Reining in Dexterity: Initiative House Rule Option #3

Michael Long has posted two articles on interesting ways to make Initiative faster and more fluid in 5e. Those articles, plus an ongoing conversation with J.M. Perkins about Strength vs Dexterity in D&D (and roleplaying games in general), inspired the house rules I use for Initiative around my own table.

A short version of these rules were presented in the first installment of the Emerald Spire conversions. This article goes into more detail on design considerations and other rules.


The Awesomeness Problem

The advantages of Dexterity over Strength (and every other stat) is well documented, but for completion’s sake I’ll include it here.


Dexterity     Strength
Att/Dmg: ranged, finesse weapons     Att/Dmg: thrown, melee weapons
Strong save     Weak/rarely used save
Acrobatics, Sleight of Hand, Stealth     Athletics
AC bonus     Prevents speed penalty for heaviest armor
Initiative bonus  

It’s pretty clear that on the weapons front, Strength and Dexterity are pretty even, while Dexterity destroys Strength on all other fronts.

If we assume players are “maximizing” their builds (or following clichés if you like), this means the order of “which class reacts first in combat” looks like this. [Yes, there is a lot of variability here depending on feats, placement of ability scores, race, etc. Bare with me.]

  1. Dex-based Fighters, Monks, Rogues
  2. Bards, Warlocks, Wizards, Sorcerers
  3. Druids, Rangers
  4. Clerics,Str-based Fighters, Paladins

If I had a gold piece for every combat where the ditzy-but-dextrous bard acted 10 steps faster than the grizzled, combat-honed fighter, I’d be able to afford that +3 defender (if 5th had gold piece costs for magic items, anyway). So how do we fix it?

What is Initiative really?

The most commonly used description of Initiative is “reaction speed”. The assumption is that Dexterity is the ability score that best fits this description. Though in many RPGs this isn’t an issue because the other aspects of Dexterity are balanced in some way*, in 5th edition, the balance for Dexterity vs Strength from previous editions (weapon attack and damage bonuses) is now available to both scores. But is Dexterity really the best score to reflect who goes first in a combat?

Intelligence
It could be argued that Intelligence is as much a factor as Dexterity. If we assume the flexibility and speed of thought represented by Intelligence is the mental equivalent to Dexterity, then reacting quickly may be the speed at which the mind can process what’s happening around it.

Strength
Strength itself could also be a factor. Without the appropriate strength to pull and wield relatively heavy weapons (ignoring the bizarre physics of anime Big Freakin’ Swords), then speed would have as much to do with the endurance and power behind a weapon as the ability to do a backflip or pick a lock.

Wisdom
My favorite alternate for Dexterity on the initiative front, though, is Wisdom.

“Wisdom reflects how attuned you are to the world around you and represents perceptiveness and intuition.”—PHB 178

The ability to react to a potential conflict has more to do with situational awareness than it does how fast you can draw a sword. If you don’t see an enemy coming, who cares how fast you skin your pig-sticker?

Admittedly, Wisdom is also a fairly strong trait. The fact that it’s a non-combat skill means that if any character wants to react quickly in combat they must invest in either Strength or Dexterity, plus Wisdom, which creates far more well-rounded characters.


Wisdom Strength
Strong save Weak/rarely used save
Insight, Perception, Survival (Animal Handling, Medicine) Athletics
No AC bonus (unless you’re a monk) Prevents speed penalty for heaviest armor
Att/Dmg: thrown, melee weapons

Practical Combat vs Theoretical Conflict

Natural perceptiveness and intuition are only part of the equation. When you are trained to fight for your life, you are taught to be aware of everything around you. If we stick with just Wisdom as the ability score for Initiative, we end up with clerics and druids reacting before combat-trained fighters and rogues. In general this feels better to me than dextrous bards and sorcerers out-pacing fighters, still, the fighter whose job is to…well, fight, is once again left in the dust. The answer lies in one of the most elegant additions to the 5th edition rules: the Proficiency bonus.

Imagine we give Proficiency with Initiative checks to all non-full-casters (including paladins and rangers). Any class trained in front-line combat would be much more likely to have the situational awareness needed to react quickly to violent situations and the better trained they are, the faster they will react to conflicts.

Since many fighters focus on the physical stats in their builds, this gives them a reason to think about their mental stats as well. I would much rather follow a wise fighter into combat than one who used it as a dump-stat. Fighters with solid Wisdom score will have strong willpower, perception and survival skills, the ability to read body language of opponents through better Insight, and have an Initiative bonus. Those that focus more on the physical stats may go a little slower, but will still gain their proficiency bonus and can quickly make up for it with one of their many feats.

With Proficiency granted to barbarians, fighters, monks, paladins, rangers, and rogues, the order of “which class reacts first in combat” changes significantly, assuming fighters and rogues don’t use Wisdom as a dump-stat.

  1. Monks, Rangers
  2. Barbarians, Clerics, Druids, Paladins, Fighters, Rogues
  3. Bards, Sorcerers, Warlocks, Wizards

There are a lot of things I like about this arrangement. Barbarians and rangers will likely start putting stronger scores in Wisdom as well as Strength (or Dexterity) and Constitution, meaning they will play to their strengths as perceptive wilderness survivalists. Clerics and druids that, in D&D anyway, are built as secondary tanks will also act in combat quicker than the classes who aren’t likely to be trained in confrontations.

Full Caster Exceptions

I’ve had a few people suggest that clerics with the War/Tempest domains, druids of the Circle of the Moon, and bards of the College of Valor should also get proficiency with Initiative checks because they are combat oriented.

The bard is a coin-toss for me as few bards will have high Wisdom scores to start with, so that makes some sense and keeps a fine balance. Divine casters, though, are right out.

“Optimized” clerics and druids will be hitting 18-20 Wisdoms as soon as possible, meaning they inherently have the same situational awareness as a trained warrior with a 14 Wisdom and Proficiency at early levels. Tacking proficiency onto that pushes them way too far into the awesome range. The divine casters are already walking lines as the strongest classes in the game, so no need to make the haters’ point for them. This way even non-casters with average Wisdoms can catch up to and pass the divine casters at higher levels, which works for me.

Multiclassing

My biggest pet peeve with 5th edition is the continued desire to include multiclassing rules. My ire is too much to include here, but in short, between the elegance of the archetype system and existence of soft-multiclassing feats, MC’ing is an unnecessary artifact from a less streamlined age.

If you do allow multiclassing at your table, your PCs only gain the proficiency bonus from their levels in a warrior class to their Initiative. They want to make a wizard with 1 level of fighter just to get the armor and weapon proficiencies? They only get a +2 Initiative proficiency. I would encourage the same limitation to be applied to weapon proficiencies as well, but that (and everything else in the game) is up to the DM.

I’d Rather be Lucky than Skilled

Now that we’ve changed Initiative’s driving stat to Wisdom and granted Initiative Proficiency to warriors, it’s time to deal with another pet peeve. In the current rules, random chance is far more important than skill in determining Initiative, especially at lower levels.

Assume a 1st level fighter with proficiency and a 14 Wisdom (+4) fights alongside a Lore bard with a 10 Wisdom and no proficiency (+0), the bard can still out-roll the fighter in a significant number of combats when you use a d20. A few bad rolls can make the trained combatant feel like they’ve wasted their time. To solve this problem I’ve switched to a using a d10.

If the above bard rolled maximum (10) and fighter rolled a 1, the difference between them is only 5 steps. If the same was rolled on a d20, the difference becomes 15 steps, allowing a far larger number of other creatures to act while the fighter sits around sweating in his armor. This method also allows for more ties. Instead of comparing Wisdoms, we compare Initiative modifiers. Again, this allows ties with monsters to, more often than not, go to the warrior PCs.

Monsters

Calculate Initiative in the same way for monsters as you do for players. If the monster is combat trained, grant them proficiency just as you would for attack rolls and saves. If they are supernaturally perceptive, like a dragon or a beholder, double their proficiency modifier.

This puts enemy casters in the position of needing meat-shields to slow down warriors in the first round of combat so they can get their spells off. Luckily, that’s what tends to happen anyway.

A Note on the Alert Feat

Alert is even more impressive using these alternate rules. A 10th level monk with a 16 Wisdom already has a +7 bonus on a d10 roll. Add the Alert feat and it’s a +12!

This sounds frightening, but in practice I find it to be self-limiting. If you already have a +7 on a d10 roll, most players would rather take another +2 Wisdom or any other feat instead. Having said that, if a player wants to play a preternaturally aware monk with a +12 Initiative who can’t be surprised and prevents advantage against them from hidden enemies, sounds awesome to me. Just because they nearly always go first doesn’t mean that tactically going first is the best option.

Of course, assassins will want to take advantage of this for their Assassinate class feature and, in short, I have no issue with that. Advantage is a fairly easy thing to grant/remove, so getting it on one or two attacks in the first round (or more if min-maxing–I mean multiclassing–with fighter) still only allows a single sneak attack and plays to the idea of an assassin. It’s what they do. If I allowed an assassin in my game I would make sure I could both let them shine and find a way to balance that out from time-to-time.

Having said all that, if you want to balance it out you can reduce the Initiative bonus granted by the Alert feat to +2 or +3.


TL; DR

Dexterity is too powerful and the current Initiative system leaves the battle-trained classes at the back of the line during combats. A few simple changes can fix all that.

Initiative. 1d10 + Wisdom bonus + proficiency bonus (if applicable)
Proficiency. Barbarians, Fighters, Monks, Paladins, Rangers, and Rogues gain proficiency with Initiative checks at 1st level.


* = For example, in 3rd edition Hero System, Dexterity was the foundation for your ability to hit and avoid attacks, as well as for how many actions you could take per turn. You could buy those things up and players with relatively low Dexterities could still be highly effective in combat, but having a high Dex to start with helped increase your figured stats significantly. To compensate, it was the most expensive (non-figured) ability score in the game to buy.

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richhoward

Rich Howard's obsession with gaming started 35 years ago when his older brother finally let him invade his AD&D game. Since his first sleep spell, Rich has wandered the world of roleplaying, board and computer games as fascinated with their potential to teach and inspire as to entertain.