Concurrent Initiative

My rule

Actions in a six second round happen concurrently. Players (and monsters) declare their intentions, complete with dice rolls, then the DM aggregates that into a description of the round. If one action going before another would affect the outcome, speed factor rules are applied or an initiative contest is held.


This is based on a lot of online discussion that took place on this discussion thread at EN World: Feel free to read it yourself, but here's how I'm doing it.

The intent: The one thing to keep in mind, when considering how this will run, is that a round is six seconds. When you count out on a stopwatch, it seems pretty long, but when you’re having a free interaction with an object, nocking an arrow, drawing a bow, letting it go, and running thirty feet, while also yelling at your companions about the goblin behind the bush to the left, it goes by very quickly. This system is intended to get away from standard cyclical initiative, which (especially IRL, but also in PbP) leads to long combats of unrealistic tactical perfection and many players checking their phones while waiting for their “turn.”

Here’s a long rundown of how it works.

First, everyone declares what they will do

Declaring: When you are asked to declare, you just announce what your character intends to do this round in one or two sentences. Some if/then is allowed, to a limit. The DM says, “The goblins are drawing shortswords and advancing on you.” You could declare, “I will shoot the nearest goblin with my bow, or another one in the same area if he isn’t a target.” Or, “I leap off the cart into a defensive crouch, taking the Dodge action unless there’s a goblin right in front of me, then I’ll attack him with my sword.” Or, “I charge the goblin and attack. If he runs away, I will chase him.” But not, “I will shoot it with my bow unless it charges me, then I will drop the bow and draw my sword and stab it, unless it runs away, then I will drop my bow and cast Magic Missile, unless they all charge me, then I will cast Fireball and run away.” Be reasonable. The intent here is to commit to an action. If you’re shooting a bow, then you’re not drawing your sword. If you’re casting a spell, then you’re not shooting a bow, etc.

Delaying: This is a new thing. Instead of declaring, you can say, “I Delay.” In fact, Delay is the default action if nothing is declared. This means that you take a beat, hold for a second, see what transpires. Game-wise, everyone who does not delay will get to declare and act. Then, you (and anyone else who Delayed) can declare and act. If all combatants choose to Delay, we move on to the next round (it's a standoff!). If anyone chooses to delay a second time, they will end the round having done nothing. Which is fine! This is a fascinating wrinkle that allows combat to pause for… negotiation, planning, a standoff… not something standard initiative allows (or at least encourages).

Order of declaration: IRL, we go around the table in reverse Int order. Smarter characters declare last, so they can react to what others are doing. Monsters factor too, but IRL I usually declare them first unless they are Really Smart (like a vampire, or a mind flayer). In PbP, I’ll just declare the monsters and then you guys can declare in whatever order you get to your computers. No worries.

To summarize the declaration phase (with some rules bits thrown in):

Then the DM resolves the action

Logical resolution: The DM will take all of the declarations and then logically resolve what happens. “Logical” is up to the DM, with player input (especially IRL). There are some changes regarding full round actions and spells and the like, see below. Each round will start with those things that are ongoing, like Dodging, or ongoing damage, etc. Then the declared actions are resolved, and finally, end of round actions happen.

No turns: Key to understanding concurrent initiative is that each action in a round is considered to happen at the same time. There are no “turns” anymore, in game terms. That’s a construct of the cyclical initiative system. Instead, turns are considered to last an entire round. So things that happen “on your turn” happen for the entire round. Things that end “at the end of your turn” end at the end of the round. Etc. There will be specific cases, and we’ll resolve them logically, as above.

Simultaneous or dependent actions: When something happens simultaneously (and matters) the order of acting can be important. For example, a fighter and a goblin face off. Both are at 1 hp. They declare they intend to strike each other. The order of who strikes first matters, because the other one is likely to be dead, and unable to make their own strike. Or, in another example, the goblins have declared they will fill the wizard full of arrows. The wizard intends to cast a sleep spell. If the wizard gets his spell off first, and puts several goblins to sleep, there will be many fewer arrows flying at him. In this case, we would consider speed factors, or use an initiative contest to decide who goes first. Players win ties.

Rolling initiative anyway: Rolling initiative is not anathema to this system. It is used to resolve simultaneous actions as above, or in IRL situations with lots of players, can still be useful for controlling table chaos. In PbP, I originally had the players include an Initiative roll with their declaration in case it was needed, just to save time. But in practice, that led to some confusion about the importance of Initiative, and given that this whole system of concurrent initiative is meant to do away with standard initiative, I've thought better of it. Going forward, in PbP online games, I intend to resolve initiative contests myself, with a public roll. I know that takes away some perceived agency from the players, but I'm going to try it and see how it goes. Be sure to remind me if you have the Alert feat. ;)

Speed factor-ish: There’s an alternate initiative system in the DMG called Speed Factor Initiative. In basic terms, smaller creatures are faster than giant ones. Heavy weapons are slower than light ones. High level spells take longer to cast than low level spells. While I don’t intend to use speed factors in game (it can get complicated) I do intend to use the concept when deciding “logical” order. Here’s an example. A Ranger and a goblin surprise each other in a corridor, 30’ apart. Goblin declares he will run away. Ranger declares he will shoot the goblin with an arrow. Goblins are light and small. Ranger has to grab an arrow, knock it, draw it and shoot, all possible in six seconds (according to the game) but in that time, the goblin is hightailing it. Goblin gets to move his 30’ (maybe around a corner) leaving the Ranger with no shot. Next round! This might make players grumpy, especially with spells. But all that incanting and thinking and gathering of power takes some time.

Surprise? Surprise rounds are a kludgey requirement of cyclical initiative. If action order is determined by an initiative roll, how does someone get the drop on someone else? Enter the surprise round! With concurrent initiative, everyone is implicitly understood to have been Delaying their declaration except for the hidden archer. He “declares” he will shoot the King. Players who were “looking for an ambush” get a Perception check. If they succeed against his stealth, they can also declare. He shoots, we resolve, then everyone who was delaying gets to declare and act. This gets away from the archer getting a surprise round shot, then rolling well on initiative and going first in the next round, shooting again, or going invisible, or something. Instead, he gets to go first, but then everyone gets to react. Genuine surprise (everyone loses a round) only happens in extreme circumstances: e.g., your party is all asleep or very engrossed in what they are doing.

Start of round actions: Some things happen—or are triggered—at the start of a round. Declared Dodge actions would begin (because you’re Dodging the whole round, not just from the start of your turn). Readied actions held over from last round remain waiting for their trigger. Death Saves are rolled. Ongoing damage (e.g., if you’re still standing in the Wall of Fire) are taken. Lair Effects can be performed. Etc.

Spell durations or lasting conditions: Spell effects and conditions are often dependent on a player or monster’s “turn.” For example with Hold Person, the target makes a Wis save or it is paralyzed. At the end of each of its turns, the target can make another Wis save to break free. With no turns, per se, when do they roll to save? The Internet has decided the best way to resolve this is to have the target make their initial save when the spell goes off (see logical resolution). If they fail, they are held for the remainder of the round, and the entire next round. At the end of that next round they get to roll their save. And then at the end of the next round, and so on. Basically, effects that last 1 turn, will instead last the rest of the initial round, and one more entire round. The other alternative is to trigger the save at the start of the round, making it possible that the creature is not effectively held at all.

End of round actions: This is where those things that expire, expire, or where “end of turn” things happen, like the save vs Hold Person above.

Interrupting actions: Shooting your arrow when the goblin has ducked behind cover, or smashing the goblin your buddy just killed is a thing that happens in the heat of a six-second round. Overkill is a feature, not a bug. That said, there are times when you might want to arrest your action. You can interrupt your action in favor of Dashing, instead, or just standing around. For example the goblins declare they will retreat into the bushes. The wizard declares he will set fire to the bushes with a spell. The wizard wins a contested initiative roll, and the bushes are on fire. The goblins rush towards them, but can abort their intended move into the bushes, now that they are on fire. Instead, they back away, shielding their faces from the fire. Next round!

To summarize the resolution phase:

Next round begins with declarations.


This section is for some exploration of the inevitable edge cases.

Final thoughts

My one job as DM is to ensure the players are having fun. This is about adding a little realism (yes, to an imaginary game, I know) and chaos (to get away from drawn out tactical initiative planning) to combat, to open up a few interesting possibilities, and to have more fun. If you’re not having fun with it, let me know. Let’s figure out what’s not fun and see about changing it.

[ Back ]