Nearly every RPG uses an initiative system for combat, and handling this aspect of combat is a fundamental skill for all GMs.
Here are a few simple tricks you can use to make the most of your game’s initiative mechanic.
Make the Turn Order Public
When combat starts, jot down everyone’s initiative, including the PCs, NPCs and adversaries. There’s no reason to hide this information from your players (especially not after the first round, when everyone has acted once), so take advantage of that.
If you have access to a whiteboard (hand-held or wall-mounted), write down the turn order where everyone can see it.
Consider using initiative cards. List each character’s initiative on a card — either a simple index card or a custom-made initiative card — and then cycle through them every round.
If you’re using initiative cards, or if you don’t have a place to write down scores where the whole group can see them, tell your players who’s on deck (i.e., going next). “It’s Janice’s turn, and Phillip is on deck.”
Address Turn Length
If one or more of your players tend to take a long time deciding what to do when it’s your turn, that can slow down combat for everyone. At the same time, even a player who plans her turn ahead of time might have to do some rethinking when it rolls around, as things can change fast in combat. Balancing those two considerations can be tricky.
Make taking turns efficiently part of your group’s social contract, so that everyone will be on the same page.
Give your slower turn-takers a bit of extra help. You can do this yourself, have one of your more combat-savvy players offer some coaching or make it a group effort, and get everyone involved.
Think about setting a time limit for choosing combat actions. It should be brief but not too brief, perhaps on the order of 30 seconds. Players who don’t decide what to do before the time limit is up lose their turn, or take a default action (defending themselves, holding their turn until later, etc.).
Note that a player’s whole turn doesn’t have to fit into the time limit — just the decision-making part. (This approach will also ramp up the tension level around the table, so consider taking a short break after every battle.)
Break Up Larger Groups
If you’re running a lot of adversaries, you don’t want to give each one of them their own initiative score. Doing so is time-consuming, and the payoff is relatively small.
Roll once for all the baddies, and leave it at that. This can reduce tactical options, and if there are a lot of adversaries it can allow them to swarm the PCs.
Break your monsters down into sub-groups. Roll once for all the skeletons, once for the evil necromancer himself and once for all of his henchmen. This balances the twin concerns of keeping things moving and making turn order important to the outcome of the battle.
Get Help from Sidelined Players
If you have a player who isn’t involved in the battle (or whose PC is taken down partway through it), ask them to give you a hand. This will speed up combat and help keep that player from getting bored.
Decide who’s getting attacked, and have the player who isn’t involved help you with die rolls. This avoids placing that player in the position of having to go after the other PCs, which not everyone enjoys.
If your group is up for it, hand over control of several foes to a player who’s willing to help. Let them control everything those monsters do during combat, from deciding who to attack to rolling for damage.
What other tricks do you use to make this aspect of RPG combat go more smoothly?
When I was running a D&D game where about half the people were new to RPGs and the other half experienced, I would have the veteran players act as “mentors” to the newbies during combat.
This way a newer person could go over their character’s options with the mentor prior to their turn. It kept combat flowing and gave players something to do when it wasn’t their turn. Nothing’s worse for killing the mood than “oh, it’s my turn? I was wondering which spell I should use…” 🙁
Another trick we used was to have everyone roll initiative at the beginning of the night and post it on the board. This way everyone would know where they would be in the “line-up.”
I used to play in a large group (9-11 players on any given night). We usually just rolled once for the PCs and once for the bad guys. On the PC’s turn, we just went right around the table.
Now, there are obvious problems with this method, but it really was fast and effective. Seating arrangements allowed slow/cautious players to sit on the far end. Each player had a time limit to announce actions or forfeit their turn. Spell-casters learned quickly to plan in advance. This method also allowed for more “combat planning” amongst the players, rather than having some zone out because of low initiative.
(I don’t recall correctly, but I think we resolved all attacks at the same time, so someone with two attacks would just swing twice before initiative went to the next person).
As a side note to my last comment, when it was my turn to GM for this large group, I actually made everyone sit around the table according to their initiative bonus. This was less effective in practice, as I’d yanked players out of their comfort zones (who’d’ve thought players would be so territorial about their seats? ;)).
I’ve found that speeding up combat and keeping it moving fast really puts the players on edge, and makes for a more intense session. So my tips tend to do that as well…
Roll initiative for next combat at the end of the last combat. Stack the cards in that order, and pre-roll NPC/monster initiatives, and keep them in their own little “encounter stacks”. Merge them together before combat happens.
In D&D, the combat round is 6 seconds long. IMC, that’s also how long you can talk during a round. This cuts down on the extended tactical discussions during combat. When the players start to take too much time, I count on my fingers to six, then they delay their actions (and lose their place in init order). This is a flexible rule, so if the situation changes or a rule was mis-interpreted, I’m willing to give some time to reconsider.
Pre-draw the map whenever possible. The characters don’t have the benefit of perfect knowledge of the battlefield; why should the players?
Index cards or post-its with pertinent terrain modifiers should be easily seen. This may not help with init per se, but it will speed things along.
I tried the same thing as Walt in post #4, with the exact same results. Except there was this positive benefit: I tried it as an avowed experiment to make combat go faster. The players said they would try to pay more attention if I never made them leave their seats again. 🙂
When you have people that are newbies or otherwise don’t know the system very well, even if you don’t do outright mentoring, it helps to mingle the veterans amongst the rest. The natural instinct of veterans and newbies alike is to cluster. Break that up, and it will help in a lot more ways than making combat go faster.
Lastly, don’t be a slave to exact initiative order. Especially in a big group, it really doesn’t hurt if two or three PCs go at once, most of the time. It creates natural changes in pacing that hold interest. (Flurry of activity, followed by a slowdown while a group of foes go, followed by another flurry, and so on.) This is another reason to clump NPC initiative into a few groups, rather than one big roll or individual initiative.
In fact, I’ve found that for me the ideal number of initiative groups for foes is 3-4. I’ll do that with 3 orcs or 30 orcs led by a BBEG and minions. Nor do you necessarily need to break them down by type. It’s ok to have 15 orcs at the door lead by a minion (rolled on orc initiative), and 5 orcs mingled among the remaining minions (rolled on minion initiative), and 10 orcs protecting the BBEG (whatever initiative).
To Telas’s comment about “The characters donâ€™t have the benefit of perfect knowledge of the battlefield; why should the players?”
I actually had a lot of success letting them plan. Mind you I gave all the character’s a focus that I saw in another game called Playbook. The gist is that it assumes the characters have some sort of comradarie or reason to work well together. In my game it was because they were all members of an army unit. I gave them 30 seconds (timed) to figure out a plan of action before the combat, then had them roll initiative and go like normal. Since they had stuff planned out, and played to their strengths they had a much more effective combat. I got to use it against them too. No one expects a group of Orcs to be well organized, but when they can tell the guy with the bow is picking them off from afar they know to go for him.
Frank Filz said :”Another trick for displaying the initiative is a magnetic board” I love the magnetic boards. I had a “permanent one” a while back. Wrote in my initiative fields and numbers and threw some clear tape over them.
The high tech approach I currently use is through my laptop. I’ve got an excel spreadsheet with lots of game and campaign information in it. One of the sheets is just marked initiative. It’s got the characters, the enemies, and a beautiful little macro button that does a sort by highest number on the initiative column. Enter initiatives, click button, go in order.
since we use a big gridded whiteboard for our battlemaps, i just keep a list of initiative written to the side. everybody knows who’s up and on deck, and its reasonably easy to move names around for delay and ready actions.
John: Ditto on the laptop. 🙂
Let me restate my policy. I limit the discussions and communication more than the actual decision-making. The players have learned to communicate efficiently and find a tactical leader instead of having an extended discussion over the optimal tactical solution every combat.
Combat is chaotic, confusing, and intense; I try to evoke that experience. I’ve found that this approach keeps the attention on the table, with the added benefit that one or two strong personalities don’t dominate combats. I don’t think this is for everyone, but it works for me. 😉
The biggest problem here is that there is no convenient way to accurately reflect “real time” in initiative. If, for example, you give each person 15 seconds to blurt out their actions, then the winner of initiative gets 15 seconds. The second person gets several minutes (of resolving the winner’s outcome) in addition to her 15 seconds.
One way around this is to have everyone, regardless of initiative, scrawl out their intentions at the same time (with a time limit). After all actions are announced, combat begins. If something happens that would affect someone’s intentions further down the line, then the GM has two options: 1) Let the intention stand, or 2) immediately allow the affected player another few seconds to change actions.
Example: During the 30 second intention phase, both Yori and Uma decide to attack an ogre. Yori declares that he will shoot the ogre with his bow while Uma closes to attack with her sword. Yori acts first, and a critical hit fells the ogre before Uma attacks.
Under Option One: Uma steps in for a swing and then mutters under her breath as the ogre falls dead at her feet. Her action is lost.
Under Option Two: Yori rolls his damage and the ogre falls dead. Even though Uma isn’t due to attack for another 4 initiative phases, the DM immediately turns to Uma and says “You have 30 seconds to change your action. What do you do?”
Following up on Comment No. 1, having more experienced players mentor others can take a real burden off of the GM. Also, if a rule question comes up, the players who aren’t acting can debate how to interpret the rule and present an opinion to the GM when the initiative order gets to the player/character with the rule question.
I’ve been playing E-Rpg/Sagas since the beta was released last July (and I love it by the way); the system has a very neat way of handling initiative.
You can check out a free non-printable pdf at their website; ironwoodnexus.com
I recently changed rule system and found Savage Worlds. This system handles initiative with poker playing cards. Deal out a card from the deck around the table. Drawing a Joker is special and deck is shuffled after each joker to change initiative order. The “Quick” edge (improved initiative feat in d20 terms) lets you draw another card if you draw 5 or lower.
This system works surprisingly smooth and if I should return to d20 I would bring this system with me to handle initiative.
Good tips all around — thank you!