Group Initiative in D&D 4e: What We Learned

It started with the mention of group or “side” initiative versus the current D&D 4e standard of cyclical individual initiative in a recent Rule of Three.

That awakened my Faster Combat senses – combats average a long and all too often painful 60 minutes in D&D 4e and there’s an opportunity to improve combat pacing and speed with group initiative in 4e. 

There are advantages and disadvantages to a group initiative approach and they showed up with great clarity.  In our last Primal Frostfell session, a now-epic tier campaign I’m DMing, my playgroup talked about what we might expect out of group initiative and then simply rolled with it the entire night.  Here’s what we discovered:

The Good

* Time.  Much less wasted time spent asking or checking whose turn it was, whether PC or monster

* Flow.  Natural flow to player turns – players went when they were ready on their side, often silently, with visual cues only (i.e. picking up dice and taking action)

* Planning.  Healthy, initial, brief discussion of who wanted to go first or who was ready first

* Subtle Delaying.  Natural opportunities to delay or “advance” in order among party members without actually breaking immersion by saying it or splitting actions

* Roll Once.  Very little time spent rolling, calculating, collecting and announcing initiative; a single initiative roll for each side is made for the whole fight – we added the party’s average initiative modifier to the d20 roll

* Track Two Things.  One simple combatant order to track the whole fight; all that matters is, do the PCs or monsters go now?

The Bad

* Duration Juggling.  Potential exploitation of condition or effect durations

I ruled condition or effect durations that expired at the end of a creature’s turn expired when that creature finished acting on its side, not at the end of the entire group or side’s turn.  For example, this prevented one-round leader class buffs from lasting slightly longer than “until the end of your next turn.”

* Initiative-Focused Characters.  Some characters built for or preferring high initiative (i.e. assassins, rogues, ranged strikers, some controllers) may find group initiative punishing. 

There was some excellent discussion about this.  The current primal character party didn’t value initiative that highly, but they’d all played characters in the past who have.  Concerning strikers, I’ve played enough of them where going first wasn’t a priority (avenger, two-axe ranger and monk), but I’ve also seen as DM how high initiative really helps assassins, rogues and wizards bloody a critical target or clean house right from the jump. 

I say initiative-focused characters are still raising the average group initiative quite a bit and that’s a boon for the entire party, thanks to their presence.  But of course, you can also look at it glass half-empty (like our resident power gamer did, of course!) and curse the slow-reacting paladins and clerics for slowing you down and holding you back.

Roll With It

Bottom line?  Group or side initiative – and thus combat itself – flowed more smoothly.  The good outweighed the bad in actual play.  Go ahead and give it a try in your D&D 4e games. 

Next I’ll be trying it in other D&D campaigns and playgroups as well, to get a better feel for it across multiple groups, classes, and tiers of play. 

What problems do you experience with 4e initiative?   Share them here and let me know how your own group initiative experiments go in your D&D 4e games.

6 Responses to “Group Initiative in D&D 4e: What We Learned”

  1. Did you run into any problems with focused fire? Since everyone on a side takes their turn at the same time, it seems like they could focus on one target and spike damage by not giving a chance for other enemies to heal/buff the target.
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    • Kilsek says:

      Actually, Glimm, nope – we didn’t view it as a problem. Whether it was the PC side or monster side going first and delivering the focus fire, it was all good.

      Focus fire, from PCs or monsters, is tactically wise, adds dramatic tension, and speeds you toward the end of combat, so I’m all for it, as I discuss in the Strategy/Tactics game knowledge module lesson of Faster Combat. With combat being more about resource management than lethality like I blogged about a week or so ago, group init is one opportunity to add that extra bit of threat and burst damage to combat.

      (Plus the order of group init and individual init is actually the same sometimes, depending on the rolls- another reason it felt pretty seamless.)

      On the PC side as it takes a while to dispatch a standard 4e monster. One round from a full party, focus fire doesn’t usually do it, so I’m happy to see them speeding along towards downing an enemy.

      On the enemy side, I like the that focus fire on a PC will bloody them and rarely drop him unconscious, depending on monster count and damage output. It gets the party’s attention when one of their big guns or leaders/healers takes it hard in the chin in just 1 round – a more cinematic (and realistic) combat!

      I guess what I’m saying is – I’m more than okay with the increased potential of focus fire to wreck someone on either side in 1 round using group initiative. It will still be rare, especially for PCs, considering all the cushion characters and monsters have.

  2. Quirky DM says:

    @Glimm the Gnome:
    There is no issue with focused fire. If you fight a group of 8 goblin warriors, they are all going at the same initiative count. With rules as written, all your monsters will act as a large mob most of the time, with an occasional outlier here and there. Using a party vs. monsters initiative system just takes that into account and simplifies the system for little to no reduction in the system. Individual initiatives are just a waste of time.

    I wrote my last blog post about this very topic! I came up with a slightly different solution. I let the players all roll for initiative, but my monsters automatically take 10. The players who beat the monster initiative get a turn at the start of combat. I can simply say “Who beat initiative check of 17? You get to go now.”

    After that, it goes monster turn, player turn, back and forth and initiative scores are forgotten. This lets high initiative builds stay just as relevant without changing the mechanics. When it’s the players turn, I go around the table in clockwise order to make it simple, but they are allowed to juggle their order if they want.

    For duration effects, I ruled that everyone affected by “until end of next turn” effects could only be affected once- either this turn or next turn.

    Like you said, it makes it easy to handle and there’s really no downtime trying to make sure everyone goes in initiative order. They can just go.
    Quirky DM recently posted..Rapid Fire- All Together NowMy Profile

    • Kilsek says:

      Quirky, great! Those Rule of Three articles definitely seem to get us thinking… and writing!

      And yes, after that 1st round, the initiative number didn’t matter anymore – not having to track a number of initiatives and jump from group to group was refreshing.

      Could you explain more why you ruled how you did on duration effects – the choice you include? Maybe I didn’t mind if some durations went “over” a little once in a while, though perhaps the issue is magnified in large groups?

      • Quirky DM says:

        I was simply trying to simplify the rules without changing any of the underlying math. I looked at the old rules first. If a leader uses an until end of next turn effect, then everyone who is after him in initiative order will get to use the effect this turn. Everyone before him in initiative order will get to use it next turn. Either way, they all get to use it one time.

        Since the players can delay around each other however they want without affecting combat, then either they delay until after the leader to use the power this turn, or they have the leader delay until after them so they get the effect next turn. Instead of having to concern myself with the characters shifting around in initiative order every round to get the effect they want, I let them use the effect one time only- on the turn it is invoked or on the turn immediately following. It’s mechanically the same, but it removes the hassle of making sure the players are ordering their turns in any specific way.
        Quirky DM recently posted..Rapid Fire- All Together NowMy Profile

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