On Taking the Initiative

Damn it!

Do you know what the primary, most important, difference is between old school style and new school style games?

When I returned from Alaska, I started a Hackmaster game with friends. The real reason that happened, is because monsters in 3.5 didn't have a morale score. I was trying to run games play by e-mail from Alaska, and was looking for an unbiased metric for monster behavior. I even asked about morale (and got answered) in sage advice.

So, practically, I went with Hackmaster because I had it, and it had morale values. The more I learned about Hackmaster, the more I saw the way it elegantly handled a number of issues that came up in first edition, such as mages using armor, lethality, character behavior, et al.

But it used d10, second edition style initiative and I didn't like it.

The Test

There were a couple of things that were troublesome. Any positive factors and you could lose your turn (You got a 14, you go next round!) which was a problem in actual table top play.

So we tried everything. Everything mechanical, at any rate. We tried a d12. We tried a count system. We tried a step system. We rolled multiple dice and had rolling, continuous initiative. We tried declare first and roll. We tried, well, a lot.

You know what worked best in play? Vegas Style 1d6, roll then declare initiative.

Oh, there's so much wrong with it! It doesn't track weapon speeds! It doesn't allow interrupting spellcasters! It doesn't allow individual character factors to modify your initiative! It's all that wasted design space!

I'm a designer. I want choices to matter and have an effect in play. Initiative is a great place for that!

Only it isn't.

The Result

Lots of things differentiate the different play styles. But the most crucial is speed of combat. Yes. Player skill this, character builds that. But in the heat of actual game play, having a combat be fast and deadly, allowing you to spend more time on exploration, is the core of old school play. 

And having individual initiative removes that.

The instant you make each individual take their own turn in order, you turn a five minute combat into a thirty minute combat. You use a map with letters and positioning, you double that again. 

And after playing Dungeons & Dragons for thirty years with hundreds of people: Having a six hour session where you have five hours of combat, versus one hour of combat, has been the most obvious and pointed difference between the styles of play. 

The Truth

You don't need initiative. 

It wasn't even in the game until Eldritch Wizardry was released. Before that the only determining factor was weapon length.

All games will work perfectly fine (and very fast) if you just let the players go, and then the monsters go. 

But sometimes, it can be useful. You don't want every combat to take an hour, but you might want the important ones to! This is even touched on in Advanced Dungeons & Dragons where it's suggested using a more complicated system for one to one duels. 

Some of it is simply a matter of taste.


  1. I find, actually, that per-side initiative round by round adds a surprising amount of excitement, tension, and play chat for very little mechanical upkeep. Because I use a rotating caller who is also the initiative roller, it is also a democratizing force that lets every player (if not character) potentially be a deciding factor in combat.

    1. I also use a team system, but I like the variant of having a "team leader" bonus. Esentially, who ever is leading the group at the time (the rogue if he is disarming traps, the fighter/commander in an expected battle, the ranger when he is guiding the others, etc.) adds their initiative bonus to the roll. If a team is surprised or divided as to who should be leader, they get no bonus.

  2. I agree with Roger. Per side initiative round by round but if a party splits up or is two large they might count as an additional group

    1. I did state this explicitly in the article.

      You know what worked best in play? Vegas Style 1d6, roll then declare initiative.

  3. We still play Hackmaster 4e weekly. The only major change we made to inititive is that any 10+ goes on 10. and just keep it rolling.

    We've not switched to 5e (and have no plans to do so) but I have played A&8 and would like to use a count system.

  4. In Crumbling Epoch, I use a d6 based initiative system. You add +1 if you are not wearing metal armor, and you add +1 if you are not encumbered. My recommendation is that you use group initiative, but the group can subdivide if it wants to (so armored people do initiative, and unarmored people do initiative, for example.)

    Keep it simple, keep it moving. Initiative should not be where it bogs down.

  5. When we were playing HM4 we ended up using a modified rolling initiative system. It was clunky, but gave the feel we were looking for. Now we play HM5 and the count system works pretty darn well. The first few combats were a bit longer than I like, but once everyone was comfortable with it (2-3 sessions at most) combats are fast and furious - only really big gnarly fights take more than a few minutes.

  6. In the system I'm developing, I'm leaning strongly toward "monsters go first," with a few particular character types that "break this rule," like scouts and thieves.

    Part of the reason for this is I've found it's easier for a lot of players to react to the monsters than it is to make speedy, effective, first-turn decisions.

    Of course, I want to keep my maps and miniatures, so it seems like a good idea for keeping the battle running quickly without sacrificing my toys. ;)


  7. I use a round robin winning side goes first iniative with weapon speeds. roll a d12, highest side goes first. if initiative score for round is over weapon speed attacks are made at -4 to hit. If you are drawing a weapon in a round subtract the whole weapon speed from the chance to attack. Fiddly, detail rich, and simple.

  8. New guy here. First, thanks for the insightful article. Second, question for those here using group initiative with die roll modifications for weapon speeds, encumbrance etc. Given that these variables will differ widely based on the makeup of a group, how does one determine how to factor them into the equation?

    For instance, let's say a party has an encumbered fighter bearing a large unwieldy ax and an unencumbered thief armed with a dagger. How would these variables be factored in?

    1. have an action factor/weapon speed. Beat it and all is good. Don't beat it and not only is your score likely lower than your foes initiative score but you are at a disadvantage (minus to hit/1 action, 1/2 move... whatever works in your campaign).

    2. If I understand what you are suggesting, it seems that this sort of mechanism would work well with an individual, cyclic system of initiative of latter editions of D&D. However if one is sticking to a group initiative system the question is how would you implement such an action factor/weapon speed mechanism?

      For instance, do you add up all of the individual values of weapon speeds for each member of each party and then modify the group initiative roll by these, or do you simply use the modifier for either the fastest or slowest weapon held by a member of either group? As I see it, there are drawbacks to both of these methods.

      While adding up the values of each weapon speed of each weapon carried by each group of combatants may give you an average modifier value to apply to the initiative roll, but it comes at the high cost of sacrificing speed and flow of combat, a feature which was supposed to be the distinct advantage of group initiative.

      On the other hand, if one assigns the group a single weapon speed (or encumbrance value or what have you) based upon the highest or lowest weapon speed (etc) of a member of that group the speed is retained. However there are different drawbacks here as well, based upon which approach is taken:

      If you decide to assign the group weapon speed modifier based upon the quickest weapon held by a member of that group you could very well end up in a situation with a party of mostly heavily encumbered combatants bearing unwieldy weapons but with one stealthy dagger armed thief could, on average, win the initiative over groups containing, on average, unencumbered board & sword fighters.

      If you instead determine group weapon speed by the slowest weapon held by a member of that group you end up with the reverse problem, thus nerfing the more agile members of the group.

      Perhaps I'm missing a third alternative; if anyone has any ideas I'm all ears, because I like the idea of group initiative, and I like initiative modifiers based upon encumbrance, dexterity and weapon speed, but I don't think these two are well suited to each other.

    3. @Tad

      I've never seen anyone bother with weapon speed factors when using a group initiative system.

    4. Yes, Tad. In general the roll is the roll and those things aren't factored in. Because, is it really necessary?

      That said, phased initiative is classic. It's by side, but movement is handled, then ranged combat, then melee, with longer weapons striking first, then spells handles those issues nicely.

    5. You don't have the weapon speed of the slowest member of the party modify initiative every round. The chances of hitting are modified for each combatant are modified based on the group initiative, with initiative not being simply quickness of striking speed but advantage in combat.
      I've got a more detailed explanation over on my blog so as to mot hijack this post too much: http://aeonsnaugauries.blogspot.com/2013/12/initiative-and-weapon-speed.html

    6. Ah, OK, that makes sense. I've not actually played earlier editions of D&D so much of this is new to me. A big part of the allure of moving to the group initiative from what I gather is that it plays so much quicker and is less fiddly. I was just wondering if it could also accommodate what some find to be the strengths of the individual initiative system, namely that it can better model how the factors already mentioned would influence combat. The phased initiative sequence sounds like an interesting compromise. Of course it still doesn't factor individual factors such as dexterity/alertness and encumbrance into the equation. But then that might just have to be the price of quicker combat.

    7. Doing d10 individual initiative, subtracting bonuses, and adding weapon speed factor, while having the referee count up (this is basically the 2E method) looks like the easiest way to actually use speed factors to me, though I will admit I have never actually seen this used in the wild. But if you really like the idea of speed factors, you might want to give it a look.

    8. Thanks for the recommendation Brendan. I will have to look at this more closely. I have not used a count system before but it has always seemed somewhat unwieldy to me. Also, for anyone interested, I've just written my own thoughts regarding the merits of an individual initiative system vis a vis individual initiative over at my blog (http://arsphantasia.wordpress.com/2013/12/03/on-how-to-determine-initiative/). Feel free to throw your own 2c in if you want.

    9. The system Brendan described looks also like Hackmaster Basic. In that system, as characters gain levels they get a speed bonus, which translates to a bonus for initiative.

    10. The house rule for initiative that I am going to use from now on for AD&D is roughly: group initiative on d6. The difference is used as a modifier to the weapon speed or casting time of each player, and they act on that phase. Dex mod also applies to weapon use. Phases are counted off, one through ten. Initiative less than one acts on one, greater than ten acts on ten.

      So, if the player's side rolls a 4 and the monster side rolls a 3, the players will act on their weapon speed minus 1 (4 - 3 = 1), while the monsters will act on weapon speed plus 1 (and unarmed weapon speed is 0, as usual). This does mean that unintelligent monsters will go first a lot, but they also usually lose out in the charge round, which I'll handle pretty much just as in AD&D.

      As an aside, I'll be using the unarmed combat rules from UA, so while people with just fists may go first a lot, they won't be very effective.

    11. The way Brendan describes is how our DM handles initiative in the AD&D (mostly 2E) game I have played in for about 3 years now. It was fun at first but over time I've grown weary with it because it draws out combats, which has worsened at higher levels. Many rounds the DM figures out the order for attacks that just cause non-lethal damage on both sides so there is no effect of actually determining order.

  9. If it's always players then monsters (or vice versa) wouldn't that heavily skew combat in one side's favor? At least a group initiative seems necessary. Most DMs I know group monster initiative together anyway. Though, the only problem I had with initiative is with games that make you have to roll initiative on every round.

    As for weapon speed (a concept I like), there's other ways to model that. In a system of my own design, bigger weapons/attacks reduce your movement speed and what other actions you can take on your turn.

    Personally, I think a bigger culprit to long combats lies with how long turns last. Even for players who love combat, reducing turn length is beneficial since each player can act more frequently in battle. 4th Edition is the worst offender I experienced. Each character has four action types to spend, ways to increase the number of actions, and so many abilities that even a 1st level character creates heavy analysis paralysis. I once suffered a combat with seven players and a truckload of minions that took 30 to 40 minutes to finish one round.

    1. No, no more then deciding to wear armor would.

      It's an old school game, so the player skill part is in taking actions that prevent you from being taken by surprise.

    2. Oh, of course, but I mean what happens if both sides aren't surprised.

      This type of game style is something my group is gradually becoming exposed to. My DM likes the "new school" game style, but he also absolutely loves the kind of creativity "old school" encourages where players try to find ways to avoid unnecessary fights and ensure necessary ones end quickly and efficiently. I personally enjoy playing my character such that she uses clever plans to end fights without ever drawing her blade, despite her being largely combat class.

  10. I use a similar system where only the GM rolls the dice.
    .For the player characters and each member of their party, their
    INTV = Dex score + Wis mod. + Armor / weapon modifier
    INTV score is recorded on the characters info sheet
    . ..
    For monsters , INTV = d20 roll + Reflex bonus.
    The DM will determine the initiative score for the monsters or NPC’s opponents; rarely breaking the monster party into two groups if necessary for dramatic effect. The first round of melee, only those members of the player’s party whose INTV equals or exceeds that of the monsters party may perform one full round of action, then all the monsters will act for this first simulated combat round. Do not roll dice to determine INTV for members of the PC party.
    The second round of action or melee, all members of the player’s party act first, preferably in order of initiative score. This is followed by all the members of the opposing party controlled by the GM. For clarity, the DM might assign clockwise seating to the players in descending order of INTV score; i.e. the player with the highest INTV score sits at the GM’s left and lowest INTV score will sit at the GM’s right.
    . . .
    Game action proceeds in this manner, PC group followed by monsters each round until there is conquest, withdrawal, capitulation or death.

    When the player characters enter the realm of the unknown, they are out of their element; this often gives monsters the bonus of concealment or surprise. If the INTV score for the monster’s exceeds any character’s INTV score by 10 or more, then that member of the PC’s party is surprised the first round, and only the first round of combat. Surprised characters lose their shield and dexterity based bonus to defense, cannot cast spells, cannot use ranged weapons and they cannot engage in complex mental activity or processing; however, saving throws and melee attacks are normal for duration of this round.
    . . .
    Sometimes monsters will gain an INTV modifier based upon the light source available to the PC party:

    Sub Optimal (-) dawn, dusk, lantern, infravision.

    Moonlight (+2) full moon, torch, low light vision.

    Starlight (+5) moonless night, candle.

    Pitch black (+9) character is effectively blind.

  11. I don't agree that having individual initiative prevents combat from being fast and deadly. I think if some systems draw out what "should be" five minutes to thirty or more, that is down to more than form or even presence of initiative. though I do expect that going from simple "players go ... then monsters go", to actions in order of individual initiative determined each round must slow things some, while enhancing tension and a feeling of verisimilitude. Sure, no one "needs" initiative, but we may value what we think it brings to the game.


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