Good GMs Borrow, Great GMs Steal #5: All About Initiative
Initiative: What is it? And what are the different ways to do it?
Initiative is the general term used first by D&D (and probably taken from earlier wargames) to describe what thing (individual, team, army, whatever) acts first in a turn based game that involves action resolution. Because it’s difficult to do real time systems without some kind of computational engine to handle abstract task resolution, turn based is basically how we have to do it.
There are several categories of initiative for action decision, and they don’t always pertain exclusively to combat. Here are the ones I’ve heard of -
- Individual determined – through some statistical (i.e. mechanical) method you determine which singular entity will go at what times in the turn order.
- Group determined – through some statistical method you determine which group of entities will go at what times in the turn order.
- Individual/group non-determined – through some arbitrary non-statistical method it is determined who goes when.
The first one we are probably mostly familiar with from modern (3e, 4e) D&D. You roll your individual roll, and you go when it says you go. The second comes in a few distinct flavors, such as “side” initiative, or “chunked” initiative. This was the original category under which 1st edition AD&D operated, whereby each side (the heroes and their retinue vs. the monsters as a team) either went first or not as an entire group. The third kind of initiative we should all be familiar with if we’ve played RPGs before from the times when we weren’t fighting anything. You just kind of determined who did what on an ad hoc basis without much of a resolution system in place until it seemed important that speed was a real factor, and that’s what this category represents.
In addition to these categories, there’s also something inherent to initiative systems, which is their flexibility. Systems that let you act later than the system says you should on purpose, or that let you interrupt the order due to some special clause in the rules, or that recalculate initiative each round (as 1st edition D&D did, for instance), all have some measure of flexibility. Having the right kind and amount of flexibility is important if you’re concerned with making what is a turn based system resemble more closely the reality of simultaneous resolution.
Speaking of simultaneous resolution, that’s the final part of initiative systems. While what I’ve described up until this point is the system under which you determine who decides what to do first, also part of initiative systems is deciding who acts on their decisions first. In individual initiative systems this is generally the same order as the decision-making, while in group initiative systems it’s usually left to be murkier about who acts when. Some systems explicitly try to replicate simultaneous resolution (war gaming is especially a place where you might find this) to some degree, and others don’t.
Different kinds of initiative: why should you use them?
This is a question to which you can probably already begin to guess the answer, given just about every RPG ever published has a different take on initiative, both in and out of combat, from every other RPG ever published. Basically, the way initiative works determines at the absolute most basic level how players interface with the game in different situations. And, if everything you do is filtered through some kind of initiative system, it’s probably a good idea to think about that system!
Some historically important initiative systems follow -
1st edition Advanced D&D
The critical elements of 1e AD&D’s combat initiative system is that in combat it is side based (though it says it could be individual based it specifically mentions that often that would be too cumbersome), is resolved at the beginning of each round (so the order of combatants who go first can regularly change), and has a system whereby spell-casting is basically decoupled from normal initiative (declare spell prior to initiative resolution, then see how long it takes and if you’re interrupted while you do it via normal initiative actions).
You can read more here about why this system might be interesting.
Critical elements here are that surprise is no longer resolved statistically, while initiative is by default individual based and resolved only once. You can, however, shift the order of the combatants by passing on your normal turn in order to act later, or in some cases (particularly in 4th edition) break into the initiative order through various rules-exceptional actions that can trigger based on certain conditions being met. This is probably what we mostly think of when we hear “initiative”.
5th edition Ars Magica
Acts mostly like the above later editions of D&D, except you can also designate several characters as a “party” (often composed of hirelings or their equivalent, rather than the powerful mages around which the game revolves), and they can determine their initiative as a group in what is otherwise a (relatively) permanent determined-once-at-the-start and individual combat initiative system.
Notable in that, like Ars Magica, it can determine initiative both individually and as a group, but also that over its course of versions has waffled between using a roll + stat for initiative order, or just using the stat.
The Extraordinary Adventures of Baron Munchausen
Notable as an example of not only a GMless RPG, but also an RPG that uses a non-statistical initiative system that is still determinant, like so -
“The player to start is the member of the company with the highest rank in society. Standard rules of etiquette apply : religious titles are always deemed greater than hereditary titles, and those higher than military titles ; if of similar rank then compare subsidiary titles, number of estates or centuries that the title has been in the family ; youth defers to age ; when in doubt the highest military decoration takes seniority ; and for the rest I refer you to the works of Messrs Debrett or Collins.
If by some mischance of birth or the poor organisation of your host you are all commoners then the first player shall be he who was wise enough to purchase the most recent edition of my game. If several have, then I thank them all ; if none have then I worry if you possess sufficient understanding the nature and responsibilities of nobility to play a game such as this, relying as it does on good judgement, generosity of spirit, proper understanding of the necessity of the patronage of worthy artists, writers and publishers, and not being a pinch-penny. If this manner of beginning is not agreeable, then the player to start should be he who was last to refill the company’s glasses.”
No list of notable initiative systems would be complete without Dungeon World for a very simple reason: it uses the same initiative system both in combat and out of combat, which is something most fantasy RPGs don’t do. And, what’s more, it is a non-statistical system based on the whim of the group or orchestrated by the GM’s whim, which most RPG players would be familiar with as to how you handle initiative outside of combat in most games.
So what are these all good for?
Each of these systems of determining who acts when and in what capacity gives a slightly different spin on the way you interact with the world. I could go on and on listing more and more systems you could rip off and steal, but these should suffice in terms of training you, the reader, to recognize what an initiative system does for you given each of the different methods. Acting strictly individually tends to have the benefits of somewhat modeling the confusion of fast-paced action – you don’t really get a few minutes to discuss what you plan to do if bullets are flying by your head right this very instant (and it also tends to speed up play by focusing more on the doing and less on the planning). It can also lead to bigger surprises the less input others have into each others’ actions (which you can see at work in GMless games for the most part, like Microscope). Acting in larger groups, with more opportunity for discussion, tends to slow the game down, but also make it more engaging as you solve problems as a social unit.
These are especially true if individual initiative has congruous action decision and action resolution, and if group initiative has diverged action decision and action resolution as discussed above in the previous section.
Some initiative systems are more realistic, allowing constant interruptions and simultaneous action resolution, but they tend to suffer in terms of pacing what they gain in terms of verisimilitude.
Having initiative systems determined by whim rather than statistics is another road, usually less travelled as far as RPG combat is concerned, but it can bring with it a strong sense of natural flow and momentum when the group is well-coordinated or well-conducted by a game-master.
The House Rule Test
- Is the game better off with this rule than without it?
- Does this rule do what it sets out to do?
- Is this rule as simple as possible?
Like in the last entry, these questions are best answered by you, not by me. The initiative systems I’ve presented here are but a small sampling of the kinds that exist, with what I hope was a pretty comprehensive overview of the different categories and what they’re good for. If your game isn’t in danger of going too slowly but is way too rigid feeling and needs some more player engagement and social focus? Go ahead and get some group initiative going and decouple action decision and resolution. If your game is going way too slowly? Maybe focus on individual initiative with closely coupled action decision and action resolution, verisimilitude and social problem solving be damned. Try using mechanical initiative where normally you use fiat initiative, or try using fiat initiative where normally you use mechanical initiative. Try recalculating initiative each round when normally you don’t, or try not doing it when normally you do. This is one of those things where you’re probably going to want to experiment, and all the while ask the three house rule test questions – they work just as well in retrospect as in prospect!
Ultimately, of course, you can probably subscribe to the simple notion “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”. If you and your group don’t think you need to make a change then don’t! But if you feel like, hey, yeah, maybe the way we do initiative could use some work? Hopefully this has been a help.