I have a love-hate relationship with classic initiative in D&D. One plus is at least for the first turn, things are chaotic. You can get a player rolling high and step into the action immediately, and you can have a player instead be a little flat-footed by rolling low. It’s fun. However on the following turns it slips into a set order and the humdrum of a predictable routine for turns becomes the norm. Alternately, it’s a little jarring breaking up the narrative to jump into wargame mode for a combat by telling players to roll for initiative.
Newbie Dm has been pondering this last point some, with thoughts of dropping it completely. I can agree that calling out initiative is like announcing RP needs to jump in the backseat as butt-kicking time is taking over the story steering wheel. I don’t quite have an answer for that. There is a certain disconnect with D&D when it comes to roleplaying and the actual mechanics of combat resolution. You can certainly pepper RP into a melee, but there will still be those mechanisms in the background of rolling to hit and damage, with initiative order lumped into that too.
However, I wouldn’t kick initiative to the curb. I realize it can break up the narrative in some cases, but having a completely open order for combats can also allow players to slip into taking over the action completely. I like the idea of combats being deadly and unpredictable. In that aspect, classic rolling for initiative sort of captures that. The problem I have is it slips into a set order, with no surprises after the first turn.
Look at wargames – The idea of unit activation is something that’s been tackled quite a bit through a variety of means in miniature wargames. A lot of designers try to model friction in command and unit activation, and uncertain turn order helps mimic that some. Taking a look at how other games handle unit activation (or initiative), especially wargames, can offer some good ideas for porting them over to D&D. Mind you, what I’ll talk about here is by no means an exhaustive list for systems used in miniature wargames but they are some common themes.
IGOUGO – This is a common turn order system. A player chooses all the units they wish to activate and resolve their actions, then their opponent does the same. This can be shaken up some requiring command checks to see if a unit can be activated.
I’m not a fan of IGOUGO. Even with command checks, you have a degree of certainty how your turn will play out. This isn’t to say it’s not a popular system though. Warhammer 40K and Flames of War use IGOUGO and are probably some of the biggest systems around for wargames. For D&D, you could just have all the players go, and then all the monsters. It can work but not my cup of tea.
Alternate activation – This is a popular stepping stone between IGOUGO and random activation. Players pick one unit to activate and play out the turn, their opponent then does the same, going back and forth until all the units are activated. For D&D, you can have players and the monsters go back and forth, or break it up with the PCs having 2-3 characters act, then a few creatures. It’s serviceable. The kicker is usually figuring out who which side starts at the top of the turn. Commonly a lot of wargames decide that by rolling a die (sometimes with modifiers to represent better command and/or morale). Deciding by the highest dexterity scores D&D might work for D&D.
Random Activation – For me this has become my favorite system in wargames, as it can provide you with utter, random chaos. Granted D&D has this right off the bat with rolling initiative too, however the order becomes static. I’m a fan of keeping things completely random throughout the entire combat for each turn. There are two ways to handle this. One could be that each player/monster is assigned a specific card and they are randomly drawn from a shuffled deck.
Another more flexible system would be splitting a deck of cards up by color, with one side activating when their color is drawn. This could also be done using dice of two sets of uniform colors. To keep ensure everyone gets a turn, you could make a special deck (or pool of dice) where each individual unit is represented by a card of their respective color. One my favorite games, Bolt Action uses this system with colored dice. It’s easy and flexible enough that you can choose what unit to activate (provided you get lucky enough to draw the right colored die).
Savage Worlds also employs a random initiative system going by numerical/suit order using a standard deck of cards. I love it. It makes each turn hectic as you can’t predict exactly when you’ll act from turn to turn. While you could mimic the same thing in D&D just re-rolling initiative for each turn, mechanically drawing from a deck of cards is easier after a good shuffle.
Point allocation – Another system commonly used in wargames is point allocation. Each side has a limited number of command points which can be spent to activate units. Likely not all units on a side will be activated during a given turn and typically a unit can only be activated once. Even using IGOUGO, this can add an element of friction in command and control. SAGA uses something like this and I find it immensely enjoyable.
If you were trying to embrace a more narrative approach to initiative in D&D, point allocation would be something I’d use. When I’ve run Dungeon World, I used a point allocation system. It worked wonders.
The problem with combats for me in Dungeon World was that they were too open. If you had a player or two that were more proactive around the table, they could hoard the action for the group. I needed to break that up and it was a little rough just putting a hard stop to a player’s turn and pushing others to act instead during combat.
So I gave each player 2 markers. When they did something they threw it into the center. If they had no markers, they had to wait. Once everyone spent their markers, they all took 2 markers and the process would repeat. For modelling simultaneous actions in a short time frame, this worked well.
To embrace the open narrative of Dungeon World, I would allow a player to voluntarily give a marker to another player if they wanted. That way if a PC was on a roll doing some cool stuff, another player could allow them to hog the spotlight a bit longer. It added some structure to combats but was still flexible enough for Dungeon World. Going for a more free-form initiative in D&D, I would do something similar.
Handling high (or low) dexterity – This is something that can put a kink into different initiative systems. Players with high dex usually get an initiative bonus acting before others. I’d whip up a house rule allowing PCs to redraw a card, pull another die, or possibly get an additional activation token. There is nothing wrong with giving high dex players some advantage with determining turn order. Regardless, I’d always adopt a house rule to allow players to go first in the case of ties. It’s just a little nod to the players and encouraging them to be heroes over the monsters.
These are a few ideas you might want to port over to your D&D game. If anything, I encourage folks to play other games. I especially think DMs should experience different games aside from RPGs. You really get exposed to interesting game mechanisms playing other types of games, and may be surprised how many things you can pick up to make your own D&D game better.