The Point of Initiative Systems

It’s a new year, so it seems fitting to me to start off with a blog post about initiative systems in roleplaying games. (My yearly “think about the future” sort of post will come next week, promise.)

I think that initiative systems are awesome, and are frequently looked down upon by some segments of the community as being part of the oldest way of things. And certainly they’re as old as board games are, with static turn-taking mechanisms. But many old things hold purposes not necessarily obvious to everyone, and that’s what I want to talk about today.

What Initiative Systems Can Do

It’s easy to see that initiative systems structure turn-based play. In classic systems, we all roll initiative and know that, for instance, I’m going to go first, then Billy, then the GM’s mob, then Erin, and finally the GM’s big monster. Without initiative, you have chaos as to who goes when — which isn’t inherently bad (I’ve had fun doing that!) but can lead to people feeling shorted because they weren’t loud enough to draw attention in the chaos.

Initiative is a ritual signaling a shift in play. Games with initiative systems that involve mechanics, like rolling a die, make it easy to know when one form of play is done and another is being entered. It causes us to shift our mindset from, for instance, narrative freeform to structured conflict. It might even be a trigger that someone pushed a moment to far, like classic bits of this form:

“Did you just insult the Bandit King? Roll initiative!”


This ritual is even one that we as a gamer culture have integrated into our basic lexicon, the class “Roll initiative!” in non-gaming contexts. And in the proper context, it’s a ritual that people get elated about, grin when they say, etc. (Not always, but a non-trivial amount of time.)

Classically, it’s also a metric of character competence and a touchpoint of distinction. It a way to mechanize “I’m the fast one,” to give that identity weight. And with that identity, it’s a way to challenge it, either without the group (players trying to be the first in a fight because that’s how they personally have fun at the table) or in the world (a fast foe built to challenge the identity of fast-dude).

There’s more that initiative systems can do, but I’ll leave going further for comments because I want to talk about non-traditional initiative setups.

Non-Traditional Initiative Systems

The first game I played with a non-traditional initiative system was Truth & Justice, using the PDQ system. PDQ is a fast, free-flying system where there’s no separation on conflict and non-conflict time, and “initiative” is handled by being the first to say something. It feels very four-color comic book because of that, and a later PDQ game, Swashbucklers of the 7 Skies, works with that same principle. Though not really much of an initiative system, it’s worth mentioning for that reason.

My own Mythender has a simple turn-taking setup: the GM (or Mythmaster) goes, then all the players go, then it starts again with the GM. The players decide among themselves who goes, but there’s no mechanic for that — which allows them to get tactical on each round. The GM has to go first because that causes the initial sets of pressures, and the players get to choose because that reinforces that they are equals of great power.

The One Roll Engine of Reign and Godlike handles initiative and competence in the same roll, where everyone declares what they’re doing and rolls their pools of d10s at the same time. Whoever has the most matches (5-5-5 would be three matches, a.k.a. a “width of three”) goes first, but competence is measured by the die number of those matches (5-5-5- would have a “height of five”). The one time I played Godlike, it felt like a war story in that there’s chaos — but it’s all mechanized chaos, which means it’s untrustworthy and uncaring. I dug it.

Feng Shui does the shot clock thing, where you roll to get an initiative number, and that determines not just went you go, but how often you can. (Many other games have since played with this formula.) For instance, if you get a result of 18, you go on 18, counting down. If you do an action that only costs 1 shot, then your shot goes down to 17…and you’ll go again. If you then do an action that costs 3 shots, then you’ll go again on 14, and so on. It’s fiddly but interesting.

The initiative system in Marvel Heroic Roleplaying is really fascinating, and I’ll just point you to Fred Hicks’ post about it.


So, what other initiative systems have you seen that intrigue you? And what else does initiative do in a game?

– Ryan


37 Responses to The Point of Initiative Systems

  1. Octavo says:

    One system that intrigues me is from the Doctor Who AITAS game.
    Those who talk go first, Those who run go next, followed by those who do other things, and those who fight go last.
    It reinforces that while the game is filled with monsters and danger like so many other games, violence is seldom the solution to conflict in the story of Doctor Who.

    • Ryan Macklin says:

      (Of course, since my WordPress comments page shows me later once first, I see this first Doctor Who comment after another.)

      – Ryan

  2. Tim Hall says:

    I’m always wary of initiative systems that give faster characters more actions per round; had some bad experiences with Deadlands where having the slow character can be seriously un-fun.

    • Ryan Macklin says:

      Yeah, if they’re done poorly, that’s an issue. And when they’re done well, that’s still an issue because you might build a character that ends up being non-fun.

      I had an epic-level D&D 3.5 game that tanked because of a different speed issue — I was the slowest character with only a fly speed of 70, but I was also effectively the tank, so I never got to distant battles in time. Which is to say that speed isn’t just an issue with initiative systems.

      – Ryan

  3. Gareth Hanrahan says:

    I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the Doctor Who: Adventures in Time and Space system, where the round is divided into four segments – Talkers, Movers, Doers and Fighters. If you declare you’re talking, you go before anyone who’s Moving, Doing Something or attacking. It works really well for the setting.

    • Ryan Macklin says:

      Man, moments after clicking “publish,” I realized I missed Doctor Who’s.

      – Ryan

  4. With Tabletop Blockbuster (in progress), we have a system similar to what Shadowrun 3rd Edition did. You roll a combination of stats and your number of successes determines both the order in which you act as well as how many actions you get to take. It seems to work pretty well, and we allow for holding actions or jumping initiative by spending challenge points (in-game currency that has mechanical effect), so players have some flexibility for strategic action.

    Personally, I’ve always liked Shadowrun 3e’s initiative. I also like games without initiative. Something I did with Clash (in progress) was to basically eliminate initiative altogether since the game is played in scenes. Combat is determined with single rolls and players act before NPCs, but when two players are facing off they roll simultaneously. Since there aren’t multiple actions, there’s no reason to have an initiative system.

  5. Andy says:

    Similar to the abovementioned Doctor Who system is Old School Hack’s 7-part turn. You pick your action, and that determines when in the initiative order you go. As I recall, it goes roughly like this…

    Defend Someone, Prepare a Spell, Push/Throw Someone, Move/Impede, Attack, Shoot, Cast a Spell

    I think I got some of that wrong, but that’s basically how it goes. You pick one of those actions (unless you prepared a spell; in that case, you also Cast a Spell if you weren’t interrupted during all of that), and it fires when that part of the action goes in turn order.

    Hollowpoint pushes the ORE initiative even further, because going first can be worse: your dice are a defensive buffer, so it’s a tradeoff. Go way before anyone else, and you wind up quickly burning through your dice buffer…and wind up as dead meat.

    • Andy says:

      Upon checking up on it? I got the OSH initiative phases right, but they’re in mixed order. Oops.

      Defend/Protect -> Shoot -> Focus (prep a spell) or Impede -> Move -> Attack -> Push/Throw -> Cast Spells

  6. Thomas D says:

    Fantasy Flight Games’ Star Wars games have an interesting initiative system: When determining initiative, both sides — PCs and NPCs — are really determining initiative slots. So instead of “Ryan going to go first, then Billy, then the GM’s mob, then Erin, and finally the GM’s big monster”, it’s a PC goes first, then another PC, then an NPC, then a PC, then another NPC. The players decide who goes when in the PC slots; the GM decides which of his NPCs acts during the NPC slots.

    • Ryan Macklin says:

      Hah! That was an older Mythender setup, before I decided to simplify it by having just one Myth per battle (and handling multiple turns as something that was expensive to do, but technically possible).

      – Ryan

  7. Adam S. says:

    I can think of two that I’ve enjoyed. The first being Sorcerer, every one declares their action in a free and clear phase. Then everyone roles at the same time with the best roll going first, and then you can abort your action to defend or opt to continue your action but with a minimal defense. I had a few players who disliked it because they felt they had to abort their chosen action to often. But I felt it created a very interesting resolution that was not predicable.

    The other being OctaNe where the approaches are ordered, how your performing or describing your action determines the order your action are performed in.

    • Ryan Macklin says:

      Could you give an example (or link to one) of how OctaNe’s works?

      – Ryan

    • Adam S. says:

      OctaNe is semi-narrative game where only the players roll the dice and if they succeed they get to narrate the results of their action if the fail the GM narrates a complication. OctaNe has 6 Styles (Daring, Ingenuity, Craft, Charm, Might, and Magic). The style define not what a character can do buy how he does it. Once conflict starts the players declare what style they are going to use, and then action are resolved in style order with same style resolved in best cinematic order as determined by the GM. The styles are ordered Daring, Ingenuity, Craft, Charm, Might, and Magic.

      For Example:
      A Biker gang is holding a man as a prisoner, for violating their territory, and The players have an interest in this prisoner. Player1 Says he going to use Charm to convince the gang it is in their best interest to turn the prisoner over to them. Player2 is going to use Might to hurl a heavy engine block at the gang to scatter and intimidate them. Player1 goes first because Charm comes before Might in the Style Order. He rolls and narrates, then player2 Might action can be resolved and additional narration added.

  8. Amanda Lange says:

    Interesting stuff. I’ve often had to fight the perception of “roll initiative” always meaning that a combat is about to happen. Sometimes I have players roll it during a tense exploration or social situation and they immediately think, “oh, combat!” Sometimes I just say “remember I just ask for initiatives as an indicator that everything isn’t happening at the same time.” The idea of it being a ritual shift really resonates with me.

    • Ryan Macklin says:

      There are a lot of things in roleplaying games that are subtle rituals. It was something I realized when I was running GURPS convention games many years ago — saying “roll for that” was a trigger for this quick but elaborate ritual, and I realized that when I watch people struggle with learning the game not because they were bad at math or stupid or anything, but because the ritual was actually more complex than I realized. Things you take for granted when you’ve done something for years, and all that.

      – Ryan

  9. Scott says:

    I’ve always liked 7th Sea’s system – admittedly it allows for some multiple actions issues. But it is simple and kinetic (and I do like kinetics in my dice, where every die means something even if it is just a lot of potential you can feel in your hands) and it is easy to keep track of, if dice intensive.

    • Ryan Macklin says:

      How did it work? It’s been over a decade since I’ve played 7th Sea.

      – Ryan

  10. Scott says:

    7th Sea – initiative is a pool equal to Panache attribute (1-5 normally) roll xd10. Each round is broken into 10 phases and each die is an action.

    You could take an action on your phase or hold it as an active defense. Alternately you could burn two future actions for an OHSHIT! defensive action right now.

    In short, in 7th Sea the most stylish people go the most often.

  11. Jesse says:

    It’s not my favorite (That would belong to Marvel Heroic), but I find the Burning Wheel family of games interesting in that all actions are simultaneous and basically reveal how actions clash against each other. Maybe it’s the anti-initiative system.

    I’ve always kind of liked how the Final Fantasy video games did initiative with a “loading” bar for each character that would eventually fill up again, allowing another action. I’d like to see that in a tabletop game.

    • Ryan Macklin says:

      *nod* I’d also say that the call to go to scripting is much the same ritual that “roll initiative” is.

      I also lifted the meta-story turn order idea of the GM’s turn and players’ turn form Mouse Guard for Mythender. Not 100% on topic, but is similar at the meta level.

      – Ryan

    • David says:

      Exalted 2e is sort of like that, if I recall correctly. Actions have “speeds”, which is what determines how long your next loading bar takes to fill, effectively. It actually presents this as a “tick” system, where you do an action, and the speed of the action determines when the next tick you go on is. It’s not uncommon to have ticks where nobody acts, and combat progresses by the GM counting up ticks until one side wins. It was a nice way to have quick weak actions, like an attack with dagger, balanced with big slow actions, like an attack with a huge sword or casting a spell. It was a lot of bookkeeping, though – not sure it was ultimately worth it. (I also might be misremembering some details. It’s been a while.) I’m curious what the next edition will use.

    • Ryan Macklin says:

      *nod* There have been a few systems to use the Feng Shui setup. Eclipse Phase does something like that as well. It creates some interesting play, though it can get fiddly and accidentally create broken dynamics with some people getting to play the game more often than others.

      – Ryan

  12. David says:

    I’ve seen a variant of the Shadowrun initiative system where everyone rolls initiative, the person with the lowest positive initiative declares their action, and then anyone with a better initiative can choose to interrupt it with their own action, which may then in turn be interrupted by anyone with a yet higher initiative. After all is said and done, everyone who acted subtracts ten from their initiative and we do it again until nobody has a positive initiative.

    I really like this system as it fits well with Shadowrun’s emphasis on twitchy reflexes, and accomplishes very gracefully what other systems do in a clunky fashion with “holding actions” or things of that nature. It suddenly becomes completely natural to shoot a gun out of someone’s hand just after they drew it, or have a particularly quick mage throw an armor spell on another party member a split second before they get shot. The downside is that it makes initiative even more important than it already was in Shadowrun, and makes overly slow people quite sad, as they may get to announce a totally awesome action but then just watch in dismay as it sparks off a chain of interrupts that eventually ends in them getting shot in the head before their action gets to go off. (Though, in my opinion, a Shadowrun character that doesn’t min-max their initiative score deserves what they get.)

    • Ryan Macklin says:

      That reminds me a bit of Battletech’s initiative (the minis game, not the RPG), where winning meant the other side had to move first, so you could respond.

      – Ryan

  13. John Powell says:

    Wow – all the way down here before someone mentions Hero System’s/Champion’s initiative system?

    Each combat round is has 12 phases. How many and which segments you get actions in is determined by the Speed attribute. Actions are evenly distributed throughout the turn, but weighted to the back, i.e. Speed 1 folks get an action on phase 12, Speed 2 folks on phases 6 and 12, Speed 3 on phases 4, 8, and 12. What order you go in a phase is determined by Dexterity rating from high to low, ties determined by dice roll.

    There are complications to this basic structure to account for holding full or half actions. Full actions are typically move + attack and half actions an attack. Attacks always completed your action.

    This system really appealed to my teenage and early 20’s brain because, like the rest of Hero system, it attempted to ‘realistically’ model the physics of a superhero universe. Me and my friends didn’t mind (much) that it made combats long and cumbersome – we liked the tactical wargame aspect of moving minis and getting just the right shot off at the right time. Another game we played in the day was Star Fleet Battles, a space-naval combat game which has basically the same system for movement, but with 32 impulses per turn and weighted towards the middle instead of the end of the round.

    Problems with this system:
    1. Slow and cumbersome – mainly because of the predictability of the system, you could fool yourself into making ‘long term’ plans and arguing with the other players about the most optimal tactics.
    2. High Speed makes characters disproportionally more effective – hitting first and more often.
    3. High Speed characters, going more often, were also spotlight hogs, given that the game really focuses on what happens in combat.

    An interesting hack we tried a couple of times was rolling a d12 each segment. On your Speed or less you got an action. This made thing move a little quicker and be more spontaneous, but high Speed folks were still spotlight hogs.

    Ultimately I came to prefer simpler systems where each character gets an action each round, which actually models comic book & tv superheroes pretty closely. If you look at the Justice League cartoons, Flash doesn’t get more actions than anybody else – it’s just often the stuff he does in one action, like disarm a who room full of mooks, or run around the entire Earth to deliver a punch, is justified by his super speed power.

    • Adam S. says:

      That reminds me of Cyberpunk 2013 initiative system, the main difference is a round had 3 phases. Characters with high Ref go in all three phases, characters with middle ref go in phases 2 and 3, and low ref characters go in phase 3. This was not as cumbersome as hero 12 phase, but High speed characters had such an advantage that players felt obligated to min-max their characters. I doubt, that I’ve ever seen a player make cyberpunk character with a body or a Ref below 7.

  14. John Powell says:

    White Wolf’s Adventure! game, has an initiative system that I’m pretty sure no one plays as written.

    Each combat round characters declare their (intended) actions in order from slowest to quickest, then resolve those action from quickest to slowest.

    We tried this for the first combat in the game and promptly went back to our default, quickest goes first, because who wants to describe what they are doing twice each round?

    Do the other White Wolf/Storyteller games have this rule that nobody uses?

  15. I don’t know where it came from, but I like declare/act initiative systems. Basically the slowest to the fastest declare what they are going to do, then the fastest to slowest act first. I find this makes for a more accurate reflection of quickness — it isn’t only starting first, but also noticing what others are doing and responding faster.

  16. Adam S. says:

    Thinking back on when I played AD&D(1st and 2nd), I remember often ignoring the initiative system. We would go round-robin, making sure each player got an action every round, with the GM usually going first. This got me wondering how often are complicated initiative system really used. Are they ignored for small conflicts and random encounters and only used for the big or challenging conflicts that will have story impacts?

  17. John Powell says:

    3:16 Carnage Amongst the Stars

    1. Everyone decides what they are doing.
    2. Everyone rolls 1d10 versus the appropriate ability, trying to get equal or less than the rating.
    3. Folks with successes go in order from highest to lowest roll.
    4. Folks who fail go in order from highest to lowest roll.

    This initiative system separates the winners from the losers, which I haven’t seen in other games.

    • Ryan Macklin says:

      3:16 is a fully competitive game, so that dynamic works. Various minis battle games use that as well. But you don’t see that in skirmish-based RPG systems (and those derived from them) because that dynamic starts to fall down when you’re many-players-against-one.

      – Ryan

  18. John Powell says:

    My current top favorite init systems are:

    1. Marvel Heroic’s name-who-goes-next. Will probably use in my next Supers! game.

    2. Vortex/Dr. Who/Primeval’s Talkers, Runners, Doers, Fighters – seems to work well with our fantasy FATE game, where we have Overcome, Create Advantage and Attack. Credit to Fred Hicks: http://www.deadlyfredly.com/2013/11/a-couple-of-fate-hacklets/

    3. Savage Worlds’ card-based initiative, which works well with the shaken->wound mechanic.

  19. Martin says:

    I really love the card-based initiative in Deadlands/Savage Worlds.
    The problem with a lot of the dice-based systems is that they get confusing real quick in non-trivial situations. The prime example is Shadowrun, with multiple actions/initiative phases per round, and players often controlling more than one character (drones, spirits etc). It always ends up in a mess like because you have to remember and communicate your initiative number(s) all the time.
    Having the cards on the table and discarding them when you took your action is much clearer and faster and gives a nice tactile component. Plus it eliminates the need to have special rules to deal with two (or more) chars acting on the same initiative number.

    • Ryan Macklin says:

      This is a correlation/causation thing. What you’re talking about isn’t cards- or dice-specific — you can have dice-based initiatives where you roll a pool of dice and discard them when that number’s called, just as with cards. And you could have cards that aren’t kept as such.

      Not that I see this as a problem. People constantly use physical markers, the least of which is writing things down, to keep track of initiative. In fact I find what you’re talking about to be more cumbersome, because you have to constantly iterate down the “10s? No? 9s? 8s? Okay, we have two 8s!”, whereas with more classic initiative setups, you have a list of order you can quickly iterate through.

      Now, if your problem is information overload as you describe in Shadowrun, I can see that. But what I’m reading is someone claiming one issue (information overload) is caused by an unrelated thing (dice).

      – Ryan

    • Martin says:

      Hm, that are some good points you’re making there. Maybe it is really more about how we handle it, because we do the ‘iterating down’ thing with both systems. In Deadlands, that works quite well for us. In Shadowrun, it becomes messy and confusing for the reasons I mentioned. Maybe just taking a moment to make list at the beginning of each turn would be a better approach. Thanks for the input! :)
      Thinking of it, I remember one GM who used to have an initiative track along the top side of his GM screen and marked each PC & NPC with paperclips. This was a good solution because you could set it up fast each turn and it was easily visible both for players and GM.

    • Ryan Macklin says:

      Right. Many designers don’t think about the UI impacts of rules, especially because they’re generally good at processing said rules since they invented them, and either assume the rule is easier to use than it is or don’t communicate the UI elements that make the rule work.

      Mythender is, incidentally, all about making UI a part of the game’s design. That’s why there are deliberate spaces on the corners of the playsheet for putting dice and tokens down, with names and a rules quick-reference for each bit.

      – Ryan