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What keeps a player from deliberately planning their own initiative action themselves by choosing to act in a predefined sequence and waiting until a monster has acted?

If all the players do this, they can arrange their actions to maximum effect vs creatures like, say Hydras, where the Hydra goes, then the Melee classes (to pop off heads) then the fire wielders, to cauterize before the Hydra's regeneration goes off.

This seems like an entirely valid strategy, especially for a party that has fought together for a long time and knows each others' fighting styles and abilities, but the Initiative rules assume every fight is a mad scramble to act first, even though this is not necessarily the optimal course of action.

So the question is: Can the players deliberately choose which order to act in at the onset of combat (not during combat, when there's too much going on to make such detailed plans), thus setting their own initiative using disciplined tactics?

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I don't know all too much about this topic but I think it is possible with readied actions.

Let's take your example:

Initiative:

  • Our fire wizard: 18
  • The hydra: 15
  • The badly rolled fighter: 5

Wizard:

"I ready my action for when one of the heads of the hydra is cut off to use fire bolt"

Hydra takes it turn attacking or something.

Fighter:

"I attack and go for the head."

rolls like a god

Hydra's head rolls over the ground

Wizard's condition for his readied action has been fulfilled and he casts his fire bolt.

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    \$\begingroup\$ It may be worthwhile to remind folks that use of Readied Actions eliminates extra attack and those PCs will only get one attack (lowercase a). \$\endgroup\$ – NautArch Nov 1 '18 at 13:36
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Insofar as your question is "what keeps me from doing this": What keeps you from doing this is that the enemy is not going to cooperate with your "optimal" (ick) sequence of actions. D&D combat is not a fight scene from West Side Story.

That said, you can:

Use readied actions.

"I wait until the hydra's head gets chopped off, then immediately burn the neck-stump with a torch" is exactly what readied actions are for, and exactly how you'd phrase this at the table.

There are several downsides to readied actions: you won't get your Extra Attack or any bonus actions related to your attack, you'll use up your reaction, you can't move after taking your action, and (most importantly) if the hydra doesn't get decapitated, you'll have wasted your turn. All of this represents the actual downside of what your character is doing, which is waiting for an opening instead of taking the initiative.

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They sacrifice the first strike for their favored action order.

Taking the initiative or not, positioning and formation are the crux of what is commonly known as strategy. Some strategists commend to take initiative whenever possible as the first strike should be the last if possible, others suggest a waiting stance to strike from a defensive position after the advance of the enemy was dulled and acting from a twice superior position: defense and well coordinated. Waiting for one another and acting as one is the pinnacle of a disciplined group and army - the better they do so, the more effective they are in combat. This is what army drill is for. But that is real military theory, not the game.

Is it valid in game?

Yes, players have been given the option to delay their actions to act in unison by using the readied action. This enables them to do actions as described by OP. But they do open themselves for the first attack of the enemies and sacrifice some power potential. And the enemy has the same right and might retaliate by focussing fire, just like the players. Sometimes, fighting fire demands to set a counterfire.

This tactic can be very effective against regenerating enemies, but it also gets dangerous against alfa-striking enemies: if the first attack is very devastating and can take out a PC, then the party does weaken themselves by not striking as early as possible as the delayed action does not happen for the delaying character being taken out.

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INITIATIVE — Initiative determines the order of turns during combat.

Initiative is a game mechanic that takes into account, all possible factors and simplifies them in a 6 second round of stop motion combat.

Think of when they do choreography for a fight scene. Actors will go through a few sequences so they get there positions right for the camera. This is how my mind sees dnd combat rounds.

Initiative was a bit of a problem in 3.5 where people would roll initiative but then just delay it so they went after other players.

READY — Sometimes you want to get the jump on a foe or wait for a particular circumstance before you act. To do so, you can take the Ready action on your turn so that you can act later in the round using your reaction.

So players can setup whatever tactics they plan to use, but excluding an ambush (surprise before combat starts) they still follow initiative.

Out of combat, one could Ready to shoot anything that walks through a door, whilst attempting to hide, which would be the “determine surprise” before initiative is rolled. (following PHB structure)

As in Pirates of the Caribbean, they’re not exactly rules .. more like guide lines. Unless you are comfortable and experienced DM, best to follow the books.

In the end it’s about having fun with being a little open minded to interpretations of the rules.

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