using a virtual tabletop to handle it. Let’s look at 4 ways to improve initiative in 5E.
Use passive initiative scores. Everyone’s initiative for the combat is simply 10 plus their initiative bonus. If someone has advantage on their initiative roll, add 5 to their passive score. This results in no time spent rolling. But it will result in more ties. Let players resolve ties with each other at the start of the campaign (or anytime their initiative bonuses change). Deciding ties after combat starts sort of works against the intent of these initiative alternatives. Depending on the tone of your game, have ties between player characters and monsters always favor either the PCs or the monsters.
Side initiative means everyone on one “side” of the combat goes first, followed by everyone on the other side. So all PCs first, then monsters. Or vice versa. Have one die rolled for each side and the higher result goes first. This reduces the rolling and simplifies the sorting. Each side can decide the order of its’ combatants. This a great method for groups that want to be a bit more tactical in combat.
Passive Side Initiative
A simple tweak to side initiative gives us passive side initiative. Look at all passive initiative scores for each side. The side that has the character with the highest score goes first. Resolve a tie between sides the same way as passive initiative (mentioned above). Within each side, use passive scores to determine the order.
My favorite is what I like to call Heroic Initiative. It uses passive side initiative but the PCs always go first, with one exception—legendary creatures. This accomplishes a few things:
- No time spent rolling
- PCs quickly learn their initiative order
- It puts the excitement and momentum of starting combat squarely on the PCs and they can act immediately.
With this method, you can roll into initiative rather than roll for initiative. When players come up against a legendary creature, that momentum shifts. By now, the players are used to going first so they feel the weight of the fight ahead of them as they watch the legendary creature begin the fight.
I hope these options open your eyes to how you can overcome the problems initiative introduces, without introducing a whole new system to the game. Try them out or let them inspire your own.