Here’s an alternate D&D initiative system.
1: It involves declaring your actions before you do them. And then during the round you can’t change your mind.
2: Action goes in phases: Ranged, Movement, Hand-to-Hand, Items, Spells.
3: Within a phase the order is determined by features of what you’re using.
First, you roll initiative. Whoever loses must declare first, and the winner declares last, giving him the chance to see what’s coming and decide his plan for the round. Roll d6 for each side (usually PCs and Monsters but you could have multiple forces).
The declaration is “I’m moving to X” and also “I’m doing Y”. You can declare some or no movement AND you can declare one or no action phase.
Phase 1 is Ranged combat. This includes fired missiles like sling stones and arrows, and also thrown weapons, but not activated spells or magic items. All ranged combat occurs simultaneously and before any other phases. This means when two parties meet, they can always exchange missile fire before closing to melee (unless surprise was involved). If you declared a shot and for some reason no enemy is available, you still shoot (probably at the place where the enemy used to be before it vanished). This won’t come up often because there’s no time between declaration and Phase 1.
Phase 2 is Movement. All movement happens in order of the slowest to fastest. So a Move 6 character gets to do his entire movement before a Move 9 character can go. This order works unless there’s some effect related to proximity, such as an aura of fire, for which you should move piece-by-piece; for example, the Move 9 will move 3 spaces for every 2 spaces the Move 6 gets. Because melee occurs after all movement is finished, this should come up rarely. For longer-term movement where terrain knowledge, vision, size, and dexterity are factors, use a set of Pursuit rules such as in OD&D.
Phase 3 is Hand-to-Hand. Within this phase, melee weapons can strike if (A) there is an enemy you can reach after Move is finished, AND (B) you had declared HTH previously. If you did not declare HTH, you can’t attack. Similarly, if you held a bow and declared Ranged, you can’t also attack HTH if someone moves up to you. You can strike HTH at any of the targets available – but if you declared a HTH and there’s an enemy to attack, you must do it. Of course you don’t have to strike friends if they’re the only ones available. If there is no enemy and you don’t get to strike HTH you’ve still used up your declared action and cannot act later.
The order of attacks in Phase 3 is determined by weapon length if movement occurred, or by weapon speed (reverse order weapon length) if no movement occurred. If a spearman fighting an axeman wants to keep winning HTH order, the spearman needs to keep advancing or retreating. If he gets stuck in a corner or his allies behind him don’t want to retreat, he’s stuck standing still and fighting the axeman which means the axeman goes before him in HTH order.
All melee weapons are ranked as Short (Dagger, Hand Axe), Medium (Sword, Mace), Long (Spear, Staff). If two Short weapons fight, the result is simultaneous (and may result in a double-kill as with Ranged attacks). If you throw a melee weapon it goes during the Ranged phase instead and weapon length / speed doesn’t matter.
Phase 4 is Items. This includes opening a door, using a key on a door to lock or unlock it, pulling a lever. It also includes activated magic items like rings and wands. The order of resolution here is that smaller items go before larger items – so a magic ring is very fast while slamming a door shut is probably one of the last items to get used.
Phase 5 is Spells. Spells go off in order of lowest-level first, meaning when you cast you need to decide whether to cast a fast weak spell or a strong slow one. Another caster might attack you with his spell before you fire yours. If you’re hit for damage or severely jostled you lose the spell and it doesn’t go off. Since all spells go off last, and you are actually casting throughout the round, you are in danger of being attacked throughout the round by missiles and then by melee and magic items.
Held actions (for example, a melee attack or slamming a door if you see someone coming) can interrupt another phase. But you can’t hold up more than one action and you can’t take other actions in the interim. You could, for example, declare a held missile action. The next time an enemy comes within view you fire automatically – on its movement phase and before it can finish that movement. You could declare a held Spell and on the next round when an enemy Teleports in you would complete the casting and fry him.
Even though you can’t make actions while holding an action, you can still move normally.
Magic can improve your initiative in various ways. It can make you more aware, giving a bonus to the initiative roll and letting you declare second more frequently. It can affect which phase your action occurs in – for example, you might be able to make a second missile shot in the Spell phase. Or it can affect the resolution order within the phase – for example, a Sword of Speed that has length Medium but speed Short.
Yes this is finicky, but it’s also more chewy and offers more opportunities for magic to affect things. Because it’s also less based on die roll, it allows for better planning. It also lets us take advantage of weapon speed and length in a way that isn’t irritating and cumbersome, and more weapon features make the decision of which weapon to use a more interesting one. It makes Movement matter within a combat even if the distances moved are relatively short. Finally it makes the Initiative roll completely good instead of a mixed bag: if you roll d10 and act in order, the people who lost initiative have to wait, but they also have more information to use when their turn comes around.