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HOUSE RULES: Initiative

I have been experimenting with different rules for initiative over the past six months to move away from the role once everyone acts setup.  I wanted something that was faster and more engaging.  I initially used speed-factor initiative.  This worked well but though it was faster it added too much ambguity to the combat system that people were constantly just working on their gut which ended up making for less interesting combat.  I also didnt like the fact that characters with high-dex AND fast weapons always ALWAYS went first.  Spellcasters were always ALWAYS last.

I decided to experiment with a card based system and it worked well.  Everyone liked it.  One of the two players who took Alert said they felt two cards wasn’t enough trade-off for taking a feat BUT she said she likes this system much better.  My quick take-away:

  • I didn’t have to remind the players to take their turn.  They were eager to flip the cards.  So it removed the whole “initiative warden” from the mix.
  • Initiative is totally outsourced to the characters.  They tell me when it’s my go.  This reduces me, as the DM, being a bottleneck.  I also am happy to outsource things to the players wherever I can (to a point of course)
  • It allows initiative being rolled every turn without slowing the game down or adding layers of tracking mechanisms.  The cards themselves do all this in one go.
  • It adds ambiguity to the combat/tactical situation but still allows tactical co-operation.  But prevents the “planning for the perfect move” every turn (speed factor init does this as well).
  • The combats were so fast I ended up using 1 card per monster by the end of the night just to make the deck a bit thicker.  This does add time but not enough that you lose the time you have already gained from the above listed benefits.  I’ll play this one by ear.  Will use 1 card per creature if I think that would work better.
The system I used:
  • I used cards from Faerun Dice Masters for the monsters and characters.  These work well – nice rounded cards meant to be shuffled with relevant imagery.
  • I used 1 card per character unless they had the Alert feat.  In this case they got 2 cards.
  • I used 1 card per monster.  This isn’t mandatory of course, 1 card per group works well too.
  • Shuffled every combat round and drew a card.
  • If your card came up you it was your turn.  Characters with multiple cards just had a bigger chance of going first.
Posted in 5e, Dungeons & Dragons, House Rules


  1. atminn

    I like this variant on Savage Worlds style card-based initiative. I’m guessing players each just choose a card or cards they think looks cool to represent them? I received some playing cards with great thematic art as gifts, so I’m thinking of using them to do a similar thing, so each would pick a number/suit instead, likely neat-looking face cards for the PCs.

    Would you consider adding an additional card to the deck for characters with >= +5 Dex (or maybe Wis)? Or is it enough to just keep it simple?

    What do you think about using a card per monster group (or more than one per group if they’re particularly fast)? Was it a problem that players don’t know who is up next, since many use the “on deck” time to prepare their next decisions? Did you still have players declare actions at the round start like in the speed-factor variant?

    Are you still using this card system? If so, how’s it going? Thanks for sharing the idea.

    • solomani

      Hiya, I keep it simple – 1 card per character +1 due to Alert feat. DEX has plenty of other benefits doesn’t need the cream of going first all the time as well. So far I have been running monsters individually. Its worked well as the whole initiative system is fast enough that it doesn’t slowdown the game in tedium like rolling individual initiative would. And it leads to interesting combat as the group can’t assume all the creatures will move together, though they may move right after each other which leads to nail-biting fights. I don’t have players declare actions anymore. No need, since declaring actions was to simulate the uncertainty of combat and minimise optimising turn actions you get the same thing with the cards but you have the added benefit of characters still having an opportunity to think about their move.

      So far its the “perfect” system from our 6 months using it and over my 30 years of DMing its the best system I have used. Will keep on using it.

      • Adam Minnie

        Thanks for your reply with an update Solomani! As I’ve been thinking more about using this, I am curious if you have considered keeping the deck face up, that way when you pull the card for who’s turn it is now, you also revealing who’s up next so they can start preparing/deciding what they’re going to do. What do you think of that? It removes some of the uncertainty of a face-down card flip and that feeling of a big sudden reveal each turn. (You’d still have that feeling but it’s about revealing the character who comes next, not the character who gets to go).

        With a card for individual monsters, do you number them somehow so you know which card refers to which monster? In my playing card variant, I could perhaps use red cards for GM characters, with the numbers referring to which one on the battlefield it means. While rare, any creature that is “Alert” just gets the same number card from the other suit of their color. So the super Alert Ambusher Blink Dog could use 3 of Diamonds and 3 of Hearts. Nobody would ever get more than 2 cards in the deck for themselves so that’d be peachy.

        Thanks again, I’m switching a long-running game over to 5e starting tomorrow and I’m debating starting with this sort of initiative right out of the gate before anybody gets used to the d20+dex business.

      • Adam Minnie

        Sorry for the double post, but I thought of some more questions that have occurred to me over the last week or so since I read this.

        Do you make any changes regarding duration of effects, especially since “start/end of your next turn” is now variable? For instance, consider an effect such as “Choose a target. Any attacks against that target get advantage until the end of your next turn.” If my elf with the Alert feat activates that power, I’d want it to last as long as possible, but with two cards in the deck, there’s a good chance I’ll go early next round, even if I want to go later.

        That opens up another question: If a character has 2 cards in the deck, can they choose not to go on the first card (a quasi-delay), and wait to go on the second card? In the above case, being faster/Alert is bad, but if I can wait for my second card when needed, being faster/Alert is always good.

        Have you seen the Unearthed Arcana Awakened Mystic class (psionic class levels 1-5 so far). Some of the effects/disciplines available to that class boost initiative and awareness much like the Alert feat, so I would probably allow a second card when those disciplines are active as well. I do however see the value of, like you say, keeping it just darn simple.


  2. solomani

    Hi Adam,
    Never occurred to me to try it face-up. But I prefer the uncertainty face-down provides. I am also strict on turns, I expect everyone to be ready for their turn or they skip a turn. So analysis-paralysis hasn’t been a big issue in my games.

    I have not made any duration changes. I introduced these rules when the characters were level 12+ and all high-level affects are 1 minute or similar. No more “end of your next turn”. But I would let it expire at the end the next turn – so when the last card is flipped.

    I do let characters with two cards pick when they go. But from experience they usually take the first card 🙂 I don’t bother numbering cards. I try and match the monster to the card visually and when I can’t as the combat in 5e is abstract I don’t usually track them – I just cycle through my list of monsters. If need be I keep it in my head on the odd occasions it has mattered (the very rare debut for example – like slow).

    I read the article but won’t use it yet. I love psionic but those rules are too rough. Finally, the other advantage is multiple initiative counts for monsters. I can have one monster become a lot tougher by giving it multiple cards so full actions per turn. As I have a party of 6 characters this helps me balance battles on the fly.

  3. solomani

    I have switched to group initiative. So I roll a d20 and PCs as a group roll a d20 – highest score wins and that side goes first clockwise around the table. No bonuses. This works the quickest and is easy to manage.

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