Two weeks ago, I talked about why players shouldn’t roll for Initiative – because it takes time. I explained a system by which GMs could prepare the Initiative orders for each of their fights, Players Characters and Monsters alike, ahead of time. But now, let’s talk about the other half of the combat – the NPCs – in a bit more detail. It takes two to tango, after all. Which brings us to another problem with Dice-Based Initiative, something I like to call Alpha Striking when the players do it, or Enemy Bloat when NPCs do it.
Say all the players roll higher in the Initiative order than the Big Bad. Even if the Big Bad has goons present, the Player Characters will likely focus all their efforts on melting that one guy before he gets a chance to use any of the cool spells or weapons in his arsenal. If the players have their way, he’ll probably die before he gets to do anything. That’s Alpha Striking.
Enemy Bloat is when you end up with a huge chunk of enemies going at once, in between two players. This is even worse than Alpha Striking because it increases the time between Player Characters acting, which – as we’ve established – means players will get bored. Generally speaking, I’ve found that you never want more than two enemies going between a pair of Player Characters.
Here’s how you avoid this. When you’re preparing the initiative scores for a session, spread the NPCs out evenly between the Player Characters, frontloading if you have more enemy NPCs than Player Characters. If you have multiple enemies with the same Initiative score, put the more powerful ones first so that they survive long enough to actually do something cool.
All together, you’ve now ensured you always have a “Player Goes, Enemy Goes” dynamic, which keeps players invested and stops anyone – Player Characters and Monsters alike – from ganging up all at once and preemptively nuking someone before they get a chance to act.
For the sake of argument, let’s take our example party from last time – Bob, Jim, and Keith – and pretend they heard that their GM is implementing some new, dice-less Initiative system. They’ve broken into their GM’s lair to try and sniff out any clues as to what the new system will entail. However, their GM is canny and not to be trifled with, and he’s booby-trapped his lair with seemingly innocuous objects such as a Broom of Animated Attack and a Rug of Smothering. The GM himself is also present, along with his pet dog, a Mastiff. We will count the GM as an Archmage, a very powerful magician.
Yes, I’m aware the balance of these enemies is absurdly lopsided, but I’m structuring this encounter to showcase an Initiative system, not to make a fair fight.
A Broom of Animated Attack has a Dexterity of 17 (+3). A Flying Sword has a Dexterity of 15 (+2). The Archmage, the Mastiff, and the Rug of Smothering all have a Dexterity of 14 (also +2). None of them have any Feats that improve their Initiative score.
So, by that logic, the final initiative order should look like this:
Broom of Animated Attack (13)
Rug of Smothering (12)
There you go. By preparing this Initiative Order ahead of time, you’ve saved valuable time which will only compound the more fights you have, and you’ve ensured that everyone’s going to get a chance to act. Hopefully this will prove to be the last time your Player Characters vaporize the Big Bad before he can get in a verbal component edgewise.