This final installment is an inventory of some of the commonly used initiative systems, at least in games I’ve played, and what I find to be their strengths and weaknesses.

The Modern D&D Standard

Since 3e, D&D has been using pretty similar variations on Declare and Act in Order-style: each character gets a unique imitative score once per combat that’s the sum of a d20 roll and modifiers (usually Dex modifier plus miscellaneous bonuses from feats). The GM then counts down from the highest to the lowest each round, with some ability to ready and/or hold to reset initiative. Your order seldom changes within a given battle.

Strengths: The main advantage of this style is that it allows you to use “until the [start/end] of your next turn” as a counter that means “this will give everyone else in the fight the chance to go before it ends. If it’s something defensive, it lasts through a full set of enemy actions. If it’s a group buff or debuff, it affects everyone else once. If it’s something that can be interrupted, all the enemies get a chance to interrupt it. There’s also low overhead after the first round: once you get everyone’s order worked out, you can just cycle through it until the fight ends without further delay from recalculation/reordering.

Weaknesses: This initiative system is so powerfully boring that the current lead designer is publicly trying to replace it. After the first round, you just get locked into the same cycle over and over again, and having a really good initiative bonus really only gets you one round of benefit due to the continuous cycle (e.g., if you go first and can’t get to an enemy, it’s almost like you’re going last). While subsequent rounds are easy enough to keep track of, the first round actually takes a non-trivial amount of work to figure out, as you have to write everyone’s name down with their initiative result and make sure you leave enough space to fit in the players that tell you a result that’s between two existing results. If you have enough actors, you can inculcate further delay as players forget when they’re going to go, get distracted, and don’t start planning their actions until called upon by the GM.

Beyond the Wall

The system used in Beyond the Wall is very similar to D&D, with a crucial difference: initiative score is fixed rather than rolled. All PCs have an initiative score equal to level + Dex mod + class bonus. Most NPCs just use level unmodified (so will often go last unless they outclass the PCs, and won’t go first unless they significantly outclass the PCs, due to PC rogues often getting a +4 or better to their level for this score).

Strengths: In addition to most of the strengths of the standard D&D mechanic, the crucial benefit is that you don’t have the first round calculation drain. It’s even recommended that you have the players sit around the table in the order of their PCs’ initiative scores, so you can just whip around the table, pausing for wherever the monsters are inserted.

Weaknesses: This has most of the same weaknesses as standard D&D, with the addition of losing any kind of variation at all. In practice, however, this isn’t much of a drawback. I don’t really feel like the variations due to rolling mean that much in the long run when you’re only randomizing once per combat (and characters with good bonuses are going to go first more often than not anyway), and the speed in this method is a big help. Additionally, by placing the players in order around the table, it’s much more obvious when your turn is about to happen, so it’s not a surprise when you get called on (and, thus, you’ve often started planning your action, further speeding things up).

Group Initiative

As mentioned previously, when running D&D/Pathfinder I actually tend to use group initiative for the reasons outlined by Ben Robbins. In my particular variation, I average out the NPCs’ initiative bonus, have everyone roll, and the players with a higher score than the enemies get a free turn, the enemies go, then all the PCs go, and so on, alternating between NPCs and PCs. Players are free to strategize and trade their order within the PC turn.

Strengths: This preserves most of the advantages of the standard D&D initiative, while encouraging much more tactical play as players coordinate. Particularly in 3.x/Pathfinder, when you could freely delay your action and lower your initiative score, players could choose to coordinate in this way if they wanted to anyway. Players tend to consider their overall strategy and cooperate much better, in my experience. It’s also a little faster than the standard, because the GM doesn’t have to write anything down, just figure out who gets a free turn before the NPCs.

Weaknesses: There could be some disruption in the timing of effects (players can decide to go before or after their allies, depending on whether stretching or shrinking the duration of an effect is helpful). If a lot is going on, you may need some kind of marker to remember to get to everyone (“Wait… did I go this round already? It’s been so long since I’ve gone…”). Pushier players can dominate play, always going first and/or puppeting the choices of less opinionated players (though, as discussed in the previous posts, this might not always be the worst thing).

Balsera/Popcorn

Used first in Marvel Heroic and later in various other projects including Atomic Robo, this system includes a few varying mechanics to decide who goes first and sometimes to break the order, but otherwise simply has the last player to act declare the next character to act (from a pool of characters that haven’t acted yet this round).

Strengths: This is extremely fast to set up, and has even stronger tactical play than group initiative: there’s a lot of strategy in picking an order that provides synergy to your team and disadvantages the choices of the enemies. It generally results in a natural shakeup of the action order each turn, without any randomization required.

Weaknesses: It’s very hard to do much with bonuses in this system (unless they’re constructed to allow you to seize the initiative somehow). You cannot reliably use “until your next turn” mechanics with it, as the length in between turns can be extremely variable.

Shadowrun

Superficially a Declare and Act in Order system similar to D&D, Shadowrun’s system features multiple turns within a single round as a core feature. Essentially, while basic characters will usually have an initiative result under 10, enhanced characters can easily exceed this limit (possibly getting initiatives in the 20s or even 30s). Once a full pass through in decreasing order of initiative has happened, everyone deducts 10 from their score, and those that still have a positive result get another pass for additional turns (e.g., if one character has a 22 initiative, and the rest have under 10, the 22 initiative character will go first, everyone else will go, and then the 22 initiative character will get to go twice again before the end of the round). Initiative is rerolled every round, and there are other actions that can cost initiative (making it less likely to get an additional turn).

Strengths: Shadowrun is the pinnacle of focus on how character speed grants a huge advantage due to the imitative system: it’s a really good system to advantage playing fast characters. Since each round can include multiple passes, effects that use your action but last for the remainder of the round can actually be hugely helpful if you’re going to get to go again while the effect is still active. Due to rolling each round, and the breakpoints in results that means a great initiative roll can get you an extra action beyond just a good roll, the order remains meaningful and interesting.

Weaknesses: The system is hugely time consuming and fiddly. It has all the time delay drawbacks of D&D’s initiative, and beyond. There’s a tremendous amount of bookkeeping for the GM. Effects that last for the rest of the round can matter hugely, or not at all, depending on how many actions are left.

Classic Storyteller

The Storyteller initiative mechanic, which solidified in the Revised editions and seems to be more or less intact in the 20th anniversary editions, is a Declare First, Act in Order system with reverse declaration of actions and a general intention of rerolling each round. The roll is unusual for the system: in an attempt to speed up the slowness of it all, you roll a single d10 and add your relevant traits instead of rolling a dice pool. Multiple actions (very common in most of the games) work a lot like Shadowrun, in that everyone with additional actions takes them after the first normal pass through the initiative.

Strengths: Honestly, there aren’t really a lot of pluses to this system, unless you really, really like reverse action declaration and re-randomzing each round.

Weaknesses: It’s slow and cumbersome. It is key to the system’s defensive death spiral (in that you have to sacrifice your upcoming action to try to dodge or parry an attack, which still might do a little damage, and now you don’t have an action to fight back so you really just hope you go first next round to put the enemy on the defensive). It really only works at all because combat tends to be very rare in the World of Darkness compared to D&D. And, honestly, I don’t think anyone I’ve every played with remembered that you’re supposed to reverse declare, implicitly turning it into a Declare and Act in Order system.

Fading Suns

The initiative system in Fading Suns is clearly derived from the same 90s sensibilities as Storyteller’s, but takes it in a different direction (possibly because combat was supposed to happen a lot more in the setting). Initiative is a pure comparison of whatever primary skill you’re using for the round (e.g., if you’re shooting someone, your initiative is equal to your Shoot skill), with ties broken by speed-related traits. It’s technically then a Declare and Act in Order system, except that you’ve implicitly at least made something of a declaration by choosing which skill you’re using.

Strengths: It’s almost as fast as Beyond the Wall’s system, and easy to understand, with some interesting room for variation.

Weaknesses: Practically, it’s just Beyond the Wall’s fixed initiative system: you’re almost always just going to use your best combat skill in a fight, so your initiative is going to vary extremely rarely.

The One Ring

The latest Middle Earth-themed RPG has a very straightforward and interesting initiative system: your initiative order is purely based on what “stance” you take each round (which is basically your position + intention; in order to make a ranged attack, for example, you have to take a particular stance and have party members that are taking melee stances to screen you from the enemy). Each stance has its own mechanics, so you’re picking it for tactical reasons and your initiative order just falls out of those decisions.

Strengths: Unlike most other initiative systems, there’s an extremely strong tactical component: your turn order is intimately linked to your action choice, but in a way that’s faster than typical declarations or weapon speed rules.

Weaknesses: Practically, there’s a very limited range of initiative results, so there could be some annoyance breaking ties in big fights. I don’t have enough playtest experience with this to fully understand further limitations.

One Roll Engine

An interesting variation on a Declare First system, the One Roll Engine games (e.g., Wild Talents, Better Angels, etc.) get everyone to decide what they’re trying to do, everyone rolls their actions, and then the order is determined by the results of the roll (the system generates success results with both a “width” and a “height,” so one can be used for effect and one can be used for speed). Your intended action can be invalidated by your opponent getting a faster result (taking damage tends to also damage your success total if you  haven’t acted yet).

Strengths: As far as actually simulating the chaos of a “realistic” combat, ORE’s mechanic is probably a much better model than any other system where everyone takes discrete turns. It collides intention and execution in a way that nothing else does.

Weaknesses: ORE is confusing as hell. As discussed previously, we wound up converting my Better Angels game to Savage Worlds because everyone was so baffled by the system. I suspect that it all becomes very cool if you have a group dedicated to really learning the dice paradigm and using it effectively, but that was not my group. I may try it again at some point and hope for a better result.

Savage Worlds

Speaking of Savage Worlds, its initiative system is the one that’s pretty much completely divorced from in-game traits or decisions: you draw cards from a deck each round and Declare and Act in Order from the best card to the worst (with a Joker giving you a bonus and the ability to act at any point in the round).

Strengths: Since it’s so divorced from the rest of the system, it’s probably the fastest way to re-randomize each round if that’s your bliss. It’s extremely easy to mod further to your tastes, because it’s so detached from the rest of the mechanics.

Weaknesses: It’s very detached from the rest of the mechanics. You’re not really modeling anything more than, “It’s exciting when we go in a different order every round!” It’s ultimately the epitome of randomization equaling fairness: sometimes you go first, sometimes you go last, and you’ll probably get to do both within a fairly short collection of combats.

The Rest

Most of the other games I’ve played with any regularity are very similar to one of the ones above, or are games with such little relative space devoted to combat rules that the initiative system is basically “go in the order that makes sense; if you have a disagreement, break ties this way…” Clearly this isn’t an exhaustive list, and I’m interested in hearing from commenters about other games with interesting initiative mechanics.

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