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Initiative Systems

United Kingdom
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Original Post

A man walks into a bar.

Actually, I really should provide some context for this. The man in question is Brent Steele, P.I. He's there to meet his informant 'Flipflop' to obtain the location of Boss Sakosa's operation. Unknown to him Boss Sakosa has got there first and his crew are sitting at Flipflop's table, talking in very polite and not at all menacing tones while they cradle their firearms and wait for Mr. Steele to arrive. Flipflop is faster than he looks though and always has one more knife on his person than anyone expects. The barman isn't sure what's up, but he knows trouble brewing when he sees it and casually reaches under the bar to make sure that his pa's old dubble barrel is still there.

And then a man walks into a bar.

In most games it's important for there to be some sort of order to how and when players take actions (Though there are always some delightful exceptions). This doesn't need to be the order in which people take violent action, as in common in RPGs, it could be the order in which players plant their crops or obtain sheep. There are a great many ways to determine order of play, with different strengths and weaknesses. It's important to choose the right one for the right game.

Fixed Turn Order

The traditional approach to gaming is to fix the turn order at the start of the game and maintain it throughout. Classics like Chess and Go dictate which side moves first and players alternate turns from that point onwards. A lot of roleplaying games using a 'roll for initiative' system also do an initial randomisation followed by a fixed turn order, at least until the encounter is over.

Advantages: Quick and Easy
Disadvantages: Can introduce a significant random factor into the game if 1st turn is powerful, can introduce seating arrangement advantages/disadvantages if there are more than two players.

Variable Turn Length

In this approach the inital turn order may be randomised, but it does not matter as it will change frequently. Rather than each player getting the same number of turns, turns are considered to have different length and the player who has spent the least time will go first. So a player taking a quick action will gain the initiative over one taking a longer (and presumably more powerful) action. I first saw this sort of approach used in the tick system in Exalted, but it has been used in board games too, such as Red Novemeber.

Advantages: Allows for strategic choices relevant to initiative, can help balance other elements of the game if some actions are better, a source of "interesting choices"
Disadvantages: Games can stall as players don't notice when their turn comes up unpredictably, can have fiddly book keeping, can generate an uneven amount of downtime between players and make the game boring for some.

Random Turn Order

This approach has players taking their turns in a different order each round. I've played a wargame, though its name currently escapes me, in which each unit is represented by a card all of which are shuffled into a deck. Cards are drawn one at a time, activating the relevant units as they appear. This adds some confusion to the field, but still ensures that each unit gets the same number of moves.

Advantages: Can move a game away from certain types of strategy which may be desirable. Offers a natural balance between getting to go first and getting to know which units have already activated.
Disadvantages: Beneficial spots in the turn order change depending on the situation, the random factor can mean that a few lucky draws make or break a player's strategy.

Pay for Initiative

Some systems have players pay for the right to go first. This could be a direct payment or it could be in some other form. For instance Viticulture has players select bonuses and the player with the least powerful bonus takes the first turn. Twilight Imperium has players select actions and the action selected determines turn order. In Dungeons and Dragons a player can choose to spend one of their feats to add to their roll for first turn, rather than getting some other type of bonus. There are a great many ways to make turn order interact with other elements of a game.

Advantages: Can produce emergent properties that are more than the sum of their parts. Opens new design space for manipulating this system.Disadvantages: Different approaches vary in their drawbacks, but in general this system adds a degree of difficulty to balancing the various aspects of the game. It is also prone to generating complicated rules, though this can be avoided.

What Initiative?

Another approach is to have turn order made irrelevant, for instance by simultaneous actions. Race for the Galaxy manages this very neatly, while the order of the players selected actions may vary, every player takes part in every phase so there is no 'true' turn order. Very rarely a turn order matters, but in general players are free to make choices and execute actions simultaneously.

Advantages: Behold, it cometh, slayer of boredom, ender of phones, killer of downtime!
Disadvantages: Doesn't work with all types of game, can be tricky to maintain a decent level of player interaction.

So What Do I Roll Again?

As I said, every system has its advantages and disadvantages. In each of these categories there are examples of good and bad games and there are plenty of hybrids that combine ideas from several of these categories at once. Pick something that works for your game and don't be afraid to experiment with alternatives if it's not working
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