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So in my current D&D group all the PCs have a static initiative (8 + Proficiency + Dex + any other bonuses) while enemies and NPCs keep rolling the original way (d20 dice roll + Dex). This enables us to plan a permanent group order in combat but I would like to know if this is actually balanced, or if there is any disadvantage to this. Since the PCs gain Proficiency on Initiative but the Enemies do not, I feel like that might be unbalanced. Also I feel like low Dex PCs will just have to live with being last nearly every encounter.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ Are you planning on playing your characters with this rule all the way until level 20? And with all characters, or just this specific set? \$\endgroup\$
    – ESCE
    Jan 13 at 1:36
  • \$\begingroup\$ The DM introduced this at around level 6 and is planning to keep it as a house rule for future games if it works out fine. \$\endgroup\$
    – Smasher
    Jan 13 at 11:49
  • \$\begingroup\$ Is there any particular reason that the NPCs still roll? \$\endgroup\$
    – Michael W.
    Jan 13 at 16:35
  • \$\begingroup\$ I think that is to ensure that high cr enemies won't always be going first and low cr enemies to always be last. \$\endgroup\$
    – Smasher
    Jan 13 at 16:54

3 Answers 3

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This is indeed slighty unbalanced

In general, systems with fixed initative can work, but there are two issues with the one you set up: balance, and narrative cohesion.

Balance: as you observe yourself, using proficiency bonus will give the PCs an increasing amount of leverage over the monsters as they level up. In tier one the bonus is +2, so you end up close to equal. The average d20 roll is 10.5, so this slightly plays in favor of the monsters going first. Tier one is by far the deadliest tier, and this may not be a good thing either. From then on however, the PCs increasingly win out. In tier four they have +6, or 3.5 points over the monsters. That is significant. Going first is a big advantage, it means getting in those critical spells and attacks before the monsters can fight back, and potentially taking them out.

The second aspect is that knowing the order also is an advantage. This may help to offset the tier one problem, but makes the overall issue worse. The players can optimize tactics that work the same, every fight.

This system due to increasing profciency bonus is also better for the PCs than the static initiative variant rule in the DMG (p. 270), which works like this:

With this optional rule, creature don't roll initiative at the start of combat. Instead, each creature has an initiative score, which is a passive Dexterity check: 10 + Dexterity modifier.

Here, all creatures, also the monsters get a flat check, and the players will always stay at 10+Dex, and not improve from there as in your system. (Credit to @ThomasMarkov for observing this).

Narrative cohesion: the second issue is that initiative is an artifact of turn based combat. All the action during the round happens at the same time, turns just serve as a mechanic to resolve this. So how do the PCs know about intiative order at all? As pointed out in this answer, while not against the rules technically, making use of knowledge about turn order is a kind of metagame thinking -- as the DMG puts it on page 235, "thinking about the game as a game." The DMG advises against this:

Discourage metagame thinking by giving players a gentle reminder: "What do your characters think?"

Now this is not a balance issue, and maybe you can justify it by saying the characters know that the rogue is just always a bit faster, and the cleric is always the last to react. And it is hard to not think in terms of first and last when it comes to initative, because how you as players experience it. I certainly know that it requires conscious effort to disengage yourself from thinnking in this way, and it is also a slightly different kind metagame thinking than the examples the DMG talk about, which are more about inferring story elements. But at least it makes this somewhat dubious.

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    \$\begingroup\$ You might observe that the inclusion of proficiency bonus makes this a net-improvement in most instances over the official fixed initiative variant described in the DMG (10+DEX). \$\endgroup\$ Jan 12 at 18:54
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    \$\begingroup\$ Fixed initiatives also have the potencial to make assassin rogues overpowered, specially if you have multiclass enabled and the rogue also have some fighter lvls that allow to multiattack. That means free multiple critical hits before the enemie even have a turn... \$\endgroup\$ Jan 12 at 21:02
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Overall, I think this is probably an improvement to the game. The start of combat in 5e is one of its worst systems, and anything that makes that go faster is probably a Good Thing. Like any house rule, it needs playtesting.

I have played with a similar house rule (which I'll include at the bottom of my answer) to great effect.

Balance considerations.

There's two parts to this answer; I'll start with the objective balance considerations.

Overall, initiative is usually not a big deal in 5e

Fifth edition D&D has done away with a lot of the "rocket launcher tag" mechanics from 3.5e, such as save-or-die effects. Most battles last for several combat rounds, so the characters who act first don't necessarily get to take many more actions than the characters who act last. There's a couple of things still worth mentioning, though.

Some class features grant (partial) proficiency to initiative already

I don't have my rulebook with me right now, but IIRC, the Bard's Jack of All Trades feature would allow them to apply half their proficiency bonus (rounded down) to initiative rolls. After this change, every PC is now getting their full initiative, so the Bard is slightly nerfed by comparison.

Some spells care a lot about whether certain characters have moved

Some spells, like Fireball or Prismatic Wall, are optimal if nobody has closed to melee yet. Others, like Haste, are optimal if the recipient of the spell is going to get a turn before the enemies force the caster to make concentration checks. Command works best if the enemy just acted and is going to be prone (giving your teammates advantage on attacks) for everyone else's turn before it has a chance to stand up. The list goes on.

PCs can get locked into the "wrong" order

If the wizard always goes before the fighter, then the wizard can reliably land a Fireball on the enemy group before the fighter advances to melee to attack. If the wizard never goes before the fighter, then Fireball becomes a much less useful spell - the wizard might not be able to catch the entire enemy group without also roasting their friend.

Normally, everyone can expect to have some encounters where they do well and some encounters where they do badly. Reducing the variability here means that the wizard could have either very many or very few opportunities to show off and be powerful.

This will make PvP a lot worse if you allow PvP (and apply this rule to it)

Player-versus-player combat will be a lot more predictable if the initiative is rolled ahead of time. In my experience, this is a bad thing because a lack of uncertainty means that the expected winner can bully the expected loser. The easy fix to this is to commit to normal initiative if PvP happens, or ban PvP combat completely.

Gameplay/Fun Considerations

The other thing to consider here is what this does for the pace of the game.

Players like to roll dice

YMMV here, but in my experience, players like rolling dice. Rolling dice keeps them in the game even when they aren't making decisions. The DM rolling dice is less thrilling. If I need a die rolled, I try to find excuses to have the players be the one to roll it. My games run better if the person who's on watch rolls for random encounters, etc.

This house rule means that at the beginning of combat, there's a bookkeeping-heavy moment (establishing the initiative order) where the players haven't rolled any dice. This could throw the players out of the action...

This will probably make start-of-combat happen a lot faster

The transition into combat is (in my experience) one of the worst parts of D&D. It takes something that should be exciting - the moment at which the stakes of a scene get escalated to include injury and death - and pauses the game for a couple minutes of bookkeeping/roll-call before play can continue.

This house rule eliminates that down beat, and that gameplay improvement alone probably trumps all of the other considerations here, at least when compared to RAW.

A similar rule: Initiative Tests

At my tables, Initiative works like this:

  1. During design time, I set an "Initiative DC" for each encounter.
  2. At the beginning of each encounter, the PCs all make an initiative check against the initiative DC
  3. PCs who beat the initiative DC then take their turns (they choose what order to act in*)
  4. Then the monsters take their turns (in any order I choose)
  5. Then all PCs take their turns (in any order they choose*)
  6. Go to step 4, repeat until the encounter is over.
  • If there's a dispute where more than one PC wants to go first, I have them roll an opposed Initiative check. In my experience, most encounters pass without any such disputes.

This is a very similar rule to yours; only one side rolls initiative, while the other has a fixed initiative score. The differences are:

  • The players roll dice, versus the GM rolling dice
  • The players choose what order to act in, versus always acting in a fixed order. (Monsters do the same)
  • The DM doesn't need to track turn order, but does need to make sure no one goes twice in the same turn (since they're going out of order).
    • Conversely, asking "Who wants to go next?" sometimes breaks the rhythm of play if no one has figured out what they want to do, while your rule preserves a single answer to that question.
  • Mine doesn't give proficiency to initiative, but allowing combatants to choose their order of operations is a more significant advantage for PCs than monsters most of the time.
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    \$\begingroup\$ Actually I prefer the pause rolling gives so I have time to think about the encounter and come up with an action. Esp. if I'm a wizard and the fighter goes first. \$\endgroup\$
    – ourmandave
    Jan 13 at 12:37
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Players will have above average initiave at higher levels

Considering the average of a d20 roll is 10.5 and normally you'd roll for initiative by taking a d20 and adding your Dexterity modifier as well as any other bonuses, meaning that the average initiative roll is 10.5 + bonuses (for the sake of convenience, let's just roll Dex and other static bonuses to one variable we'll be calling simply bonus from now on).

Your method of adding the proficiency in will somewhat skew the results upwards at higher levels:

Level range New average Difference
1-4 10 + bonus -0.5
5-8 11 + bonus +0.5
9-12 12 + bonus +1.5
13-16 13 + bonus +2.5
17-20 14 + bonus +3.5

Whether a noticeable improvement in initiative at higher levels would be game breaking is a bit debatable, but at the very least it does significantly increase the PCs' initiative.

Worth noting is that there is a similar variant rule on the page 270 of Dungeon Master's Guide:

Initiative Score

With this optional rule, creatures don't roll initiative at the start of combat. Instead, each creature has an initiative score, which is a passive Dexterity check: 10 + Dexterity modifier.

This will be closer to the average initial roll, only losing 0.5 on average, similar to your system on levels 1 to 4.

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