On How to Determine Initiative

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.

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.


10 thoughts on “On How to Determine Initiative

  1. My first DM (AD&D) used the group method, while all my later in person games (3.5 & PF) have used the individual rolls method. My play-by-post games (3.5) vary.

    Having played in person with both the group and individual initiatives, I’m not a fan of group (in pbp games, it’s another matter, and I’ll talk about it in a bit). At least in my experience group looks attractive for a number of reasons that fall apart once you realize the DM still needs to resolve each player’s actions individually.

    * You mentioned as a disadvantage for individual that you lose player interest if it takes too long between turns. I found this is just as bad in group, as each players’ action still needs to be dealt with in turn, and depending on how the DM handles it, the delay can actually be longer (if your action was resolved at the beginning of the group in round one and towards the end in round two). I feel this issue really needs to be dealt with OOC — don’t let your players take forever to choose their action (they’re in combat! they’re not going to have 10 minutes to plan their actions…I don’t believe in being as harsh as to stick to 6 seconds, but keeping things moving really helps).

    * I do agree that group is easier for the DM to keep track of….as long as they have a consistent way to make sure they don’t forget anyone. In practice, going around the table once everyone’s decided on their actions seems to be the best way, which could kinda preserve the faster/lighter characters go first if you manipulate sitting positions, but negates some of the advantage of letting players coordinate their actions.

    * I’m not convinced group initiative is more participatory. I think in some groups it may be, but in my group it was very competitive and chaotic with everyone talking over each other and trying to act all at once (until the DM started to go around the table in order). I’ve also seen individual initiatives be very participatory, with players coordinating position and spellcasting (we just allow brief out of turn conversations — you can certainly make a case that the characters would have used some of their hours of downtime to set up this sort of coordination and the players are just resolving it in battle because it’s quicker to handle it that way when you don’t actually live in the game world 24/7).

    * Yes, group initiative does better simulate the chaotic nature of combat. This is not a pro 😛

    In sum, I find the advantages of individual initiatives to outweigh the advantages of group initiative in in-person games, and I find that a lot of the issues with individual initiatives can be dealt with OOC by letting players coordinate and keeping everything moving as much as possible. (Oh, and don’t let cohorts/mounts/etc have their own initiatives. That leads to madness…)

    Now, in play-by-post games, I’m of the complete opposite opinion. Because you’re usually playing with people in different time zones, letting everyone go at once means that people can act in the order they read the thread without needing to wait up to 24 hours per person before them in the initiative. It’s also usually easier for the DM to resolve everything at once because of the pbp environment.

    One variant on group initiative I’ve seen in pbp games involves grouping initiatives, usually in the form of having everyone roll initiative, then letting everyone who rolled higher than the enemies go, then all the enemies, then everyone who rolled lower, then looping back to the top. I’ve never seen this done in in-person games, but it might be interesting.

    …well, that was long. Sorry!

    Oh, I’ve been meaning to ask: I’m following you here and on DeviantArt and I’ve noticed that you’re posting your tutorials in both places. Where would you prefer comments?

  2. Hi Emily, thanks for the thoughtful and detailed reply. Since I do not actually have any experience with the group method I am only going on what I’ve told by those who use it, and this is the first time I’ve heard these sorts of criticisms lobbed against it. This is quite useful feedback for me at this stage.

    When I first heard of group initiative my first thought was, “how do the players determine who goes first in a way that doesn’t take forever?” But the reviews I’ve read suggest that given time players tend to learn how to read each other and work together fairly quickly without some prescribed initiative order to guide them along. However I can also see how this could break down, especially with a group of highly competitive players.

    As to commenting, feel free to comment one either, whichever you prefer. And thanks for supporting my new site.


    1. I do think whether or not group initiative works is highly group dependent — I suspect my current group (which uses individual initiatives) could probably make group initiative work very well. (Although then my rogue with the +10 Initiative modifier couldn’t annoy the elf by always going first….)

      Are you intending this rules set just for your group or are you intending to publish it? If the former, all you’d really need to do is test which method works better for your group. If the latter, you could include both options with a list of pros and cons so the DMs can decide what would work better for their group.

      1. Based on what you’ve already said it does sound as if the efficacy of group initiative varies from group to group.

        About your question, I’ve been running a campaign for about a year now using an early version of the revised rules. Initially this was really just intended for my own use. However I’ve put quite a lot of effort into it and I think the system may appeal to others out there as well. So I decided a while back that I would make it available to the public.

        For now that will simply be in the form of a set of beta documents that I’ll release on the site. However, if enough interest is generated I may see about doing a crowd-funding venture to help cover the costs of obtaining artwork and publishing it. So with that in mind I aim to make it a complete system,

  3. Tad –
    Interesting article. I’ve only ever played with group initiative, under 1E. I find it not especially participatory. I imagine an individual system can seem more so and more immersive if it doesn’t get bogged down in detail or analysis paralysis.

    I find the system in Hackmaster Basic (quickstart version of Hackmaster 5e) appealing; it does away with the idea of the round wherein each combatant has a turn. Instead, the referee maintains a count, nominally counting seconds, each combatant acts on the second indicated by their speed with their weapon, affected by dexterity, armor, level, weapon proficiency, maybe other crunchy factors. Initiative is individual, the roll modified by speed determines the first count on which the individual attacks. (so low is good).

    I haven’t used it; I have read comments that combat flows smoothly and quickly and everyone stays engaged.

    1. Hi Orich,

      Thanks for your insights here. I must say that, based upon what I’ve been reading on a lot of OSR blogs, these criticism’s of the group initiative method come as somewhat of a surprise to me. I’m really glad to here the other side of the story.

      Also thanks for the recommendation. In my own R&D I have come across Hackmaster 5e’s initiative and combat system. Initially I was quite intrigued. It seemed to bring together a lot of the elements that I wanted in an initiative system, and many of the reviewers I’ve read have said much the same, that combat is quick, immersive and keeps the players engaged. So I downloaded the quickstart rules to take a peak inside the hood. Have to say I personally found the entire combat system to be somewhat cumbersome and fiddly (you can see it in action here).

      That said I certainly haven’t ruled out the count system itself, it is still on the table for me. I just didn’t discuss it above because I felt the article was already beginning to run somewhat long.

      1. I suppose one person’s crunchy can be another’s fiddly.

        Frankly, I’ve been a little swayed by other discussions I’ve encountered on weapon speed – such as Sean K Reynolds’ take on the subject – to suspect that perhaps the system presented in Hackmaster Basic may give too much importance to speed. Should the human with the dagger (jab speed 5) get to attack the ax (speed 12) wielding orc more frequently than the orc can attack him?

        One thing I do like is the recognition that reach matters – so say the human had the lower initiative, when s/he closed with the orc, the orc would get to roll an attack first. Basic does make reference to a “keep at bay” combat maneuver, which I imagine would make use of the Orc’s longer reach, perhaps nullifying the human’s alleged speed advantage in a way that feels realistic.

      2. I haven’t come across Reynold’s work yet. I’ll have to look into this. But it seems to me that weapon speed can certainly be an important factor in some circumstances (say for instance, in a sword fight between a combatant wielding a Broadsword and another a Rapier – such as in the film Rob Roy).

        I do agree that reach is an important factor in combat as well and I like that HM’s system takes this into consideration. I think D&D 3.5 does this to a certain extent with it’s “Reach” rules, but it only records reach in 5ft increments, resulting in a scenario in which a dagger is treated as having the same reach as a broadsword. So having more variable reach factors is definitely an advantage of HM.

  4. FYI: Reynolds’ rant is here: http://www.seankreynolds.com/rpgfiles/rants/weaponspeeds.html

    To my mind, DEX must matter, and more than weapon speed. Perhaps intelligence, or character level/attack bonus as well, especially for martial types to represent well-toned reflexes – so the 6th level fighter probably reacts faster, taking stock of the situation and formulating a plan quicker than the new 1st level fighter with the same stats.

    A nifty thing I noticed today in Myth&Magic that I don’t remember elsewhere is that elves roll a smaller die (d8 instead of d10) modelling swifter reaction for that race.

    In the absence of surprise, at the start of an encounter I see initiative conferring an advantage in whether and how the combatant approaches the enemy. Maybe weapon speed doesn’t play a significant part at first. In subsequent rounds, speed may matter, though probably not more than dex could. It seems once upon a time there was a system that had small initiative modifiers for weapons. Like a 1 point penalty for normal melee weapons, 2 points for 2H swords, batteaxes, etc, while light things like Epee and dagger had no penalty.

    1. Thanks for the link. I think I agree with Reynolds analysis of why weapon speeds should not be tied to initiative; after all, if this were the case it would not actually allow the PC more attacks. However that is not to say weapon speeds aren’t important (recall the Rob Roy example) or that they could not be accounted for via a different mechanism. But then I also suspect that Reynolds is right in claiming that, if one begins with an already fleshed out system like D20, the costs associated with having to try to revise the system to fit weapon speeds in exceed the benefits actually derived from them.

      I would agree with you that Dexterity, skill and something like “quick-witted-ness” (I think Wisdom is the attribute that fits this description) ought all to factor into initiative however, and these are factors I hope to account for in my system.

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