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Perhaps related to this other question, what is the point in rolling for initiative in Pathfinder (so far the only RPG I've played)?

It would seem that certain characters would "automatically" initiate combat (e.g., a fighter), whereas others "should" sit in the background and [primarily] support, such as the cleric.

What is the main reason to roll for initiative in combat?

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Note that "Winning initiative" doesn't necessarily means "gets to hit first." It means "Gets to react first" - that might mean choosing to hang back, or to cast a spell, or to run away, or even to wait and see what the fighter does. –  GMJoe Mar 20 '13 at 1:54
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fwiw, I've all but eliminated initiative from my games. I just give it to the PC's, unless they are being ambushed and dont spot it. Saves a lot of time. –  GrandmasterB Mar 20 '13 at 21:25
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Also somewhat rebalances things in favour of the PC's, and makes Sneak Attack more useful for PC's and less useful for NPC's. Hope you adjust opposition to suit. –  YogoZuno Mar 20 '13 at 23:06
    
initiative is involved in all of the rpgs I've played. Multiple versions of D&D/Pathfinder, Shadowrun, Vampire (OWoD). I think Hero is the only one that has a constant initiative. –  Pulsehead Jul 30 '13 at 13:22
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@Pulsehead Alternity/Dark*Matter has a good way of handling initiative. Entities act in phases depending on their individual dice ranges on an initiative roll. Very non-traditional, and surprisingly easy to understand. –  acolyte Jul 30 '13 at 19:32

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Initiative comes from D&D's wargaming roots, where initiative was re-rolled every round. Its original purpose was to add unpredictability. For example, the AD&D 2nd edition Dungeon Master's Guide says:

Initiative is not set, but changes from round to round—combat being an uncertain thing, at best. A character never knows for certain if he will get to act before another.

Initiative is normally determined with a single roll for each side in a conflict. This tells whether all the members of the group get to act before or after those of the other side.

D&D 3e changed from group initiative to individual initiative by default. The most likely reason, in my opinion, is to prevent combat from becoming "swingy", where one side acts all at once and can severely weaken the enemy before they can react.

D&D 3e also changed initiative so it was rolled once at the start of combat, instead of every round. This is probably to cut down on dice rolling - individual initiative takes more rolls than group initiative, so it would slow down play to roll it every round.

This partly defeats the original purpose of initiative, which was to add unpredictability to each round. However, it still decides in a fair manner who moves first, gives an advantage to characters with higher Dexterity, and keeps combat from becoming either swingy or predictable.

In my experience, fighters in D&D 3.5 or Pathfinder actually do tend to move first. Their high number of bonus feats sees many fighters take Improved Initiative early on, which gives +4 to Initiative. Clerics tend to wear heavy armour and have low Dexterity, so on average they don't go first.

If the wrong person does go first, he can always delay his action until later in initiative order, or do something useful like cast a beneficial spell or draw a weapon.

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3e also changed it so that initiative was "cyclic" rather than per turn; that's an important distinction you might want to mention. –  starwed Mar 19 '13 at 22:34
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In AD&D 2e PHB, there's a number of options for rolling initiative (group, group but modified for individuals, or individually). –  Dakeyras Mar 21 '13 at 18:35
    
My current 3.5 DM sticks with rerolling initiative each round. We've found it really doesn't slow combat down all that much, and we generally find it significantly more interesting. --FYI –  Emrakul Jul 30 '13 at 22:45

Initiative (as I understand it) is a measure of who in the combat reacts the fastest. It could be explained in game play that a fighter was distracted allowing a wizard to have a faster reaction time. It is possible though for any character to hold their action until later in the round if they choose. There are some feats that can allow players a better initiative as well.

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Roll for initiative exists in most d20 based systems, it basically encapsulates the randomness of combat where people with fast reactions (usually high dex stat, but sometimes depending on the system others can with the right feats despite having low dex) have and advantage but that advantage is no guarantee. Rolling for initiative is also not about merely who goes first in the party, but when monster act as well.

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+1 for mentioning the monsters. Nothing quite so entertaining in a round-by-round initiative game than the collective wince of a party who've just been told the monsters go first this round... –  Zimul8r Mar 20 '13 at 11:55

It's important to note that, theoretically, everyone in combat is acting at once: a round takes roughly 6 seconds, total, no matter how many people are acting, not 6 seconds per person. They are acting in parallel, and the turn-based system is just an abstraction of this for the purposes of running the game.

Thus, intiative is who has the “edge” – acting just a bit ahead of everyone else so that your actions take effect first.

In gameplay terms, it’s also an important function of Dexterity, and it’s a good way of determining order (which, after all, does have to be determined). Trying to simply have an “agreed upon” order is going to fail when your enemies disagree (heh).

As for your assumption that fighters want to go first and mages want to wait, not always. A lot of arcanists, for example, focus heavily on area-affecting debuffs: it’s much easier (and more effective) to do this before anyone else has acted. Your enemies may not have had time to move away from one another, presenting you with a great target, and your allies won’t have engaged yet, which means you don’t risk friendly fire. Other figher-types are, at the same time, likely to want to receive buffs, have enemies debuffed, or for allies to move into flanking positions. There’s no hard-and-fast rules, other than that having highest initiative is always best because you can Delay or Ready if you need to (and because it means you are no longer Flat-footed and can make Attacks of Opportunity and Immediate Actions).

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It's not just D&D - the Initiative mechanic is present in some form or other in almost every RPG I've ever encountered. The majority of systems I've seen use some sort of random factor on top of a character-based factor. Most commonly, the character-based factors are physical agillity, but mental agillity also sometimes factors in.

Initiative in combat removes certainty about what order things will happen in - if you know you will always go first, getting involved in a gunfight is suddenly less dangerous, since you'll likely remove opponents first. Same applies to other systems.

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The main reason to roll initiative in PF is to try to go first. As always in d20 systems, the dice is there to pre-empt you from auto-winning.

Why should everybody want to go first, you ask?

Because everybody wants the chance to kill some enemies before they even act. While this is particularly true in D&D 3.5 aqnd PF might have done something to alter the action economy, going first might mean winning the encounter without a scratch and without spending lots of spells.

In my group the cleric had a good initiative modifier. He almost always went first, casting a blade barrier that wiped out 3/4 of the opposition and made approaching the party's casters hard for the enmy mooks (while the barbarian had a way to fly over the barrier).

Going first, even if you are the healer and need to wait for someone to get hurt, allows you to position and enables immediate actions.

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