I have a love-hate relationship with classic initiative in D&D. One plus is at least for the first turn, things are chaotic. You can get a player rolling high and step into the action immediately, and you can have a player instead be a little flat-footed by rolling low. It’s fun. However on the following turns it slips into a set order and the humdrum of a predictable routine for turns becomes the norm. Alternately, it’s a little jarring breaking up the narrative to jump into wargame mode for a combat by telling players to roll for initiative.
Newbie Dm has been pondering this last point some, with thoughts of dropping it completely. I can agree that calling out initiative is like announcing RP needs to jump in the backseat as butt-kicking time is taking over the story steering wheel. I don’t quite have an answer for that. There is a certain disconnect with D&D when it comes to roleplaying and the actual mechanics of combat resolution. You can certainly pepper RP into a melee, but there will still be those mechanisms in the background of rolling to hit and damage, with initiative order lumped into that too.
However, I wouldn’t kick initiative to the curb. I realize it can break up the narrative in some cases, but having a completely open order for combats can also allow players to slip into taking over the action completely. I like the idea of combats being deadly and unpredictable. In that aspect, classic rolling for initiative sort of captures that. The problem I have is it slips into a set order, with no surprises after the first turn.
Look at wargames – The idea of unit activation is something that’s been tackled quite a bit through a variety of means in miniature wargames. A lot of designers try to model friction in command and unit activation, and uncertain turn order helps mimic that some. Taking a look at how other games handle unit activation (or initiative), especially wargames, can offer some good ideas for porting them over to D&D. Mind you, what I’ll talk about here is by no means an exhaustive list for systems used in miniature wargames but they are some common themes.
IGOUGO – This is a common turn order system. A player chooses all the units they wish to activate and resolve their actions, then their opponent does the same. This can be shaken up some requiring command checks to see if a unit can be activated.
I’m not a fan of IGOUGO. Even with command checks, you have a degree of certainty how your turn will play out. This isn’t to say it’s not a popular system though. Warhammer 40K and Flames of War use IGOUGO and are probably some of the biggest systems around for wargames. For D&D, you could just have all the players go, and then all the monsters. It can work but not my cup of tea.
Alternate activation – This is a popular stepping stone between IGOUGO and random activation. Players pick one unit to activate and play out the turn, their opponent then does the same, going back and forth until all the units are activated. For D&D, you can have players and the monsters go back and forth, or break it up with the PCs having 2-3 characters act, then a few creatures. It’s serviceable. The kicker is usually figuring out who which side starts at the top of the turn. Commonly a lot of wargames decide that by rolling a die (sometimes with modifiers to represent better command and/or morale). Deciding by the highest dexterity scores D&D might work for D&D.
Random Activation – For me this has become my favorite system in wargames, as it can provide you with utter, random chaos. Granted D&D has this right off the bat with rolling initiative too, however the order becomes static. I’m a fan of keeping things completely random throughout the entire combat for each turn. There are two ways to handle this. One could be that each player/monster is assigned a specific card and they are randomly drawn from a shuffled deck.
Another more flexible system would be splitting a deck of cards up by color, with one side activating when their color is drawn. This could also be done using dice of two sets of uniform colors. To keep ensure everyone gets a turn, you could make a special deck (or pool of dice) where each individual unit is represented by a card of their respective color. One my favorite games, Bolt Action uses this system with colored dice. It’s easy and flexible enough that you can choose what unit to activate (provided you get lucky enough to draw the right colored die).
Savage Worlds also employs a random initiative system going by numerical/suit order using a standard deck of cards. I love it. It makes each turn hectic as you can’t predict exactly when you’ll act from turn to turn. While you could mimic the same thing in D&D just re-rolling initiative for each turn, mechanically drawing from a deck of cards is easier after a good shuffle.
Point allocation – Another system commonly used in wargames is point allocation. Each side has a limited number of command points which can be spent to activate units. Likely not all units on a side will be activated during a given turn and typically a unit can only be activated once. Even using IGOUGO, this can add an element of friction in command and control. SAGA uses something like this and I find it immensely enjoyable.
If you were trying to embrace a more narrative approach to initiative in D&D, point allocation would be something I’d use. When I’ve run Dungeon World, I used a point allocation system. It worked wonders.
The problem with combats for me in Dungeon World was that they were too open. If you had a player or two that were more proactive around the table, they could hoard the action for the group. I needed to break that up and it was a little rough just putting a hard stop to a player’s turn and pushing others to act instead during combat.
So I gave each player 2 markers. When they did something they threw it into the center. If they had no markers, they had to wait. Once everyone spent their markers, they all took 2 markers and the process would repeat. For modelling simultaneous actions in a short time frame, this worked well.
To embrace the open narrative of Dungeon World, I would allow a player to voluntarily give a marker to another player if they wanted. That way if a PC was on a roll doing some cool stuff, another player could allow them to hog the spotlight a bit longer. It added some structure to combats but was still flexible enough for Dungeon World. Going for a more free-form initiative in D&D, I would do something similar.
Handling high (or low) dexterity – This is something that can put a kink into different initiative systems. Players with high dex usually get an initiative bonus acting before others. I’d whip up a house rule allowing PCs to redraw a card, pull another die, or possibly get an additional activation token. There is nothing wrong with giving high dex players some advantage with determining turn order. Regardless, I’d always adopt a house rule to allow players to go first in the case of ties. It’s just a little nod to the players and encouraging them to be heroes over the monsters.
These are a few ideas you might want to port over to your D&D game. If anything, I encourage folks to play other games. I especially think DMs should experience different games aside from RPGs. You really get exposed to interesting game mechanisms playing other types of games, and may be surprised how many things you can pick up to make your own D&D game better.
[A shriveled gnome travels the lands in a ledge wagon drawn by an old donkey. The cart itself appears as a simple shack of knot-ridden boards with tarnished brass fittings precariously perched on four solid wooden wheels. The gnome claims to be none other than the famed mad alchemist and mystic, Digby. Such a fanciful tale is likely just a ploy to sell enchanted trinkets as it would make the gnome well over 500 years old. However one cannot deny the gnarled form is surprisingly deft and almost spritely in step as he moves about his shop. Nearly every village or city within the lands will have Digby come for a visit during the year. When doing so he always makes a simple camp out at the town border, opening his stock of arcane goods to whomever passes, and eagerly offering tales of the magical items of Dungeon World].
Weight 0, Far, Grotesque
This shriveled hand is rumored to have been severed from a thieving ‘adventurer’ and cursed by a powerful lich. The gnarled, blackened hand is stiff and smells of pungent oils and sickly sweet herbs. When held and a brief sentence given as a command, the hand can be dropped and it will slowly scuttle off attempting to complete its task.
The hand is clumsy with a paltry strength. It can carry small items that might fit within its leathery palm of a weight no more than a pound. It cannot offer any deft manipulation of objects, as the joints stiffly creak and fumble with anything but the most basic of mechanical devices. One interesting characteristic is that the hand is a fair climber, able to dig its chipped nails into stonework and even slowly climb up walls.
While it will steadfastly attempt to complete its task and slowly scramble back to its owner, the paw operates as an automaton. It possesses no stealth and some find using the paw can be maddeningly frustrating at times. If ordered to unlatch a window, the paw will open the nearest and dutifully return to its owner, whether the targeted window was the desired one by its master or not.
Nonetheless, the Thief’s Paw is highly sought by burglars. Such rogues have found it able to steal small trinkets and sneak back keys to locked doors. Although having this ghastly trophy could bring more trouble on the owner, as it usually will pique the interest of town guards and other holy followers for possessing a such a necromatic fetish.
[A shriveled gnome travels the lands in a ledge wagon drawn by an old donkey. The cart itself appears as a simple shack of knot ridden boards with tarnished brass fittings precariously perched on four solid wooden wheels. The gnome claims to be none other than the famed mad alchemist and mystic, Digby. Such a fanciful tale is likely just a ploy to sell enchanted trinkets as it would make the gnome well over 500 years old. However one cannot deny the gnarled form is surprisingly deft and almost spritely in step as he moves about his shop. Nearly every village or city within the lands will have Digby come for a visit during the year. When doing so he always makes a simple camp out at the town border, opening his stock of arcane goods to whomever passes, and eagerly offering tales of the magical items of Dungeon World].
touch, 0 weight
This plain brass lantern has a large open face and a stub of candle within. Engraved on the worn handle is a single word in dwarven flanked by unusual runes. When held aloft and the word is spoken, the lamp alights giving off a bright light equivalent to several torches. The candle within the lantern does not ‘burn’ nor give off heat. The ghostly, white-blue light can only be extinguished if the engraved word is spoken again.
What is particularly amazing about the lantern is that once lit by the command word it will hover in place when released. If the speaker moves, the lantern will follow at a leisurely pace, hovering and always remaining within 10 feet. If a weight greater than a single coin is placed on the hovering lamp it will descend and rest on the ground, still giving off light. Attempts to tie a rope or use the lantern as a means of levitation will fail.
If another person touches the lantern, aside from the person that spoke the command word, it will immediately extinguish itself and crash to the ground, awaiting to be lit again by the magical word inscribed on it.
A while back I linked a gaming site that had various MMO soundtracks you could download. They had a pretty nice selection and found a few tracks that would work well for some background music to my sessions. I used to shy away from having music for my games. However I found with a decent mix you could get something playing in the background on a loop adding a little flavor to the game, and still not make it a distraction to what was happening around the table.
A few months ago I ran a Savage Worlds game for a local con. Being a demo game with new people, I really wanted to add something to the session to make it stand out. Normally I’m not one for sound effects. However for a few key points in the game, I wanted to add something to make it more of an engaging experience. As it was a horror sci-fi game, I also wanted some type of ambient noise to get everyone in the mood. Having a MP3 player and a miniature speaker, I could easily get something portable up and be able to play some tracks without it being too fiddly and taking up a bunch of space on the table.
So I needed to try and pick up some sounds. I stumbled across Freesound.org and fell into the rabbit hole of creative commons sound files. A bit of digging and I was able to find that perfect space ship alarm. There were tons of industrial and factory sounds. You can really find some wonderful ambient stuff. As for my sci-fi horror game, I settled on a few and also threw in a particularly longer ambient music track that was perfect for setting the mood.
The tracks are free, but many require attribution if being used in other projects. Consider throwing a bit of money to the site also as a donation. There are some nice tracks folks have made available. As for me, I am certainly going to be mining this for certain games. I simply cannot see running a horror game taking place on a dark and stormy night without using this site for some needed atmosphere.