Thursday, October 15, 2009

Why I Love Simple Initiative

The players come around a corner and there's a bunch of goblins about to eat a baby. It's time to fight. Who goes first?

The most realistic way to do it is, of course, everybody rolls individually to see who goes when, or friend and foe both go in dexterity order, or something like that. In the old D&D rules, however, the players roll a die, the dungeon master rolls a die, and the highest side goes first--the whole side.

Obviously this makes things simpler--the DM doesn't have to keep track of the initiative rolls for eight different goblins interleaved with however many players, but I like the one-roll-per-side thing for another reason:

When you play a game, it's chaos. This dwarf guy is fiddling with his miniature, the wizard is checking through her spells, the barbarian is answering a text from her boyfriend, the cleric is worried about being down to one hit point, and the elf is thinking about whether to order pizza--if you've ever DMed you know how it is. You can be describing the most bizarre, epic vista or the goriest critical hit and there's still a chance everybody's off in their own little world.

But then you say "Ok, initiative--the dragon rolled a 4, what about you guys?". Then suddenly everyone at the table looks up, they hand the d6 to somebody--"Ok, you roll it"--and they all gather around this person and get absorbed in that one bouncing die--because if it's a 6 they get to do stuff, and if it's a 3, they get to get eaten by a dragon. And they all would rather do stuff then get eaten.

And in that moment of shared anticipation, they are all a team. The players maybe drove here separately in separate cars, they may drive home separately, they probably made their characters separately and their characters may die separately and from separate causes and they all have separate distractions or worries, and the players may not even know each other, but in that little moment they are all together, and they all realize they are playing a game about teamwork and all relying on each other. And suddenly the wizard cares if the thief can backstab because that'll save him from having to run away and the dwarf cares that the cleric has a healing spell because if he does then he can use it right now and it's all happening at once and they're all paying attention to the same thing at the same time because they are all unified in their fear of impending death.

Which is fun.


Michael S/Chgowiz said...

Agreed! My players seem to have a rule going as well - if you lose initiative, you can't roll for it again until someone else rolls. And if you win initiative, you keep rolling for it next round, or next combat, until you lose it.

Funniest damn thing because NOBODY set that rule down in writing or even in words.

Felipe Budinich said...

I also advocate for simple initiative, if it keeps the combat fast, it keeps the combat fun

"if you lose initiative, you can't roll for it again until someone else rolls."

It's the rule of fate :-)
Some people are just jinxed and should not be allowed to roll for everyone.

Patrick W. Rollens said...

Yep, I use simple initiative in my Savage Worlds game, which is saying a lot because Savage Worlds has a really innovative init system that's built into the rules. We discarded it wholesale in favor of a simple d6 roll.

Gamer Dude said...

d6 / side is definitely the way to go. Do you have them declare before the roll? If I remember, I do, but more often than not I forget.

I fiddled w/ instituting something a bit more in-depth ( But I'm not sure I'm sold. More complexity for more realism? Hmmmm....

Anonymous said...

In the beginning, the players tend to just let anybody roll, then they start to notice patterns--like some people tend to be preternaturally good at it--and so they let them. Which is awesome--it helps the sense of comradeship when people have "jobs" in the party.

Gamer Dude:
I don't have them declare first since most of my players aren't experienced/tactically-oriented enough to have that be anything but frustrating. I have them roll, then tell them when it's their side's turn, then let them have a second to argue and wrangle out who does what when.

Again--totally unrealistic, but it builds focus and teamwork.

Norman J. Harman Jr. said...

I've been sold on group initiative for awhile. I was considering doing away with initiative completely. Letting players go "first" every time. Only using surprise.

You got me thinking about how DM saying "roll for initiative" is such a tension/excitement builder and how fun rolling dice can be.

Conor said...

Lovely post. I play AD&D 2E myself, and we still roll group init. You just made me look forward to next time.

Anonymous said...

We're doing declared actions followed by individual initiative. I think declaring actions results in some cool stuff happening - such as a low-level Dwarf Fighter rushing in to attack a killer magic cat right after the party Assassin gets clawed to ribbons by it, because she was already en route and had no time to change her mind.

(In reality, she declared a move up and attack, the Assassin declared an attack on the cat, the cat declared attack on the Assassin. In the end, the cat declared the Assassin delicious.)

Or a hypothetical which has not happened yet, where an M-U declares a Fireball into the room and a party member rushes in just before because he wasn't listening.

I think it's not for everyone, and I'm getting a little tired of it. You need to get everyone to declare for their PC, their dogs, their familiar, the Druid's bear and eagle, summoned monsters, etc. Then you roll Initiative and everyone groans because "I don't want to do that NOW" and I feel bad for saying "no time to change your mind, you move up and attack the mega-cat". It totally feels like a dick move for the DM, but necessary if you declare actions before the roll.

I previously did each side's d6 vs d6, no weapon speed, no casting time. It worked really well but encouraged round-level tactics such as "we all attack and fall back, and the M-U blasts the enemy with a Fireball" when really the enemy should move with you so it resulted in some weird stuff. If you do side vs. side, the referee MUST be ruthless in monster tactics (if they have the intelligence to support them). The players certainly will and if you are artificially easygoing they can run away with your pants.

Also, group initiative means you can't really have initiative-improving abilities or magic in the game unless they affect the whole group (Haste). Or you could average them out, so if three have +2 and three have +0, give the group roll a +1.

You could also do group initiative like group surprise in 1E D&D: the BEST person rolls for surprise. So maybe the best initiative PC rolls, or else the worst, you could justify it either way.

Tedankhamen said...

I think you've put your finger on the difference between RPGs and the wargames from which they were birthed. I remember reading (I think it's in Holmes) that for group initiative, players declare actions in order of lowest to highest Dex, but go in the reverse order. I thought, this is brilliant, because faster types can see what slower are intending to do and react to that. And then I thought that would NEVER work with your average bunch of D&Ders. It works for a bunch of wargamers, who if you've ever seen them, are into EVERY little thing happening. D&D needs that focusing of disparate interests and intellects by a dramatic, tense fun that is absent from the more maniacally-inclined wargames.

Good post.

Unknown said...

Hmm... I can see your point, but I've always preferred the exact opposite system: individual initiative rolled fresh every round. In part because I prefer fiddly systems that offer more complexity, but also because I think it helps make the game less predictable and thus, dull. Far too often when dealing with a simpler initiative system you end up with the knowledge of who goes next and the ability to plan ahead. This often leads to issues where a player will use a move in anticipation of what will happen next round because they can absolutely predict when everyone will act. Adding in re-rolled initiative helps to reduce the chances of that and make the players think a bit more for themselves.

Zak Sabbath said...

I have never noticed an overweening prevalence of predictability or players failing to 'think for themselves" on account of simple initiative.

There may be a few other mechanical differences between whatever game you're playing and what I'm playing that create a context where your remarks make sense, but right now I don't really know what you mean.

Ozreth said...

So is it rerolled after each side goes? Or is it back and forth after the initial rolls?

Zak Sabbath said...

rerolled each round

Ninsiana said...

I know I'm six years late to the party here but just read this post and love this! Going to try it out in our next session.

Zak Sabbath said...


Unknown said...

Lease cars, lease cars lease cars lease cars lease cars lease cars lease cars lease cars lease cars lease cars.