Here’s the story.
I’ve suspended my regular Pathfinder game while I’m neck deep in tax season in favor of running a ten experience level megadungon campaign using D&D 5E. The megadungeon is awesome and yes, I’m planning to share it. Sure, WotC won’t tell anyone what they are and aren’t allowed to write and sell about their game for reasons best known only to the octopus that throws darts at a board to make all of their business and marketing decisions. But I don’t care. I’m putting it out there and let them decide to C&D me.
That ain’t what I’m talking about though.
See, I decided to use the Speed Factor Initiative Rules in the Dungeon Master’s Guide (DMG 270-271). And I told Twitter about it. And I got a number of well reasoned and thoughtful responses.
“So combat will be long, but at least it will be overly complicated?”
“Why not just staple your tongue to the DMG and slam it closed over and over again. It’d be more fun.”
“F$&% you! Die of cancer!”
I love the Internet…
Okay, the responses weren’t that bad. But there was a lot of… distress. People were baffled. And they demanded answers of me. So, I’m going to take some time to explain how I’m using it, why I like it, and why it makes my game better than yours.
How it Works
Now, I’ve modified it slightly, but here’s how it works. At the start of the round, the DM decides what the monsters are going to do that round and each player declares what their character is going to do. They don’t have to do declare specifics like targets or movement, but they have to declare what they are doing, what they are using, what spell they are casting, and so on. Then, everyone rolls initiative and the initiative roll is modified by the speed factor of the action they take. Highest roll goes first, and it goes around. On your turn, you take the action you declared, plus any movement you’d like to take. Alternatively, if you want to not take your declared action, you can abort and choose to hustle instead (take a second move).
Here’s a couple of special rules. First, you must declare your action AND any bonus actions you want to take. However, you only modify your initiative by the SLOWEST action. Not both. But you always ALSO modify it based on the speed. Second, if you want to ready an action, you apply the modifier of the action you want to take. Your action is not “readied” until your turn comes up. But it remains readied until your next turn, even after you declare an action for next turn. Third, if you take a weird action that isn’t listed on the list, I’m going to assign a speed to it (Fast, Slow, Whatever).
And that’s it. Here’s an example.
DM: Next round. The kobolds keep their spears up, and it looks like they are going to continue to press the attack. The archer is readying another shot.
Alice: I’m going attack with my battleaxe. I’m medium size with a two-handed weapon, so it’s -2, right?
DM: Right. Bob?
Bob: I’m going to fire my crossbow. My halfling is small, so I’m at +2 and a loading ranged weapon is -5, so I’m at -3.
Carol: I’m going to cast a spell and attack with my longsword. The spell’s a bonus action.
DM: What spell?
Carol: Smiting smite, it’s second level.
DM: So, you’re medium sized. Melee with a normal, one handed weapon is +0, but smiting smite is second level. So, that’s -2.
Carol: My longsword is versatile. I want to drop my shield and use it two-handed.
DM: Okay, so swapping equiping is -2. Two-handed melee is -2. And smiting smite is -2.
Carol: So I get a -6?!
DM: Nope. You only suffer the worst penalty. You’re at -2.
Carol: Oh, okay.
DM: Everyone roll for intiative.
Now, that’s not how it sounds at the table. I gave everyone a little card with a handy dandy copy of the chart. So, this is how it plays out at my table.
DM: Next round. The kobolds keep their spears up, and it looks like they are going to continue to press the attack. The archer is readying another shot.
Alice: I’m going to attack with my battleaxe!
Bob: I’ll shoot my bow!
Carol: I’m going to cast smiting smite, drop my shield, and attack with my longsword in two hands.
DM: Okay, everyone roll initiative. 25, 24, 23, 22, 21, 20, 19, 18, 17…
Bob: I go on 17! I dart out from the boulder, fire at the kobold archer, and dart back behind cover.
DM: Solid hit. The archer is badly injured! Continue the count?
Bob: 16, 15, 14…
DM: The kobold spearmen dart forward, attacking Alice! One harries her, but doesn’t hit. The other stabs her hard, punching through her armor and dealing damage. 13, 12…
Alice: On 12, Alice rears back and hacks at the kobold that stabbed her with her battleaxe! A hit!
DM: The kobold dies. Continue the count?
DM: The archer peeks his head from behind the barricade, launching an arrow at Carol!
Carol: It hits!
DM: Does it? You haven’t dropped your shield yet.
Carol: Oh! Then it doesn’t.
DM: It thunks into your shield. 10… 9… 8…
Carol: And then I throw my shield aside, switch to a two-handed grip, and scream a curse at the kobolds in Bahamut’s name as my sword glows with crimson energy. I slash at the kobold as I run forward.
DM: And it throws itself down and your blow passes over it.
Carol: Damn it, Bahamut?! Why have you forsaken me?!
DM: Next round…
So, the first question I got hit with it (after “what the f$&% is wrong with you”) is “doesn’t that slow down the game?” The answer is “yes and no.”
On the surface, it seems like it must, right? Rolling initiative every round with a hard stop at the end of each round to declare actions for the next round. But you have to look at the flip side of that. Notice what I am not doing? I am not tracking initiative. I’m not futzing with little cards. I’m not keeping a list. I’m not doing any of that s$&%. And as I go around the table polling for initiative, each person rolls for initiative, checks the chart, and figures out their total. So the time spent rolling and mathing is covered by other people declaring actions.
But here’s where things get interesting. See, as a player, when it’s your turn, you have all the time in the world. You can sit there and ponder and count and consider spells and options and fall into what people won’t stop calling “analysis paralysis” despite the fact that that phrase makes my blood boil. Because it’s their turn.
But I am forcing people to make decisions before it’s their turn. There’s something about the whole shotgunning around the table, asking everyone for their action, that speeds people up. Because it isn’t their turn. This is what we have to do before anyone gets a turn. Instead of trying to figure out the perfect option, the players instead try to settle on a good option quickly. It makes them feel “under the gun.”
When their turn does come around, they are locked into their action. The only thing they have to decide is where to move and who to target. And that’s a lot easier when you’re not also picking an action. It’s an easier puzzle to solve “how do I move to get this action the best way possible” is easier than “where do I go and what do I do.”
The end result is that people move faster. There’s been a lot fewer hangups.
On balance though, my combats don’t really run any faster or slower than they used to. I’ll admit that. I’ve always kept combat moving, so I haven’t really gained anything much. But the difference is what we spend the time on. We don’t spend time waiting. We spend time rolling dice and counting out initiative, waiting to see who springs into action next or what the enemy is going to do and if the enemies will seperate before I get my burning hands spell off.
And that’s a tradeoff I’m willing to make. We’ve given up boring waiting in return for tense anticipation.
The next quest is: “isn’t this super complicated?” Well, I will let you be the judge. Is it really super complicated? The answer is no. No it isn’t. As for how we keep track of initiative, we do it pretty easily. After rolling initiative, players set a die on their initiative count. Or just remember the ONE F$&%ING NUMBER. It’s not hard.
Me? I set dice on the stat blocks of my monsters. And when I roll for groups of monsters, I just use the slowest speed for the slowest action if the group takes different actions. Or I’ll split it up if I’m feeling excited.
As for the modifiers, I gave everyone a little printed card with the chart on it. My players got it down. My players can hand a chart and adding some numbers. They are f$&%ing role-playing gamers.
Now, I didn’t gain or lose anything really in the speed, though I do like the type of speed better. And I didn’t add too much extra complexity. So, at best I could call it a wash. Why would I stick with it?
Because it makes the game more interesting.
Let’s put this out there, first of all. I’m running a dungeon crawl. It’s an action game. Combat is a thing and the combat has to be fast and furious and exciting. And it’s D&D. D&D likes a good battle. So remember that. Combat is kind of front and center. One of the core engagements along with exploration and problem solving.
Which is why I find the whole “tense anticipation vs. patient waiting” thing to be a good trade-off. And also why I like the urgency in shotgunning around the table for action declarations before you take your turn.
On top of that, there’s some added strategic elements you get from it. You can consider the speed of your actions. There are times when the wizard might be willing to forgo a more powerful spell in return for a better chance at winning initiative, especially against a large monster that’s already slow as hell. That hold monster might be too slow to go off before the ogre eats my face, but mage armor might be enough to save me this round. Or blade ward. Whatever. So it adds another layer to decision making. And it differentiates weapons based on more than just damage dice. I like that. But then, I liked Dark Souls for the same reason.
The other strategy element that it adds is that things can change between decision and action. For both the monsters and the players. If the wizard declares a fireball and goes late in the round, the monsters might have scattered by the time the spell goes off. So, does the wizard launch the spell and lose the resources to hit only one or two beasties, or give up the round as a loss, reposition and try again so as not to waste a valuable spell slot on minimal damage. Likewise, you can respond to what the enemy is doing. If the enemy wizard is warming up a spell, you can reactively scatter. That’s why I declare enemy actions first and give hints as to what they are getting ready to do. Strategies become possible that would otherwise be lost. Playing keep away to buy yourself some time to heal. The healer and the fighter having to meet somewhere in the middle to let the spell get off. Readying an action becomes a more valuable tactic not just for dealing with enemies, but helping allies. And so on.
In short, it adds a level of depth to the fight.
It also makes the combat more haphazard. Players can’t learn the order because it changes every round. You never know when you are going to go or when anyone else is going to go. Sometimes, your action might be rendered useless because you can’t get to a target. Likewise, you might actually be able to screw a slow monster just by staying out of his reach and ruining his actions. The point is, not only does initiative change every round, it changes between decision and action. It’s a lot more frantic. A lot less planned. A lot more on the fly. A lot less like a chess game.
See, as much as I love chess game combat, I don’t like combat to be one of those slow, methodical chess games with plenty of time to think and do. I want it to be one of those fast chess games where the players are slamming on the clock, taking a move, slamming on the clock, adapting, adjusting, and trying to build a strategy out of a hodgepodge of reactions.
Now, I was being flippant when I said it isn’t more complex. Of course it is more complex. It’s more rules. It’s one more thing to explain and keep track of. But remember, complexity is currency. Complexity is what game designers and game masters use to buy depth. Me, I like the depth it adds to the game. I’m willing to pay with some complexity.
Delaying and Dark Souls
I briefly mentioned Dark Souls above. Now I’ll mention it more. Because I didn’t really think through ANY of what I said above before I added the Speed Factor thing. Actually, what happened was that I was flipping through the DMG idly, looking at the haphazard mess of really interesting, useful stuff that was impossible to find and scattered around at random, and I found the Speed Factor table. And I said: “well, f$&%, I’m using that. Because Delaying and Dark Souls.”
Let me explain…
Last summer, @DrumBumRM got a chance to play D&D 5E at GenCon for the first time. And during the game, he was playing a cleric described as “patient, always waiting for others to act first.” In the first fight of the game, he won initiative. So, being true to his character (and being a child of the D&D3.x era), he said “I’ll delay.”
The DM running the event said that there really was no way to delay. That he could skip his turn or act.
Well, he was baffled. Taking control of initiative was a strategy he was very good at. He’s a very strategic, tactical, in control sort of player. A chess player, but a decisive one, and he was thrown off.
We spent hours after that event talking about the changes in D&D 5E and we kept coming back to the delay thing.
Me, I’d been a participant in the playtests for a while and knew that delay had been pulled in that iteration. And I knew why. 4E had been very “off-turn-happy.” It had lots of ways for everyone to go on everyone else’s turn. Reactions, interrupts, readied actions, delays, everyone had a few of those little toys. It was cool, but everyone spent so much time watching for every little trigger and everyone forgot so many of the little triggers that it was a mess. So, WotC had decided to scale back. And they scaled back to almost none at all. I would call it jerking the other knee, except that I can’t argue it was a good knee to jerk. “It’s your turn, DO SOMETHING,” WotC seemed to say.
I got their point. And frankly, I was a little happy to do away with delaying anyway. If you assume a combat round is a few seconds and you assume the action is happening nearly simultaneously, the idea of sitting around waiting to slot your action in at the perfect moment was a little crazy-pants. It was too clean and perfect. You could insert your action (and thus pick your place in initiative) with surgical precision. With no real cost.
So, as @DrumBumRM sat there saying “I either have to ready, go, or miss my turn,” I was secretly saying “yeah, I kind of like that. It’s a little messy. Don’t stand around with your thumb up your a$&. Do something!” As George Patton said “a good plan violently executed now is better than a perfect plan executed next week.”
But the other side of the coin is this: initiative becomes essentially random. And after the first round, it is fixed. So, taking the ability to change or control the initiative out of the game was essentially removing a strategic decision and replacing it with unalterable randomness. That kind of sucks. Randomness, by itself, is the enemy of choice. Because it means choice doesn’t matter.
At the same time, I was going through my Dark Souls obsession. And one of my favorite features about Dark Souls was how all of the other factors that figured into weapon choice mattered more than damage. Weapons were highly differentiated. And picking a weapon by the numbers was rarely the way to go. You picked the weapon whose reach and speed and balance you could manage. My one playthrough was done with halberds. I liked the long reach, the ability to keep out of opponent’s reach, and to stab them as they rushed in. Another playthrough I did with slow, heavy maces. You had to be accurate, because you only got one swing and if you missed, you’d be thrown off balance for a precious few seconds. And you had to be close. Maces have less swing than other weapons. So you had to be good at getting in close without getting killed and managing your defenses.
Contrast that with D&D, where it is all about the damage die and accuracy. And even the difference between a finesse weapon and strength weapon is all about accuracy and damage bonuses.
I wanted the choice to matter a little more. I wanted to at least feel like there was a difference between a shortsword and a handaxe and a light mace or whatever. I know D&D will never be that game because there’s a complexity cost to that, but it’d at least feel nice if something mattered a little.
So the Speed Factor table was those two things combined into one. Mitigate the randomness of initiative by changing it every round and by giving some modicum of choice that changes the speed of things. Differentiate action types in some small, token way. Let the game be messy, haphazard, and urgent.
So, “to hell with it, I’m using it.”
I’d like to say I carefully thought through the feel of combat, that the decision was all about removing analysis paralysis and creating the right feel. But really it was on a whim of “I don’t like initiative but I like Dark Souls, well, how about this?”
Everything else was after-game analysis.
And THAT is why I’m using it. And why it doesn’t slowdown my game any more or less than other initiative methods, but the slowdown it creates is a better slowdown. It works for me. At my table. In my game. With what I want out of the game.
That’s what the f$&% is wrong with me.