Last time, I laid out the components of common initiative systems. This time, I’m going to look deeper into the potential ramifications of hacking the initiative system in your own game.

Integrated Systems

The first step to take before tinkering with initiative in an existing game is to consider what other elements of the game system are integrated into initiative: if you make major changes, what other rules are you going to have to alter as well?

Since D&D is the inspiring example, the following are the major follow-on effects of changing initiative:

  • A number of effects in the game have their durations set to the activating player’s next turn. The intent with these is often that every other character in the combat will get to take a turn before the effect completes. How does changing the fixed initiative order affect these durations?
  • All characters normally get to add Dexterity and potentially other bonuses to initiative. Will you be changing the perceived value of Dexterity if you change how initiative works? Will you have to adjust feats or class abilities that previously gave a bonus to initiative to keep them worthwhile?
  • Some mechanics trigger based on permutations of the initiative round. For example, Assassin Rogues get a bonus to attack anyone that hasn’t acted yet; does this class feature become less valuable with a different initiative system?

You can also have these problems in reverse. For example, in Savage Worlds, by default initiative isn’t tied to any stats or other major mechanics (in core, a couple of powers make changes to the system). If you changed it to a more traditional initiative system, you’d be giving a new bonus effect to whatever traits enhanced your initiative result.

Especially if you’re tinkering with a game where your players have already made build choices, it’s important to get buy-in for any changes: your players might have made different purchases if your house rule had been in place from the start.

Speed and Coordination

The more often you make decisions and randomizations in your initiative system, the more time it’s going to eat up at the table. This can be entirely related to time to employ the system (e.g., rolling and adding each round is obviously more time than just doing it once at the start of combat). It can also have to do with the coordination overhead involved (if you’re using a system that allows players some discretion in who goes next, there’s much more impetus for table chatter to work out the optimal order).

Even beyond the speed involved, degree of player coordination is a major component of different initiative systems. In team initiative and Balsera/popcorn-style, almost the entire point is to get the players to figure out what order makes the most tactical sense. Conversely, in declare and act in order and tick-based styles, there’s not often a lot of control other players’ needs can have on when you get to go. In the middle, declare first systems can have some level of up-front coordination (e.g., “I’m almost certainly going to go first and kill that guy this round, so don’t declare your attack on him.”), but less than when the players have precise control over who goes before someone else.

Due to the level of coordination allowed, your group makeup can have a huge impact on what makes sense for your initiative house rule. If you have players that aren’t comfortable thinking tactically within the system, choosing a style with more coordination can help get players to work better as a team. Conversely, if you have players that are too comfortable thinking tactically, you might want to limit coordination out of worry that they’ll boss the other players around. Meanwhile, you should also consider how long your turns wind up taking. If your players are generally very fast to choose and resolve actions, you have space to change initiative to something that takes a little more time. But if your rounds already drag under a faster initiative system, it can create further slog in your combats to change to initiative that requires more time.

The Simulation Trap

Ultimately, a lot of initiative tinkering seems to me like it happens out of a desire to fix combat on a simulation level. Initiative, as mentioned in the last article, is a huge abstraction with results that are highly counterintuitive if you’re looking for something that simulates reality (or at least would make sense in a movie). In real fights (and even the “real” fights of popular entertainment), everyone acts at the same time, and the more people that are involved the more chaotic everything becomes. It can be very tempting to try to fix the obvious fakeness of RPG fights by coming up with an initiative system that’s a better simulation of reality.

However, the closer you get to something that feels genuine, the more complex your initiative system will become. It’s probably a Zeno’s paradox of systems design: something that gets halfway closer to perfection takes twice as much time and effort at the table. If you could create a system that perfectly matched your expectation of what can happen in a “real” fight, it would likely require minutes for every in-game second for each person in the fight. Given that so much of combat is a huge abstraction in the first place, when attempting to hack initiative, make sure you’re not turning your fights into a boring slog in pursuit of a level of simulation your players won’t really care about anyway. The end result of lovingly creating a voluminous rules engine that captures an element of the world in a thorough way is almost always to have your players avoid it as much as possible because it’s way too confusing and time consuming (see, also, D&D 3e‘s grappling rules).

Next time, I’ll do a lightweight review of initiative systems in various games I’ve played, and why I like or dislike them.