Initiative Systems Deep Discussion

Something I’ve been fascinated by for a while, but have never tried, is a technique called Popcorn Initiative, created by The Angry GM. Basically, after you go in combat, you choose who goes next. It becomes about creating opportunities in battle and communicating with your team, as opposed to some kind of arcane measurement of reflex. It also means it is sometimes advantageous to give initiative over to the enemy, but this is a risk as well obviously because the monsters also choose who goes next and do so as disadvantageously as possible to the PCs.

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I don’t think that was invented by the Angry GM. From what I’ve heard, it first appeared in Marvel Superheroes. Fate also uses it.


I’ve had good success with popcorn initiative in semi-competitive sessions — there’s some really pleasant tactical options

That’s more or less how initiative works in Swords of the Serpentine. I hadn’t thought to try it in the D&D/OGL family of games, but I just might do so if I ever run such a game again.

I think the marching order in Goblinville is a unique take on this:


It covers spotlight sharing and a sense of simultaneity by enforcing one action per goblin per turn, but goblins can act in any order they choose, allowing them to follow-up on what is important to them in the moment rather than waiting for a turn. There are also helping rules, so that players are still able to influence the situation even when out of the marching order.

It also lets the GM make actions that target a specific goblin without it feeling arbitrary (if unclear, it’s always the first goblin in marching order). Finally, the way that monster actions, dangers, and attacks are tied into the player rolls means that the GM doesn’t need a turn in initiative.


Leonard Balsera would be the original designer, more thoughts about it here



Thanks, I never played Marvel Superheroes, and the one time I played Fate we did not use Popcorn Initiative.

If anyone does use it in D&D I’d be curious to hear how it goes.

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Thanks for the details!

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Greetings. I don’t think there is much you can do about individual turns. Technically ranged attacks go first, then melee and finally spells. Who goes first in the melee, assuming that side won, depends on who is closest and/or has the higher dexterity.

Or you can just disregard everything, and go around the table.


@MPA When you use the term “technically” are you referring to a specific game?


I was just musing about AD&D

Here’s a few systems I like that others haven’t mentioned yet in this thread. What do you think of these?

Stances/risk in The One Ring: PCs each declare a stance each round: Forward, Open, Defensive, or Rearward. Stance determines order of resolution (Forward first, Rearward last), but more interestingly, stance dictates the difficulty of both landing your attacks and being hit in return. I.e in Forward stance, hitting enemies is effortless, but you’re just as likely to be hit, while in Defensive or Rearward, hitting foes is hard, but you are just as hard to hit. Only Rearward allows ranged attacks, and Rearward PCs can’t be engaged by enemies, but each Rearward PC requires two allies taking one of the other three stances, to basically play linebacker for them. Oh, and before a battle, every character gets to try one opening ranged attack volley as melee closes ranks.

ORE (One Roll Engine, such as Reign): For all actions in the game, combat or not, you roll pools of d10s and look for sets of the same number results. The widest set (the set with the highest quantity of dice showing the same result) resolves first or speediest, while the height of the set (the result on the die faces) represents precision, control, or luck. If you’re hit in combat before you’ve acted, you’ve widest set usually loses one die, which either delays your action (since now it’s one die narrower/slower) or possibly negates it entirely (if it no longer is at least a pair). Neat features of this system: Characters can gamble by declaring multiple actions in a round, as many as they want really, but take a penalty and must achieve multiple sets in their roll for each of the additional actions to “fire off”. Handily, groups of mooks roll a single pool with 1d per mook. Nice and easy.

Character cards in D&D: In D&D-like games we shuffle a card for each PC and NPC group, then draw each round. You go when you’re card’s up. Super-speedy or perceptive characters might get 2 cards in the stack but only go on the first. Some big bosses get 2-3 cards on the stack and get a turn each card. This method, streamlined from Savage Worlds, adds variety and uncertainty round to round, but avoids the decision time required of popcorn style. Plus I enjoy making lovely character cards for PCs and major NPCs because you can lay out who’s present in noncombat scenes to remember who’s all involved.

Dynamic Initiative as momentum/positioning/HP in Exalted 3e: I haven’t played it, but in the most recent Exalted, initiative is your relative advantage in a fight, almost like morale/stamina/abstract HP. In high to low initiative order, everyone takes turns trying to jockey to increase your initiative and/or decrease foes’, using attack or skill moves that only deal initiative “damage” (like cosmetic or scenery damage in anime). When you decide you’ve built up enough initiative relative to some target, you can make a Decisive attack to actually deal real harm, spending your built up initiative as dice to determine damage. Stuff like weapon type and armor only really affect the jockeying rolls (i.e. its easier to position favorably or put someone on the back foot with a polearm than fists) while how much damage you deal is mostly based on initiative (since even a tiny knife can be deadly if used from a highly advantageous position). While at or below 0 initiative, meanwhile, you’re highly vulnerable, but can still turn the tables and rally with luck, tactics, backup. Teamwork and timing become highly tactical in this system.


I’ve seen a version of D&D where you get an initiative score (based on a d20 roll + mods), and you act in descending order. So far, pretty normal, but then you get some options to do things by “spending” that initiative. Fooling around with that number is attached to all kinds of combat options.

You can take an extra action by spending 10 points of initiative, for example. You can do things to reroll your initiative; or you can hamper another character, costing them points of initiative.

If it drops to zero, you’re useless and can no longer act until you can recover.

There’s also the option of handling positioning or narrative in terms of narrative or diegetic choices:

When you “have the initiative”, you might get to decide at what range combat begins, whether someone has line of sight or not, or who has access to combat positions.


I think Paul’s talking about Eero Tuovinen’s initiative system, as written up here by Jonatan Kilhamn and David Berg.

Me personally, I have a death-grudge against any kind of initiative roll. Hate hate hate.

Right after 5e came out, I ran a year or so using popcorn initiative, which worked pretty well, but it turns out that I also kinda have a death grudge against turn-taking in general.

The next 5e game I ran was a year or so of dungeon delving in post-apocalyptic Europe. We used phased initiative: each round I’d call out phases in order:


And there’d be a thunderous clatter of dice and people would say what had happened. It’s blazingly fast—we used a bunch of other techniques to speed things up, too. For instance, we’d mostly leave off announcing the fact that we were making attacks, or who the target was; it’s just, “Melee phase! One hit to Alice for 5 and two to Bob for 10!” “Nothing! Crap!” “One hit for 9!” “One hit on the big one, 18 total!” “Anyone else? End of round. Death saves? No? No morale check… Magic phase!”

Everything within a phase happened simultaneously.

Replacing serial decision making with parallel decision making is so great. And limiting the number of times the game-state changes to 4 per round (once per phase; rather than 2 per character per round, one for each move and one for each action) just lets us integrate information and make decisions so much faster.

I also love PbtA style conversational spotlight. My holy grail is bringing that style into D&D-ish games of the OSR-ish vein (rather than the Dungeon World-ish vein; like, ideally, drop-in-able for any version of D&D or retroclone or neoclone or whatever).


OK; just going to talk about my initiative systems now.

I like when people who wants to talk gets to talk.

In This is Pulp, the one who wants to act gets to act but they have to take a token. Only the person with the lowest amount of tokens gets to act, so everyone gets to act, but the ones most keen to act gets to act first.

In D&D and similar games, it’s only important if you get to act before or after the opponents, and if the initiative stands between rounds, it’s only important the first round. So in my tactical game Thrice, you got two initiative states: before or after the opponents. Each one gives certain benefits; activated powers are useless if you act after the opponents but, on the other hand, you get act without interruption if you do. The first phase in a combat round is to discuss tactics with the other players, and change initiative to gain or loose extra actions, depending on what they plan.

Matiné has no rounds. It uses a circular board and actions takes a certain number of actions. You roll for initiative where you’re placed on the board, but after that, it’s mostly about how you play tactically, and how you roll. You can end up taking lots of actions, or you could botch which results in fewer actions, and possibly no chance to defend. It’s a development from Feng Shui, Shadowrun, Deadlands and similar shot counting initiative systems.

Imagine is a collaborative storytelling game without playing a character. Anyone can say anything at any time, but only one sentence, and then another person has to talk.


I picked PbtA from World of Dungeons, then went to read Dungeon World and ended up finally understanding AW. Just mentioning because I don’t know from where exactly I picked up the initiative I use in my games. I give it to you that taking it RAW from any manual feels way too chaotic and unfair whenever you try to picture it in your mind. It takes a real jump of faith to start using it but once you do it works surprisingly well… because you have already been using it all the time.

You see, anytime you as a GM, in any game, ask the players “what do you do?”, initiative gets established naturally. The first player to talk goes first, whoever talks next goes next unless the actions of the previous player point at someone else being directly affected. If an action started by a player triggers a response from another player, everyone will look at them and so the spotlight is naturally shared among everyone.

I handle each player’s turns as if it were a movie take: the camera goes to this character until she makes an action. If it’s reasonable to stict to her for another follow-up action then we do, if it seems like it takes enough time for somebody to do something else, we cut and go to another PC. And whenever anybody fails a roll, it’s time for NPCs and monster to act, or for something else to happen to make the situation worse.

Of course, there are players more talkative than others. It’s okay, I leave the most silent ones for the end, they are there to enjoy the show anyway, but they get as much spotlight as they want. If they remain silent until everybody else has spoken, I ask them for their actions in clockwise order or have something else happen to their characters. It can either be an attack or an opportunity only they can take… that will definitely put them in the spotlight next.

Which takes me to characters without skills that seem applicable to certain situations. That seems to be a more usual problem for some specific PbtA designs. Like, I understand it partially that social characters won’t have moves to deal with action scenes once everybody is done with talking, but then again it should be on the narrator hands to prep/impro challenges appropiate for those players even in the middle of a combat, when the player can’t come up with a reasonable way to make use of their PCs talents in the situation at hand.

Other than that, I get that PbtA isn’t everybody’s cup of tea, as 5e and D&D in general wouldn’t keep the same feeling with another initiative system. Thanks for sharing everyone, lots of wonderful games out there!


I’ve always found it a bit interesting that we just accept that combat has a completely different set of rules than the rest of the game. I appreciate how for Apocalypse World, and many PbtA games, the default initiative system you use for “non-combat” (talking, having a conversation, following the fiction of one action to the next action) remains the same system you use in combat.

It’s definitely a skill worth developing. I think there are a lot of useful conversational skills (not just GM skill) that are useful to develop:

  1. Sharing spotlight with others
  2. Listening to what others are doing, and responding to what they have offered
  3. Looking and watching others for cues that they have something to add
  4. Noticing when someone has not participated very much
  5. Finding ways to involve others, like asking considerate invitational questions, especially ones they would have a vested interest in answering
  6. Noticing when someone (including yourself) has participated a lot.

There are probably more. Conversations are fluid things, they can resist structure and rigid rules. Systems and tools can be helpful in learning and bolstering these skills. I think flexible systems can be designed to help, but I also believe we can over engineer some things too.

For me having tools, like a simple list of the character (or player) names, and making a mark each time they act, can give me a quick picture of who hasn’t done much. It can be a way to remind myself and help build up the skill of making sure multiple, varied, and different people are participating in the conversation.

This reminds me of one of the play aids for DW I really enjoy had 2-3 types of problems for each playbook with checkboxes. As I provided those challenges I could check the boxes. That would help me from repeating the same challenges, and help me spread focus to different playbooks, and remind me what sort of things those playbooks were good at doing. You could totally do the same thing for any RPG, even with more specific challenges based on that particular character too.

That tool isn’t really an initiative system. If we think of the whole session as one big item, it can be help do many of the things an initiative system is trying to do, such as distribute spotlight, it can be just as useful for “non-combat” initiative.


I think that’s really great, @yoshi.

You’ve hit the nail on the head, which is that “initiative systems”, in a larger sense, are just a subset of various ways to order the conversation at the table and to make sure that everyone gets a chance to participate.

In other words, people focus on the “who goes first?” question when talking about initiative, but that’s only because we’re already starting with the assumption that everyone will get a fair chance to act.

The more basic, fundamental purpose is to guarantee everyone a fair chance to participate, and to organize that in some way we can understand, follow, and trust.

In D&D, for instance, it’s much more important to maintain the action economy than it is to maintain the orders of actions (try fooling around with those and you’ll quickly see!).

Really, the key elements of an “initiative systems” are to make sure that a) we know when someone can or has to stop talking, and b) who talks next.

We do this fluidly and intuitively in conversation, and in most PbtA games, but the downsides are that the loudest people can sometimes predominate, that it’s easy to upset the balance (e.g. forgetting to give some people the opportunity to speak at all), and that having to negotiate that can sometimes be slower than just having a routine method.

I’m quite curious and excited about different models for “initiative” that might pop up in the RPG world, and finding ways to adapt them from general use to combat situations, or from combat rules to general “free” play.

The good old “take turns clockwise around the table” is pretty hard to beat, in some ways, but it also has all kinds of downsides (like a lack of interactivity - when you know it’s not your turn for the next 10 minutes, it’s easy to check out altogether, for example).


I don’t suppose you have a link to that DW play aid, by any chance? Or remember what it was called? That sounds interesting.

Sure thing.
Here’s the full page (printable version):
Here’s the 3x5 “index-card” version: