When arguments come to blows, when lives are on the line or when a fraction of a second can mean the difference between life and death, this is when Game Leaders need to determine initiative.

What Is Initiative?

Initiative has a very simple function, to allow players and Game Leaders to take actions in an orderly sequence. This is completely artificial because, of course, in real fights people do not stand around waiting while everyone else takes their turns. However the real speed and confusion of combat cannot be replicated around the gaming table and taking turns is the only fair way to bring order to the chaos of battle.

To ensure fairness, combat is split into combat rounds and in each round every character and monster has a turn. When everyone has acted the round ends, a new round begins and the process repeats itself. Initiative ensures everyone has a turn and decides the sequence within the round in which players and Game Leader take their turn.

Something Is About To Happen

When combat is about to start, the Game Leader should indicate to the players something is about to happen. This is the signal for players to organise their character sheets, placing all their potential tokens in their bank. Most importantly, once the Game Leader has declared "Something Is About To Happen" characters cannot change what they are doing or take any actions until their initiative turn.

The start of combat normally indicates the start of a new scene. Players should check with the Game Leader about time-dependent advantages such as status effects and advantages with the Freq. keyword.

Boban and Razir have pushed deeper into the ruined castle. Beyond a secret door, apparently unopened in millennia, they find a small temple devoted to an unknown god. A gold figurine stands on an altar and the walls are covered in writing which Razir recognises as an archaic form of his native Rakshasa tongue. Never one for books, Razir lacks any useful skills and attempts to decipher the writings using his Rakshasa Blood advantage and concentrating.

Meanwhile Boban is drawn to the figurine and spends a minute carefully examining the altar for traps before deciding it is safe. Boban lifts the figurine, weighs it in her hands and mentally values it before placing it in her bag.

The Game Leader declares that "Something Is About To Happen".


The important question at the start of the fight is the characters' state of readiness. A character standing in a boxing ring waiting for the bell is fully prepared, the character attacked while asleep is totally unprepared. In between these two extremes is a broad spectrum of readiness which most characters occupy most of the time.

What determines readiness are the characters' actions in the moments before "Something is about to happen" is signalled. Characters who are busy with activities will start the combat with some, or perhaps all, their dynamic potential in the spent pile. Even characters who are either doing nothing, just walking down a corridor or on guard will not necessarily start with all their potential. Guards get bored and their attention wanders and even trivial tasks take some mental effort. All these factors come into play to reduce readiness.

Each character and monster in the fight should be assessed for readiness and start the combat with zero or more dynamic potential in the spent pile. If a character is concentrating on a task when "something is about to happen" is declared they automatically count as being 'busy' unless the task was directly related to spotting the danger.

Readiness Description Spent Dynamic Potential
En Garde Fully aware of the danger and ready for combat; two boxers waiting for the bell. 0
Alert Anticipating imminent danger and acting cautiously but the danger is not obvious; sneaking through a haunted house. 1
Passive Character is neither actively looking for danger nor preoccupied with another task; a guard on watch or a character moving down a road at normal speed. 2
Busy Distracted by another task or relaxed and off-duty; a character chatting with friends or picking a lock when the unseen enemy strikes. 3
Surprised Caught completely unawares; asleep or attacked by a trusted ally. 4

At the signal "something is about to happen" Boban and Razir gather their potential in their bank. The group assesses the characters for readiness and decide as Razir was concentrating on the writing he is therefore Busy and loses three dynamic potential.

Boban's situation is more complex. She had just finished picking up the statue so is no longer busy but neither was she actively looking for danger. After a few moments' discussion the group decides that Boban was passive and should lose two dynamic potential.

Both Boban and Razir move the lost potential to their spent piles and are ready for the fight.

Deciding Initiative

The decision of who gets their turn next is made by the currently active player at the end of their turn. That is, if it is Fred's character's turn, then Fred gets to decide who goes next. This is known as nominating and is one of the three key parts of deciding initiative. The other two are deciding who goes first and seizing the initiative.

Who Goes First?

At the start of the combat it must be decided who goes first. Combat often starts with an event: the tavern drunk takes a swing at someone; the Viet Cong commander shouts 'Fire' as the characters enter the ambush zone; the SWAT team demolition expert blows open the front door. In these situations the game's narrative makes it clear who should have the first turn. Other situations are not so clear. Two boxers in the ring waiting for the start of the round have an equal claim for going first when the bell sounds. In these situations players must compete to seize the initiative.

Once it is decided who is going first the character takes their turn and when finished nominates the next player to act.

The Game Leader reveals there is a guardian spirit summoned to attack anyone attempting to steal the gold figurine. It appears next to Boban after she places the figurine in the bag.

Everyone in the group agrees the guardian will go first as its appearance starts the combat. Unfortunately for Boban she is the target and the guardian unleashes everything it has against the thieving gnome.

Boban already has two dynamic potential in her spent pile, leaving her with two dynamic and two static potential in her bank. She is not defenceless and it is fortunate the guardian is not attacking her companion who is down three dynamic potential.


At the end of their turn, the player nominates the next person to act. They may choose anyone, characters or foes, with two exceptions.

  • They cannot nominate themselves
  • Characters or monsters who have already acted this round cannot be nominated

Characters will have to nominate monsters if all the players have had their turns this round and smart players will notice it is often better not to leave their enemies until last. When everyone has acted in a round a new round begins and the active player can choose anyone but themselves. This enables them to choose whoever is in the most need or has the best tactical position.

The nominated person must take their turn when nominated unless someone else attempts to seize the initiative.

The guardian's attack is ferocious and despite spending all her dynamic and static potential in defence, Boban has been badly hurt. With the guardian's turn ending the Game Leader considers who to nominate. The monster does not know the characters' capabilities so the Game Leader decides it is most logical to nominate Boban. This way, if Razir has any ability to help Boban with healing or other magics, the gnome will not have them in time for her turn this round.

Having been nominated Boban must take her turn, but chooses to do nothing and recoup three dynamic potential before nominating Razir. The Rakshasa is also low on potential and also does nothing in order to recoup extra potential. He is the last character to act this round so a new round starts and he may nominate anyone except himself. He nominates Boban so the Gnome can recoup more potential before the guardian can attack again.

Seizing The Initiative

Whenever a character or monster is nominated, anyone else who has not had their turn this round may attempt to seize the initiative. If the attempt is successful they become the active player, take their turn and nominate the next person to act. To seize the initiative a character must bid using one or more dynamic potential from their bank. All other players who haven't acted this turn may now also bid to seize the initiative. The character originally nominated is able to bid and must do so if they wish to keep the initiative.

When bidding, players can only bid once and may not change their bid in response to other players. Bids are final and all bid potential is spent whether the player wins or not. Once all bids are in, players move the bid potential to the spent pile and roll 1d6+0 for each potential. The highest scoring player becomes the active character and takes their turn. In the case of a tie between the highest rolling players they reroll their dice to decide a winner. If just one person is bidding they win the initiative automatically but must still spend the potential.

Having seized the initiative a character takes a normal combat turn, acting and spending potential as they desire with one exception: they must take at least one meaningful action which spends potential. This means they cannot do nothing nor may they simply recoup potential and nominate the next character.

The Game Leader realises what Razir is up to and declares the guardian is seizing the initiative with a bid of two dynamic potential. Boban considers bidding but cannot afford to spend the potential. If she bid and still lost she would be almost defenceless. Razir could bid but decides, like Boban, it is better to keep hold of the potential.

As the only bidder the guardian wins the initiative and moves two dynamic potential to its spent pile. The first thing it does in its turn is to recoup potential before once again attacking Boban. Having spent some potential on the bid and with Boban having some potential for defence, the attack is less effective and the gnome gets to live, at least for another round.

Keep Things Moving

The initiative sequence introduces a tactical element to combat which the players can use to coordinate their activities. The downside is players may spend a long time discussing the different options at the end of each of their turns. Players including the Game Leader should encourage brevity and speed in making these decisions to keep the game moving at pace. If groups find the nomination process slows the game down or is too tactical for their taste, only use it for the first round but take note of the order everyone acts. Each subsequent round then use the same sequence of turns.


DT, 2013/08/03 16:12

Chris - have a good look at the layout. It looks fine on the screen but is pants on my printout.

Chris Tregenza, 2013/08/11 11:22


Bastian Hopp, 2015/07/20 18:40

Some of the terms here are muddled.

In "What is Initiative?" and "Something is about to happen", players and game leader are explicitly mentioned side by side, as if seperate entities.

In "Readiness", talk is of characters (and monsters).

In "Decinding Initiative", "Who goes first?" and "Nominate" players and characters are referenced, even interchangeably ("the player nominates the next person" vs. "Characters will have to nominate monsters").

"Seizing the Initiative" is even more muddled, here we have characters, monsters, players, and persons.

For me, this led to confusion at least in "Seizing the Initiative"; until I read the example, I had thought that the Game Leader can't bid for the monsters, as only players, persons and characters are referred to as seizing or bidding.

Bastian Hopp, 2015/07/20 18:47

At the end of the first paragraph of "Who goes first?" you refer to players having to compete to seize the initiative, then go on in the next paragraph without explaining how that is achieved. After reading on one can deduct that you PROBABLY meant the standard rules, but even then it is not entirely clear.

An added (see below), (as explained below) or simply another link may help to remove that slight speedbump to understanding.

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open/mechanics/core/initiative.txt · Last modified: 2013/12/10 12:05 by tregenza
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The 6d6 RPG tabletop store is owned and operated by Chris Tregenza. Who also owns and runs Myomancy, a site about ADD / ADHD medication, Autism and Dyslexia Treatments and also site called Poosk. Chris also provides copy-writing, web design SEO advice to sites like Dingles' Games pathfinder rpg resources.