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)
“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.