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Although I've experimented with the alternative initiative rules in the DMG and with other ideas I've read about online, I always return to the standard initiative rules in 5e combined with initiative tents draped over my DM screen for tracking order. The players understand it, it's straightforward, and it works, although I usually have to call out names to keep things moving smoothly.

Sometimes when the players are exploring a dungeon I will have them take their turns in seating order instead. Thus, play proceeds in a clockwise rotation around the table starting with an arbitrary player, usually the player at the front of the conga line or the first player through the entrance. When play reaches me in the rotation, I will take any ally, monster, or lair actions that should arise. Players seem to prefer seating-ordered initiative, probably because it is a familiar mechanic in board games. They feel more confident taking their turns right away without waiting for me to call names, and it speeds play quite a bit.

However, any game features that depend upon going first in combat (such as the assassin rogue's Assassinate feature or the doppleganger monster's Ambusher and Surprise Attack features) or game features that affect initiative rolls (such as the bard's Jack of All Trades bonus or the UA revised ranger's advantage on initiative rolls) are nerfed when we use seating-ordered initiative. It's also unclear who exactly I should start the rotation with and whether we should continue rotating for the whole dungeon or restart the initiative with a particular person whenever a threat appears.

What is an effective house-rule to use primarily seating-ordered initiative while preserving the utility of game features that depend on going first in combat or that influence initiative rolls? Answers should be based on experience, not conjecture. That is, I'm looking for a solution that proved to be objectively effective for whichever person employed it or experienced it at their game table. In addition, answers should not depend on altering the seating order of the players. Assume the seating order is arbitrary and fixed for the entire session.

Note that answers suggesting alternative methods for tracking standard initiative (whether they be tents, cards, placards, lists, or so on) do not actually answer the question I am asking. Correct answers to this question must establish a house-rule for calculating initiative in a non-standard fashion, not just for recording standard initiative using a different medium.

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I use the following house rule:

All monsters act on the same initiative. Player initiative determines who goes before the monsters on the first round, but after the monsters act the players can generally go in any order (usually in seating order, clock-wise around the table) because they will all go before the monsters' next turn anyway.

Notes:

  • Since monsters of the same type normally go on the same init anyway, this just takes it one step further.
  • For the monsters' group initiative: I use a 'passive check' (10 + average dex bonus) for extra-balance. (if desired, average dex bonus can be proportionally derived so that a high-CR monster isn't unduly altered by a single low-CR minion).
  • You can instead roll the initiative, but it can be less balanced (i.e. easier or harder) when all the monsters share the same roll. Also, a passive check allows for speedier starts, and the players' rolls matter more.
  • In practice I have the players roll init and ask "Who beat init 12?"(for example), then allow those that raise their hand to go initially (usually in seating order).
  • Yes, this could allow a lucky player to go twice before an unlucky one went once, but they're competing against the monsters (not each other). Plus, this method actually doubled the rate of play, so the end result was more playing for everyone.
  • The reason it doubled the rate of play is because it also allowed me to easily skip past anyone that wasn't ready (coming back to them once they were ready).
  • The phrase "You'll all get to go before the monsters' next turn anyway, so I'm not too worried about the order" seems to garner buy-in even from traditional players.
  • I've used this house rule for over a decade. It has done well through many discussions on the old WotC boards, dozens of conventions, and dozens of campaigns with different groups.
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  • \$\begingroup\$ +1, I've been trying to use the same house rule. :) New players are happy with it, but veterans say things like "could we go back to the old system?" \$\endgroup\$ – Dan B Jan 28 '17 at 13:58
  • \$\begingroup\$ As a follow-up, I want to mention that this is now the way we do initiative in all campaigns that I participate in both as a DM and as a player in another DM's games. It is really simple, effective, and speedy. Thank you so much for this answer. Did you come up with it on your own or is it based on or inspired by some published source? \$\endgroup\$ – Bloodcinder Jun 18 '17 at 12:06
  • \$\begingroup\$ I'm glad it worked out for you. I developed it myself during 3e (based on clockwise rotation from boardgames). The 'Delay' option in earlier editions allowed one to still follow RAW while using the method even. \$\endgroup\$ – Matt Vincent Jun 19 '17 at 4:50
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The best/most efficient initiative rule set I've ever seen at work was to use index cards rather than seating order or tents.

Fill out one 3×5 index card for each Player Character with the PC name and a few key stats (AC, base class, player name, max HP, maybe saving throws and base stats?) And then have one or more "NPC" cards with no details, just "NPC". The extra information on the cards can come in handy for GM-based rolls and other actions without having to stop and ask the Player for the information.

When combat begins and everyone rolls for initiative or sets initiative, order the cards in the order of action. (The NPC card(s) go(es) in at the appropriate initiative order.) Then the GM simply flips through the cards in order. The GM calls out the top card's PC name. That Player says what their character does. Then the card goes to the bottom of the deck and the next card acts. If some event forces a mid-combat change in order — a delayed action, for example — then that card gets "shuffled" into the stack at the appropriate point.

This way, people can sit however they want and if events cause a change in initiative orders, the players don't have to move around. Haste or Slow spells, for instance.

I saw this work out at a convention game with 20 Players in a 2-faction combat. For that game, there was

  • 1 "master GM" who adjudicated outcomes
  • 1 "Initiative GM" who tracked the above index cards and said who was up.
  • 2 "Team GMs" who answered questions for players when it wasn't their turns, one for each of the two teams. They also observed "pre-rolled" to-hit rolls, to speed up action.

That combat rolled so smoothly; each Player would say "I attack X!" roll, then give results. Each player had about 2 minutes to declare and act, and things ran fast enough to finish the battle in the 2 hour time slot.

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  • 2
    \$\begingroup\$ This is an interesting way to achieve what initiative tents draped over a DM screen do with a slight difference: you trade away being able to see the entire initiative order for being able to unambiguously see whose turn it is right now. However, this uses standard initiative rules and does not incorporate seating order. While I could definitely see myself using this as an alternative to initiative tents, it does not address the question I asked. \$\endgroup\$ – Bloodcinder Feb 1 '17 at 19:04
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One idea that I've been thinking is: everyone roll initiative at the start of the session and seat in the appropriate positions. Roll initiative again at mid session break.

This way we don't completely neglect the initiative and classes bonus and also rely on some randomness from the die.

If there are many enemies at the combat, the DM may roll initiative and place a token between players according to the initiative result, so the enemies would be grouped on 1 or 2 turns.

Disclaimer: I didn't try this method yet. I'm about to start with a group of new players, and if combat is lagging I'll test it and update with more info.

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What we tried:

Choosing who goes first is the easy part. As normal, have everyone roll for initiative, using all appropriate modifiers, advantages, etc. The highest result goes first.

Choosing how to intersperse the enemies' turns between the players' turns is the hard part. Grouping all of the enemies into one is very simple, and makes it much easier for the DM and players to track. DM rolls once to determine if PCs or NPCs go first.

Alternatively, roll for each enemy. Roll a dX where X is the die closest to the number of creatures in the encounter. That's how many turns the enemy waits, adjusted by modifiers, and potentially going before the party if the roll is good enough. Once the order is determined, play continues with the DM interrupting the table seating order for the enemy turns as they occur.

What we thought:

While these were the best options we could come up with, neither felt any better than using standard initiative rules.

One major issue with the first option is that it's too easy for the PC team or the enemy team to all gang-up and wipe out a target before the opposing team can react. It makes the matter of "who goes first" an even greater factor in the outcome of an encounter than it would otherwise be. While this can happen in an encounter anyway, having it happen every time makes that initiative roll feel just too important every time. Also, while the simplicity is nice, it breaks the back-and-forth dynamic that usually exists in many-versus-many combat.

The second option works, for the most part, but the fact that the seating order is constantly interrupted by the enemies' turns means it really doesn't feel much different from using standard initiative rules. It's a lot of extra rule and roll tweaking to set up a turn order that ends up being not much smoother than it would have otherwise been.

Personal Recommendation:

A written list for each encounter makes tracking turns just as easy in my experience, and requires no alterations to any rules. If you want to hide the enemy order on the first round, just leave lots of space to write them in as you go. On the second round everyone will know the order anyway, and anyone can consult the list at any time, rather than waiting for the DM to call on them. If people choose not to pay attention to turn order with that information available, well then I think you likely have a different issue on your hands.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ He appears to be worrying mostly about player order. May want to read the question again and see if your answer fits it. \$\endgroup\$ – KorvinStarmast Jan 28 '17 at 2:12
  • \$\begingroup\$ My primary problem with this answer is that the poster indicates that they didn't find it effective, and I'm only looking for solutions that were considered effective. \$\endgroup\$ – Bloodcinder Jan 28 '17 at 14:00
  • \$\begingroup\$ I chose to share as the definition of "effective" is more subjective than objective. The first option definitely is more effective at speeding up play, but my group simply didn't find that worth the tradeoff. The second option addresses what was considered to be a major issue with the first, and still maintains the desired order, but again we had our own opinions on the effort vs reward. The second and third sections of the post are definitely more opinion than anything, but I felt they helped add more for discussion. \$\endgroup\$ – NaturalOne Jan 30 '17 at 18:19
  • \$\begingroup\$ It doesn't appear to me in the answer that you believe the house-rule was effective at speeding up play. I might suggest making that clearer. I may be dense, but I don't see anything that mentions speeding up play. \$\endgroup\$ – Bloodcinder Feb 1 '17 at 19:09
  • \$\begingroup\$ Regarding the last sentence of the answer: I think you may have the wrong impression on motivations. It's not that my players don't understand or pay attention to the order. They just lack the confidence to assert the start of their own turns in a "cross-table" fashion. They're more comfortable handing control over to the player on their left, like in a board game. So written lists, initiative tents, initiative cards... they will all have the same problem for this particular group, a problem which seating-ordered initiative seams to fix. \$\endgroup\$ – Bloodcinder Feb 1 '17 at 19:13

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