One of the sacred cows in roleplaying games is the concept of the Initiative roll to determine who goes first in combat. Ever since discovering GURPS and returning to BRP, I’ve evolved a preference to drop this and instead simply order combatants in an sequence based on their attributes. This speeds up play and removes an unnecessary die roll.
The argument is that, without an Initiative roll, combatants always go in the same order and this gives higher placed fighters an advantage. The inference is that this is not fair on slower combatants and that it makes the fight boring because there is no variance in the sequence. So, we roll whatever die, sometimes modify it by a number based on the character’s attributes, and reorder the sequence appropriately – it all depends on the rules system at hand.
Back in the days of Basic D&D, we just rolled 1D6 and the highest side went first. This was a hold-over from wargames where, typically, opponents just needed to know who got to make the first move. You’d make the roll every round of combat and it would give some variation to the fight. But it didn’t take into account the abilities of the characters themselves.
As time went by, roleplaying games began to do two things: first, they added a modifier to the Initiative roll based on some aspect of character ability; second, they tended to shift away from rolling Initiative every round to rolling it once in each combat. For the longest time, I got comfortable with the D&D3e approach of rolling 1d20 + a bonus based on Dexterity at the start of each fight.
But, honestly, it doesn’t make that much difference on the battlefield but it can be a big time-sink at the table.
Firstly, you tend to have that one player who can never remember their numbers, can’t remember what die to roll, and always takes ages doing the addition. While making the list of numbers doesn’t take more than a couple of minutes, nor is it hard to sequence them, it is still something that deprives the start of the combat of energy.
One solution is to roll Initiative at the end of each combat. This is The Alexandrian’s advice, allowing you to describe the beginning of the combat scene and then immediately call for actions. It’s an approach that keeps the momentum high at the beginning of a fight, and it’s trivial to make the die rolls for the next fight at the end of the last battle.
But notice how the acclaimed variability of Initiative has leaked away over the years.
We’re no longer rolling as the battle begins, so the rationale of the die roll being linked to the reactions of the characters has all but disappeared. No longer rolling every round, so the idea of regular variation in the order during the battle has been removed. It begs the question: why roll for Initiative?
Back in 1980, when I started with RuneQuest, there was no Initiative roll. Your characteristics set up your basic Strike Rank and what you did altered the speed of your reactions. It was slightly fiddley but it modelled what I wanted at the time: the ordering of actions to be determined by who was in the fight and what weapon they were doing the fighting with.
Revisiting Basic Roleplaying, however, I noticed that the 1980 introductory booklet just ordered things by Dex Rank: the fighters go in order from highest Dexterity to lowest. Playing with this the past few days has been easy, lots of fun, and it has not made the fights more predictable. I realised that what makes the fight unpredictable are the attack and defence rolls, not the order of attack.
This is how it goes in GURPS too, another game that simply orders the combatants by Basic Speed, a combination of Dexterity and Health. Fights run fast in GURPS and one of the biggest elements of speedier play is no Initiative roll. If you want to go first, pay the points to increase your Basic Speed. Simple.
One final option: Popcorn Initiative works well. In this, you work out who goes first – like, maybe it’s the leader on one or the other side based on the situation. Each player then hands off Initiative to the next player of their choice, or back to the NPCs. The alternation gives players total control over who goes next and is once again pretty fast.
Since learning to play with rules behind the screen – where players don’t interface with the mechanisms, including Initative, at all – I’ve found that rolling Initiative is just another die roll I don’t need to make. It’s much easier to order the characters and NPCs based on their Dexterity, Speed, or some other attribute and then get on with the good stuff.
I really like the way classic Traveller does it. There’s no initiative. Everything is simultaneous. This is a bit more abstract than a lot of people like. But I find it works well in speed things up a lot too. Everyone declares their movement and their combat actions and dice are rolled to resolve everything. I’ve even considered writing down the nonplayer character’s actions before the players tell me what they’re going to do. That way no one is acting with information that the other side doesn’t have.
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There’s been some good “avoiding the dice roll for initiative” idea, and one that I’m thinking about is something like GURPS or BRP-you have a stat that gives you a place on the combat queue and the faster you are, the more chances you get to attack.
But there’s also a “momentum” tool where you can spend points to momentarily boost your spot in the queue or reduce an enemy’s spot (with bonuses for good role-playing and setting things up for drama). So you have to risk some points to get a better result, which adds additional drama.
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@bibliosk8er you could make a few small cards with npc action on them. Such as Attack, move, cast, shoot, etc. and just put one down for each npc action each round. Faster than writing it out, maybe?
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While I completely agree with the thought of having a fixed initiative order being advantageous, I also often think about dropping “true” initiative altogether.
WEG Star Wars has a kind of implied initiative: everyone declares and rolls their action – and if you need to determine if one successful (!) action is done before another successful action, the rolled totals give you a chronological order.
Advanced Fighting Fantasy or its SF cousin Stellar Adventures treat almost every combat interaction as an opposed roll, and through a few simple but clever additional rules there is no need for initiative even with multiple participants (although there is the option of explicitly trying to be faster instead of “more successful in general”).
Especially for melee combats, I don’t understand how many systems tell me every roll represents multiple tries to attack and includes judging distance, feigning etc. – and at the same time has both combatants roll/act in a chronologically separated fashion (since the effects of the first roll apply before the second roll is made).
Melee is either two people interacting and doing nothing else this turn (and thus having no need to find a chronological order) or it is one person beating on another person while this other person tries to do something else – then it might be a question of who gets his desired outcome first, but this will most likely involve some sort of interactive contest as well…
In short: having an order at the table and having it match the order in the game makes things simple. But they do not have to match and most of the time we do not need a strict order in the game or we even get some negative effects from imposing such an order.
I want initiative rules to either be extremely simple and fast or, failing that, be interesting in the sense of giving me something to decide – which incidentally highlights a shortcoming of most initiative systems: first you decide who is faster and then the participants decide what they do – is this not completely backwards and the order should be decided primarily by the actions decided upon with individual prowess being the tie-breaker?
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It’s a good point – dropping the idea of sequence in a formal sense is as good a way to handle these scenes as any other. I think that we are just used to the idea of a sequence and, depending on the mechanisms and scale of combat turns in your game, they can help people who like to know the order of things.
Yes, with complex systems and big battles, a formalized sequence can be necessary to be able to handle it all correctly.
And on the other end of the spectrum, i.e. with rather simple systems, a barebones “traditional” initiative sequence has the same advantage as do hitpoints: it is intuitive, easy to handle and just plain works.