D&D 5E: Initiative Variation

I DM a bi-weekly D&D 5E game on Roll20.net, and while we are relatively new to the platform, I’ve been refining how I use it with each session. I’d like to do a series of posts about how I use macros and API scripts to run the game, but I need to iron out the kinks first.

In the mean time, I thought I’d talk about initiative. One of the things I like least about playing on a VTT is tracking initiative. Yes, there are tools built into Roll20 to help, but one of the issues I’ve had (both on a VTT and a “meat-space” game) is that usually the NPCs end up acting in a single (or a couple) of initiative points because it is just plain easier to run all of the enemy attacks at once than try to keep track of what could be upwards of 10-15 critters and when they act in the round.

I also feel like long delays can tune players out of the fight. Someone who rolls particularly poorly on their initiative roll might just decide to switch over to another tab and browse the web for a while waiting for their turn, etc. In browsing around, I stumbled across a variation on initiative (not specific to 5E) with a couple of different names, but most commonly called “popcorn initiative”. I really think “hot-potato initiative” might be a better name for it, but essentially it goes like this:

At the beginning of the fight, everyone rolls initiative, applies all of their modifiers, etc (this includes the monsters), but only the highest initiative result matter. Whomever has the highest initiative total takes control of the action. They can take their turn as normal (but they cannot hold their action – holding an action is the same as deciding to not take an action on their turn). When they are finished, they pass the initiative to anyone involved in the fight that hasn’t already taken an action during the round. That could be someone on their side of the fight or someone on the opposing side. After everyone has taken an action, the round ends and the last character to have taken their action decides who acts first in the next round – possibly even themselves.

I created a couple of simple macros using the token-mod API script to help (one marks selected tokens as having taken an action, one marks bonus actions, on marks reactions, and one clears all three of these markers for any selected tokens), and we tried it out in our last session. Overall, I think things went very well. I explained the basics of the system and that there couldn’t be a discussion about who to select next – the acting player needs to promptly pass the initiative. The players initially thought I was nuts.

When the fight started, one of the PCs won the initiative. He unleashed an eldritch blast at one of the enemies and passed the initiative to another player. They were all going to be able to act before the enemy got a chance to do anything! This was great! When the last PC acted, they wanted to pass the initiative back to the first PC. I reminded them that the enemy still needs to take their actions, so they reluctantly selected one of the enemies to act.

I ran through each enemy action, and finished off with a monster that was able to roll out use a special attack that grasped one of the PCs in necrotic vines, requiring a saving throw or inflicting both immobility and necrotic damage. Now that the PCs knew they had identified the most powerful member of their opposition, , they were eager to get back to their turns so they could unleash on it. Except that the apparition selected itself as the first person to act in the next round and attacked the same PC with its necrotic touch-  draining her strength and inflicting additional damage. It choose one of its allies to act next, and the same happened for that ally. When half of the enemy had acted, they choose the PC stuck in the necrotic grasp to act next.

This triggered the necrotic grasp’s effect again – allowing that PC to repeat the saving throw which she again failed,¬†resulting additional necrotic damage. By this point, she was in some serious hit point trouble, was strength-drained, and in a bit of a quandary. If she attacked, she might be able to weaken the apparition – but if the priest didn’t heal her and she failed her next saving throw to escape the grasp, it was possible that the necrotic damage would incapacitate her. She ended up burning her own healing spell on herself – giving the monsters a round without her damage output.

By now, the players realized that, by stacking all of their actions at the beginning of the round, they had potentially allowed each enemy to take two actions before any of the PCs got their second action. I’ve got some fairly sharp players, so right away they understood that they needed to try to ensure that they ended up with one of them going last in each round so they would control the start of the following round. (Obviously incidental chatter isn’t going to be preventable, and really that was one of the points I wanted them to realize anyway). Just as reasonably, they came to a fairly organic conclusion that the healing-domain priest should probably be really close to the end of the round so that she could provide aid if needed (perhaps to two different PCs if the round had been particularly damaging by selecting herself to act first in the following round).

After that, the choices became interesting. If a character was knocked unconscious, was it better to pass the initiative to the healer (or an off-healer) to get them back up, possibly costing the PCs the coveted end-of-the-round spot? How about passing the initiative to an out-of-position player so they can move into a flaking position and gain advantage not only for themselves, but for one of their allies that may have acted before them under the standard initiative system?

We’ve only played with this system once so far, but I really like it. Everyone was focused because you never knew when your turn might come up, and there were actually advantages to being late in the initiative order. I can think of lots of interesting ways to use this system to the advantage of one side or the other (if the players can set up combo attacks, the enemy can too!) I thought there was a LOT less bookkeeping required with this system as well.

Macros

Below are the macros I’m currently using to run this system. They require the tokenmod API script – and hence a paid subscription to Roll20:

!token-mod --set statusmarkers|stopwatch

This places the stopwatch marker on the token to indicate they have acted in the round. At the end of the round, all active tokens will have a stopwatch – and of course anyone with a stopwatch can’t be selected as the next to act.

I have two similar macros for bonus actions:

!token-mod --set statusmarkers|fist

and for reactions:

!token-mod --set statusmarkers|screaming

When a round has been completed, I highlight all of the tokens on the board and use:

!token-mod --set statusmarkers|-stopwatch
!token-mod --set statusmarkers|-screaming
!token-mod --set statusmarkers|-fist

To clear these indicators.

I need to make a few refinements – I’m updating my NPC/Monster actions to include setting the “stopwatch” marker after running – why do that as two separate actions. I also need to consider how to handle things that are in effect “until the beginning of your next action” – right now they just aren’t marked and we are mentally tracking them.

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