Init Free D&D: How I speed up combat by ignoring it”s rules

Look, I’ve played a lot of D&D. I’ve run games for a single player, I’ve run games for 6 months with the same 6 players (more or less). I specialize, though, in running games for large tables. Because I can so rarely say no to people who want to play D&D. There is always space at my table. Always. This is how the final boss fight of Tomb of Annihilation had Acererak having to deal with 11 heroes (and, incidentally, was where I learned to straight up cheat as a DM).

How can I run a table that size? Well, amoungst the tricks I’ve learned about the game is a view point that other people can’t seem to comprehend.

Initiative means nothing.

Well, in 5e, at least. And a few other games I’ve played can benifit from this wisdom. 7th Sea can’t for their fights. And I think older versions of D&D may have had small rules that kept this from being a useful method.

But in D&D5e, initiative is a full circle, not a line that repeats. Once your turn is here, everyone acts after you. And before you. You go when you go. If someone has a “lock down the table” ability, it doesn’t matter if they fire that off at the beginning of the round at the end. All that matters is that they survive the damage that gets dealt to them.

And the PCs can deal a STUPID amount of damage if they try. And if they’ve just walked around the corridor and there’s a goblin, do I really want to deal with rolling initiative, for 7 hp worth of roadkill?

No. I don’t. I hate it. And almost every method I’ve seen of tracking initiative takes a long time to set up, no matter how clever it is. Digital methods, that roll for the players, do make it quick, but its harder for the players to know when they should go. No system is perfect.

The snark says: “This system isn’t perfect either…

So what is it I do? Its a variation on Planet Mercenary’s Speak First, Act First. Basically, I get rid of the concept of “Turns” and worry more about “Rounds.” If a PC says “I run up and attack!” then they do. If a PC says “I wait for this or that!” then they are. And maybe the monsters will be baited by that action, maybe not. And the whole time I’m doing this, I’m keeping track of who has gone this round and who hasn’t. If one of my Quiet players hasn’t gone yet and there’s a bit of a lull, I’ll prompt them. “Jordan, Tau Fu is flanked by Howler flunkies on each side! What does he do???” That usually gets a response.

The snark says: “Throw enough question marks and anyone will respond.

Another great part of this set up is that combat is more narrated than mechanical. My players (who are admittedly on the newer side and aren’t as jaded as the other players at the store) are more likely to do things in character, not in player. And that’s been fun to see and it’s taken a dungeon I’ve not wanted to play and made it fun.

How to Make Not-a-Threat things into a Threat.

Combat in 5e is fast. It takes serious planning and a serious threat for it to last more than a round. I’ve been congratulated by other DMs by having certain combats last to the third round. PCs are horribly overpowered. Add in the fact that I have a ton at my table, and they all are at full health, and have magic items and the adventure was written for three under leveled, under magicked heroes, of course they’ll curb stomp things that are thrown at them. So how can these be a challenge to the party? 2 simple DM Tricks.The first os tp realize that “Mechanical Threat is not the same as threat” and the second is “To cheat more”. We’ll deal with the second part later, as its a charged concept and this first one is more important anyway.

Mechanical Threat is purely number based. You know how the DMG has those higher level calculus equations that determine the CR and the effective CR and combat difficult and all that other mathematical nonsense? That is mechanical nonsense. It is the acknowledgement that enough goblins will kill Elminster and a squad of Ewoks armed with stun batons and a Heavy Blaster can kill Darth Vader. (I had a friend who ran the numbers for a Star Wars game he was in.) Mechanical threat is the cold, logical “players can do this, so they should be scared of this”

Turns out, though, that’s not how things work in D&D. At an old table of mine, they were not afraid of giants, at all, after I failed something like 14 saving throws in a row, most with advantage, to try and stop a Hideous Laughter. My players no longer perceived of giants of any kind as a threat, because in their experience, they weren’t a threat. They were super scared of “The King of Feathers” though. Because they never saw it. They saw its handy work, they saw it teleport away from hiding out of the corner of their eye. They saw footprints from a large dinosaur. They saw blood and broken buildings. They saw the boss bar.

Matt side note: “I can’t find a good link for this concept. I see it in Minecraft, I’m sure it’s in other games. Essentially, in some open map games, when you fight a boss a large health meter appears on the screen. This is the Boss Bar. You normally see it when you’re in a fight (or about to be). The thing is tho, sometimes the appearance of the bar is… wrong. There’s walls and stuff in the way and you’ll not fight that boss for a while.

“But… that doesn’t change the fact that the bar is there. And if you haven’t seen this part before, you could be in combat at any time. So you have to play super careful because if you get weakened by fighting some random mob, turn the corner before healing and suddenly, you’re in a boss battle? That’s not good. Everything is more serious when that bar is on the screen, because it indicates ‘soon.’ and that’s scary.

Another DM at the store had his players actually encounter the King of Feathers. He had doubled its hit points for the fight. They still killed it in the first round. It’s not actually that tough. This is a threat, without being a mechanical threat.

So how can a goblin ever scare a player? Description. At my table, the heroes only “miss” when they roll really really low. If they roll anywhere near the AC required, I play it up. There was a bugbear with antlers in the Sunless citadel that did crazy things. I think he caught a blade in his bear hands? I know he used his antlers to deflect a blade. I make the bad guys as COOL AS I CAN. This means they are powerful. This means they are scary. The move fast, they dodge things, make impossible jumps, shrug off blows. Turns out, in D&D, there is no mechanical difference between having full hit points and 1 hit point. We call this Critical Existence Failure. Keeps us out of a failure spiral, but unless we choose to describe things as such, there is no reason out bad guy on his last legs looks any different than one with full hit points.

Which, incidentally, really scares players. See, they have this thing where video games, movies, heck, other D&D games display damage gradual, with villains slowing as they bleed out. So when this guy does not, well, that’s scary. You don’t want to over use it, but if you remember that your bad guy is basically dead as soon as he rolls initiative with the party, you’ll want to make sure it counts.

Conclusion

In summary, my method is to:

  • Let players go in whatever order
  • Have monsters respond in whatever order
  • Make sure everyone has gone at least once each round (or had the opportunity)

That’s it. Simple, no? I mean, you do have to keep track of who has gone, so people aren’t double timing you and so you don’t miss anyone, but its not that hard with practice. And I find it saves a lot of time, which is crucial when you have a massive group. And hey, faster for smaller groups still saves time, although the savings isn’t as easily apparent.

And you don’t have to deal with “I started the fight, so I should get to attack” discussions that happen rarely, but it is weird.

Have i set up a sign off yet? No? hmm. I might go back to “Cheers” but I’m not sold on that. Anyway. End line.

(Grind Day 4)

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