Initiative Alternative: Side-Based Combat

Come on, people! Fight! Fight! Fight!

DnD 5e’s ordered initiative can be improved. Like, a lot. Step-by-step going through the order can slog things way down. And you know it. If your initiative system works now, fine and fine. I’m simply trying to help you run a better game. If your players are tired of waiting for their turn, either because they’re impatient or other players are taking too long or both, then try this out. If they’re bored during combat in general, just run better games. I’m not helping you with that right now. Let’s talk about a system that naturally speed things along: side-based initiative.

I ran a Maze Rats campaign this past semester and it has made me fall in love with side-based intuitive. A couple of reasons why:

  • Simple tracking. There’s only two sides to combat: GM and players. Every token on the battle mat is either one or the other.
  • GMs don’t have to write down the initiative order and call the next player up. That means more energy for running the monsters and writing their stats.
  • Players that KNOW what they want to do can go first. This gives the slower players more time to think through what they want with their turn. Nobody sits waiting for one player to finish, unless they’re the very last player to go.
  • Players that finish their turn can help other players. Slower players can be given advice and talk through what they should do.
  • Players can coordinate better. Instead of delaying turns and making the GM scratch out who goes when and pencil in new people’s names, the players can layer their actions together to work as a unit. (For example: two players are far from each other on the battle mat, player A moves towards player B, player B climbs up the treant, player A throws a torch all the way to player B, who uses their action to stab it in the treant’s eye, catching the whole monster on fire.)
At this point, you might be interested. Here are the ways you can implement it into your game:

Maze Rats has each side roll a d6, reroll ties. The higher side’s members go first. You then roll initiative again each round. This may result in one side going twice. If one side surprises the other, they go first.

This one is fun, but swingy and totally random. One side going twice also demonstrates the chaos of combat, but means that players can be totally stuck while taking two direct hits to the face. Players want to react to things, not stay put. On the flip side, players LOVE when they get to take a second turn before the monsters. Give and take.

Into the Odd says “When it is unclear which combat side should act first, the character at the head of the group must pass a DEX save to secure the first action.”

This CAN work. But a leader passing a Dex check to see if their side should go first seems too arbitrary. A faster leader means EVERYONE is faster? However, at least the players can control their chances of going first better than just rolling 1d6 vs. 1d6.

Mixing the two a bit, here’s my proposal:

The monster side has an initiative score. At the beginning of combat, players make a DEX roll against the monster side’s initiative score. Those that roll that number or higher go first. Then, all players go AFTER the monster side. Repeat. It looks like this:

  1. Players that beat the monster side’s initiative go
  2. ALL monsters go
  3. ALL players go (including those that went during step 1)
  4. Repeat steps 2 and 3 until one side wins.

If one side surprises the other, they go first. The leader may make a WIS/Perception check to see if their side avoids being surprised. Or all players roll and if a majority succeed, they are not surprised.

For 5e, the monster side’s initiative score could simply be the average DEX mod plus 10. Otherwise, you could set a static initiative score regardless of the monsters. For example, in an easy game, roll above a 10 to go before the monsters. For a brutal game, the you have to roll above an 18, ‘else the monsters cronch your bones-es.

If you as the GM want to roll dice, make a DEX roll for the monster side. Then each player must roll against that.

If all the players beat the monster’s initiative, they all go first. If not, then one or two or more players are caught tying their shoes. Each player rolling initiative the first round means that each player’s stats matter; if you boost your DEX, you will have a higher chance of going before the monsters.

(Side note: you could argue WIS would work better for initiative than DEX. Intuition and perception would make you better at acting first, but tradition says DEX is the initiative stat. Do as you will).

That’s all folks! Enjoy running fast and dirty combats.

4 thoughts on “Initiative Alternative: Side-Based Combat

  1. Oh this is a really nice application.

    I’ve been using the Guerrilla Initiative from Homebrew Homunculus — whichever side is smallest, or is most at home, is first to act.

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