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Popcorn Initiative: A Great Way to Adjust D&D and Pathfinder Initiative with a Stupid Name

September 13, 2013

All right, kiddos, I am breaking from my usual game of writing thousands and thousands of words tell you how to run a game in exhausting detail (deliberate word choice, don’t correct me). Instead, I’m going to throw a house rule at you. Use it. Don’t use it. I don’t care. I’ve been using it in my Pathfinder Game and I am happy enough with the results that I think it is ready for Primetime and it works in any dice-based initiative game, I think.

Special thanks to Marvel Heroic RPG and Warhammer Fantasy Role-Play 3rd Edition for the basic ingredients Popcorn Initiative. Special thanks to my weekly Pathfinder victims for testing the system (not that I gave them a choice) and naming it. Apparently, Sean and Kim dubbed it Popcorn Initiative after some kids’ playground game or something I am unaware of. They tried to explain, but I couldn’t get myself to give a s$&%.

Popcorn Initiative: How it Works

At the start of each combat, each PC, NPC, monster, or group of monsters rolls initiative. The highest roll goes first. That is nothing new. After the high roller has finished their turn, they decide who goes next (PC, NPC, monster, or group of monsters). That creature or group of creature takes their respective turns and then nominate who goes next. Thus, each and every PC, NPC, monster, or group of monsters gets a turn. Once everyone has gone, the last person who goes gets to decide who starts the next round. That last person can choose themselves.

I do it with index card. Every creature and thing that needs a turn gets written on an index card and laid out on the table. I put poker chips on each person after they take their turn to indicate they’ve gone.

Waiting and Readying

No creature can pass the initiative if it comes to them. Life doesn’t work that way. In a panicked combat, you act when your reflexes allow and try to win. Patience usually gets you killed. However, you can Wait and Ready.

Readying an action works the way it does in your game. You specify an action and a trigger condition. When the trigger condition comes up, you can choose to take your readied action or hold it until it is triggered again by something else. Your readied action remains available until initiative comes around to you again. If you haven’t taken your readied action by the time you are nominated again, you have lost that readied action. You can always ready it again if you want. That risk is the price of readying.

Waiting means you choose not to take your turn right away. You hold on for a second and wait for another opportunity to act. You pass the initiative to someone else and you are now waiting. Since you haven’t taken your action yet, you need to be nominated again in the iniaitive order and you have to wait until someone chooses you to go again. I turn the card sideways to indicate you are waiting.

If it is your turn and the only creatures left to act are all “waiting” you may not wait. You can choose to take no action, but you can’t wait. This prevents standoffs where multiple creatures are all waiting out the end of the round. It also prevents people from using the wait mechanic to game the end-of-round advantage of being able to nominate who starts the next round.


Durations on effects are tricky because of how the initiative system can be gamed to futz with them. In Pathfinder, this is how I’m handling it.

Add an “end of round” phase at the end of each round, after the last creature has gone but before the next round starts. All timed effects expire in this phase after having exhausted their full duration. Therefore, an effect that lasts X rounds will actually end up lasting X rounds plus a couple of extra seconds.

For example, Alice casts a spell that lasts 1 round on Bob. Alice is the last person to go that round. After that, the end of round phase occurs. The spell does not expire here because it has not yet lasted for one full round. So, it lasts through the entire next round and expires in the end of round phase at the end of the NEXT round.

An easy way to track it is to time effects with a d10. When Bob casts the spell that lasts 1 round, put a d10 out set on “1.” At the end of round, count down the effect. However, do not remove the die when it reaches 0. Instead, remove the die when it is already ON 0 and a round ends. So the die essentially becomes “X rounds left after the current round.” Durations last through the 0th round AND THEN END.

D&D 4E shouldn’t require any finagling to use Popcorn Initiative since most durations are keyed directly to creature actions, but I haven’t experimented and you might want to make some adjustments. I can see some ways in which the system might be gamed, but I don’t think it is serious enough given that both the PCs and the baddies are on an equal footing being able to game it.

Doesn’t This Encourage Metagaming?

Who gives a s#&$? Seriously. Shut up.

Why Use This System?

There are a few benefits to using this system. Most of them involve pacing, party engagement, and party tactics. The system allows the party to set up more complex actions and teamwork, often things they would never consider doing in standard initiative systems because they can follow up on assistance right away.

Beyond that, though, it kind of pushes the players to be more attentive. There is no initiative tracker to watch. They never know when their turn is coming up. Instead, they are watching for opportunities. They don’t spend as much time “planning their turn” as they do “waiting for a good opportunity to show up” and then basically asking to be “tapped in.” It engages the players in the action when it is not their turn.

It also gets the players talking. Often, in character, I’ve noticed. Every player generally has to talk to another player at the end of every turn. And usually that communication directly involves the situation. They don’t say “okay, Bob, you can go.” Usually it is something like, “Bob, can you handle that ogre?” Which is cool. Because they are working together. And if Bob has a better idea, Bob usually says so. “No! I’m the only one who can take out the flier.” <takes turn> “Mary, can you pin down that ogre?” Of course, like all in-combat communcation, you may need to curb it if the players try to fit in minutes of tactical discussion. Keep it to a sentence.

From a DMing perspective, it is far, far easier to keep track of than writing down intiative. You can keep combat moving smoothly from person to person and everyone has to remain on their toes.

The system also hands the players an advantage in most fights. A party of five PCs against a single monster can get 8 or 9 turns against a monster before it gets to go a second time. This requires them to game the system pretty heavily, but it is possible. In my experience, the players rarely seem to do this, but it can help them handle more difficult fights.

Why Not Use This System?

As I noted, this system favors the PCs. And the PCs are already favored by most combat systems. Whenever they have a numbers advantage (which, in Pathfinder and 3.5), they have a significant. Even when they don’t have a technical numbers advantage, because of the tendancy of GMs to group identical monsters on one initiative, the players will often have a numbers advantage even when they don’t.

There is also an argument about abstraction and metagaming. If those are issues for you, then this system is probably unacceptable. That’s fine.

However, I don’t think either of those cons are a deal breaker FOR ME. I am not overly concerned about making combats a little easier because the gains in combat speed (through engagement and player attentiveness) mean I can fit more game into my game sessions. That means the attrition the players didn’t suffer during the “easier” fight can be worked into another encounter.

And, after watching how the game functions with this system, I don’t honestly see it being that much less tense, even though the party is coming out of combats with a few more resources intact. The pressure of being ready to act at a moment’s notice and to watch for opportunities rather than plan actions seems to provide a good deal of tension on its own.

As for the abstraction and metagaming: I’m not going to argue with you if you worry about that. Its cool. Honestly, I worry about it too. That’s a big issue for me. But… I’m okay with this. And I’m okay with it because I have found that it actually FEELS more like a battle. As noted, the players spend less time focussed on planning their next move and more time watching for opportunities or creating opportunities for each other. In short, they are waiting for openings to act and then siezing the moment. When their moment is up (when their reflexes catch up to the window of opportunity), they have to act or else they don’t know when they will have another chance. So, even though it is just as arbitrary, abstract, and metagamey as any other initiative system, I find that it sets a good tone and creates the right mindset.

Tips for Making it Work

If you want to try this, let me give you some advice.

First of all, don’t adjust difficulty because it makes fights easier. Not right away. Play with it for a few weeks and let everyone get used to it, then tweak difficulty if you really need to. It took a lot for me to resist the urge to fiddle with the difficulty to “compensate.” Instead, I’ve just started building more into the adventuring day and it has worked well.

Second of all, game the system. Don’t play nice. The players have the advantage with this system, so be willing to screw them the moment they give you the opportunity to have a powerful foe take two turns in a row. Nominate the players in the worst position to act. Play to win. That sounds brutal, but it actually helps balance out the advantage the players have and adds to the tension and challenge without putting them in too much risk.

Third of all, encourage the players to pass their turns in character and keep a tight control over how much they can say. A sentence is all they get. It is still a combat round. But it is much cooler in character.

Fourth of all, when you pass the turn, narrate why a certain player suddenly has the opportunity to act instead of anyone else. Especially if you’re following the advice about nominating the worst choice (for the players). “While Jozan and Lidda are defending themselves by the grell’s flailing tentacles, Soveliss has an opening to act.”

Fifth of all, build encounters with more different types of monsters to give the baddies more turns in the initiative order. You can’t always find an excuse to do so, but when you can, it helps. Try splitting up your monster groups by building some variety into them. Instead of six identical goblins, rejigger the feats on three of them and give them bows so you have three goblin skirmishers and three goblin archers.

Sixth of all, push and prod your players to act. When someone’s turn comes up, don’t let them hem and haw and umm. If they don’t start talking to you immediately (stating an action or asking a question), remind them that they can wait if they want to risk it. Get your players used to the idea of having zero time to plan. They might grumble at first, but they will get better at it quickly. And eventually, they will tell you how exciting and fun your combats are.

Seventh, and finally, don’t wait. Don’t let the monsters wait, ever. Just go. I know I said “game the system,” but don’t even consider waiting as a tactic. Especially with a group of monsters. It just slows thing down. Waiting is a terrible option. It exists solely to keep a player who isn’t ready from pulling the drag chute on your game. You are not a player. You are the DM and you should always be able to do something useful.

Future Experiment 1: Breaking up Groups

I want to experiment with breaking up groups of identical monsters in order to add more challenge and get away from the dog pile mentality. But I want to do so in a way that doesn’t slow the game or require additional bookkeeping. Here’s what I’ve been toying with.

I do not want individual initiative slots for each specific rat or goblin or spider. I don’t want the players breaking it down to the degree of selecting “goblin number three.” Just maybe specify “the goblins can go.”

So, let’s say there are five goblins. Each one is entitled to an action. So, there is just one goblin card on the table. One slot for goblins. Each time “Goblins” are chosen to go next in the initiative order, one of the goblins can go. Any goblin. Doesn’t matter if they have already acted this turn. Not acted. Whatever. Any one goblin can go.

The goblins have to be nominated a total of five times because there are five goblins. But it could just be one goblin taking five actions. Or two goblins where on takes three actions and one takes two. It doesn’t matter as long as five total sets of actions are taken by goblins.

After a goblin has gone, the DM chooses who goes next, as usual, but he CAN specify the goblins go next. He can burn through the goblins actions one after the other or whatever.

This will encourage very smart groups (when numbers are about even) to try and force the monsters to go early in the round and often (throwing actions back to the goblins). If the goblins can end the round, they can take a massive number of actions in a row and cause a disaster.

This is what I plan to experiment with next.

Using the Cards and Chips system, here is what I would do. Place a card on the table for each PC, NPC, creature, and group of identical creatures, as normal. Place a chip on the cards for each action that creature or group is entitled to. Remove the chips as creatures take their actions.

Future Experiment 2: Dangerous Foes

If the “breaking up groups” thing works okay, the next step is to create dangerous monsters. Basically elites or solos that come from upgraded standard monsters.

In Pathfinder, increase the CR (and adjust XP) of a single monster by two in order to: 1) double its hit points and 2) give it an additional action. The additional action would work just like a second “action” chip available on its card. If you increase the CR (and adjust XP) by three, triple the HP and give it a third action. Increase by four, and give it four times the HP and a fourth action.

To do the same in D&D 4E, I would use standard monsters only. The level of the monster wouldn’t change. Instead, you simply double, triple, or quadruple the amount of XP and multiply its HP by the same factor. Then, allow it to take that number of turns. This would allow to easily turn standard monsters into functional elites or solos without having to stat up a bunch of rules AND help those monsters suffer less from various conditions imposed on it. As an added rule, I would consider allowing it to save at the end of each turn against ONE ongoing condition even if it is not normally allowed a save. This keeps certain conditions not keyed to the monster’s actions (such as abilities that last until the start of the caster’s next turn) from affecting it for two, three, four, or more times as much. In fact, I was experimenting with doing this in a normal, die-rolling initiative system to replace solos and elites with something that worked better. One last adjustment. If the creature has multiple actions, any encounter powers should be given “Recharge 6.” My more clever readers will notice that adjusting the HP, number of actions, and giving Encounter powers a Recharge 6 effectively makes one monster the equivalent of two, three, or four monsters for almost all system math purposes (provided you let it save vs. ongoing conditions so as not to be affected multiple times by the same effect).

This experiment is a way off. I want to fiddle with the breaking up of groups first.





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