Possibly the most often heard words in all roleplaying tables around the globe. One of the most houseruled and diverse rule between different roleplaying games. From roll d6 each side to different narrative rules, the rules and rulings are never enough to satisfy every roleplayer, or even the majority of roleplayers.
Let us start from the beginning, OD&D. Roll d6 for each side, high roll goes first. Then the tweaking begun. Bonus from dexterity, bonus from being whatever and the seemingly endless exceptions to the rule. Someone claimed that when all the rules and exceptions for AD&D were put together, the text would take at least one full page, if not two. Some, if not most roleplayers take this taking turns thing for granted and have succumbed to it, going through the motions without even thinking about it.
Among other wonky things that this method produces, few things spring to mind immediately. It becomes absolutely necessary for being able to delay your actions. The ”I shoot at the next guy who comes around the corner” type of thing. One of the things is the disassociated timing thing. Say in an enclosed 30ft X 30ft room, the fastest elf alive and the slowest dwarf on earth battle it out with each other. The elf can never end his movement in a space that the slowpoke dwarf cannot move adjacent to. Weird, innit?
The next thing that came into my knowledge was Runequest with its somewhat obscure Strike Rank system. Some roleplayers just didn’t seem to grok that the longer the weapon, the earlier you get to whack your opponent with it. Myself included, at that time.
Somewhere was this ”declare your actions in ascending Intelligence order, resolve in descending Dexterity order” thing. While quite realistic, also very chaotic and slow to resolve. First edition Warhammer had this optional rule in Apocrypha Now where the attacks were divided by initiative score, so for example a character with 50 Initiative and 2 attacks acted on initiative counts 50 and 25. While there is nothing wrong with resolving attacks in this manner there were no guidelines how movement should be resolved. In fact Warhammer 1st edition movement rules were a hot mess in entirety, best left for wizened sages to ponder about…
One game I played in my teens was Living Steel. A streamlined version of the dreaded Phoenix Command rpg where the smallest unit of time that was tracked was 0.5 seconds. There’s a whole lot more to talk about that system, and how slow it is to solve combats with it, but this is not the time for it. Hackmaster adopted a 1 second tick frame and there’s this cooldown period after each attack. Scion also has a cooldown mechanic, and I forget what kind of initiative order it has, but unlike Hackmaster, it has combat rounds.
Then there are narrative ways of resolving who goes when. One of my favorites is Marvel Heroic Roleplaying, where the action is discussed beforehand among players, before any resolving takes place. Unfortunately it also has a dis-associative doom pool mechanic that is directly tied to the initiative system, that I’m not very keen on. Also Apocalypse World and its descendants have some kind of narrative way of figuring out who goes when. Or then it went ”anyone can go whenever they feel like it”. Or not. I forget.
I really like the Mythenders rpg system where the GM goes first, and then all the players go, in whatever order they please. This is very closely related with the Marvel Heroic method, but without the ”gamey” bits. But most of the time I feel like I need some extra crunch.
One forum post that got me thinking was about one guy’s houseruled D&D(5e) initiative. They declare everything in ascending Intelligence order and resolve everything simultaneously. If any two actions are in direct relation to each other, then and only then initiative would be rolled. In one example he wrote about was some wolves attacking the party. One guy was the bait, while others took defensive positions where they would be able to shoot at the wolves when they’d run after the bait guy. No other initiative rolls required for the round except for the bait guy vs. the wolves.
I like that and it doesn’t seem too fiddly or slow in action, but I’d have to test it to form a coherent opinion about it. While waiting for the opportunity to do so, I have tinkered with a second based modification for the S.C.U.M.M. wireframe system, that is posted somewhere here in my earlier writings. It’s really close to Hackmaster, but hopefully more engaging. The reason for this is that I don’t like the ”I go, you go” system in action. As a GM I hate to see players going ”offline” from the game (or rather, online on their phones). When I run games, I would want the action to be tangible, and not something that you can take a break from when it’s not your turn.
That much said I repeat that there is no ”perfect” initiative system. Hell, I can’t even decide what would be the best fit for me! And also, apologies for me forgetting about your favorite obscure system. I feel that I have covered enough ground for now, without me having to go research about all the other initiative methods that I have forgotten about right now.
Happy gaming, and go roll those initiatives!