The initiative order is one of the core parts of Dungeons & Dragons' combat system, but it can also be used as a handy tool to better manage gameplay outside of combat as well. A recent Dungeons & Dragons session ended with a debate over exactly when the initiative order "breaks" - or when players can take actions outside of the turn order established at the start of combat. The question arose after a tense combat in which the party's ranger was knocked unconscious while fighting a boss battle with potentially disastrous consequences for the rest of the combat. With the ranger down to his final death saving throw, the party's bard implored the party's cleric to attack the boss as the bard could heal the ranger on his turn. The cleric went with that recommendation, even though the ranger came before the bard in initiative order and the boss fell before it was time for the ranger's next turn.
Under usual circumstances, the boss's death meant that the initiative order would be broken and the players could do what they want outside of the restrictions of turn order. However, I pointed out the flaw in the bard's plan - he had made the recommendation for the cleric to attack instead of healing, and his turn came immediately after his dying ranger friend. Ultimately, I left it for the ranger's player to decide whether to keep Initiative order intact and make that final death saving throw, or if he would accept the bard's offer of instantaneous healing. The ranger chose to let the dice decide his fate, and luckily, he rolled a 19...giving the bard the critical six seconds he needed to get to his friend and save him.
Like other aspects of Dungeons & Dragons' Fifth Edition rules, there's no strong rules about when initiative ends. The Player's Handbook's only reference for ending combat states that "the fight continues to the next round if neither side has defeated the other" but it doesn't take into account scenarios like the one above where turn order plays a critical role in how the story could play out. Usually, it's up to the DM to decide when initiative ends, using common sense and their own sense of the game to break away from combat rules when necessary. For instance, if a DM wants a hostile creature to beg for their life, they can temporarily break initiative for their plea. Likewise, a DM can also determine whether or not characters can share critical information outside of their turn in the thick of combat.
Initiative can also be used outside of combat, particularly when exploring a dungeon or managing a tense social encounter. If a DM wants to give each player turns during an argument with an NPC or a situation where delicate persuasion is needed, they could create an Initiative order using the player's Charisma modifier instead of their typical Initiative bonus. Initiative is also handy for when the party splits up while exploring, especially if there's an ambush or trap laying in wait. Basically - a DM can use Initiative as a tool to ensure that every player gets equal time determining the outcome of a situation, even when that situation doesn't involve swords and magic missiles.
One of the biggest strengths of Dungeons & Dragons' Fifth Edition is its flexibility. Although the Player's Handbook only provides rules for using Initiative within combat, there are no rules that state that the DM can't use it to maintain order at an unruly table or determine whether a bard can get over to his dying friend before they make their final death saving throw.
Let us know about times that you used Initiative in Dungeons & Dragons in an unconventional way in the comment section or find me at Twitter at @CHofferCBus to chat all things D&D.
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