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 | , | show 34 comments