How to improve initiative in D&D

We have all had the desire to improve initiative in D&D. It is such a jostling experience going from fluid narrative to ‘roll initiative!’

In order to improve initiative in D&D figure out what method your group will react to best? The line method, popcorn method, or do you need props?

Initiative is important and we need to explain why it exists and what is best for each group.

The concept

Initiative is extremely important. Without it, there would be absolute chaos in combat and everyone would go whenever they pleased. Actions would be ignored, the loudest voice would win, and nothing good would come of getting rid of initiative.

With that being said, you might want to change initiative based on your group.

Initiative has had an interesting problem. The storytelling aspect of Dungeons and Dragons has always been very separate from combat. They are two entirely different games and that is why initiative was created. To bridge the gap from narrative to combat and give order to combat.

Initiative tells everyone who will go next, is on deck, and so on and so forth. That is the idea of initiative but often times players don’t know the initiative order. The dungeon master tells the players who is next and then they go.

These are the problems that need to be fixed.

In order to make the transition from narrative to combat smooth and keep combat going smoothly, you need to look at your group.

There will be different solutions for each group and my recommendations for each group are general. If you think a system will work better for your group then, by all means, use that system. If you think my recommendation for a group like yours just doesn’t fit then don’t use it.

There are quite a few ideas that I am going to introduce to you. I will give you the pros, cons, and try to help make each idea a little better than when I first implemented it or improve upon what others have tried.

The first few methods that will be covered are those that disrupt the story as little as possible.

The popcorn method

The popcorn method is meant to solve the issue of player’s attention spans and make the game move quicker. This solution was proposed by the angry GM.

The method boils down into this. One person goes first and then states who goes next. The last person to go will go first next round.

This makes the monsters brutally kill the players if the players make the monsters go last and let the party plan out a little bit what to do.

Pros:

-It makes the game more chaotic, keeps that narrative flow of uncertainty going, and forces the players to pay attention.

-The players feel that even in downtime planning who goes next is crucial and encourages party co-operation. This might be considered metagaming or hours of combat practice with each other. Depending how you look at it makes this method a pro or a con, but I feel that getting everyone involved is a pro.

You keep combat moving and the power is given to the players. Taking away player agency even for dice rolls makes them pay less attention. This happens a lot when players have to just wait for their turn.

-Players act first and have agency. Any time players get more decisions and can act first in a fight the fight becomes more interesting. Players are unsure and might try to talk, use a unique method, or do anything else that is more interesting than just hitting a creature.

-Players have the advantage.

Cons:

-This method is supposed to be carried out quickly and doesn’t give advantage to those who tried to get better initiative like rogues.

-It can grate on those who want a more mechanical game and be able to plan out their turns.

-Spellcasters generally have their noses in books or their spell pages and can feel like the system is overwhelming.

-Inexperienced dungeon masters might not make fights challenging enough with this system. The power is given to the players and they are able to break the system. It takes an experienced dungeon master to make this system challenging or just really bad players.

Keep all the pros and cons in mind if you want to use the popcorn initiative. I personally wouldn’t like it if I were a spellcaster but would love it if I was a rogue or fighter.

The choice is up to you, but this is one of many options on how to improve initiative in D&D.

If you want an even simpler option, then you can go with what I call the ‘line initiative.’

Line initiative

One other way to improve initiative in D&D is by using marching order. If the fighter is in front and sees the enemies first wouldn’t it make sense for him to respond?

You can do this a few ways.

  1. Have the player go first from the closest player to the monsters all the way to the furthest. They do not have to be closest to the same monster, just closest to a monster. If there are multiple players close to a monster then have them go in whatever order they choose. Then have the monsters go.
  2. Have the closest player and monster go simultaneously. This way there isn’t a whole set of rolls that the players make and a set that you make. The monsters also go at the same time and everything happens simultaneously.

If everyone is engaged or multiple people are engaged then use the player who is furthest into where the enemies started.

Pros:

I would highly recommend the second way of doing line initiative. It feels more organic and locks the players into a simultaneous life or death situation. Players also don’t have downtime since you are doing your action while they are doing theirs.

You doing your actions while the players are doing theirs means that combat will feel more real and fast-paced even though it is not.

The order also is realistic. The spellcasters in the back would not go before the fighters in front who see the enemy first. Spellcasters also have to prepare and cast spells which takes time. This simulates that experience.

The order is also organic. It changes as the battle changes and requires people to pay attention.

There is no downtime between normal narrative play and combat. You just dive in.

Cons:

No true planning. Players cannot accurately plan out their turns ahead of time.

Very stressful and messy. Players have to constantly pay attention and even then they are not sure who is next. Changing initiative each time fits the tone of combat but again, everything is chaotic and movement may make the initiative hard to track.

Line initiative is an interesting way to do initiative, but there are other things you can do besides these two methods that change how initiative works.

Initiative tools

If you want to improve initiative in D&D you don’t need to completely change how the system works.

Those 2 methods above may work for some people but they are not perfect.

Some players want to do initiative the old fashioned way since it allows them to plan, feel like they have more control, or have some other personal reason. Regardless, normal initiative might be best for your group.

There are problems with normal initiative though and that is why you are reading this article. It can be too jarring, not keep your player’s interest, or just take too long.

That is why we have some tools to help you.

Improving initiative speed

In order to improve initiative in D&D you will need to make it not take as long. We mentioned how jarring it is to go from roleplaying narrative encounters to combat. That is why there are some ways to improve the transition.

1st method: Get initiative beforehand.

In this method you have your players roll 5 seperate initiatives on a notecard. They give them to you at the beggining of the session, and you use them when combat happens.

When picking initiatives you can pick the 1st, 3rd, 2nd, whatever initiative you want. If you pick the second line of initiative then everyone’s 2nd roll is used.

If Greg rolls 2, 3, 5, 17, 23 and Holly rolls 1, 18, 3, 2, 9 then Holly would go before Greg if you picked the 2nd roll to be used. This applies to everyone and the same roll cannot be used again. So cross off that roll for each character that you picked and get the game going.

You do not have to tell your players to ‘roll initiative’ and instead transition to asking “Holly, what do you do?”

Unfortunately, you lose that flair of ‘roll initiative!’ but you save time and that jarring experience of going from roleplay to combat.

-2nd method: 20-25.

In the 20-25 method you ask for initatives after you have your players roll. Ask “20-25” and write them down in order. Go down the line “15-19” and repeat until everyone has got a spot in the initiative order.

I completely ripped this off of Critical Role to start with, but after experimenting I have found something interesting.

This method works best when you have 4+ players, but terribly when you have 3 or less. 4 is even debatable since you are taking more time to call out all the numbers.

If there are more than 4 or 3 players it is hard to remember everyone’s number. That is why this method is effective with larger groups, but since you can remember 3 people’s initiative it is just faster to ask everyone their initiative and write it down.

3rd method: Preroll for monsters

This isn’t directly tied to initiative but instead tied to action economy. Have the monsters roll their attacks, spell damage, etc during the players’ turns.

This way you can just narrate what happens, keep the players interested, and make combat fast-paced. The players do not have to sit around and wait for you to roll. Some people don’t like this and want to watch the dungeon master roll for monster attacks which can be exciting. This can also be boring if nothing too interesting happens.

We already are adopting this by making monsters hit for an static damage (their average) instead of rolling. If you like the already calculated damage system then you will like this.

I thought my players would miss me rolling but the engagement has only improved. It should do the same for you.

You might need some props to help you improve initiative in D&D as well.

Props

You can use props to improve initiative in D&D. There are two props that I have used in the past to great success and a few failures. Today I will talk about the two successes so that you can use them. If you want to read about using these props in large groups we have an article dedicated to larger groups here.

Initiative notecards and an initiative board.

Initiative notecards have numbers 1-x. The x is the max number you will need for enemies and players.

When a player’s number is called (1st, 2nd, etc) they will take their turn. The player who is next will know they are next and be able to plan out their turn and not be surprised.

Being surprised that it is your turn ends up making players double the length of combat. They have to ask what is happening, put away phones, check spells, etc.

You can put a timmer on everyone (30 seconds max) but this makes people feel pressured and complain even though most turns are done in about half that time.

An initiative board is what I generally use.

This is a board that has the players name in order after you get initiative settled. You put who is 1st at the top and continue like that all the way down. Make the players/enemies name big so that everyone can see it.

This prop does not help with the transition from roleplay to combat, but it helps your players plan and figure out where they are in the initiative order.

If a player has to check their phone for an emergency or wants to be prepared they can do so by just paying attention to the initiative board.

There are some extra tips that I want to leave you with.

Extra tips

In order to improve initiative in D&D you might not need a new method or props. Instead, you might need a few extra tips to make initative a bit more engaging to your players.

I have 5 tips for you.

1st, don’t split up your enemies initiative.

If you split up their initative then you will be thinking about your monsters too much. The game is about how the players interact with the monsters. You have already planned this encounter. You shouldn’t need to focus that much on the monsters.

Less of a split forces the players to pay more attention to their turns and what is going on. The only time you might want to change this is when enemies are completely different. I generally only split them when there is a ‘boss’ or something like it.

Having a second group for one monster is a big deal and makes the players take that monster seriously.

2nd, have the players act before monsters.

This seems a little different than most initiatives but I already talked about how players acting first might be better in the popcorn method.

In this initiative variant, you just have your players always go before the monsters unless they are surprised. It lets your players go first, chose their order, and lets the game be a bit more interesting.

This tip is not for everyone but some groups may enjoy it.

3rd, keep tension.

You want to keep some tension when you are using initiative. If there is no tension players will stop paying attention and go to their phones.

You can do this by being invested in what the players do instead of just passively watching and observing. Some dungeon masters are completely stone-faced like Matt Mercer from Critical Role, but different groups and different people do different things.

You can be someone who is interested and invested in what the players do and shows some emotion based on their decisions. Fake or not, anything that shows them you care makes the players pay more attention.

You can start creating tension by getting a bit louder and more animated with the scene leading into combat. Don’t just say ‘you see an orc. Roll initiative.’ Look at the 5th tip, set up the scene and add some emotion to it. Get a bit louder if you need to and animated in order to bring some tension or excitement and then go into initiative. This will help the players get initiative quicker and start the combat off with some tension.

You can keep tensions by making sure that the players know who is up next and on deck (after the person who is next) so that players are actively trying to plan what to do next. Skip the enemies because you should have them pre-done if possible and just get to the players’ actions. Unless you do step 4.

4th, Roll with the players.

If an enemy is on the fighter and it is the only enemy left, you can have it take its turn on the fighter’s turn. You don’t want to change this mid-combat. You should make the creature have the initiative of the fighter in the beginning of the fight or changing it mid-combat will cause problems.

Rolling with the player gets the rolls out of the way and makes the players seem like the monster is reacting to them. This makes them feel special and stay invested.

Speaking of keeping your players invested there is one more way to do so.

5th, be descriptive.

If you describe the attacks that your players make and the outcome of their efforts they will pay more attention.

When you at the beginning set up the encounter with enough description to paint the scene into a person’s head they will be more attentive when you call initiative and keep the game going smoothly.

If you are worried about being too descriptive or how to be descriptive we have an article on that as well.

Combining methods

The last way to improve initiative in D&D is to combine your methods.

What has worked and what did your players like?

Did they enjoy the initiative board? What if you rolled the monster’s turns on your players turns and were descriptive?

You do not need to implement all of these methods right away. If you find a method or tip that you think would be perfect for your group try that first and master it.

Once you have mastered that, try something else and enhance your game in another way.

There is no limit to what you can do with initiative as long as you do not overwhelm your players.

Don’t try to combine methods that conflict like the popcorn method and the line method at the same time. Try methods that are synergistic and you should be able to make your game even better for you and your players.

Conclusion

There are many ways to improve initiative in D&D.

You can use a different method of initiative, improve on the initiative system in play with props or use extra tips that are in this article.

You can even combine methods, but initiative is an important part of the game. It keeps some order in combat and makes combat possible for everyone. The pacing change is a little jarring from roleplay to initiative, but you can make that change more natural for you and your players.

If you still want to increase the pacing take a look at our article here. It should help you improve the pacing of your session and not just the initiative portion.

What will you use to improve initiative in D&D? I would love to hear your thoughts in the comments below.

This has been Wizo and keep rolling!

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1 Comment

  1. I use a custom “simultaneous initiative ” system. Works for us.

    At its core, the golas are to jack up the “‘fast paced and chaoptically furious”‘” combat style, while stamping down hard on min-maxing, analysis-paralysis, and roll-playing queens (you know the type: pauses the game and makes his roll *only* once he is certain everybody will be watching him do his roll).

    Initiative rolls are used only for reallly contradictory special actions. While this nerfs a high Initiative value, thus DEX, DEX is already the top most useful stat. Nerfing it a little bit won’t hurt

    I also use Initiative value for for Round 1 Surprise in cases where both parties are unaware of each other and suddenly get to be nearly face to face within short distance. In Default D&D nobody gets surprised here, instead I go with everybody might be surprised on Round 1 rolling an Initiative DC 12 check to avoid. Perception is already super used often already even without being used in combat anyway. So in an ambush situation it is Initiative vs Stealth.

    The round’s steps are:

    STEP 1: Beginning of round.
    Round counter placed on table, or increased in value.
    DM describes stuff, telegraphs enemy tactics, etc.

    STEP 2: Players declare their full round of activity. This is by intent, but not a “square per square” description. This has a short time limit so players must decide fast.

    Note that having to pre-clare your entire round of actions adds new interesting tactical choices. For example: Will I make my 2 attacks on the left “already-damaged” ogre, to make pretty sure that I finish it off, or do I spread them between the two ogres, to make sure that I don’t risk wasting an attack on “single-target-overkill damage”?. This lowers PC power somewhat (because of all the non-perfectly-optimized choices), however I also put a little bit less numerous monsters (further speeding up the fights) and use Milestones, not combat-XPs (which IMHO encourages too much solving every bad encounter by combat IHMO… even published modules give the lion’s share of XPs from combat, having goal-oriented milestones encourages solving lots more situation through stealth, roleplay, exploration, or other intelligent tricks instead of just “kill em all”).

    STEP 3: All dices are rolled by everyone together. Color coded dices to tell apaqtrt whic h is the “first d20 roll” vs 2nd 3rd etc. Alsso always rolling 2 dices per “check”, in case player doesn’t know in advance that advantage/disadvantage applied. (aso colorr colded say opaque vs transparent of the same color).

    STEP 4: Action resolution.

    Typicallly 2 Phases that represent haf a round’s worth each. The DM moves all miniatures here according to player intent, and erring on the side of the players.

    Say, you say you move to a foe then strike. Unless the foe is super near you, the DM will move tyour mini in Phase A then make youyr PC attack in Phase B. You say you Dash? Normal movei n Phase A then the Dash move in Phase B. Full attack and you have 3 attacks? 2 of them are in Phase A and one in Phase B.

    Within a Phase, creatures remains “up” and active, unless it is a critical hit that would leave them completely unable to retaliate. Yes, mutually insured destruction is quite possible.

    STEP 5: End of round. Effects counters go down by one. Global changes in environnent, reinforcements popping up, etc. Again mostly DM talking a bit.

    For us at least, this sped up our games a LOT and made them much more exciting.

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