Red-Black Initiative


This document discusses a new1 form of managing initiative order for Tabletop Role Playing Games without math. It is, like so many game things, a combination of a number of existing ideas.

Red-Black Initiative (RBI)

Red-Black initiative does away with the annoying numerical accounting that most games start every conflict with. It allows players to work together to pull off exciting team-up moves. The adversaries’ actions are less predictable to players. It’s pretty fast.

Quick Rules summary

  • Token colors represent sides of the conflict. E.g. “We’re black. They’re red.”
  • One token for each character on the PC’s side of the engagement, and one token for each adversary, or adversary group.
  • Shake the tokens up. Dump them out. Work from left to right grabbing tokens and moving them into a row. Alternately, put them in a bag, and lay them out in the order you draw them.
  • Players decide which character goes when it’s their color. GM decides who goes when it’s their color. When two or more tokens of the same color appear side by side you can declare if they’re acting simultaneously or one after the other. 

  • Characters entering the conflict after it starts are inserted wherever you are in the initiative when they arrive.

What You’ll need.

In order determine initiative you’ll need tokens with a color for each side of the conflict. I recommend using glass beads, dice, or tokens from a board game. Because most conflicts involve only two sides playing cards work well too. The only problem is that it’s harder to shuffle a short stack of playing cards.

The Setup

For the sake of discussion let’s say that the Player Characters (PCs) are “black” and their Adversaries are “red”, and that we’re using glass beads. You’ll need one black bead for each character on the PC’s side of the engagement. For the adversaries you’ll need one red bead for each adversary, or group of adversaries. The latter is for games that have mechanics for attacking a group of adversaries as if there were a single target.

Put them all together. Shake them up or shuffle them. Spread them out in a line.

Who goes next?

Work through the cards from first to last. If it’s a black card, players decide which character goes. If it’s a red card, the GM decides. When two cards of the same color are next to each other you can decide if they’re going sequentially or simultaneously. Do whatever sounds coolest.

Introducing New Characters to the Fight

Often a GM will have reinforcements coming to a fight who arrive later. If there’s one, just insert a card of the appropriate color at whatever point in the fight they join. You can just stick them at the end, but sometimes it’s just cooler storytelling for them to appear in the middle of a round. If there are multiple characters you can insert all their cards in one block, or you can have the fight one by one. Do whatever makes the most sense, or is going to tell the coolest story.

Characters With Multiple Attacks or “Lair Actions”

Standard characters: Most games just have a character use all their attacks in the same turn. In this case nothing changes.

Characters that can attack during other characters turns: I’d recommend just letting the player manage keeping track of this like they would in any other initiative.

Lair Actions: Personally I like the idea of using a token for each one. As some actions stop being available, remove a token from the appropriate color. Alternately, just have the DM manage it the same way they already do in D&D, or anything else with similar mechanics.

Keeping track of where you are in the initiative

I like starting with a straight row of cards or tokens, then shifting them up a couple centimeters to indicate that that slot has been used.

Once per fight, or once per round?

With physical tokens like glass beads this is very fast. Scoop them up. Shake them up. Dump them on the table. Straighten them out into a line. Since there’s no math or accounting you can easily introduce some unpredictability into the game without a bunch of slow and annoying accounting.

Ultimately this is up to the table. Do what sounds most fun. If you like the unpredictability of not knowing what’s who’ll go when in the next round, then reset initiative every round. If your table prefers having less things to think about, then just set it up at the beginning.

Using beads, dice, or colored game tokens from a tabletop game.

I find this method to be the fastest and easiest because they’re easier to pick up than cards, and I can shake, and dump a handful of beads or tokens faster than I can shuffle a very short deck of cards. I just dump them on the table, and make a line out of them moving from left to right. You could also throw them into a bag and pull them one by one, but that’d be slower.



  • Fast.
  • No math.
  • Allows players who want to think more tactically to set up cool team-up moves, or sequences of actions that build on each other.
  • Visually shows how many of your allies or adversaries will be going, and when.


  • If your players are very passive you may have problems getting them to say “ok, I’ll go”. On the other hand, this may be a useful tool for encouraging them to speak up, and take action.
  • Doesn’t work with games that have initiative manipulation mechanics. For example, you couldn’t use this with Savage Worlds unless you prevented players from taking any of the abilities that allowed them to modify when they, or others go in the round.

Example usage

an annotated triptic showing two colors of glass beads spread across the worksheet, the beads ordered into a line, and then the first two beads having been slid up into a different row than the original line of beads.

Example using red and blue glass beads.


For those who like something to help organize the chaos of a pile of colored tokens, I made a simple worksheet that looks like this.

a screenshot of my red-black iniative worksheet.

Red-Black Initiative worksheet screenshot

Download the PDF or OmniGraffle file.


The biggest inspiration to Red-Black Initiative is Fantasy Flight Games’ Genesys System, and Star Wars games use a similar concept. In Genesys each player rolls, and “Initiative Slots” are assigned based on how well you rolled, but the slots for the PCs are usable by any of the PCs, not the one who rolled the number that generated the slot.

Why “Red-Black” Initiative

…especially if the color doesn’t matter? Because it sounds good, because playing cards are red and black, and because I’m a programmer and “Red-Black Trees” are a thing for us.


The text above is distributed under the Creative Commons Zero license. This basically means you can do whatever you want with it and you don’t have to give me credit. I only bother because there’s a chance you may end up working with a company whose lawyers are concerned about you being allowed to use text / ideas someone else came up with.

  1. There has been a ton of creative thinking in around TTRPG mechanics for the past 40+ years. It is not only possible, but probable, that someone else came up with this idea long ago, and I’m just unaware of it. If you know of an older source I can point to, please let me know, and I’ll update this accordingly, and add in any relevant info from their version. ↩︎