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I've recently been toying with some rule modifications to 5e's Initiative rules in an attempt to resolve the rule/reality inconsistency where a player "gets the jump" on a monster, but the monster is able to act first via a Reaction.

The rule changes I'm considering is the following:

A creature cannot use its Reaction before the start of its first turn.

Note that this is not a modification to Surprise rules. This rule would apply any time that Initiative is rolled.

Clearly this will add greater emphasis on rolling well for Initiative. However, for the sake of completeness, I'd like to know if there are there any larger balance ramifications that might occur under this change?


For context and clarification:

The following is the intent of the change:

  • Deliver on the thematic of being the "first to draw" in combat; i.e., support the intuitive understanding that Initiative defines which creatures are quickest to act.
  • Deliver on my players' desire to feel like they can surprise their opponents without needing to roll for stealth.

Here's how the rules apply to monsters:

  • In my campaign, each player and monster has their own Initiative score that's determined with a roll at the start of combat.
  • This rule will apply to all creatures, meaning that the rules can be used against the player characters.
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    \$\begingroup\$ @Medix2 I would probably rule that Legendary Actions remain unaffected as they're not considered reactions. Definitely something I would have to judge at the time, though. \$\endgroup\$ – Andrendire Jan 27 at 19:24
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    \$\begingroup\$ Related on legendary actions and reactions \$\endgroup\$ – NautArch Jan 27 at 19:26
  • \$\begingroup\$ Are you proposing they don't get reactions until they hit their initiative order on the first round of combat? Would it then revert to the regular rules with surprise? (No reactions until the end of the first round) or would it extend all the way into the next round initiative order? \$\endgroup\$ – Sum of e D pi Jan 27 at 23:36
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    \$\begingroup\$ Note that you proposed changed already exists in some systems (e.g. Pathfinder: source; Pathfinder is based on D&D 3.5e, but I can't speak for 3.5e or another other versions of D&D.) Of course, the fact that it works for those doesn't mean it'll work for 5e. \$\endgroup\$ – ikegami Jan 28 at 11:49
  • \$\begingroup\$ Can you give concrete examples of this happening? Are you talking about "running past the front line", or some other monster reaction? \$\endgroup\$ – Yakk Jan 28 at 18:15
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Squishier creatures will be harder to protect

The largest, most general consequence will be that frontliners will have a harder time protecting their squishier allies. In my experience, both PC and enemy groups almost always travel through dangerous areas with tankier melee characters in front and squishier casters and ranged characters in back. Normally, the frontliners can prevent enemies from rushing past them by threatening opportunity attacks. Under your proposed houserule, any creature that rolls high enough on initiative can ignore this threat. This will make playing a wizard or sorcerer somewhat more dangerous in a wide variety of encounters. On the other hand, it will make it much easier for the PCs to win certain types of encounters, such as those against high-CR casters with minions.

Certain features will become less useful

A number of spells, feats, and class features rely entirely or in part on the use of your or your allies' reactions. Off of the top of my head, the Battlemaster's Commander's Strike Maneuver, the Order Cleric's Voice of Authority, the Polearm Master and Sentinel Feats, and the Dissonant Whispers and Shield spells all fit this category, and I'm sure there are many more. Denying the use of these features on the first turn if the initiative order doesn't work out right may feel like a significant nerf to any PCs who have chosen them.

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As you mention, rolling well on initiative becomes far more important for the creature.

A partial list of things PCs/NPCs would then not be able to do include:

  • Opportunity attacks
  • Reaction spelling (including shield & counter spell)
  • Some feats (Sentinel for example)
  • Rogue's Uncanny action
  • Any reactions / special abilities granted to monsters

Some of these are good things - no OAs might prompt more movement in combat.

The rest of it will reduce a character's effectiveness in combat if they roll badly for initiative. A wizard or Rogue will be hampered by not being able to Shield or use Uncanny dodge for example.

I think the upshot of this is a large advantage due to rolling well (quite possibly larger than you imagine) for initiative and a serious disadvantage to rolling poorly. Imagine the situation where your players roll well and can now kite the enemy, moving in, attacking and freely moving away again with no repercussions at all.

The overall effect will be faster battles I imagine, particularly if the PCs all roll well while the monster(s) do not. Or vice versa.

If the initiative is widely spread, some PCs high, some low, it's hard to say exactly how it will turn out.

I think the best idea would be to play test for several battles, either mock scenarios or in the campaign, and see how it goes. It definitely grants scope for canny players to really be more inventive in what they do so it might be great!

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    \$\begingroup\$ Reactions are only removed until you've taken your first turn, not for the entire fight, so at best your PCs can move in, attack, then move away again without risking an opportunity attack once at the start of the fight. From the second round onwards, they would trigger OAs as normal; kiting for the entire fight wouldn't be possible with this rule, so the imagined scenario you've presented wouldn't exist with this rule to much more of an extent than it does with the normal rules. \$\endgroup\$ – Anthony Grist Jan 28 at 12:58
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I find this change fairly unbalancing as this would effectively nerf quite a few abilities:

  • Reaction spells (Shield in particular)
  • Opportunity Attacks
  • Defensive reactions (Rogue's dodge)
  • Martial Maneuver Reactions
  • Feats
  • Etc.

I'll add that that this also nerfs the advantage of achieving surprise. Not that getting surprise would be worse, but because gaining surprise isn't much better than the start of regular combat.

This also doesn't make a whole lot of sense in situations where two groups are facing off, both aware of each other's presence.

With both sides lined up and ready to fight, just waiting for trouble, why would it take any time to react to hostilities breaking out?

If you're looking for something more within the rules, might I suggest expanding what can constitute surprise?

"Two duelists, weapons undrawn, face each other down. One appears to relax, letting his guard down before suddenly drawing swords and attacking"

"The monsters and the party parlay over terms when at a hidden signal, one side suddenly goes for the leader."

"The sweet-talking bard convinces the bandits he's not a threat. Only to cut down the leader as they laugh at the bard's well-timed joke."

Dexterity is already a powerful enough stat (Attack, AC and Initiative bonuses) without making high initiative even better

So why not give the other stats (and skills) a chance to give characters the upper hand in combat by broadening the definition of a surprise to include "Unexpected start of hostilities"

And just to add, by expanding the notion of a surprise to "Unexpected start of hostilities", there's also the possibility the entire party might also be surprised by the actions of just one character.

A.k.a. "Leeeeroy Jeeeeeeenkins"

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That's what surprise rules are for.

Surprise rules do exactly that. A surprised creature cannot use actions or reactions until after their first turn in combat (meanign they just pass). After that, it is combat as usual. What you are trying to bring are the flat-foot rules of 3.x . One that gave great benefit to those with large initiative bonuses. In 5e, initiative is still important but not to that degree.

Your players are being cheap if they don't want to bother with stealth. That is a symptom of murderhoboism and should the discussed further. And it will backfire the moment the monsters get the jump and thrashes a PC before they can act. (or react, in the case).

I think this is not an issue for a rule change. It is an issue that must be addressed in a civilized conversation. But this is a game, nevertheless. If everyone is aware of the consequences and willing to go for it, there's no reason to not do that.

The game rules exist to try and give everyone a fun gaming experience. If they get in the way of fun, they should either change or go. But to do so must be an informed decision.

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IMO the key point here is this one:

  • Deliver on my players' desire to feel like they can surprise their opponents without needing to roll for stealth.

The whole roll for stealth concept is based on the unfortunate reality that how stealthy one feels may be inaccurate.

The main impact of the change as you've described it would be to remove a lot of the challenge of

  • the classic jailbreak / hostage situation type scenarios

  • any other situation where a certain amount of careful planning should realistically go into “sneaking up on” a more powerful group

and would also pretty much invalidate any careful planning around

  • defending the PCs' “home turf” (if any, i.e. a long-term campaign)

  • protecting them during rest breaks

  • what to do when, not if, they get caught on the way out of the palace / castle / dungeon

Unless you intend to give them a free ride, applying the same approach (no chance for preparation to effect a rapid reaction to being surprised, a.k.a. immediate armed response) to the opposite situation would probably make it harder to avoid TPKs.

It's not a stretch, I suspect, to imagine the players will sing a different tune when the RAW would work in their favour.

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