The majority of standard d20 systems utilize rolled initiative to determine turn-order in combat encounters. While this is a useful way to establish the mechanical breakdown of complex turn-based scenarios, rolling initiative is not without its flaws. While rigidly turn-based encounters allow the GM to fairly and precisely cycle through the actions of players, NPCs, enemies, and time-specific environmental events, they do so at the expense of narrative freedom. Combat encounters are not, after all, supposed to be any different from any other type of encounter when considered narratively – characters themselves are never “in” or “out” of combat, they are simply taking actions and having things occur around them, sometimes with weapons involved!
The “Whoosh” Effect
Rolling initiative makes a strong declaration: “We are now in combat. We are no longer in non-combat.” But, again, these two things are the same. Implying that there exists two distinct roleplaying spaces risks suggesting that players ought to think or play differently within them. Rolling initiative is the tabletop equivalent of the Pokemon or Final Fantasy “whoosh” that brings your avatar from “the world” to “the fight” and subsequently offers you a restricted list of options to choose from until you get back out into the world. The only REAL difference between “combat” and “non-combat” is that the GM is being much more careful to fairly allow players to take actions and have actions taken against them. Initiative order is really just the hyper-meticulous form of the GM’s constant game mediation – presenting players with world events or actions and asking how their characters respond. Since the stakes are higher in combat, the GM has to ensure that players feel their characters are being given exactly equal opportunities to act and react alongside one another and within the world around them – something that is less significant when preparing a meal over a campfire, walking through a marketplace, etc..
Turn-based encounters still serve an invaluable role in many roleplaying situations, but there are ways to reduce the narrative disruption of entering these carefully parsed-out narrative sequences. Below are some alternatives to rolling initiative at the start of every turn-based encounter that can help keep your players “in the world” even when jumping in and out of turn-based actions.
- Pre-rolled Initiatives
Have your players roll a dozen or so initiative rolls when they make their character. Having a series of pre-rolled initiatives for your players allows you to prepare full turn-order lists for each encounter during your GM prep. While there is no mechanical difference to using pre-rolled initiative, it allows players to move seamlessly in and out of combatunder the direction of the GM. Instead of stopping to establish an initiative order, the GM just assigns or asks for the first action and continues to guide the encounter – ex. “As your caravan is rolling past a fallen log, five shrieking goblins erupt from the trees. Dalton, one of them to the left looses an arrow at you, dealing 4 damage. Katarin, what do you do?”
- One-Roll Initiative
Have your players roll initiative once at the start of each session and have that number apply for the duration of the session. If you’ve pre-rolled your enemy/NPC initiatives, this will allow you to easily insert player values and then move easily in/out of combat with these predetermined lists. Since players who roll especially well or especially poorly will feel the impact of their roll over a longer period, be sure to come up with narrative details for each encounter to distinguish their repeated advantage/disadvantage – ex. “Alek, the giant spider turns to hiss aggressively at Sharrla, giving you an upper hand. Thuldir, the hilt of your halberd caught on a hunk of webbing right before the spider crawled out of its nest.”
- Fixed Initiatives
Instead of using any rolls to determine initiative, use only the appropriate modifiers as the final value. Similar to pre-rolled initiative, this allows you to prep pre-determined turn-orders and seamlessly enter in/out of the encounter. In addition, this method affords a greater degree of narrative consistency – the extremely agile character will always act prior to the sluggish or heavily armoured character, and no character will act before the blinking hell-cat. In combat-heavy games, however, this added realism can sometimes be unforgiving, so be sure to discuss using this method with your players ahead of time.