The way that a role-playing game determines the order of actions in combat is usually called “initiative”. Some games use a dice roll, while some use a character stat or some combination. Some games determine initiative “per side” while some do it per character or some mix. Some determine initiative anew each round of combat while some keep it the same throughout a combat.
What is my favorite system for initiative? None. At least, none of those. Ideally, for me, it goes something like this:
- The judge determines what the NPCs/monsters will do
- The players describe what the PCs do
- Actions are resolved in the order that makes the most sense based on what everyone is doing
So, a character with a readied ranged weapon is going to be able to get a shot off before his opponents close with him. If two opponents are coming towards each other, they’re going to meet in the middle—exactly where depending on their individual speeds—and the one with the longer weapon is going to get the first attack.
Generally. Extenuating circumstances might change any of those situations.
Some games do list such things as exceptions to the rule. I tend to think of it the other way. Those are the rules and the dice and/or stat method is the exception. There are still plenty of times when the situation doesn’t dictate initiative and dice/stats have a part to play. Though I might prefer an ad hoc contest rather than the generic rule most games have. And, I like a mechanism that allows for ties, because sometimes it happens. (“Jump ball!”)
Now, I’ve heard plenty of reasons why such a subjective system shouldn’t work, but—in practice—it seems to work just fine. Although...
Our Saturday group currently has nine players. We’re playing Wizards 3.5e D&D. While I may not be overly fond of 3e combat, it does handle combats of this size. I think it would be hard to run them my way. The number of PCs alone is pushing “7±2”. On the other hand, based on past experience, I’m wary of running a game with that many players anyway. Still, I might have to experiment.