Arcane Game Lore

Notes for tonight's game: TPK!!!

April RPG Blog Carnival – The Combat Experience – Initiative

This month’s RPG Blog Carnival is on The Combat Experience and is being hosted by the RPG Alchemy blog.  As I was thinking about what to write I fell to musing on the use of initiative in RPG combat.

My primary gaming experience covers three games: RuneQuest, Star Frontiers, and Powers & Perils (did anyone besides me ever play that game?), two of which don’t use initiative and one does.  And of course, D&D uses it (at least so I’ve heard).

Lacking Initiative

The physical scientist in me likes the ideas behind the systems that don’t use initiative.  Combat order is determined simply by physical attributes.  How big are you? How fast are you? What is the reach of your weapon?  All these things are quantifiable and recorded on your characters sheet.

For example, in RuneQuest, the combat round is divided into 10 “strike ranks”.  Each character has a strike rank modifier based on their size (0-3) and their Dexterity (1-4) which gives their base melee strike rank.  Higher SIZ and DEX give lower values and a faster attack.  On top of this, you have a strike rank modifier for each weapon based on it’s reach, again in the range of 0-3.  Longer weapons like pikes and halberds have low strike rank modifiers (i.e. 0-1), while short weapons like short swords and daggers have higher ones.  This is added to your base melee strike rank to determine when you hit.

A combat round in these systems is then fairly straightforward.  The referee just counts off the strike ranks and you resolve your action on your given strike rank.  You know when it is each round and adjust your tactics accordingly.  Nice and simple and you figured it out when you added the weapon to your character sheet so you don’t have to add it up each time.  Once and done.

I’ve got Initiative

In systems that use initiative, you either roll once per turn or once per combat and can make either one roll for each side or one roll for each character.  It simply depends on the game system and how the referee wants to run it.  Typically these rolls are modified by some sort of bonus based on the characters’ ability scores, typically something like Dexterity, Agility, or Reaction Speed, depending on the system.  And for all I know some systems may even have modifiers for the weapons, I’ve just never encountered them in my limited experience.  Thus faster characters tend to get to go first.

In Star Frontiers the rule is to roll each round with a single roll for each side.  Plus each character has an initiative modifier (IM) which is based on their Reaction Speed and you add the highest IM for the side to its roll.  However, with small combats I’ll sometimes have each character roll their own initiative.

Again combat is fairly straightforward.  If there are just two initiative values, the side with the better one goes first.  If there are more than two, each goes in turn.  If there are a lot of values (say each character on each side rolled separately), then the referee simply calls out initiative scores instead of strike ranks (starting at the highest and working down) and each character or opponent resolves their actions at the appropriate point.

What’s the Point?

I believe the idea behind rolling for initiative is to simulate somewhat the random factors of combat.  Things such as morale, insight into the situation, reaction to activities by the other side, and pure dumb luck.  The modifier(s) based on the character’s abilities represent their innate ability to react to these situations.

As such, when rolling for initiative, I think the more granular the level of the rolls the better.    It makes more sense to me to roll once per round rather than once at the beginning of combat as the situation is fluid and can change and it is possible for a side that was “in control” of the situation (by having the higher initiative) to suddenly be caught flat-footed.  Allowing an initiative roll each round allows for this.  Rolling once at the beginning of combat doesn’t allow for such a momentum shift.

When feasible, I also feel it makes sense for each character to roll initiative individually as opposed to as a group.  And for the same reasons.  Each individual reacts differently to situations and individual rolls simulate this better.  Plus it allows the characteristics of each player to come more directly into play instead of everyone on the side getting the same bonus.  And this should be applied to the opponents as well.  Of course, this makes for a lot more bookkeeping and could slow down combat somewhat but it really shouldn’t be an issue if handled properly (and with a little practice).

What to do?

As I contemplate how best to include initiative in the game I’m designing, I’m torn between the two systems.  I like them both.  In the end I think I’ll steal a little bit from each system.  Have the initiative modifier based not only on the player’s or monster’s characteristics, but also on the weapon of choice, much like in RuneQuest.  However, I do like the idea of the randomness and so I’ll want to add in some sort of die roll. I think I’ll leave the granularity and frequency (once per combat, once per round, once per side, once per character) up to the referee based on the situation.

I think the real question is simply how big of a die.  A large die weights initiative to the random side while a small one places much more weight on the character’s abilities and weapons. With a small die, a character with great abilities and the right weapons will always trump someone with low enough scores regardless of the roll.  Maybe this is okay although not completely realistic (the underdog could sometimes get lucky).  With a large die, abilities become much less important.  Not as realistic but maybe okay as well in a game.

Right now I’m leaning toward a smaller die (something in the d4 to d6 range).  This is definitely something to be looked at in play-testing and simulation when I get to that point.

So what are your thoughts on initiative.  Like it? Love it? Hate it?  Meh?  Sound off in the comments below.

Categorised as: Game Design | RPG Blog Carnival


  1. I think initiative is a fun mechanic but that it should not get in the way of play. If used, it should provide direction on who’s turn it is when, so players and the gamemaster can prepare their action. But I am not a fan of any initiative mechanics that slow down or overly complicate game play.

    I’ve played systems that had incredibly complex rules for initiative, as well as games that almost had no rules for initiative. I prefer lighter rules and if there is any gaming ‘crunch’ to the system, I don’t want it in the initiative rules set.

    Great topic.

    • dagorym says:

      I don’t like things that overly complicate things and bog them down. On the other hand I have a high desire for realistic systems (probably comes from my physics, astronomy, and software development background). It’s always a struggle to balance them. But I’ll typically take easy to play over realistic if I have to choose.

  2. DethStruck says:

    I played Powers & Perils.

    • dagorym says:

      My dad brought it home for us kids after one of his business trips (along with Gunslinger, and another AH game I don’t remember.) He had picked them up on sale at KB Toys. It was the main game I played with my brothers and friends for several years when we wanted a break from Star Frontiers.

  3. [...] Arcane Game Lore – Initiative by Tom Stephens (aka Dagorym).  Tom gives us his thoughts on both using, and not using, initiative in combat.  In addition, he also contemplates how to best include initiative in the game he is designing. [...]

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