Why so little love for Group Initiative?

Among the many great things of Basic D&D, one that stands out the most for me is the initiative system. I find it so much better than the commonly used by other editions and even most B/X clones.

A wonderful thing about group initiative is that it completely removes the whole work of remembering the initiative order. I absolutely hate it to scribble down a list of all the PCs and enemies in the correct order at the beginning of each fight. That’s always a minute or so of interruption doing something tedious, right at the most exciting moment of the game. The alternative is to write down the names in advance and make a row of numbers with the initiative counts, but then you easily skip someone by accident all the time. (At least I do.) With group initiative that doesn’t matter. You roll two d6 at the beginning of each round and then everyone goes in whatever order they want.

But I think something even much more important is happening on the player side. Everyone is paying attention all the time and taking turns much faster. Nobody is sitting around three numbers until their number comes up.
The players who decide the fastest what they want to do go first, and those who take longer do their thinking while everyone else is taking their turn. And everyone needs to pay attention during the whole enemy turn, because the next turn is always their turn.

I’ve been using this system for a while, and it’s just so much more fun to run the game, and I believe for the players as well. Why doesn’t everyone use it and most games go with individual initiative counts instead? Even such otherwise great games as Basic Fantasy and Lamentations of the Flame Princess and wonderful ones like Spears of the Dawn and Barbarians of Lemuria (not a B/X clone, but still) go with the cumbersome initiative count system. Which to me really has always been one of the most annoying thing about running games.

4 thoughts on “Why so little love for Group Initiative?”

  1. I like initiative by sides too, but it runs into the problem of being able to focus fire and gang up on a single creature or character before they get a turn.

    The only initiative systems I’ve enjoyed are those from 7th Sea and Deadlands.

    Deadlands uses a Poker hand for many mechanics, and initiative is called in descending order, then you act in a combat if you have the called number. Keeps things interesting and straightforward.

    7th Sea is a little more complicated. Your hero has a “Panache” score, and you roll a number of dice equal to that score. Starting with one and ascending, there are 10 “Phases” for every “Round”. When you roll the dice, whatever number comes up on each die is the phase number you act in, with the character who has the highest total roll acting first in that phase.

  2. I have long since given up on individual initiative.

    When I run a game I have the entire party take their turns one after another in any order they want. Then the NPCs take their turns in any order they want, repeat.

    Initiative score is only used to determine which side gets the first turn and who acts in what order when someone tries to do something fancy like delaying their turn in an attempt to interrupt or react to an enemy’s action.

    The only problem I have found, and it is a small one, is that effects which last for 1 turn can be wasted if the player characters don’t properly communicate before taking their turns, but it is a minor problem that can mostly be solved by the GM not being a hard ass about small take backs.

  3. The main downside to group initiative for old-school games is that if the PCs lose init against a sizable group of enemies, they’ve got an excellent chance of losing party members before they can even attempt to act.

    Suppose you’ve got 5 PCs who run into 5 orcs. With individual init, each participant is going to act in a fairly random distribution. If PC gets in trouble, it’s likely that the next PC up will try to do something to distract the orcs, boost the hard-pressed PC, or otherwise take some heat off their target of choice. Even if no intentional effort is made to get the enemies to split their fire, the simple actions of the PCs are going to attract attention from different monsters and encourage them not to mob a single PC.

    With group init, those five orcs look over the PCs, pick the most exposed or obvious target, and hammer him into the ground. The GM has to tacitly dumb down the orcs and send them against different opponents unless they want to turn the easy targets into chunky salsa. Against some Orc SWAT agents who’d focus-fire all the humans in dresses, a lost group init roll can be extremely ugly.

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