Shadow of the Demon Lord Initiative for 5e

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Initiative is the word this week thanks to a new Unearthed Arcana article put out by Mike Mearls on Greyhawk Initiative. Mike’s new system for fifth edition Dungeons & Dragons is exploding with possibility and randomness. It breaks initiative out of its normal cycle and changes up the order of characters each round based on their actions and a roll of the dice. I would very much love to try it! It’s reminiscent of the old speed factor initiative found in the Dungeon Master’s Guide.

While the system looks great, I’m not sure it’s right for my group. First, it requires the players discuss a plan before each round of combat. My own group could do this for hours and turn our RPG into a tactical war game, making a 10-minute battle last 100. I like to cover a little more story than that if I can in our limited sessions.

The system is also a bit restrictive in that when your turn comes up, you can’t decide to take an action not covered by your initiative roll (so if the cleric decided to attack, but the fighter was just critically hit by an ogre, the cleric can’t get cast a spell to heal the fighter until the following round, since the cleric already declared he would attack when the initiative was rolled). I understand the appeal of this restriction and it makes sense mechanically, but I don’t think my regular group would enjoy that restriction. We won’t know until we try though!

This got me thinking about the initiative system I enjoy in another game, Shadow of the Demon Lord, and how I can apply its initiative system to fifth edition D&D. Take a look at the idea below and let me know what you think!

Shadow of the Demon Lord Initiative in D&D

I’ve proposed a super simple version of Shadow of the Demon Lord  for 5e initiative in a previous blog post. Here’s a fuller version:

At the start of each round of combat, each creature declares if taking a fast, medium, or slow turn. The following describes each turn category:

  • Fast Turn. You take only a bonus action, action, or move your speed.
  • Medium Turn. You take any combination of two of the following: bonus action, action, or move your speed.
  • Slow Turn. You take a bonus action, action, and move your speed.

The round of combat then proceeds as follows:

  1. Player characters taking a fast turn.
  2. Monsters taking a fast turn.
  3. Player characters taking a medium turn.
  4. Monsters taking a medium turn.
  5. Player characters taking a slow turn.
  6. Monsters taking a slow turn.

Player characters and monsters in each turn category decide among themselves the order in which they act. If player characters cannot determine an order, the DM determines it. This could also be determined by allowing the character with the higher Dexterity score to go first or an opposed Dexterity check.

If a creature decides to change the type of turn it wants to take during a round, they can change to a categories at anytime, provided the creature has not already acted that round and the turn category has not already been completed for the round.

Creatures that are surprised take no actions during the first round of combat as normal.

Variant: Side Initiative

Allowing players to always go first means monsters die quicker, which also speeds up play, but for some groups, this isn’t dangerous enough. If you want to change up the player/monster dynamic, you can roll for side initiative at the start of each round (this is discussed in the Dungeon Master’s Guide). If the players win, they go first in each turn category. If the monsters win, they go first in each category.


This method encourages characters and monsters to take simpler turns for the sake of getting to hit first which also speeds up play at the table. If also breaks out of the cyclical nature of normal D&D initiative, though is not as varied as what Mike Mearls proposed. I’m interested to hear what people think. Sound off in the comments below!

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