My take on the Popcorn Initiative system

We've all been there. Combat has started, the dice are rolling, and everything has an enthusiastic sense of pace and excitement. Then, after the orc raider was dealt a deadly blow from the previous turn, you ask the next player in the initiative order how they respond and hear "ummmm give me a minute, I don't know what to do." The player spends the next five minutes considering their options, maybe checking out a spell or abilities list, and all your arduous work to keep an engaging pace to the encounter is as dead as that orc.  

Good pacing is a crucial element of a fun and engaging combat encounter. You must keep the action flowing from one turn to another to maintain the illusion of a heart pounding no holds barred fight to the death. A pause in that flow of actions and reactions can break the spell and revert the experience back from an exciting fight with a group of ferocious orcs to a boring slog of tediously waiting for your next turn. 

Often I have found the challenging work to maintain the pace of my combat encounters is undone by the ranked initiative system that many TTRPG rulesets use. No matter how many 'heads up' you may give, the reality is there will always be a player not ready when it comes around to their turn, bringing everything to a grinding halt as they consider their options or look up a spell list. 

The solution I use to maintain a consistent and flowing pace in combat is my take on the Popcorn Initiative system. The core idea of the system is to allow whichever player is ready to take their turn next as opposed to a set ranked order. 

Here is how it works.

When combat begins determine which side will go first, the players or their enemies. This can be done in a variety of ways; such as simply letting the players always go first, having the fastest player roll off against the fastest enemy, or having everyone roll and then doing a group average. 

You can try any of the approaches I mentioned above, but I would recommend that if one or more of your players has a focus on speed or quickness to allow that to factor into the process. 

If the players' side wins the initiative order, simply ask which one of them wants to take their turn first. This allows for either the most prepared player to jump in and get things moving, or for what makes the most sense from how the combat began. Instead of rolling poorly and going last in the round, the player who opened the door to the giant spiders' lair can get into a defensive stance to prepare for the onslaught. 

When the player has finished with their turn, shift to the opponent's side and choose one monster to take their turn. Rinse and repeat this alternating process until everyone has gone, then start a new round. If one side had a numbers advantage, they will get to take multiple turns in a row once the entire other team has gone. You can reroll at the top of the new round to see which side goes first, or just continue with the order that has already been set. 

Simply reverse this process if the opponents won the initiative, one monster of your choice goes first, then ask which player is ready to go. 

Here are the highlights of this system:  
  • Allows for the special abilities and quickness of the characters to still matter, as it can contribute to which side goes first. 
  • Since a player decides when they want to go, they need to stay engaged with what is happening and not be checked out until their turn rolls around. 
  • Allows players to plan and team up on their abilities. The warrior can go first and create the defensive front line so the wizard can safely cast a spell over them later in the round.
  • Most importantly, it keeps things moving, and removes the brick wall of player indecision from ruining the flow of action. 
One tweak you can make is that as opposed to alternating turns, simply have everyone on one side go, then everyone on the other. This is best for bigger groups where it may be hard to remember which player or monster has gone already. The downsides to this approach are a potential 'steamroll' where either the players or monsters get the first mover advantage, and the player downtime when you must run all the monsters at the same time. 

This will not solve every problem with pacing. There are still players who will simply never learn what's on their character sheet or the rules of the game. There will also be newer players who may just be hesitant or unsure what to do and will require guidance to feel like they are making the right choice. But this will help for the two main types of players I see in my groups; those who are eager and ready once combat has started, and those who just need a minute to consider their options. 

Overall, I have found this approach to the initiative system to vastly improve the pacing of combat in my games. There are still some fiddly bits to consider, such as abilities that last until the end of the player's next turn and the like, but that is a small price to pay for the increased engagement of my players. Let me know your thoughts in the comments, and if you have any tips on how you maintain pacing in your games.