So I’ve been tinkering with initiative for my 5e games. So far my players have liked the variant I tweaked from Mike Mearls. But there are some rough spots with it. A big issue is players still losing actions due to their planned targets getting wiped out, essentially cancelling their action if they were just going to make an attack.
Another more critical issue is that there is so much in 5e based on the structure of movement plus an action in the game. If you stop using it, certain abilities and feats become useless or need some severe houserules to make them work. Another small point is that having that initiative bonus gets lost.
I picked up the Genesys RPG which is a more narrative based system, and one thing that stood out for me was how they handled initiative. I loved it and immediately scooped it up for my game. It’s structured but gives a little room for players to have some agency over when they act for the turn.
- Players and the DM determine initiative order as per 5E rules.
- Instead of a specific player, the initiative results indicate which side can act (either players or monsters).
- When it is a side’s ‘turn’, any player, creature, or group of monsters can act.
- A player or monster can only act once per round, but chooses when to take their action in the initiative order.
- Monsters should be broken up into groups of 3-5 and have multiple initiative rolls. NPCs also contribute an initiative roll. Solo monsters may potentially have one additional initiative roll.
To determine initiative for a combat I fell back to each player rolling on a d20 as per 5e rules. I break up the opposition into groups rolling for every 3-5 creatures, and add 1 additional roll if I have an NPC of note in the battle. Once initiative order is set, each character can take one action per round of battle. However the order is totally up to the players provided it’s their side’s ‘turn’ to act.
If I have multiple opponents, each monster can act only once during the turn. Further I try to break up the actions so that only part of the group activates when they are supposed to. I’ll roll twice for those 5 orcs, but up to 3 will act when it’s their turn. The other 2 will act when their turn rolls around later during the round.
Everyone loves this. It fits in well with the 5e rules. However it gives them the freedom to switch around the party order from round to round. If a cleric needs to get off a critical heal or buff before the barbarian makes a huge attack, they have the chance to do it. Players can coordinate their actions more this way. Another small bonus is that super high dex player can help the party get an action or two off before the monsters do each turn (provided they get a high initiative roll).
The downside is you do that that occasional battle where the monsters might get that alpha strike, being able to take all their actions first before the players due to poor initiative rolls. But the PCs in turn can tweak with the order of their actions, making what they feel are their best tactical choices deciding who goes when. So far it’s been a huge hit at the table and I feel a decent compromise to allow for some free form order of actions during the turn, but also fall within that move-plus-action economy that 5e utilizes.