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The Case for Group Initiative

Moderator: JC Denton

The Case for Group Initiative

Unread postby icycalm » 02 Nov 2022 03:41

I have always been a fanatic for individual initiative, which in D&D 2E that I played in the '90s was optional, and which in 3E became standard. But this article has me almost convinced. We will try it out. Keep in mind though that the author plays D&D, and PF1 is way more complex, so it's possible that his system ruins it. Also, PF2, from what little I know of it, employs a new "3-action per round" system that seems to make battles more dynamic and that might be screwed up by group initiative. So I have many doubts, but nevertheless the benefits of this guy's system cannot be denied, so it must be tried. I wonder if a superior hybrid system could be devised.

The replies to the thread must be studied as well, and I will study them when the time comes. There are some really hardcore GMs taking the guy to task in the replies. ... should_let

JacktheDM wrote:The Case for Group Initiative -- Why you should let your players all take their turns at the same time

After 20 years of DMing, I've started to dig into the OSR and other gaming systems to see how I can beef up my 5e campaigns. For the past few sessions, I messed with something I never thought I'd have to mess with or even want to touch, and the results have been miraculous.

I've changed initiative with one simple rule. It's one often gets a lot of hate and pushback. But I'm gonna make the case for it anyway:

Group Initiative -- here's how I run it

As in: all of the players go, and all of the enemies go, all at once, back and forth. Players can act simultaneously and strategically [He means tactically -icy] so that they can take their actions in any order they want. Here are my complete, simple rules:

  • There are only two turns: The player turn, and the enemy turn, and they go back and forth. The side that gets the jump goes first.

  • If neither side clearly acts first, set an initiative DC. Anyone in the party who beats that DC can all take a turn together first. Then all enemies can go, then the entire party, and then you start switching back and forth.

  • On the players' turn, actions can happen in any order. They can intersperse maneuvers and actions among each other's actions as much as convenient.

  • On the monster turn, all monsters typically declare their actions and attacks before rolling/resolving them, so that they don't end up singling-out players.

  • Death saves happen at the top of the group turn, as opposed to the start of individual turns.

  • Legendary Actions are used as reaction-like interrupts during the player group turn, as they normally would. If they aren't spent in this way, the enemy can use them all at the end of the player group turn. Lair Actions happen at the start of the player group turn.

The Benefits

Players can act intuitively, and it saves massive amounts of time. If your players are like mine, they fight at slightly different speeds based on their play styles. When my players look at the map, my barbarian and my paladin know what they want to do immediately. My wizard is more pensive, and she often likes to support other players' strategies. Instead of that wizard sitting and thinking about what to do while the barbarian sits on her hands and waits, everyone can act according to their instincts. This helps players complement one another and speeds up combat significantly.

Players can shine doing what they do best! The barbarian can lead the charge when she wants right at the top of the group turn. The rogue can wait to judge the battlefield, see who gets hurt, and deal a final blow. These classes were made to shine collaboratively, and I find that this helps. One of my favorite things in my home game is that the sentinel plate-and-shield paladin always ends the group turn by using his remaining move to jump to the front lines or get in front of the wizard. Incredible. Fun.

Players can coordinate actions. Players don't often literally coordinate on actions in D&D in general, but with individual initiative, this often feels just impossible, or a waste of time. This is not the case when they can literally act together! The first combat I ever ran with side-based initiative saw players using the help action to boost another player over a wall. They found it much easier to pull this kind of stuff off with group turns.

A giant psychological weight is lifted. Tracking individual initiative might be draining your attention much more than you know. Checking initiative to switch turns and switch perspectives is like making a brief narrative reset. For me, this is like trying to sustain a long creative task at my job while getting a new ping for an email every 3 minutes. Less switching and tracking is just better on the DM's brain, even when you have a really obvious or visible way of tracking initiative! There's never any confusion about whose turn it is. On that note...

Players are way more consistently engaged. I've found that with individual initiative, players are SUPER keyed in on their turn while they're in the spotlight for that minute or two, with high stakes for everything they do, and then just sliiiightly not-as-attentive the rest of the fight. With group turns, I find that players sustain a consistent, medium level of attention when they're ALL acting, and when they're ALL getting attacked. Not to mention, they're less hard on themselves when they don't personally succeed in their action, because "their" turn wasn't wasted.

Fleeing is finally possible. The hardest part of retreating in D&D is that as soon as one person goes to flee, the other side can start acting to lock the other party down, and it becomes a stuttering mess. And so players and DMs alike learn not to bother. Since instituting side-based initiative, I've had both players AND enemy parties flee combats easily because they can all just dip at once.

Healing is better. The first thing players want to do when it's their time to act is to check and see who needs urgent attention. With group initiative, players can resolve healing at the top of their turn and get a group audit on who needs what resources. And better yet, characters who are revived from 0 HP can act without missing a turn. No one's turn gets skipped just because their initiative came up before the person who healed them, which is just insanely un-fun.

Status effects are easier to track. This one is simple. Things like Frightful Presence, or a harpy's song, or something that lasts until the start of an enemy's next turn is all both more narratively satisfying to describe and play out, and easier to track in general. Durations feel more obvious and stable.

Combat is just much quicker! Because of everything above, things just run much more smoothly. The first combat I ran with this arrangement was 5 players with optimized, complicated characters in a weird environment against 11 enemies across 5 enemy types. The players resolved their entire turn in 6-7 minutes, and enemies were even quicker.

My players love and agree with all of the above, but I've seen a lot of objections to this style of initiative in the past. Lemme address the couple I have heard.

The Common Objections

"My players like having high initiative, and feel nerfed!" Using my rules above, you can still allow them to take an early hit in that first round. Or you can let them retrain feats like Alert. But compared to some games, D&D doesn't really reward players that well for having gone early after the first round, and using a d20 for initiative is so swingy as it is.

This is largely reliant on player perception, not mechanical reality, so I really have very little response to a player who really feels like their character rests on regularly going first in initiative. I just don't think there are many of these players. It's worth noting that my group's rogue with 19 DEX is the biggest fan of the new system.

The Myth of "Going Nova." The biggest objection I've seen to group initiative is the idea of "going nova" – that when one side will go, they will usually win or at least majorly turn the combat around in a single round. Ultimately, I just simply do not find, in my brief experience, that in the typical play range of encounters (levels 3-12) with a sufficient variety and strength of enemies, that this ever actually happens.

"But my encounters are not balanced, or often do include just a single enemy," you might say. "I don't want my monsters dying before they get a chance to take a swing!" Two responses there:

  • If there is a single monster in a combat, you are already doing side-based initiative, but imposing an arbitrary turn order on your players.

  • If you think that the encounter is already balanced in favor of the players… let the enemies get the jump and go first to get their hits in!

When people say "my players hyper-focus on single enemies" or "go full broad-side" on their turn, I'm not sure how this differs from what they would do anyway. You can allow them to do this in a more direct, collaborative, and quick manner. An encounter that lasts a few entire rounds will last that long regardless of turn order.

OMG there is nothing wrong with initiative, it doesn't need fixing! Sure, 100%. That was my opinion, and it's a valid one. I'm hesitant to mess with core stuff I'm familiar with. I tried this experiment anyway. The results are too profound for me to ignore. Feel free to just not do this if individual initiative is important to you!


After all this, you might think I'm delusional, or just plain wrong. And if you try bringing this to your players, they might hate this and object, largely because people don't like changing what they deem as fundamental (even though I have come to see individual initiative as not-as-fundemental to balance as it first appeared).

You can try it for one combat. Try it for a session — "Hey guys, could we do a single combat where we run initiative differently?" I think your players will like it. I literally got excited texts after my first session of group initiative from players going "What else can we streamline like this??" I wish I'd tried this three campaigns ago.

10/10, would recommend. I hope you try it!
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