If You Really Need to “Roll For Initiative”

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Randomizing the Action in Dungeon World

Update on 25 Aug 2017: This post was a process of working through some ideas about the action order in Dungeon World combat. Hashing these ideas out with the Dungeon World communities on Reddit and Google+ brought the inner workings of Dungeon World into much clearer focus for me, and I no longer think it might be constructive to use any kind of random initiative system.

In Dungeon World, like every RPG I’ve ever played, the players and referee take turns talking.

Players ask questions and make moves in an ad-hoc fashion, and they resolve their actions in whatever order makes sense based on where their characters are in the fiction and what they are doing. Usually, the referee plays a role in adjudicating who does what when comparatively.

But this judgment often has some built-in flexibility. If a player says “No I wasn’t over there yet,” that can usually stand without dispute, and without invoking any game mechanics to sequence their actions.

But many games, taking after Dungeons & Dragons, do something different when the action breaks out: Instead of relying on fictional positioning and ad-hoc judgments by the players and referee, you instead use a game mechanic to determine the turn sequence, usually before anyone chooses their actions. In D&D and its heirs, players snap to attention when the referee calls out “Roll for initiative!”

Dungeon World is peculiar (but not alone) in breaking this trope.

Instead, Dungeon World continues following the same rules as always for whose turn it is to talk—which is no formal rule at all. The players and referee continue using the fictional positioning of the heroes, their adversaries, and the environment, to pass the focus from one character to another. Because the referee implicitly gets to narrate the result of each action, the referee plays a key role in choosing another element of the fiction to highlight, and choosing the character who gets to react.

This can be jarring to anyone who is used to games in which you roll for initiative. I wasn’t sure exactly how to handle it myself, even though I played a lot of Tunnels & Trolls before my first Dungeon World run. T&T is another game with very loose guidance on sequencing the action. But I got used to it quickly, and now it feels pretty natural. If you keep your mind in the imagined space, it’s not hard at all, and it works just fine.

This post isn’t to say the Dungeon World way is better though, and rolling for initiative does have a few benefits: It’s fair, because everyone knows that they’ll get a turn, even if they aren’t as quick to shout out their actions as everyone else. And they know roughly when their turn will come. Moreover, the random sequence is like any other content or events generated by random procedures: Interpreting the results the dice give you quickly creates interesting threats, assets, opportunities, and trouble that no one would have created on purpose.

So here are some ways you might “roll for initiative” in Dungeon World. I haven’t tested any of them in actual play, but I can’t imagine they will break the game so badly that all the players flee in disgust.

Method number 1 is the easiest. Roll the Die of Fate from World of Dungeons. Low roll means the monsters go first, high roll means the heroes go first. There’s a certain old-school quality to this method, and if you wanted to go totally Classic D&D, you could have each side roll. That’s what method number 2 does.

Method number 2 uses the biggest damage die on each side. In Dungeon World, your class’s damage die implicitly incorporates a lot of information about your character’s combat ability and reflexes. In the monster-builder, it is determined by how the monster hunts or fights, putting solitary monsters on the same level as Fighters and Barbarians, and horde monsters with small and weak armaments on the same level as a Wizard.

The GM can roll the biggest damage die on the monsters’ side, and the player with the biggest damage die will roll hers, and whichever side gets the higher roll goes first.

Method number 3 builds on method 2, but with more granularity: Initiative for individuals! Say what? This is what contemporary D&D players would be used to. Have each player roll their damage die, the referee rolls the highest damage die for each monster group, and then the referee counts down from 12 to 1. Players and monsters get to act when their number comes up. The open question is whether to keep the same action order when the “round” is over, or roll again. I say roll again!

Method number 4 is what I would call Sorcerer-style, but it keeps the heroes in focus. The referee describes the situation, and asks what everyone does. Each player says what they want to do in any order, the referee narrates how the monsters and environment play into this, and anyone can change their action before any dice hit the table. If any moves are triggered, all the players roll 2d6 +stat at the same time! Then, you resolve each move in order of highest roll to lowest.

Method number 5 is most in keeping with the way Dungeon World works, and it’s not really a new method as much as an implicit option that’s always available when things get complicated in Dungeon World. It’s just like method 4 above, with describing actions before rolling and then rolling at the same time. But after that, you resolve the moves in whatever order makes sense, and resolve any other moves that come up as you go as they crop up. I picked it up from Jeremy Strandberg.

This article came about because I was thinking about a magic item that was described in a recent session of Dungeon World—an abacus used by Death for some purpose. I posted about it on Google+, asking what it might do.

Asbjørn H Flø posted the idea I used in my game, but there was a tongue-in-cheek reply from Zak Smith: “It tracks initiative because the Dungeon World does not”. I laughed out loud!

“Seems too overpowered though”, I replied.

Seriously, I’ve run a lot of Dungeon World and we never felt that what was missing was a random way to sequence the action. If the referee and players trust each other and have a basic sense of fairness, it’s not hard to look around the table and know whose turn it should be based on the fiction.

But if we ever get the hankering for random action sequences, I might give one or more of these methods a spin. The only drawback I can foresee is that it could become an unnatural burden when the follow-up on any given event seems obvious. But the whole idea of using dice and rules is that constraints provide a context for creativity, and I trust that would be the case with rolling for initiative.

Fight or Flight

Update on 11 Aug 2017: After several rounds of discussion on Reddit and Google+, and writing some comments and afterthoughts here, it was clear that the above post wasn’t explicit enough in how “rolling for initiative” would work in the flow of conversation between GM moves and player moves in Dungeon World. Here’s a new player-facing move based on method 3 above aimed at clearing things up.

When you scramble to seize the initiative, anyone who could go first rolls their damage die. The countdown begins, from highest roll to lowest! If you roll higher than everyone else, the GM will tell you an opportunity to act. Otherwise you falter, hesitate, or flinch. When it’s time to make a move, the GM will feature the next character in the countdown, unless there is a golden opportunity. You can’t trigger this move again until the countdown ends or everyone backs down.

GM Section
For a hero, being featured would mean the GM frames some situation for them through a soft or hard move, then asks what they do. If the next character in the countdown was a monster, it would mean tilting the players attention toward that monster with a soft or hard move—then asking a player what they do.

This move would explicitly maintain the flow of conversation between player and GM moves, and it explicitly relies on a judgment of the fictional positioning: Completely Silent Assassin Striking a Distracted Enemy from Behind is not scrambling to seize the initiative—they just deal damage, or maybe trigger H&S if it’s a character who can’t be surprised. Slow, Confused, and Bumbling Wall-eyed Goblin may rush into the fray, but he’s not a contender in seizing the initiative either.

Coda, 15 Sep 2017

As I wrote in my comment above, the discussion following this article really brought the inner workings of Dungeon World’s conversation between GM moves and player moves into a fine-grained focus I didn’t notice before.

When I first wrote it, I knew experientially that Dungeon World works, and works well, without an initiative system. But it wasn’t clear to me that using dice to determine action order would be detrimental to the game. Why not play around with it?

But Jeremy Strandberg wrote the clearest breakdown of how initiative works in Dungeon World that I have seen, and it persuaded me to abandon the idea. Here’s his comment, appended here with his permission (emphases are mine).

My problem with the idea of a roll-for-initiative move isn’t that it’ll trigger too often (and thus needs a “can’t trigger until” clause). The problem is that I don’t think it’ll clearly get triggered at all given how fights tend to start in Dungeon World.

Like, think about the fictional and conversational setup that would lead to PCs “scrambling to seize the initiative.”

When I’m running DW (and most cases where I’ve seen it done well), the initiative is already established by some combination of fiction, GM moves, and “what do you do?” By the time we’d stop to roll dice for initiative, someone already has it.

For example, the PCs are exploring a dark, cluttered tower by shining lights around. They discern realities, roll a miss, and I introduce a threat as my GM move. “Kios, while Nolwenn is examining that big hunk of obsidian, you spot… something… move behind her at the edge of her lantern light. What do you do?” And Kios discerns realities, and asks what he should be on the lookout for (“you catch a glimpse of it, a stone or clay ball the size of a basketball, with all sorts of metal legs sprouting out of it, like an oversized daddy-long-legs. Then it’s gone!”), what isn’t what it appearst to be (“oh crap, there’s 2 of the them!”) and what is about to happen (“one of them is about to leap on you out of the shadows, what do you do?”). I’ve just claimed the initiative and made a move that they have to respond to.

Maybe Kios responds by dodging. Maybe he responds by spinning and shooting it with his crossbow. Maybe he spins and crouches and puts himself between it and Nolwenn. Maybe he spins and draws his blade and cuts it down mid-strike. Each of these will trigger moves, and rolls, and the results of those rolls will change the situation and establish a new fictional position and momentum and initiative.

Hell, the rolls for those moves largely act as the initiative roll. A 6- on any of the above would likely indicate that Kios was caught flat-footed, and my GM move is a hard one, an attack by that leaping mecha-spider that closes the distance and does damage and sends Kios reeling. If he, say, Volleys or H&S’s and gets a 10+, then Kios clearly had the initiative and got his attack off before the mecha-spider could launch (or at least land) its attack. (Obviously, the results of the move could be interpreted otherwise; like on a 6- maybe Kios does go first but misses the attack and then the thing strikes. Or on a 10+ the thing launches its attack and Kios shoots it down and dodges to the side as it lands. But initiative-related fiction is totally something that can and should be considered.)

My point being: I don’t need a separate initiative roll because the momentum of the scene has been naturally established by the moves leading up to it. And the PC moves that trigger during the scene already serve to determine, inform, and reflect the shifting initiative of a fight. Trying to reconcile that with an established initiative order doesn’t sound fun or fruitful to me.

Another, related point: if you introduce an initiative system to players, you have to account for the significant baggage that such a system comes with, based on previous play experiences in other games.

To just about anyone who has played an RPG before, “initiative” means “when do I get to take my turn” and not “when is the spotlight going to be on me.” Initiative = when I get to be active and not reactive. Reactive stuff has always been represented by things like having a high/low AC, saving throws, resistance rolls, etc.

If you introduce an initiative count, and then regularly have your monsters make moves at PCs such that on their initiative they are basically spending their “turn” to defy danger… I think you’re going to have some unhappy players. At the very least, you’re going to have to manage a ton of expectations.

And yes, I know that you can react to a “soft” move from the GM with a rather proactive response, but not every player has the social or creative hutzpa to assert that kind of thing. A fair number of players will respond with something like “well, crap, I dodge” and roll Defy Danger with DEX and that’ll be their turn.

Obviously, if you think that your players would like this sort of system, and that it would add something that you feel your game or GMing style is lacking, then by all means try it out. But realize that you’re tinkering pretty damn near the core of the system, and don’t be surprised if it proves resistant to tinkering.

If it’s almost always obvious who has the initiative in actual play, this move would be irrelevant. And in my experience, Jeremy is right. It almost always is.

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