Initiative: the Silent Killer

“The main thing to remember is to do everything in an orderly, step-by-step fashion. Deal with your players’ actions and reactions one by one instead of all at once, or you will never be able to keep track of what round it is, and who’s doing what when.”

– Dungeon Master’s Guide, 1979

In what’s unintentionally turning into an ongoing “what’s wrong with kids these days” series, today I swing my withering gaze towards initiative, the silent killer of good game play. No, really.

In modern d20, combat is a very orderly process. Everyone has an initiative number, and you go in order from top to bottom and then start over again next round. It’s a natural, simple method for keeping track of where you are in the combat and making sure everyone gets their turn. Hard to argue with how logical it is.

Back in old school D&D you determined initiatives for the whole side together, not individuals (it also made you roll each round, but that’s another story). So, if the players won, all the PCs went, then all the monsters went, and so on. The specific order the players went in was usually decided by something terribly scientific like going around the table or just letting people go when they thought of something they wanted to do. It could get pretty messy, hence the stern advice in the opening quote.

At first glance, d20 initiative seems very different from old school D&D, but if you collapse all the different player initiatives and ignore the metaphysical concept of when a round begins and ends, the system turns out to be pretty similar: all the players go, then the GM goes, then all the players go, and so on (it may not seem that way round 1 if some of the players rolled higher than the GM and some lower, but after round 1 that’s the pattern).

That’s all very interesting, you say, but what’s the big deal? It sounds like nothing has really changed except to make it clear when each player goes?

You are exactly right, but as it turns out that tiny detail, giving players a specific turn order, can have a huge impact on the game.

Tell me when it’s my turn…

The GM rolls the attacks for the last slizzard raider (it was a bad round for Fred). When he’s done he looks down at his crib sheet to check the initiative order and says “okay Mikey, you’re at initiative 17, it’s your turn. What do you do?” While Mikey’s deciding what to do, and maybe asking the GM questions about the situation, the other players are basically waiting for their turns. They should be paying attention and thinking about their upcoming actions, but given human nature they may be chit-chatting, kibitzing or strolling into the kitchen to get a drink. Either way, they’re waiting. After Mikey’s done, it’s the next player’s turn, and he gets to wait too.

Seems fine right? But there’s a subtle but powerful difference between having a turn for the players as a whole versus having a specific turn for each individual player:

Saying “okay, the monsters just went, now what do you guys do?” tells the players to huddle up and figure out what they’re doing. It implicitly encourages the players to cooperate and play together. There is negotiation or even debate about who goes when.

On the other hand, saying “okay, initiative 17, so now it’s Mikey’s turn” tells one player it is their turn to act, and tells the other players that it is _not_ their turn so they should butt out.

By precisely enforcing when each player goes, in effect by slicing a broad turn for all the players into several smaller individual turns for each individual player, you set the stage for each player to make decisions in isolation. Each player is closer to being in a solo game with the GM rather than playing with the other players (for extra credit, add up the amount of time each player talks to the GM rather than to other players).

Isolated decision-making also leads to inattention: players pay attention when the GM goes, but stop paying attention to each other. If you aren’t interacting or coordinating with your fellow players, watching what they’re doing becomes a lot less interesting. Players pay attention when the GM acts, because the GM may try to kill their character (one of the more drastic forms of interaction).

Mountains & Molehills

Crazy! you say. I’ve never seen anything like this in my game! You’re totally exaggerating!

Maybe. But rules influence play, and sometimes those influences are quite subtle. Invisible to the naked eye. It took me about 200 games to identify this particular problem, but maybe I’m just slow.

No, individual initiatives doesn’t prevent the players from working together, or having a great game. Obviously not. But it’s hurting rather than helping. It discourages the fun, whether your group consciously realizes it or not.

The Challenge: Embrace the Chaos

“Now initiative dice are rolled, and party A’s score is lower, so party B gets to react to the assault. Balto attacks Aggro (who is in AC 2) with his staff…”

– Dungeon Master’s Guide, 1979

What’s my challenge, you ask? (of course there’s a challenge, there’s always a challenge)

Forget about individual initiative. Just alternate between the GM’s turn and the players’ turn. When it’s the players’ turn, just let them go in whatever order they want. If it gets messy some rounds just sort things out — you’re the GM after all.

Players can already move their initiative order around by delaying and re-delaying, so this method doesn’t really change rules balance, just social behavior. If you’re a stickler for details and want to avoid any possible balance issue, roll initiative normally at the start of the combat and let those players that beat your GM initiative go first, then do the monsters, then let all the players go together from then on. That keeps things the same as the normal d20 rules.

What difference will it make? Hopefully you’ll see more chatter, more attention, and just more interaction at the table. Give it a try.

    Ben Robbins | August 9th, 2007 | , | hide comments
  1. #34 Ben Robbins says:

    “Except 1st ed. actually did have individual initiative.” Mike, are you talking about AD&D? The DMG mentions that you could opt to have each person roll, but pretty much dismisses the idea in the same sentence, and sticks to group initiative like in the example I quoted in the post.

  2. #33 Mike says:

    Good. Except 1st ed. actually did have individual initiative. Not sure about whether the “announce all together, then wait for your initiative” mechanic was in place at the moment. Still, with rolling each round it is more logical, and waiting while initiative is going around is boring as hell.
    Also, don’t forget about 2nd attacks!
    Plus, it may be that 1 minute rounds of old were more adequate for people to be able to talk . While new shorter rounds are more realistic, the same realism dictates that we can only exchange very short replies during them.

  3. […] a variety of games (e.g., the group initiative I’ve used in my games for several years was borrowed directly from there), he spent a while explaining the mechanics of his open-table West Marches game. That seemed to […]

  4. […] I’ve never been a tremendous fan of the “roll initiative at the start of combat and then just cycle that order until combat is over” school of initiative that has existed in a lot of games, but most notably D&D from 3e on. In my experience, it makes everything feel very static, and can lead to problems with players getting distracted while they just wait for a turn. In the past, I’ve worked on other solutions to the problem, with my most common being group initiative (based on this Ars Ludi post). […]

  5. […] can read more here about why this system might be […]

  6. […] a variety of games (e.g., the group initiative I’ve used in my games for several years was borrowed directly from there), he spent a while explaining the mechanics of his open-table West Marches game. That seemed to […]

  7. #28 Zrog says:

    Has anyone ever used the old approach where players declare what they are going to do that round, THEN roll initiative to see what order it all happens in? In this way, players can all discuss what they want to do, but the action sequence is a lot more random.

    I believe this idea was a throwback from 1e, where you rolled initiative every round. Although it’s a lot slower to play and more complex to adjudicate, there’s a certain excitement in terms of “will my spell go off before I get shot by an archer?”, or “Can I get in front of the mage to protect him before that charging goblin does?”. It also encourages casters to take feats like Combat Casting, because they can’t ensure they won’t be casting a spell while they are in someone’s face. The way the rules are now, almost any spellcaster can take a 5-ft step, or shift 1 square, and not have to worry about getting smacked while they’re casting. Considering how powerful spells are in 3ed and earlier, it’s a lot better for the figher-types if they have at least a shot at spell interrupts.

    I must admit that I don’t use this method, mostly because of how difficult it is for the GM to keep track of changing initiatives, how much die-rolling it involves, and the fact that it slows down play. There are ways around these problems (some of them mentioned above), however. Yet, this method DOES give that group-discussion element that people were looking for (talk before init is rolled), and still satisfies the “initiative matters” folk.

  8. #27 Shoe says:

    Brilliant, this article makes me wonder why I’m not already doing imitative this way! I was even playing with the older d&d books my firend’s dad had when I started!

  9. #26 Jon Bray says:

    I understand your line of reasoning, but given that the PCs are not normally playing characters possessed of a hive mind, isn’t this coordination of attacks idea rather unrealistic?

    Before you make the obvious retort: yes, I realise that once you’re comfortable with your compatriots consisting of one half-gnome, one werewombat and the obligatory high-elf warrior princess with a CHA of 18 and knockers which constantly threaten to burst out of her reinforced mithril brassiere you’re probably also not too worried by the lack of realism afforded by the hive mind. Gameplay does after all trump all else.

  10. First off: Great site. Love the articles.

    I stopped using individual initiative about 8 years ago and went back to the old side-by-side way, no matter what a game’s rules stipulate. I find this to be a vast improvement in game play, for all the reasons you outlined. I think this is a case where simulationism subverts good game play. (Individual initiatives seem to make the most sense, realistically.)

    I’m nearly finished with a design called Red Box Adventures. In it, players each make an initiative roll. Adventurers with initiative get to go before the monsters in the first round. After that, it’s just normal side-by-side with all the player-characters acting together after the monsters’ first turn. This keeps the group concept but allows the individuals to feel like they’re empowered. It’s working very well so far.

  11. #23 Harlequin says:

    By serendipity, I’ve found a way to help keep initiative from becoming “the silent killer.”

    The DM was using one of those magnetic combat pads w/dry erase labels to track initiative. But instead of keeping it behind the screen, he kept it conveniently in view of everyone (standing upright) so that everyone knew whose turn it was and who was “on deck.” One of the players assumed responsibility for keeping the thing organized and the result was that everyone (instead of staring into space or texting) watched the action, eagerly anticipating their turn to go. Everything moved along rather nicely.

  12. #22 djtacoman says:

    This is genius. I’m going to try this in my game next weekend.

  13. #20 Xon says:

    Personally, I have always disliked the idea of initiative. In the space of a second or three, it seems rather silly to me to have players acting in some kind of order. i.e. if a round is a second long, it seems like anything alive and not wounded would have an opportunity to act. This also encourages players to think tactically, and work together (a point I most definitely agree with you on). Instead, I allow initiative (or speed, or whatever would determine action order) to allow players the option to announce their actions after I’ve announced mine, allowing them to react to anything that I’ve decided to do. In this manner, going last becomes desirable. However, all actions are resolved simultaneously. Exceptions to this come up from time to time, for instance, if there is a quick draw shoot out between two characters. However, in these cases, the style of the action demands some kind of ordered turn/turns. And, in GURPS (my system of choice) I’ve found this makes combats go by very quickly.

    @Reinhart – I think that miniatures are among the most useful tools a GM could ask for. It can be difficult to plot tactical combats and have the players be fully aware of the environment without some kind of visual representation. It is a useful tool for GMs and players alike.

  14. #19 Reinhart says:

    Also, there’s much talk of players tuning out due to the use of battle grids, miniatures, and other props. I’d like to point out that my experience leads me to believe that is an unrelated, or perhaps even inverted phenomenon.

    I know many people who were introduced into roleplaying in the 1990’s with games that made use of almost no props or artifice. While social scenes had much face to face communication and interaction between players and the GM, combat generally was where player participation dropped considerably. There was rarely a sense of shared reality in most combat scenes, and many of these games generally didn’t grant players combat decisions that had any ramification besides an amount of damage. Regardless of the GM’s flavorful descriptions, by the end of the second turn, minutes had passed and the imagined scene had mostly deteriorated to a featureless landscape where characters pointed weapons at each other.

    Many of these players once scoffed at AD&D but later became quite interested in the maps and miniatures aspect of Dungeons and Dragons, starting the later 3.5 edition. Since then, they’ve become much more engaged in combat scenes, but there were still problems with the players of fighters and other simple warrior classes becoming bored or distracted. This has been mostly alleviated for them in 4e, with the introduction of some tactical relevance and resource management even for warriors.

    I’m just bringing this up because I think some people may be working off of a false sense of nostalgia. Miniatures and grids are not perfect for every game and situation, but obscured communication and the absence of information that would be immediately apparent should not be considered a system “feature.” When it comes to engaging the player, I think it’s more whether the player has a meaningful set of options for each of their actions, than whether they have battle maps to look at or not.

  15. #18 Reinhart says:

    I’ve always wondered about how to deal with the issue of players tuning out, but I think team initiatives are hardly the solution for most of tactical combat scenarios. As Vedron has already mentioned, having teams act uninterrupted means that neither side has time to react to individual events. Any system where peril can present itself within a single turn will have an increase in deadliness and likely frustration when the players or GM feel they are observing events in futility.

    I’m finding that 4e DnD’s initiative system, while still innately limited with abstract turns and rounds, does create an interesting dynamic of players attempting to tactically “control” initiative. Most of my players attempt to gain high initiative specifically to better coordinate their actions with their allies and to react to the behavior of their enemies. They typically hold their turns to after other players or monsters to better setup their own actions.

    By the third or fourth round the turn sequence begins to become more established, but it’s unique for each battle, and based on the decisions of the players. It’s only by this point that players begin to become less focused on what’s going on, as their strategy becomes focused and their turns become more routine and determined by chance. So it’s not perfect, but I actually think it’s progress.

  16. #17 Elias R. says:

    Another factor in some players “shutting off” when it’s not their turn is the heavy use of a battle grid and miniatures. With older versions of D&D where mats and minis were not used, you had to listen to the DM and other players to imagine what was going on, keep a mental image of the scene and participants, and be ready when your turn came. Now a quick glance at the grid map and figures before you go gives you a quick update on the scene, making it very easy to tune out while others are describing their actions.

  17. #16 Idea Assassin says:

    Are your players’ attention spans really that short? Maybe your combats just aren’t that interesting if they can’t hold their attentions in between turns.

  18. #15 Andreas Rönnqvist says:

    Please do get started about character sheets – I’d love to hear a rant about them! :D

  19. #14 ben robbins says:

    Yeah, don’t get me started about character sheets. I have a whole rant about them.

  20. #13 charles ferguson says:

    At a local con a couple of mths ago I watched my first 4e game (to be honest: my first D&D of any flavor for 20 years). I was struck by how each player’s primary avenue of interaction with the game/SIS/each other was via their own character sheet. This was very physical: they looked at the battlemap and then to the GM when they wanted to clarify something, but otherwise almost exclusively at their own char sheets and props. Conversation was the same: maybe 75% questions or advice on specific character powers (either to the GM or each other), and 25% on other stuff like someone else’s general intent, information about the environment, kibbitzing and so on–in other words, on other (outward) ways of interacting with each other and the shared space. Very different from my own memories of 2e / homebrew D&D. They were very foccused on the game (it was a tournament scenario) but they tuned out of the SIS in favor of their char sheets except when it was their turn. The next game I observed was as a player: 3.5ed. I saw exactly the phenomena ben describes. This group was much more animated, they all knew each other (except me). There was lots of social interaction. Over half of all interaction was purely social, and the game-oriented stuff was all heavily laced with social overlays. You know: every roll was kibbitzed, every player action elicited a gaming anectdote or a string of jokes. But one guy was reading a graphic novel at the same time, and another guy was leafing through some sourcebooks. They participated in the social stuff, were a part of the group, but they weren’t paying any real attention to gameplay except when it was their turn. I found this astonishing, as much because everyone else accepted it without blinking. To be clear, I loved the game. The social side was totally familiar, and since no-once else minded the multi-taskers, I didn’t either.
    But yeah. This was totally the tune-in-for-your-turn-only kind of play ben describes.

  21. #12 AzaLiN says:

    I think the idea behind individual initiatives is to give players (especially powergamers!!!) more definition as individuals instead of party members, and give them a better power/importance high when their turn comes around and they can stride past their teammates, according to plan or independent of it, and smite the enemies themselves. They get the spotlight for themselves, for a few moments they don’t have to share the stage with the team. Your right about it being more individualistic than team oriented, but that’s the intention, not a side effect.

    I have the players sharing initiative right now, mostly to speed combat along and keep everyone from getting bored and impatient while waiting for their turns, while the avenger figures out how many d6s his ray of avenging doom teleporting finisher does. Only thing is that the power gamers want individual initiatives back (the other two don’t though!).

    I’m thinking of modifying individual initiatives slightly so that consecutive creatures/PCs share initiative if on the same team. However, i will definitely not go back to individual initiatives because that’s too slow and it taxes the non-active players far far far too much

  22. #11 Vedron says:

    I think the “fire team” approach makes a lot of sense for large groups. The Army has been organizing fights for a long time, and a typical squad has two four man fire teams + a squad leader. If I had 6+ players I’d consider breaking them up into teams as well. When we played the D-series, we generally had Team Sneaky (monks, thieves, invisible mages, etc) and Team Tank (all the heavy firepower who would come in to reinforce the sneaks or establish a “base of fire”).

    Likewise, the monsters sometimes need to be split into two groups. First, this is good because it breaks up the GM’s turn, which can sometimes take 10 mins or more in a complicated encounter. Second, it prevents the monsters from ganging up too much, which can lead to a lot of player death. Finally, it allows the players to react to the monster’s plans and disrupt their coordination.

    So I think the challenge is to come up with an initiative system that lumps folks into ~4 critter groups.

  23. #10 ben robbins says:

    The group could have been split into the fighter types and non fighter types

    I’d go the other way — make each team a mix of character types so each can operate independently (the “combined arms” approach).

  24. #9 S'mon says:

    Thanks Ben, I’ll bear that in mind. Sometimes the group does break down naturally into groups; eg last game the PCs were 3 Royal Guards, their Captain (Cleric) and Lieutenant (Paladin), 2 Royal Pathfinders (scouts), a Wizard and a Druid. The group could have been split into the fighter types and non fighter types, although rearranging seating would have been a challenge – new players kept turning up for the first hour or so of the game; I went from 3 the previous week to 9 that week, which I think would challenge most GMs. :)

  25. #8 ben robbins says:

    For that large group problem you mention in that thread S’mon, I was going to tack this at the end of Partners In Crime: Teaming Up at the Table but cut it:

    If you have lots of players, you can split the table into virtual teams and then have each team act together during combat. They’re still on the same side and everything, but they will probably opt to position themselves by team in a fight (team A takes the left, team B takes the right, whatever). For planning each team can huddle and chat while the other team is taking actions. It’s _far_ easier to huddle with just your group of four than with eight people at once. Naturally you want to change seating to match the teams.

    That method has worked for me very well for groups 7 and up.

  26. #6 Toren Atkinson says:

    Of course the way to fix the problem without breaking the rules is for every player to hold their action until the last player’s initiative and all go at once. I’ve done that once or twice with my character when playing, just so it’s easier to coordinate attacks.

    Doing it your way throws the balance off in regards to how valuable Dex is compared to other stats. Not a huge deal, but you lose something at the same time you’re gaining something else. And does the guy who takes Improved Initiative always roll for the team? Doing so essentially turns that feat inito a group feat rather than an individuals’ feat, and that changes the rules slightly too.

  27. #5 Valvorik says:

    Moving from allowing coordination among players about what their characters do (in d20 working best if all monsters go on one initiative result rather than having minions on one and boss on another etc.) ~ which the “talk is a free action” rule does permit, to directly encouraging it raises one issue for me.

    As noted in another article, turn order is one way in which the “strong personality” at a table is restrained and I think enforcing “short communications” is the way to do that, otherwise “Sir Bossalot” has the time to tell everyone else exactly what their characters should be doing.

    If you accept the “round is 6 seconds” concept there is not alot of time for discussion, it’s more “Cleric, I need healing”, “Hey, I need that ogre flanked”, “Plan Zero” sort of talk (Plan Zero is the mage’s code for “I’m lobbing a fireball, don’t get mixed in with the foes too much”) – that’s pretty much what my players do now. Each of those is 2-3 seconds, let players make one burst of that sort and one more if they like as various actions resolve “Oh crap, I need cover now!”

  28. #4 Syrsuro (Carl) says:

    Interesting perspective. I agree that the problem exists, but I don’t think that returning to a simple old school “What do you all do now” or (worse yet) having a “caller” is the solution.

    The rules were changed to help clarify those ‘messy rounds’. And I think it does that reasonably well, and thus shouldn’t be thrown out with the bathwater, as it were. Yes, the party and the opponents are simply alternating actions.

    (And I think a big issue is exactly HOW you played D&D in the old days. Some DMs allowed the players to ‘group think’ their combats, so that you always knew what the others were going to do and when (or at least what they planned to do). And thus you could plan your actions based on what they would be doing that round. Other DMs did not. And the inability to base you actions upon what they would be doing or what they did was a serious problem (fireballing the front rank being just one small example). I think that satisfying those who wanted to avoid metagaming combat while still allowing players to have sufficient information to plan their actions was one of the most important goals of the 3.x system – and it is why your entire turns actions all occur essentially instantaneously. Since no one else is moving when I cast my fireball, I can place it safely without worrying about what other people are planning on doing, etc. I am guessing from the above that you did not have problems with your players ‘metagaming’ or cooperating when they planned their actions for the round.)

    Rather, I would ask how the D&D3.x system can be improved with house rules to solve the problem. (Not because I want to preserve the system, but because imho there are features of the system, and how it interacts with the other rules of the game, which make it preferable to the former lack of a system).

    Essentially, can initiative order be moved from the foreground as something that drives the combat to the background as something the DM uses to resolve sticky issues during combat, while leaving the players thinking of themselves as acting as a group?

    One could even pervert the core rules to allow the players to act as one. Given the ability to delay, etc. – the players can pretty much act in any order they wish (in between the opponents actions), as long as they all cooperate (and as long as the DM doesn’t mind). (Of course, this will slow down combats, as a side effect).

    With that in mnid, what about the following?:

    First, initiative is rolled as per 3.x rules. This determines who acts before the opponents. After the opponents have acted, the party decides what they are going to do, as a group, as in old school D&D. If there are conflicts or unexpected occurances, initiative can be used to determine who acts when, but otherwise they act cooperatively. Finally, based upon what they did during the round (and when they did it), the new initiative order is set – not based upon what they rolled at the start, but upon what they did during the previous round.

    All that being said, there is a side of me that wonders what would happen if the ‘move action’ plus ‘standard action’ part of the rules were broken up into two descrete phases of the round. But my preference for simplicity keeps me from going down that path.


  29. #3 Ping says:

    A related side-effect is that when it IS their turn, players are less receptive and more defensive about advice or suggestions. They are less willing to roleplay or set-up other players or do anything other than direct damage on their turn. It’s only natural. They’re protecting their turf because if it’s not a group effort, their turn becomes the only opportunity to have an effect on the situation or shine in the spotlight.

    As far as inattention goes, I’ve definitely detatched from the game when it’s not my turn. I’ve seen and done it all from daydreaming, reading email, getting a sandwich to just leaving the room for a prolonged breather. The rules imply you’re “on a break” after all. Bad player. No biscuit.

  30. #2 Reggie says:

    Very interesting theory. I’ve got a large group of 6 sometimes 7 players whose focus of attention can get hard to manage.. I’m going to try this for sooth!

  31. #1 emb says:

    Great article. It’s always seemed easier to do it that way to me anyway. But you’re right, thinking back, we do act pretty independently when using strict initiative order

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