Combat is the place in an RPG where you’re most likely to lose people. If one player spends too much time taking their turn, you’re going to have the rest of your players’ minds wandering, and they’re going to lose interest in what’s happening. Every minute spent on math is a minute not spent on roleplaying – and, for most players, except the rare few who enjoy DPS number-crunching, a dull minute.

Combat needs to be fast, or else players will get bored.

In pretty much all the RPG systems I’ve played, Initiative goes the same way. Characters roll dice and add some modifier from an Ability Score or a Characteristic, usually something called Dexterity or Agility, to determine how fast they act. Once all the Player Characters and the Non-Player Characters have rolled their Initiatives, the GM creates a ranked order for when all the characters take their actions.

There are some problems with this. Rolling dice takes time – the physical time it takes to roll the literal dice, and then the subsequent time of doing the mental arithmetic of “Dice Roll plus Dexterity Modifier equals my Initiative Result.” This doesn’t sound like it takes a lot of time, but when the GM needs to roll for every NPC and then ask every player for their Initiative numbers, and then make an ordered list…it adds up. If you’re running a dungeon with lots of fights, you’re wasting dozens of minutes rolling Initiative. After the fourth combat encounter, the phrase “Roll for Initiative” will make your players want to throttle you.

Anything you can do to remove rolling dice and arithmetic keeps the game moving faster. So, how do you remove rolling dice from calculating Initiative? Simple. Just base Initiative off an unchanging series of numbers – such as, say, the characters’ average Initiative Scores. For D&D, this would be 10 + the character’s Dexterity Bonus. If anyone has Feats or Talents that improve their Initiative, factor those in as well.

For example, say you’ve got three Player Characters. Let’s call them Bob, Jim, and Keith. Bob has a Dexterity of 12 (Ability Modifier = +1), Jim has a Dexterity of 11 (+0), and Keith has Dexterity 9 (-1). However, Bob has the Improved Initiative Feat, which gives him a +5 Bonus to Initiative. By this logic, your Initiative order for the players would look like this:

Bob (10+1+5 =16)

Jim (10)

Keith (9)

“But wait,” you say, “This still requires me to ask my players what their Initiative Totals are, as well as figuring out all my monsters’ Initiative Stats, and doesn’t that still take time?”

Yes. I also used to worry about this. However, it’s also commonly said that “Every minute spent preparing is ten minutes saved improvising”, which is why you’re going to take every fight you have planned and prepare their Initiative orders ahead of time, before the session even starts.

Join the Conversation


  1. If player’s order in combat is going to be fixed, what if they sat around the table in the order they were going to take their turns? That way everyone knows whos going next, and when someone finishes their turn it can be their job to get the person to their right to start their turn.


    1. I think this piece is arguing for a fixed initiative per fight, versus a fixed initiative per session. You could feasibly have people move around and re-sit for each fight to match initiative order, but that seems like it could also lead to time being wasted.


  2. I can vouch for this system, or at least something like it; I often use dexterity or some equivalent stat, or even just let whoever thinks of something first go first (works for some groups, not for others).

    I also think you’re spot-on with the general principle. Cutting out rolling and mechanics wherever it works for your group almost always makes things more fun. Is there anywhere else you find cutting out rolling works for you?

    Plus “Every minute spent preparing is ten minutes saved improvising” is exactly right! How have I never heard that before?


    1. With regard to cutting out rolls, I love systems where the “To Hit” roll and the Damage roll are combined into one. World of Darkness does this, as do most other dice pool games. Combining “To Hit” and your Damage Number into one roll speeds a round up immensely.

      Another thing that D&D does which I like – and it’s subtle – is that Armor Class is a Target Number. A lot of other rulesets (such as WoD, actually) have Armor as a form of Damage Reduction, which requires players to do some math to figure out how much Damage they’ve suffered after an attack, and THEN do some more math to calculate their remaining hit points. Whereas with D&D, what the Damage roll comes out with is what you get, no more math required beyond updating your HP.

      Really, my dream system would be one that combines the single-roll attack of a Dice Pool game while also using a Target Number instead of Damage Reduction for armor. If you’re going to run a system which requires more rolls, you’ve got to have players who actually enjoy that part of the game.


      1. I absolutely love the idea of your dream system. Now that I think about it, I think I do something like this in FATE, especially FATE Accelerated, where it seems to work okay. I often compact down enemies into a single number representing their threat level, which serves as their AC/target-number-to-be-hit, their damage bonus, hit points, and all that good stuff.

        I’ve also run some One Roll Engine stuff, and I think(?) it was sort of like this?

        Point is, I think your idea could work. How might you implement it?


Leave a comment

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: