An initiative system or action order system is a game mechanic that determines the order in which characters can act in a pressured situation, most commonly in combat, as well as the order in which players can choose how the characters act. Initiative is a method of sharing spotlight and influencing strategy.
Most initiative systems are turn-based, meaning that each character takes a turn (a roughly equal opportunity to act) before any character will take a second turn. A round is the collection of turns taken by every character in the scene.
In a turn-based initiative systems, the important thing is to determine the order in which the characters act for a round. Sometimes this order will be used for every round in the scene, and sometimes it will be determined again at the start of each round.
Sometimes, rounds may be divided into phases that take place in a set order, and in which each phase is for a different type of action. Either every participant can act in every phase (as in the space combat rules in Diaspora) or each character acts in only one phase, based on what sort of action they want to perform. If phases are used, the turn order within a phase will usually still need to be determined by a turn-based initiative system.
The most common method of determining initiative is to base it on the characters' statistics (either a dedicated initiative modifier or other appropriate stat), often with a random component. This is sometimes called a roll for initiative system. For example, Dungeons & Dragons and other games based on it typically determine initiative by having all characters roll a d20 and add an initiative modifier, then take turns in order of the results from highest to lowest (with ties broken by Dexterity score). Other games use their own standard resolution mechanic in place of the d20. For example, Fate Core has players roll the standard dice pool of 4dF and add an appropriate skill.
The extent to which initiative order depends on randomness or character ability will depend on the probability curve of the dice that are used, particularly the width of the curve, compared to the value of the modifier applied. A d20 system (a flat curve from 1 to 20) with small initiative modifiers (say, up to 3), like low-tier Dungeons & Dragons, will have a much higher degree of randomness than a 4dF system (a bell curve from -4 to +4) in which the relevant skill might be larger than the maximum (or minimum) result of the dice (say, from 0 to +5).
Initiative can be tracked with a written list, index cards (e.g. with the order written on, 1st, 2nd, 3rd, etc.), tokens (flipped once a turn has happened) or other game aids.
Statistics integrated with resolution
Some games combine determining initiative with a random resolution roll based on statistics. For instance, in Godlike and other One-Roll Engine games, players roll a dice pool of d10s, and pick a set of matching dice. While the effect of the roll is determined by the value of the dice in the matching set (the set's value or height), the speed is determined by how many dice of that value are in the set (the set's width or length). If multiple players are involved in the scene, they roll simultaneously and act in order of speed from greatest Width to least. Thus, a character could make a powerful attack, but be taken out by another attack which is determined to occur first.
Some games do not refer to characters' statistics in order to determine initiative order, but rather make it purely random. Dice are less useful for this, because there is a high chance of ties, so other randomisers are used more often. For example, Savage Worlds uses playing cards to determine initiative, giving the deck a strict order based first on number (or face) then on suit to break ties between numbers.
Basing initiative on the order in which players are sitting around a table is a purely random intiative system. However, in practice this is likely to only be purely random the first time it is used, and initiative will be largely static for the session (or, in the event of a standard seating arrangement, the whole campaign). This can be somewhat mitigated by randomly selecting a player to go first each round, e.g. using a spinner, or by using a first-player token or button that moves around the table each time initiative would be determined (so a new player goes first in each new scene).
- Main article: Handoff initiative
Handoff initiative (also called elective action order, Balsera initiative, or popcorn initiative) is an initiative system in which the player whose character has taken a turn chooses which character will take the next turn (i.e. they "hand off" the spotlight to that other character). Within a round, the player must choose a character who has not yet taken a turn; the last player to act in a round chooses who acts first in the next round.
Determining who acts first in this initiative system may come from fictional positioning, GM fiat, or one of the other initiative methods on this page (often statistics-based or purely random).
Handoff initiative allows players to chain actions together, both to enhance the narration (e.g. one character setting up another for an impressive teamwork move) and to take out enemies before they have a chance to act again. Some game systems allow players to interrupt the flow of initiative by paying resources or metacurrency, which can mitigate the risk of long chains. However, in multi-round combat scenes, the key to controlling the flow of the scene is to have one side (usually the player characters or the GM) dictate both the first and last character to act in a round. The ability to do this depends on the number of characters in the scene; fights will be much easier for the players if there are more player characters than enemies, and harder if there are more enemies than player characters, an extension of the standard action economy.
Some games divide active participants into two factions (generally one faction controlled by the players and one by the GM), then alternate between the factions. On a faction's turn, every character in the faction gets to act in an order set by the faction players.
This sort of initiative has a high chance of dog-piling, in which one faction can wipe out another before the other faction gets to act, and avoiding this requires a very well-balanced game or highly attentive GM.
This sort of initiative was used in Tunnels & Trolls.
Social initiative also known as pop-up initiative (not to be confused with popcorn initiative), appearing for example in the space combat minigame of Diaspora, is an initiative system in which the first player to declare their action is the first one to resolve their action. That is, actions are resolved in the order in which players "pop-up" with what they want to do.
In order to manage this, one player is designated as a "caller" (who may or may not be the GM). (Diaspora space combat also breaks rounds into phases for different types of actions, including a detection phase, a positioning/movement phase, an electronic warfare phase, etc.)
Social initiative, if used in a game not designed for it, can benefit confident and fast talking players at the expense of quieter or more reserved players. Therefore, it should only be used in games where there can be a strong incentive to act later in a round.
Some games, including Burning Wheel and some pre-RPG tabletop games like Diplomacy, ask players to choose their actions secretly in advance. All players reveal their chosen actions at the same time, which are resolved simultaneously. If one character's action would make another character's action harder to complete, the other character may suffer some penalties on their rolls.
Simultaneous initiative means that no player can change their decisions based on what other players have done before them, and all players make choices based on the same situation at the start of the turn.
Shot-based or countdown initiative
In shot-based or countdown initiative systems, characters are given a type of spendable resource (called shots in Feng Shui, raises in 7th Sea second edition, and sets in Hollowpoint for example) which they can use to perform actions each round. The character with the most shots takes an action, reducing their shots to perform an action, then the character that now has the most shots takes the next action, until no further actions can be performed, at which point the round ends. Shots may be tracked with tokens (one for each character in the scene) that move down a numbered board as shots are spend; this board is called a shot clock.
In order to randomise who goes first, these systems randomise the total number of shots that characters have each round, usually by means of rolling a dice or dice pool with reference to character statistics. Depending on the randomness method used, characters may have shot numbers that are closely clustered or greatly spaced out. For example, 7th Sea characters roll a number of d10s equal to an appropriate attribute score plus a skill score, then combine these dice to make sets of 10 or more (each set is called a raise). However, Hollowpoint characters use a method similar to the Statistics integrated with resolution of One-Roll Engine games, but rather than picking a single set of matched dice to represent their action, every set gets an action that take place in order according to the length of the set (i.e. the number of dice in it), with ties broken by the value of the set.
However, while randomness in turn-based initiative systems (above) does not affect how much a character is able to do in a round (unless they are taken out before the round ends), a random factor in a shot-based initiative system inevitably means that some characters will be able to act more than others since the number of shots a character has affects not only the order of actions, but how many actions can be performed.
In a shot-based initiative system, certain character actions, traits or abilities may be able to affect how many shots other characters have (e.g. awarding extra shots to allies or taking them from enemies), either before or after the shot totals have been determined for the round.
Shot-based initiative systems usually apply different shot costs to different actions, usually so that more effective actions will have a higher cost. However, the games that have used shot-based initiative so far have made shot costs consistent for all characters, i.e. a given action costs the same number of shots no matter which character is performing it. An alternative approach would be for actions to have different shot costs for different characters, depending on the specialties or traits of those characters (e.g. a fighter has a lower shot cost for attacking but a cleric has a lower shot cost for healing). This would increase the game's complexity, but would be possible if characters used playbook-style character creation with pre-printed shot costs for each archetype (similar to the approach of Feng Shui 2).
The stack initiative system, used in games such as Troika! Numinous Edition, randomly determines the active participant immediately before every turn or action, by drawing a token (or other appropriate marker, such as a playing card) from a stack, pot or deck. Each token represents either one of the characters participating in the scene (each of whom can have more than one token in the stack, depending on their role or statistics) or the end of the round. If the end-of-the-round token is drawn from the stack, all previously drawn tokens are returned to the stack and a new round begins. This means that the amount of actions a character can take in a round varies, and some characters might be able to take no actions in some rounds.
No initiative system
Some games do not have an initiative system, including Apocalypse World and other games based on the Powered by the Apocalypse system. In these cases, the active character is generally determined by fictional positioning and GM fiat.
Games without initiative generally do not have separate systems for combat.