Rethinking Initiative: Phases, not Turns


Hey all,

In this post I wanted to reveal how I run combats! This method has allowed me to solve several issues I find inherent to the turn-by-turn initiative system.

I don’t like that (1) players later in the round can base their actions on things that happened earlier in the round when it’s all supposedly simultaneous, (2) players spend most of the round watching other people play their turns, or (3) having to track a billion initiative scores.

So I changed it.

I forget where I originally got the idea from, but I’ve been playing this way for a long, long time. It rocks.

The Phases Method uses combat phases. Anyone can act during a particular phase, and this means many turns are thrown into “batches” (phases) and rolled at the same time. Check them out:

1) Surprise
2) Declare actions/preparation
3) Missiles
4) Movement
5) Magic
6) Movement
7) Melee
8) Other

Surprise: ROLL FOR SURPRISE! If surprised, the force doing the surprising (ambush) gets 1 free movement and 1 free action. Then go into normal Phases.

Declaration/Preparation: Everyone declares to the GM, generally, what they’re doing. “I’m casting this spell, I’m shooting my bow, I’m charging into the fray, etc.” This is also where characters draw or stow weapons, can toss a flask of oil, etc. Enemies also declare, but I don’t tell the players.

Missiles: The opening volley, or the shots from the back lines. Assuming a ranged weapon is drawn (bow, javelin, etc.) in the prep phase, they can shoot or throw. Firing into melee has a 50% chance to hit a random target. No one is stationary in the melee.

Movement: Move a normal movement for your system.

Magic: Spells go off. This includes Turn Undead or magic item use. While preparing to cast a spell (phase 2), characters cannot take other actions. The spells are being cast from phase 2 through phase 5. If you take damage in this phase, make a check modified by damage to avoid being interrupted.

Movement: Move a normal movement for your system.

Melee: Bone crushing, toe to toe combat. If you’re engaged in melee, all non-melee actions (spells, shooting arrows, etc.) are delayed until the Other phase. If a caster is preparing a spell, but is forced into melee before it finishes casting, the spell is delayed until the Other phase.

Other: Everything else. Drink a potion, finish a spell that was delayed because you were engulfed in the melee, light a flask of oil, help a wounded ally, do a delayed action

Again: Surprise, declare, missiles, move, magic, move, melee, other.

It is possible to (1) shoot a bow (missile), (2) move (first movement phase), (3) move again into melee range (second movement phase), (4) make a melee attack (melee), and (5) drink a potion (Other). This would require you to have had a 1 handed ranged weapon (a javelin for example) and a one handed melee weapon, since you couldn’t swap weapons between phases. Yes. This means each character can do several things per round.

You could also declare a (1) spell (declare), (2) cast the spell (magic), (3) move (movement 1), and (4) make a melee attack (melee). If someone engaged YOU in melee before your spell went off in the Magic phase, though, your cast is delayed until the Other phase and other actions become impossible while you focus on holding the spell.

Yes. You read that right. Players can make multiple actions per round if they satisfy the basic requirements of the phases! More action happens, more players are involved at any given time. It’s a win win for me.

I hope you like it, throw feedback down below!


Nefarious Wizards and Armored Warriors

Very old school!

Question - what happens if I declare something like “I melee the goblin,” but the goblin gets hit with a bow and a spell and is defeated before melee. Am I free to do something different then what I declared?


Hey! Great question.

Here’s how you declare that (on a mechanical level):

I am going to:

Prep: Draw my sword
Move: Move into melee
Move 2: Move into melee if I’m not close enough yet
Melee: Attack the goblin(s) in melee range

Now, if the goblin you meant to attack died before the melee phase due to missile fire/magic, you would still have Movement 2 to move somewhere else OR if there were only enemies in melee range of you, you could melee attack anything else within your weapon’s reach (close by).

In other words, you’ve have an opportunity to move elsewhere before melee phase, or you could melee any other creature in range. Hope that helps!


Your ideas is sound, and if it works for you and your table, then its an awesome technique.

We all have various techniques from cheat sheets to custom initiatives. And none of them are wrong, its just 1 method. Or, in this case, your method.

So I give you a big GAME ON!

Thanks for sharing.

This is the way.


I would love to see some videos of a combat using different methods. Would be great to see it as a comparison method. I find it hard to try things in my games as the players get set with what they have learned. At least they are happy!

I like the Ranged attack is 50% and random. Makes it sound more like a common fighter with a bow. How would you handle someone who wanted to be a “Ranger Hero” like Hawk Eye or Legolas?


My group isn’t comfortable with being recorded, so you probably won’t see any from me unfortunately. Happy players are good players! :slight_smile:

Yeah. If you shoot into melee, we roll d4 to see if you hit (1) your target or (2) something else. The something else could well be your target, or any other target in the melee. As for characters that want to be ranger heroes like Hawk Eye or Legolas, you have a few avenues.

First, you’d still get your normal first shot if you met your foes at range (ie: down the road, around the hill, on the cliff, etc.) and they weren’t immediately on you (ie: turn a corner, BANG orcs in yo face!). So the chances of you still getting a good hit at the beginning are high, especially if you’re skilled (higher level, for example).

Secondly, ranged characters can (after the first round, and there are now people in melee) still shoot at the back line if they used the movement phases of the last round to reposition and get an angle on the enemy back lines. That way, your shot doesn’t pass through the melee, and you don’t incur the 50/50 chance.

Third, if you wanted to play a character that can shoot their ranged weapon in melee range (like we see Legolas do a bunch), then simply remove the 50/50 thing. That particular rule reflects my preference for more grounded sword and sorcery type play. If your players want to be more “cinematic”, and you’re cool with it, just remove that rule. Or, remove it only for that character so they’re special. Perhaps offer it to them as a level up reward at level 3 or 5, or whatever.


For my RPG style that seems too granular to the point that it would bog down play and also lose the newer players and RPers. (For a board game or war game, I could probably handle that just fine, with a table full of seasoned grognards.)

I have sometimes thought of a simplified marrying of the Shadow of the Demonlord fast action and slow action with TinyD6 array of options (attacks and near moves are fast, evade, focus and Far moves are slow, etc). But then it just falls back to being easier to go in turn order. (I had another thing I was going to toss in here, but it goes beyond the scope of OP’s feedback request so I will plop it into its own thread.)


Thanks for the feedback, Lon! It actually moves a lot more quickly than you’d think. Since all combatants can act on each phase, potentially, there is very little dead time at the table. I’ve found that, compared to round lengths using a turn-to-turn initiative, it takes about half as long to resolve combats.

I’d love to hear what you find too granular, or what would bog down play though (some examples that come to your mind). And, toss in whatever you like man!


I’ve been thinking about using a similar system, to make combat more war-gamey. In the end I found it too messy, but now I’m intrigued again.

The one thing I don’t understand, however, is how you make more players involved at any given time? For example, in “ranged”, isn’t it still one player at a time rolling to hit, rolling damage, etc, or are you also resolving simultaneously?

Please tell more!


Hey Olav! Good question.

All characters that are engaged in a phase roll at the same time. Let’s say we’re in the Missile phase. If every combatant had a throwing spear, for example, they would all roll to hit at the same time - potentially ending in multiple fatalities. Same with archers and those throwing daggers - all in the same phase, simultaneously.

All melee attacks occur in the Melee phase as well, for example. Six PCs are toe to toe with four orcs? Ten d20s are being rolled at the same time!


Cool! Does that mean you have also changed AC, for example replaced it with an opposed roll in melee?


Here is an example of play:

The adventurers are low on supplies and the night is getting colder. They crest a hill and make their way into the ruins of an old tower. It’s close quarters and has three floors. The two archers take watch on the second floor where they can watch from the exposed wall. The three fighters and the cleric sleep on the ground floor, as the upper floor is molded and dangerous.

During the night, a random encounter of 3 goblins and 4 wolves is rolled. The archers and goblins spot each other (no surprise phase for either side), and there is an exchange of shots in the missile phase. The two archers roll to hit with their bows and the goblins each throw a short spear. The two archers both hit, killing two of the goblins, but one of the goblins that was killed also hit with a spear, injuring one of the archers. (5 rolls to hit, 2 hits from the PCs, 1 hit from the goblins). The archer cries out in pain, waking the PCs down below. (magic phase is skipped because there are no active casters)

The remaining goblin and the three wolves don’t know there are PCs in the bottom floor, and rush the door. Breaking in as the archers come down the stairs (movement phase), they face the three fighters (not in their armor, but weapons drawn) and the cleric (holding their holy symbol in the rear). The four wolves lunge at the three fighters who respond with their melee weapons - the goblin is in the rear and cannot make it into melee, the cleric is in the rear and cannot be reached by the wolves (melee phase). The cleric cannot cast a spell this round because she was not active during the prep phase, but they could join melee if there were room on the first floor. The fighters each land their melee attacks, and none of the wolves are successful. It’s a bloodbath, with three wolves being slain and the fighters coming out unscathed. (7 attack rolls, 3 hits from the fighters, 4 misses from the wolves).

The archer that was injured grabs a potion from their bag and drinks it, regaining some Hit Points (Other phase).


No Surprise phase.
The fighters declare that they are pushing the attack on the remaining wolf and goblin. One of the archers is going to fire a shot (they have elevation from the stairs, no risk of 50/50 melee issue), then go up the stairs to get a vantage point on the second floor. The other archer is going to drop down in front of the priest, and pick up a shield from the ground to protect them. The priest is going to begin casting Bless on the fighters. The goblin fails a morale check and is going to flee, the wolf has been starved and will fight to the death.

The archer fires from the stairs during the Missile phase but fails to cause damage.
The archer moves up the stairs to the 2nd floor, the goblin retreats, the fighters move forward, and the second archer drops down in front of the cleric in the movement phase. The cleric’s Bless spell finishes in the magic phase because no one engaged them in melee. Two of the fighters gang up on the wolf, allowing the third fighter a way through to chase the goblin during movement phase 2. In the melee phase, the fighters and wolf all roll to hit. The fighters both hit, but the wolf rolls a critical hit. Although the wolf dies, so too does one of the fighters - his throat torn out. The third fighter was able to catch up with the goblin, and attacks while it flees, easily landing a blow and bisecting the goblin. (all three fighters hit, but unfortunately so too did the wolf). In the Other phase the cleric desperately tries to plug the fighter’s bleeding neck wound, but it’s too late.



Nope, AC works just as it does in ICRPG. Players roll vs Room DC, monsters roll vs PC AC. :slight_smile: My actual numbers are different, like the armor values, but same procedure. It is totally possible for me to hit and kill an opponent, and be hit and killed by that same opponent. Combat sucks!


Where is Perception in that list? :grin:
And, what is the disadvantage of doing multiple things in a single round? I mean, hitting an enemy, moving, and then throwing yourself at the door or some other action could cost you resources?
Maybe an attack of opportunity phase right after movement? :thinking:


Hey there!

I’ve never had to put that as a phase. Players always ask “can I…” and I almost always say “yes”.

There is no disadvantage for doing multiple things in the round, that’s part of the draw of this system for me. It keeps all players engaged, they get to do things more often, and combat resolves faster.

I don’t use attacks of opportunity. Unless a player tells me they are abandoning all defense to move, their character is always trying to defend themselves. Attacks of opportunity grind combat movement to a halt. No one wants to go anywhere, which isn’t my style.

In short: Players always ask if they can spot an enemy, search a chest, kick the door down, and so on. I allow them to do so instead of a phase’s normal component (instead of attacking, instead of moving, whatever round we’re in), presuming they are in range to do so. There are no disadvantages for doing lots of things, that’s a feature not a bug. No AOO. :slight_smile:

Great questions though, you’re thinking!


I like the concept of getting rid of individual turns, like PDM suggested with his “no more initiative”-approach.

I was trying something similar with 5 players a year ago, but it put much pressure on me memorizing each action while sorting them by type (as you and PDM suggested). So I discarded the idea (it wasn’t working for me, personally).

Meanwhile (and with only 3 players), I found myself using turnless-approach in non-combat roleplaying, where I let everybody describe first, roll second (everybody together) and then I narrate through those results. That may work for combat but brings some downsides, which you’ve tried to counteract (especially range combat and movement).

Maybe we can get a bit less micro and more hacky regarding to MOVE and ACTION: Maybe just split it and make MOMENTS even shorter!

1. Describe

  • Player of ELEONORE: “I charge the goblin for an attack.”
  • GM: “Cool, wait for your attack until next round.”
  • Player of ULF: “I shoot an arrow at the goblin.”
  • GM: “Great. And you?”
  • Player of DIO: “I cast a lighting bolt onto the goblin.”
  • GM: “Awesome. ULF roll me DEX and DIO, roll INT.”

2. Roll:

  • ULF succeeds with a 17 and rolls 4 effort.
  • DIO succeeds with a 14 and rolls 5 effort.
  • GM: “Oh, ELEONORE, roll me CHA!”
  • ELEONORE succeeds with a 16.

3. Results:
“ELEONORE, as you approach the goblin with a resolute glance, he is hit by an arrow straight in his shoulder. A lightning bolt makes him shake and jitter. He drops is sword to the ground, falls down on his knees and is breathing heavily. He begs at you. ELEONORE, with fearful voice: ‘Noooo, no more hitting, pleaaaase. Brobbo not fight anymore’.
What do you do?”

I’m not claiming this to be “better” or whatever - just another idea on how to achieve a similar thing :slight_smile:



Hey Glocke! Thanks for the reply, that’s an interesting system.

The phases system could, admittedly, be reduced into:

  1. Surprise
  2. Declare/Prepare
  3. Action
  4. Move
  5. Action
  6. Move

And thereafter:

  1. Action
  2. Move
  3. Action

I listed some conceptual incentives for my using phases, but the heart of it really is, “I want more people acting at the same time. Combat is supposed to be the fastest part of the game, why does the game slow to a crawl?” It shouldn’t take me two hours to fight a dozen orcs, an ogre magi, and their necromancer leader. That’s madness imo.

I’ve tried the no-initiative approach a few times, but found that it broke down very quickly for me. I struggled to remember what everyone said they were doing when combined with a handful (or a dozen or more!) orcs, goblins, etc. :frowning: But, I do like your Moments idea (minus side-based resolution, don’t like that). Thank you for sharing. :slight_smile:

I must admit, the longer I run games, the less interested I am in making combat a distinct style of play separate from other parts of the game. We don’t need dozens of rules for the other parts of our make believe game. Why do we need them for combat? Well, fairness is the answer we usually get. But we’re not competing against each other, the game is always fair. Well, equal distribution of table time is another answer (not hogging the spotlight). I’ve never really seen that to be an issue in combat, only in RP/investigation/shopping.

The real answer, I think, is cognitive load. I’m not a super computer - it’s hard for me to juggle a dozen PCs and a dozen bad guys in combat, and make it feel good. So my goal, as I figure out where I want to go with my systematization, is, “How do I make combat as fast and exciting as it should be, and not break my brain?” It’s a hard task.


I’ve been using a slightly different phase/turn system lately, but ultimately abandoned it for the simple “roll for each side group initiative”. However, there may be something useful in it for others:

Rounds are divided into:

followed by
followed by

During the player phase, players take turns to act in any order the group decides. (Move + Action or whatever your turn consists of).

When a player takes a turn during the player phase, the GM can choose to have an enemy react to that player’s action, provided they are in a position to do so and have unspent reactions. When an enemy reacts to a player action, they can do one of the following:

INTERVENE: When a player takes an action, an enemy may choose to move adjacent if possible and intervene with the player’s action if they are in a position to do so.

RETURN FIRE: If an enemy is targeted directly by an action, they may return fire by making a ranged attack.

FIGHT BACK: If an enemy is targeted directly by an action, they may fight back by moving adjacent if possible and make a melee attack.

Both the player’s action and the enemy’s action are resolved simultaneously, and the enemy’s reaction is spent for the round.

Depending on the enemy type, some enemies may be able to react more than once during the player phase:

MINIONS: These basic enemies can only react once during the player phase.
CHAMPIONS: These elite enemies can react twice during the player phase.
BOSSES: These powerful villains can react 3 times during the player phase.

After the players have all taken a turn and the player phase is over, any enemies who haven’t reacted get to take a normal turn during the enemy phase. The GM gets to decide what they do and the order in which they do it.

Champions and bosses with multiple reactions still only get to act once during the enemy phase, provided they haven’t reacted during the player phase and regardless of how many times they reacted.

For example, if a boss returns fire twice during the player phase, they have reacted and do not get a turn during the enemy phase, even though they still have an unspent reaction.

EDIT: Surprised enemies do not get to react, and if the PCs are surprised, the enemies get an enemy phase at the start of combat.

The idea behind this system, and it works pretty well, is to allow champions and bosses to feel dangerous as they can tackle multiple PCs (no more of that group ganging up on the dragon and killing it after the dragon only took one turn) without giving them outright multiple actions and make them look like the Flash.
And it allows minor mooks to get a chance to get a shot in before being slain by the heroic might of the PCs.

While the system works really fast and plays really well, my players ultimately suffered too much from Pathfinder boardgame syndrome, and just couldn’t understand why the enemies would get to act on their turn. So we abandoned it for group initiative.


You might be able to make that work by simply rephrasing it. It is no longer the player’s turn - it’s the second turn, during which an ally and enemy goes. In any case, I’m working on some "roll initiative alternatives for folks who don’t like phases. WIP…