So one of the concepts I really like from GURPS is a static initiative score. It is derived from DX and one or two other stats if I remember right. I don’t necessarily dislike 5th Edition (or any edition’s) initiative system of d20 + Dexterity modifier + whatever other random modifiers there are. But I would like something a little more comprehensive and something that doesn’t involve rolling. Initiative has always been a chaotic time in my groups. Whether I’m running games or participating as a player, people just roll and then yell numbers. It is chaotic and confusing and detracts from a DMs ability to set up a fight because he’s trying to assign numbers to voices to characters while doing the same for his NPCs. DnDs system of initiative is also super abstract and doesn’t incorporate real time modifications to your ability to react and stuff. Like you can roll a 20 for initiative, get subjected to a sleep spell, miss four rounds of a fight, and then pop back into the fight at the highest initiative as if your character isn’t just waking up and going “What the fuck happened just now?”
Just as a heads up, I’ve already created the majority of these rules for my Seasonal Arc campaign. This blog post isn’t so much about creating the rules as it is about going over my thought process during the creation of them and refining what I currently have.
So, let’s work on creating an initiative score. This is a static number that won’t change much from fight to fight. My theory being that attentive characters with an ability to rapidly respond to events will tend to always be attentive and able to rapidly respond to events, while slow unobservant characters will tend to always be slow and unobservant. Unless the former are completely surprised and the latter are doing the surprising.
So the first thing we need is the base of your initiative score. We need to factor in your physical ability to respond to the events surrounding you as well as your awareness of your surroundings. That’s one thing DnD’s initiative lacks in my opinion. It measures your ability to respond to your surroundings via Dexterity, but doesn’t factor in whether or not you are aware of the events surrounding you. So let’s do something simple. We’ll start with a base of 5. Obviously we’ll add in your character’s Dexterity modifier, because duh. The other ability score modifier I want to add is your Wisdom modifier. This is like when you make Wisdom (Perception) ability checks. It represents your awareness of your surroundings.
So your base initiative score is as follows 5 + Dexterity modifier + Wisdom modifier. Plus any other relevant modifiers like that one feat Alertness and that Rogue archetype ability that adds your Charisma modifier to initiative checks.
One thing I should mention before we continue is that I’ve house ruled in some modifications to armor and how that works. It just seemed to make sense to me that if medium and heavy armor affect how much your Dexterity can improve your AC, they should also affect how much your Dexterity affects initiative and Dexterity saving throws. Being unarmored has no effect, wearing light armor limits you to applying a maximum of +4 from Dexterity modifier to initiative, saving throws, and AC. Wearing medium armor limits you to +2 and wearing heavy armor limits you to +0. Don’t wear full plate and try to pull off flippy ninja shit. Hmm, should I limit how much of your Dexterity modifier can carry over to ability checks as well?
So here is where I get into a bit of an argument with myself. My current iteration of these house rules says being unarmored grants a +1 to initiative, wearing light armor has no benefit or penalty, wearing medium incurs a -1 penalty, and wearing heavy incurs a -2. My logic here is that armor is heavy and would slow your reactions down a bit and that I’ve never moved as fast as I have when I’ve been streaking. However, this portion of the rule kind of goes against 5th Edition’s design goal of not having a bunch of little situational modifiers shitting pluses and minuses all over the place. I think I might simplify it down to say that being unarmored or wearing light armor has no additional penalty to initiative, but wearing medium or heavy armor incurs a -1 penalty to initiative, -2 if the armor in question has a Strength requirement and you do not meet it. That still does the whole modifier thing, but it’s a little simplified. Kind of. Fuck off, it’s my game.
So one thing that bothers me that I mentioned above is that spells and effects that knock you out and restrain you have no effect on your initiative. My current rules have a bunch of penalties to your initiative that depend on how long you’ve been affected and what type of effect it is. Just like above with armor, this flies in the face of 5th Edition’s goal of reducing the modifiers that are all over the place. So here’s my idea for how to reduce that. If you are physically restrained in a way that prevents you from interacting with your surroundings, but are still aware of them (like if you are paralyzed or restrained), you lose your Dexterity modifier to your initiative score. If your senses are impaired, but you are still able to physically interact with your surroundings (like if you are blinded or deafened), you lose your Wisdom modifier to your initiative score. If your senses are impaired and you are physically impaired (like if you are unconscious or something) your initiative becomes last place. The only caveat to this is that if you can get out of these effects by the end of your turn or the end of your next turn if you are afflicted with them on someone else’s turn, they do not change your initiative.
I like that, it’s a little simplified, but it keeps the core idea that if your senses or physical mobility is impaired, you’ll naturally be impaired in combat. The final issue I have is the question of whether or not your initiative goes back to normal after these effects end after you’ve been affected by them for a few rounds. Like I said earlier, you shouldn’t just pop up from being unconscious/asleep/dying and be back in first place in the initiative order. I think with being unconscious, you’ve missed too much to hop back into the initiative order. With your senses being impaired and your physical ability being impaired, you’re still aware enough of your surroundings and stuff that you can get back into things quickly enough. That seems reasonable. I think for simplicity’s sake instead of the lines about ending the effect before the end of your next turn not impairing your initiative in the impaired senses and physical impairment sections I’m just going to say that whenever the effect impairing you ends, your Dexterity modifier and Wisdom modifier are restored to your initiative score.
Alright, let’s talk about a tricky issue: surprise. I’ve gone back and forth with a few ideas about this. The surprisers gain a +5 to initiative score. The surprised have a -5. The surprised lose their Wisdom bonus to their initiative scores. Etc, etc. Most of the options I’ve toyed with fly in the face of 5th Edition’s reduction of situation modifiers. Apparently I can’t escape my let’s have all the situation modifiers of my Pathfinder/3.5 roots.
This is awkward. I’ve just discovered that they have changed the surprise rules in 5th Edition. In past editions, the surprisers had a surprise round where they could take one action before normal initiative starts. In 5th Edition, if you’re surprised, you can’t move or take an action on your first turn of combat, and you can’t take a reaction until the end of your first turn. This actually works quite well in my opinion. I don’t really feel like it needs any additional modifications from my own house rules. It penalizes those that are surprised in combat enough that I feel like adding anything additional to how surprise and initiative interact might be too much. I could probably make a case for granting an initiative bonus to the surprisers in combat, but that feels kind of unnecessary. I think surprise works as is in terms of how it affects combat and initiative and whatnot. We’ll leave it as is.
There are a couple more odds and ends, but nothing too noteworthy. When you critically hit in combat, your initiative score gains a +1 and when you critically miss, your initiative gains a -1. Just like normal, when you delay or ready your action, your initiative becomes one higher than the triggering action. If an effect would normally grant you advantage on initiative rolls, you instead gain a +4 and if an effect would normally impose disadvantage on initiative rolls, your initiative score gets a -4.
I think this has been productive. I’ve refined the rules I had already come up with, slightly. I discovered a rule change I was previously unaware of. Good times.