Is rolling initiative a pointless ritual?

Today’s topic is something so iconic within D&D that some people have even named their blogs after it: rolling initiative.

Using initiative to determine combat order has a history going all the way back to 1977. But do we need it, really? Or is it an unnecessary hassle?

The case for rolling

There are two main arguments for rolling initiative. One is tradition, the other is randomness.

‘Roll for initiative’ isn’t so much a game mechanic as a ritual: a signal to the players that combat is about to start. Sometimes it can be a dramatic or climactic event in its own right, like at the start of a boss fight, or when combat begins unexpectedly. It’s an opportunity to talk tactics and decide what you’re going to do on your turn.

Rolling for initiative also keeps combat unpredictable. It’s no fun always going last, and a constantly changing initiative order keeps players (and Dungeon Masters) on their toes. In 5th edition, turn order can make a huge difference: if the players go first, it can give them a chance to throw everything they’ve got against a monster before it even has a chance to strike. The reverse, of course, is also true.

So, what are the downsides?  

The counterargument

The art is great, but is old school always better?

Yes, initiative has been in the game for a long time. But that doesn’t mean we have to keep it. The earliest form of initiative was actually quite different: a simple roll-off on a d6. And later editions have played with the initiative rolls, too. 4th edition required you to add half your level to your initiative roll, for example.

Initiative is a ritual, but it can be a tedious one. For a large party of six or more players in a complicated combat with lair actions and multiple enemies, tracking initiative can become a real chore. Throw in summoned creatures, pets, and allied NPCs, and it’s enough to give you a breakdown. Some DMs use initiative markers on their DM screen to make sure the players can always see who’s next. Should we really need to do this? Combat is complicated enough as it is, especially for new players.

Another downside to rolling initiative, pointed out eloquently by the Id DM, is that it takes players out of a roleplaying mindset. ‘It removes the player from the experience of their PC and immediately introduces mechanics to resolve in-game problems.’ There’s something jarring about it.

There are also a couple of mechanical reasons why initiative maybe needs a rethink.

One is the ‘god stat’ issue. In 5th edition, Dexterity is probably the most important ability in the game. It affects AC, three skills, ranged attacks, and one of the three most important saving throws. And initiative. Don’t Dex-based characters get enough good stuff as it is?

The other is matter of probabilities. If a party of adventurers is making four or five initiative rolls, and the enemy is only making one, the adventurers are almost always going to go first. An enemy rolling 1d20 will get, on average, a 10 or 11, plus Dex. A party rolling five d20s will get a range of rolls, but the average roll goes up to 17. In such circumstances, maybe Dex doesn’tmake that much of a difference: even if the enemy has a Dex of +5 ­– a supernaturally agile creature like a marilith or a pixie – someone in the party is still likely to go first.

If initiative is a more of a hindrance than a help, then, what are the alternatives?

Alternatives

Let the narrative do the work.

The Dungeon Master’s Guide offers three initiative variants on page 270.

The simplest is to use initiative scores instead: 10 + Dexterity modifier. This was the system I was introduced to in the D&D Adventure Game, one of the 3rd edition starter sets. It worked fine. You could even ask the players to sit around the table in initiative order.  

Another interesting variant is side initiative. This is where each side rolls an unmodified d20 and the winning side goes first. If the party goes first, they can take their turns in any order they choose. As the DMG notes, ‘This variant encourages teamwork and makes your life as a DM easier’, but ‘the side that wins initiative can gang up on enemies and take them out before they have a chance to act.’

The third option in the DMG is rather complicated, but there are others out there. The Angry GM offers a variant called popcorn initiative where the highest roll goes first and then nominates the next player. Some groups even go one step further and use narrative initiative, deciding together on an initiative order that makes the most narrative sense. You can literally pull names from a hat, if you want.

Closing thoughts

If it sounds like I’m dumping on traditional initiative, I’m really not. It’s a system I’ve used for 20 years and only occasionally deviated from. But I do wonder if it’s actually that fun, and whether it matters more than it should. If my group wanted to run combat using initiative scores or side initiative, I wouldn’t care much. Perhaps it’s a sacred cow.

How do you use initiative in your games? Comment below.

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