Initiative Systems Deep Discussion

One of the things I really want to try to play with in my game is initiative systems.

I love AD&D 2e’s concept of initiative, but it is so utterly slow that it makes the game unfun.

I enjoy 3/PF/4/5 for the simplification of it, but it ultimately leads to some ridiculous results that end up not feeling great.

As I’m new to it, I appreciate PBTA style combat, where it’s much less about cycling through “now it’s my turn” and much more about a flexible “you can try something, but failing too much gives the GM a move” but there’s something lacking for me personally- the players that are not skill-focused for the contest at hand are actually better off doing nothing.

So what approaches do you like best to initiative? Are there ways that let you play with changing initiative and potentially multiple turn rewards for certain conditions that isn’t ridiculously broken? Are there any PBTA-style games that play with this? (maybe I’m not familiar enough yet so even basic examples are good!)

I’d also love to discuss the concept of non-combat initiatives - for instance, in a conversation that ends up being an argument, how do you navigate making sure everyone’s character gets a fair shake at joining beyond just assuming “make sure to shine the spotlight on all players” is a highly developed GM skill?


Okay, I normally absolutely do not even attempt to use forums because they are really hard for me, but this is a topic I really like, so I’ll fight through it, haha.

I actually handle initiative in Sundown by having all conflicts (including non-combat conflicts) take place in turns/rounds. This was the only mechanic I designed for Sundown so I’m very proud of it, and I like initiative systems a lot b/c they help me personally quite a lot!

The way I did it was by making your advancement points (infamy) your initiative, which works for me really well.
The higher your held onto infamy, the sooner your turn in a round. The lower, the later. But…holding onto your advancement points means you haven’t been able to spend them to improve. But it makes you have more choices in when you act.

It was also a really simple thing so we didn’t have to add currencies to the game to make initiative happen.

I really wanna see other people’s takes on intiative* too! This topic is really neat, although it’ll take me a while to view more stuff…


Troika’s initiative is a very fun spin on initiative - and definitely simulates the chaos and unpredicatability of combat really well: you should check that out for sure. It could even slot into other games quite well - might work really well for argument initiative, bar room brawl lower stakes battle for sure.


While I usually use PbtA style initiative in my games (simply following the narrative and making sure everyone has equal spotlight time), there are some other initiative systems that are enjoy.

Super fast and simple - Savage Worlds: Each round you deal a card to each player and each mook group. Then you count down from Ace to two. There are mechanical ways of drawing more cards and keeping the higher. In my games player and the GM kept their cards secret, so it is more exciting to see when someone acts and how the combat will proceed. There were also ways for players to peek at GMs cards.

Super Thematic - Doctor Who RPG from Cubicle7: Initiative works depending on what you will do. It goes Talk -> Act -> Fight. So if you try to talk someone down you go before they will have a chance to attack you. If you try to do something clever, like close the mechanical door between you and the attackers, you get to try that before they attack, but they can still try to talk you out of it. It all fits very well with the source material.

Fast & Thematic - Marvel Heroic RPG (this might also be used in other Cortex+ games, not sure): one player has initiative, then after their turn they pass it to another player of their choice who hasn’t acted yet, or to an enemy. It makes for fast gameplay & mimics the style of comic panels (Wolverine punches a dude, two more baddies rush in through the door only to be blasted by cyclops).

All of those can easily be ported to the game of your choosing…

@Lu.Quade - for those of us who are not familiar with Troika, can you tell us how the initiative works in the game and what makes it so chaotic and unpredictable?


Yes: sorry, was feeling lazy: haha.

I found a link describing it quite well here: Troika! Initiative Rules

Essentially: throw a bunch of counters in a bag: 2 of a colour for each PC. 1 each for each of the enemies. There is also an end of round counter. Then you draw counters: whoever draws their counter can act. The round can end at anytime, and initiative is reset (hence the random chaos).

There are a few other little rules, but that’s the main gist.


When it comes to Initiative I like

  • a mid range dice (d6 to d10) to avoid calling out of numbers that no one is on.

  • no stat modifiers, since no one is at peak performance 24/7 and there is an argument for every stat being used for initiative

  • npcs/monsters should be in two groups (not separate initiative for each critter) so boss/minions or melee/casters-missiles to keep thing simple

  • Some people from a traditional background are keen to have their say because they are used to long periods of times between their go, but you just have to remind them its a shared story.

  • If Fightor the Mighty wants to attack two critters instead of one on his go that’s fine, but narratively the boss will notice the larger threat (he’s pulling agro) and send more troops to deal with him.


This was my initial reading of Apocalypse World/Dungeon World as well, and it was one of the things that turned me off the system until I realized that’s not really how it works in practice.

If there’s bad stuff happening doing nothing is a luxury the PCs can’t really afford. If you put them on the spot and they do nothing, you need to put the hurt on them with hard moves.


One that seems pretty neat is phase initiative from Old School Hack. Each action has a different space in the initiative order, and you choose one action for each round. Mages declare spells in phase 3, and actually cast them in phase 7, for example. Characters make melee attacks in phase 4 or 5, iirc.

You choose your phase at the top of the round and then when each phase rolls around, all the players who picked that phase take actions. Simple and tactical, it seems very interesting.


Yeah, I’d piggy-back off to this to say that I think why PbtA games benefit from and work well with a very loose initiative system is because tactical play is all but irrelevant. (At least in the sense of the “wargames tactics” of D&D etc.) So I don’t even really think of PbtA games as having “combats”, so much as sometimes violence will break out. And usually, that violence will be resolved in a handful of moves. Adding into this that in most PbtA games you won’t be spending the game walking around as an adventuring party, but will all be involved in separate scenes, probably interwoven together.

And yeah, if you are in a scene where there is a present danger, choosing to do nothing is as much a decision as choosing to act. It’s absolutely an invitation for the MC to make a move. That flexibility to have some back and forth in who says what happens when is what gives narrative structure to scenes in PbtA, but isn’t necessarily as good a fit for a more tactical game.


In Swords of the Serpentine (Pelgrane Press’ new GUMSHOE sword & sorcery RPG):

The GM decides who goes first, based on the fiction. (That could be a monster/NPC.) A group of mooks counts as one actor.

Before declaring action, the player of the character who’s up decides who’s going after them. This could be a PC or a monster/NPC. In the case of a monster/NPC’s action, it’s the GM who decides who’s going after them.

Play proceeds until every combatant has gone. Player of the last character to act declares who’s going first in the next round.

This gives some level of narrative control to the players: Do the PCs gang up on the bad guys before they have a chance to act? Do they let the bad guys go first, and then the PCs can try to each take two attacks on them before they can react? Or do you let it flow by the narrative? It’s really flexible!


A structure that I’ve used in the past, and that I quite like for “crunchy” games with defined initiative:

  1. Some sort of roll to determine an “initiative count”.
    • (Roll is usually based on wits/awareness and/or cool/resolve rather than on dexterity/reflexes.)
  2. Actions are declared from lowest initiative to highest initiative
  3. Actions are resolved from highest initiative to lowest initiative
    • You can talk a bit (a few words, a sentence at the most) on your action
    • If you come under attack before you act, you can freely give up your declared action to dodge or (against a melee attack) counter
    • After you act, you freely dodge/defend from attacks (but cannot counter)
    • If your declared action was “full defense,” then you get to dodge/defend freely, and with a bonus (even against attacks made prior to your initiative count)

What emerges is all sorts of mind games and tactics based on suppressive fire, line of sight, and anticipating what someone with a higher initiative roll than you intends to do, and what they want to do, and declaring your action in order to force them to declare a different action, etc. etc.

It’s fun, and really quite dynamic, but it 1) makes whatever stat you use for initiative soooper important and 2) can take a while to resolve.


That’s pretty much how combat is structured in Basic D&D. Some people love it, others not so much. I haven’t actually tried it myself.

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I can imagine that would get pretty unwieldy with more than about three players. I wouldn’t want to be a GM trying to keep track of the intentions of five players and those of three different opponents.

I’d like to point out that while this is true with a good GM, mechanically speaking this spotlight switch isn’t an integrated part of the game. Initiative in and of itself is a good concept for specifically making sure this happens - whereas PBTA doesn’t seem to explicitly call this out as a requirement.

As an aside I think this is great hallmark of the system, as it demonstrates that PBTA is a much more narratively focused system, which I think was one of its core design goals!


In Amber Diceless Role-Playing (and its non-Zelazny descendant Lords of Gossamer and Shadow), characters declare their intended actions in order of their Warfare rank, with the lowest score going first.

Characters who declare later in the round can take into account the actions that other characters have declared—including taking an action to counter another’s action. After the character with the highest Warfare score declares their action, the GM narrates the results of the round.

This simulates the most canny combatant’s ability to intuit what others are doing and react accordingly.


I’d probably recommend against making any assumptions about what a PBTA game “is” or is defined by. You’ll minimize the likelihood of being disappointed… :wink:


It’s certainly not light-weight, but as I recall, it worked pretty well with 4-5 players. The players are basically responsible for their own actions, and you’re generally handling mooks as groups (“these guys are all gonna open fire on you”).

But it’s also been years (over 10? maybe almost 20) since I’ve used this with any regularity. I much prefer PbtA games and the “natural flow/spotlight management” approach.


And I bet that for anything anyone says AW is, there’s a link to Vincent or Meg saying the opposite.


My favourite initiative is one I’ve taken from a blog called Homebrew Homunculus, where the concept is entitled guerilla initiative:

Whichever side has fewer combatants, or is the most at home, goes first


Sorcerer’s dice resolution method is pretty unique so I can’t say for sure this could result be ported to other systems, but I really like it. In a combat, each round starts with a free and clear phase with the players (including gm) all declaring their actions in any order. Everyone is allowed to revise their declaration based on what others say until everyone is satisfied. (Initiative is still unknown at this point) As soon as everyone is committed to their actions then “free and clear” is over and every player rolls their dice. Initiative is then based on the raw value of the dice rolls with the highest getting to apply the results of their actions first. Characters later in the cycle who find themselves the target of incoming attacks have an interesting choice: abort your declared action in order to focus entirely on defense, thus rolling dice for a chance to mitigate the incoming attack OR “suck it up” accept the consequences of the attack and hold on to your chance to complete your declared action. Ron Edwards explains this method is great for simulating non-orthagonal conflicts with multiple fronts of opposition. He also compares it to the scene in Reservoir Dogs where every Character had drawn his gun on another character. This system would allow a scene to play out where every Character reached the brink of murderous action… And then everyone manages to stand down, all based on tactical reasoning.

I haven’t played D&D in a while but I’m tempted to try this out, using simultaneous d20 rolls for everyone and then sorting out the results in order from 20 down to 1.