Take the Initiative!

I have played in a lot of different style games over my time and each uses a different style of determining who goes first in a combat.  I have to say, some of them are reasonably innovative too, especially some that I have played with recently!

Each system has its own take on the concept

Let’s start with Traveller, Classic Traveller at that.  There are few games like it!  Why?  Well that is because Classic Traveller does not use initiative in any way shape or form!  I totally agreed with their rationale when I read it which was a round of combat has a short period of time, only seconds, and that no matter what reactions everyone is going to get to do something, even if at the end of the round they are down.  Seemed to me, maybe not exactly logical but feasible.  Combine that with one of the deadliest combat systems ever created though and it really makes a player think twice before they enter combat.  Just ask the poor Accountant from my Classic Traveller game.  He has been through the wringer, nearly every combat we have.

If you must get that charge off before anyone else gear
your character toward it.

Let’s move on to a dice system.  I will use Earthdawn for the example but this sort of system is widely applied.  In Earthdawn you roll a dice (or a set of dice) and the number you roll places you in an ordered range of actions starting at the highest roller and flowing through to the lowest roll.  In Earthdawn this is a roll that is made every round allowing the order to change each turn based on rolls. This is the most common style of initiative in most popular RPG’s.  It is interesting to note that there are many variations on this style of initiative that I will detail some of below.

  1. D&D 3rd and 4th edition as well as Pathfinder add an Initiative attribute to this roll and ask for it to be rolled only once for any particular combat, thus locking the initiative into place (except by actions of the player)
  2. Shadowrun 2nd edition used a system where the number you achieve determines not only who goes first but also how many actions you get a turn too!
  3. There are a variety of different ways to handle ties in the rolls that generally go back to the initiative stat, dice or perhaps even the base attribute that the Initiative stat is derived from
Players love seeing their name at the top of
the initiative chart!
FATE Core uses a skill and it’s rank to determine at what time you act.  The skill involved is Awareness and the higher it is on the skill ladder, the sooner your character will act.  In following with the style of FATE Core if an NPC and a PC have the skill at the same rung of the skill ladder then the PC’s always go first.  They are the heroes of the story of course!

Savage Worlds uses a different style of initiative determination in the form of a deck of cards!  The initiative order of this style of game (there are a few games that use this style) is by drawing a card and the actions occur based on the face value of the card.  Also, if there is a tie it reverts to the suit of the card to differentiate who goes first, when.

The above forms of initiative would in all actuality be the most common styles used across most RPG’s and all of them (apart from Traveller’s no initiative style) are based on some kind of random element even FATE’s skill level as it’s determinate is where someone has put a skill, which may as well be a random element!  Currently though I am running Rite Publishing’s The Demolished Ones which uses a style of initiative that I like.  A lot.
For me, I just let the dice fall where they may!
I was told by one of the players that this is a Marvel Super Heroes style initiative but it was The Demolished Ones that introduced it to me.  This style of initiative is the least random, and possibly most tactical, of any system I have ever used.  It starts by  the GM selecting someone to go first based off the circumstance.  They weigh up who is most likely to be able to get an action first and gives it to them.  From that point the player has their go and then chooses the next person to have a go, be it PC or NPC. This may seem like a no brainer, you just give all the actions to your mates, but what happens then?  The NPC’s get their go and they then have control of the flow.  So unless you want a major stream of NPC’s actions you need to plan ahead and perhaps share the actions out with the NPC’s.  This is a game in and of itself and I quite like the form of it.  

Initiative is a very important portion of combat and I have players that specialising in making sure that they get that first action.  In the Skull and Shackles campaign I run there is always a bunch of players at the top of the initiative board.  Their characters treat a high Dexterity attribute and feats like Improved Initiative and traits like Reactionary as must haves for their characters because it means they always act quickly.  With my own characters I take more of a holistic approach as going first really matters only on the first turn.  In games like Pathfinder where the actions are largely set in concrete everything becomes cyclic, so if you don’t have anything that you want to get off first (like a rogue sneak attack) then why invest all the Feats?
I am really keen to research initiative systems at the moment for a number of reasons so I would appreciate it if you could enlighten me of other schemes in different games in the comments!  Until next month, keep rolling!

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