Monday, April 2, 2012

Initiative Systems


Initiative Systems

I can tell whether I will like a tabletop game by looking at three things. First, how the injury system works and whether it uses a shared resource. Second, how the character sheet reads. Third, what it uses for an initiative system.

Initiative systems are very important in a tabletop game. They are largely responsible for defining how a player interacts with the game. They are largely responsible for the pacing of the game. They are also largely responsible for keeping the attention of the players.

I really dislike initiative systems that are predictable, repetitive, and non-interactive. I can work with them; I enjoy running Pathfinder games for example, but these initiative systems work against me rather than with me when trying to keep the players engaged in combat. I tend to look for an initiative system that accomplishes several things:

~ The players don't need to roll initiative for every action.
~ The order of the combat actions are hard for the players to predict.
~ The players can take some actions on other players' turns.
~ I can keep the pace going using a quick countdown method.

The first point is obvious. Having players roll for initiative for every action slows down the pacing of the game. It's unnecessary and take away from the game. The main problem with this system is that the order of player actions is still predictable, it just changes from round to round.

Having a system that requires a roll for every 3 actions, however, seems to be the sweet spot. The new initiative throws a bit of chaos into the mix and the rolls aren't so plentiful that they become annoying. I find that an initiative roll every 3 or 4 actions generally means there are two initiative rounds per combat. Sometimes long combats require three rolls. The initiative rolls give a better sense of how many actions have passed in longer combats than round robin in an initiative order. The round also gives me a convenient set of actions with which to limit abilities. That seems to work best for my style of game.

The second point is a little harder to explain. One would think that being able to predict upcoming actions would be a benefit for a game, but I find just the opposite. If initiative moves in a set pattern, like in d20 where initiative is rolled once and then goes in that order for the length of combat, then the players tend to become complacent and inattentive when it isn't there turn. To wit, if a player looks up and says "Sorry it's my turn" then someone has done something wrong.

Instead the players should be listening to a fast initiative countdown to get their next action. Since they don't know the order of the current round until players speak up they have to pay attention. More importantly, there should never be a initiative mechanic that makes it seem like it will be forever until their next action. When that happens players start futzing with their laptops, start researching alternate builds, and generally lose interest in the combat until things come around to them.

Yes, a big part of this is the pace at which the gamemaster calls out and executes actions, and the pace at which the gamemaster expects players to do the same. But the initiative system itself can be very helpful for this, and it can also make this process more difficult.

The third point is very handy if you want to encourage players to pay attention, and probably the biggest omission of most systems I play. If you want the players to pay attention to combat, you have to give them some actions they can take in response to what is happening in combat. You can't have them take their one action and become inert as you work around the table and expect them to have a vested interest in all the other actions. If they can take minor actions to hamper enemies or aid friends, even when it's not their turn, then the initiative system is encouraging the rewarding them for staying engaged in the combat flow.

The fourth point simply means that the initiative totals should not be so high that it's awkward to count down the totals. I would rather start a quick count from 10 to 1 then counting down from 33 down. Yes, I can accelerate the countdown (and I do) by calling out the initiative countdown in larger increments. I ran many games of Villains and Vigilantes and early Shadowrun. I just prefer lower totals.

Let's assume I have more players than I intended and I am game mastering for 9 players. The players are reasonably well versed in the game system, but let's face it with 9 players a game master will probably be challenged keep them all engaged and moving combat quickly.

My favorite initiative system uses individual dice to create a random spread of actions. As an example let's look at 7th Sea. You get one ten sided die for each action your character has. Throw them all and set aside each individual die (or at least its value) to determine the phase during which you can act. The values range from 1 to 10, thus the game is designed with 10 phases.

The average NPC and the minions have two action dice, the combat capable characters have 3, and the fast or very capable characters get four. If a PC with three actions rolls a 9 and a 4 and a 2 then those are the action phases they will act on. If I start counting down "10..9..8.." that player would call out 9 and I'd direct them to briefly describe their action.

With this system when I start the countdown no player knows how many people are before them unless they are trying to observe all the initiative rolls of the PCs to see how they all did. That's fine, since those players watching all the initiative rolls in engaged in the game.

If someone rolls doubles in my system they get a special "double action" so even though doubling up reduces your actions you at least get to use special attacks during those actions. I like this system because it provide natural opportunities to use special heroic actions. I also like this system because the number of actions can also vary. As an example, it's possible for someone with 4 actions to double up twice and only get two actions. As the game master I only have to count down 10 numbers regardless of what the players roll.

The key to this initiative system, however, would be if the players have a few "interrupt actions" or perhaps "open actions" that they can take any time, even if someone else is trying to describe their own action. These open actions cannot be complicated since they would bog the game down. They just have to be interesting and beneficial enough to warrant paying attention.

As an example, let's say a player had two open actions per turn. Through various character options the player has the following open actions.

~ After another character declares an attack you may use one of your open actions to give them +2 to hit for that attack.

~ After another character declares an attack you may use one of your open actions to give their target +2 to defense for that attack.

~ If a character moves through your threatened space you may se an open action to take a single attack against them.

With these simple options the players will probably be paying attention to the combat even when they are not up for an action so they can make good tactical decisions about how to use their open actions. So long as I keep a brisk initiative count, and I will in fact keep the count going if a player is not ready to act when I call out their number, the combat moves along and players are rewarded for paying attention.


  1. I find this topic intriguing since it so happens the Saturday night Pathfinder game I currently play is 7 players (recently down from 8). Attention, boredom off turns, and noise levels are all big, continuing issues for the group.

    We use a dry erase board to post initiative order each combat as that seems to help keep players focused rather than discourage it. Before we started that method, our group seemed to have big problems with players who hadn't even begun thinking of their action this round until we started their turn. It slowed down the game and pissed everyone off.

    I'm confused by your early mention of the idea of rolling for initiative for every action. I don't think I've ever seen a roll more frequent than the start of each combat.

    I LOVE the idea of being able to take minor actions on others' turns to encourage everyone's better focus, however. Can you expand on some suggestions for what sort of helpful actions might be appropriate in these cases?


    1. First, make the players responsible for calculating their own final dice rolls and damage totals and don't wait for them to finish doing this. In other words, once a player announces what they will be attacking leave them to make their rolls and start getting information from the next player. A game with 7 players needs to up the pace, and the best way to do that is by having multiple players fiddling with dice and math at the same time.

      As an example, I'll roll initiative for monsters in groups, and usually I won't subdivide the enemies into more than three groups. At the beginning of the combat I'll call for the initiative roll and roll for three groups. Let's say I roll for the lich, the three wight elites, and the ghoul pack. I have three initiative rolls to manage.

      Once the players have rolled and the stage is set, with minis or by description, I won't ask them for their initiatives. Instead I will begin to call out initiative at, say, 25 and count down quickly right down to the number of my highest initiative.

    2. If a player doesn't know what they are going to do then I make a quick decision. If that is because they are new to the game, new to their skill set, or I haven't described something properly I take the time to impart information to them to help them out. If these things are not the case, however, I'll say something like "Okay you're frantically looking around figuring out what to so" and go back to counting down initiative. As soon as they are ready they can raise their hand and take their action. I don't reduce their overall initiative as my goal isn't to penalize them, just to keep the game going. When they are ready they can jump in.

      Me: "Okay anyone have 30? 25? 20? 17?"

      Three players raise their hands and call out their initiative.

      I point at the highest and say "What are you doing?" The player describes their action and I say "make your rolls" and immediately asks the next in line "What are you doing?" Let's say they stall and start futzing with the figures and their character sheet. I will say "Your character is looking around, what are you going to do?" as I point to the next person. They describe their action. Invariably by the time they are done the second person who was not ready has their hand up and is ready to tell me what they are doing.

      Note that by the time the third person is done describing person one and two have finished rolling dice and they are ready to report to me their totals. I describe the result to each in turn and then turn back to the initiative saying "Okay the Wights are up."

      (If someone remarks that it is odd that the Wights all go at the same time I will say "They seem to move in eerie unison." which is our catch phrase for the fact that I am simplifying initiative.)

      If a new player can't do the math solo then I will keep a copy of their character sheet and simply have them report the die result and extrapolate the action result for them until they come up to speed. If I am lucky enough to have Brian or Gene there I just have them help the person with the math while I am getting the other player descriptions.

      At this point I roll all the wight dice and describe them sprinting at various party members.

      After they go I'll accelerate the countdown to my next creature group and have all the players that call out initiatives describe their actions and make rolls and do maths as other players describe their actions.

      Another technique I use is if a player is between two creature groups then after the player describes an action I will resolve creature actions that aren't affected by that player while that player is doing rolls and math. So I might hear the action, nod and tell them to make an appropriate roll, and then describe a wight's action on the other side of the battle while they are doing math.

      Usually this keeps the game moving quickly.

    3. Let's say you want to leverage the suggestion that players have some actions they can do during other players turns but you don't want to design an entire system to support it. An easy way to do this in Pathfinder is using magic items and pets.

      As an example, let's say you have a group and one player seems to lose interest when they aren't rolling dice. Give them a dancing sword that, as a free action in response to an attack, and fly out and parry twice per round for another player. When it does that player gets +2 armor class for that attack. Just adding that item means that to maximize effectiveness that player will want to pay attention every time you call out monster actions. The magic item could just as easily be a chalice that, as a free action, adds +2 to someone's attack roll and can be used when the game master declares that they missed. This item is cool because the player not only has to pay attention to other player's actions, but they can both "save" a player who just misses and is, in effect, adding to *that* player's coolness with their action.

      Another technique is to give a player a chaotic pet that has a random initiative each round. If the player is drifting off into Tetris or whatever stupid distraction has come up on their laptop you can draw them back to the game by saying "You pseudo-dragon appears and looks to you for instruction" and then immediately describe the result of an attack to another player. You always make the pet announcement right before you describe the result of another action because the pet's player has that time to command the pet. If they aren't ready by the time you get back to them then you describe them perusing the battlefield and start the initiative count again.

    4. I had a chance to think about this more on the way home. Let me clarify some points above.

      The first effect I described probably wouldn't work. Because the ability as described can't be used reactively (ie. the player had to decide before the attack to use it) it would be too easy to predetermine the strategy for using the effect so the player wouldn't have to pay attention. As an example, some players might simply decide that the cleric needs to remain safe so the power always gets used on attacks on the cleric. This defeats the purpose of the item. You would be better off with a reactive item that can be used limited numbers of times per day so it is harder to make its best use into a formula. In other words, if the use of the item can be simplified to a decision that is not interesting then it won't server your purpose.

      As for the pet, if you do this make sure it is *not* a pet or companion that comes with a character's class or as part of a character's power set. You can't use familiars, animal companions, summoner's eidolins, or similar class additions because class balance demands that the character can use these to maximum effectiveness. I just let the PC control pets like that. Your pet addition would have to be a freebie and more of an NPC.

    5. Hi Trace,

      How long have you been running Pathfinders? Do you like the system? Do you have any experience with their modules? I was thinking of getting and playing Rise of the Rune lords. Do you have any experience with that adventure?


  2. Early D&D systems roll initiative each round. It is unnecessary and bogs the game down. Newer editions evolved a system where you roll once and go in that order for the entire combat. I wanted to be clear that I was not advocating a system that went back to that earlier mechanic.

    This post was really more about game design, and Pathfinder isn't designed that way, but let's say you wanted to use the concepts in this post without designing your own game. Let me make suggestions on how to do that.

    1. Hmm somehow I missed this post earlier and (reread a reference point above.) I actually have my group roll initiative at the start of every round. I believe the players find it more interesting, and keeps an edge to an less used (in Warhammer) stat agility. Even in games like D&D where dex is important, I find that I can envision quick agile characters tending to strike first in combat.

      Other benefits is that it keeps the players engaged every minute or two as they have to roll and pay attention to the order of combat. Since the order of actions changes there is an added twist of sometimes a player or enemy will have back to back actions/attacks and this becomes some things the players have to exploit or defend against.

      I can see this slowing down a game that doesn’t use the countdown method. The dice are usually still rolling when I’m starting my count down. In fact if I get to my npc’s # before a player (who just isn’t paying attention) rolls they lose their place in intuitive. Since we are rolling initiative every round, we don’t even lose time marker boarding numbers even once.

      Over all I guess I feel like the mechanics of initiative every round, quick count down match the tempo I would expect combat to be.

  3. Rob, thanks for all the thoughts here! You've got my wheels turning. Two questions at this point:

    Regarding the player whose attention wanders off - If you give that PC a bennie like the flying sword or the extra pet or whatever, what is your opinion on the topic of seemingly "rewarding" that player for the bad behavior that inspired all this? Or forget that idea -- every player gets items and bennies, and the flavor of this one just happens to balance out an unfortunate quality that's detrimental to the game?... I think I answered that for myself!

    I'm wondering how you avoid hurt feelings with your system of handling initiative -- mainly with your new players not used to your style. My pathfinder group has 1 or 2 players who are just "slow processors." They pay attention, they think ahead about their actions -- but I've observed that oftentimes if anything at all surprised them in the round before their turn, their brains just seem to shut down. We get around to them in initiative, and it's radio silence.

    I am hopeful there is a way to encourage those players to apply creativity and think through possible moves before their turn. I worry that if we used the method of moving on and coming back to them, they might lose whole turns or at least feel left-out of the process.

    What do you recommend we might try other than the current method of all fun and conversation coming to a screeching halt to have the whole table advise one person of possibilities?


    1. "I'm wondering how you avoid hurt feelings..."

      ~ One key is making sure players don't feel that they are being punished for fast initiative. You need to be ready to let them chime in when they can go, and not reduce their initiative count unless they can't figure out what to do for an entire round. The tone of your voice and willingness to respond when they are ready are key to making them feel like they can go when they want.

      They need to feel like "it's cool if you aren't ready right at this moment, let me resolve these orcs over here and you can go when you are ready."

      ~ If a player is notorious for being slow I will tell them 2 people before they usually go "John, you're almost up" or some such to get their mental gears turning. The key is that the combat has to move fast enough that you don't lose them again before they can go. You'll have to experiment to find the sweet spot of when to set the reminder.

      ~ Sometimes if a player is lost in the combat I'll pause and offer them A, B and C as choices, or A, B, C and D with the last option always being "or you can do something else entirely." Usually, at least in my fast paced games, someone is being hurt more than their companions and I can make suggestions to help mitigate bad luck.

      As an example, say Joe-Bob got unlucky and I hit him with two crits. Katie-May is hammering orcs and I haven't actually hit her. If Greg looks lost and I sense that skipping him to keep things sped up will hurt his fun I'll usually say something like "Well, you can charge up and attack this orc, or you can run over here to help Joe-Bob since he looks really hurt at the moment and is surrounded by foes. Or you can take another action." If the person is lost they will usually pick the heroic thing to do and help Joe-Bob as a default, which also helps me not kill Joe-Bob.

      ~ If a player really is bad with rules you can sometimes assign a helper to aid them in making decisions. It's like the above scenario, except another player offers the multiple choice. When you say "Joe-Bob, you're almost up" the helper player can whisper choices or help out as you resolve the lead up actions. Keep an eye on it so Joe-Bob isn't feeling like the helper is playing his character for him which can sometimes happen.

      This all assumes these are seasoned players who know the rules and should probably be able to keep up. If you have newer players, or players that are bad with rules and having a more organized character sheet with summaries of abilities doesn't help you will simply have to be slow until they come up to speed. That's okay.

      Finally, sometimes you just run across problem players. They don't pay attention, they are extremely slow, and worse they are touchy and resistant to any attempts to speed up the game. At this point you sense they are not getting faster or better, and worse they are indignant towards your attempts to make the game run smoother and faster. At that point you just have to make a decision as the DM whether to keep running. If the answer is yes, that this is a cool person and worth having a slower game then you have to suck it up. If you aren't having fun as a gamemaster then it's just a matter of time before you turn away from the game entirely, and you will have to make hard decisions on the make up of your group.

  4. Hi Rob,

    I just had some time to read some of your blog. It’s been a good read so far. I have been using the Warhammer Second Edition system in my campaign for over a year now. My players seem to enjoy it, but I’m always looking to improve my DM skills and improve their enjoyment. You mention a lot of games that I don’t play, so I’m unfamiliar with them. (Pathfinder I understand is like D&D which I have course played most versions of it.)

    Your post on hit points was interesting and I like your take on it. In Warhammer toughness seems to slug things along, and most creatures (insert bandit, orc, beastmen, skeletons, ect) die with 2 good hits. You probably know the system but I’ll note it briefly here. Hit => roll damage => subtract armor/toughness => apply damage. Hit is a percentage usually 30-50% , toughness is usually 3-5 + 1 or 2 armor points damage is 1-10+ 3-5 Strength. Then there is often a parry or dodge chance (30%-50%) that nullifies a hit. So I guess I’d say I like the toughness/hitpoint system but I find the min/max characters doing all of the work. With an straight up HP pool I can see a higher frequency of “helpful hits” from even the weakest players.

    I often have combats go miss, miss, miss Oh the monster misses too – next round. (sure I try to add flavor text to it but I can only do so much.) One battle I had a player square off against a fluff baddie while the rest of the group handled a boss and 6 other fluff guys. His portion was 6 rounds of “you missed? He missed…” At the end of it I was sort of lamenting about the system, when he blurted out he loved that stuff! He said he felt like a hero trading blows with his opponent. Meanwhile I was feeling sorry for him, because he couldn’t even put down a zombie!

    So I have also experimented with initiative and have long used the count-down method to keep people engaged. I still find a few players hitting the wall when I get to them. I love your method of smaller sub actions to keep people engaged. Having the benefit of reading both articles in an afternoon, I came up with the idea of what if misses resulted secondary action pool? For example, If you miss in round 1, round 2 could be add +5% to teammate’s attack roll or add defense (-5%) chance to a player about to be hit. This would keep people engaged and in theory “peak” combat as the rounds add on. I’ll have to work on a few more secondary actions of course.

    Do you have any experience with the warhammer roleplay system? What is your take on it? Any ideas to get through those miss/miss combats?


    1. Any game with a 30-50% hit chance is just rough. With hit chances that low you really will get miss streaks that will hurt the game for some players. Even computer games will suffer from harsh miss streaks with hit chances that low. If you are good at giving description for misses; making it seem like the miss streak is caused by a series of superb defensive maneuvers for example; you can often mitigate the issue and keep players interested. The key here is making the exchange sound heroic by playing up the defense aspect of the description.

      As an aside, the longer your combat round, the harder it is to suck up a series of misses. If you can get around the table fast then two misses might not be a big deal. If an entire initiative sequence is like 40 minutes then 3 misses is two hours with no effect on the combat. That's rough.

      As for a Toughness system, the classic Bard dilemma is exactly the problem those systems tend to create. The character who doesn't min-max is essentially being squeezed out of the game entirely by a system that at its base entirely negates hits from the characters with a lower power level.

    2. There are some ways to mitigate these types of effects, assuming you don't want to change systems entirely.

      House Rules. I have a love hate relationship with House Rules. I have no problem with long standing house rules, but I really hate when a DM adds or subtracts house rules frequently. It de-stabilizes the game, and it makes the players want to redo their builds everytime something changes. None the less, having consistent house rules can help with design challenges.

      For your particular design dilemmas, I might suggest the following. (Realize I haven't read that system in ten years so you'll have to keep in mind other rules that make these suggestions problematic.)

      ~ Toughness is per round, not per attack. Assuming each character gets one action per round, having Toughness per round means that the Bard can follow the min-max character and throw hits into foes with weakened defenses. It also means the Bard can throw an attack into a foe to soften them up for the min-maxer. It promotes teamwork as well.

      Now, if players get multiple attacks or the system is designed to allow main characters to shrug off dozens of lesser foes this change can have a dramatic effect. A character who could previously shrug off 20 goblins will suddenly die quickly when the first two goblins scrape off his/her toughness and the rest lay into them. You'll have to take that into account.

      ~ Another house rule to help both situations is a "coolness" point system. Basically when a player does something really cool with their roleplay assign them a coolness point on the spot. Not only does this reinforce cool roleplay moments, but you can use coolness points to help mitigate the issues above. Let's say you decide coolness points can do the following:

      If you roll a critical failure you can use a coolness point to negate the extra bad failure and still look cool.

      A coolness point can reroll a miss. (Alternately it could provide a hit bonus to a single attack.)

      A coolness point can ignore Toughness for one hit.

      With this simple system you are rewarding good roleplay with a nice on the spot positive reinforcement and addressing some of the system concerns.

      These types of house rules can help to even out peculiar designs of esoteric game systems.

    3. Another option to deal with these is magic items. The key to magic items is to force them on characters. Otherwise a smart party will gravitate the items you intend for the Bard over to the min-maxer.

      Let's say, for example, you give the Bard a spectral sword that negates Toughness. This can turn quickly into a bad situation if the Bard is convinced to give the sword over to the min-max character because that's a better statistical decision. Instead, you'll want to do something like give the Bard a spectral hand because he was handling warp stone, and his primary weapon now skips Toughness. That circumvents power stacking on one character.

      This can also be used for the accuracy issue if the item lets someone reroll a hit roll or gives accuracy bonuses to characters.

    4. Thanks for the replies, my apologies for not posting a counter note. My free blog time has been devoured by the 38 Studios disaster that is unfolding. (I sure am glad nothing ever became of the talks I set up with you and the CEO…I was miffed at the time, but glad now!)

      So we have played two sessions since my last post, thanks to your affirmation, I reverted back to my old standby initiative system (the count-down method.) It really speeds things along. I had gotten lazy after total con and was using 1 roll for the whole fight. I smoothed it up a little bit, and I made my count crisper and added your flair tip “Okay you're frantically looking around figuring out what to do.” Your post firmed up my mind that count down is clearly the way to go. The speed of the count is key and it really helps mitigate the miss/miss rounds. I can get through a round of combat in 1-2 minutes now.

      There are some great things that I really enjoy about Warhammer 2e, it’s very easy and our group has 1 core rule book. At times we could use two, but we get by very easy with one. In fact a player offered to buy a second book, and I pointed out that we hardly ever even use the copy now… I typically never have players buried with their noses in the books(slowing play.) The system has a wide variety of roleplaying skills that most of the “rules” time is spent on. Most of the session is roleplaying (using the term loosely here…) and solving problems and mysteries. Combat is usually 30% of the night, 1 or 2 fights. The mix seems about right.

      Problem 1 The obvious weakness of the system is the bard problem, min maxed characters that the career paths produce. You address several ideas to help out with the Bard issues, so thank you! Having the experience DMing I’m pretty slick at adjusting difficulties on the fly.

      Problem 2, conversely there are no skills/spells for the players to look up. I like the idea of players digging around some, but I don’t want a system that is too complex. I have lazy players who won’t spend much time looking up anything.

      Problem 3, the long term durability of the characters is terribly low, this prevents a good-old- fashioned dungeon crawl.

      I’m thinking of solving problem 2-3 with twisting a new story arc into the campaign using a different system/characters. I picked up Pathfinder and I was wondering if you have any opinions of it. I’m also thinking of ad&d 2nd edition or even basic (I have a basic D&D module I want to run for them…) Do you have any recommendations for an interesting system that lazy players (with d&d experience) would enjoy? I don’t foresee more than 1 or 2 rule books at the table. Do you have any experience/opinions of the pathfinder modules? I was thinking of getting “Rise of the Runelords”