The Savage World System

In Savage Worlds, Initiative is determined by using a 54-card deck (standard 52-card deck, including the Jokers). Each player and enemy is dealt a card (or group of enemies, like all the goblins are dealt one card, the orcs are dealt another card, etc). Ace goes first, King second, etc., down to 2 going last. At the end of each round, the cards are discarded, and a new set of cards are drawn. This means, that with each round, the chance of drawing a Joker increases.

If a Joker is drawn, that player/enemy is allowed to go whenever they wish; this can be reactionary (though not to be used in place of a player's reaction); in response to an attack made, or to wait for an opening made by another player, etc. They are also granted +2 to all rolls they make that round (attack rolls, skills checks, damage rolls, etc.). At the end of this round, when a Joker is drawn, all cards are shuffled back into the deck.

Players can also gain abilities that can modify their draw (such as their minimum Initiative is a 5 - cards are drawn until they get a card that is 5 or above), however I will omit this from this question, as that opens up a lot of different possibilities.

My House-rule for 5th Edition D&D

Dex is important to Initiative in 5e. Some of the "feats" in Savage Worlds allows players to draw multiple cards, in order to increase their chances of a higher card. I wanted Dex to mimic this by awarding players an additional card draw equal to half their overall Dex modifier, and/or a minimum Initiative of the overall Dex modifier*.

So here is my suggested house rule:

When players would normal roll for initiative, players instead draw from a deck of cards to determine their order.

  • There are 54 cards in the deck. Standard 52 plus 2 jokers.
  • Players draw cards equal to 1 + (Initiative Bonus / 2, round up) taking the highest card as their initiative score.
  • If a player draws a card below their initiative modifier, they instead use their initiative modifier and their initiative score.
  • Cards are discarded after each draw.
  • If a joker is drawn the player may choose their own initiative score. Additionally the player has advantage on all rolls for the first round of combat.
  • After a joker is drawn or there is not enough cards in the deck for a new draw. All cards are shuffled back into the deck.

Example: The Rogue has +3 initiative, +5 from the Alert Feat. He gets 4 cards in his initiative. Unfortunately, the highest card he gets is a 7, so he defaults to an initiative of 8. The Fighter has +0 Dex, so he only gets one card, but by the luck of the draw, scores an Ace!

*This would burn through the deck faster than you would in Savage Worlds, meaning that getting to the Joker would come sooner/more regularly. I'm not sure how this would affect balance

I have heard of systems that use a static Initiative system, working off flat Dex, rather than using a roll, and others that do re-roll Initiative each round, to create a more variable encounter system.

This system provides a more variable initiative, and the "Wild Card" is a major twist on the existing initiative system. What aspects of the 5e Initiative and combat system will this mechanic affect?

  • \$\begingroup\$ Comments related to fixing the previous version of this question have been moved to chat. \$\endgroup\$ Jun 12, 2019 at 4:44

1 Answer 1


Quite A Lot

  • Minimum Draw: You don't have one, so anyone with an Initiative modifier of -2 or lower gets dealt ZERO cards. They don't get to act in combat. At all. That's silly and needs to be corrected.
  • Slow Dealing: Dealing out 3+ cards to every player, NPC, and creature will consume a surprising amount of time. No idea if you ever played Deadlands Classic, but all characters regularly received one to five cards each round (more for some special abilities) and it took about a minute to deal them all out.
  • High Initiative Builds: These get a lot more powerful. Have a +14 Initiative? You get dealt 8 cards and you get to act before any other character, every single round - the cards only go up to 13 but your minimum value is 14, ergo you always act first.
  • Bad Example: Your example doesn't follow your rules. The Rogue has a total +8 Initiative, granting 5 cards (not 4).
  • Joker Effects: Advantage for a turn is powerful but not encounter breaking. Having Advantage on all saves, attacks, and skill checks for a single round of combat is powerful and useful. Probably not unbalanced, due to the unpredictability, but that would require play testing to confirm.
  • Uncovered Cases: Initiative Roll is a Dex check and can be affected by advantage/disadvantage like any other ability check (Enhance Ability and Foresight, as well as the Barbarian feature Feral Instincts come to mind), that still needs to be addressed.

The other effects will be pretty similar to rolling Initiative every round - turn order is unpredictable and dynamic, an amount of time is taken up determining the new initiative order, and players need to adjust plans to account for the changes.

This makes some tactical planning more challenging. You can't know ahead of time who in your party is going to act before the foe(s) or if the key actor in your plan is going to act at the beginning or end of the round.

Good luck!

Background: I have been regularly running Savage Worlds games for the last nine years. I've been running or playing in 5e games for nearly five years. I've played a few campaigns with the "roll each round" initiative. I was involved in one D&D campaign that tried integrating card draw initiative.

  • \$\begingroup\$ Thanks for your answer! It was pointed out that my question (that you answered) was still in need of clarification. I have now done this, so it might be worthwhile revisiting your answer to match? \$\endgroup\$
    – Ben
    Jun 12, 2019 at 5:00

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