Thursday, January 15, 2015

Some Thoughts on Initiative

D&D (regardless of edition) requires a lot of rolling, the most troublesome of which, for me at least, is the “roll for initiative”. Initiative creates two major problems as I see it: 

The first is that it breaks dramatic tension. Whether its the GM saying "roll for initiative" or the players asking "should we roll for initiative", that one statement basically declares for all involved "all right, this is now a fight and will be resolved as such". It's a statement that is out of character and declares very plainly that we are transitioning from in-character descriptive "role-playing", to mechanical/tactical "roll-playing". It sucks.

The second is that, in addition to declaring the start of battle and dice-based play, it also SLOWS down that same mechanical framework. Rather than jumping strait into the action, the game just...STOPS... Everyone at the table rolls, then someone has to record all those rolls, sorts and orders them, and then picks who gets to describe their actions and roll the rest of their dice first. This is less of a problem in earlier editions or retro-clones, where you may only roll once per side, or not have situational modifiers, or use smaller dice and thus have a smaller numeric range, but those editions still require the declaration and the pause (however brief), and may add additional annoyances like everyone declaring their actions before initiative is rolled (AD&D) and all those actions being recorded and then sorted/ordered...which takes even longer.

Then, of course, once you have your ordered list, you have to have some way of making sure everyone knows the order of operations involved. If you don't write it on a giant whiteboard or something readily visible, then between every person's turn in initiative you end up with ANOTHER pause in play and another break of narrative as people ask "who's up next?"



I've played with alternatives to the initiative system over and over again. 
Group initiative...
Individual initiative...
Static initiative...
Pre-rolled initiative...
Phased initiative...
Trackers...
Cards...
Skip-it-entirely...

None of them really feel right (except maybe the last), but here are the two that suck the least:

Static Initiative:
This is a simple solution. Everyone has a static "Initiative Score" equal to the average of whatever dice you use (5 for a d10, 10 for a d20) plus any modifiers they have. This completely eliminates the roll. This is probably best for systems like 3e and later which include stackable, but mostly static initiative modifiers, and does not work in systems like AD&D 2e which has lots of variable circumstantial modifiers.
You can take this a step further and have all action (including exploration, negotiation, or whatever) resolve in this basic initiative order, and thus seamlessly transition between combat and non-combat scenarios without even having to say "we are in initiative now". If a character decides that they want to hit something on their turn, they can do, or not, without the straitjacket of "we are in initiative".
This still presents one small problem -- NPCs. Even if the players are all acting in the same order throughout the entire night of gaming, NPCs and monsters come and go and come and go, which results in a disruption of that order. This can be solved in one of two ways:
  1. Use a visual tracker. This could be a line of minis representing each character, with NPC tokens inserted into the line as they appear, a magnet board with movable tiles representing each character so that NPCs can be inserted, cards with character names on them (preferably tacked to a board or something up where everyone can see), etc.. Just have something where state can be maintained, that is easily visible, and where the order can be disrupted quickly and efficiently (nothing that requires writing and erasing...it takes too long).
  2. Use a single static value for the GM (this could be as simple as GM always acts first since he has to describe the scene, or GM always acts last so the players have a tactical advantage). The GM can order various NPCs as necessary within his slot (either by initiative score or by narrative function), but they all go on his turn (similar to the old group initiative).
The second results in the fastest play, but having unique Initiative for each NPC or monster makes for more dynamic combats without the players actions being clustered. Also, even if you go with option 2, you might want an easily visible tracker anyways. Even better, if doing option 2, just have the Players sit in initiative order...
Alternatively...Just Screw It:
By far the simplest and most narratively pleasant version of initiative is to just ignore initiative altogether. Whoever breaks off negotiations and shoots first shoots first. Then just go clockwise (or counterclockwise if you prefer) around the table from there.