Taking Back Initiative – A Look At The Order Of RPG Combat

Initiative in role playing combat is something I’ve always felt is lacking a certain something. It’s difficult, however, to change much about it without making it overly simple, or overly complex. The two systems I’ve used, and enjoyed, are the Index Card system of ‘clockwise from the DM’, and the D&D 5e system of ‘1d20 + Dex, highest goes first’. Both have their upsides, and both have their downsides.

Note: Everything is this post is derived from my own tables, and is not necessarily indicative of other people’s games. I put forward these ideas to spark debate, and hopefully inspire you to go away and create your own initiative system. I do not expect, nor believe that you should, use this proposed system at your own table; make it work for your own context, whatever that looks like.

Dungeons & Dragons

D&D’s major problems are of order and speed. With so much going on in combat, it can be difficult to remember the order players are meant to act in as the DM, and with each combat turn taking so long it’s impossible for players to remain completely engaged for the full combat encounter. Either of these issues, on their own, would be fine. Without each turn taking forever, players can remain more engaged and take more responsibility for the order they act. If turn order was simpler, turn length and complexity wouldn’t matter as much, as people could very easily know whether they’re up next or not.

Index Card RPG

ICRPG’s system is the opposite of D&D’s. Turn order is simply around the table from the DM, with players being allowed to change their seating order between rounds in order to change the order they act. While this gets the party through mechanically complex, or large combat encounters incredibly quickly, I find it loses some aspects of D&D combat that I love. I find my parties tend to act less as a team, and more as a group of individuals. Strategy and tactics go out the window, as people fight the things they see as the biggest threat. Now, this isn’t wholly unrealistic, but I find it difficult to believe that people who have been fighting together for a long time have not learned to communicate and create simple plans on the fly, in the middle of combat.

Aiming For The Middle Ground.

My aim with my initiative system is to shorten the length of individual player turns, increase player agency and responsibility, without sacrificing mechanical complexity, or taking away the cool things players can do. I worked out the following (completely, as yet, unplaytested) system…

  1. The Planning Step.
  2. The Timer.
  3. The Initiative Step.
  4. The DM’s Turn.
  5. The End Step.

The Planning Step

This round happens at the beginning of initiative, before any effect takes place. The DM flips a timer (or sets off a timer on their phone; we’re not gonna be purists here), and from that point the players can talk to each other, and make their plan of attack. BY THE END OF THE TIMER the players must have their initiative decided, and marked down in some way (personally, I would use cards in the centre of the table, that the players can move around themselves).

The aim of this step is to speed up the decision making process of the round, meaning that the turns themselves are much quicker to run through, and that each other player has a vested interest in seeing how the round develops. It also gives the players a chance to act as a team, and develop a  team dynamic. The aim is not to allow the party to metagame, or to allow them time they simply wouldn’t have in a combat situation.

In terms of timers, my current thinking is between twenty seconds and two minutes, depending on the situation the party find themselves in. In a desperate fight for their lives I’d run a twenty second timer; something just long enough for them to decide on their own action, and run through the mechanics of that action (rolling dice, determining effects, etc). In something much more planned, where the players have control of the fight, I’d allow a much longer timer, up to around 2 minutes (adjusted, of course, with playtesting).

The Timer Step

This is the step where any turn/round timers, not carried over from the last round,  are rolled. The aim here is to balance the planning time the players have. While they might have control of a situation, random chance, and the actions of their enemy, will always impact that plan in ways they can’t guess. The main kinds of timers I use are as follows:

  • Monster action timers
  • Lair action timers
  • Narrative timers

Monster Action Timers are 1d4 turn timers. When the timer ends, one hostile creature can make a single action – it can move, attack, change weapons, etc. This does not replace their full set of actions they can make during the DM’s turn. This is to represent the eb and flow of combat, and make even simple creatures potentially lethal. These timers are rolled again when the monster’s action has been taken.

Lair Action Timers are 1d6 timers or 1d4 round timers. When they end, some huge lair effect happens; there is a minor earthquake, a new monster spawns, a platform falls into the lagoon, etc. These timers are rolled again when the lair action has resolved.

Narrative Timers are similar to Lair Action Timers, but relate to narrative elements, and don’t tend to be reset after they are finished. They can range from random timers (1d6, 1d12 rounds) to set timers (30 turns, or 13 rounds). The types of things governed by these timers would be how long it takes for the Tarrasque to wake up after the anti-magic field has been dropped, or how long it will take for the Riders of Rohan to arrive to Gondor’s aid.

You can have as many, or as few timers as you want. I suggest having at least one monster action timer per encounter, using more if you want the encounter to be more dangerous. Lair action timers are useful for adding a layer of mechanical complexity to the battlefield (such as having the battlefield shift and change layout), adding ever-spawning monsters, or creating dangerous elements, such as those found in a dragon’s lair.

The Initiative Step

This is the most conventional part of the system. The players act in the order they’ve chosen. The important thing, as the DM, is to ensure that player turns do not take too long. Their planning time is segregated, so the player turn should simply be a case of acting on the mechanical elements of the game. It should run fairly quickly, with the player describing, for the benefit of the DM, their action, and then acting through the mechanics of the action, be it moving their mini, rolling an attack, or describing a spell effect. The DM will then describe the result of the action, and the turn will advance to the next player.

Of course, due to circumstance, there will be times when the player’s action will be redundant. As the DM, it’s up to you how to run this situation. If you run combat narratively, then it might be appropriate to allow the player to choose a new action, or to redirect their action. Allow then a short period of time to do this, perhaps setting a short timer to avoid confusion. If you run combat in six second increments, and aim of a more realistic encounter, then I would recommend that the action still be taken. In the case of an attack, it makes sense that two people might attack the same target at the same time. In this case, neither might know which one killed the target, or even if the second attack was needed! It’s harsh, but so long as you warn your players that this can, and will, happen, they’ll account for it in their plans. Do NOT surprise them with this. It will annoy them, and they will see it as unfair.

The DM’s Turn

The DM’s turn is the turn in which all hostile creatures, controlled by the DM, act. NPCs can either act when the PCs feel they should act, according to their plan, or the DM can choose where to slot them into initiative. This step is fairly straight forward. It is also the turn in which you tick down round timers.

The End Step

This step is largely theoretical, and has few actual uses. It’s main aim is to clear up the battlefield, check hit point totals, and what creatures may or may not have died, and also to provide an end to the combat round before heading into the next planning turn.

One use I’ve considered is to not tell the players which creatures have died during their turns. If player 1 deals lethal damage to a goblin, I would describe the damage done to it. I might say “as you swing your sword you feel it shear through the goblin’s neck, as the head drops to the floor next to it…” if they dealt a lot of damage in one hit. I might say instead, “You slash the goblin across the chest, a deep gouge, and it staggers back in pain…”. The players don’t know, for certain, that the goblin is dead in either case. However, with the first example, they can make an educated guess. It is up to the next player in initiative to decide whether or not their planned action of attacking the goblin needs to be adjusted. I don’t tell them if the goblin is actually dead until the end step. The theory behind this is that during a six second timeframe, two people would act at the same time, so their actions would overlap. If one player’s action took three seconds, and the next player changes their action based on the result of it, then they logically cannot use the full three seconds. Giving them this uncertainty, in my opinion, adds to the realism of the players’ choices by leaving them unsure of the creature’s fate. I hope that makes sense.

Conclusions, And Variations

Like I said at the top, this is not a system for everybody (I’m not even sure if it’s right for my table; I haven’t played with it yet). I do think, though, it has it’s merits and it’s advantages.

There are a few variations I’m considering alongside this…

Mike Mearls’ Method

Mike Mearls recently published a short run down of his initiative system. Each player decides their actions for the turn, then rolls dice corresponding to each action (1d4 for ranged, 1d8 for melee, etc), with the lowest roll going first. Then, at the start of each round, everyone rolls initiative again with the actions they plan to use that turn.

I considered doing the same thing, but changing the dice rolls to the following:

  • Melee/ranged attack with a light/finesse weapon – 1d4
  • Melee/ranged attack with a normal weapon – 1d6
  • Melee/ranged attack with a heavy weapon – 1d12
  • Casting a spell – 1d8 + Spell Level
  • Changing equipped gear – 1d8
  • Other actions – 1d6

In addition, players can move, and/or take a single bonus action, adding 1d6 to their initiative roll.

Therefore, if a player wanted to move up to an enemy, attack them with a light weapon, and disengage as a bonus action, they would roll 1d6 (movement), 1d4 (attack with a light weapon) and 1d6 (bonus action), adding the results together to get their initiative score. The lowest score goes first, then proceed in order.

Enemy Initiative

Putting the enemies at the end of initiative simplifies the process, but for bigger, badder enemies it feels a bit…flat. There are two ways I’m thinking of getting around this.

1 – Timers

One concept I’m playing with is giving each ability the enemy has a timer. They can break their movement up over the course of these actions, but otherwise the monster is run entirely on timers. My major worry with this method is that enemies begin to feel either random, or somewhat predictable and formulaic.

2 – Initiative Dice

The other idea I had, assuming  we use the Mike Mearls system, was simply to give the creature/group of creatures an initiative dice to roll. This gives the battle a more fluid feel, and combined with timers should make it all feel a bit more dynamic.

Final Thoughts (I suppose this is the conclusions bit I mentioned in the last segment…)

This is a set of theoretical house rules that I have yet to run. I do feel, however, that there’s merit to them, with some playtesting. If you want to try them, feel free (and please tell me how you find them at your table). I’ll post any updates I make over time. Till then, cheers!

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