Tinkering with Team Initiative

I am a huge fan of team initiative. You get to dump your initiative tracker, the players actually speed up their turns, and it fits the style of play I like. The action is fast, fluid, and dangerously unbalanced. To me it feels like a closer approximation to what battle is actually like: there are split second decisions between life and death.

Basic Rules
The 5e DMG (pg 270) has rules for side initiative. Basically, both the DM and a duly elected player representative each roll an unmodified d20. Whichever team wins goes first. The team participants decide in which order they want to go. You don't have to track anything.

Let's modify
I think that this is a great start, but I want something a little different. I want players who focused on initiative to have some benefit from that. What if we made it a DC? Start with a score based on the monsters (or just a DC of 13 if you want to keep it simple). Then modify accordingly. Add or subtract 2 for any significant advantages or disadvantages between the groups. If the monsters are ready and actively alert guarding a location, the DC is 15, if they are distracted or sitting around drinking beers then the DC is 11.

An Example:
The characters attack a group of orcs that are alert and ready (DC 15). Roll for initiative. Here are the rolls:

  • 22 - Elf Fighter
  • 17 - Human Rogue
  • 15 - Orcs
  • 13 - Human Wizard
  • 8 - Halfling Monk

The turn order is now:

  1. Elf Fighter and Human Rogue
  2. All Orcs
  3. All Players
  4. All Orcs
  5. All Players (et cetera)

This allows the players who develop their initiative scores better representation. To keep things simple, dying characters are assumed to wait until all the all the other members of the team have moved before making their death saving throws. 

Faster Attacks
When all the monsters move at the same time, you can  stack their attacks in a single hand full of dice. You can use dice color and their resting position to fairly resolve the combat.

Let's say you have two monsters with two attacks, one attack is more powerful than the other. You also have  spell caster that is going to cast a spell with a ranged spell attack. 

In this case grab two dice (red) that stand for the basic attacks, two more dice (blue) for the more powerful attacks, and one final dice (black) for the spell. 

After you roll, you associate the position of the dice with the position of the monster. If you took the area where you rolled the dice and superimposed over the game board, which dice would be closer to which monster? You don't have to be scientific about it to keep it fair, you just have to assign the dice before you read the numbers. See the example below.

In this example you can easily assign dice just by looking. Using this method, I have had turns where the entire monster team moves faster than a single player. This can really freak players out.

The Downsides?
Remember, I choose team initiative for the sake of speed and keep pressure on the players to be ready for their turn. But there are downsides depending on your style of play.

It makes the game more dangerous. For example, It can give the monsters a chance to gank a hero. Most monsters with half a brain (e.g. hobgoblins, orcs, gnolls) recognize the absolute necessity of ganging up on other creatures during combat. If your heroes do not maintain formation, the monsters can easily surround and destroy a wayward hero. Doubly so if you use the optional flanking rules.

Also, there are impulsive players. This person will ALWAYS make their move first and charge into the battle. This can leave other, more cautious players in the dust. "Wait! I was going to cast a... well.... nevermind." This can lead to frustration, and when combined with the monster's propensity to gang up, can quickly turn deadly.

To me the downsides are minimal, and better reflect the chaotic nature of combat. If your combats feel slow, I would recommend trying team initiative.

Do you use team initiative? Do you like it? Let me know in the comments.

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