Initiative Variants

“I hate it and wanted to pull it from D&D. Such a drag.”
— Mike Mearls, on initiative

A pillar of combat since the first edition of AD&D, initiative is the system by which we attempt to order the chaos of combat. It allows for everyone to have their own turn, theoretically giving everyone an opportunity to make an equal contribution to the fight. And yet, many people—including Mike Mearls, co-lead designer for DUNGEONS & DRAGONS Fifth Edition—hate this system with a passion.

In this article, we will examine some of the ways in which the standard initiative system is lacking and propose our own revisions and optional rules.

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Why Revise Initiative?

With all the reasons why initiative is a helpful tool for the game, why revise it?

To put it plainly, the primary reason is because the system doesn’t care what you roll, only that you roll something. In all other aspects of the game, rolling high has a meaningful impact; you hit with your attack, you succeed your saving throw, you pass a skill check, etc. With initiative, you roll once and you get one turn each round, whether your result is high or low; the only variable is whether you get to act first in a battle that will probably span multiple rounds and ultimately be determined by tactics and luck in the strategic use of abilities. The order of turns is practically irrelevant.

To put it another way: initiative is boring. Let’s make it more fun.

Revision Options

Chapter 9, “Dungeon Master’s Workshop”, in the Dungeon Master’s Guide, has three initiative variants offering different ways to handle initiative: initiative score, side initiative, and speed factor. Of these, only Speed Factor serves to make the system more robust and meaningful, but the execution leaves much to be desired, adding bookkeeping with no meaningful tradeoff. Additionally, it still doesn’t solve the primary problem about initiative: that you can roll well and not get any benefit for it.

With this in mind, here are some suggestions that we have for ways to improve your initiative. They can be taken together or individually based on what you feel would work well with your table.

Variant 1: Multiple Turns Per Round

This variant addresses the principal problem we have with initiative, which is that rolling well has virtually no impact on the game. There are two ways to achieve this.

The first method is to roll initiative as normal and then subtract 10 from the total. The character gets a turn at its regular initiative count as rolled and, if subtracting 10 would not reduce the total below zero (0), it gets to act again on the difference. For example, Rob the rogue rolls a 14 on the d20 and has +4 to his initiative. He acts on initiative count 18 (14 + 4) and again on initiative count 8 (18 – 10). A surprised creature suffers –10 to its initiative roll.

This variant would mean that some participants (those who rolled above 10) will have two turns in a round while others (those who rolled below 10) will only have one. To ensure that important foes are not disadvantaged in the action economy, legendary creatures should have +10 to their initiative rolls.

The second method involves rolling multiple dice. The variations on this idea are endless, but we recommend two d10s, adding your initiative bonus to the die with the higher result. Your character acts on both initiative counts. For example, Rob the rogue (see above) rolls 8 and 5 for his initiative on two d10s. He acts on initiative count 12 (8 + 4) and again on initiative count 5. A surprised creature rolls only a single d10.

Variant 2: Roll Initiative Each Round

This is an advisable complimentary variant to the first option above, as well as a solid variant on its own.

Using this variant, initiative is rolled at the start of each round. This adds a chaotic element, as a character might roll very well in one round and very poorly in the next, while another may act twice in the interim because they rolled low in the first round and high in the second round. A badly wounded fighter who is last in the initiative order might not have the assurance that the cleric will go before the monster he’s about to charge when initiative is rolled next round, alleviating a specific concern about abuse mentioned in the Dungeon Master’s Guide (we hear you, Mearls).

It is worth noting that this is how initiative was originally handled in AD&D First Edition. Back then, initiative was a d6, but it was rolled every round (once for the monsters, once for the players) to keep things interesting. It was only in Third Edition that initiative switched to being rolled once for the entire combat—and also became its own commodity to be managed by each player with feats and magic items.

Variant 3: Action Points

This is loosely based on the Speed Factor variant was toyed with in the Dungeon Master’s Guide, but which wasn’t executed all that well.

Why wasn’t it executed all that well? Well, normally a player can determine how to proceed on their turn based on everything that has happened during the round up until that point. This is sensible; you see what’s going on around you and react appropriately.

The downside of the Speed Factor initiative variant is that it required that players decide their course of action at the start of the round, locking them into something that might prove unwise, such as charging into the epicentre of your wizard’s fireball. If they decide against that course of action on their turn, they can’t choose another and lose their action. This invariably leads to the players all wanting to spend a lot of time at the start of each round working out a strategy, slowing combat to a crawl and risking indecisive deadlock as the DM urges the players to commit.

Nonetheless, the adjustment of the initiative score according to the action taken is a promising concept, as long as it is employed with a system that makes it meaningful.

Using the action point variant, each participant should roll 2d6 for initiative at the start of each round, adding their initiative bonus as normal. The result of the initiative check becomes the pool of action points available for that character for that round. A character can use these action points by subtracting the cost of certain actions (see below) from their pool. As the DM announces the initiative count (descending from 20 to 1), each character can declare that they will take an action, provided they have at least as many action points as the current initiative count and that they can pay the cost of the action they mean to take. If multiple combatants wish to act on the same initiative count, the combatant with the most remaining action points acts first, with ties going to the combatant with the highest Dexterity score. A creature can only act once on any given initiative count. Unused action points are carried over to the next round.

With this variant, movement, spellcasting, and saving throws are handled by the round, rather than by the turn. In a single round, a character can move once and take the Dash action once. If a character casts a spell, the only other spell they can cast in the same round is a single cantrip. Likewise, a character affected by an ongoing effect such as being frightened by a dragon’s Frightening Presence or paralyzed by a wizard’s spell can make their saving throw at the end of initiative count 10, 5, and 1. The action point cost of attacks is the same regardless of whether you are making an opportunity attack or attacking four times with the fighter’s Extra Attack feature; the only variable is the weapon.

For example, Rob the rogue rolls 9 for his initiative. He is an Arcane Trickster who wields two shortswords. At initiative count 9, he declares that he will cast hold person on an enemy ogre. He subtracts two from his action points (hold person is a 2nd-level spell) and has 7 remaining. He then moves up to his speed on initiative count 7, reducing his total action points to 4 and taking him to within 5 feet of the target of his spell. On initiative count 5, the ogre fails its saving throw, remaining paralyzed. On initiative count 4, Rob attacks it using his shortsword, reducing his action point pool to 2. On initiative count 2, he attacks again, spending his last two initiative points. During this time, allies and enemies have also acted across the battlefield.

Table 1-1: Action Point Cost

Action Cost
Melee 3
Melee, heavy weapon 4
Melee, light or finesse weapon 2
Melee, two-handed weapon 4
Ranged, loading weapon 4
Ranged, non-loading weapon 3
Ranged, thrown weapon 2 (simple) or 3 (martial)
Other Actions
Cast a Spell Equal to the spell’s level (minimum 1)
Dash 2
Disengage 2
Dodge 2
Hide 2
Use an Object Varies by task (up to the DM)
Aid 3
Move up to your speed 3

Legendary actions do not cost action points.

Optional Rules

These are some additional rules you can use to make your initiative more interesting without completely redesigning the system.

Optional Rule 1: Prepared vs. Surprised

Using this variant, prepared combatants (those who can take at least 1 minute before battle to ready themselves) add their proficiency bonus to their initiative rolls and can take one extra action on the first turn of combat. This extra action can be used to take the Attack (one weapon attack only), Cast a Spell (one cantrip only), Dash, Disengage, Hide, or Use an Object action.

Conversely, surprised creatures do not benefit from their initiative bonus when rolling initiative and are considered surprised until the end of the round during which they are surprised.

This variant is aimed primarily at reducing the likelihood that a surprised creature would act before a creature surprising them, as is entirely possible with the current initiative system, much to the chagrin of any Assassin character who loses out on the ability to use their Assassinate feature. If your party is primarily composed of stealthy characters, be wary about implementing this as it could lead to fights becoming too one-sided, as happened in many a Third Edition game when we had things like surprise rounds.

Optional Rule 2: Natural 20 and Natural 1

This variant is exactly as it is represented: if you roll a natural 20 on the d20 when rolling initiative, you may take an extra action on your turn. This extra action can be used to take the Attack (one weapon attack only), Cast a Spell (one cantrip only), Dash, Disengage, Hide, or Use an Object action.

Conversely, if you roll a natural 1 on the d20 when rolling initiative, you have disadvantage on Dexterity saving throws for that round and can’t use a bonus action on your turn.

Putting It All Together

Initiative is a natural consequence of having to make order from the chaos of battle, but that doesn’t mean it’s perfect. There’s ample room to expand, adjust, and revise the system to suit your preference. The three options presented here, as well as the optional rules, provide a starting point for you to make the process more robust and engaging to your players.

Does your table have house rules for initiative? Did you try out these suggestions? We’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments below!

9 thoughts on “Initiative Variants”

  1. As a cantrip counts as 1 action in the action point variant, If I roll 9 on my initiative can I shoot 9 firebolts during that round? Seems unbalanced.

    1. Hi Gil,

      Thanks for the question!

      The rule for spellcasting with the Action Point variant is as follows: “If a character casts a spell, the only other spell they can cast in the same round is a single cantrip”.

      This means that if you were a 5th-level wizard, you could only use 4 action points at the most for spells in a given round (that is, the time during which everyone uses all their action points, before they roll 2d6 again for the next round): 3 to cast a 3rd-level spell, and 1 to cast one (‘a single’) cantrip. Alternatively, they could use 2 action points to cast two cantrips throughout the round. This largely works out at lower levels where most gameplay occurs (anything past level 11, frankly, is more theory than anything else), though if a game does make it to higher levels it would lead to some problems given that cantrips start dealing three or even four dice worth of damage.

      This is still a very experimental variant. It might be that the action point cost to cast a spell should actually be 2 + the spell’s level, which in practice would make spells of 6th level or higher sometimes require a ‘charge up’ turn to get enough action points. Alternatively, part of this variant could simply reduce cantrips to one damage die, regardless of your character level.

      If you’re interested in playtesting the variant, please report back with your experience! The only way these rules can really be refined is through playtesting.

      the Archmage

  2. WAY late to THIS party, but ….. ever do much playtesting of the action point mechanic? We’ve been using Mearls’ UA Greyhawk Initiative with some tiny tweaks (players tell me their actions, I put it in a spreadheet which applies the appropriate dice rolls and we’d go from there) and we LIKE it but feel it could be “better.” Your suggestion puts dice rolling back in the players hands and “reads” like it might be a little smoother while keeping the variability we love.

  3. I’m actually interested in the action point variant. I just have a question as to how certain things are handled from a balancing perspective….(obviously this isn’t a completely fleshed out system and more a detailed concept)

    How do you handle “bonus actions” such as the rogue’s cunning actions or two handed fighting?

    When triggering the “spell save” at 10,5, and 1, what about that spellcaster that just hit with something at 11? so they don’t even get a full effect of a spell that actually hit?

    So your intention is they can only “Move” once? doesn’t that break their ability to move, atk, move?
    just things bouncing in my brain..also for a setting that includes would you handle ranged weapons with the Reloading property ?

    1. Hi Jess,

      Those are all very good questions.

      With moving, you can’t exceed your movement speed unless you dash, but as long as you have movement left when your action point total equals the current initiative round, you would be able to move.

      My instinct with bonus actions would be to allow one per round for free, but that would have to get tested in play.

      With spell saves, the idea was that if you’re incapacitated or paralyzed, you need a trigger for when you can attempt to save since you can’t take a turn. Having it at specific initiative rounds makes it consistent. Spellcasters may have to plan their spell use accordingly. Remember, you don’t have to act when you have enough action points. You can hold off until initiative count 9 before casting a spell that someone might save against at 5.

      If you have ideas on this or for how to improve the system, I’d love to hear them!

      – the Archmage

  4. I’ve used countless control systems since I started gaming in 1979, and the core 5e system is as good as any. With the ability to withhold your action until a specifc event arrives, it is more flexible than most, and it require minimal effort and bookkeeping.

  5. My personal favorite is the “Popcorn” variant. Everyone rolls like normal at the very beginning, but only the highest roll matters. That person goes first and then chooses the person to go second, second chooses third, etc. At the end of the first round of combat, the person that went last (DM included) can decide who starts the second round, and they CAN pick themselves, making it a bad idea for players to choose the DM as the last one in the initiative order.

  6. Hey all, love your stuff.

    Like you, I have also been frustrated with the static (and Slooow) pace of the default initiative, especially when there are several monsters in addition to the PCs.

    I’ve been using a variant of side initiative for several months and my players seem to really like it. It plays as follows:

    1. DM roll initiative for the monsters as a group (I add a bonus equal to half the total monsters and legendary creatures roll with advantage). This number becomes the Initiative DC.
    2. All players roll initiative as normal.
    3. Players who meet or exceed the Initiative DC go in any order they want.
    4. DM takes the monsters turns in any order.
    5. Players who failed the Initiative DC go in any order they want.
    6. Return to step 2 and repeat.

    This method give the player the opportunity to strategize a bit, but is also has an element of danger if they aren’t able to go before the monsters.

    1. I devised my own initiative system, which I call simply the Initiative Deck. The deck itself introduces chaos and initiative is rolled only once, at the very start of an encounter. I have been using this system for the past 3.5 years and I can’t imagine using anything else. It’s an absolute blast!

      The deck has introduced a level of tension to the game that I simply can’t describe. To see it in action check out this video starting at 16:00, as I explain the system to new players.

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