Last week, I wrote about how I often fall into a variety of traps that limit the amount of roleplaying during combat encounters. One such trap is focusing on poor die-roll results. Combat in Dungeons & Dragons 4th Edition is a tactical endeavor, and a DM has to go out of his or her way to include and promote roleplaying during the encounter. It occurred to me that the disconnect between roleplaying throughout the rest of the game and combat encounters begins immediately. Think about the most common way you introduce combat; what is one sentence that cues the players that combat is starting.
Roll for Initiative.
DMs can say this phrase with a certain level of panache and enthusiasm, but the phrase is unrelated to roleplaying in any way, shape or form. There are many factors that remove players from a roleplaying mindset during combat. Roll for Initiative is the first factor, and I believe there are methods a DM can implement to increase the level of roleplaying during the start of combat encounters. Below, I briefly discuss how initiative has changed over the years and why I find the current system problematic.
“Who Goes First?” A History of Initiative
Obviously, a mechanism needs to be in place to answer the question, “Who goes first?” Every game I can think of has a rule to answer this question. Ice Hockey has the face-off, Football has the coin toss, Chess has the White side of the board, and games like Monopoly and Trivia Pursuit are typically determined by a pre-game 1d6 roll-off. With a great deal of assistance from the friendly folks on Twitter, I pieced together a brief history of initiative in D&D, which is a concept that pre-dated D&D in other wargames.
The term “initiative” has been with Dungeons & Dragons since the beginning. How initiative is determined in D&D has shifted from the group-based mechanic in the earliest edition of D&D to a highly-individualized statistic for both players and monsters in 4th Edition. When I returned to playing an early-edition this year, initiative was a simple 1d6 roll-off between the DM (representing all monsters) and one player (representing all PCs in the party). The roll-off was executed each round with dueling d6s until all monsters or all players were dead. The resulting combat ebbed and flowed as a result of the initiative each round.
Initiative was logically tied to the Dexterity score for the player performing the roll-off against the DM. A high Dexterity score resulted in a bonus to the d6 roll; a low Dexterity scored resulted in a penalty to the d6 roll. In later editions, Initiative moved from a group-based mechanic to an individual mechanic. Initiative, while still based on Dexterity, has become its own commodity to be cultivated and managed since 3rd Edition, which was the first to feature the Improved Initiative Feat for players.
In 4th Edition, the Player’s Handbook defines Initiative as follows:
Before the first round of combat, you roll initiative. Rolling initiative is a Dexterity check and follows the normal rule for ability checks. The DM rolls initiative for your enemies . . . To determine a combat encounter’s initiative order, roll initiative. To do so, make a Dexterity check. Roll 1d20 and add the following:
- One-half your level
- Your Dexterity modifier
- Any bonuses or penalties that apply
Players without a high Dexterity score can improve their Initiative through any number of Feats, Racial abilities, equipment and other bonuses. In fact, Improved Initiative is often referred to as a “must have” Feat for many classes and PC builds in 4th Edition.
What Does Initiative Really Mean?
Initiative refers to the PC’s ability to quickly respond to threats on the battlefield. When I speak, “Roll for Initiative,” I’m not talking to the PCs in the adventuring party. I’m talking to the players. The adventuring party does not roll for anything; the PCs are reacting to monsters and threats on the battlefield. It is the player who rolls the statistic to determine “how prepared” his or her PC is to meet the monsters and threats. Initiative is very much a skill check, but it’s a skill check that removes the player from the PC’s experience.
The statement, “Roll for Initiative,” is routinely used to inform the party, “It’s fighting time!” But the statement also immediately replaces roleplaying in combat encounters. It’s the subtle – yet important – first step for how combat encounters can grind to a halt with tactical jargon and maneuverings.
To be fair, some great roleplaying moments can evolve from Initiative checks, such as the player who rolls poorly talking about his Avenger’s inability to remove his sword from a scabbard or the Cleric who says she cannot find her holy symbol. But outside of these moments, Initiative checks are not an invitation for further roleplaying, but an instruction to carry out a mechanical task. The process of rolling for Initiative removes a degree of the actual meaning of initiative from the game.
Tracking initiative in 4th Edition can be a challenge as a DM needs to find a clean method to display and manage the unique initiative order for a party of PCs and a collection of monsters. Tools such as Masterplan are available to assist a DM, and low-tech methods such as notecards are also helpful in organizing initiative. Regardless of the method used to organize the task, tracking initiative is – quite frankly – a hassle.
In the past, I have experimented with taking all monster actions at one time in the initiative order. I’ve found that this saves time during combat because the action is not jumping back and forth between the DM and the party. For example, a typical initiative order might look like the following: Mob A; PC 1; PC 2; Mob B; PC 3; PC 4: Mob C; PC 5. The DM has to shift back and forth between tactical decisions, tracking hit points and conditions (more on this next week) and ensuring the next player in the initiative order is prepared to act. I’ve found combat revolves more efficiently with the following initiative order: Mob A (all monsters); PC 1; PC 2; PC 3; PC 4; PC 5. This is just one method to take the initiative rules as stated and turn them into your own.
Like many other aspects of combat in 4th Edition, Initiative is more complicated than it needs to be in terms of how it is calculated as a statistic and how it is applied in the game. First, the equation to determine Initiative includes a one-half level modifier. Why? A PC would likely gain more combat readiness as they progress (e.g., level up) through dungeons and combat, but the one-half level modifier is balanced out by monsters receiving the same bonus to initiative as they level. The one-half level modifier is a constant for PCs and monsters, so the modifier does nothing more than add to bookkeeping.
To think of it another way, imagine it was ruled that the basketball team with the highest point-per-game average during the season would receive the ball first during a game. However, the equation to determine points-per-game for both teams included an adjustment to the statistic of +10 points. Since both teams are getting the same 10-point adjustment, it does not add valuable information to the equation. The 10-point adjustment could be dropped without any effect on the decision of, “Who goes first?”
Second, Initiative is based on Dexterity and this certainly is logical. But rolling for initiative is an artificial way to solve what should be a story-based question, “Who goes first?” When I am not DMing but playing my Rogue, I imagine that my character is always ready to strike while walking around a dungeon. When DMing, the players in the campaign are not moving around a hostile environment in a relaxed manner; they have their weapons drawn and are ready to attack and defend themselves. If the party broke through a door and caught some unsuspecting goblins eating dinner, then they should act first. If the party broke through the same door but the goblins were waiting for them, then the goblins should act first.
If rolling for initiative was removed, then the DM would have more discretion to connect the order of combat to the roleplaying and actions in-game by the PCs.
“I’m going to hide in the shadows with my blade at the ready as we turn the corner.”
“I have a magic missile ready to be fired at the first sign of movement ahead.”
“I don’t care what’s behind this door. I’m kicking it in!”
The first statement allows the player to think tactically before combat begins. A player who is Stealth-based should and takes appropriately precautions should not be punished by a poor Initiative roll. The second statement creates wonderful opportunities for the DM; perhaps the trigger-happy Wizard sees movement ahead, fires off his spell and learns that he’s just killed an innocent hostage. The third statement, which I’ve heard quite often from the Fighter in one of our groups, brings an element of recklessness to the beginning of combat. The DM should decide on Initiative based on these factors rather than grind the game to a halt with a minute or two of resolving the initiative order.
The third and final factor in the Initiative statistic is any bonus or penalty that applies. Adjustments to Initiative can come from Feats, equipment and other abilities. For example, Warlords can grant a bonus to initiative when players are within close range while the initiative roll take place. Again, this makes intuitive sense (Warlords are battlemasters and have great combat prowess, which would likely help their allies), but the +1 bonus translates to the PCs near the Warlord being 5% more prepared for combat.
Taken with rolling 1d20 for the Initiative score, the variability in rolls eliminates much of the meaning of the various adjustments. A PC with a high Initiative statistic who is standing next to the Warlord could roll a 3 while another PC with a low Initiative statistic who is on the other side of the room from the Warlord could roll a 17. The PC with the lower Initiative statistic – not benefiting from the Warlord’s presence and skill – would have a much higher Initiative outcome. This sort of thing occurs all the time in the game given how frequent combat takes place and the variability involved in 1d20 rolls. Initiative loses meaning and becomes an artificial way to start combat.
If Not Initiative, Then What?
To be clear, I’m not railing against 4th Edition. I thoroughly enjoy playing the game both as a player and DM. But in thinking about my weaknesses from both sides of the screen, I realize there are multiple things I could change about myself to make the experience more immersive for other players and myself. One of the changes is to experiment with new methods to determine initiative.
For example, during our last session, the party was exploring a town that was overrun with zombies. After clearing out the town square, the party learned from a survivor that other residents might be alive inside the inn. I planned on some zombies being inside the inn as well, but I did not want the zombies to be a tactical threat the party had to expend resources to defeat. Instead of rolling for initiative, I let the player decide who would act first and then went around the table as they tried to enter and explor the building. They moved through the inn, opening doors, exploring for survivors and occasionally coming across a zombie or two that needed to be decapitated.
I used the move-minor-standard format for the turns and the players engaged in much more exploration than if it was a straight-up combat encounter. It led to some interesting moments (including the introduction of the term “wet beard” to our gaming venacular; long story!) but more importantly, it allowed the party to investigate the inn, kill a few zombies, find survivors and engage in a brief skill challenge to cure the dying in significantly less time than if the zombies started a traditional combat encounter. Since those issues were resolved quickly, there was time left at the end of the night for a larger tactical encounter with zombie hordes and a large blob of necrotic ooze (which was created using black Play-Doh).
As Scott Fitzgerald Gray strongly suggested last week, DMs should make the game their own and experiment and customize to tailor the game to the group. Examine the game’s mechanics and decide if each one is helping or hurting the type of game the group wishes to play. If you want to answer the question, “Who goes first?” with a more story-based method, then move forward with the idea.
- Roll for Initiative immediately takes players out of a roleplaying mindset. It removes the player from the experience of their PC and immediately introduces mechanics to resolve in-game problems.
- Initiative has been a part of D&D from the beginning, but it has evolved over the editions from a single party vs. DM roll-off to a highly-individualized statistic for both PCs and monsters.
- Experiment with adding roleplaying and story-based reasons to determine the initiative order in combat to keep the players immersed in the experience of their PCs.