Roll for Initiative – Analyzing different initiative systems

In this post, I look at multiple different initiative systems from the games I’m drawing inspiration from. We’ll look at how they work, and how they alter the feel of each game.

At the end of the post I’ll explain the 2 systems that I’ve been thinking about using, the pros and cons of each system, and the inspiration for the systems.

 

Initiative System Analysis

Roll for Order (Dungeons and Dragons)

In D&D you roll for your specific turn order. This is done by rolling a D20 and adding stat modifiers. This gives you your exact initiative score. Higher values get to take their turn sooner in the round. Ties must be sorted out by the DM.

A few ways of breaking ties are as follows. Choosing the player with higher initiative modifiers; Having players roll a second D20 and compare results.

Breaking ties with players and enemies may come down to just allowing one of the parties go first. Usually the players can break ties in these situations because they are ‘heroic’ and above average in general skill level.

 

Roll for Activation Slots (Star Wars RPG)

The Star Wars RPGs use a similar concept but roll for slots instead of a specific turn order. This is done by rolling a dice pool based on your stats for initiative. All characters make the roll, and the order is recorded with generic slots for players or NPCs. Let’s say the order is (PC, PC, NPC, PC, NPC). Any player character can take the first and second slot. Then the GM will select one of the NPCs to take their turn, followed by the final PC and NPC respectively.

The slot ordering stays the same from round to round, however the specific character or NPC that fills the slot may change between rounds. Generally speaking, characters with better position to act should take the earlier slots. This allows a bit more flexibility from round to round but keeps the slots static during the encounter.

 

Alternating (Imperial Assault)

Imperial Assault takes a much simpler approach to turn order. I believe this is largely because it is a 1vMany game and the Imperial player is playing against the Rebels, not as a GM. This takes a simple alternating slot approach. Rebels go first, they may then decide which character gets to take the turn. After the turn has been resolved, the Imperial player gets to choose which of his deployment cards to activate. This goes back and forth until all characters and deployment cards have been activated.

If a side ever has more characters than the other, that team just finishes the extra activations at the end of the round (because the other team has already activated all their cards for the round).

This system keeps things fair but never locks a side into a certain turn order. There are generally more Imperial deployment cards active at a time than Rebels, so Rebels get the advantage of moving first, while the Empire gets to make multiple activations back to back at the end of the round.

 

Action Based (Gloomhaven)

Gloomhaven uses a more complicated initiative system than the other games. First, we need to talk about how a turn works in Gloomhaven. Players play 2 cards face down on their turn; each card has an initiative value. Players select the which card they want to use for initiative and place it on the top (or bottom I forget). Monster cards are drawn which also include the initiative for that monster. Initiative for the round is based on the cards played (or drawn for monsters) and proceeds to the next player in ascending order (lower numbers go sooner) until all characters have resolved their actions.

This adds an extra element of strategy because turn order becomes very important but you must decide what you want to do before you know when everyone will be able to go. Depending on when you go in the turn order, the board state may have changed to the point where the actions you selected don’t make sense anymore. This is where Gloomhaven adds 2 default abilities that you can do with each card. Move 2 Spaces, or make a simple melee attack. So, if your plans get messed up you still have some options when your turn comes.

 

Action Based (D&D Alternative Initiative)

Mike Mearls, one of the minds behind D&D recently introduced an alternative initiative system for the game. Although it has only been through minor playtesting and isn’t anywhere near an official addition to the game it does provide some interesting elements similar to the Gloomhaven system.

This alternative system makes characters roll initiative every turn based on the action they wish to perform. Moving for example is a D6, attacking with a dagger might be a D4. Casting a spell might be a D8 + the spell level; so, a 2nd level spell would be D8 + 2. If you decide to move and attack with a dagger you may be looking at a D6 + D4.

Enemies can roll a dice based on their type. Goblins are small and not highly intelligent so they probably make simple choices relatively quickly, along with their small speed their initiative could be a d4. Larger more powerful creatures like dragons and wizards may roll larger dice like a D12 or D20 or have some other modifiers to increase the roll. These characters would be performing complicated rituals and spells that take longer to perform.

As Mike stated in his interview on Dungeon Life, it forces players to be much more concerned with what characters are doing because the order may change each turn. This provides more opportunities for narrative scenes. He gave the example of an enemy trying to escape and 3 of the players all decided to run for the door to try and close it. Since they didn’t know the order at the beginning of the round having all 3 attempts to get to the door increases their chances of getting a better initiative than the bad guy. This is a scenario that couldn’t exist with static turn orders. As soon as the players know the intent of the enemy, they know they each will have an opportunity to stop him before he gets a chance to move again.

This gives makes rounds of combat more unpredictable, but also in line with what each character is trying to do. It is somewhat of a dice alternative to Gloomhaven’s card based initiative.

 

Initiative System for the Skyrim Conversion Project

Now that I’ve talked about a variety of initiate systems let’s look at initiative in the conversion project. The first is a simple stat based system, the second is a more complicated action based system.

Stat Based

Each character has stats so why don’t we use them? Initiative can be determined by a static value on each players character sheet.

Each character’s initiative is determined by their Agility stat. The higher your agility, the sooner you move in turn order. Enemies lack complete stats like players so they will be given a speed or agility stat on their card which can be used for determining turn order.

Here are some examples:

  • Wolves are quick, they have a higher speed than most enemies
  • Bandits are just other playable races, so they may have slightly lower or higher speed than most players (depending on if they are common bandits or elite chiefs, etc)
  • Dwarven Centurions are huge lumbering contraptions, they would likely have a slow speed

 

Breaking Ties

If there is ever a Player vs Player tie, or an Enemy vs Enemy tie, players can just decide the order to resolve turns. There really shouldn’t be much difference in those 2 situations that would call for specific rules. On the other hand, the Player vs Enemy ties will need a rule. The easiest is to just say that Players break ties with Enemies.

 

Pros
  • Simple System
  • Easy to set values for enemies based on type
Cons
  • Inflexible
  • Forces players to always the same static turn order

 

Action Based

The second system is an adaptation of the Gloomhaven system and the Alternative D&D initiative. Players get to make 2 actions on their turn just like Imperial Assault. Each action that they can take will have an initiative value associated with it like Gloomhaven. Instead of picking one of the values however, they will be added, like the alternative D&D system. Characters with lower initiative first.

Here is an example:

Movement is initiative 25, Attacking with a steel sword is initiative 19. So, if you want to move and attack, your initiative value for the round is 25+19=44.

 

What about enemies?

Enemies have 4 possible actions that they can take each round, which one they take is determined by a dice roll (the Force Dice). Each of these actions will be given an initiative value. Since Enemies (normally) only take 1 action on a turn (their actions are combined, like move 3 + attack) each action can be given an initiative value. Some may be quick, some may be slow, depending on the enemy and type of action.

More math behind the system

A scale would be nice to decide how fast actions are. Let’s say that the range of initiative values goes between 1 and 100. 1 being near instant and 100 beings very slow. 50 then becomes the neutral speed and should probably be used as somewhat of a baseline. Movement is a mostly neutral action so if we move twice in a turn, a completely neutral action, we should hit 50. That means an individual movement action should have an initiative value of about 25 (since players get 2 actions). From there we can expand to different actions.

Another possibility is actions that require 2 actions to complete. Master level spells are good examples for this, they take up both hands and require a charge up time. Seems like something that would take 2 actions to cast. So instead of having an initiative value between 1 and 25, we can give it a value closer to 80 since we won’t be adding a second initiative value to it.

 

Breaking Ties

I’m glad you asked, breaking ties is a consistent problem with these systems. Luckily with action cards we have a bit more control over what values are used (compared to dice). I don’t really have a problem with enemy on enemy ties, or player on player ties. I think that letting the players resolve them in any order is fine. The Enemy vs Player ties are the ones where specific rules need to be setup. Luckily, we can use a little more math to prevent these ties from ever happening!

Our solution is to almost always use odd numbers for initiative values on cards. Players have 2 actions, and adding any 2 odd numbers together gives you an even number. Enemies only ever have 1 action, and any single odd number is… well, odd. Players always end up with even values, and enemies always end up with odd values. Now we never need to worry about breaking ties. Players don’t even need to think about it either because it can’t happen.

I did mention that we almost always use odd numbers. The only time we don’t is for player actions that consume both actions. It’s those master level spells again. Since they won’t be adding a second value, they must have an even initiative value to start out with.

 

Other Conflicts

We now run into the issue Gloomhaven faces where your action may not make sense by the time your turn rolls around. I think it would be best to follow in Gloomhaven’s footsteps and allow each action to be substituted for a basic move or attack action. This gives players some options in case their plans get completely messed up. It’s not perfect but it’s a good start, and maybe after a bit of testing it will prove to not be that big of a deal.

 

Pros
  • Dynamic Initiative System creates interesting combat during each round
  • Turn order has more weight and adds to the tactical elements
Cons
  • System is more complicated and will take longer to learn for new players

 

TL:DR

I’ve looked at a few different initiative systems in similar table top games (D&D, SWRPG, Imperial Assault, Gloomhaven). They all give a slightly different level of tactical strategy. I’ve created 2 initiative systems myself of differing complexity. The system drew heavily on inspiration from the systems analyzed.

The simple system uses a static agility stat to determine turn order.

The complex system sees initiative values on action cards added together to create an overall initiative score for that round to determine turn order.

I would like to use the more complex, action based initiative system. I believe it adds an additional layer of tactical thinking. In the end, it will come down to play testing and what provides the most best experience.

 

Thanks for reading,

Brock