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April 20, 2015

5e Table Initiative Hack

Here's a quick 5e house rule you might want to try:  Table Initiative.  Table initiative is just "go around clockwise" initiative.  The question of "who goes next" is obvious in most board games.  If the player to your right is finishing up, it's almost your turn.  You can quickly count how many players until your turn and how many until the bad guys go.

That's a huge advantage.  You don't have to ask who goes next.  You don't even have to look at an initiative tracker or initiative tents.  There's no deciding who goes next, like in side initiative or popcorn initiative.  Board games move fast because they go around the table (most of the time).  When turns go around the table, you get a sense of how long it is until your turn, and you can literally see and hear it coming in an intuitive way.

In 5th edition D&D, initiative order doesn't change; so you can use around the table initiative!  It's super easy.  You don't need to write anything down, or remember anything from round to round, and getting started is just "roll initiative" like you're used to; but with a tiny twist.  Here's how it works:
Create an "initiative DC."  You can use 11 plus the monsters' leader's initiative modifier, if you want.  Or you can just set the DC at 15.  If you want a slightly more carefully selected DC, see the table below.  15 is pretty good for most parties unless you only have one PC for whatever reason.

Starting with the player to your left, each player makes an Initiative check against that DC, in clockwise order around the table.  Players can expend Inspiration for Advantage on these Initiative checks.

The first PC to succeed at the Initiative check goes first.  If all of the PCs fail the Initiative check, the GM goes first.

Then the order of turns proceeds clockwise around the table.  

When it gets to the GM's turn, all of the monsters act, in whatever order the GM thinks is most appropriate in the situation (e.g. the fastest monster, the highest level monster, or the monster in front might be first).

Seating Order

Seating order really matters for Table Initiative.  The first time you use it, don't worry about this part.  The players will discover a few facts pretty quickly:

  • The PCs will always clump up, like in Side Initiative.  They will always go in order from the first PC to the GM's left clockwise.  It's a big circle -- half PCs, half opposition.  The initiative check only determines where in the big circle the combat begins.
  • The player to the GM's right will always act right before the opposition.  The player to the GM's left will always act right after the opposition.
  • The player to the GM's right will rarely go first on the first round, but will also rarely go after the opposition on the first round.  The player to the GM's left will frequently go first in the first round, but will also frequently go after the opposition on the first round.

Imagine a typical "Basic Rules" party of four PCs:  A Healer, a Champion, a Thief, and an Evoker.  The best seating order would be Evoker, Champion, Healer, Thief.  First, you want to let the wizard put a fireball into the opposition.  Then you want the champion to engage with the toughest opponent.  Then you want the healer to move in as well, and engage or use buff spells.  Then you want the thief to move in to move in and attack an engaged enemy.

If this were 4e or Pathfinder, it might matter more.  But in 5e, it's not that big a deal.

Ultimately, the PCs' best strategy is to sit in initiative order from fastest (on the GM's left) to slowest (on the GM's right), giving them the highest chance of the most PCs acting before the opposition as possible,

More Careful Initiative DCs

The number of player characters in the encounter strongly influences whether the monsters will all go first.  You should set a higher DC for larger groups, and a lower DC for smaller groups.  If you want a simulationist explanation for this, remember that smaller units act quicker than larger units.

Here's a little math to help decide how hard an Initiative check to set.  Assuming an average of +2 initiative for the PCs, I calculated the chances that all of the monsters would go first.  An "Easy" initiative check DC gives the monsters just a 10% chance to go first.  A "Hard" initiative check DC gives the monsters about a 50% chance to go first.  The suggested DC of 15 mentioned above works well for any party size except 1.

Number of PCs
4 or 5
6 or 7

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