Down with D&D, Initiative, and Conceptual Drift

Recently I made a comment in the Down with D&D Google+ community (by the way, if you like D&D, you should be listening to the podcast), about initiative. Specifically, I asked what would happen if you took the monster/NPC with the highest initiative bonus, added that to 10, and made it the DC for initiative. Anyone that rolled higher would go before the bad guys, and anyone that rolled lower would go after them.
This isn’t a brilliant idea on my part. In fact, Sean and Chris had a pretty interesting conversation talking about why it might not work well in some circumstances, and what the repercussions of doing this might be. That said, I was just importing ideas I’ve seen elsewhere, and wondering how those ideas would work in D&D.
Down With D&D: Initiative and Modes of Play
In this case, a lot of this thought process came from looking at Cypher System, which essentially does exactly what I described with their initiative system. That said, Cypher isn’t D&D, so importing a rule cannot be expected work without any issues.
I should also probably point out that I wasn’t really advocating for this rule so much as just wondering how it would affect the game. It’s not that I wouldn’t try it to see how it worked, but I’m not desperately trying to “fix” D&D initiative or make changes to the game.
I do think that rolling initiative feels “deliberate,” and because of that, there is some latency, as the Misdirected Mark crew would say. You disengage from the narrative, apply a new rule, then dive back into a play mode that has some extra constraints built around it. If you come out of initiative for some reason, and then events take you back into initiative, it can be a little jarring.
At the Table
Last year I ran Lost Mines of Phandelver and Storm King’s Thunder, so I got a bit of a 5th edition D&D workout. Stopping for initiative wasn’t a terrible chore, by any means. I know that when I was playing Pathfinder, it felt much more cumbersome to me to have what amounted to a minor combat come up, and to pull out the battle mat and miniatures, knowing that the fight might be a relatively short or inconsequential event. 
Running 5th edition in my style of theater of the mind, just keeping track of the relative distance of the characters, I didn’t have much of a problem.
That said, I did start to shortcut the process on my side of things. All my monsters had a set initiative score of 10 + initiative modifier in the last half of the campaign. I didn’t want to do a lot of rolling, and it was easier to just write down their numbers and arrange them versus the scores that the players rolled. That seemed to work well for most of the campaign, especially since 5th edition D&D doesn’t have the initiative moving or manipulating tricks that existed in 3rd edition.
I will admit, on my side of the GM screen, I really do like to just “know” where my characters fit in the initiative. I’m currently running Age of Rebellion, and while I like the initiative “slot” concept, I’m not a fan of all the rolls and arranging them. I’d love to go to the static initiative optional rule laid out in Edge of the Empire, but there are a few talents and abilities that mess with initiative in a way that means that optional rule would undercut some of the purpose of those abilities. It’s not a deal breaker, but when running my monthly Dresden Accelerated game, I really do like just being able to say, “it seems like Hilde should go first, what does she do?”
Other Game Analogies Abound
Shawn had mentioned on the podcast that having the players decide who goes next can slow down a game. I can understand this is a possibility, but some of the slowest turns I ever experienced happened in very structured Pathfinder games, where everyone knew who was going when, and we still had people agonize for 10 minutes over the exact five-foot step to take after their actions. I’m currently running a monthly Dresden Accelerated game, as well as Age of Rebellion and 7th Sea. All three of those game have instances where the players should decide who goes next (although in 7th Sea, this only happens when you have players tied for the number of raises they currently have). In most cases, the players are quick to decide who is doing what, although there have been a few deliberations that took longer than that.
The discussion also veered into how isolated various modes of play might be (and if they even exist). I must say that you can do everything that is considered a “pillar” of D&D in every mode of play, but, to really mix metaphors, it’s almost a matter of what Blades in the Dark would term position and effect regarding your approach. You can try to sway an NPC mercenary to your side while you are fighting a battle, but that’s going to be a lot harder than hiring her when you are sitting in a bar sharing a drink. You can learn about the environment you are going to be heading into while you are having an audience with a noble at court, but it is going to have limited effect versus getting out into the wild and diving into a few caves.
Beyond the “in-game” position and effect, I can’t speak for everyone, but there is a certain amount of “cognitive inertia” that builds up in different modes of play. No matter how well you have a game session planned out or how well you know the rules, if everyone, in character and out, is having a calm discussion about treaties and patrols and alliances, and someone suddenly says, “I stab the ambassador in the heart with my magical dagger,” the game will stop. The game is “broken” or ruined, it is just that it was going in a direction, at a certain speed, and everyone, likely even the dagger happy would-be assassin, need a second to readjust to how the scene just changed.
I’m willing to bet that the time to mentally “reposition” is shorter in a game like Dungeon World, where the GM is just going to take a second, call for a move to map to the action, and adjudicate it appropriately, than in D&D, where everyone, even all the people that weren’t planning on a fight scene in this exact moment, now must roll for initiative. In fact, I’ve seen several games where something like this has happened, and a PC will roll for initiative, but mention that they aren’t doing anything but defend themselves, because they were never planning on getting into a fight in the first place.
Order of Battle (And Beyond)
Shawn did mention rolling initiative outside of combat to keep characters in a semblance of order so not everyone is going at once. I think this brings up a good point about how much weight is put on mechanics and what they mean in the game.
In Dresden Accelerated, there may be structured rounds for combat, but because it is just a matter of handing off to someone else, it doesn’t feel that different than, for example, players handing off to one another when they are conducting a multi-stage investigation.
In 7th Sea, everything important that is done is resolved by rolling a dice pool and spending raises. Single risks, group dramatic scenes, and group actions scenes all call for players to describe an approach, determine their raises, and spend raises to accomplish things in the narrative.
In D&D, combat feels even more different than non-combat situations, however, because combat requires everyone to have a turn. If they choose not to do something on their turn, that doesn’t make them immune to the consequences of a fireball or a dragon’s tail, they just opted not to do something on their turn. But many times, because it is not called out as a structured time event, players will sit out of negotiations or navigating the wilderness. The structure doesn’t call for them to have a turn, doesn’t assign consequences if they don’t take a turn, and is often set up to be resolved by one player a skill they are good at, or expending a resource such as a spell or class feature to accomplish something.
I like D&D, and this “imbalance” isn’t as bad as it might have been in other editions, simply because there is a lot more room for DM interpretation of how to resolve situations. That said, I’m wondering if my own desire for a more seamless transition to combat may not be 100% about combat, but about wanting anything with stakes to have more structure.
Yeah, I know, if I don’t know, how should you?
Structure Beyond Combat Rounds
But thinking about it, I do like some of the things Adventures in Middle-earth introduces, even though I don’t think they all fit if directly imported to a standard D&D 5th edition game.
In an Audience, one player makes the primary roll, but each character must describe what they are doing or saying in the audience. Saying nothing may impose a penalty on the final roll, while making an offhand comment about something the NPC cares about might boost the character making the final roll.
In a Journey, not having a character assigned to a roll might mean the party can’t rest as well, gets lost, or gets ambushed at a crucial juncture.
It’s not quite initiative, but it is a structured situation where characters must actively participate in multiple “modes” of the game or suffer consequences.
Putting It To Bed
In the end, Shawn and Chris had a really good conversation about modes of play, initiative, and what tinkering with mechanics do to the game, and it is worth checking out. It’s also worth scanning the Misdirected Mark backlist to find their episodes on latency and levels of play. The whole network is a treasure trove of game concept discussion.

What have I learned in all of this? That sometimes questions lead to more questions, but that’s not always a bad thing. By engaging in conflicting discussion, I decided to explore more game rules, which led to positive social interaction, which means I’m keeping the three pillars of my gaming experience in balance, I guess. 

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