Lots of games over the last 35 years or so and none of them have a perfect initiative system. However, it’s the most important role when it comes time for turn based combat – unless you take the stance of all damage is done simultaneous.
I was introduced to the game a long time ago and we played it as best we could, reading the books and adhering to the written word specifically until one day I was lucky enough to have my older cousin come by and during one moment when my buddies were bickering over a rule he took the DMG, flipped it to a particular page, feigned reading it, and then flipped it behind him on the floor and said, “It’s a guide. The DM makes the rules.” It was such a profound thing for our 13 year old minds that it began my love of tinkering, crunch, and fiddley bits in my games.
Fast forward some time my game is a Frankenstein of 3.5, B/X, and 1st edition but we’ve also trimmed off the parts that don’t work and streamlined it down. One of the things that never goes fast enough for me is combat. I love the idea of weapon speed – but it drags down combat. I love tactics, but it slows the game. I want some semblance of reality, but I also want the game to flow.
I have used and tweaked and discarded and adopted so many initiative options during the years. Primarily, I want the damned game to flow fast. Combat – fast. No waiting 20 damned minutes for your turn to come back around again. After many ins and outs and tweaks, our current initiative ruling is as follows:
Each side roles d6 – ties get rerolled – highest number gets FIRST resolution in each step. Then loser gets LAST resolution in each step. You CAN hold your action from step 2 or 3 if need be in order to wait for the enemy to get into a better layout or your own group to spread out and get out of the way.
Step 0: We have the party leader map out over 1-2 minutes (we use a stopwatch to mark time so there isn’t any lolli-gagging) what the party wants to do and whiteboards it.
Step 1: Declare a flee. Whichever side won initiative who has someone declaring a flee can flee off the battlefield. You cannot “flee” into another enemy occupied area unless/except if you are surrounded and trying to force your way out.
Step 2: Missile weapons. Bow and Xbow can move 5’ and shoot, hurled weapons (spears, axes, etc) can move and hurl. Again, the side that won shoots first, then the other side can shoot.
Step 3: Long range/2nd rank melee weapons. Speaks, pikes, quarter staves. Typically they would get into position and then strike. Anything that can be poked or prodded from back rank strikes first next. Again, winning initiative hits first, then losing initiative.
Finally Step 4: All other melee weapons and spells (limited to 5’ step) would move into position and then strike. Winners first then losers.
It gives some tactics, works well, simple, and everyone is on board and can track how combat goes.
However, after the last meeting, we had some strange situations and people wanting to move, can you flee towards an enemy, gaming the system by throwing a spear just to move early. I wanted to land on it early so we actually stopped the game and I spelled out what was going on in more detail than I normally would so the group wouldn’t get worked up and upset.
Rule # 1: Always Have Fun.
We settled on what was going on, discarded the “gaming” and “min-maxing” and then rolled on to the end of the round and ended the game.
After that we then talked about where we were and what was going on. I reminded the group that a combat round is not an actual representation of what occurs. Obviously the archers aren’t shooting and everyone is just standing around. The guy with the spear isn’t running across the room while everyone is watching him. It’s supposed to provide a simulation of the combat. We could always change it to be more realistic and have done so in the past, but the combat then slows to a crawl and that’s pretty much all that happens that night. Not a solution.
We also said making it super easy: d6, winner goes first and does everything then loser goes. Very Warhammer-esque but hinges the entire battle on a single d6 roll. Not acceptable.
So we discussed (4 of us) a small adjustment to the Initiative system as we have it:
Step 0: Map out what’s going on.
Step 1: Declare a flee. Winners then losers.
Step 2: FIXED missile weapons (bows, xbows, ballistae, etc.). 5’ steps allowed. Winners then losers.
Step 3: Movement. Everyone moves their allotted space AND hurled missile weapons (spears, axes, darts, atlatls, daggers) go. Winners first, then losers.
Step 4: 2nd rank weapons. Winners/losers.
Step 5: All other melee/spells. Winners/losers.
It made some sense, everyone felt comfortable with it, and we’ve all had a week to digest it. Now, we are NOT going to implement it this Saturday since we are in media res at start of evening and you cannot make a change to the game while combat is going on. However, at some point in the next few weeks we’ll try it out and see how it plays.
Some small notes/caveats.
Improved initiative allows you to act 1 step higher. Broad sword? Attack with the 2nd rank weapons. Hurled spear? Attack when bows do. Firing a bow? Hell, you attack when people are trying to flee!
Spring attack still works, if you have movement left over after your attack, you CAN move again. This means if you have won initiative, you can conceivable attack and then get far enough away the enemy can’t hit you again.
I also killed most “attacks of opportunity” – the system is too weighty and collapses in real world. Instead, regardless of how many people are around you, you try to move into/through an area – you get effectively 1 attack against you for every 3 people you “pass through”. Exception is of course if you are flanked on 2 sides – then the 1 in 3 doesn’t apply. This limits the number of people beating at you to a max of 3 under optimal circumstances. However, if you ARE hit, your move stops as you are engaged in combat and the other person is keeping you from moving on.
Is it perfect? No, no combat system is. That’s why all the books are guides and tinkering is not only acceptable but should be encouraged.