“Everyone, roll for initiative.”
Probably the most iconic phrase we hear in Dungeons & Dragons. It is seems to be a core mechanic that everyone is looking to modify and debate over how best to accomplish it. I have read countless articles on the topic and even attempted to dive into creating my own initiative system.
That was until I can across an article by The Angry GM. I do not know which article it was, and I have searched high and low for it. At its core he presented a thought I had never once decided to consider: why not just remove initiative? (If anyone comes across this article please feel free to send it my way or put it in the comments so I can properly cite it here.)
So I took the steps to removing initiative from my table. At first my players were skeptical but after a few attempts the system we chose worked well. The main point for me writing this article is to explain why and how I go about running a game of D&D 5e without the initiative system, because to be honest I’ve had so many people ask me how and why that this just makes sense.
What do you do instead?
This the first question I get asked when I bring up not using initiative. The short answer is: nothing. That answer is boring and has no meat. First I have to explain how games at my table play out. Overall my players are more roleplay focused than they are combat focused. I lost count of the number of times I set up a combat encounter just for the players to talk their way out of the fight or end it before it even began. Sure I could totally force a combat on my players, and I certainly have, but I also give them opportunities to stop the combat short from a narrative stance (e.g. seducing tavern goers from starting a fight, or using mass suggestion to make everyone non-violent).
With this in mind the initiative system causes a lot of problems for me. So instead I have each round of combat play out where everyone decides what turns they take, while I interrupt with what the enemies/allies decide to do. At the surface it might sound like the table would descend into chaos with everyone arguing with who should go first and that louder voices are going to go first. Luckily that doesn’t happen and its largely because of me. It is true that louder voices at the table have the upper hand in this system, but that isn’t the case when the loudest voice at the table is the Dungeon Master. All that changes is that the DM is no longer making sure whose turn it is, but rather that everyone has had a chance to go each round.
This system does have its flaws. It could be very unstable in an online game where you are not able to read body language as easily (and no, webcams actually don’t help much with this). In the hands of a particularly spiteful DM this system could be used disproportionally against the players. This system has to be used with the mentality of the DM that it is not them versus their players, but rather that you are crafting a better experience for them. This system also pulls away from a more rules heavy game, which some individuals prefer. You need to know your players and communicate effectively to them in order for this to work. A mutual agreement at the table has to be established.
I do ask my players to keep initiative written down but only for the sake of player versus player combat when going first is absolutely essential and I want to be impartial. If a player becomes mind controlled when they go becomes the Dungeon Master’s decision. This is simply to remove the ability for players to game when they have to do something against their character’s wishes.
What is wrong the normal Initiative system?
Overall there is nothing inherently wrong with the existing initiative system. It serves a very specific style of play. However, people like to meet different expectations with how combat is ordered. I like my games to be far more narrative. Lots of my combats are gridless and often mapless, or as the favored phrase is: Theater of the Mind. It helps save on resources and can be particularly effective for Actual Play podcasts since there is an absence of a visual component.
What The Angry GM pointed out in that article was the sudden disconnect that everyone gets the moment everyone is asked to roll for initiative. If you have ever played a Pokemon game or the older turn based Final Fantasy games you already know this disconnect. The moment you ask to roll for initiative everyone’s brain switches over to combat mode. They are no longer playing “a bunch of adventures existing in the world” they are “a bunch of adventurers going to beat the crap out of X”. It suddenly feels like a different game.
The transition between in-combat and out-of-combat is my main issue with the entire system. When do you declare combat starts? When do you say its over? What if they want to negotiate mid battle? The existing system does not make for a narrative way to handle the pausing, starting, and stopping of combat. It doesn’t break the surprise round either because then the outcome just occurs as normal. If the combat doesn’t end in one side getting completely wiped what do you do? If one side decides to flee do you call combat over when the party is incapable of catching them, or when the opposing party flees? What if the players try to flee? The current system encourages that everyone stays for every fight and wipe the entirety of their opposition out. While those fights are satisfying, I see it as a burden to get other outcomes.
The existing system also does not work well for coordinated actions. What if you want you and an ally to flank the bugbear to put him at a disadvantage (and grant yourselves advantage)? You have to work with your GM on making sure you do the right set of actions, like using the Ready action to do what you want and maybe fudge the rules. Removing that restriction lets for more creative cooperation between your players without having to house rule a patch to the existing system.
You are stealing opportunities from your players!
I actually had someone say this at me during one of our livestreams. I have not taken anything away from my players. The only time I may have cheated a player was when I failed to keep track that she had not gone, which you can’t say hasn’t happened using initiative either. We still do combats in rounds, so any abilities that end during a certain point during a turn or round still ends how it would, it is just more up to the player when that occurs.
I am aware that there are bonuses that some individuals get to initiative based on feats or class abilities. The way I handle this is that I am more likely to ask that player first what they are going to do than the other players each round. Even with those bonuses you are not always guaranteed to go first anyhow. The point of this system is to give more control to the players over the order of combat rather than restricting them, so I also remind the players of this before they make a choice that would grant them such an ability.
I have had quite a few discussions on the topic of initiative and this concept often comes with people being skeptical. I completely understand, this is something that everyone sees as core to Dungeons & Dragons, but I do not believe that is reason enough for me to keep it. Every time I discuss this I try to remind people that this works at my table, but it might not at everyone else’s. I also do not use this system with newcomers to the hobby, they already don’t know the game so I try to not to set them up for misunderstanding when I am not sitting behind the DM screen at their table.
By no means do I think initiative is a horrible mechanic. In a situation where you don’t know the other players or you are just getting to know them, it keeps one of the most suspenseful parts of the game impartial. It is one less thing to argue over. It brings order to what could be a chaotic situation especially if all you can hear are each other's’ voices. For those massive dungeon crawls, or combat heavy games where your only goal is to get to the end and kill all the monsters in your way, initiative works just fine.
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Featured Image Credit: Wizards of the Coast