Category: 5E DnD

Using round by round initiative for 5e

A while back Mike Mearls tweeted an initiative variant he had been playing around with. I caught wind of it through a video from Matt Coleville where he gave his twists on the system.

I’m a fan of Savage Worlds and always liked the card initiative system they used. Every new round of combat everyone draws a card and then act based on the suit and value of their card. It makes for a dynamic turn and some unpredictability when everyone acts. Best of all if you flub your draw, you aren’t stuck for the entire battle going last.

Mearls was playing around with an idea of doing something similar. However you’d roll dice and your planned action would also influence the type of die you roll. Initiative starts and 1 and goes up. Lined up a shot and ready to fire off an arrow? Roll a d4. Locked in melee and ready to swing? Roll a d6. If you have to move and engage an enemy, you are rolling additional dice to add to your total.

This way relatively quick actions like firing a bow or swinging a mace will probably roll low, but more intricate actions and those combined with movement take more time and are more likely to act later in the round. This isn’t necessarily the case however and a player (or monster) might still luck out and roll very low. But like drawing cards in Savage Worlds, if you tank a roll you aren’t stuck for the entire battle taking your action last.

Another thing I like about this is that players can plan out some, thinking about their actions and adding a little strategy to the battle. The more simplistic the action, the more likely you can act before the opposition. Trying to run around doing backflips and taking bonus actions are possible, but also mean you’ll likely act later in the round.

I borrowed some ideas from Mike Coleville having larger, more damaging weapons use a higher-faced die. I also split up spells so that higher level spells used a larger die to determine initiative. Cantrips were slower action spells compared to melee and ranged strikes, but could still be fired off faster than casting prepared spells.

The pickle with this system is that you can get a blown turn where the opponent you were going to attack becomes a casualty from another player. Effectively this would cancel your action for the round if planning on just making an attack. I decided that if your planned action gets cancelled due to no longer having a valid target, the player could always make a movement action allowing them to set up for the next round.

I am still struggling some with figuring out how the opposition uses this. Commonly I just roll a d8 or a d10, allowing the players to have more chances to act before them. It works out some as there are those rounds where most of the party gets to act before the monsters. While there are also those occasional turns where I luck out rolling a 1 and having all the baddies attack first for the round.

So far my players like this. Most cut their RPG teeth on Savage Worlds and not getting stuck with a single initiative roll for an entire combat is something they appreciate. There are still some kinks though and having essentially wasted actions (especially those making melee attacks) is something I found players occasionally grouse over. Another issue is there are feats and abilities that revolve around rolling for initiative, and players dumping into a high dex so that they can get that initiative bonus lose out some. I might tweak with allowing a single reroll per battle for every +4 initiative bonus. Regardless it seems to be a hit so far and you can find my tweaks for an alternate 5E initiative system in the downloads section.


Travel in Chult for 5E

Picked up Tomb of Annihilation and eager to get my group into the adventure. It really looks fun. One thing stood out for me though was that a decent chunk of the game is a hex crawl. I wanted to dabble some in exploration of the island, but didn’t want the hex-by-hex movement the book suggested. Instead I wanted to farm out the overland travel system I used for Savage Worlds.

It’s an abstract system using milestones and marking provision levels using markers. The journey to a location is divided up into milestones, where each milestone reduces the levels of supplies one by one. If players reach a milestone and are out of provisions they suffer fatigue.

Random encounters and challenges are based on drawing cards. If a face card is drawn, something happens with the suit dictating what event occurs. They can range from getting lost, losing supplies, to even encounters with creatures. I tweaked it some to make it more friendly for 5E D&D.

Nearly all of the obstacles and challenges players will face require group checks. One pickle of course, especially dealing with rations, is there are magical items and spells that would likely counter any effects of obstacles during travel. To take these spells and equipment into account, players get advantage on checks that they make if they use (or have access to) such abilities.

I stumbled across a player friendly map version of a Chult which I like far more than the default blank hex map in the module. In addition for exploring the jungles of Chult, I had some additional rules…

Speed of Travel: For each milestone players should determine their speed. Normal speeds will cover 10 miles per day (a single hex), while traveling by canoe allow for 20 miles per day (2 hexes). The DM should determine the total distance traveled for a single milestone of the trip and decide what likely terrain types will be common for potential events during the trip.

If traveling at a slow pace, roll a d12. A roll of 12 results in the group being able to make up the distance traveled as if they were moving at a normal pace. Otherwise the pace is much slower and the total distance expected to travel for the milestone is halved. There is a bonus of +4 to any checks however as the slow pace allows the group to be better prepared to overcome any challenges.

If travelling at a fast pace the party will travel 1 and ½ times the total distance they normally would cover traveling at a normal pace to reach a milestone. Any checks made during the trip are at a disadvantage. Note this means traveling at a fast pace will cancel any advantage players get due to spells, abilities, magic items, or special equipment for ability checks.

Guides: The guides are a fairly critical part of the initial adventure and I wanted to have them serve some importance here. If a Hearts suit is drawn as an event, the guide makes a difficult Wisdom check (DC 15). If successful they can allow up to two players to make their Wisdom check with advantage to avoid getting lost.

Gear and Equipment: Some equipment like rain catchers can allow players to supplement the provisions they carry. These items will allow players to have advantage on certain checks.

Terrain types: The jungles of Chult are exceedingly difficult to travel and navigate. The region is hot and humid, making one consume far more water than journeys through other lands. The high canopy of trees and foliage make conditions of the jungle almost similar to that of the Underdark. Combined with the dark jungles is hilly terrain crisscrossed with narrow streams, and lack of unique landmarks and direct sunlight make orienteering difficult. Additionally, some regions covered with swampy water attract even more aggressive wildlife. These conditions and lands alter the resolution of events seen in typical overland travel. The normal rules for travel are used however some events may have a greater chance of occurring.

Undead Territory: Areas of lesser and greater Undead Territory are more likely to have a chance to encounter undead. A draw of Spades (2-Ace) indicates that the players have stumbled into an encounter. This is regardless of the terrain type.

Jungle: Deep jungle terrain not broken up by river or coastline is hard to navigate and the rough ground and heat make it more likely provisions will be consumed faster. The jungle also is a refuge for all manners of creatures. A draw of Clubs (8-Ace) means that players may lose one rank of provisions. A draw of Hearts (5-Ace) indicates that the group might become lost and add another milestone to their journey. A draw of Spades (8-Ace) results in a random encounter for the party.

Swamp: The additional water in this terrain makes it more hospitable to wildlife and the fetid marches can be a source for disease. A draw of Spades (5-Ace) results in a random encounter for the party. A draw of Clubs (5-Ace) means that players may lose one rank of provisions.

An example of a travel milestone– A group decides to head south through the jungle of Chult to explore unknown regions and then return to Port Nyanzaru. The DM decides this will take a total of 4 milestones. Two to travel a certain distance out into unexplored land and 2 milestones returning to civilization. They are prepared and have a full complement of rations and water, so they are at the Stocked provision rank and also are taking canoes with them. The DM decides that for the first milestone the group will travel for 7 days, and the group tells the DM they will attempt this first leg of the journey at a normal pace. Note if the players were trying to reach a specific location, the DM would still say the trip would require 4 milestones (2 to reach the destination and 2 to return to Port Nyanzaru), but the actual number of days per milestone could be greater, or less, depending on the map distance.

Looking over the map, the party decides plots a course that will try to take advantage of a nearby river. The group will try to travel 4 hexes (40 miles) in 4 days through the jungle. On the final 3 days they can cover another 6 hexes (60 miles) by canoe rapidly navigating through a great river. This might change however depending on what events transpire during the first part of the journey. The DM expects that at the end of the first milestone the party will have traveled 10 hexes at most.

The DM decides for this initial milestone the party will have three potential challenges. Two will certainly occur when travelling in the jungle, while the third might take place as the group is on the river (or still occur in the jungle depending on what happens). A player draws one card getting a 2 of Spades indicating no major event happens during the first leg of the trip.

A second card is drawn indicating a 7 of Hearts. The group might possibly become lost. They have a guide and a Wisdom check (DC 15) is made for the NPC which fails. This means even the guide is turned around and cannot help the players get through the thick jungle (not allowing the players to make any checks at advantage). The DM decides that a medium DC Wisdom (Survival) is appropriate. One player is a Ranger with the Forest as their favored terrain, and another has a magical compass. The DM allows both of these players to make ability checks with advantage.

Despite this help, most of the party fails their Wisdom (Survival) checks. The entire journey will take another milestone. The DM decides that the players still keep on track direction-wise, but get turned around some or make a bad choice trying to go a certain path leading to an impassable area, adding time to the overall trip. Instead of taking 4 days to travel 40 miles, the party takes 6 days to travel the same distance.

The last check for this milestone the DM decides will be on the river for one additional day of travel. The players have made it through the jungle and are now seeing what event might unfold as they travel by canoe. An ace of Clubs is drawn. Players make another medium DC Wisdom (Survival) group check to determine if they manage to utilize their rations effectively. Again most of the group fails their checks. The DM describes a large portion of food and fresh water is lost as a canoe capsizes. The group loses one rank of provisions and are now at a High rank.

At the end of the first milestone, provisions decrease another rank with the party supplies at a Sufficient rank. At the end of 7 days, the group has traveled 6 hexes. Forty miles through jungle and another 20 miles along the river. As time was lost and another milestone added to the journey, they didn’t travel as far as expected. This is a little open ended as they are not trying to reach a specific destination but rather poke around in unexplored territory. However now the group has a difficult choice.

They can press further, but due to early difficulty navigating through the jungles they’ve severely cut down the territory they can explore. If they were trying to reach a specific location they would have an additional milestone to their journey. They could cut their losses and spend another milestone to return back to Port Nyanzaru, or push on and see if they can get some luck. If they choose to travel further, they can hope when low on provisions they are able to forage enough from the countryside to supplement dwindling supplies.

I’ve used this system with great success in my Savage Worlds games. I like it as it keeps everyone engaged and contributing to the success (or failure) of the group. For 5E I’d consider not allowing automatic successes due to spells and abilities but instead offer advantage on checks. I’d also consider using the ability checks as suggestions and feel free to allow players to pitch the use of other ability checks if they can effectively describe their actions. Strength (Athletics) and Constitution checks might be alternates depending on the conditions and situations the players are tackling.I hope folks find some use for this in their games.