Saturday, July 21, 2012

Non-Combat Initiative?

So, I'm considering using initiative in some non-combat situations in my upcoming Greyhawk campaign. Meaning, when it comes to moments during a session where players are all telling me (as GM) what they want to do pretty much all at once, there are times when I feel I need to give them some structure/order. There's so much going on at the table during a typical RPG session that I feel I need to do something to keep things organized. Mostly to make things easier on myself.

And it's not just my current group that has made me think about this. From the very beginning of my roleplaying life, I've felt some frustration when my players are all talking at once. So now I'm thinking I need some "democratic" way to determine who gets to talk to me first, second, etc. and not just "around the table from left to right." So, since this is an RPG, we let the dice decide.

I'm not saying my players are disorganized. I'm just thinking that sometimes they are all excited and have ideas they want to execute, and things get a bit disjointed. I think our sessions would benefit from determining just who gets to act in what order for non-combat situations.

I've been searching the blogosphere for prior mention of this concept but haven't found anything so far. I'm not thinking that I'm some great innovator with this idea, though. I'm sure someone else has thought of/used this before. I'm very curious to hear from someone who might have used this in a campaign.

I guess I'm wondering if this sort of thing could be considered too much of a "hand holding" on my part. I suppose one would say that the onus is on the players to discuss what they are doing and report their decisions/actions to me in as coherent a manner as they can muster. They need to be the ones to make sure they coordinate their efforts and act as a cohesive unit. And if they're all talking to me at once and declaring actions, then I need to tell them to take a moment and get organized.

And hey, sometimes that player "chaos" of indecision and overlapping/competing goals is great, and totally natural/realistic. That's why I'm saying that I won't use it all the time. Just when I'm feeling overwhelmed or if it seems the players are feeling overwhelmed, or both.

But sometimes there's the situation where one player wants to suddenly make a decision that could affect the whole party ("I'm going to pull that lever over there to see what happens.") and I want there to be a chance for someone else in the party to interject/intercede/ interrupt said action. That's one of the moments where I think I should say "Ok, everyone needs to roll initiative to see if someone gets to do something before you pull that lever."

And then there's the question: is this where the caller concept comes into play? I've tried using callers in my prior gaming life and in my current roleplaying endeavors, and it seems to not go over so well. The players still seem to want to talk directly to me. And truth be told I'm more comfortable with that.

Please let me know your thoughts! All advice is welcome.


  1. You gotta do what works for your group. I used to have to stand up like Gandalf and say "STOP!" with my arms up high to get them to quiet down sometimes. Other times, I had to refocus them. I think if you had specific situations in which player initiative (what you're calling non-combat initiative), rather than character initiative, would be invoked (identifying situations in which your players do get this excited may help), then I see it as definitely a workable solution.

  2. In my long-planned, not-yet-started campaign I plan to do this: for groups of three or fewer, they can talk directly to me. That seems like a reasonable number and I can still handle everything. (Also, it'll probably be a while before we'd have more players.)

    For four or more they must use a caller, with all that entails and implies, but if anybody wants to make a rash action ("I'm pulling the lever!") they can just tell me directly. Of course, that's a pretty chaotic thing to do... :-)

  3. Caller kinda sucks unless the players are all totally on board with the idea. It takes a lot of a player's decisions out of his hands.

    That said, a semi-caller who decides which way to go next and who tries to keep the other players moving along is a great idea. We always have one. We call it party leader. Doesn't need to be the PC with the highest CHA.

    Usually I find that in a non-combat situation, players will watch and see what happens when someone does something, or immediately interject and try to stop him. For example, someone opening a chest: everyone bursts out with "I'm backing out of the room" or whatever, and it doesn't matter which of them goes first. But if someone pulls a lever, everyone either stays quiet, gets out of the room, or tries to stop him.

    In these cases I just have them roll d20 against ability score (DEX usually, but it could be STR for a tug-o-war or something). How many did you roll under? Whoever rolled under by the most wins.


    Abby has DEX 12, and Billy has DEX 15. Abby wants to pull a lever, Billy wants to stop her. They roll d20: Abby gets 9, Billy gets 10. Abby was 3 under DEX, Billy was 5 under DEX, so Billy wins.

    You could also just have them roll Init, d6 or d10 or whatever you use normally, adding modifiers if appropriate.

    I could also see the benefit in just having them roll d6 and whoever rolled low goes first, or d20 roll high, or whatever. Just be consistent.

  4. Pass around a "golden ticket" he who has the ticket talks to you, the DM.

  5. As players, in our most recent games, we all just kind of would chat about what we planned to do and the DM would let us take as much time as we needed - oftentimes not even listening to what we said. And then someone in the group (and not always the same person) would end up saying, "So, I'm going over here to check that chest, and everyone else is going outside the room in case the chest explodes" or whatever, and it just kind of worked out. But we were planners, so there were never really many instances of us all trying to talk at once.

    When I DM, I've experience much the same thing, although it partly could be because there's a huge overlap in players between the two groups. I tend to be flexible and let the group take what time they need to come up with a plan. If it starts getting ridiculous, I'll just tell them "Hey, you guys can't take all day to plan this."

    So, in short, I've never found too much of a need for non-combat initiative. But that's me - I can see how/why it could come in handy.

  6. @Martin: Well, I try to give players all the time they want to plan, but sometimes you need to keep the action flowing. There are times where they're so indecisive that something needs to move things forward. Right now, we only have about three hours a week to game, so time is a bit on the precious side. Most of the time my players coordinate well, but there are moments where they seem to need a bit of a nudge from the planning phase to the action phase.