Saturday, April 4, 2020

Init, Innit?

(Get it?)

So this whole initiative thing in RPGs. And please understand here I'm talking about the kind of RPGs wherein who gets to bash a motherfucker's teeth in first actually matters. I don't care if you don't need initiative systems in your Saved By the Bell RPG.

(Not sure if that sounds like a fun game or not...)

For reference, I talk a bit about initiative here, here, here, and here. So this has been on my mind a bit.

You see, it's all quite simple.
I don't like initiative. It gets in the way. It takes time. It slows things down. It is complexity that doesn't always add much to the game. But I have a really hard time imagining a game wherein there is combat and you have no method for deciding who gets to roll the dice next. So this post is me thinking out loud about the problem. It will meander. Click away while you still have the initiative to do so.

Here are the types of initiative systems I am aware of in RPGs:

1. Sides

1981's D&D codified the vague initiative system from previous versions into a very slick and simple method. Each "side" of a battle (frex PCs vs. monsters) rolls 1d6. Whoever gets the higher number goes first.

This is the method I've used most. I've played and ran a ton of old school D&D (via Labyrinth Lord, mostly) and this method, out of all the methods I've tried, works best. It is fastest and smoothest. Embedded within this method is the idea that you can work out the details on the fly. Because knowing that the PCs go first doesn't tell you which one goes first. You have to sort that out. In our Monday night Doomslakers group it works like a charm. We have mutual respect and we appreciate the story that is being told. If it feels like I should attack first, then I do. It works.

As a caveat, you can allow individuals to add their Dex mod to side init and that works fine too. So it might be the case that the PCs lost init, but Dex the Speedy, having +2, still goes first.

2. Individual

This is the most common method in D&D type games. It is the only method I've experienced when running or playing anything approaching a modern game. It is the default method for DCC RPG, for example, and for all modern iterations of D&D. And I hate it. It is the slowest method I know of. It involves the highest degree of GM-workload. And it is the most popular with common RPG players.

Is that because it's good or because it's just what people know? I suspect the main reason for its popularity is that it caters to each player's sense of individuality. It is not a group effort, it is my effort. I am fast. I am lucky, etc. It recognizes individuals. Which all sounds great, but fuck's sake it's a time sink.

I would declare my intention to never use this method again except that a lot of games have perks built into the initative system. DCC RPG has Initiative as a stat on your sheet. Ditching the method is probably OK, but you would need to consider how it impacts PCs.

I am a special goatflake!

NOTE: I have nothing to say about AD&D's initiative method because frankly I have never known what it is. Something about rolling 1d10, lower is better? Even when I was playing that game in high school I have no memory of how we did init! I suspect we did d6 side init.

3. The Sack

Daniel Sell's Troika! has a clever init system wherein you select objects for each PC and each monster then put it all into a sack. You draw out an object and that tells you who goes next. One object represents end of round.

Reach into my sack.
I actually bought the initiative cards for this game and used it when I ran Supercalla. It worked fantastically well for me as GM. It reduces workload to almost zero. I like it quite a bit. But I do not believe the players loved it. This is because it is entirely possible for a PC to go a round or two without taking any actions. And that probably feels shitty.

It also leads to irrational results. Frex if you had two guys duking it out in mid-air and someone else trying to disarm a bomb. What if you draw the bomb dude's card twice in a row, then end of round, then bomb dude again? Are the two combatants just hovering in mid air, waiting for their turns? Sure, you could GM fiat that shit and just say who goes next. But I like to stick with a game's rules as closely as possible and having to do such a thing indicates something might be slightly broken about the system.

4. Preset

Some games use a preset init system. Frex: Holmes' 1977 D&D had a system in which your Dexterity score determines who goes first. For monsters, you'd roll their Dex on 3d6 and go. My recent first experience with Warhammer Fantasy Role Play indicates that in that game you have a set init score and you just go in that order. Our group monkeyed with Cadillacs & Dinosaurs once and it felt like that game also had a kind of fixed initiative (but phase-based?).

I'm OK with these methods. They do the job of removing GM workload and avoiding all fiddly questions. Initiative is pre-determined and you just go with it. The downside, I think, is that it leads to some possible absurdities and that it makes combat more predictable. As an absurdity, what if your PC with the highest init by a country mile is at the rear of the party as you burst into a goblin den? That guy is going to shove past everyone, get out front, and land a blow first? Maybe. Sure. But perhaps that slow little dwarf who kicked down the door will bury their blade in a goblin throat first? It requires GM adjudication, does it not?

But to me, making combat predictable is a bigger sin.

His init was highest. Alas, he was last in line.

5. Phases

Some games have a phase system. I am not nearly as familiar with this. I know that Villains & Vigilantes had this method, and I believe the above mentioned C&D had one. My limited, pitiful understanding is that you would basically count down from some number, such as 10, to represent a combat round. If your PC's attacks go on phases 2, 4, 6, and 8 then you'd get 4 actions. If Mine is only 6 then I'd only get to go when phase 6 was called out. This is more-or-less the same kind of method as #4 above, but with caveats.

It's a neat idea.

Not phased.

Eat me.
6. Popcorn-Balsera

This method is based on a method used by someone named Leonard Balsera and was written into Marvel Heroic Roleplaying and later into FATE as "elective action order". I like the term "popcorn imitative".

All it amounts to is you somehow figure out who goes first then that person decides who goes next and when everyone has gone, you start over. I can't imagine that this method hasn't been used countless times in organic play over decades. I know for a fact I have defaulted to this method in games over the years, without calling it out as a method. It's just a natural way to play.

And I like it. In my other blog posts about Sand in the Bone/Dead Wizards I talk about this a lot. What I'm going for is a slightly more codified version in which there is some GM dice rolling used to decide when/if enemies get a turn between each PC action.

7. Troll Style

I never owned, played, or even read Tunnels & Trolls. So I only recently became aware of it's combat system. In it, there is no initiative. Both sides just make one big attack roll and the loser takes damage distributed between its members.

Of all the methods, this one seems to reduce combat to the simplest approach. It feels like it would be fast and furious. But at what cost? Would this method sacrifice granularity and detail? What if you had a bunch of farmers with pitchforks and one armored knight against a battalion of bastards? Would the knight's side constantly lose the roll, taking damage every round while no damage is dealt the other side? The knight lands no blows?

Of course that interpretation assumes that damage is related to actual physical strikes instead of being purely abstract, a representation of morale and fatigue. Either way, interesting.

8. None

Of course you don't have to have a codified method. You can wing that mother. GM fiat, player negotiations, etc. But I think it would be wrong to refer to this as having no system. You will always have a system. Even if you decide what it is round-by-round. Having no written method only gives you an illusion of winging it. I guarantee that by the end of one combat you will have your method and you'll use it again, until it becomes a problem.

And that's all the various initiatives I know about. If you know of other methods that are distinct, tell me about them.


  1. Based on action: In TOR, defenders always go first.

    Seating order: just go clockwise from person to person (ICRPG).

    1. When I run BX I do side init and then usually clockwise and alternating to counterclockwise

  2. Action Point systems are a relative of phases initiative. There is still typically a phase count, and when you take an action your get to act again after a number of phases have gone by equal to the AP cost of whatever you decided to do. Both AP and fixed phases have bit of a "recursive initiative" problem in that you have to decide who gets to go first of all those eligible in a given phase. That is usually done by some fixed precedence (e.g. Dex or Speed stat)

    The most interesting approach for me are systems where everybody rolls at the same time, but part of the information that comes out of your roll is in what order the rolls are actually resolved. ORE does this, and also Sorcerer. I think I've seen it a few other places, but they are not top of mind.

    1. I'm imagining the types of games I run in public and having everyone roll at once seems like a nightmare. I hate it when I run DCC and everyone rolls init at the same time and starts yelling out their results. I'm like "write it down!". Running public games is the #1 reason I have even been thinking hard about initiative. I'm already a scatterbrain, I don't need systems that increase complexity. Truth be told, I'm a big fan of "let the DM decide who goes next".

  3. I haven't played it yet but I like Black Hack Initiative. I dont remember it super-clear but everyone rolls. Those that succeed go before the enemy, those that fail go after the enemy. If someone attacks twice they could skip the roll and have attack before and after. GM only has to track three phases so that's fairly easy. Seems the best of all worlds but maybe I'm missing something.

    1. Yeah, it's a straight up Dex check. Pretty seamless, to be honest. But that's the great strength of TBH: it shifts the workload to players by making them roll all their own shit.

    2. This is what Into The Odd does as well, but takes it one step further: you only make the DEX save if there is any question as to which side goes first. Any PCs that pass to first, then the monsters, then the PCs that failed.

      Also, because there is no to-hit roll, players just roll damage. This makes combat fast and extremely dangerous.

    3. I'm a big fan of Into the Odd's method! I am currently writing a new game and I'm on the fence about doing away with hit rolls too. But at the same time, you could just make sure everyone rolls damage and hit roll at once and it kinda has the same effect.

  4. One of the best things about group initiative in B/X is the way that it keeps players working together. In games with individual isolation, it can start to feel like you everyone is taking action in isolation, then waiting for their turn. It disconnects everyone from each other.

    With group initiative, the GM asks the whole group they want to do, and players are more likely to act together in an interesting way.

    1. Oh yeah, I totally agree! In all the gaming I have done over the years I have found side initiative to be the smoothest.