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Something I've been debating about implementing for my group is whether or not to throw out D&D's concept of initiative order for a less granular "Phase" -- all the players act, then all the enemies act, then a new round begins, etc.

My hope is that this will make combat faster, since the PCs can plan and execute their plans simultaneously. My fear is that this will make combat deadlier, as it becomes inherently less reactive.

Are there any official variants or rules suggestions on how to handle initiative "phases" instead of a turn order? My working idea is that each player's individual turn can happen in any order within the phase, to better facilitate combat tactics / combo synergy.


This question asks not only about if they exist, but, if applied, what are the implications of the rule as well.

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There is a combat variant in the 5e DMG, page 270, "Side Initiative" (emphasis mine)

Under this variant, the players roll a d20 for their initiative as a group, or side. [The DM] also roll[s] a d20. ... Whoever rolls highest wins initiative. ... When it's a side's turn, the members of that side can act in any order they choose. Once everyone on the side has taken a turn, the other side goes. A round ends when both sides have completed their turns. ... This variant encourages teamwork and makes your life as a DM easier, since you can more easily coordinate monsters. On the downside, the side that wins initiative can gang up on enemies and take them out before they have a chance to act.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ Ah, the downsides of only owning the PHB and the Monster Manual, I suppose! So it looks like Wizards doesn't suggest any alterations other than a small warning... \$\endgroup\$ – Raven Dreamer Jun 6 '17 at 4:17
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    \$\begingroup\$ I'll give it a huge warning. At high levels a group going last can mean they're all dead before they get a turn. Sure, the players love wiping out the enemy without a scratch, but aren't as happy if it goes the other way. The action economy swings wildly if it's an entire side acting before another. \$\endgroup\$ – Evoker Jun 6 '17 at 16:27
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    \$\begingroup\$ @Evoker I've had issues with this at low levels as well, because the normal initiative rules say you roll once per group of identical enemies. The Starter Set has encounters that are just 3-4 of the same low-CR creatures, and having them gang up on a single level 1 or 2 character often left them almost dead with no chance of other PCs intervening. I can see this problem getting much worse if mixed monster groups with complementary abilities get to act together (e.g. goblins/hobgoblins and wolves). \$\endgroup\$ – Doval Jun 6 '17 at 16:36
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This is a supported variant in the DMG

DMG 270:

When it's a side's turn, the members of that side can act in any order they choose. Once everyone on the side has taken a turn, the other side goes. A round ends when both sides have completed their turns.

...

This variant encourages teamwork and makes your life as a DM easier, since you can more easily coordinate monsters. On the downside, the side that wins initiative can gang up on enemies and take them out before they have a chance to act.

It doesn't make a significant difference, in my opinion

In many sessions, I (or the DM) will get lazy and effectively do this for combats. Instead of rolling initiative for every enemy, I will just roll one initiative value for all of the enemies together.

Honestly, I don't feel like it makes that much of a difference. As a player, I didn't feel like it improved my coordination with the rest of the party, because we would make plans regardless of the initiative order. As a DM, it definitely reduces my overhead, since I can think of the battle in chunks. Additionally, if I play my monsters as if they were in a real fight, they will often have their own tactics regardless of turn order.

Moreover, the scenario in which one side focuses completely on one enemy on the other side doesn't really change that much. Because combatants don't get weaker as they lose HP, parties can still focus fire on a single enemy regardless of how the turn order works out. There are a few edge cases where a combatant might get swarmed or downed quickly, but I feel like they are rare in practice (again, unless you design your encounters to exploit this).

It does disadvantage people with high initiative bonuses

One thing to consider is that some of your characters might have some boost to their initiative rolls through class features (barbarian) or feats (alert), and using this initiative system makes those bonuses worthless. This is especially pertinent for the DMG variant, which explicitly states that no bonuses are added to any side.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Could offer 'initiative bonus' as 'first dibs' on the actions during a side. Or potentially use an 'average initiative' thing for the group, so alert gives a bit of a bonus to everyone. \$\endgroup\$ – Sobrique Jun 6 '17 at 11:32
  • \$\begingroup\$ Or (and it's only fair to the team if you have one such character), you just use the highest bonus. The char then becomes the scout who ALWAYS spots enemies and yells 'watch out!' in time. \$\endgroup\$ – Patrice Jun 6 '17 at 14:43
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    \$\begingroup\$ Actually we do total bonus of each side. So yes if one side has more bodies they may have an advantage or disadvantage if they are slow. \$\endgroup\$ – user2015 Jun 6 '17 at 21:23
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This is called Side Initiative

As the other answers point out, this is an official variant under DMG pg 270. Each side rolls 1d20 without modifiers, and that is the turn order. When it's a side's turn, the members of that side can take their individual turns in any order they choose.

This does increase cooperation, if you find it lacking

Side Initiative can transform a session that is going like this:

DM: The goblin hits Alice for 7 damage. Bob, it's your turn.

Bob: (looks up from phone) Oh, it's my turn? Hmm, I'll hit that goblin (rolls 16) and heal Alice as a bonus action (rolls 8).

DM: Okay, he's dead. Alice, it's your turn. (Bob goes back to his phone)

Alice: (looks up from phone) Is it my turn? I'll smack that other goblin with my mace.

DM: Okay, he's looking hurt. He howls and tries to club you back. (Alice goes back to her phone)

Into this:

DM: The goblin hits Alice for 7 damage. Players, it's now your turn.

A: I want to hit him back with my mace!

B: Wait, you're low. Let me heal you first (rolls 8). And then for my action, I'll just attack the goblin too (rolls 16).

DM: Okay, he's dead.

A: Thanks. I'll attack the other goblin then.

DM: Okay, he's looking hurt. He howls and tries to club you back.

Now, a session wherein the players are not paying attention and are always just on their phones, has more problems that just implementing Side Initiative by itself cannot solve. But what I'm trying to illustrate here is the reason behind the benefit Side Initiative provides.

SI maximizes the players' spotlight time

If you went in traditional combat order, and let's say you had 4 players going up against 2 monsters, then each player gets to go once per 6 turns. After they make their actions, they have to wait for 5 other characters to go before they can go again. This could be a drag. But it is going to be a long wait.

Meanwhile, Side Initiative allows all players to go at once. This means their turn comes around every other turn instead, minimizing the time they have to spend waiting. If you are a prepared DM, you might also try to minimize the time you spend rolling for your monsters (pre-rolling their attacks and damage), further minimizing the time the spotlight is not on the players.

This naturally creates more engagement, since they have to pay attention more frequently (if they weren't already).

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Side Initiative with Individual Initiative Rolls

Another alternative that is commonly used in play-by-post games (where waiting for everyone to post in order can really slow things down) lies somewhere between the normal initiative and the Side Initiative variant from the DMG. Everyone rolls initiative as normal and you roll once for the monsters. Players who roll higher than the monsters get to go first, in any order. Once they have all taken their turn, combat continues identical to Side Initiative, with monsters and players taking alternating turns and acting in any order they choose.

The main differences with Side Initiative is that players can still benefit from high initiative bonuses and it can make the start of combat a little less swingy. You can also make this more granular if you roll separate initiatives for multiple monster groups, with PC's going in between the different monster groups.

Your Mileage May Vary

As others have said, whether or not the use of such a 'group phase' will make a difference is something you will have to try out. If someone really cares about the combat, they tend to pay more attention even when their PC is not acting right now. Shared initiative might promote cooperation, but it does not enforce paying attention to other people's turns.

I've played with tactical oriented players (using standard initiative) where we occasionally discussed what to do after a monster's turn, like if it was worth readying an action to act out of our turn (e.g. waiting for someone to get adjecent for a sneak attack, waiting until allies move out of the way before launching an AoE attack). Going by that experience, I would say that most of the time the actual order PC's act in between monster turns does not matter that much of a difference in terms of encounter difficulty, especially since 5e has less focus on positioning (e.g. no flanking, almost no powers or spells to manipulate the enemy's positioning). Acting 'at the same time' also tends to play out as 'acting one after the other, but in a variable order'. There is still just one DM to process all the different actions after all.

I've also played with others who just did not pay much attention to other people's actions in combat and mostly tried to kill whatever was closest (e.g. no focusing fire, not actively setting up the rogue's sneak attack). I doubt any initiative system would have made a difference for these people as they just weren't as interested in the tactical side of combat. Killing monsters was still fun, but watching other players rolling dice and adding numbers was less interesting. When dealing with these kind of players, looking into ways to speed up combat might be more helpful to keep their attention during combat.

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The impact varies with the composition of the two parties

This answer is informed by considerable at table experience across a number of editions. But first, Icyfire makes a significant point that I need to repeat. Side Initiative (DMG p. 270) disadvantages PC's with high initiative bonuses. (We saw this with Monks and Rangers in OD&D and 1e, see below).

One thing to consider is that some of your characters might have some boost to their initiative rolls through class features (barbarian) or feats (alert), and using this initiative system makes those bonuses worthless. This is especially pertinent for the DMG variant, which explicitly states that no bonuses are added to any side.

Some people have found this to make a given encounter one sided.
Higher level

(@Evoker) I'll give it a huge warning. At high levels a group going last can mean they're all dead before they get a turn. Sure, the players love wiping out the enemy without a scratch, but aren't as happy if it goes the other way. The action economy swings wildly if it's an entire side acting before another.

Lower Level

(@Doval) I've had issues with this at low levels as well, because the normal initiative rules say you roll once per group of identical enemies. The Starter Set has encounters that are just 3-4 of the same low-CR creatures, and having them gang up on a single level 1 or 2 character often left them almost dead with no chance of other PCs intervening. I can see this problem getting much worse if mixed monster groups with complementary abilities get to act together

My own Experience, 1

In OD&D we found that side initiative (and surprise when it occurred, which was usually rolled for) coupled together to make for lethal first rounds. Who won initiative (and surprise, if any) made a huge difference in how the combat went.

  • What my first DM did was create an event flow of simultaneous outcomes which worked like this: unless there was surprise (and with a monk in our party, he always rolled separately) the DM would do the monsters/NPC's, we'd roll the character actions, and all results/impacts would count. (that means my dwarf and the orc across from him could both kill/down each other during the same round).

    The advantage of this system is that you'd not miss a chance to swing or to cast just because the enemy hit you, unless surprise was involved. It worked pretty well, and still made setting up surprise a big force multiplier -- we put some effort in trying to surprise enemies.

    At other tables, we had more than one party die in the first fight in a few OD&D games due to the foe having initiative and a few warm dice ... and the snowball would grow fast once the first few fell ...

  • Empire of the Petal Throne: as DM, I tried various modes of initiative, and we settled on the "simultaneous outcomes" idea my first DM had. All three tables I ran that on liked it, though as we got up in levels a lot of the advantage were still ranged attacks and surprise in nature, and using both spells and terrain to control the fight.

Because we rolled for both, some classes having a benefit on surprise got less advantage with a side initiative. (Monk, Blackmoor, p. 1)

At 3rd level monks are surprised only on a roll of 1 in 6, at the 5th level only 1 in 8, and at 7th level and above only 1 in 10.

My own Experience, 2; when things got all fiddly

  • AD&D 1e: we tried a lot of different systems in this edition, and found once again that side initiative, particularly when coupled with surprise, made a wipe (either way) more likely. We spent a lot of time with a segment-based system that Len Lakofka published in Dragon magazine. (Using a 1d10 and various adjustments to see when things happened during the round, spell casting times, quite fiddly). We found that if missile equipped foes had the initiative, most casters on the opposing side were down before they got a chance to cast. Low HP casters contributed to this.

    More surprise / penalizing a class with a nice feature using side initiative ...

    (1e PHB)(p. 25) Rangers surprise opponents 50% of the time (d6, score 1 through 3) and are themselves surprised only 16 1/3% of the time (d6, score 1). {snip} p. 30 Monks at 1st level of experience, a monk is as likely to be surprised as any other character, i.e. 33 1/3%. {1 or 2 on d6} This chance goes down to 32% at 2nd level, and it thereafter goes down 2% per level, so there is only a 30% chance of surprising a 3rd level monk, 28% chance at 4th level, 26% chance at 5th level, etc.

    Note: since we rolled for surprise and initiative in a lot of combats, this is similar to the current initiative roll since surprise is no longer rolled for, and it makes that one initiative roll an even bigger deal.

  • AD&D 2e: Mostly played this with side initiative, and going first was a distinct advantage. As I got very little high level play, cannot report on how that changed a later levels. Did not play this nearly as much as 1e.

  • AD&D 3.x: not enough play to comment, combat too fiddly, also difficulty getting games to stay together due to IRL. 4e: didn't bother to play. No comment.

In the Current Edition (5e)

As our group has gotten used to this system, we are taking more advantage of the action economy and are finding that making the most of the mechanics makes combat encounters a lot more fun, even though a lot of the appeal for us in this edition is the KISS principle. Initiative in this edition is a little fiddly, but very workable. We experienced a learning curve. Last year, as I was messing around in roll20 with DM tools, I ran a number of mock combats (with my son playing various sides, using varying numbers of creatures on both sides with Party versus NPC/Monsters as mixed below). Add into this high and low mixes of missile versus melee combatants. DMG variant (p. 270) side initiative was something we looked at. Side initiative didn't appeal to us as much as the system in the book.

Small-small. Small-large. Large-small. Large-large.

We used up through CR 7-8 encounters. The small-large, and large-small encounters showed this most prominently, but even large-large showed it somewhat. (Heh, the young green dragon getting initiative and a breath weapon wasn't pretty. :p) )

I found the same kind of "single roll" advantage with side initiative that I'd seen before, particularly when you added in bonus actions and things like the goblin disengage feature and hobgoblin martial advantage, Roper grapple hits ... web spells ... obviously AoE abilities. The ability to overwhelm (fight snowballs quickly in a round or two) the side that goes second, particularly at levels 1-3 where players start off, is not trivial. This edition' action economy was built and balanced (or such was attempted) with variable initiative in mind, not side initiative.

While I do not recommend side initiative in this edition, I understand that once the swingy nature of low level combat is mitigated by higher HP and chances to shape the battlefield, that particular concern may not predominate.

The other benefit we found to using initiative as written is that it forced you to make a choice if all of a sudden the bard went down right before you were thinking of making a charge move: maybe you instead defend him or something else. Our group finds that an appealing feature, but perhaps not all tables like that kind of pressure/decision making.

Recommendation 1: wait for level 5 or later PC's to do this, if you do it

Don't do this at low levels. Wait until at least tier 2 (levels 5 and up) to try side initiative at your table (particularly with new players) once they have gotten used to the basic system. Combat outcomes are swingy at low levels due to there being crits, d20 rolls, low HP at low levels, and most monsters have +1, +2, and even +3 on damage die.

For low levels (tier 1), I'd recommend to play it as written. Break up sizeable groups of monsters into clumps of 3, 4, or 5 to have common initiatives as DM -- this simplifies your workload. (Leaders always get their own initiative).

Recommendation 2: Listen To Your Players!

If your table wants try the optional rule, then use it for a few sessions and then have a sit down and ask about their likes and dislikes. Make sure you've done numerous encounters/combats so that your group is not the victim of small sample sizes. I'd say ten, but more would be better. Find out what the consensus is, and go with that.

Whatever works best at your table ... do that!


I just found this answer by @Matt Vincent that is similar to side initiative, that he's used for years, and you may find it a happy medium.

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I dislike "side" or "phase" initiative, because it makes the combat seesaw back and forth too much, and makes the whole combat too dependent on one roll. Many combats can be strongly affected by which whole side gets to go first. AD&D 1e was originally that way, and it was one of the first things we changed about that system.

In 5e, I compromise a bit by not going to the trouble of rolling an individual initiative for every monster in a large encounter. But I do roll a separate initiative for each type of monster, if there are mixed types. If there are multiples of one type, I roll initiatives for groups of 5 at the most. If it is a small number (or large monsters), I do roll a separate initiative for each. This makes the combats more consistent, and not as much luck-based.

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