Monday, December 16, 2013

Conditional Initiative

Hand me my wrench.

Initiative in combat is necessary, because it the order of who-hits-who frequently matter.  It also helps people know when it's their turn and when it's the monsters' turn, so they know whether they should be listening or thinking.

But it leads to some funny situations.  Like if the fighter and ogre both want to charge each other, but the ogre wins initiative, so it charges while the fighter just stands there in the hallway, where he blocks the whole party from entering the room.

I've seen initiative-less systems proposed before, but they seem to have either (a) lots of simultaneous actions, (b) complicated phase mechanics, or (c) initiative based on how description the players gave.

Why not only roll initiative when it matters?  When a player is in conflict with a monster, and not a moment before?

Let's keep it simple and say that a player has two options on their turn.
  1. Do something, then move.
  2. Move, then do something.
An equivalent way to think about this is to describe the turn as two phases, in which you can move or do something, but you cannot "move-move" nor "do-do".

After everyone has declared what they want to do, the DM adjudicates it in the way that makes the most sense, only rolling initiative if there is a conflict.  So, the fighter and the ogre charge each other and meet in the middle of the room.  Then, and only then, does the fighter roll initiative to see if he is faster than the ogre.

Rolling Initiative

Opposed rolls take time. We can simplify and quicken this by hinging the whole thing on a single number on the player's character sheet. For simplicity's sake, let's make this a straightforward d20 roll:

- If you roll under your Dexterity, you act before the opponents.
- If you roll over your Dexterity, your opponents act before you.
- If you roll your Dexterity exactly, then the actions are truly simultaneous.

That's it.  I can think of many ways to elaborate on this, but that'll do for now.

Let's see an example:

Round 1: While sneaking through the filth library of the yoblin khan, the party is surprised by a quartet of the yellow goblinoids.  The yoblins use their surprise round to throw some shit-encrusted javelins at the party.

Round 2: The yoblins look like they're getting ready for a fight (not fleeing) so the players declare what they want to do.  Fighter wants to charge the damn things.  Wizard wants to cast magic missile.  Thief wants to fire his crossbow at them.  Cleric wants to bless himself and then move up behind Fighter.

While Fighter and the yoblins charge at each other, everyone does what they said they wanted to do (fire crossbow, magic missile, bless).  After that little volley, the Fighter rolls his personal initiative to see if he can attack before the yoblins.  Cleric is not a target yet because he's sort of slinking in after Fighter has already locked blades (and the yoblins aren't trying to run past Fighter anyway).

Round 3: The yoblins are trying to circle up around the fighter now, so the players declare what they want to do.  Fighter and Cleric are already in melee, so they want to continue doing that. Rogue wants to join in, and then Wizard doesn't want to do anything except hold his staff in front of him, defensively.

Taking up a defensive stance takes no time at all, so the Wizard gets +2 AC and forfeits the rest of his actions.  Fighter and Cleric each roll initiative to see if they act before the yoblins.  After Fighter, Cleric, and the yoblins have all attacked each other, Thief runs up and swings his little club.

Getting the idea?


Personal, conditional initiative has the advantage of getting the players thinking about what sort of actions they want to do right at the start of the turn.  The DM says, "the yoblins look like they're getting ready to fight, what do you want to do?" and they're already up to bat.  No rolling a d6 to see if they can beat the DM, no waiting for your turn to roll around.  

And even if they are doing something automatic, they might still need to roll to see if they get it off in time.  Like, a wizard wants to cast a spell even though an orc is up in his business with a rusty cutlass. Normally, this wouldn't require any rolling on the wizard's part, but now he gets to roll initiative to see if he gets his spell off before getting his liver carved out.

Conditional initiative also lets battles unfold more organically, which makes it well suited for descriptive combat (and less suitable when you are playing on a battlegrid). It avoids the rote mechanical feel of alternating turns, and keeps it keeps some of the swinginess of group initiative (since a lot may depend on whether or not the rogue can drink that potion in time).  And it keeps the players rolling dice.

What about fast or slow monsters? In 3.5, monsters only had initiative modifiers of +2 or +4 or something.  The variance between quick-acting monsters and slow-acting ones is potentially negligible. You could model this with fast monsters giving the player a -4 to their initiative or something, but you'd probably be better off making it universal (i.e. blobs always lose initiative) or just avoiding it all together.

What about if the players want to compete with each other? You could roll initiative and say that whoever rolls under their Dexterity by the most, goes first.  Or everyone could roll d20 + Dexterity and then go in descending order of results.  Both of these are mechanically identical.

Have I ever told you how much I love this picture?


  1. i like this a lot.

    for example, quickling would always win initiative? that could be their super-schtick?

    1. Super-gimmicky! But everyone loves gimmicks (as long as they aren't abused).

  2. This is close to how Numenera does initiative.

    Players make a speed check versus the enemy's target number to decide whether the PC acts before or after, which is pretty much the same thing as making a dex check penalized by monster level/HD in D&D terms.

    1. There's some good ideas in Numenera.

      I dunno how comparable it is, though. The crux of the system I'm proposing above is that initiative can be CONDITIONAL, so there is no rolling of initiative at the start of the encounter. Everything is common-sensed as much as possible, and then initiative rolled at the point where it becomes important.

  3. I'd do something like

    Roll d6:

    Fighters add 2, Thieves 1 (or Clerics, depending on your flavour of Thief/Cleric).

    On a 5+ you go first, otherwise the monster goes first.

    Fast Monsters apply a penalty of one or two.

    I'd do that for a lot of reasons, but mostly because the thing that a Fighter's is best at is fighting and a low-dex fighter, especially early on, is likely going to be smeared on the pavement _while trying to fight_.

  4. In my games I tend to roll initiative only if required. Mostly, the first to declare an attack wins initiative.
    It might be weird, told like that, but in my Martial Arts experience, most people are afraid to move close enough to hit and circles one another.

    I used to counter attack a lot and actually some characters should have fighting styles that gives bonuses on certain actions, like giving away initiative to unbalance opponent by counter strike.

    TORG also has a very fun initiative system that is completely unrealistic, but works fine to bring surprise every turns. It is a deck of cards that goes like :
    heroes first; flurry (2 actions)
    Then villains; inspiration (heal bashing wounds)
    Recommended action : taunt, spell casting (recommended action allows you to draw a card that will give some bonuses later on but you could simply say that these actions are at +2)