When to roll for initiative
Combat is an important part of most role-playing games, and sometimes makes up most of a session. In a weird paradox, role-playing through an evening’s conversation might only take a few minutes, while playing through thirty seconds of battle can take hours. So the decision to enter initiative order has a massive effect on the flow and speed of play. Let’s talk about rolling initiative, when we do it and why.
When everyone is pulling out weapons, it’s a pretty obvious time to have everyone roll initiative and break things down into a turn by turn order. But it’s not just because most combat rules call for initiative. They do, but fight scenes require initiative for a specific reason — without initiative, everyone ends up doing everything all at once. The sequence of events and the outcome of actions is important, and it imposes some order on one of the most chaotic parts of a role-playing game.
It’s all completely artificial, of course, because a real fight doesn’t have turns and actions — people just fight and survive as best they can. But if we reflected truly realistic battles, we wouldn’t be able to make a game out of it. Even refereed tournament fighting with rounds and judges is messy. So initiative breaks down RPG combat into something more manageable.
What about outside of combat, though? If everyone is trying to do things at once, initiative might be a way to impose that order so you can resolve questions and actions all at once. Are players investigating a room and shouting out all the different things they want to check or poke? Having them roll for initiative and then run their various investigative actions according to the results lets you make sure that everyone gets a turn.
If that’s too strict or time-consuming for your table (and it certainly can be), but there are one or more players being particularly proactive during such scenes, asking two or three questions at once before a quieter player even gets to try one thing out, then you probably want to sort things out. While you don’t have to actually roll initiative — just going around the table one by one usually works for me — slowing things down a little to give everyone a chance to speak can make the session flow much more easily.
When is too early?
You can roll initiative too early, but when is that? And why? Well, remember that entering initiative slows things down. Way down.
In one game session, our party heard noises outside and went out to investigate. The Storyteller put us on initiative as we ran south in search of the noise, made checks to find the source — and found nothing. Then we heard noises across the field and had to run and chase those, counting out squares of movement on a map the entire time. Faster characters got there first and could look around, while the slower ones spent the entire time just racing uselessly one direction and then another.
The Storyteller kept us running back and forth chasing distant screams and shadows for something like seven rounds. It took forever before we actually found an enemy, and by that time, everyone was already frustrated and we hadn’t made a single attack. The search took forever to get through, measuring out movement before getting to investigate anything. It was the perfect scene for a crisis, not the trappings of combat. What was supposed to be fast-paced and exciting became slow and tedious.
In their defense, our Storyteller wasn’t trying to bog us down with mapped movement and initiative rolls. They were trying to build up a creepy atmosphere with movement through the darkness and sourceless cries of fear and pain, setting up a gruesome and spooky fight. And they did accomplish that, but it was still somewhat tainted by our impatience and frustration.
We are not a group that talks over each other too much, so initiative in this case came too early. We’re practiced at just going around the table, so handling our investigation checks in order would be easy. And if we weren’t counting out movement and dashes, with spells that affected speed and visibility, then some of the PCs wouldn’t have been left behind for so long — and left out. The atmosphere was great, but it was just scene-setting. Narrating that and handling our questions would have accomplished the goal faster and without as much frustration.
When is too late?
Ever had a session in which the party is talking to some NPCs, and one of the characters punches someone in the face? Roll to attack and then damage, then smack! But now one of the other PCs wants to deck the NPC next to them. At some point, everyone wants to start doing things and the Storyteller calls for the initiative roll. But that first player basically got in a surprise round that no one else gets.
Sometimes a PC might not even be trying to start combat — they just want to slap an NPC jerk for saying something rude. That distinction can help you out. You can ask if the player is trying to cause real damage, the sort of damage that defeats or kills. If they don’t, then when the character decks the NPC, they can just say, “Ow! What’d you do that for?” and then the scene can continue.
If that slap starts a fight, no problem. Once it’s delivered — for no damage — then the Storyteller can call for an initiative roll and jump into combat without anyone having gotten a free surprise round.
But if your player is looking to cause damage, then that’s clearly going to tip things into combat. So now it’s time to roll initiative and resolve that in order. Upon seeing the character cock their fist with intent, everyone reacts and you sort it out by initiative. If you want to give the players a chance to sucker-punch someone, then have everyone roll bluff / deception / intimidate or a stealth check — whatever skill is used in your favored system. Those who succeed manage to smile right up until the first punch flies, are able to draw their blaster, or prepare their spell without anyone realizing that it’s coming. They get that surprise round, but everyone gets the chance to earn it.
Find the goldilocks zone for entering initiative with your gaming group. If there’s a lot of cross-talk at your table or players who toss out three actions to one for everyone else, then initiative can help you keep track of everything and give everyone a chance to do something. If your table has a rhythm that you’re comfortable with and everybody has the same feeling for when shit gets real, then hold that initiative roll for when it matters to keep your game moving. If you can, save initiative checks for when the players are ready to do some damage — or you are!