Arcane Game Lore

Notes for tonight's game: TPK!!!

Modular Initiative – Steal this Mechanic

For some time, I’ve been meaning to write an article on initiative. Initiative is one of my pet peeves in most games. It’s not because they’re doing it wrong, it’s because they’re doing it inefficiently. If you’re one for uber realism and you need a complex rule-set to simulate combat, that’s fine and I hope you can glean something from this article. For others, this rule is an abstract, you can justify the results anyway you want, and I encourage to do that from a role-playing stance. If your character happens to go slow one round, say that he stumbles on a loose flagstone before attacking. If he goes fast, say that he notices his opponents eyes narrow and launches into action before his opponent can act. Try to keep as much action in your descriptions as you can.

Allow me to start with the first premise of this rule. It has nothing to do with the core mechanic in any game. It is modular, it is meant to be tacked on to any system and not affect the game play. One of the things I think make games time consuming is trying to fit a mechanic to other parts of the game. I am a firm believer in continuity, in fact connectedness is my third highest trait. I like things to relate to other things. Unfortunately combat is was of those horrendous beasts that eat up so much time, we try to make shortcuts to make up for it.

Let’s take the d20 system, d20 is horrible for initiative. For the dynamic system you have a random smattering of numbers between 0-30 that you have to determine when someone goes. First, the GM used to count down from 30, but this wastes so much time calling out numbers that they redesigned it to were you would arrange the players/monsters based on what they rolled . But this took so much time at the beginning of each round that it was again modified to only rolling once for combat and you go in the same order every round. To me, this is so far removed from the dynamic initiative that you may as well just assign initiative numbers to each player and just launch straight into combat.

So what this initiative rule set is designed to do, is to present a quick, dynamic initiative that changes from round to round. It is simple

1) Each player rolls d6 for initiative.

That’s it, no modifiers, no calculations, just a quick die roll. Highest goes first. Look familiar? It should, it’s from 1st edition D&D. Gygax stated that all things balance out so there is no need to add modifiers. I know there are some players that will want their pluses from high Dexterity, but honestly, is it justified to their character? Is his intelligence high enough to capitalize on a good dexterity in combat? Is their wisdom high enough to ensure that they can bravely act in the presence of danger? Is their constitution or strength high enough to maintain those tensed muscles round after round to act accordingly. There are a hundred different reasons why you could act fast in combat, and limiting it to a single attribute is not well adapted in my opinion. (Don’t worry, we’ll have advantages to take advantage of those high stats later on).

2) GM rolls a d6 for opponents.

The great part about this, is that the GM can roll multiple d6 for multiple opponents. You can roll a single d6 for all opponents, but if you’re playing a large number, that can lead the bad guys going for a long time before another player goes again and we want it to be dynamic. Don’t worry about which NPC get which number. Just assign the die to the closest NPC it landed to.

3a) Order of actions – The count down.

The character with the highest initiative goes first and proceeds to the next highest until the last characters have gone. Ties go to the player, if two players go, you can let them decide who goes first (as long as they do it quickly). If all else fails just roll die and assign someone. Calculating who should go first based on who has higher stats is a huge waste of time, in my opinion.

3b)Order of Actions – The count up.

I came up with this after a few play-tests. I like the concept better, but have had mixed results. Basically, the person with the lowest initiative goes first and anyone with a higher initiative can interrupt. You can only interrupt if your die is higher than the other persons die. Meaning if you interrupt with a ’6′, no one can interrupt you. The bad portion of this is when you get chain interrupts, which can range from awesome, to comical, to annoying, but you just have to roll with it.

4) Multiple actions

Often a character will have multiple actions in a round cause he is a combat monster. This is fine, he rolls a d6 for each action he is entitled to. There’s a catch, he can only go once per phase, so if he rolls two 3′s, he lost one of his actions. Some players won’t like this, but I find it adds an additional level of randomness to the fight, the more actions you get the less likely you will be able to capitalize on all of them.

5) Advantages.

You can come up with a list of advantages that allows a player to pick up abilities to capitalize on this style of initiative. For example, ‘Quick Reflexes’ – your character is able to modify his initiative die by his Dexterity bonus, to a maximum of 6. (See, told ya). Another could be ‘Combat Prodigy’ – Your character gets a +1 to a single initiative die, allowing him to have up to a 7 on initiative (interrupt anyone). The list of advantages would have to be tailored to your game, but because the system is modular, it shouldn’t be two daunting.

In closing, I would like to say I developed this system for Shadowrun, where I did some analysis on how long it took people to roll initiative. Yes, I am that guy at the table that actually used a stop watch during the initiative phase during an entire session. We played using miniatures, so the play-test went very well. The main complaint I got was from the people who would loose actions based on the mechanic as the game does not make you loose an action. After some thought, I came up with a rule that you can do two actions in a single phase if you can cinematically describe your action. i.e. stabbing with two swords at once.

As always, your travels will vary, take what you like and leave the rest for the next person. May your battles be fierce and fast.

Categorised as: Game Design


  1. Joe Nuttall says:

    I too use d6 unmodified for initiative for the reasons you outline, but I group together people engaged in combat and resolve each group in turn which makes the combat resolution less disjoint. Also as you place the d6 against the figure, everyone can easily see who is going next. The minor differences are: any joint roll is simultaneous effect (so you could theoretically kill each other), and with multiple attacks if the roll is the same you get both attacks at the same time.

  2. neoproxy says:

    Excellent point, one I use also. I don’t know when my group moved away from simultaneous actions, but I usually try to have some simultaneous actions in my combat, especially for gun combat.

    In regards to the rolling against figures. The group does get to see who is going when, but I use the count up method, so they have to choose if they want to interrupt someone early on, or save it in case someone does something later in the round. I prefer it to numerous bad guys going at the same point in the round. Alternatively, you could assign each one a number (written on the base perhaps) and roll on a sheet, that has the corresponding numbers, behind the screen so the players can’t see who’s going next.

    It is nice to see I’m not the only one who feels this way about combat.

  3. Joe Nuttall says:

    If you resolve one group at a time, then you don’t ever have numerous bad guys going at the same time. Typically if you have 4 PCs against more monsters the combat is split into 4 separate groups (one PC per group). You don’t even roll initiative for group #2 until you have resolved group #1.

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