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D&D 5E (Homebrew) Dynamic Initiative System, 4 year feedback

One year ago, I posted updates on playtest of a dynamic initiative system, inspired by Mike Mearls, AD&D, and Matt Colville commentary, wherein players (and monsters) declare actions at the same time each round, then roll a die based off that choice to determine initiative. Lowest goes first, and player choice rules the day. I'm now into year 4, and a 2nd group thanks to a career move, of actual play with this type of system, with players who all have also used the default d20 system.

Universal conclusion: dynamic initiative for them is faster and more interesting, largely because 90% of decision making is now happening at the same time rather than 1 at a time. Further, the learning curve is minimal (roughly 2-3 combats). Even so, playtest revealed some issues, including a handful raised 1 year ago by the awesome folks in this community. So, attached are (1) my handout version (that goes on the front of my DM screen), and (2) the more detailed notes for a DM, including playtest notes that led to revision.

Anyhow, if you're looking for something that adds an extra element of strategy to your game by removing the sheer randomness of initiative, all without a major learning curve, take a peek.

EDIT: added v2.1, which incorporates a rec by @dnd4vr for spell casting times, cleans up some errors and clarifying language, and incorporates what to do if a player declares a dagger throw then with Extra Attack pulls out a great axe.
 

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  • Dynamic Initiative v2.0 handout.pdf
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  • Dynamic Initiative v2.1 handout.pdf
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  • Dynamic Initiative v2.1.pdf
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6ENow!

The Game Is Over
Interesting. I've explored similar concepts, but in the end have favored simplicity and speed over complexity and such. shrug

While I can imagine it might be more interesting, I don't see how this is really faster than other systems. Also, how does this remove the sheer randomness of initiative, you are still rolling dice after all?
 

Charlaquin

Goblin Queen
Interesting. I've explored similar concepts, but in the end have favored simplicity and speed over complexity and such. shrug

While I can imagine it might be more interesting, I don't see how this is really faster than other systems.
More time spent on the logistics, but less time spent deliberating on actions. Players often take a long time to decide what to do on their turns. When you have to decide what to do during a shared action declaration phase, there's more pressure to make a decision quickly. It also forces the players to make decisions with incomplete information. Instead of thinking for half a minute about what spell to cast, who to attack, where to move to avoid opportunity attacks, if you need to dash/disengage, etc. you think for just a few seconds and end up just going "Uhh... I guess I'll probably move and attack," or "I guess I'll cast fireball."
Also, how does this remove the sheer randomness of initiative, you are still rolling dice after all?
It doesn't really. It does insure that your action has some impact on when in the round your action is most likely to get executed, but it's definitely still random. Randomness isn't really a problem initiative variants like this set out to solve. On the contrary, one of the goals is to make the order of actions less predictable from round to round.
 

6ENow!

The Game Is Over
More time spent on the logistics, but less time spent deliberating on actions.
Which is why, at best, I see the time factor as a wash--no better, no worse in most cases--when I've adopted declaration systems and seen them in use.

Players often take a long time to decide what to do on their turns.
Again, I see this as true in either type of system, it just depends more on the player IME. More experienced players will act faster in either system, newer players or players unfamiliar with a class/spells/etc. will take longer.

Personally, I don't mind time taken here because as much as we play our PCs, we aren't them, we aren't there, and if the PCs were real I am sure they would make decisions to act more quickly that us players who control them. Every caster (if real) would know exactly what their spells can do, but players (and DMs) often have to check specifics and such.

When you have to decide what to do during a shared action declaration phase, there's more pressure to make a decision quickly.
I suppose this depends on the group. When I DM, I give the players time, but if they take more than 30 seconds or so, I tell them to make up their minds. ;) But,

It also forces the players to make decisions with incomplete information. Instead of thinking for half a minute about what spell to cast, who to attack, where to move to avoid opportunity attacks, if you need to dash/disengage, etc. you think for just a few seconds and end up just going "Uhh... I guess I'll probably move and attack," or "I guess I'll cast fireball."
Agreed on incomplete information. But having to make decisions quickly and with less information would seem to led to less strategic play (something gained by the OP as claimed to my understanding). It also increases the chance the PC will perform the same action over and over instead of having the time to explore alternatives. shrug

Also, declarations IME lead to strange inconsistencies in some ways. I've used declarations for nearly 30 years in playing 1E/2E, so I am not opposed to it, it is just a different mindset as to how combat happens IMO.

It doesn't really. It does insure that your action has some impact on when in the round your action is most likely to get executed, but it's definitely still random. Randomness isn't really a problem initiative variants like this set out to solve. On the contrary, one of the goals is to make the order of actions less predictable from round to round.
Yeah, I agree the point of initiative is to make it so when your chance to act comes, it is random.

I understand the OP's point, though, in that it reduces the randomness by having your action selection impact your turn in line (as you point out as well).

Again, either type of system is fine IMO, just a different mindset. I do find it peculiar that in 1E (with 1-minute long rounds) that when your turn came it was because that was when you spotted the opening for your attack, completed your spell, etc. IIRC. With 6-second long rounds in 5E, it is almost more as if nearly every swing or strike is rolled.
 

This is a really neat system! I would love to try it out sometime. It really seems to support the idea that all these turns are happening at the same time.

Two questions:

I got a little confused about bonus actions. Do they have to be declared? Or do you get to spontaneously choose to take one on your turn? Does a rogue have to say "I'm going to attack with my dagger then use a bonus action to disengage" or do they just say "I'm going to attack with my dagger" and then choose whether to disengage or not when their turn comes up?

Do you declare monster actions or just choose when their turn comes up?
 

6ENow!

The Game Is Over
@toucanbuzz

Have you considered having the die for spells be based on components?

For example, you have Power Word spells have 1 because they are verbal only a just a single word.

Maybe something like this:
Single component (V, S, or M): d4
Two components (VS, VM, SM): d6 or d8
All three components (VSM): d10 or d12

Just a thought instead of having it +1 per spell level, since a spell such as Wish is V only, despite being level 9. Now, it could be narratively that the longer time is due to the magic gathering or something... so I could see it either way.
 


Stalker0

Legend
I agree with others that I can't imagine that this would be truly "quicker" in terms of actual game time. For all the time you save with the 1 out of a time figuring out you lose by having to re call out and recalculate initiative every round.

That said, I could absolutely see how it would speed up the "perception" of time....since all players are deciding together, it has the feeling of less downtime for them, which I could see would be really interesting.

Two questions:

1) I do not understand this paragraph, could you provide some examples? "On your turn, you may always freely substitute Dash, Disengage, or Dodge in lieu of your Action. However, if the Action requires movement (Dash, Disengage) and you did not add +2 to move, you cannot take that Action. This also applies to such features as the Rogue “Cunning Action.”

2) You mentioned in your DM comments about the ability to change spells on your action but I don't see that mechanically.

3) Does the alertness feat effectively mean you just roll a d3 all the time?


I could see an interesting variant to allow for Int to be a cooler stat. Something like "a number of times per day equal to your int mod, you can freely substitute your action for a different one, as long as the new action does not have a faster initiative". Or remove the clause about the faster initiative if you like the idea that int makes you "faster".
 

Zaukrie

New Publisher
My experience, brief as it is, is that everyone deciding at once does speed up game play, some. It also makes it seem much faster, which is just as, if not more, important. Now, I've only used this (and others like it) enough to get a group used to it plus a few more encounters.

Re-rolling or otherwise deciding init every round adds no real time to the game. Given the flow and how people decide what to do, it usually happens while the last actor is taking their turn in a round. But, for some people, it did effect how they felt about time for sure.
 

Stalker0

Legend
Two other thoughts:

1) How was tracking conditions with this system? At first glance, I would think having to track "this effect ends on Init 3" would be much more cumbersome than "ends when Bob goes next".

2) Something that I think is neat is that if an unconscious player is healed, they always get to go in the same round, just at the end. That's always been a little jenky in the core game, and I like how clean it is with this system. I personally would probably just take it one step simpler and say that unconscious people always go last, period. But I could see how getting to roll a die is at least something the unconscious player gets to do....which helps fight the perception of doing absolutely nothing.
 

I don't see how this is really faster than other systems. Also, how does this remove the sheer randomness of initiative, you are still rolling dice after all?
Speed: the more players and monsters you have, the more time savings because decision making occurs simultaneously rather than 1 at a time. However, the #1 goal of the system has never been to make combat faster than the d20 system (that's been more of a slight side effect).

The #1 goal has been to add tension by making combats more strategic yet unpredictable, to create that jolt of fear that you don't know if you're going to get to your unconscious companion in time to heal them before the orc stabs him, unlike a d20 system in which you know perfectly well who will go when. You'll be making the best choice as you see it, anticipating things though the fog of war, and not always the perfect choice. The same goes for monsters.

Randomness: it shrinks the d20 variable in favor of choice. You choices shift the odds but don't guarantee them.

I got a little confused about bonus actions. Do they have to be declared?
Nope.
In the preceding version, they did and you'd roll the highest (worst) die. However, after roughly 2 years, I found it was slowing mostly me, the DM, down as I'd often track 2-4 different monster types. I'm vigilant for abuses, and part of the original design was to avoid declaring a fast weapon for dual wield and then using a slower weapon in your off-hand. Since I cannot guess all the unlikely but theoretically possible scenarios, a common sense role has to be in play.

Do you declare monster actions or just choose when their turn comes up?
Yes, monsters declare, though an amendment needs added that they follow the same spellcasting rules as players. Otherwise, they get too great of an advantage over PCs. However, I wouldn't amend it if we adopt dnd4vr's recommendation, NEXT:

Have you considered having the die for spells be based on components?

For example, you have Power Word spells have 1 because they are verbal only a just a single word.

Maybe something like this:
Single component (V, S, or M): d4
Two components (VS, VM, SM): d6 or d8
All three components (VSM): d10 or d12

Just a thought instead of having it +1 per spell level, since a spell such as Wish is V only, despite being level 9. Now, it could be narratively that the longer time is due to the magic gathering or something... so I could see it either way.
Solid idea. I like it quite a bit. It'd put the onus on players and the DM to "know your spells" (and over time, people do with repetitive use, no different than eventually knowing off the top of your head magic missile is a V,S spell that fires 3 d4+1 bolts). If players are into some theatre acting, it might encourage them to wiggle their fingers or pretend to grab a component when taking their turn as a memory device.

My initial though is d4, d8, and d10, to keep in line with weapons, leaving our d6 for nearly every generic action you can take.
 

That said, I could absolutely see how it would speed up the "perception" of time....since all players are deciding together, it has the feeling of less downtime for them, which I could see would be really interesting.
Yep, that's a plus when players aren't bored, checking their phones, flipping through random books, etc. Combat rounds run too quickly now for that.
1) I do not understand this paragraph, could you provide some examples? "On your turn, you may always freely substitute Dash, Disengage, or Dodge in lieu of your Action. However, if the Action requires movement (Dash, Disengage) and you did not add +2 to move, you cannot take that Action. This also applies to such features as the Rogue “Cunning Action.”
Sure, and you've found some errors/errata on my end.

Dash grants extra movement, so the +2 "cost" for movement would not apply. In contrast, Disengage modifies existing movement, so the +2 would be necessary to take advantage of it.

Substituting an Action examples:
  • Rath the Rogue declares he's attacking with his short bow (d8) and wants to act quickly, so he doesn't add +2 for movement. He rolls a 3. The odds are on his side that he will fire before an enemy can close ranks. An orc 30' away is going to attack with its great axe (d10). The DM knows the orc has the trait Aggressive (as bonus action move up to your speed at an enemy), so the orc doesn't add +2 for normal movement. The orc rolls a 1. Using its bonus action movement, it surprises poor Rath and closes ranks before he can get a shot off. Rath lives and now has some decisions on his turn. He could (1) attack with the bow, albeit with disadvantage, (2) use his Cunning Action feature to "Dash" away as a bonus action (remember, he cannot choose Disengage because he didn't add 2 for movement), risking an attack of opportunity, (3) freely substitute a Dodge action for the rest of the round, or hell even (4) use the bow like an improvised club.
  • Now, let's assume Rath added +2 for movement. He goes on a 5 now, but if the orc gets to him first, he can use Cunning Action to Disengage, then get off his shot, if he wants. It's really all about how the battlefield looks on whether Rath would want to do this. Rath has no idea whether the orc will go first, and this adds some tension to what he decides to do or not do in a round.
  • Delsenora the Wizard is casting lightning bolt at the enemies coming from the other side of the hallway and doesn't need to move. Against her wishes, another player who didn't listen to what she declared (or thought it was too risky), kills some of those orcs, leaving just one. Delsenora knows this is a big dungeon and wants to save a precious 3rd level slot. On her turn, she can substitute Dash or Dodge, but not Disengage because she didn't declare the +2 for normal movement. Again, battlefield setup. Outdoors, she likely would want to move to get a better shot at the enemies, whereas in the hallway they were a nice fit for that spell. And, this is the importance of talking to fellow players during declaration phases if you "have a plan."

2) You mentioned in your DM comments about the ability to change spells on your action but I don't see that mechanically.
Error/typo. Original design players were not locked into a specific spell. This ended up with the same "analysis paralysis" issue of the d20 system and was axed.
3) Does the alertness feat effectively mean you just roll a d3 all the time?
Only if you declare a d4 action. It lowers whatever die you would roll by 1 step. This caused me to check notes: Initiative needs to remain named an ability check so classes that have features that improve initiative (swashbuckler, bard, champion) don't lose this. There may not be many, but it's a feature of their classes I don't want them to lose. This has been part of the prior version and I currently have a gamer (swashbuckler) making use of it. Errata needs added that multiple sources of initiative improvement don't stack, no more than advantage does.
 
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1) How was tracking conditions with this system? At first glance, I would think having to track "this effect ends on Init 3" would be much more cumbersome than "ends when Bob goes next".
Pretty easy. I personally use scratch paper and/or a dry erase board if there's battlefield or effects on my monsters, and I put the onus on players to track their own durations/bonus effects. Some do it with extra dice.

Example: player hits Ogre with guiding bolt on Initiative 3, which by design is supposed to last exactly 1 round. Because it's a player bonus (they get advantage), the player who cast it should know to track it. However, out of habit, I'd probably scribble "adv3" under the Ogre's hp line anyways. There is 1 ability written a bit wonky in D&D, and that's the monk stunning strike. By wording, it lasts exactly 1 round (the monk's next turn). By design, it's supposed to keep the enemy incapacitated through the enemy's next turn. To avoid a scenario where the ogre goes first, the monk stuns him, 1 round passes, and the ogre goes again, effectively never losing an action, we'd rule the monk's stunning strike really means: target incapacitated 1 round and loses its next turn. This is a super specific oddball example, but because it's a player class, wanted to toss that out.

2) Something that I think is neat is that if an unconscious player is healed, they always get to go in the same round, just at the end. That's always been a little jenky in the core game, and I like how clean it is with this system. I personally would probably just take it one step simpler and say that unconscious people always go last, period. But I could see how getting to roll a die is at least something the unconscious player gets to do....which helps fight the perception of doing absolutely nothing.
Yep, it's about keeping them involved, though there's times you know no one can help you and the roll is pointless. It gets a little jenky, I'll agree, that someone unconscious could pop up and moments grasp and assess the situation, but the RAW and all prior editions have always played it this way, so wanted to keep it in line that if you're back in, you're back in 100% and ready.
 
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6ENow!

The Game Is Over
Speed: the more players and monsters you have, the more time savings because decision making occurs simultaneously rather than 1 at a time. However, the #1 goal of the system has never been to make combat faster than the d20 system (that's been more of a slight side effect).
Perhaps, because the situation is "set" at the beginning of the round, the players have only to deal with the present scenario as it stands. With being able to make your choice as the situation continues to change, you have to reassess the situation when your turn comes up. Also, at the beginning of a round, everyone tends to be paying more attention, but once initiative is rolled everyone is just waiting for their turn, so some players might not be as attentive and it will take longer, especially if they need a recap (which I do see happening from time to time).

The #1 goal has been to add tension by making combats more strategic yet unpredictable, to create that jolt of fear that you don't know if you're going to get to your unconscious companion in time to heal them before the orc stabs him, unlike a d20 system in which you know perfectly well who will go when. You'll be making the best choice as you see it, anticipating things though the fog of war, and not always the perfect choice. The same goes for monsters.
But once you roll, you do know if you can get there in time, etc.

I suppose if you deny players the option to change their declarations, it could lead to some strange situations ("Hey, Bob went down! We have to save him!" and everyone declares to save Bob, but once the first PC has done it, the others have wasted actions).

Solid idea. I like it quite a bit. It'd put the onus on players and the DM to "know your spells" (and over time, people do with repetitive use, no different than eventually knowing off the top of your head magic missile is a V,S spell that fires 3 d4+1 bolts). If players are into some theatre acting, it might encourage them to wiggle their fingers or pretend to grab a component when taking their turn as a memory device.

My initial though is d4, d8, and d10, to keep in line with weapons, leaving our d6 for nearly every generic action you can take.
It was my solution for spells when I did my own variant of the Greyhawk system. I think the d4, d8, d10 route is a good one as well. I hope it helps your system and works for you.
 

But once you roll, you do know if you can get there in time, etc.
With the count up system, no one actually knows who is going when until your # is called, not even the DM unless I peek at my players' rolls beforehand. So, you won't know for sure if you'll get to Bob in time to save him before the troll tries a coup de grace. I personally find it a lot more exciting than "Bob's unconscious? That's okay. The cleric goes before the troll, so they'll get him healed. No biggie." With dynamic initiative, you don't know if it'll be okay. Although you declared the best and quickest action you could think of, you won't know if your roll of 3 will get you there in time because maybe the DM rolled lower for the troll.

Anyhoo, definitely appreciate the bit for the spells. We've been using a flat d10 for the last year and while easy, I've always felt it gimped the caster who perhaps is a "first strike" type of player.
 

6ENow!

The Game Is Over
With the count up system, no one actually knows who is going when until your # is called, not even the DM unless I peek at my players' rolls beforehand.
So, the rolls and thus, the totals, are done in secret? Because otherwise, once I hear all the results, I will know who is going when.

Therefore if the mystery is the appeal, you can achieve that with the regular d20 roll if you use the variant of rerolling each round. shrug

Anyhoo, definitely appreciate the bit for the spells. We've been using a flat d10 for the last year and while easy, I've always felt it gimped the caster who perhaps is a "first strike" type of player.
No problem. Like I said I came up with the idea for our own variant initiative system. I'm glad you like it, I think it works well. :)
 

Therefore if the mystery is the appeal, you can achieve that with the regular d20 roll if you use the variant of rerolling each round. shrug

Not so much a secret as it's just unnecessary for anyone to announce their roll in advance. Player #1 goes on 3, Monster #1 on 4, Player #2 on 6, and Monster #2 on 7. When counting up, no one generally knows (again unless players are metagaming) when their neighbor is acting until it happens.

It operates much like the DMG optional "speed factor" variant in that way (roll d20, modify slightly for a fast or slow weapon). I ran the DMG speed factor for a Curse of Strahd campaign with group #1. They liked the unpredictability, but it never felt like player choice (a +2 or -2 usually) really had any impact given the d20 variable. In that system, I counted down in groups (over 20, over 10, the slowpokes).
 

Update: we're abandoning further attempts to incorporate movement. That little experiment of adding even something as simple as a +2 became a hassle after we had a battle with grapplers and a rogue trying to figure whether he could disengage. One player noted it's so much easier to roll 1 die and there it is, in front of you.

Simple Way:

Weapon or spell = d4 (fast), d8 (normal), or d10 (slow).

d6 is everything else.

Fast = light, unarmed, 1 component spells.
Normal = all other weapons, 2 component spells.
Slow = heavy, loading, or oversized weapons, 3 component spells.

Anyhow, I totally get the rationale behind the d20 circle initiative system and the beauty in its design. I've played it. I've read the history including Monte Cook's statements about how much argument there was over an initiative system, and then Tweet's resolution of the d20 cycle. This is simply something you can use that's been subjected to playtest (for good or ill). While I prefer tension and unpredictability, I also like getting straight to the fight, which the d20 does well.
 

Attachments

  • Dynamic Initiative v2.2.pdf
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6ENow!

The Game Is Over
@toucanbuzz

FWIW an option we did if you used your movement was to roll another d6 and add it to your action total (IIRC I think Greyhawk or another system did similar...). That way, if you don't need to move on your turn, you are more likely to act first, but if you have to move, you are more likely to go later on.

Another option I thought of the other day is you can use your reaction to move on someone else's turn (or your own). It always bothered me that an enemy could run up to my PC, attack, and I can back away as he is moving up???

Yet another option is add +1 to initiative for each 5 ft of movement. shrug

Anyway, I have to leave for work, but tonight or tomorrow I'll review your latest update. :)
 

Stalker0

Legend
Update: we're abandoning further attempts to incorporate movement. That little experiment of adding even something as simple as a +2 became a hassle after we had a battle with grapplers and a rogue trying to figure whether he could disengage. One player noted it's so much easier to roll 1 die and there it is, in front of you.

Simple Way:

Weapon or spell = d4 (fast), d8 (normal), or d10 (slow).

d6 is everything else.

Fast = light, unarmed, 1 component spells.
Normal = all other weapons, 2 component spells.
Slow = heavy, loading, or oversized weapons, 3 component spells.

Anyhow, I totally get the rationale behind the d20 circle initiative system and the beauty in its design. I've played it. I've read the history including Monte Cook's statements about how much argument there was over an initiative system, and then Tweet's resolution of the d20 cycle. This is simply something you can use that's been subjected to playtest (for good or ill). While I prefer tension and unpredictability, I also like getting straight to the fight, which the d20 does well.

I think this is better, its getting to the core of what you want to do but stripping away the extra that's not adding much. I would take it a step further, just make all spells "slow" except for the verbal onlys.... its two much of a pain to figure out which spells have 2 components vs 3.

You could probably also have incapacitated people always go at the end of the round just to again remove the figuring out exactly when they actually go vs when they might go.

Also, curious why you go with "low is good" for this system, instead of flipping the dice around and make "high is good". Is that just to avoid counting backwards? I would think its more intuitive for players who are so used to wanting to roll high on dice.
 
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