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Initiative

I am starting a new 5e campaign and I am planning to use randomised initiative.

I feel recording initiative take too long, for both my players and me. I tried grouping monsters and pre-rolling initiative, but even with a magnetic board I am not happy with the results. In addition, they tend to get into discussions about "I do X because the boss can't act until you are done", which I feel is a mechanical distraction to immersion.

I am planning to use shufflebag randomisation as initiative system:

  • Each player gets a go stone with his or her name on it.
  • I have go stones for monsters, numbered 1-9

At the beginning of each round, I will put all the stones in a bag. While there are stones in the bag, I will pull out the next one, and the selected player or monster then acts its turn.

This hope this will allow for a simple randomised initiative system without much overhead at the table.

Balance

I will not use the system if I find it changes 5e balance too much, or if it is specifically unfair to certain players/classes. I am mainly interested in a mechanical, theoretical, math/statistics/rules-based approach rather than personal experience at a gametable.

Known effects:

  • Dexterity as a stat is slightly nerfed
  • The 'Alert' feat is nerfed
  • It is not guaranteed that a monster acts between two turns of a player

I am a bit worried about the third effect, but I am not sure how strongly this will effect gameplay and balance. And since it's randomised (no fudging by me), I think that positive and negative effects affect both monsters and players in a fair matter.

So my questions are:

  • What (positive and negative) mechanical side effects do I have to take into consideration?
  • How do these interact with balance between classes?
  • In what ways does it benefit or disadvantage certain spells, class features or monster powers?

A good answer is based on math, statistics and rules text, will explain the most severe changes to stock 5e balance and might potentially discuss how they could be mitigated. I am not looking for a discussion of how to use non-randomised initiative in a less time-consuming way.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ I'm curious how you plan on accounting for a PC's Dex bonus on initiative. \$\endgroup\$ – CharlieHorse May 14 '15 at 17:35
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    \$\begingroup\$ I don't; that's why I stated the nerf to Dex and Alert. \$\endgroup\$ – Mala May 14 '15 at 17:37
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We talked about random initiative in our group a few weeks ago. The DM mostly cited the "I do X because the boss can't act until you are done" kind of thing as a reason.

There are, however, a number of drawbacks. Here's what we could see:

It makes readied actions a big gamble

This is, in my opinion, the biggest sin of importing randomized initiative into 5e D&D.

Suppose I act after the monster in a round, and I want to ready an action to shoot an arrow at it as soon as it sticks its head out of full cover.

Unfortunately, the next turn I happen to end up higher on the initiative than the monster. My turn comes up again before my readied action has even had a chance to go off. I have, effectively, lost an entire turn.

This happens about 25% of the time with your proposed system. That may not sound like a lot, but given that the penalty is completely losing a turn, it's still kind of bad.

Why do I find readied actions so important? Because they are a huge enabler for teamwork and improvisation. If you can't ready actions effectively, you're a lot more likely to get locked into an "I attack it until it falls over" mindset.

It also makes ranged characters/monsters more powerful.

It messes with reactions

A superset of the above problem. Suppose I'm a counterspell-happy wizard fighting a spellcaster. Each turn, I use my counterspell to interrupt their spellcasting. This works fine with a static initiative.

But in a random initiative system, I would sometimes get back-to-back turns ("losing" a reaction), and sometimes have turns where the monster went twice in a row (causing me to be unable to counterspell).

This issue can be mitigated by having reactions (and some durations) reset at the beginning of a round, rather than the beginning of a player's turn. That's a little less intuitive, though.

It reduces, but does not eliminate initiative-order metagaming

Randomizing the initiative does eliminate a lot of player knowledge about the ordering of turns. But it doesn't eliminate it entirely.

You will still run into instances where two PCs have not yet gone, but the monsters have. In this case, the players know just as surely that they are clear to proceed as they would with a pre-set initiative.

It discourages pre-planning

It's one thing to say "okay, I'm up in two turns. I doubt much will change, so I'll start figuring out what I want to do."

It's another thing to say "okay, some unknown number of people are going before me so... I'll start planning ahead?"

It's also a lot easier to go "Bob just went, time to start thinking about my turn."

It adds per-round overhead

This one doesn't apply much to you, since it will generally not take long to gather up the tokens, put them in the bag, and give it a good shake.

Still, randomized initiative does usually take a similar amount of time to establishing a pre-combat initiative order. Except it takes that amount of time every round.

In your system, you could probably save even more time by just doing the draws at the start of combat, setting them in order on the table, and looping through that.

It makes hard combats "swingy"

A challenging monster (like a dragon) getting two consecutive turns can be pretty back-breaking (the worst case scenario being a player taking two breath weapons and dying before they have a chance to react). In the other direction, multiple PCs getting double turns can make a fight dramatically easier, potentially spoiling a boss fight.

Boosting initiative is a relevant "thing" in this edition

There aren't a ton of classes who are destroyed by eliminating initiative modifiers, but there are a few. Assassination rogues are the ones most hurt by this change. Also, as noted elsewhere, barbarians, the alert feat, and any heavy or medium armor wearers who put points into dexterity for the initiative bonus.

It's also worth noting that classes that rely on buffs (such as Druids) will tend to want to be able to invest in a higher initiative, although they do not always do so in practice.

Summary

All in all, none of this is game breaking. I don't think that I would use this system, as generating a turn order doesn't take our group very long (just a quick pass around the table, asking what each person's numbers are).

Still, if your table is running into issues, go for it. Just allow people to rebuild characters after implementing it.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Re: readied actions; importing a simple adjustment from other games with readied actions and random initiative, you can just toss the stone back in the bag each time it's drawn, until the readied action goes off or the trigger becomes impossible. Alternatively, literally hold the stone until the trigger, or end of round. \$\endgroup\$ – SevenSidedDie May 14 '15 at 19:16
  • \$\begingroup\$ @SevenSidedDie This is a good system, as far as house rules go. But there is some fiddliness: you have to remember not to return the stone at the end of the round the action was readied, while still making sure to catch any pending readied actions up at the end of the next round. \$\endgroup\$ – AceCalhoon May 14 '15 at 20:58
  • \$\begingroup\$ I don't mean to hold it after readying, just to hold on to it if it comes out of the bag. Then, "spend" it to use your readied action. \$\endgroup\$ – SevenSidedDie May 14 '15 at 21:04
  • \$\begingroup\$ I think the per-round overhead could really be emphasized here, as the OP mentioned how s/he felt the existing system took too long in their games. A "simpler" solution that has to be repeated every round may have the effect of taking more total time than one that is computed once per combat. Just as a rule of thumb, I suppose we can imagine that it will take more time as combats become more challenging. \$\endgroup\$ – J Kimball May 15 '15 at 20:34
  • \$\begingroup\$ I agreed with everything until the last chapter. All in all, none of this is game breaking?!? You just listed 8 or 9 ways how it is gamebreaking. \$\endgroup\$ – András Oct 6 '16 at 22:16
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There are a few class features and spells that effect initiative. barbarians at some point get advantage on initiative rolls, thief archetype have a feature of a to get an additional turn on the first round of combat, bards have half proficiency on ability checks, and the spells guidance(d4) and foresight( advantage). The assassin archetype might be worth a note however the luck factor in initiative is a wash, but your player might not be happy handing over the likely +5 dexterity mod on a nearly auto critical class feature. It would be worth a talk with a player wanting to be an assassin to give them a heads up.

The only feature I see needing balanced is the thief archetype, which could be a simple fix: you of give them a second stone for the first round of combat so they still get there 2 turns. I base this on the games I have run in 5e with variants like popcorn initiative. I find unless facing something that has the power to alpha strike and one shot player characters the 5Es monsters vs players power balance remains intact 5E is a little shaky at lower levels, but surprise rounds are a bigger factor IMO. Drawing all your monster stones before your players is a wash compared to good rolls. The biggest nerf to your players is in their ability to meta plan, which I think is your intended goal.

If you see it as worth it, you could treat all advantages as just having a second stone to improve the chances of going sooner in a similar fashion to advantage, but still only getting one turn. However this swings wildly with changes in the number of enemies and over all might not be worth the effort to balance as that would take play-testing or a spreadsheet thus negating the speed you are hoping to gain.

Guidance and half proficiency for bards, and to some degree Alert might not have any easy fixes, (you might treat the +5 as advantage) but trying to factor in d4s or +3 (max bard proficiency) would be too hard in this set up, also not likely to be seen as a major factor for that bard class feature.

Legendary monsters get a 20 roll for initiative. To fix this you might simply not give the monster a stone and let it be a d20 roll off with you and the player who is drawn first. This roll might be worth treating as normal initiative to give some oomph back to other wise ignored class features and dexterity mods to give them there moment of glory.

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Large monsters will change from probably going last, and small monsters will change by no longer probably going first.

High-level spells will occur just as fast as low level spells.

This means that, on average and over time, monsters will ramp up in difficulty in unexpected ways. Monsters that were supposed to be challenging because they would likely act before PCs (forcing them to use resources) will lose that advantage, while monsters that should have acted after PCs lose that disadvantage.

This change will have the effect of encouraging "nova" tactics (More encouraging?) because the speed/power dichotomy will always favor power, because there is no benefit to taking faster actions instead of more powerful actions.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ It seems to me your answer is not based on D&D 5e, which my question is focused on. Or maybe I just don't get it. \$\endgroup\$ – Mala May 14 '15 at 18:25
  • \$\begingroup\$ @Mala he might be using the speed factor variant \$\endgroup\$ – Quiescat May 14 '15 at 18:28
  • \$\begingroup\$ Sorry, I didn't realize speed factor was a variant. \$\endgroup\$ – J Kimball May 14 '15 at 18:32

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