Taking turns and seeing who goes first has almost always been a big deal in games and it's been no exception in RPGS but the range of ways we can do that and the rules tied to that can vary immensely. Turn order, going first, going twice it's all serious business when we are having fun. I'm going to discuss a range of options and ways to tailor those options to an RPG campaign.
There's been reams of posts written by people analyzing the right way to do initiative in specific versions of a game and how most of us generally ignored the specific rules. The original D&D rules didn't have an initiative system of it's own. The first basic set of D&D did but it was a unique on all to it's own and later iterations had yet another version which also differed from what was in AD&D from edition to edition and simulacrum to heartbreaker.
Who goes first at what? Is initiative just reflexes and reaction times? Shouldn't a 11th level sorceror be able to zap you with spells quicker than a 2nd level sorcerer, if not why not? Why is one's ability to weave magic factored in at the same rate as a Warrior with a sword? Is that warrior with a sword quicker or slower than a warrior with spear? What if the warrior with a spear is closing in on a warrior without a spear? Is the 9th level warrior faster than a 2nd level warrior? Does a PC or monsters movement rate impact when they act during a round? The questions can really pile up and this big mass of questions is something D&D and future RPGs passed onto the DM.
Initiative systems can be broken down into components and concepts being managed and resolved. The Form of the over all initiative system, the time frame being resolved, the order of resolution, and the cost of action are all things to consider when looking into an initiative system.
All the different forms of Initiative I could think up before breaking them down into further subsystems and procedures:
Quickness: Initiative based on speed. (This is the most common, or the one we think we are using).
Alacrity: Initiative based on readiness and related competence.
Threat: Initiative based on the ability to project and deliver force (or the possibility of force).
Awareness: Initiative based on perception and clarity of positions and options in a conflict.
Favor: Initiative based on the assistance one gets from luck and fate.
Opportunity: Initiative based on the ability to exploit opportunities during a conflict. What good is being fast when you are blind or clumsy?
Domination: Initiative based on the ability to control the encounter.
Command: Initiative based on the ability to direct and coordinate with others.
Power: Initiative as the ability to project superior offense (not necessarily physical).
Vigor: Initiative based on the ability to motivate and endure.
Reach: Initiative based on the ability to project harm over distance.
Stance: Initiative based on the ability to position to respond and deliver as needed in an encounter.
Focus: Initiative based on the ability to set and fulfill goals in an encounter.
Advantage: Initiative as the ability to exploit advantage over a foe.
Delay: Initiative as the ability to work around the delay imposed by actions.
Exposure: initiative expressed as a factor of advantage based on one's exposing themselves to more and more danger.
With each of those in mind now ponder the timescale of the fight resolved by the initiative sequence. Is the determination of the initiative score set in stone or does it vary from turn to turn and side to side?
Suggested Time Frames-
Turn by Turn (or round by round): The initiative score determines the delivery and range of actions possible within each turn.
Battle by Battle: The initiative score determines the delivery and range of actions over a multi-turn sequence.
Segment by Segment: A full round is broken down into smaller segments of action resolution and any one of these turns may or may not allow combatants to act at different points in a segment of a round.
Standard Score: A specific and set core determines initiative throughout an entire campaign based on individual capabilities.
The order of resolution can have a huge impact on the game (to some people) other's find it to be an artificial hindrance to action.
Declare and Act: In such a system all engaged players declare actions prior to attempting resolution and than actions are resolved based on the types of actions chosen.
Phased Action: In such a system (which may or may not have declaration) all movement actions are resolved, than all missile fire, than or melee or some other set of pased actions as appropriate to the genere and type of initiative system being used.
Just in Time: In such a system all that matters is the timing of the action whether one is swinging or sword or throwing a spell actions happen as the combatants position within initiative permits.
Continuous: similar to just in time but there is a specific count being tallied (or tracked) that determines when or when next a player may act in an encounter.
Simultaneous: The whole turn happens all at once everyone acts and than the situations presented are resolved.
The cost of action could be considered in an initiative system.
Action Points: All actions have point costs and those points are paid out of a the initiative score.
Delay: Each action offsets when the next action can be attempted.
One by One: Each round limts the total number of actions. There may be exceptions but it isn't a fluid environment like in an action point or delay system.
Exhaustion: Action causes an impact on future initiative itself (working very much like Action Points but not as particular). Exhaustion implies some resource can be lost and has to be regained before the full range of actions is as available).
Threshold: Initiative score must meet or beat some threshold before an action or class of actions may be attempted.
Team or Solo? Is the action being resolved based on sides or on individuals?
Side Based: the actions of all members of a side or team are based on a group initiative determination. Specific individual action smay still be limited but all ot the "winning side" go before the "losing side".
Individual: all characters, PCS and NPCs alike act according to their own specific initiative conditions.
Players go first: the players go first vs the NPCs all the time. It's a simple way to resolve heroic action ut the initiative determination can still limit what can be done.
Players React: the players are always reacting to the actions of NPCS they don't go first but they do have the ability to counter.
Squad Initiative: Initiative is resolved base on which squad has superior initiative. A PC and dedicated minions could be a squad. Vanguard, Main Body, and Rearguard in each force could be a squad.
Mixed Squad: Individual players act on their own determined orders but entire groups of NPC contolled by the DM act together.
There's a lot to ponder in resolving how to determine "Who goes first ?"
Next installment: Looking into how some games do initiative.