D&D 5E with Clockwork: Dominion Initiative

For my friend Zeke.

The idea here is just to figure out a way to use the initiative system of Clockwork: Dominion with 5th Edition D&D for two reasons: one, that the initiative system for Clockwork is awesome, and two, because Zeke said it probably couldn’t be done.

Basic ideas

  1. Just like with Clockwork, you will be dealt three cards per PC. Maybe a few more for really formidable characters (in Clockwork, this is based on Threat, but I think higher-level characters will be balanced by how much ridiculous stuff they can do with their actions), fewer for each mundane NPC that the DM is wielding, more for powerful NPCs and monsters.
  2. Initiative order is based on how good of a card you have. Push a card forward to act, push two cards forward to interrupt, push one card forward to react.
  3. Maintain the strengths of the Clockwork initiative system, but also the various action mechanics of 5th Ed D&D.
  4. A full round of combat using Clockwork initiative will be equivalent to about three rounds of combat in 5th Ed, give or take, making it more likely that a fight is resolved in a couple of rounds.
  5. Edit: minions receive two cards for a couple of reasons. One is that I like that they have a little less than ‘full’ NPCs, similar to how minions worked in 4E. The other is that I love the idea that a minion’s fulfillment comes from pushing two cards forward and leaping in front of an attack directed at their master.

How It Works

The DM deals out three cards to each character face-up. She then takes for herself, face up or face down depending on her style, two cards for each minion, three cards for each monster or NPC, and one additional card for each creature that has a Legendary Action and/or Lair Action. So, for example, if the PCs are facing an ancient dragon in its lair with four kobold minions, the DM would get 3 cards for the dragon, 1 for the Lair Action, 1 for the Legendary Action, and 8 for the four kobolds, or 13 cards. The party of 4 facing the dragon would get 12 cards between them. To prevent the DM from using all 13 cards for Dragon actions, let’s say that each creature in the combat must act at least once. Also, what is a minion and what is an NPC or monster? That’s up to the DM. The DM could also potentially take three cards for every NPC or monster, and I could see an argument for more cards for very powerful creatures – though most of those will have Legendary Actions and/or Lair Actions, which will grant them bonus cards.

An alternate, but more complicated, way to handle this is to track each NPC or monster’s initiative cards separately. This would get rid of confusion as to whether the dragon is using the kobold’s cards to act, but would also be a lot for the DM to suddenly track in a complex game. Season to taste, I suppose.

(If the 4 PCs were fighting the dragon alone, 12 cards might seem overwhelming compared to only 5. That being said, remember that each of the dragon’s cards is worth a use of Frightful Presence and three attacks, or its breath weapon – rolling to see if the breath weapon recharges every time the dragon acts. I do wonder whether this hack would make the imbalance of action economy worse in some situations, though. I can imagine 10 minions with 20 cards being hard for that party of 4 to deal with using their 12 cards, but then again, we’re dealing with hit points rather than Guard in Clockwork, so while the minions would get to act and interrupt a lot, they wouldn’t be doing more damage than they would using the standard D&D rules for a such a group)

As a player, flip over a card to take an Action and a Bonus Action and move. Flip a card over to take a Reaction, but no movement. Flip two cards over to interrupt with an Action and move, a Bonus Action and move, or a Reaction and move depending on the circumstances (choose whichever is the best option among your abilities).

As a DM, flip over a card for an NPC or monster to take an Action and a Bonus Action and a move. Flip a card over to take a Reaction, but no movement. Flip two cards over to interrupt as above. Flip a card over to take a Lair Action or a Legendary Action, as applicable.

For NPC and monster abilities that have a recharge roll, like the above-mentioned dragon’s breath weapon, the DM can roll the d6 to see whether the ability recharges when she flips a card over for that NPC or monster to act. Yes, with bad luck, that does mean that a monster might get to use its special ability three times in a single “round”, but remember that each PC can also take their full suite of actions and movement three times, so it is a bit like three rounds happening all at once.

Can you interrupt with a spell? Sure. It costs you two of your cards after all. And if you don’t take any Reactions or use an interrupt, you’ll eventually get to take three Actions, three Bonus Actions, and move three times in a round.

What to do with your initiative modifier: one idea is to keep the modifier, which is just your Dex modifier, and use it to break ties instead of suits for the cards. So if we both have a king, but  you have a +2 and I have a +1, you go first with your king. This would take the place of the percentiles printed in the Clockwork cards. If Dex modifiers are equal, then maybe you can fall back on the usual progression of suits (spades, hearts, diamonds, clubs).

Obviously, this will require play-testing, but those are the basics.

Other Thoughts

The fighter ability Action Surge came up on Twitter recently (complete with the power to allow double casting) and it poses an interesting challenge for this hybrid system. Do you deal an extra card that is for an Action Surge only? Since it’s a full action but not also an additional bonus action, that wouldn’t make sense given the rules above. So I’d say turn a card sideways when you use it for an Action Surge following an action.

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