by Mike Shea on 20 April 2015
The Dungeons and Dragons 5th Edition Dungeon Master's Guide is packed with lots of great tips and optional rules often squirreled away in a single paragraph among the 320 pages of the book. The rule we're going to discuss today can be found on page 270 of the book in a section called "Side Initiative".
The core concept of side initiative is easy enough to understand. Instead of assigning individual initiative ranks to each participant in a battle, you simply decide which side goes first, PCs or monsters. Each player and the DM rolls a d20 without any modifiers. Whichever side rolls highest wins. The characters on each side can act in whatever order they wish.
This is a very simple rule and it will certainly speed up combat by heading straight into the action but it's also fraught with problems. Here are some issues you're likely to encounter:
There's likely other issues with side initiative beyond just these.
So when do you want to use this variant rule? The first thing to keep in mind is that you don't want to use side initiative all the time. It has a place but it certainly shouldn't be used as a wholesale replacement for the normal initiative system.
There are a few simple questions we can ask ourselves that help us decide if we should use side initiative or not. Here's one:
Will anyone give a shit when they go in this next combat?
If the answer to that is "yes", you probably want to use a normal initiative system. If the answer is "not really", than you can get away with side initiative. This question might not always work, so we can come up with some other good questions if the answer to this one tends to be "yes, my players are a bunch of micromanaging assholes".
Is there more than one type of monster in this battle?
If you have more than one type of monster in a fight, you probably want to skip side initiative and use the normal method. Multiple types of monsters tend to lead to more tactical battles and initiative matters in good tactical battles.
Is this a big battle or a small skirmish?
Another good time to consider side initiative is if you're running a small skirmish instead of a big battle. A skirmish is usually fewer monsters than PCs, the monsters are all of one type, and the difficulty of the battle is normal or easy. In this case, it's not likely that initiative matters that much.
Did one group get the drop on the other?
If, through story reasons or circumstance, one group got the drop on the other and surprised them, you can ignore the surprise rules and simply give the surprising group the first round and go in order from there.
Let's say your PCs snuck up on the marauding band of dark elves and rolled particularly well on their stealth check. You can give the PCs a full round of actions and then let the dark elves go second. The same works the other way. If the PCs walk into a nest of hidden spiders, the spiders go first and then the PCs. No initiative roll is needed.
One easy way to decide how people act is to have PCs act on the player's order around the table. If players want to delay for another character's action or has some other reason to go out of order, let them do so but if no one cares, going around the table is a fast way to run turns without having to do any bookkeeping. If you're a real control freak, you can even have your players sit in order of their highest to lowest initiative order.
You might be wondering why one would bother with side initiative at all. You might say that 5e combat is already fast and initiative really isn't that much of a problem, and you're not wrong. We use side initiative if we want to speed up combat even more. If you don't have to have everyone roll, handle ties, and hand out initiative trackers, you can cut back on the time it takes to get into the action. It also helps skip the strange scene cut that occurs when the DM yells "roll for initiative!". This way the story flows right from one part of the game to another without any sort of interruption that says "ok, now we're in combat".
Again, you shouldn't think of side initiative as a replacement for the normal initiative system we already have. Like narrative combat, side initiative is something we can use from time to time to get right into the action of a fight and keep the whole story moving from scene to scene. Keep side initiative in your toolbelt and pull it out when it stands the best chance to bring the fun to you and your players.
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