It has been said that time is what keeps everything from happening all at once. In a game, that role goes to the Initiative rules. Initiative establishes turn order and action priority. It allows faster, more perceptive, and more decisive characters to have an advantage in the round of action. Initiative brings a little structure and order to the chaos of battle. It’s also a primary determinant of the structure of game play.
The action economy of a game consists of two parts: declaration, and action. Advantage in the economy favors characters that declare last but act first, allowing them knowledge of their opponent’s actions and the ability to invalidate later actions. Most games combine these into a single step, so that actions are declared and performed at the same time. This is intuitive and easy to remember. It also divides the favorable advantage between the first and last actors.
The Declaration Phase
When declaring actions, characters who declare last have the advantage because their actions are informed by the intentions of other characters. This allows them to take actions that potentially invalidate those of other characters and to respond to events conditionally. This advantage favors defensive actions, allowing fast characters to choose to attack, defend, or split their actions based on what their opponents are doing.
Characters who declare last are at a potential disadvantage because they risk losing the advantage of response by holding their actions until the advantageous moment has passed. Allowing other characters to declare their actions first potentially removes agency from the last character by limiting their effective or practical options.
The Action Phase
When taking actions, characters who move first have the advantage because they have the opportunity to directly influence their opponents by reducing their options or potentially removing them from the action round. This advantage favors offensive actions, forcing other characters to respond to actions already taken and potentially removing them from the action round entirely.
Characters who act first are at a potential disadvantage because they lose the option to respond to characters who act last. In games that require characters to split their actions at declaration, fast actors are at a defensive disadvantage.
Some games allow characters to hold their actions so that fast actors are given the opportunity to interrupt slow actors and take advantage of their declared action. Interruption adds to the bookkeeping required of the Game Master, but preserves both the action and declaration advantage that fast actors enjoy.
FIFO vs LIFO Initiative Order
First In First Out initiative requires the least bookkeeping on the part of the Game Master. Characters with the best initiative both declare their actions first and take their actions first. Fast actors enjoy the advantage of action, and have the opportunity to hold their action in order to interrupt slower characters. If multiple actions need to be declared, they must be do so during their turn, allowing slower characters a slight advantage if the game allows characters to give up their regular action in favor of a defensive response.
Last In First Out initiative requires moderate bookkeeping on the part of the Game Master. Characters with the worst initiative must declare and act first, with faster actors normally allowed the opportunity to interrupt slower actors. All of the advantages remain with the faster actors, allowing the most opportunity to decide to split actions, respond defensively, or preempt slower actors.
Split initiative requires the most bookkeeping on the part of the Game Master, as it requires slow actors to declare first but act last. The Game Master must keep track of all actions in the order they are declared and execute them in the order they act. As with LIFO initiative, all advantages remain with the fast actors.
Static vs Dynamic Initiative
Initiative can be static (determined at the beginning of the encounter) or dynamic (determined at the beginning of every turn). Neither of these options changes the advantage to fast or slow actors. Static initiative requires fewer player movements and so can make for a faster game. Dynamic initiative requires more player movements which can slow down the game but results in a less predictable and more chaotic encounter flow.
Group and Narrative Initiative
Group initiative divides actors into groups to determine initiative. Individual actions are less important when using this method and are generally ordered based on what the group decides to do and what makes sense in the narrative. Group divisions are almost always players vs NPCs. This method speeds up the game and promotes teamwork, but imparts a massive advantage to the group with the better initiative.
Narrative initiative relies on the flow of the narrative rather than another game mechanism to determine the order of initiative. This method results in a great deal of bookkeeping for the Game Master. It allows the Game Master to emphasize dramatic scenes, but characters who have little narrative impact can have their actions overlooked.
Narrative initiative does not need to be entirely freeform. Narrative impact can be used as a way to further divide the encounter round. For example, priority may be given to characters who speak or move, then those who shoot, then physical attacks, and ending with spell casters. This results in a tightly structured combat round and gives players the ability to affect their position in the turn order by choosing their actions.
Next Turn, You’re Up!
There is no need to rigidly adhere to a single style of initiative. The purpose of the initiative order is to structure the encounter round and allow all players a chance to act. Changing up the initiative method between encounters adds a bit of variety to keep them from becoming predictable. Different encounter types can be assigned unique initiative orders so that each structure has its own flavor and tactics. Proper use of initiative doesn’t just keep everything from happening at once, it defines the shape of an encounter, the flow of the game, and the choices of the players.