The Red Box Blog

Ramblings about D&D.

The Devil’s Initiative

Grey over at Pen and Sword has a post about “The Trouble With Initiative” (which itself references a post at Destination Unknown).

I will admit that I feel a little bit like a devil’s advocate defending initiative, seeing as more often than not I don’t use the rules as written (though I am going by the book right now), but I don’t throw the rule out because its broken, but rather because I find I can make the game flow faster by just going around the table clockwise.

I wonder if d20 is too random for initiative...

Winning Initiative Barely Affects the Numbers

Although he has a lot of interesting points through out the post, I am going to specifically respond to Grey’s thesis, that “the person who is ‘first’ is often the loser”. Its hard to argue with this point, I’ve seen evidence of it across many years, systems and editions. PCs often get themselves into more trouble when they win initiative then when they lose.

But is this indicative of a problem with the rules or the players?

I haven’t had time to try this test, but I suspect that if you took two identical fighters, parked them in front of each other and had them fight to the death, and then repeated the test a hundred times, that the background noise created by the random elements of attack and damage rolls would be so great that any statistical advantage held by the initiative winner would be lost in the noise. That is to say, I don’t think winning initiative gives any significant bonus in a straight up fight.

The Advantage of Initiative is Tactical

But that isn’t to say that winning initiative can’t be an advantage. Very often, in any game, there are opportunities that PCs and NPCs have (or can create) to give themselves tactical advantages. What those opportunities are vary widely based on the party and the situation, and because they are so diverse many players miss them. But who gets those advantages can make a massive difference in the results of a battle; it can turn a cakewalk into a close fight or a close fight into a cakewalk.

Now which side gets the situational advantage can largely be a product of initiative. For a tactically aware group, it is never a good thing to lose initiative because going first gives them the opportunity to seize the advantages; be they environmental, positional, based on match ups or anything else.

On the other hand, for a group that is not tactically aware, going first can be a huge detriment. Players whose default strategy when they win initiative is to charge the masses of enemies can get themselves into a world of hurt. After all they are running into a group of bad guys so they can get that one first attack off. In most cases the enemy they attack and several of his friends respond in kind. Before long the party is down one member and the whole fight takes on a different tone.

If You Can’t Teach ’em Join ’em

I don’t know how to teach tactics to players who don’t know them; I have been trying for years to teach my current group with only modest success. But I think a big part of it comes down to how one defines fun. I find tactically analyzing a situation fun, while some of my players find it more fun to charge headlong into battle. So I suppose at least in that one regard I must agree with the linked articles; for some groups winning initiative will frequently work against them, and for those groups it might be better if the matter were resolved differently.

Have an opinion about this article? I love comments. Please feel welcome to leave your thoughts.


November 30, 2010 - Posted by | Dungeons and Dragons, RPGs | , ,


  1. Ever played Cyberpunk 2020? That is a game where initiative can decide life or death.

    In 4e, I had a player who ALWAYS made his character an initiative god. He felt it pulled him ahead in the numbers game. But I say, after a few combat rounds, there is no more of anyone going “first.” Initiative just becomes a revolving wheel.

    Comment by Tourq | November 30, 2010 | Reply

    • No, I haven’t played Cyberpunk 2020.

      As for 4e, in terms of the advantage of getting the first attack off – few games offer less of an advantage in this regard; hit points are so high relative to damage that getting your shot in a little earlier in the round means next to nothing. As you say it is a revolving wheel.

      On the other hand, 4e can be a very tactical game with positioning and environment potentially playing a big part in battles. A player who makes an initiative god to get a tactical advantage could really do well, a player who makes an initiative god to get his blow in slightly sooner is throwing his feats (and other resources) away.

      Comment by The Red DM | November 30, 2010 | Reply

  2. […] like yesterday there is a part of me that want to run to the defense of Wizards. I worked in IT for a decade so I […]

    Pingback by Not Another Character Builder Review « The Red Box Blog | December 1, 2010 | Reply

  3. I haven’t really noticed the problem with initiative. It seems to me, there is an advantage in being first – especially in my D&D 4E-campaign, where the rogue enjoys dealing the extra damage on flatfooted enemies, and where the controller likes to seize the terrain before the enemy can spread out and optimize their positions too greatly.

    But then again we have house ruled initiative in a manner, where tactics become important. The reason for this was lazyness, since I don’t want to bother with keeping track of whose turn it is, and number we have reached.

    I have described my house rule here:

    We have been using it for more than a year now, and it works fine. It does makes the PCs more powerful, but I just up the monsters a bit extra and things work out fine.

    Comment by Morten Greis | December 1, 2010 | Reply

    • Initiative is very important to those who know how to use it. Its just that some players don’t know how to use it, and at times those players can get themselves into more trouble when they are leading the combat rather than responding to another’s lead.

      Comment by The Red DM | December 2, 2010 | Reply

  4. My initial comments were to see how systems mirrored over the effects of classical swordsmanship, but this is cool seeing where it went too!

    I think the major advantage in 4e for initative really is positioning, since there is a lot of controlling and chiseling down that goes on before anyone really starts getting serious damage dealt to the most of the time. By the same token if they get too greedy, thats where the problems really start.

    2 and 3e it was very important at mid levels just because a lot of those creatures didn’t have jack for staying power but they could really deal out some serious damage if you let them stick around to use abilities.

    Comment by Grey | December 1, 2010 | Reply

  5. the fancy pants rougue in my home game learned very quickly the benifit of delaying and waiting for positioning after the first couple of times he bounded into melee at the top of the order and got gang pummled by the bad guys

    Comment by middleagedm | December 3, 2010 | Reply

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