You turn the corner and you see them – just as they see you. The Blackguards’ eyes widen, hands going to their swords. One, wearing a blazing red officer’s cloak points and shouts, “There they are! Get them!”. You look at each other – this wasn’t how the heist was supposed to go. It was supposed to be smooth, quick, and quiet. All that is by the wayside now. The elf draws back on the bow, as your gnomish friends starts an incantation….this is how it’s going to be, now.
But who makes the first move?
Initiative. It’s used at the start of every combat in D&D, one of the most common actions you’ll take when playing the game. And yet, it seems completely unsatisfactory, as written. It has never even really satisfied the game designers themselves. There are no shortage of discussions on variants, and understanding how interlaces with surprise is somewhat of an enigma (especially in 5e, as Sly Flourish has examined).
What is so unsatisfying about it? I can’t speak for everyone, but for me it’s just the one-and-done nature of something that feels like it should be happening every round. The ebb and flow of combat seems to demand that sometimes you’ll get the jump, other times you’ll be on your back foot. A string of poor initiative rolls can give the real feeling of being beaten back by the enemy over and over, but turning it around can give the illusion of a riposte attack. But having a static order, every round, it helps turn combat into a monotonous slog.
I hate it when combat turns into a slog. Might be my least favorite thing in all of D&D.
None did the trick. Most, while intellectually satisfying – made combat slower and sloggier. What did we gain from using those exotic systems? What did we lose? What did we solve and what side effects did we get? It all became too much.
So I’ve settled on a simple house rule for initiative in my games. Roll the d20. Add your initiative modifier. And do it every single round.
What does this gain? No one is stuck permanently with a “bad roll” – the slower characters always have a chance to get the jump once in a while. But it still lets the high-dexterity characters shine, instead of being hindered for an entire combat by one bad roll. Sure, you’ll have to make some rulings on abilities – for example, did you know a bard can use Cutting Words on the initiative roll? They can! But does it apply to every round? Or just the first? (In my games, every round of that combat)
It seems like it would slow combat down, but in my experience – it’s kept players more interested and on their toes, because every round they will going in a different order.
Novelty is fun and engaging.
Don’t be afraid to house rule things that don’t work well at your table. Talk to your players and find what works for you!