I must create a system, or be enslaved by another man's. I will not reason and compare: my business is to create.

- William Blake

Sunday, February 22, 2015

Brainstorming: Initiative

Today I felt like doing some brainstorming on initiative. Just throwing some ideas around to see what works; do not expect much organization or refinement from this post.

My goals for this exercise are:

- Initiative order is random, therefore unpredictable.
- The system should allow for the quickest characters to act more often, because “who acts first” is often unimportant.
- Weapon speed, or action speed, is also important for allowing people to take more actions.
- Everybody gets a least one (or a few) actions every once in a while, since I find “losing your action” to be terrible dull.
- Bookkeeping must be kept at a minimum, or be managed by the initiative system itself (instead of counters, apps, etc).

So here are my random thoughts about initiative for today. Bonuses and penalties are all examples that I have just made up for no particular reason.

1. d20

Everybody rolls a d20, adds DEX, all speed modifiers (weapon speed, etc.). Higher number acts first, as usual. Let's say the best result is 18. After taking his turn, the character rolls initiative again, but this time he gets no DEX or other modifiers; instead, he gets a penalty equal to the difference between his result (18) and 20 (which is -2 in this example; had his result been 26, it would be a +6 bonus instead). If the new result is 1 or greater, he gets to act again in that round. The new initiative should be lower than the current one (18), even if the roll is higher - or maybe the maximum should be something like current initiative -4. Speed modifiers apply to this maximum.

To delay, just adjust the number down as often as you want. If you wait until turn 12 to act, you get a -8 penalty to the next roll, and so on. To change your action, roll initiative again in your turn, using the same rules. In the case of a draw, whoever acted more recently acts last.

Use the d20 to track initiative. Nobody can act more than once at a turn greater than 20.

Example: Gary says his character will move 30 feet (-5) and attack with his knife (+2). His DEX bonus is +1. He rolls 15, so his result is 13 (15-5+2+1). After attacking, he gets to roll initiative again, to attack with his knife once more. Now he gets a -7 penalty (13-20), and, because he wants to attack with his knife again, a +2 bonus, so the total penalty is -5. He rolls a 11, which means he gets to attack again at round 6 (11-5). Had he rolled 17 or more, he would act on round 12, as he cannot act on round 13 again.

2. Dice pools

Roll a bunch of dice (say, 3d6, but probably more dice would work better). Bonuses to DEX can be used to modify dice (a +2 can turn a single 4 into a 6, or two 3s into two 4s, or even lower the result a die, as desired by the player) or break ties, or even add extra dice (a single dice for a +3 bonus, two for +7, three for +10, etc). There is 6 or more separated rounds, starting with round 6 (if nobody wants to use more than one die), then 5, 4, 3, 2, 1. Whoever rolled a 6 can act on round 6 (or alter it to 5). Dice can be added up (use a 4 and a 2 at the same time to act on round 6, for example). No one can act twice in the same round (or can they?). After every action, round, anyone who has acted loses the dice that were used. Everyone gets to re-roll any dice that is left if they wish to do so, but if the number rolled is greater the current round, the dice cannot be used in it.

Example: Dave says rolls 4, 4 and 2. He has a +3 DEX bonus, so he can roll an extra die. His final result is 5, 4, 4, 2. He gets to act four times, or he can add dice together to act before other characters.

Weapon speed? Movement penalties? Not too sure, but probably they are applied after the dice are already on the table. In turn 5, for example, someone that has rolled a 3 might be able to attack with a +2 speed knife.

D20 dice pools could be used in a similar way,

3. Multiple dice

You could use ascending initiative and multiple dice to create a random, yet still somewhat predictable, combat order. After you act on round 7, for example, you decide what to do next: quick actions use a d6, regular actions a d8, longer actions a d10 and so on. Add the result to the current round to see in which round you can take a new action.

You could use weapon damage for this: 1d4 for knives, 1d10 for big axes, etc. The idea is that you don't need a different system for weapon speed. Using weapon damage by itself would make smaller weapons overpowered, so something like “weapon damage+5” would probably work better.

4. Playing cards

Playing cards can be useful for tracking initiative. We could do four rounds, one for every suit - everybody gets to act at least once every round, and probably no more than twice - first, cards of the respective suit are resolved, then any card can be used with suits being ignored. The number of cards drawn is defined by DEX. Jokers and figures may have all kinds of special effects, probably interrupting another character's actions.

The best part about using playing cards is that they can be kept hidden, which might add a whole new tactical dimension to these combats. For example, an ace of spades can be used to counter any card of the same suit, but if nobody uses such a card in the spades turn, this power is lost.

5. Movement

I would really like movement to be taken on a “step by step” basis, as long as it is important. The way movement usually happens on a grid feels too abstract to me: “I won initiative so I walk 30 feet towards my enemy and attack him twice while he does nothing”. I would say something like -1 on a d6 or -4 on a d20 for taking half movement (no idea on how to do this with playing cards). Same for drawing weapons, preparing spells, etc. It would take the tactical run to stop the magic-user to the next level of complexity.

This would allow characters with a higher DEX to move around more. Seems like a good idea. On the other hand, movement cannot be too random; one can understand the concept of not being able to find an opportunity to attack, but not being able to move because of a bad roll takes more explaining. Well, if we can accept it in Monopoly, there certainly must be a way to do it in D&D. Movement for those who aren't directly involved in combat should be independent of initiative to avoid absurd situations.

6. Defenses

Characters could use their initiative to defend themselves somehow, and still expect to act again… if they are quick or lucky. Again, this adds extra depth to the system. It can also be useful to allow stuff that I really enjoy and can hardly find in published RPGs, such as creating a tactical balance between offense and defense, including the possibility of defending yourself until you see an opportunity to strike back as a viable way to beat a slower, stronger opponent.

7. Verisimilitude? Abstraction?

After writing all this stuff I realize that some kind of verisimilitude is a big motivation. I have a hard time seeing combat as an orderly, predictable thing - specially with the short rounds that are used nowadays. Looking at any combat sport and you'll see that taking turns to beat on each other is too far from what real fighters do. Abstract combat, with 1-minute rounds, worked well on OD&D, but keeping the same rules for shorter, less abstract rounds makes things stranger.

8. Balance?

Obviously, using DEX to act more often can quickly make it better than every other ability, specially if you already use it for finesse and missile weapons, AC and saves - which I don't. There are good reasons to use BAB or other traits for initiative, or using DEX only as a tiebreaker. If you are going to use one of these systems, balance should be a concern, specially "spotlight balance", as a badly implemented system would leave everybody waiting while a single player acts several times.

9. Reality check

All this ideas seem a bit too complex for my own tastes. They seem fun for “combat as minigame” sessions, and I could really use something like that on a grid, but I don't do that often. I would take such random systems over tick-based initiative, because I feel it makes things absurdly predictable for the fighters involved. In practice, I often use narrative-based initiative - whoever decides to attack, attacks first. And I allow players to take multiple actions, but only in their own turns, which makes thing more organized (but not always more fun). Yet, I do like to play around with initiative systems, as you can see form this post, and sooner or later I'll turn this mess, or part of it, into a full-fledged combat system.

If you already know a detailed and unpredictable initiative system, think the whole idea to be faulty, or just want to contribute to the discussion, I would love to hear your opinion.


  1. Very interesting ideas! I've thought about tweaking initiative and turn-based combat in D&D over the years - primarily to speed up combat which tends to drag in D&D sessions I've played.

    One idea I've posted about on various forums: What if we completely deconstructed D&D combat - no more turns, no more initiative? Instead, once an encounter begins combat is completely freeform. The players and DM do everything simultaneously: move, attack, cast spells, etc. Players simply announce what their characters are doing, and then make the appropriate rolls. There would be no limit on the number of attacks or moves a PC can make except how fast a player can roll the dice.

    I think this would work best for low-level encounters using minis on a battle grid (i.e., not "theater of the mind" combat). And movement should still be regulated in some way - perhaps players would roll a movement die, say 1d4 or 1d6, to determine how many 5' squares they can move. Zones of control could be "sticky", imposing a -2 penalty for move die rolls when attempting to exit a square adjacent to an enemy. Thus, attacks of opportunity would no longer be necessary.

    Game play would have to pause while resolving certain actions, such as spell effects or complicated maneuvers.

    Most people think such a system would descend into chaos and/or some players being left out. They may be right, I haven't tested this system yet. Seeing you've posted on D&D combat quite a bit, I thought I'd run it by you to get your input.

    1. I really like the idea, although I DO think it could probably descend into chaos... Free form combat seems cool, though. Something like Dungeon World, maybe. Some stuff in D&D initiative makes no sense anyway (A moves to attack be then B moves to attack C then C moves to attack D... all within six seconds...).
      One day I hope to write a post explaining why the traditional initiative system is better than the current one (declare, missile, move half the distance, etc). But other than that, freeform is good enough IMO.