I’m at a crossroads at the moment.
I’m in the latter stages of developing an abridged and revised version of the D&D 3.5 rules set. One of the motivations for doing this arose as a result of my growing exposure to the OSR in the last few years. I wanted to be able to play a game with the elegance and flexibility of the D20 system, but which fostered the more deadly, fast and furious mode of play lauded in some circles as one of the virtues of earlier versions of D&D. At the same time, where possible I would like the combat system of this revised rules set to more or less faithfully model the phenomena of the actual world.
Given these aims one of the questions I’m now faced with is what sort of system ought I to use to figure out who gets to swing first when combat begins. As things currently stand, I’ve opted for the 3.5e mechanism of an individual, static, cyclical initiative score:
Each combatant rolls 1d20 and adds their Dexterity modifier. Each round combatants act in the same order, beginning with the highest and ending with the lowest.
This is the system I’m most familiar with. The advantages of such a system as I see it are twofold. First, it allows individual factors (such as Dexterity and encumbrance) to influence who goes first, scoring points in my book for realism. Second, it offers a tactical advantage to the more Dexterous Rogues/Thieves, who, let’s face it, need all the help they can get in combat. The main disadvantage of this system is that in practice it can be a bit unwieldy at times to track whose turn it is, particularly if a player decides do delay their action and act out of turn at a latter point (thereby changing the initiative order). In fact, a whole cottage industry has sprung up to offer products aimed at helping the DM keep track of initiative order in combat. Another disadvantage however is that if there is too much time between turns you’re liable to lose the attention of your players.
Several earlier versions of D&D employed a different method of determining initiative borrowed from the Chainmail war game. There are different variations of this mechanic but the most basic form goes something like this:1
Each group of combatants rolls 1d6. Highest roll goes first. Combatants within a group can act at any stage during their group’s turn.
From what I can tell this cyclical group initiative is generally treated as static, only one roll is made at the beginning of combat and the groups retain the same initiative order until the end of combat (though I’ve seen some who employ a fluctuating initiative roll). I’ve not yet attempted this method myself but I’m told it has several advantages. First, it offers greater ease of play compared to the individual initiative method: you only have to track the initiative order of each group, rather than each combatant. Second, it is apparently more participatory. The group method enables players to better coordinate their activities in combat, which in turn enables them to function better as a team. Third, this method better simulates the chaotic nature of combat. While both methods can make the claim that in the abstract, all action is happening simultaneously, the orderly nature of an individual initiative count, it is claimed, is less immersive.
These are attractive features of the group initiative method. Attractive enough to make me rethink my allegiance to individual initiative. But before jumping ship let’s look at what the group method, at least in its most simplistic form, leaves out. You guessed it, encumbrance and dexterity modifiers are gone (and forget about weapon speeds). While this may be an advantage for slow heavy clad brutes it is a distinct disadvantage to the agile rogue. I find both of these to be non-negligible costs.
Some, such as Courtney Campbell over at Hack & Slash acknowledge this but find that on balance the advantages of this system outweigh its disadvantages. That may be. I’d have to do a bit of play testing with the group method before deciding for myself. But I also wonder if there isn’t some way to modify the group method that preserves its attractive features whilst accommodating the advantages of the individual method. I know some, such as JDJarvis over at Aeons & Auguries have attempted to do just that. I find JD’s system to be interesting, and his success at implementing weapon speeds with initiative commendable. However it assigns too little a roll to Dexterity for my tastes, and at the end of the day that is something I’d like to preserve if possible.
So here is where I’m curious to here from you my readers (all 10 of you!). How do you handle initiative in your games? Have you come across any initiative methods that you find to be quick, easy to manage and allow for influencing factors such as encumbrance and Dexterity? If so please let me know. I’d be happy to include your name in the special thanks section of my revised rules set if you provide any insights that make it in.
1 The group method was not the only one employed in early versions of D&D. The original 1974 version of the game allowed Dexterity a roll in determining initiative order, and this was made even more explicit in the 1977 Holmes Basic rules. 1e AD&D and B/X both employed the group method, with the former being far more complex than the latter.