The Disservice of Modern Dungeons & Dragons Initiative Systems

When 3E came out, I loved the initiative system. Circular initiative, readied actions, delayed actions, and attacks of opportunity. The order of actions felt more strategic. And then they added reactions. Oh boy! So much to consider.

But I’ve noticed that combat grinds on and on in these more “modern” systems.

Individual Initiative

Below is a very course grained sequence of actions:

  1. Roll initiative
  2. Record initiative
  3. Player begins turn
    1. Player assesses the current situation, asking the GM for any information
    2. Player determines optimal action
      • Ready
      • Delay
      • Act
    3. Player performs action
    4. GM adjudicates action
    5. Player assesses results
    6. If actions remain (e.g. quickened spells, extra attacks), goto “Player determines action”
    7. Player ends turn and begins waiting for next turn While waiting assess if a reaction is appropriate
  4. Announce next player, goto “Player begins turn”

In summary, while one player takes their turn, the other players are idle. This is the nature of turn based systems.

Some players may plan their next action, butmay scuttle those plans by the time their turn arrives. After all a well-timed Entangle or Fireball can snarl most any situation.

And in the above system, there are many points in which a single player asks the GM to rebuild and describe the current state of the conflict. A battle map can alleviate some of this, as can condition tokens, but it is the nature of the beast.

Players do not pay full attention during other player’s turn. So the GM restates the “current state” multiple times. And in those restatements, not all players are listening. So the table ends up with a fractured understanding.

Declared Intention then Roll Initiative

I look back with fondness at 2nd Editions declare then roll initiative system. Or Burning Wheel’s scripted conflict. There is both a chaos to the system, but also a greater degree of shared engagement.

Below is a rewording of the above Individual Initiative, but from the perspective of players declaring actions before rolling initiative.

  1. Players assess the current situation, asking the GM for any information
  2. Players declare actions
  3. Roll initiative
  4. Record initiative
  5. Player begins turn
    1. Player makes a go/no go assessment concerning declared action
      1. Perform declared action if it was a go
      2. GM adjudicates action
      3. Player assesses results
      4. If actions remain, goto “Player assesses if their declared action is viable”
    2. Player ends turn and begins waiting for next turn While waiting assess if a reaction is appropriate
  6. Announce next player, goto “Player begins turn”

First, all characters are engaging in assessing the current situation. They do this at the same time. From there, they commit to their actions; Also at the same time. In those moments “all eyes are glued to the GM.”

On a player’s turn, their assessment is most often constrained to their declared action. The assessment is now a simplified “Do I do it or not?” question.

From a systems stand point, portions of the table play move from serial processing to partial parallelization. The players all assess and declare at roughly the same time. Then they act in order. But their action involves smaller assessment, minimal declaration, and instead focuses onadjudication.

Further Dissection

When players must select multiple actions for a given round, the declaration can become burdensome. But I suspect the reason for giving multiple actions is to help satiate the player as they wait longer between their turns.

Below are two tables that highlight the active players for a given step in the encounter. The question marks (?) indicate an uncertainy of what the player is doing. It doesn’t matter all that much.

Individual Initiative

State Player 1 Player 2 Player 3 GM
GM Describes Assess Assess Assess Declare
Roll initiative Roll Roll Roll Roll
Player 1 Begins Turn Assess ? ? Declare
Player 1 Declare Declare ? ? Assess
Player 1 Rolls Roll ? ? Record
GM Responds Assess ? ? Declare
Player 2 Begins Turn ? Assess ? Declare
Player 2 Declare ? Declare ? Assess
Player 2 Rolls ? Roll ? Record
GM Responds ? Assess ? Declare
Player 3 Begins Turn ? ? Assess Declare
Player 3 Declare ? ? Declare Assess
Player 3 Rolls ? ? Roll Record
GM Responds ? ? Assess Declare

Declared Intention then Roll Initiative

State Player 1 Player 2 Player 3 GM
GM Describes Assess Assess Assess Declare
Player 1 Declare Declare Declare Declare Assess
Roll initiative Roll Roll Roll Roll
Player 1 Begins Turn Assess ? ? Declare
Player 1 Rolls Roll ? ? Record
GM Responds Assess ? ? Declare
Player 2 Begins Turn ? Assess ? Declare
Player 2 Rolls ? Roll ? Record
GM Responds ? Assess ? Declare
Player 3 Begins Turn ? ? Assess Declare
Player 3 Rolls ? ? Roll Record
GM Responds ? ? Assess Declare

Proposal

Consider mechanisms in which you can get players to do the same kinds of things at the same time (e.g. declare actions then roll initiative). This is complicated by the more strategic options for each player’s turn.

I find the cost of those strategic options to be slower-paced, less engaging conflicts. And as D&D has moved from majority XP awards for treasure to majority of XP from defeating monsters, this has resulted in a system disconnect.

Take some time to read the initiative section in Philotomy’s Musings. Consider what conflict means in your game. Consider how you want to incentivize the strategies and actions of your players.

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2 thoughts on “The Disservice of Modern Dungeons & Dragons Initiative Systems

  1. A 2 phase initiative helps deal with Players not paying attention on other people’s turns as well as the GM having to describe the state of the field. GM gets a phase and players get a phase. The players have to work together to decide what they do. Because they go in the same phase they will be more aware of what everyone else is doing. Because there is only one GM phase, all of the players are focused on the narrative / hostile changes to the field.
    There are drawbacks of course. This could cause more of the one-player-directing-everyone-else syndrome. It drastically undermines the value of individual players statistics or feats that give them initiative power (IE, making them feel good/bad about the character choices). Players of opposing goals certainly don’t want to go together.

    Personally, I really enjoy non-initiative (like Dungeon World can do). Players go based on how much they want to do something vs other players or the risk of something else happening. But it isn’t very strategic and can leave less vocal / shy players out of the action.

    TLDR incoming Burning Wheel rant:
    I do not like Burning Wheel combat. As far as the rules go, it is more mini-game strategy and less actual combat strategy. It has a much higher degree of wasted actions (readied actions certainly can do this as well, but far far less frequently). Beyond the rules, It does have a higher sense of Chaos; if that’s what your looking for, but that’s not at all what I enjoy in my combat as either a player or GM. I want memorable stories created by things such as well planned teamwork or out-of-the-box unusual moves. Out of combat Burning Wheel can do this; but the combat itself is unmemorable and always leaves a bad aftertaste.

    • I was going to write about the group initiative, but this post was already long. I’m glad you added that aspect.

      Regarding BW, I will say in previous playings I went too quickly to scripted Fight (I wanted to see the system). In tomorrow’s post I reference my favorite BW combat. It highlights that the system works very well without its scripted subsystem s.

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