One of the more interesting mechanics of Savage Worlds is the initiative system. Frequently dismissed by detractors as a "gimmick", the card-based approach actually offers a number of benefits that aren't immediately obvious - yet it works so well that some experienced Savage Worlds GMs will even try to port it to other roleplaying games. But what are those benefits?
1. No ties. Because each card is different, there are no longer ties (except on the rare occasion that both jokers are drawn in the same round). This speeds up game-play, because you no longer have to ask people to re-roll ties while you're working out the order of initiative.
2. No bookkeeping. You don't need to write down each character's initiative, because you can just place the action cards on the table beside the associated PC or NPC (this works particularly well if you place NPC stat cards on the table, as the action cards can be placed underneath them). You could in theory do this with dice, but I find dice slower and more difficult to read across the table, and they tend to get knocked over during play.
3. Initiative varies each round. Because card-based initiative is much faster to resolve and record than roll+modifier, you can recalculate initiative each round, which encourages tactical game-play - particularly in regard to holding and interrupting actions, but also because the sequence of actions changes every round.
4. Initiative can be kept secret. The GM has the option of keeping initiative secret and counting down through the cards. This is slower to resolve and not something I would do often, but it adds another dimension to combat, and can be used to add tension to certain special encounters (because nobody knows when anyone else is going to act). A variant used by some GMs is to deal the bad guys face-down and the players face-up.
5. Additional side-effects. Cards have suits as well as ranks, and the suits can be used to introduce additional side-effects, such as unexpected complications when you draw clubs (I also like to trigger poison effects when the victim draws hearts, for example). These can spice up encounters without additional rolls, and encourage creative narrative.
6. Jokes give a bonus. Jokers add a mechanism for gaining a temporary advantage that can help swing the tide of battle at unexpected moments, and this also helps balance the investment of initiative-based Edges, which would otherwise be too weak to justify their cost.
7. Ties in with special rules. Wild Card Edges and certain setting rules and abilities also tie in with jokers, providing additional benefits and tactical opportunities. The "Joker's Wild" setting rule in particular provides a good way of feeding the PCs extra bennies during combat, which is when the players usually need them the most.
8. Encourages player interaction. Asking players to shuffle the deck (in return for a benny) and take turns dealing the cards can help keep their attention on the game. It's also faster to calculate initiative when one person deals all the cards, but the same person doesn't need to deal the cards every round.
9. Special decks are fun! Thematic decks can help spice up the game, for example you might use a pirate-themed deck when playing 50 Fathoms, or a superhero-themed deck when playing Necessary Evil. This part admittedly is a gimmick, but it's a fun one!
10. Consistent with other mechanics. The cards aren't just used for initiative, they're also tied into other rules such as Dramatic Tasks, Chases and Interludes. Some people even use cards for adventure generators, random encounters, fumbles, and so on - personally I'm a big fan of Concept Cards, which have a dual-purpose in Savage Worlds.
But cards are purely random!
A common misconception is that the Savage Worlds initiative system is completely random. This argument overlooks two factors: the first is Edges, which are one of the main ways a Savage Worlds character is defined; the second is the nature of a deck of cards, where the deck is only reshuffled when a joker is drawn, allowing the use of card counting techniques to provide a tactical advantage.
Savage Worlds has two attributes which are associated with reaction speed. The first is Agility, which is described as "nimbleness, quickness, and dexterity". The second is Smarts, which covers "mental agility" among other things. An average human has d6 in their attributes, and someone with above average Agility or Smarts can purchase the Quick and Level Headed Edges respectively. However because these are Edges rather than innate benefits, you don't end up with the weird situation whereby an elderly professor (with high Smarts) or a dexterous surgeon (with high Agility) are able to react faster in combat than a veteran soldier.
As far as the probabilities are concerned, a character with the Quick Edge wins initiative around 64.6% of the time (against someone without any initiative bonuses), while a character with Level Headed (draw two cards and keep the highest) wins around 66.5% of the time, and a character with both Edges wins around 72.7% of the time. A character with Improved Level Headed and the Quickness power wins initiative around 80.5% of the time. Conversely, a character with the Slow Hindrance only wins around 35.9% of the time.
But I want initiative to be based on Agility!
Although I personally prefer to handle initiative through Edges (because of the professor and surgeon example mentioned previously), and would strongly urge new GMs to try running the rules as written before adding house rules, for those who prefer to base initiative directly on an attribute it's relatively easy to do so without giving up the use (and benefits) of cards. Just add a simple house rule like:
"If you draw an initiative card with a rank lower than half your Agility, draw a second card and keep the highest."
Then your chance of winning initiative against an opponent with Agility d4 would be 53.4% with Agility d6, 56.3% with d8, 58.7% with d10 and 60.7% with d12.
The Quick Edge could then be changed to work as follows:
"If you draw a card with a rank equal or lower than your Agility, draw a second card and keep the highest (treat ace, face cards and jokers as '12' for the purposes of this Edge)."
So if you had Agility d8 you'd draw a second card if your first was 8 or lower, with Agility d10 you'd draw if the first was 10 or lower, and Agility d12 would always draw 2 cards (i.e., with Agility d12 , Quick would work the same as Level Headed).