I’ve always hated rifts style initiative (where each creature has it’s own initiative). From my DM perspective, I’ve experienced time and again, explaining the opening scene of a combat, getting everyone all revved up or scared with the tense narration, and then having to break the immersion to roll initiative for maybe 10+ combatants, add up all the modifiers, then collate in proper order, and all before anyone can actually do anything about the goblins that just jumped out of the bushes…kinda puts the breaks on one of the best parts of the game and makes if feel more like just a game. It takes about 5 -10 minutes to do it for a sizable encounter. Genie speeds it up to about 2 minutes but that still feels too long sometimes. Sometimes you just want to roll to hit the ogre that just walked around the corner, and having to roll initiative for each person in the group and for the 6 other ogres that no one sees, that takes away from the spontaneity that a battle breaking out should have. It’s a lot of book keeping at the very moment when a lot of book keeping is the least cool. Ok, think I got my critique of that out.
I like side based initiative for very selfish reasons. It makes running battles easier. It makes the transition from story mode to battle mode more seamless and narration friendly. It encourages the kind of behavior in combat that I appreciate: Thinking ahead and teamwork. I think one of the things that makes D&D unique, and not just a pen and paper simulation of a fantasy based videogame, is that it can encompass something those games can’t. In a video game you certainly can think ahead, but with unlimited lives, you don’t have to if you don’t want to, and there’s not much at stake other than your time. With Video games you can certainly work as a team, but there are many moments again when that is optional.
Having to sit down with a group of people and make sense of a bad situation, round to round, is part of the charm of D&D. When things go bad you watch them unfold slowly in horror. Likewise, when they go good, it’s like a building glory that just gets better and better minute by minute. D&D is not a quickie, it’s sex with Sting.
The reason I bring up video games is because I feel like individual initiative makes D&D feel less like the D&D I grew up with, and more like an attempt to simulate a video game on battle mat and paper. It does so in the following way: It turns all but the most simple battles into swirling maelstroms where half the people don’t know when there turn is, and that alone makes it almost impossible to work together consistently enough to build up the spirit of team work that is key to me for the game feeling like D&D and being fun as hell. It locks everyone into their own initiative bubble, and takes away some of the player spontaneity, and much of the DM spontaneity.
Individual initiative may be more realistic in some ways, but at what cost? It’s also pretty unrealistic in its own ways too. In real life, battles ebb and flow as one side gains and advantage and forces the other side on the defensive. You lose some of that in individual initiative. In real life, when teams work together they can pull off amazing shit before an opponent can even respond, and with individual initiative you can never count on who’s going when, so not only is it hard to work together, but often times teamwork is punished because just a few bad guys going in the middle of the plan can make the whole thing pointless. I mean, how complicated do you want the game to be before it’s “real enough” for you. At some point as the books fly open and you’re arguing over whether grognard can take a swift action now because he took an immediate action last round, and you’re trying to convince Hrothlak the Hill Giant goes before him now because he delayed last round, and the rest of the group just wants to whack the damn orcs, you’ve lost sight of the game and sacrificed the fun of the moment…for what?
There’s a danger in trying to simulate combat perfectly in a role playing game. The danger is this. You can add in so many rules that every battle feels like a really complicated war game, and at that point, the battle may be more realistic, but now it also feels more like just a game. The brain takes over where the heart should be in charge. People are worried more about taking their five foot step than saving their friend that’s getting beat down. They are so focused on getting off the right spell that they are actually missing the fight. People feel more like they are playing a game where they’ve got to be smart, and less like they are in an exciting battle in the middle of a story that only brave hearts and teamwork will win. Too many rules can take the heart right out of the game.
Shayn is right, that you’ve got to throw some kind of bone to people who have made major character choices base on initiative. That’s easy enough to do I think. It’s also easy to imagine you could strike a middle ground in complicated battles where there might be 3 or 4 groups acting on different initiatives instead of just two sides.
Eric is right to point out that when the bad guys go it can be brutal…but I find that creates a sense of urgency and danger that encourages actually thinking about defensive strategy and here it is again, TEAMWORK. It’s pretty amazing to notice that in individual initiative, everyone is just focused on fucking the enemy and doing the most damage they can on their turn, and all the sudden when you change things to side based initiative, the warriors are worried about protecting the wizard and holding the line. There is actually a storm to be weathered as a group as the ebb and flow of battle shifts, and people have to think about how they’ve left themselves open a little bit more.