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I'm running a group of 6 PC's through HotDQ. All of them are new to 5e and we just started, so the combat is pretty slow, and some of them aren't all that excited about combat to begin with. I'm doing what I can to reduce the number of fights, teach them to roll attack+damage at the same time, etc.

However, one of the other pieces of advice I've heard is for me as the DM to have all NPC's of a given type (e.g. kobolds) go at the same time. I'm using FightTracker so I'm already not wasting a lot of time on figuring out who goes next, but having them move and attack basically as a unit would indeed be even faster.

However, it seems to me that this would be extremely swingy as far as initiative rolls; 8 kobolds going before 6 PCs is a very different fight from 8 kobolds going after 6 PCs. I've thought about having them use "passive initiative" aka take 10 - so presumably they would be roughly in the middle every time, which doesn't give them a clear advantage or disadvantage, though it does seem both a little less realistic and a little less fun than rolling.

How have others handled this, and how did it work out? Does it affect the balance as much as I think it might to consolidate enemy initiative this way (either rolling, or using the average), or am I missing something?

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Yes, 8 kobolds all going at once can be very swingy at low levels. To help this, don't roll for their damage - just use the average damage number.

I break monsters up into groups of three to five, to avoid this problem.

For example, you could have two groups of three kobolds. Roll initiative separately for each group.

That way you might get something like: PC1, then kobolds, then PC2, then PC3, then kobolds, then PC4.

For each combat, I write the combatants down on a scrap piece of paper, from first to last, along with initiative rolls. My minis are all coloured and numbered (OK, they are cardboard cutouts, but I'm calling them minis :-). So, I might have written down "21: Alice, 18: Kobolds red, blue, green, 16: Bob, 15: Eve, 14: Kobold Purple, Black, White, 9: Trent". I use this piece of paper to track the combat - HP, status effects and so on.

At higher levels there are abilities that really shine when players win initiative (Rogue Assassin archetype, for example). If monsters always go on initiative 10 then these abilities can become quite overpowering.

Other alternatives include the variant initiative rules in the DMG and "popcorn initative" as described by AngryDM (warning, bad language and strong attitude).

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    \$\begingroup\$ I break monsters up into groups of three to five, to avoid this problem. Been doing that since I began DMing in the 70's. Manageable and, for me, gave a better "feel" to large mobs. \$\endgroup\$ – KorvinStarmast Jun 7 '16 at 0:30
  • \$\begingroup\$ +1 for the reminder about assassins and the split idea; perhaps I'll roll for one group and use the passive for the other. \$\endgroup\$ – SirTechSpec Jun 7 '16 at 3:37
  • \$\begingroup\$ I've also been splitting large groups of monsters up into groups. It works well. Having some at the same time better enables swarm tactics, but you don't have too many going at once to overwhelm the players entirely and give them no chance to respond. \$\endgroup\$ – Ethan Jun 7 '16 at 18:52
  • \$\begingroup\$ How do you remember which goblins are on which initative with this system? Do you use minis or tokens with numbers on them? Something similar? \$\endgroup\$ – Ladifas Jun 8 '16 at 18:29
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I have always used "passive initiative", and found no problems with balance or tactical calculation.

I started out this way for two reasons: to reduce my workload and to give the players the pleasure of knowing just how good or bad their own roll was. I find it a minor bummer for players to think they rolled really well ("I got a 19!") and find out that it didn't matter ("Too bad the kobolds rolled a 20."). But it has the secondary benefit of speeding up the game play - not because it reduces rolling, but because I can more quickly shift from "bookkeeper mode" - adjudicating player actions - to "monster tactician mode", and back if I only have to do so once per turn.

Balance-wise, it usually slightly favors the monsters because they can more easily coordinate their actions. But there are situations in which they suffer slightly. The biggest difference is that the monster tactics are a little bit smarter because I have a few seconds of extra time to think.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ Monsters can more easily coordinate their actions if they move all at once. However, if they're all grouped together in turn order, then implicitly so are the PCs. This may require a bit of hold action to get the players to line up perfectly, but only when necessary. On the whole it seems to work out symmetrically for games I've been in (DM and Player). \$\endgroup\$ – Joel Harmon Jun 7 '16 at 2:17
  • \$\begingroup\$ What’s passive initiative? Do you just use the player’s initiative bonus? \$\endgroup\$ – Michael Jun 7 '16 at 7:22
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    \$\begingroup\$ @Michael Passive Initiative is a house rule. In the same vein as Passive Perception, you skip rolling add 10 to the bonus. However, he's advocating it for NPCs, not player characters. \$\endgroup\$ – T.J.L. Jun 7 '16 at 12:39
  • \$\begingroup\$ @JoelHarmon If by 'hold action', you mean 'delay turn', I'm afraid you can't in D&D 5e - you either take your turn when it comes up, or miss it. You can ready actions however, but that is not the same. \$\endgroup\$ – Ladifas Jun 7 '16 at 17:36
  • \$\begingroup\$ @Ladifas your comment is entirely correct (also for 3.5 and 4). I was incorrect in believing 5th ed also changed the turn order when you ready an action. That is the case in 3.5 (phb 160) and 4 (phb 291), but not 5 (phb 193). I admit I'd forgotten about Delay Turn in any edition (OK in 3.5 and 4). However, the thrust of my comment remains. The NPCs go in one clump, in an individual order determined by the DM. The good guys go in another clump, in an order determined by initiative (but somewhat modifiable by PC action, namely Ready Action in versions 3.5, 4, and 5, or Delay Action in 3.5 or 4). \$\endgroup\$ – Joel Harmon Jun 8 '16 at 3:33
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I have played HotDQ and have been tempted, at first, to do the same thing, group Kobolds together in order to save time. However, I have come to realize that this would enable the Kobolds to gain a lot of benefits they would possibly not have when rolling initiative normally. Let me elaborate.

Enemies such as kobolds often have features that make them tougher once they feature in significant numbers. One such feature is Pack Tactics which let them roll with advantage. Here the ability as taken from the Monster Manual:

Pack Tactics. The kobold has advantage on an attack roll against a creature if at least one of the kobold's allies is within 5 feet of the creature and the ally isn't incapacitated.

This feature makes the kobolds viable enemies even beyond their challenge rating and make groups of them quite challenging early on. However, smart players can use positioning to their advantage or apply more advanced tactics that let them mitigate the effects of Pack Tactics once they have experienced it in action.

However, having all kobolds take their initiative at the same time gives them too much of a tactical advantage as they can easily create opportunities to benefit from Pack Tactics and thus gain an advantage beyond what was, imho, intended on the players.

To sum things up, grouping enemies is fine as long as their set of abilities and features do not feature synergies that can be easily put into place when initiatives are pooled.

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Yes, having all monsters of the same type take the same initiative number allows for one powerful alpha strike.

But it can swing the other way if they roll badly.

Do not forget one thing that every version of D&D has in common: it is an attempt to apply rules to a pseudo-reality to allow players to act out their fantasies.

The closer you get to real life the easier it is to suspend disbelief and immerse themselves in their fantasy and your world.

Life is not a flat thing (unless you live a very boring existence). It has peaks and valleys.

Not only are you helping them to suspend their disbelief by mirroring real life better, but you are adding to the excitement. The anticipation of how the roll is going to go is exciting.

As long as it is not the reason for a TPK you should be fine. Give it a shot and see how it goes. You are in control of their behaviors and some times monsters do stupid things and make wrong decisions. If needed a few bad tactical decisions can lessen the effects of an alpha strike if you see it starting to turn bad. Just don't be obvious.

Never let your players ever know your saving their bacon.

As soon as players think there is no risk of death you lose your single biggest adrenaline generating tool.

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I typically try to break up enemies into 3 to 5 "groups" of combatants to help smooth out the swinginess and to make the battle a little more tactical. You can do this a few different ways.

  • Break out a group. So 8 Kobolds would move in 4 pairs that each roll separately.
  • Move in similar units. Kobolds + Ambush Drakes. They both have the same initiative, if you have 4 Kobolds + 2 Ambush Drakes, have 4 Kobolds and give 2 of them Drakes on their initiative.
  • If you have significant casters, definitely try to break them out with squads, even if you have to fudge the initiative a little. Magic users tend to "splash" more than others. If you had 5x CR2 Ogres, they would get 5 attack rolls, hit a couple of times and then the players would get turns. If you had 5x CR2 Druids, they would drop 15d8 points of Thunderwave and then back away which could easily destroy the party. They're the same CR, but letting the casters go at the same time allows them to stack up abilities with little risk.

If you look ahead in levels, you'll notice that several monsters have "Legendary Actions". These monsters break out their action throughout the turn, they are designed to be a group of monsters by themselves. So an Adult Red Dragon can make 5 or 6 attacks in a turn, but it doesn't do it all at once. In this case, the problem kind of solves itself, though the primary Action is generally stronger than the Legendary ones.

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I agree with Greenstone Walker's answer. Uniform monster initiative will lead to binary outcomes. The only thing I'll add to his answer is a way to include randomized damage without bogging down combat.

While preparing for the session, estimate the number of damage rolls you think you'll need for the encounter. Then, generate a sequence of random numbers that would be equivalent to possible dice rolls, and write them down on a piece of paper. During the encounter, use the sequence for your damage rolls, checking one off for each die rolled as the monsters land hits.

For example, if your party is going to face a pack of Kobolds, use an online RNG to generate 20 numbers ranging from 3 to 6. Write them down, and then check them off one at a time during the encounter. If you wanted to generalize it so that you didn't need a separate list for each encounter, you could keep one long list for each die denomination, then mentally add the monster's base attack damage (2, in the case of Kobolds) to the next number on the list as you gave told the player the result.

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