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Gnomish Workshop: Rolling Initiative

This article was first broadcast in Episode One Hundred Fifty Three on 17 February 2021.

Lennon: Oh good, Ostron. I have some questions for you.
Ostron: I did not tell the beholders to do that to your bed, you brought that on yourself.
Lennon: No, It’s fine, the squeezing effect actually helps with lumbar support when I’m sleeping.
Ryu: Um…what?
Lennon: No, my question’s about time.
Ostron: Why are you suddenly interested in that?
Lennon: Well I was in a game yesterday and there was this scene going on in the middle of a mansion with all the characters spread out. The players said they were getting confused and I thought “Should I have them roll initiative? But they aren’t in combat. Is that allowed?”
Ostron (yawning): Oh…that’s…an interesting subject actually-
Ryu: Here, drink this.
Ostron: What is it-
Ryu (hurrying): Just drink it! All of it, down the hatch.
Ostron: Okay….blech, ugh (coughing) wow. Um, that was gross. What was that? And why do I feel like I’m having heart palpitations?
Ryu: Red Bull with three shots of espresso.
Ostron: Why-
Lennon: (archly): I’m sure Gath told her to give it to you, right?
Ryu (innocently): Yes…of course.
Lennon: Good. Anyway, you said initiative was an interesting subject?
Ostron: Oh, yeah. m

Most people who’ve been playing D&D for a while on either side of the screen assume the words “roll for initiative” are equivalent to the music in a movie suddenly picking up tempo and including more loud brass, or everyone on screen pulling guns, knives, swords, and chainsaws while scanning the other people in the room. In other words, things are about to get loud and bloody.

However, initiative as a mechanic is actually more robust than that.

When you’re analyzing any mechanic in D&D, or any game really, it helps to figure out the fundamental reason it exists. This sometimes means going beyond the surface level. Once you figure that out, very often new opportunities to use the mechanic start showing up.

Most people think the primary purpose of initiative is to track turn order in combat. That’s not incorrect, but again it’s only a surface level interpretation. What initiative is actually doing is tracking time. Often in non-combat situations time is very loose and non-specific. You spend fifteen minutes going through what in the game world is a two minute conversation, then the next minute you’ve jumped ahead several hours. That’s fine because in those situations the group is all doing things together, and usually nothing is interfering.

Assigning initiatives imposes more structure to the passage of time, dictating the speed it passes (each round of initiative is theoretically six seconds) and the order of events. If you’re just playing through a casual scenario, there’s no problem if the bard retroactively decides they wanted to grant a bardic inspiration die to the barbarian before they make that Charisma save. In initiative tracking, though, the bard would have had to explicitly do that on their turn, and before the barbarian did their thing, or it’s not going to happen.

In most gameplay situations, tracking time with initiative is unnecessary because it would slow things down far too much and impose restrictions where you don’t need any. If the bard doesn’t grant the inspiration die during their first turn, but there’s nothing else going on, everyone just waits through their turn until it gets to the bard again. There’s no reason to go through that.

So if that’s the case, how do you tell what scenarios might need initiative?

The bardic inspiration example and the reasons to not use initiative are actually a good starting point. There are a three simple questions you can ask about a situation that will usually tell you if going to initiative is a good idea:

  1. Does the order of characters’ actions matter to what’s going on?
  2. Is something actively working against the player characters? (this can include the passage of time)
  3. Are the player characters spread out in different areas?

If the answer to all those questions is “yes”, it might be worth having the characters roll initiative.

To return to the bard/barbarian example, while the order of characters actions did matter (the bard has to grant inspiration before the barbarian acts) nothing was working against the player characters and all of them were together. Initiative probably not required.

But lets look at another situation. Say the characters are recreating the Italian Job. Three of the characters (let’s say the rogue, the ranger, and the paladin because it’s apparently a rule that all stealth teams have to have someone in full plate mail) are sneaking into a mansion. The wizard is outside monitoring the situation with an arcane eye, and the bard is on standby to create a diversion. This scenario ticks all of the boxes. The order things happen in matters, because the team might want the wizard to do perception with the eye before moving, there are things working against the players because the house has guards, and the characters are spread out in different locations.

Having everyone roll initiative here can help keep things orderly, but it can add something by increasing the tension of the situation. If the initiative falls out so the bard is going first, then the stealth team, then the wizard, and the ranger manages to knock over a vase in a hallway, there’s no way for the bard to know to do anything until the wizard’s turn, because the wizard is the one with a view inside. So now the ranger and the paladin have to sit chewing on their nails (or gauntlets) for at least a turn before anything will be done by their colleagues.

Obviously the initiative of the internal guards becomes very significant at that point as well. If the guards flubbed their initiative rolls and are going last, that’s actually a problem because the bard can’t kick off the distraction until the top of the order. Now the paladin might have to impersonate a suit of decorative armor to hide as a guard walks past.

In addition to upping tension, using initiative in these situations can also help things seem more fair, particularly from the players’ perspective. If there’s nothing dictating when events are happening, it can sometimes feel like obstacles are arbitrary. If there’s no consistency to how the guards are moving, for example, some of the players might feel the DM simply waited until they messed up and then decided “oh yeah, the guards are coming around now.” But with initiative counts in place, they know that’s when the guards have been moving since the beginning; they just had the misfortune to faceplant at the wrong time.

Going the other way, it also protects the DM from being the bad guy. If the initiative order is established, it eliminates or at least provides an explanation for why retroactive solutions can’t be applied. Without initiative, if the guard sees the ranger posing after catching the falling vase as if they’re proposing to the rogue, the wizard could argue they would have cast invisibility when they saw the ranger stumble, or the rogue would have moved to intercept the guard before he turned the corner. With no objective marker to determine how much time passes between the ranger smacking the planter and the wizard being able to cast, it would be the DM’s view against the players’. With initiative in place, it’s more clear: did the wizard actually cast invisibility on their turn before the ranger tried to breakdance in the hallway? No? Okay then.

There’s also the whole issue of whether the wizard would have been able to cast invisibility using arcane eye as a conduit since that’s not laid out in the rules and they’re both concentration spells-

m
Lennon: Focus!
Ostron: Sorry, my mind is all over the place for some reason. And my … teeth have bees in them!
Ryu: At least your mind is still in that body.
m

Most people are already aware of it, but chases are another area where using initiative can help, even if it’s only to figure out exactly how many things happen before the monk gets their turn and the chase ends 50 feet from where it started. But assuming you actually have a chase going, particularly if the party’s pursuing more than one person or decides to split up and go different routes, having an initiative order can help in tracking who’s moving first; maybe if the elf slams into the cart full of chickens then it won’t be as much trouble for the gnome going after them in the turn order.

There are arguments to be made both ways for using initiative in social situations. The rules as written state that skill checks, such as persuasion, deception, or insight, take up an action and only one action is allowed per turn. Most people agree conversational challenges are better if they flow organically. It’s going to seem disjointed if someone bluffs an NPC, then you have to go through two other characters’ turns before you get to hear the NPC’s response.

That said, if you have characters spread out engaging in different conversations at the same time, establishing some sort of order to who’s doing what can be useful. Apart from keeping the individual conversations coherent, rather than the DM bouncing back and forth coming up with responses for three different NPCs at the same time, it also helps if the characters are likely to or want to switch conversations. For example, if the bard is supposed to distract a nobleman so someone else can talk to his wife without him noticing, that may work better going back and forth so everyone can track when or if the nobleman starts to look for his better half and how much time the other party has to talk to her. Similarly, if you’re in a bar and the barbarian decided propositioning the crime lord’s daughter was a good idea, having some sort of order to the conversations will let everyone know if the Charisma 20 Warlock is able to go over and try to diffuse the situation, or if they’ve already used up that time embroiled in a conversation with someone else.

Those are just some examples where initiative can be used other than combat. Remember the three questions we laid out and the fact that initiative is basically just a method for tracking the order of events, and you may find even more situations where it can be helpful.

m

Ostron: I think I’m starting to hallucinate now.
Lennon (sotto voce): Did you account for his body weight when you mixed that up?
Ryu (quietly): He’s in big flowy robes all the time, how am I supposed to know how much he weighs?
Ostron: Hey, are you supposed to be able to feel your heartbeat in your fingernails?
Lennon (quietly): And if his heart explodes?
Ryu: Oh like Gath hasn’t resurrected him before. I’ll even pay for the diamond this time. Still worth it to not have to deal with that thing in the workshop.
Lennon: Come on buddy, let’s head over to the scrying pool, maybe you can burn off that excess energy sorting listener replies.

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