Role for Initiative

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.

Managing Initiative

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.

Author: The Id DM

The Id DM is a psychologist during the weekdays. He DMs for a group of fairly loyal and responsible PCs every other Friday night. In the approximate 330 hours between sessions, he is likely anxious about how to ensure the next game he runs doesn't suck.

24 thoughts on “Role for Initiative”

  1. Roll for initiative does exactly what you said- it takes everyone out of a roleplay mindset. I feel it myself when I play and afterwards I wonder what happened. Now I know. For that I thank you. It’s one of those great thoughts that make my whole week. I just need to think about how to change that mindset.

    I also agree with your one mob, one initiative roll. I’ve been considering it myself. Splitting the party and monsters into smaller bits doesn’t really make that much of a difference in combat, so why bother?

    I’m not as convinced that most of your examples aren’t handled in the game. It really seems to me like your situations of having prepared characters are handled adequately with surprise rounds and readied actions. Hiding around the corner? Surprise round against the baddies you come across. Magic missile against the next thing that comes up? Readied action that you’ve been holding. Kicking in the door? You’re not going to be surprised, so you’ll get the surprise round. Unless they’re expecting you, then those goblins’ readied actions come in and shoot first. These are all non dice based so they automatically happen exactly as you like.

    And maybe the dice rolling is the problem. The inconsistencies in initiative are happening too often compared to your expectations of the story that it’s ruining the immersion. It’s making the game too abstract. In this case, I offer two suggestions:
    – Reduce the randomness in initiative rolls. Use the same bonuses but a smaller die. (like a d6 or a d8) This will keep the initiative order more true to ability scores and less dependent on chaos. If you want to go total hard core, everyone can take 10 on initiative and that’s that!
    – Heavy use of circumstance bonuses. Which is just a way of saying “adding roleplaying and story-based reasons to determine the initiative order in combat” in gamer terms. 🙂 I like your wording better for making sure players stay immersed. Combined with the first suggestion, you can have as much or as little control as you like depending on the situation and the precautions (or lack thereof) of each of the groups in the conflict.

    When I put it like that, circumstance bonuses seem like a good idea. It makes the players start thinking about how to work with the environment and story instead of blindly rolling dice. And this kind of thinking hopefully translates to other aspects of the game. Thanks for the article.

    1. QuirkyDM,

      I agree with you regarding surprise rounds and readied actions; 4th Edition does have mechanics already to support a few of the initiative issues I discussed above. And I do not take advantage of those mechanics nearly enough in combat. It’s been my experience that players need a very good reason why they suffer a surprise round from monsters. Again, while adventuring, the PCs are always in a state of readiness unless they are just collecting information at an inn or something like that. But in a “dungeon,” how can one truly be surprised?

      I’ve thought about lowering the dice from d20 to d10 or something like that, but then you have the same players acting first all the time. At that point, it might just be easier to go with the static Initiative score instead of rolling. That might be a good idea, but I’ve never experimented with it. Rolling dice is fun, and I enjoy it as a player! So I’m not looking to take fun out of the game, but it would be good to incorporate additional “circumstnce bonuses” without statistics and numbers.

      Thanks for the feedback!

  2. DMs should be aware that players can react negatively to changes that nerf any build choices they made. I know a DM that has a method where the highest init PC goes first, then you go around the table. The idea is to always know the order and not worry about initiative, with the DM placing the monsters in between the appropriate players.

    I have met several organized play DMs that ask for init modifiers and rolls on index cards at the start of play, so they know the order of all the combats already. A combat encounter begins and the DM just says to the rogue “You react instantly, what do you want to do?”

    I personally don’t mind rolling. I actually like it as a heightening of the action and a way to wake up players to impending combat. But I also like experimenting with new ways of doing things.

    1. Alphastream,

      Excellent points. My goal isn’t to nerf any specific PC build but bring a bit of meaning back to the initiative process. The first change you mentioned above also strips the meaning out of initiative; it’s just way to make the DM’s job easier. That is not really my thought process. If anything, I want to make the initiative process more connected to PC/player choices. But honestly, I’ll probably stick with the current initiative system for most situations, but it’s interesting to experiment with new ways of doing things.

    1. froth,

      I will use the current system for most encounters, but I will experiment with various ideas. Of course, I will discuss any changes with the players as it’s very much their game too. If they are completely satisfied with the current rules for initiative, then I’m not going to force-feed new methods into the game. It’s a team effort.

  3. I’m not sure I agree with the sentament that a poor roll punishes a player. A poor roll represents that player being caught unaware, perhaps the rogue darted to the shadows only to knock over the crates he hid behind causing him to stumble and be caught unawares.

    While personally I may give out circumstantial bonses, I do not think players should be able to talk their way out of a bad stat. A player with a -1 to init shouldn’t be able to get around it just by saying he gains the advantage. The whole reason for numbers and stats is to avoid the cops and robbers “bang! I got you!” Kind of thing.

    Rather then rp a success and then be “punished” by a poor roll the roll should go first and help descibe the result.

    With that said personally I am doing the single mob vs the party, but I have a twist. Everyone rollls inititive and anyone who beats the mob gains a suprise round but anyone who doesn’t beat the monsters grants combat advantage to the monsters in the first round.

    After that its simple rounds go monsters > pc1 > pc2 etc…

    1. Your mechanic for initiative is interesting. Do you make your encounters a bit more difficult since a few surprise-round attacks could really get the monsters off to a rough start in combat?

      I agree that a player should not be rewarded for a bad stat, but the 1d20 + Initiative modifier leaves so much room for variance. It makes the game interesting (I enjoy rolling dice as a DM and player), but it lessens the meaning between an initiative score of 3 compared to 7. Of course, the player with the higher initiative score will typically act first. I just find the mechanic a bit clunky and would like to find a smoother way to enter combat from “the rest of the game.”

      1. Combat could go a badly for the monsters sure, I could balance it out by the monsters perhaps having surprise against everyone who went after them. Either way I usually run my encounters a little harder then normal.

        Another method of initiative I use in another game is from a Savage worlds game, from a deck of cards each round and highest card goes first, ties are decided by the suits. This method is a little more meta in a way but it also allows for more dynamic rounds.

        I odnt know of a better way of transitioning from combat from the rest of the game, tactical combat is not a small thing and the rest of the game differs too much from it.

      2. In addition, my view is that initiative only truly matters for the opening moves. unless you have monsters on separate initiatives after the first round my game is PCs > Monsters > PCs > Monsters > etc…

        With this setup I allow any PC who is ready to go to take their turn, I find that it allows a bit more leeway with the RP as it allows people to do anything in the order they feel would be best without all of the sticky “I delay my turn” business.

  4. “roll for initiative” does not mean “stop roleplaying”.

    It means we need to determine an order things occur in.
    You can VERY EASILY use an initiative roll to determine the order the party proceeds during a skill challenge – which can be easily very RP oriented. I think the DMG example is the party convincing the duke to rally troops for a battle. The party members take turns rolling skill checks- Bluff, Diplomacy, History, whatever. Make your players RP it out and then have them roll a d20 and add their appropriate skill mod – and the best part it – they don’t even realize its a skill challenge!

    Your rogue in the shadows example, shouldn’t set his init, it sets something far more important: his location. Being a position to see them coming means he gets to act in the suprise round – he may have rolled a 1 on init, but he still gets an entire extra action compared to the rest of the party…

    1. Wayne,

      I’ve thought about small skill challenges to determine initiative, but hesitate to add more complexity to the process. I think that could be a useful solution in some circumstances.

      Location is a bit of an issue during exploration; the players may not always be acting “in rounds” so the location gets a bit fuzzy. But slowing things down to have each player move their speed and take actions grinds things to a halt.

      1. I’ve often kept players in init order while creeping around.
        It’s pretty much inevitable that at some point there will be an init roll, so why not just roll it early and let them use it to sneak around?
        Monster appear, you roll for them (assuming you didn’t preroll it), pop them into the order and then determine suprise. 🙂

  5. Keep in mind the initiative order was a carryover from Gygax’s and Arneson’s wargaming days. IRL, everyone acts at once. People who have a set response react immediately, whereas others are slow on the uptake. Also, there are those who stand back and assess the situation before responding.

    In a game, you have to have an order of play, to balance the ‘fairness’ and allow everyone a turn. It’s metagaming, but it can be roleplayed. Just because you’re in a dungeon or other dangerous situation doesn’t mean that you’re 100% alert 100% of the time. Attentions wander, other things take precedence, and bam! You’re ambushed. The initiative roll allows a PC or monster to determine their place in the order. Now a d20 roll provides for a lot of variation, but switching to a smaller die may mean lots of ties. Still, you can resolve ties by RAW. I might try that for the next encounter I run; use a d12 or d10. Then there’s less chance of a high init PC (or monster) going last in the order.

  6. Herrozerro, I like the idea of allowing the PCs to decide “who goes next” each round, but the mechanics of 4e complicate such an approach. So many powers include conditions such as “end of player’s next turn” and a party could “game the system” to take advantage of bonus/penalty effects. I use Masterplan to track combat and it becomes a hassle when the players are delaying turns and mixing up the initiative order.

    Mike, I wonder if players would prefer a d10 to a d20? Any players out there wish to chime in?

    1. Well its no different then normal, just without the delaying of turns. normally a character could delay their turn and keep an effect going. It just removes the complications for doing so.

      On the d10 idea, i actually like that a bit more. maybe even a smaller die. Make the initiative bonus worth more by lowering the variance in die rolls.

      1. You know what? Nevermind, I just reread the delay action and effects do end when you delay.

        But I still see your point about people gaming the system. I just havent had any issues with it yet.

  7. I’ve been developing some blog posts on this topic even before I read this post, and it’s interesting to read the continuing conversation here. You’ve obviously come up with some good food for thought to get this much response to your article.

    I hadn’t considered the “end of player’s next turn” effects, though the players can currently game the system now by using the readied action to gain these effects more than once. However, I think it’s easy enough to handle the end of next turn effect without being too nitpicky. Any effect that lasts until “the end of next turn” can be used once by each player- either this turn or next turn, but not both. That can simulate the delay effect without actually needing to do any actual delaying or changing of the order.

  8. Hey, I’d like to start out by saying I thought that this was a really cool subject to address, and thanks for giving me that viewership bump via tweeting my follow-up article on “Player Characters Are Gods”!

    With that out of the way, I have a bit of a nitpick followed by a more reasonable point. The nitpick is that while you list the Warlord bonus to party initiative as +1, which is admittedly not too significant, the combat leader option (which is what you seem to be referring to) is a +2 bonus, which is the initiative equivalent of combat advantage. Of course, maybe that was a typo, and if it was I really shouldn’t throw stones from my glass house 🙂

    The actual point I’d like to bring up, though, is regarding surprise rounds. I find that utilizing surprise rounds can help to mitigate the “gamist” aspect of rolling initiative. If that wizard is ready to blast the first thing he sees maybe he gets a surprise round ahead of everybody else – or if the party is ambushed he would act during the surprise round and blast away! I’ve been trying to use surprise rounds more often (if I’m remembering this right you had a 1 in 6 chance to be surprised by any monsters you encountered in 1st edition, after all), and it’s provided some more interesting results than just everybody rolling initiative and going with that right away.

    As a bonus point, you mention the variability of the D20, and that’s something I’ve been thinking a lot about ever since John Wick (Houses of the Blooded/Play Dirty) brought up the point some time ago on his youtube video blog that a dice pool is a lot more consistant because its mean average is also its mode average (i.e. 3d6 does not only have a mean average result of 10.5, and a median result of 10 and 11, but its mode result is also 10 and 11, while the d20 has a mean average of 10.5, median result of 10 and 11, but no mode result). Maybe we’d be less mad at the whismical nature of our dice if they were statistically weighted towards the center like 3d6 is in terms of mode rather than just mean. Your thoughts?

  9. I’ve got a few tricks I’ve used to get around the paradigm shift that the phrase “Roll for initiative” causes.

    The first is to use some sort of combat-managing software, such as Masterplan for 4e or DM’s Familiar for 3.x. These have the option of rolling initiative for everyone, and sorting the results, instantly. With these tools, the moment a fight starts, I can pull up the encounter, click on a button, then just point at one of the players and say, “You go first.” Then, it’s just a matter of making the list visible while that player resolves his action.

    A low-tech way to do this is to have initiative taken care of before a tactical encounter begins. Start a session by asking everyone to make an initiative roll; make it clear that’s what it’s for, in case anyone has things that alter it. Make a note of the results, then set them aside. When an encounter begins, add the enemies to the list (using whatever method you prefer), then jump straight into the action by pointing out who’s first. When things have calmed down again, and everyone’s looting the bodies, call for another initiative roll for the *next* encounter.

    Neither of these methods change the mechanics. They just remove the need to use that phrase. You can start a combat scene, or a chase, or anything tactical, without giving the players a five-minute pause to get out of a roleplaying mindset. Start a fight while they’re still thinking in-character.

    1. Thank you for posting!

      I like those ideas, and I do use Masterplan to run combat in 4e. The concern I have is that if you roll for Initiative for everyone, it can cause problems. What if the die roller produces some odd results? When a player rolls low, at least they were “in control” of the outcome, but relying on an unseen automatic roller could be frustrating. Also, some players may have benefits to Initiative that cannot be factored in until the specific combat starts.

      But I agree with the efforts if players are willing to go along with it. The DM could even decide the Initiative order without any rolls and simply tell the party members when they act based on the situation. Again, that could work if the players are accepting of the method.

    1. Been awhile since I wrote this; I believe I provided an alternative to Initiative – though not a detailed rule-based answer. Thank you for reading.

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