Initiative – i.e. who goes first – in roleplaying games is a no-size-fits-all situation.
I have given it my shot to find a one-size solution. The result: Pick whatever feels convenient in the game and the context 🤷♂️
Through my research, I have come across many options to determine who goes first. This post is a brief reference – completely unexhaustive – for your own gaming inspiration, yet inspiration it may remain 🎲🎲 In no specific order:
- Roll (+Stat): Individual
- Roll (+Stat): Group
- Stat Only
- Lower Effects Go First
- Time to Do
- Action Points & Betting
- Table Order
- All Declare, All Act
- When to Roll?
- When to Act?
- Surprise Gets a Free Turn
Roll (+Stat): Individual
The classic of D&D, each player rolls a die and (optionally) adds a stat for it. Better results go first!
Roll (+Stat): Group
Same as the individual, but it goes down to “us” (the players) vs. “them” (game moderator or non-player characters).
Whoever has the highest stats for initiative/speed/movement goes first.
Lower Effects Go First
We see this in games like the Dr. Who RPG – actions that do the least amount of effect go sooner in turn order. Example:
Talk > Move > Environment (e.g. flip a switch) > Help > Coerce Physically > Harm (w/ higher damage going later)
Time to Do
Particular to “move-and-do” combat-style games where moving is always a free action along with talking, the least time-required actions go sooner. Example:
Ranged Attacks (a flick of a finger)
Melee Attacks (a step, a move of an arm, a twist)
Heavy/Magic Actions (big and heaved devices, aiming, a few motions)
Other (complex actions with steps needing a few seconds)
Action Points & Betting
Characters have a limited resource – some “time” or “action” or “stamina” component to the game. These get spent on actions (bigger action effects cost more) or get auctioned, where higher bets go first, but risk being unable to act while others do.
The resource gets restocked automatically or the game may have mechanics that a special “recoup” or “rest” action brings them back.
A popular option, a simple die roll decides who goes first. Once done, that person picks the next person to go. The second person then picks and so on, until everyone has gone.
Elegant (one roll, no math), Popcorn leads to a gamble: do players only pick players, hoping to overwhelm their foes? If so and they fail, the enemy gets to go, then select themselves to go the next turn (since they would not have acted in the new turn), leading to a potential double whammy.
The action order starts on the GM’s left (or determined by a roll) and proceeds clockwise.
All Declare, All Act
Everyone declares what their character(s) will do. Then the consequences are rolled for. Together, all at once.
Personally, a bit messy, but the speed of resolution and the unexpected carnage of melee can be really cool 😄
When to Roll?
When do these initiatives take effect?
If relying on pure positioning, static stat, or the type of action being taken, rolls never need happen for initiative.
Roll once at game start is another option. This keeps order steady and certain throughout a session of play.
Once every encounter is D&D‘s bread-and-butter. Only done when an interaction starts where order matters.
Lastly: roll repeatedly after everyone and everything has taken an action, e.g. at the start of every turn. (This is cumbersome and a drag – avoid it.)
When to Act?
You would expect only one character acts at a time. What happens when there are ties in determining order? Or that characters are in the same “phase” of action?
Ties can be resolved with a roll, but quality game design seeks to minimize repeat tosses of the dice.
Instead, everything that is tied or otherwise going at the same time goes at the same time! Actions are declared, actions are rolled for, and consequences are applied simultaneously. E.g. two folks can punch each other out in a brawl, or opponents can shout down or interrupt the speeches of their counterparts!
Surprise Gets a Free Turn
See just above. In virtually all cases, if an action is not detected or comes from no-where, it gets to go without consideration of what or when other characters act.
A universal in RPG design!
As I feel it, these are the most impactful initiative systems an RPG can have. While there are oodles of systems out there, these are used in many places (thereby tested), are relatively simple, rely on dice at most, and are ultimately RPG agnostic – the mechanics can work in any game (though may not always convey the same game “feel” – e.g. Dr. Who aims to minimize physical violence!).
What initiatives do you use? Have I left out a stellar example of speed and effect of play? Tell me more! I owe you one. Cheers!
P.S. This is my first post after doing my time audit – short, concise, stays high level. I will check back on how this and following posts have worked out, though I am =always= open to your feedback!