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?


Walt Ciechanowski

About  Walt Ciechanowski

Walt’s been a game master ever since he accidentally picked up the Dungeons & Dragons Basic Set in 1982. He became a freelance RPG writer in 2005 and is currently the Victoriana Line Developer for Cubicle 7. Walt lives in Springfield, PA with his wife Helena and their three children, Leianna, Stephen, and Zoe.

30 Responses to Classical Play: Group Initiative

  1. Damn. Those are some annoyingly good points. I wanted to be able to rail against this one as I have tried playing with group initiative with next to no success, but it seems like there are still plenty of reasons to give it a go.

    You do mention some points against it though, and the biggest one for me is the realism factor. True, arguing for realism in RPGs can put you on a road to nowhere, but if it helps people get immersed in the game, then it can’t be a bad thing, right?

  2. Initiative hardly matters. If you roll once and use that for the whole combat then initiative only matters for the first round – after that, turns just alternate. “A, B, A, B, A, B…” is the same as “B, A, B, A, B, A…” except that in the first one “A” gets one extra action at the beginning. I rarely care about initiative modifiers for this reason – let someone else waste feats to get a 10% chance of one extra action on the first round, I’ll take something that helps every round.

    If you roll every round it’s not much different. If the other character wins initiative every single round it’s still the same result as if they got one free action and then after that I won initiative every round. I think initiative is far overrated. Since it really matters so little, why bother making it more complicated?

    (I know some people are going to reply “but a higher initiative helps you move first every single round!” but again it boils down to “you, me, you, me, you, me…” being the same as “me, you, me, you, me…”, with the only difference being that the first one adds one single, solitary “you” at the beginning.)

    • I do see your point here, but this is assuming you’re in a system that doesn’t allow for holding or delaying. Within Group initiative, I would think this matters less. But in a situation where one would hold until a particular combatant does something, then I believe initiative is very important.

      Holding your action until the caster attempts to cast a spell so that you make them roll to concentrate can be very useful, unless of course you go after them, in which they cast their big spell or what have you. Though it does seem to make less of an impact on combat rules light style games, and more cinematic games, not necessarily less tactics, but less tactical options during combat. If that makes sense.

      Replying to the article as a whole I think that it could be a cool way to determine initiative and would consider some version of it for my games, I do something similar when I have groups of the same type of enemy, but I also think this needs to be stated before a game starts, or you’ll have someone who took the feat or perk to get extra in initiative and make that completely useless.

  3. I like this idea. I have never read a system with group initiative, but I think this is excellent for many games. I’m almost definitely going to give this a try the next time I run a D&D style game. No more having the party act as a bunch of people who don’t care about each other’s safety.

    For other systems, however, I think it falls short. Savage Worlds has things like jokers, and a initiative every round with a decent number of ways to manipulate this. Burning Wheel’s extended conflict mechanics (Fight, Duel of Wits, Range and Cover) allow for a strategic hit to be used to create a death spiral, initiative is very important to the PCs tactical decisions.

  4. I do think we need to ditch the word realism for use in a RPG context. It’s a bit too loaded a word and doesn’t accurately describe what we’re discussing. Verisimilitude, however, manages to better convey the idea of a likeness of reality rather than a parallel of reality. It’s all a matter of whether the mechanics support the suspension of disbelief or hinder it. (I go on a bit more about it here

    As for group initiative, I’d always sort of regulated it to the bin of “too unlike reality” though I knew first-hand how much faster it was. This article, thankfully, articulates group initiative’s finer points and I’ve come to the conclusion that with larger groups its trade off in time is worth the cost to verisimilitude. I think in the end keeping combat fast paced and exciting is more worthwhile than niggling over minor issues. The pace of play is more important in mimicking real combat than the exact point at which punches are thrown.

    • +1 for the Verisimilitude vs realism.

      As for when to use the group initiative, how many players do you think is the right number? I think anything over 5 would make combats go faster. The group turns could even be a way to better handle large parties that cause players to wait 15-20 minutes for their turns.

      • This is more of an opinion but in my experience 4 or more would probably work better with group initiative. Gonna have to test it out for my system. I know it worked well w/ 2nd Ed. AD&D.

      • Our group of 4 (and one player-run NPC) uses individual initiative in our 4E game to general success. However, when it came to mass combat a few weeks ago, I scrapped it for group initiative because there was way too much going on. It actually ended up having three groups (enemies, PCs, allies), but it worked a lot better than having to figure out where the PCs, orcs, giant, golem, elfs, rivals, humans, and dragon fit in the initiative order and what each did on their respective turn.

        To this end, I’d say both can work well within the same game. One needs to be the default, but sometimes the other option works best for the circumstances.

    • Disagree.

      How about “Plausible”? As in: you can suspend disbelief according to the milieu but still get behind whatever concept is being discussed on the basis of that milieu.

      It also has the benefit of being 2/3 the length of “Verisimilitude” which means less typing and less typos, and doesn’t run the risk of triggering Triskaidekaphobia.

      • I don’t find that “Plausible” would work. It’s denotation concerns likelihood and probability. It can connote similarity, but I don’t find that to be enough to warrant it as a useful, agreed-upon term.

        Real-World Verisimilitude, while a bit verbose (quite an accomplishment for a two-word term), both connotes and denotes the need for similarity while leaving room for a great deal of difference in granularity.

        I’d say we’ve gotten a fair bit off-topic here but it does illustrate the need for a common language amongst us RPG nerds. I believe I feel an article coming on concerning this.

        • Well, horses for courses but if you chase “verisimilitude” through Merriam Webster I think you’ll end up somewhere different than you think you will, and will see some of the terms you feel load “plausible” with baggage along the way.

          Personally, I think English does a fine job, even the banjaxed version of it they speak in my adopted NY homeland. The problem, from my perspective, comes when people become overly exercised at the appearance of certain trigger-words. The two most over-complained of on Teh Intarwebs are “realism” and “broken”, yet there is usually little reason for tears.

          Discursive Story Time.

          I once posted on an RPG forum (not this one) asking if anyone could enlighten me as to what exactly was “broken” about Amber Diceless – it was widely disseminated Interweb Troof that broken it was, but details were not in great supply and I was being asked to mediate a game. There followed a series of postings from three individuals styling themselves “moderators” who gradually over the course of a dozen or so missives worked themselves up into a lather over the term “broken”.

          I pointed out that apart from their own postings, the predicted storm of anger had not materialized, the game was widely said to be broken and I was genuinely interested in the answer since I needed to fix whatever it was.

          No-one had the courtesy of replying to this but the thread was locked and deleted. The word “broken” had provoked a shirtstorm, but only by the people “worried” about the possibility of one. No-one else cared. To this day I get spammed by these idiots asking why I haven’t posted on their board lately.

          I have no problem myself with using the word “realism” in an RPG context because I take the context of the milieu with me when I do so, and most of the time what people are about to complain about is nothing to do with the discussion at hand.

          If someone says something in a fantasy setting like Lord of the Rings is not realistic, I read deeper to see if they are saying it isn’t believable (when compared to real life), or that it isn’t plausible (given the “rules” of the setting). Both are bad, but not for the use of the term “realistic”, for the fact that whatever it is has failed the suspension of disbelief test for that reader. That is what needs fixing, if possible. Getting bent out of shape over the terminology is missing the real issue, in my opinion.

          I’ll meet you halfway if “realism” causes you grief, but you have to meet me too, and a two-dollar, six syllable word I’m going to need a macro to avoid misspelling which furthermore is a synonym for “just like reality” (to strip the rather circumlocutious MW rhetoric) isn’t my idea of halfway.

          However, I’m smiling when I type that. Clearly “verisimilitude” has a different collection of nuances in my mind than yours. If you’re a NY local, let’s meet and talk over a pint.

          • Sounds like a fun evening, but the drive from Western Arkansas might be a bit much for a pint. And yes it’s the connotations that get ya every time when deciding on a common-language/ jargon.

            This long aside, aside – I think that group init. doesn’t necessarily stretch the plausibility, realism, and/or verisimilitude beyond the bounds of disbelief. In fact, with well practiced groups it sorta makes more sense. Anyhoozle, pleasant discussion all. I think the horse is quite good and dead.

  5. In my tactical game Thrice (that I would give a link to if it wasn’t the fact that I remodelled half of the game and haven’t playtested it yet) the players roll initiative each at the beginning of the combat.

    The ones who succeed starts before the opponents and the one who fails starts after the opponent. The one in the same initiative can discuss who goes first.

    During your turn, you will accumulate advantage, like in Dragon Age: RPG, which you can use to activate tricks. Here’s the kicker, you may activate them for anyone in the battle. This, combined with the initiative order, makes the players start to discuss tactics. Who goes first, who activates what trick and for whom, and which opponent to bring down. It’s really nice to see a team spirit is formed in the game.

    If you wonder why I divide the characters into two groups (before and after), it’s because some of the tricks are useless for the opponents if you’re acting before them, and vice versa if you’re after them. You can also change initiative order by paying or receiving advantage.

    So you can really say that I’ve seen the advantages with group initiative, and I really like it. (To be honest, I don’t see the point of initiative normally, but that’s another topic.)

  6. Walt, if you have any experience with it, could you do an article like this one about initiative for the whole combat vs initiative for every round?

  7. Anyone feel like playtesting this in 3.5/PFRPG or 4e: Add one side’s init modifiers into one sum, then roll one d20. Highest individual mod gets to go first.
    Currently playing 4e, my only concern is all the immediate interrupts or reactions in a row. On the other hand, most of those would trigger anyway. Would love to hear any results (I’ll be sure to post mine asap)1

  8. I don’t understand how group initiative is less realistic than individual initiative.

    The most realistic system would be something like Burning Wheel, where everyone acts at exactly the same time. After all, combat is simulating a situation where everyone is running around all at once, swinging swords and casting spells at the same time as everyone else on the battlefield. The closer to ‘everyone acts at the same time’ you get, the more realistic a simulation it is.

    So, if anything, ‘everyone takes turns’ is the least realistic simulation imaginable. It, effectively, simulates the enemy standing there politely, waiting for you to hit him so that he can then get a chance to return the favor.

    The proposed Group Initiative is still taking turns, but it is closer to acting simultaneously: the PCs decide all their actions roughly simultaneously, and the turn-taking is only in the way the GM processes one at a time (a necessary evil). Then the enemies decide all their actions roughly simultaneously. Repeat.

    In fact, this just gave me an idea. Maybe instead of rolling each group’s initiative every turn, you could make it even more realistic, and have whichever side the GM determines to be on the defensive act second for any given round. People on the defensive are likely to take more reactive actions, after all.

    • Well that all depends on whether or not the system in question is mapping out every single action in combat or treating it AD&D style (every attack roll actually represents several attacks/parries).
      In the former, when two opponents are acting aggressively, who get’s their blow in first is pretty damn important. If one party is playing it defensively or unaware, well then the initiative order is pretty much set for you. The actions are still happening at essentially the same time (within the same second or so) but knowing who connects first, who wrastles into position first, etc. is vitally important and can decide the whole damn fight.

      In the later, yeah initiative makes less sense.

  9. since i tend to roll initiative for all the monsters as a group to spare my sanity, ‘individual initiative’ is functionally identical to ‘fast individuals get a free round, then group initiative with added pedantry’.

  10. Hello all,

    I’ve experimented with a form of group initiative in my 4e game similar to drow’s, though I didn’t roll for monster initiative; instead I averaged the monsters’ initiative modifiers and then added that to 10, while the PCs rolled normally. This meant that the combat order was:

    (1) PCs who beat the monsters’ group initiative score
    (2) All the monsters
    (3) All the PCs
    (4) All the monsters
    (5) All the PCs

    And by using the delay action, the combatants in each group could act in any order within their collective turn.

    Using this system, we also experienced some of the same upsides mentioned in the original article, particularly the fostering of group planning which led to elaborate and satisfying tactical plans for the PCs.

    However, there were a couple of significant downsides, too. Firstly, ready and delay actions (a staple of sound tactics) could leave individual combatants lodged in the middle of the other side’s group initiative order. This would make it once again necessary to track individual initiative order within each group.

    Secondly, when all participants on each side act at once, it increases the potential for devastating focus-fire. I am perfectly happy for my PCs to overwhelm the bad guys in this way, but it’s not much fun for them when intelligent baddies return the favour with no chance to heal the victim mid-fusillade. Even defenders/tanks can get quickly overwhelmed when every single enemy combatant attacks them simultaneously. Of course, there are ways to lessen the problem like keeping the number of enemy ranged attackers to a minimum, using unintelligent enemies who don’t fight optimally, and giving the PCs tactical bottlenecks to defend. But designing every fight with that in mind felt like I was struggling with an inherently unbalanced system.

    In the end I’ve returned to the standard initiative system, but I’ve tried to retain the “group planning” benefit of the group initiative system by reminding my players that whenever two or more of their PCs are adjacent in the initiative order that they can use the delay action to decide who acts first, and are free to make tactical plans accordingly. (I’m pretty relaxed about letting players formulate complex plans mid-fight.) This has had mixed results. The thoughtful, patient players take advantage of the possibilities, while the impulsive ones once again just want to shake dice and smash stuff real good as soon as their turn comes up. You win some, you lose some.

  11. I’ve just had a thought that I might try out in the next big combat. A single initiative roll for each side, but individuals get to add/deduct their midfiers to this role. So the faster memebers of a party get to act before their slower friends, and of course there will be the same effect amongst their opposition.

  12. Other variants that I’ve read about:

    The players act in the order they sit, with the GM interjecting after half of them have acted.

    The characters act in the queue order when they progress in the dungeon. So the one who goes first acts first.

    I like how it’s done in WFRPG 3 where all characters roll, but they roll for slots for the whole group in the initiative track. So every round, they can discuss who gets to act in what slot.

    Beside that, I think it’s a waste to have the opponents roll when it comes to group initiative. Take the average instead for each group of opponents.

  13. I find initiative to be a strange concept. It is a rule taken directly from board games and we could probably find a way to work without it.
    Sword fighting is a very intense one on one exchange where the role of attacker and defender change constantly, and speed mostly means that you can better exploit an opening.
    In my opinion, a very interesting system to look at for combat in general is The Riddle of Steel. It breaks every combat round in two actions, where both opponents struggle to get the upper hand so that they can be the attacker.

  14. Just play BRP and forget the problem. Everyone goes in strike rank order.

  15. I think it also makes a difference whether you are using a tactical grid or In Your Head combat as to how many legs this idea has.

    How do you factor in The Drop vs Improved Initiative with Group Initiative?

    Both, if allowed in the game (and you’d better have a damned good reason why the players cannot get The Drop on the bad guys written in Big Sharpie on your GM screen if you don’t allow it) must modify the situation tactically, and Improved Initiative can’t really negate The Drop plausibly, in my thinking, though the reverse is obviously not true.

    Perhaps it might be better to come at this from a “why did people want something else?” approach, so you can see what it is you are not getting by tossing out individual initiative.

    Good article, Walt.

  1. Ravenous Role Playing » Blog Archive » Friday Five: 2013-02-15

    […] Classical Play: Group Initiative […]

  2. Classical Play: Group Initiative | Gnome Stew – The Game Mastering Blog | Critical Grumble

    […] Classical Play: Group Initiative | Gnome Stew – The Game Mastering Blog. […]

Leave a Reply