A Refinement to the Ubiquitous Initiative Procedure

Increasing the Unpredictability of Combat

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Over on Reddit, someone posted about using declared initiative for 5E 📖 . I give that a hearty Huzzah! Anything to mix up the drudgery of circular iniative.

The original Reddit post…

I’m running for a 5e group and OSRing it up a bit, using the reaction roll and rarely rolling dice, and I got rid of feats. Im hoping they don’t realise I don’t know half the rules, so far so good.

Come to our first combat. Round one I let them use individual initiative, no problem except I have to backtrack a bit because an npc went out of order and got a big hit which I had to retcon. Yeah I usually do side based initiative. Whoops.

End round one.

So I look at the guy to my left (I like clockwise) and ask him for his statement of intent. Poor fella looks flustered, looks around at other confused players, I’m luke “Yeah dude what is your statement of intent this round”. Confusion reigns.

My regular chimes in “Ohhhhhh, that’s not a 5e thing, you just decide what to do when it’s your turn”.

I tell them that stating your intent helps simulate the confusion of combat. They are cool with that and I get their statements. “Now” I say “roll for initiative” and they’re all like “Whaaaaaaaat?!”

Also not the 5e way it would seem, but they saw my point and rolled with it.

Hahaha. I think they understand now that any combat I run is potentially very nasty. Fun was had.

They will come around to the old school.

And I agree with their sentiment and goal: “combat is potentially nasty”. I prefer Combat as War instead of Combat as Sport; Confusion and failures in timing are part of the fog of war.

Earlier, I wrote a refinement to declaring initiative. I want to iterate, expand, and release the Declared Initiative Procedure.

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Declared Initiative Procedure

Before rolling initiative for the round, players declare their intended action for the upcoming round. The Referee or GM 📖 will also declare actions for creatures under their control.

Use the following sequence:

  1. Any of the characters may to declare their action.
  2. the Referee or GM declares the actions for the creatures they control.
  3. All of the characters that have not declared their action must do so now.

With all actions declared:

For games that use individual initiative, everyone now rolls their initiative. The characters that declared before the Referee or GM , roll with advantage. The characters that declared after the Referee, roll with disadvantage.

For games that use group/side initiative, if the majority of the group declared before the Referee, then roll the group’s initiative with advantage. If the majority instead declared after the Referee, then roll with disadvantage. If there’s no majority, roll as normal.

What do I mean by advantage? For SRD5 📖 derived games, the advantage could be that they roll 2d20 and take the better.

For a game that uses a d8 for initiative, roll 2d8.

What if someone wants to hold or ready an action? A readied action is one that triggers as someone is about to do something. It interrupts the triggering action. For readied actions, declare your intention ahead of time and the trigger.

For a held action, when its your turn you are now waiting. The next in initiative order takes their turn. After they complete their turn, you may choose to act or continue waiting.

Note, anyone that has held an action may not be the first to take an action in the round. They must all wait until someone that didn’t hold their action takes their turn.

What to do about ties? Everyone declared their intentions, so have their actions occur at the same time. Figure it out. If everyone has a main action and a move action, have them each choose which one to do first, resolve those at the same time, then chose any remaining actions.

What about round two? Each round you declare your intention and roll a new initiative.

What about those “until the end of your next turn” effects? Keep them as is. This might create some interesting gaps and further highlights that combat (and those time based spells) are unpredictable.

What about someone that can’t decide? In step 3 (e.g. all remaining characters must declare) give them a timer; Say “I’m going to count down from 10, and if you can’t decide something, you’ll take a defensive action. 10, 9, 8…”

Be generous but remind them that everyone’s there to have fun. Not many people want to listen to someone deliberate about what to do for a game.

My design intention for Declared Initiative Procedure is to highlight the chaos, danger, and desperation of combat.

A decisive character improves their chances of acting first. Perhaps setting the tone for the entire game.

The Referee must also declare their intentions. Which helps keep them honest.

And those that like to respond and assess may now do so with more information.

Using Advantage and Disadvantage

One feature of using of advantage/disadvantage for initiative rolls is that the range of results remains the same.

If you were to apply a numeric bonus or penalty, you increase the potential range for initiatives. This reduces the probability of simultaneous actions; And I feel that simultaneous actions add to the desperation and chaos of combat.

I also like the more portable language of advantage and disadvantage.

To provide some insight into the impact of advantage and disadvantage, I’ve added Table 219:Expected Values for Dice Rolls with Advantage and Disadvantage .

Table 219: Expected Values for Dice Rolls with Advantage and Disadvantage
Die RolledBaseAdvantageDisadvantageDelta
† - The absolute value of the difference between a baseline roll and the advantage (or disadvantage) roll.

In reading the above table, I see my initial proposal of a ±1 to a d6-based initiative fits quite well.

Re-Rolling Initiative Each Turn

In re-rolling initiative each round, you create space to observe the combat from a different perspective.

As a Referee, I know that I appreciate taking a moment where everyone refocuses on the fiction of the combat. I take that time to determine if its time to roll a morale check. Players can assess if it’s time to retreat.

If you do use morale checks in your game—which you should—then any advantage the players have on initiative translates to an advantage for triggering morale checks. Which in turn short-circuits combat and gets back to the fiction.

I consider that to be a feature; One that also tends to keep the NPCs 📖 alive and seeking justified revenge!

Another subtle benefit: If the characters decide its time to retreat, they roll initiative with advantage.

Points of Engagement

You also create another point of engagement for players. A point of engagement is when a player makes a decision. I’m skipping Reactions in this scenario. I would wager you’re best bet is to take the first reaction available to you.

For a given player their distance of engagement is the number of points of engagement other players have that happen between any points of engagement of the given player.

Consider a circular initiative with five participants (A, B, C, D, E) that have initiative in that order. Player A acts, then B, C, D, and finally E; Then A acts again. The distance between points of engagement for all players is 4 (eg. when do they next get).

Now, consider re-rolling initiative with five participants.

In declaring their intentions, everyone engages at the top of the round. Then everyone engages on their turn.

The distance of engagement for A and E is 4. The distance of engagement for B and D is now 3. And for C it is 2.

And one of those engagements is shared by everyone.

In a way the camera that’s following the action moves from the group to the individual and back to the group.


Next up? Introducing this to my Stars without Number: Revised Edition and Worlds without Number game.

In my New Vistas in the Thel Sector , the players approach combat with extreme caution. I assume the players in my A Grain of Truth in the World of Ardu game will be a bit less cautious. That’s the difference between no warriors and two warriors.

Stars without Number: Revised Edition also has some great combat mechanics for PCs 📖 to scuttle they’re action to take what would normally be a sub-optimal action, but in the right context might save their skin.

I’ll tell you how it all goes.