8 December 2013

Talking about Initiative Again

Initiative is floating around the blogosphere again. As far as I'm concerned, it's a closed matter.

Initiative belongs with alignment and the one-minute round in the dustbin of D&D history.

I've written previously about the futility of an alignment system, and how I run combat here:


I've never seen a convincing explanation for why initiative is required. I'd like to deal with some of the reasons people think you should have an initiative system, and debunk them.

It allows for additional depth in character building - you can build a character with the advantage of always winning initiative!

First off, I decry the whole notion of "Character Building", but we'll leave that aside. This argument is typically seen from proponents of "board-game" systems like 3e/Pathfinder or 4e.

The real fallacy here is that having a fast initiative is somehow an advantage. As I've shown before, after the first round, initiative order is largely irrelevant, the turn cycle becoming cyclical with no well-defined start or end point. If you're re-rolling initiative every round, it becomes even more arbitrary.

Additionally, due to artifacts of a turn-based system, it can actually be a disadvantage to act first in certain situations.

It adds excitement to combat.

Personally, I don't find this, but I suppose that's a matter of opinion. I find it's an arbitrary and unrealistic rule that leads to thinking about the game rather than the game world. Personally, I try to make things as fast, fluid, and realistic as possible so that the game is always about the game world rather than the game rules.

It allows you to differentiate between weapons.

I suppose this is true, but it's not particularly realistic at the level of abstraction present in D&D. Over the course of a 10-second round, there's a lot of movement, and it's just totally irrelevant that you can make two or three quick, light slashes with a knife in the time it takes to make a full swing with a poleaxe.

And there are better ways to differentiate weapons - namely by function.

It allows you to differentiate characters.

Again, I suppose this is true, but not really realistic. I find it hard to believe that over a ten-second round, someone could be so much faster than someone else that they could consistently move first every time.

And since initiative order doesn't actually matter (or make sense), it's a distinction without a difference - it's a false differentiation.

It's more realistic.

This is just absurd. Again, at the level of abstraction in D&D, there's no meaningful "first" actor in a round. Ten seconds is just so long and so much can happen in a fight in that time, that a you-go I-go turn system is patently ridiculous from a realism perspective.

As a necessary component of a you-go-I-go turn system, there's nothing realistic about initiative.


  1. I've largely gotten rid of initiative yet there are still situations I find that something like it is required. For example, if one character is rushing an archer, an initiative roll is used to see if he makes it. Or if one group of monster is trying to cross a bridge or go through a door and the PCs are trying to cut them off to negate the monster's advantage of numbers. That sort of thing.

    Empire of the Petal Throne was smart to call these rolls Reaction Time rolls.

    1. In the first instance, it seems to me that the attack roll handles that just fine - if the archer hits, then he obviously hits before the character closes to melee range.

      And in the second case, it seems like movement rates is the stat in question. In the case of a tie, you can just flip a coin (so to speak).

      You're right - it does *very occasionally* come up that one action must happen before or after another and it's not obvious which, but in those cases what you need is a tie breaker, really, not an initiative roll.

  2. Fixed repeating cyclic initiative is pretty much pointless after round one. I must admit I do favor a round to round initiative system that embodies an opportunity to advantage or misfortune of disadvantage that isn't simply "reaction speed" to shake things up a bit and reflect uncertainties of combat beyond those expressed by the attack and damage rolls.

    The quick lightly armored knife fighter (usually "dual wielding") being able to strike 3 or times per axe-blow meme is amusing, any time someone raises the point to me I'm always quick to ask "why has there been no armed force in the history of the world to deploy legions of lightly armored soldiers fighting with a pair of knives?"

    1. But even in a round-to-round initiative system, it's more or less impossible to say (after round one) whether you acted first in the round, before everyone, or last in the previous round.

      I like that point about the knife-wielding army. A little look at history often puts things in perspective.

  3. "La pointe d'une épée est une realite qui fait disparaitre bien des fantomes." (the point of a sword easily dispels fantastic notions.) - Baron Bazancourt

  4. There was no initiative roll in OD&D. Why use one now?