Back in the days when I was still coloring in my dice numbers, we primarily used group initiative to determine combat order. There were no modifiers; a player and the GM each rolled a die. If the player scored the highest result, the PCs acted first. If the GM scored the highest result, then the enemies acted first. This was determined every round, so it was possible for either side to get two complete sets of attacks in before the other side acted.
While this has been the default assumption for Dungeons & Dragons until its third edition, many other games preferred individual initiative, which factors in each combatant’s personal and environmental modifiers (earlier incarnations of D&D included this as an option). It’s easy to see why the granddaddy of RPGs used group initiative, as the default assumption was that the average playing group would be rather large (6-8 players was ideal according to Moldvay’s Basic D&D) and in large skirmishes individual bonuses and penalties tend to average themselves out. With smaller groups, “who goes first” can be very important in unforgiving combat systems. .
Still, there’s something elegant about simply rolling one die for initiative and then going around the table to determine actions. As a player I never felt cheated by it even when I sat in a spot that went last all the time and as a GM I always found it easier to run combats, especially with large groups. Upon further reflection, here are a few things in group initiative’s favor:
Quicker Initiative: Regardless of the number of combatants, only two rolls are made, usually without modifiers. By contrast, individual initiative requires at least as many rolls as the people at the table, with the GM often making several rolls for the opponents. All of these rolls have modifiers, after which declarations are made and the order determined (usually with someone writing all this down or using an initiative tracker).
Group Planning: It’s easier for players to kibitz and make plans that aren’t derailed by scattered initiative orders. Players tend to act on their own when its their turn rather than implement a group’s plan, especially when a combatant is bearing down on them before the rest of the party can act. While individual initiative is certainly more realistic, group planning reinforces party unity.
Protecting Softer PCs: With the entire party acting as one, it’s easier for the “meat shields” to get into position and protect the more vulnerable PCs, such as lightly armored wizards and shooters. This enables the vulnerable PCs to actively contribute to the combat rather than focus on their own survival.
Dynamic Combat: Many individual initiative games lock the initiative order (probably to prevent getting bogged down in initiative rolls every round), meaning that barring some special actions each combatant moves at the same time each round. By contrast, group initiative makes it easy for one side to get the jump on the other with a quick roll, changing the flow of combat.
Speed of Play: Determining which side goes first and then running down the roster (for PCs this is usually around the table) keeps combat moving much faster than individual initiative. In addition to always knowing one’s place in the order and being ready to act, players also tend to establish routines that are quickly implemented (“these bad guys look tough, comrades. Let’s implement Attack Plan B!”).
Not Skipping Combatants: Even with recording orders, it’s not uncommon for someone to get skipped over for a variety of reasons, from not paying attention to forgetting her place, especially if she left the table. This is mitigated when “going around the table.”
Obviously, there are drawbacks to group initiative as well. Group initiative renders any initiative bonuses moot. This isn’t so much a problem in a game where a PC has to purchase the bonus, such as WitchCraft‘s Fast Reaction Time quality which enables the PC to always go first (it’s relatively easy to establish that such characters go first no matter what the initiative roll says), but it is in games where everyone gets a bonus. It also mucks up games where initiative plays a bigger role, such as Savage Worlds (Kurt?).
Group initiative is also, obviously, less realistic in the same way that turn-based strategy games are to real-time strategy based games. The trade-off is that the players are better able to work together in executing plans while keeping combat moving quickly at the same time. Again, the trade-off may not be worth it in small groups, where it’s easy to keep track of a few rolls and two or three players aren’t likely to draw up the battle plans that an eight-player group might.
So what say you? Should group initiative be relegated to the Classical Era, or does it still have merit today? Do any of you still use group initiative, even if your game supports individual initiative? Are any of you having trouble with individual initiative that you think may be solved by group initiative?