The Initiative Ritual

Composing Your Counting Customs

In the old Final Fantasy JRPG video games, there was a moment before the beginning of a battle where the screen would flash, an 8-bit sound effect would play (which may or may not have been trying to imitate the sound of clashing swords?), and the image would shift from a top-down overworld view into a statistic-heavy side-glance at the battle scene with all its menus and short, memory-frugal names. It is a video game sequence that elicits a Pavlovian response of joy/dread in those of us who ground out our childhoods (and some of our adulthoods) in the pixelated playlands of old. It was also a brief moment for mental preparation – a subconscious shifting of gears from “explorer” to “warrior.”

You can do something similar when it’s time to roll combat initiative in your game. Treat it like a formal rite and customize it to fit your group’s needs. Elevate it from simple bookkeeping into a ritual summons – drawing attention and setting the mood you wish to set. Conduct your initiative ceremony with the same care that you give to other parts of your game and you will reap the roleplaying rewards.

Initiative Invocation

How you start the initiative process sets the tone and the pace for the combat to follow. Do you expect your players to jump into an action-packed frenzy? Then raise your voice, bang your mead-mug in a toast to impending death, and hit the button that starts up the viking metal soundtrack. The blood-stained maps are unfurled, the dice fly, and the fight begins! Or, are you aiming for a sober, tactical chess-match – spy versus spy in a duel of cunning tricks? Then play the sound of a ticking clock and give the agents a brief minute to determine order and strategize while you draw out the map before them. This opening salvo is your statement of what you expect from your players and can be more than just “roll initiative.” If you only have a single sentence to start off an encounter, make it something that draws them into the world a bit.

Collect the Count

How you nab numbers for initiative is important – this is where you’re setting the pace for the fight to come and you can even inject a little thematic flair if you’re thoughtful about it. Digital apps make initiative-tracking a one-button experience, provided all your devices are connected correctly, your character sheets are up-to-date, and all your players know what to click (a practice session is always useful to shake out the bugs). Apps are fast and perfect for futuristic games that involve lots of tech and hacking, or games with complex rules that make stat-management a digital necessity.

Next in terms of speed is the shout-out, where everybody just yells out their scores and the GM scribbles furiously. This is not always efficient, but it lends itself well to games where you want to hint at the chaotic nature of a battle. For extra brutality, have the characters come up with a war-cry or battlefield catch-phrase that they can bellow along with their scores.

To slow things down a bit more, you can go with a round-robin style of initiative collection, just moving around the table one by one. This could be a good opportunity to address each player or character directly with a reminder about a status effect, a note about something they notice, or a chance for them to ask you for a single detail about their foe – a useful trick for investigative or horror games.

The slowest option is probably the countdown (or count-up, depending on your rules system), where you either ask for numbers within a certain range (“anybody between 15 and 20?”) or you start at the best possible initiative and work your way down to the worst. Players call out when you nail their number. In games where you also declare actions, you can combine the two. Countdowns work well for groups where you need to get everybody to pay attention and mark a clear division between combat and non-combat time.

Displaying the Digits

Once you have your order of operations, you can show them off. Index cards with character names, stats, initiatives, and even portraits, flags, or sigils are handy. You can pass them out to players pre-battle and collect them, then flip through them like a deck of cards to announce who’s turn it is. You can also tent the cards and line them up in order, possibly on top of your GM screen, to show everyone who’s up next. Other kinds of markers include clothespins, clips, magnets, or anything else that can serve as a visible, representative token.

If dry-erase boards or good old-fashioned paper are more suitable for your setup, use them. You can customize the look of your list with some artwork or a spot for “quote of the night,” if you want to encourage either roleplaying or jokes. Digital displays are highly customizable, especially if you’re willing to devote some time to finding the right imagery.

If you need to manage noise in a larger or more chatty group, you can also combine the display of who has initiative with a prop – the talking stick. A toy weapon, wizardly wand, pirate spyglass, or plastic laser-sword might work if it fits the theme of your game. Whoever has initiative gets the talking stick and everybody else has to stay quiet while they act. Then, they pass it to the next player in line. Pro-tip: if your group sits farther apart and will be tossing the talking stick, use something soft.

Custom Control

To fine-tune your pacing, you may need to tweak your initiative methodology. Pre-rolling initiatives might be useful for games with clunky combat mechanics, and you can do this as the GM and surprise your players from fight to fight if you know their stats. Alternately, you might want to just use GM fiat – just decide who goes in what order as the situation warrants. This puts players who invest their upgrade points in initiative at a disadvantage, so use with caution or warn them ahead of time so they don’t waste resources on something useless. Both of these methods are handy for highly-narrative combats where you want full command of the flow of battle from character to character. You will still need to keep track of who has already gone to avoid skipping players.

Another tip is to keep the same initiative from one encounter to another. This saves time, but takes away an element of randomness and tactical adaptability when characters always go in the same order. It may be best used when doing a series of quick battles with no down time in between, but eliminates the potential for mood-setting as described above.

Finally, you can always give the job of initiative-collection to a player. This is useful for the GM who needs those pre-battle moments to prep notes and maps. It’s also handy to help players who need to be engaged in the game – they can manage a mini-event and maybe even keep track of status effects in complex scenarios. You can still use all the tips above for setting pace and mood, but you will need to lay out how you want the initiative ritual to work beforehand so the player knows their role.

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