The Art of Starting a Fight: Narrative Initiative in D&D

Everyone seems to be talking about Initiative, lately. Mike Mearls proposed his Greyhawk Initiative system and now everywhere I look around the blogosphere, people are either critiquing that system or proposing their own. Even Matthew Colville, who rarely speaks on mechanical issues decided to talk about initiative in the wave of this new system.

And I think there’s a reason for all of this Initiative has always been a bit of a bother in RPGs. Combat in real life doesn’t happen in “turns,” but it’s really the only way to simulate it at a table. Therefore, people have been trying for AGES to find a system that both flows well and gets as close to a real simulationist experience as possible.

I’ve got my own idea on how this can be achieved, but first let’s look at a few of the more popular options.

Modern Initiative

I don’t know that this system really has a codified name, so I’m just going to call it Modern Initiative. This is the system that has been standard in D&D since 3rd edition. Each character rolls their own initiative, then acts in order from highest to lowest.

It’s not a great system when it comes to simulation, but it flows really well and it’s easy to keep track of with a blank sheet of paper and a pencil.

Occasionally, this system will use a tool other than dice to determine turn order, such as cards in Savage Worlds/Deadlands.

Side Initiative

This system is similar to Modern Initiative, but is also intended to be a bit simpler and more free-form. Each side of a combat rolls initiative for their collective, then each collective acts in order from highest to lowest. Individuals on a particular side can choose to act in any order, but all take actions before the opposing side can act.

This system is a bit closer to what you see in games like Fire Emblem or XCOM. Everyone on your team acts in any order you wish, then the entire enemy team acts. This system is arguably even worse at simulating real combat than Modern Initiative, and has the effect of empowering whoever goes first by allowing them to take all their actions at once, which can severely cripple the other side before they even get a turn.

Declarative Initiative

This system, often combined with either a modern-initiative system or a side-initiative system, is essentially what Mike Mearls’ Greyhawk Initiative is trying to be. It’s also how the original AD&D initiative system worked. Every character, including monsters, declares their actions at the start of the turn, then each character or side rolls initiative, and actions are resolved in order.

The hallmark of this system is that it usually uses different “speeds” for different actions. In original AD&D, characters who were using ranged attacks always acted before those who were using melee attacks or spells, for example. And each side then acted in order through each “phase” of the turn.

With Greyhawk Initiative, this declarative system is combined with an “action speed” mechanic that forces characters to roll different dice dependent upon their actions. Rather than having different phases for each action type, characters instead roll larger dice for more costly actions, which increases the chances of them acting later in the round (as the system counts up from 0 in turn order, rather than down from the highest number rolled).

Declarative initiative is probably the closest any system will get to simulating the actual chaos of combat, since you’re at least partially locked into your actions during the turn, and actions ostensibly occur simultaneously. If the creature you were going to attack in melee is too far away, you can’t just switch over to using a bow, since you already declared that you were going to hit something with a sword.

However, I’m not a huge fan of declarative systems. They’re high on rules and bookkeeping, and I actively try to get away from these sorts of systems in my games. However, many prominent RPG designers and commentators have expressed a fondness for this system (it does call back to 2nd edition AD&D, which is VERY beloved in the community), so I’m not going to cast any judgment upon anyone who prefers this method.

Fast/Slow Initiative

Introduced with Shadow of the Demon Lord, and explored and expanded upon in a D&D context by James Introcaso over at World Builder Blog, this system allows characters to act during a “fast” or “slow” turn during a round of combat. If you act during the fast turn, you can only take a single action. If you act during the slow turn, you can take two. This system allows you to literally “take initiative” and elect where you want to go in the turn order based on what you think you can accomplish. It’s highly tactical, but also easy to understand, and is one of my favorite systems.

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And that’s just a fraction of the systems out there. Everyone and their grandma has a custom initiative system for their game. And that’s because initiative/turn order as a concept is inherently flawed in a system that strives toward simulation. There is no system that’ll be perfect for everyone, because everyone has a different idea on how it should be done. Some people have a high tolerance for the game-ism of modern turn orders, while others need that inherent chaos that declarative systems give. No one’s right, when it comes to initiative. And no one ever will be.

Now, with that said, let’s take a look at my awesome system that’s gonna save the world.

The Art of Starting a Fight

I’ve come to really like the various Powered by the Apocalypse games out there. Dungeon World, Apocalypse World, Masks, etc. They’ve all got their own unique spins on mechanics and task resolution while still using a really solid core system. One area where they almost all agree, however, is initiative and turn order. They don’t have it.

Instead, you’re encouraged to resolve situations in the order that makes sense for the fiction. In Dungeon World, enemies don’t even get turns, but rather get a free hit if one of the PCs with rolls low enough on their own attack. These non-systems encouraged me to explore the idea of narrative combat/initiative in my own games.

Thus, Narrative Initiative was born.

Narrative Initiative

Narrative initiative is a bit different from most other initiative systems. In narrative initiative, there are no rolls, no turn order, no advantage or disadvantage on initiative checks. Events and turns happen when the players around the table want them to happen. And it all begins with someone, or something, starting a fight.

Starting a Fight

In every combat, someone starts the fight. Someone throws the first punch, fires the first arrow, or casts the first spell. This character, in narrative initiative, gets to act first. They take the first turn of the combat. If the PCs are hanging around a campfire, telling stories, when suddenly they are ambushed by a group of steampunk assassins, it’s the assassins that act first. Because they were the ones to start the fight.

Similarly, if the PCs find themselves in a tense situation, standing across from a rival group of adventurers, the first one to throw a punch is the first one to act.

Taking Turns

Above, I noted that there’s no turn order in Narrative initiative. Instead, players take their turn whenever they think it’s dramatically appropriate or opportune, in whatever order they desire. Once a character has taken their turn, they cannot do so until all other characters are finished with their turn, then the round is “refreshed” and characters, again, act in whatever turn order makes sense for the narrative of the game.

This includes GM-controlled parties, by the way. If it makes sense for the dark wizard to hurl a fireball when the cleric rushes to the aid of his fallen comrade, then that’s when he acts. When the moment is right, and the drama is high.

Player turns, of course, supersede GM turns. If the GM elects to take a turn, and a player interjects, then the player should be allowed to take their turn first. However, there should be reasonable limits to this. In the above example, if the healed PC hears that the Dark Wizard is throwing a fireball and the player interjects “actually, I’d like to move exactly fireball-distance away from the cleric before that happens,” I would consider that unreasonable, since you’ve already declared your action and they’re acting on what you’ve already declared.

Tokens and Cards

One of the inherent problems with this system is that the lack of order can create confusion. When characters are acting not when they’re “designated,” but when the drama is highest, people can lose track of who’s acted and who hasn’t. Cards, coins, or a simple raised hand can help keep track of what’s happening and what has yet to happen.

NOTE: If you have a set of Tarot cards, consider handing out cards appropriate to the characters. Maybe the fighter gets the Knight of Swords, while the cleric gets the High Priestess. This can also help keep track of which cards belong to which NPCs. The evil queen might use the Empress card, while her squad of wizards might use the Ten of Pentacles.

Advantage and Disadvantage

But what about those poor barbarians? What happens when a character gets Advantage on their initiative roll? Do they just get a dead level, or does their magic item become worthless?

No! Of course not!

Since there’s no rolls in Narrative Initiative, characters that gain advantage on their initiative roll for any reason instead use the following rule.

“When a creature starts a fight, you may elect to act first, interrupting their turn and forcing them to act after you.”

Effectively, advantage on initiative means that you are able to anticipate when a fight is about to begin. You see that angry barfly about to throw a punch, and you’re able to act first. Now, whether that means you act in response to their action is completely up to you. Perhaps you’re a coward, and you choose to flee at the first sign of danger. Or maybe you indulge in violence, and you choose to turn a simple bar fight into an all-out brawl by throwing your beer stein at someone else entirely. It’s up to you.

But what about disadvantage? Well, it would be the opposite, wouldn’t it?

If you have disadvantage on an Initiative roll for any reason, use the following rule.

“When a creature starts a fight, you must act last during the first round of combat.”

If advantage allows you to see a fight coming, then disadvantage means you don’t notice until the fight’s already in full swing.

NOTE: This rule should also be applied to the Thief subclass’s Thief’s Reflexes feature, and similar abilities. If you’re allowed to act twice in a turn, with your second turn at a lower initiative than your first, then your second turn must be at the end of the round.

SURPRISE!

With Narrative Initiative, surprise rounds are handled normally. That group of steampunk bandits from before? They ambush, get a surprise round, and then everyone acts during the next round of combat. This system doesn’t need to do anything to modify the surprise rules, as they stand.

But What If I’m On Fire?

One of the things I see a lot of people debating about when it comes to alternative initiative systems is the idea of continuous effects. Characters being stunned or blinded “until the end of your next turn,” or characters taking damage “at the start of your next turn,” etc. People seem caught up on this idea that these effects should be kept completely fair. If there are ten creatures in a combat, then you should have to be stunned/blinded/unable to react for exactly ten turns. That way, every opponent can take advantage of your condition, if they so desire.

This is nonsense.

With a narrative initiative system, these effects remain exactly the same as they would in a standard system. If you take acid damage at the beginning of your turn, then you continue to take it at the beginning of your turn, regardless of when that turn is within the order. The same applies to negative effects that last until the end of your next turn.

If that 1d6 fire damage would bring you to 0 hit points, and you want to make sure that the cleric heals you before that happens, then LET THAT HAPPEN! If you’re currently blind until the end of your next turn, and you want to get that over with so that you can see again, then ACT FIRST NEXT ROUND!

I mean, really, who cares if a character “takes advantage” of the system to end an effect on themselves or benefit from healing before they die? When I described this system before, I said that players take their turns when they deem it is either dramatically appropriate or opportune. This entire narrative initiative system is designed to empower players to LITERALLY TAKE INITIATIVE and act when THEY want to. If that means “gaming” the system a little to benefit from an effect earlier than you would in a more “objective” system, then that’s fine.

The idea behind this system is to use combat to create strong narratives, not turn combat into a fair and balanced sporting event.

Summing It All Up

My goal in creating Narrative Initiative is to make a system that allows you to create stories with your combat. I am, of course, not claiming that stories can’t emerge from a more traditional initiative system, but Narrative Initiative literally puts the combat in the hands of the people around the table. It allows you to dictate the ebb and flow of the scene, and allows the players and the GM to create drama when and where they desire.

This system, admittedly, might not work for everyone. Some people will prefer a more tactical approach (though I would argue that this system allows for a different kind of tactics), or something more standardized and rigorous. That’s fine. But for those of you who are looking for something quick, rules light, and player-empowering, then I encourage you to use these rules.

PDF LINK: Narrative Initiative Rules

Header Image by Alexis Rives

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5 thoughts on “The Art of Starting a Fight: Narrative Initiative in D&D

Add yours

  1. This is great! I have been thinking about using a system like this that I got from Shadowrun Anarchy (pretty much the same thing but they use a Plot point system so players don’t take turns away from other players too often). Overall I like yours better (for d&d anyway) because I like rules light systems and because it encourages more fun to be had for everyone.

    Like

  2. “PDF link” seems to actually link to an incomplete .docx file.

    Interesting idea. I’d love to see it in practice. What keeps it from devolving to “side initiative,” where the PCs team always acts first, especially outside an ambush situation?

    Like

    1. Link Fixed. The document is complete. It’s very light because it notes at the top that anything not mentioned functions normally.

      And to answer your question, the GM is the one who keeps it from turning into side initiative. And, in my experience, it’s actually pretty easy. For some rounds, sure, it might be appropriate for it to feel like Side Initiative (particularly if parties begin distant from each other). But once everyone’s engaged in combat, tactical and narrative opportunities tend to present themselves at much more interesting times.

      The trick, though, is to not let Side Initiative turn into a habit. Set a couple ground rules, like having a monster act after every player, or having certain actions always trigger a monster turn. My personal rule of thumb is to have enemy combatants act directly after the player that’s engaged with them in combat as a sort of return-fire or counter attack.

      Add in interesting tactical options where appropriate and, like with anything else, it’ll become easier to spot narratively-appropriate moments and opportunities the more you use the system.

      Like

      1. I like the last two paragraphs in your statement here, Chris. It gives it that almost movie style cinematic aspect that could work really well, and players will want to stay directly involved in combat at all times to pick their moment.

        Like

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