If You Really Need to “Roll For Initiative”

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Randomizing the Action in Dungeon World

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.

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Categories Dungeon World, DIY D&D

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