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2013-07-02 Initiative


Rolling for initiative… What is it for?

Let’s start with simple group initiative: each side rolls a d6 and the higher one goes first. It’s what I use, and I think it provides almost all the benefits the other systems provide. The basic rule is: everybody gets to act once per round. It seems to me that the worst case that can happen is that you get attacked twice in a row. But even that cannot happen again unless you get to attack twice in a row in turn. AB/BA/AB/BA, after all. Getting attacked twice in a row is an interesting feature that adds uncertainty to the fight.

Individual initiative without modifiers: each character rolls a d6 and the higher one goes first. Essentially this boils down to “Roll roll once for the enemies. Announce the number. Any player character who beats this number can go, in any order. Then the enemies go. Then the remaining player characters go, in any order.” Whether “in any order” is in fact faster than “in initiative order” depends on whether you allow delaying (which slows down “in initiative order”) and whether your players are often unsure of what to do, which I find is best handled by delaying. With slow players, “in any order” is best.

From the point of view of an individual character, however, the situation is just as it was with group initiative. You can get attacked twice in a row, but only once. AB/BA/AB/BA, remember? Thus, it seems to me that individual initiative without modifiers makes things more complicated at the table by adding randomness but without changing much.

What’s the effect of a higher initiative bonus? Let’s compare A with 1d6+1 vs. B with 1d6: how much more likely is A to win initiative? Reroll ties. All we need to do is count:

    1  2  3  4  5  6
 2  A  -  B  B  B  B
 3  A  A  -  B  B  B
 4  A  A  A  -  B  B
 5  A  A  A  A  -  B
 6  A  A  A  A  A  -
 7  A  A  A  A  A  A

A 21 : B 10 or roughly 68% of the time. What does this mean? Here’s how I think about it: It makes no difference whatsoever until one of them is going to suffer consequences. In D&D, that would be the last round.

In short: player characters benefit from a bonus to initiative in the very last round only. That seems to be a very minor benefit when compared with the increased complexity at the table.

In mid-level D&D 3.5, a high initiative for casters was often essential because they had the power to turn the first round into the last round of combat. In classic low level D&D, this isn’t as important. In my games, there seem to be less casters of offensive spells, and casters have less spells per day, and there are more fights per day. It all makes individual initiative modifiers less useful.

But what about fun? Isn’t rolling individual initiative more exciting? I don’t know. Certainly everybody is more busy rolling their die and remembering their result. When group initiative is rolled, all the players are watching one single die and there is groaning or cheering at the table. I don’t think one of the methods can be said to be “more fun” in general. Personally, I enjoy the collective groaning and cheering of group initiative.

If you’re DM Florian, don’t worry: I don’t mind playing with individual initiative. Other DMs provide inspiration for blog posts! :)


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I play Pathfinder with individual ini (and did it since AD&D1st times, then with weapon speed adjustment) every round… With computed results this works fast and gives a little uncertainty, because even the highest bonus goes last sometimes with a d20 initative throw… and it has not the stale boardgame feeling of D20’s regular “same initiative every round”. BUT I’m not quite sure if I would start to do that nowadays in a less crunchy system (and I don’t do it if we’re offline). I guess, I’m just used to it and the unpredictability its resultes in, but it is quite a hassle, I think, if there are numerous equal rolls (as it will happen if everyone rolls a d6).

Rorschachhamster 2013-07-02 10:21 UTC

And what are the perceived benefits, from your point of view? It sounds like “a little uncertainty” is the benefit?

AlexSchroeder 2013-07-02 12:26 UTC

Philo Pharynx
In systems with more variables in combat (usually crunchier games but not always), I have a problem with “enemies group, players individual” initiative. For low-level old school games it’s not as much of a big deal. But when you add in more positioning and different combat effects it can be hell if a whole bunch of enemies go at once. (exceptions can be made for low-power enemies). In 4e, with conditions and such it’s really bad when a group on enemies goes all at once.

I use a spreadsheet with a built in roller to make it easy to roll initiative for the whole group.

– Philo Pharynx 2013-07-02 14:42 UTC

One thing you failed to mentions is that in most early versions, a spellcaster starts his spell at the beginning of the round. So winning initiative matters if you beat him and can spoil his spell.

– Anonymous 2013-07-02 15:20 UTC

You are right, Anonymous. I had a similar comment on Google+. Spell declaration prior to rolling is something I didn’t consider. When I went looking for it in Moldvay’s Basic D&D, however, I didn’t find it. Is this an AD&D thing only?

I didn’t consider it because we usually don’t do it in my game even though I want to. We just keep forgetting. Another reason we don’t do spell declaration prior to rolling is that in melee, I allow people to cover each other. Effectively this shields casters from attackers while allies are still standing. This would make spell interruption hard, even if we remembered it. Do you allow party members to protect casters in melee? Can enemies say go for casters specifically? Are targets determined randomly and include the casters?

AlexSchroeder 2013-07-02 18:16 UTC

That mix of individual for the players and group for the baddies doesn’t seem useful to me either. If the baddies get individual initiative too then individual begins to make more sense. Of course it brings with it some meta game baggage (attack the baddies who rolled worse than you so that they don’t get their turn at all instead of the ones that have already acted).

– Sam 2013-07-02 20:15 UTC

I’m not sure what “useful” means in this context. What specific effect would you like to see?

AlexSchroeder 2013-07-02 21:49 UTC

Ynas Midgard
Interesting post. I basically came to the conclusion of entirely eliminating initiative in melee (the two sides roll attack and damage and apply results simultaneously), and only roll when it would matter (can the archer shoot his arrow before the charging enemies approach him? can the caster get off his spell before he is hit?).

A couple of days ago I wrote a post about a possible alternative; presently, I find it intriguing, but D&D actually lacks that kind of interdependence that makes it work in the Marvel game (or at least there is less interdependence regarding action order).

Ynas Midgard 2013-07-04 22:39 UTC

Ynas, I think you are absolutely correct. All actions can be resolved simultaneously until there are important consequences—until one character or enemy is about to die. I guess there will be occasional problems in three-way actions: A kills B and B kills C, now resolve initiative. I imagine an awkward moment of people rolling for damage and instead of cheering or groaning, they realize they need to roll for initiative.

AlexSchroeder 2013-07-06 08:31 UTC

Recently Robert Fisher had posted a video talking about weapon length to Google+. My first comment was this: «Part of the problem is that characters survive hit point loss without adverse effect. That’s why a “initiative using weapon length in the first round” isn’t a great rule for D&D.»

Brendan wanted me to say more, so I continued as follows, slightly edited:

As I see it, initiative doesn’t matter until somebody is going down—only the last round matters because the initiative systems I know don’t ever result in people skipping rounds or gaining additional attacks. Initiative by weapon length for the first round only affects the first round, by definition. Thus, initiative by weapon length for the first round only has an effect if the first round is also the last round. In D&D, this is often true for low-level combat (or spell casters).

Enemies having reach and other ways of gaining the initiative such as jumping, charging and the like are a problem for the player because enemies get a chance of inflicting damage before dying. Thus, over multiple combats, with no healing between fights, initiative by weapon length in the first round affects the attrition rate.

We could model this, too. Assume many fights of your high-level characters against pike wielders dealing 1d8 damage with a THAC0 of 20. Your AC is 2. They always gain initiative, Thus, for every pike wielder, there’s a 10% chance for your to loose 1d8 hit points before you kill them. In a single fight, this doesn’t matter. You will always win. Over multiple fights, however, there will be attrition. The question is: does this happen often enough for you to model it? Is this a house rule that will see use at the table?

In my games, this is how I see it:

AlexSchroeder 2014-05-26 07:06 UTC

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