Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Changing Initiative yet again

I'll start off by stating WHY I keep retooling initiative rather than just either ignoring it or abstracting it right out.

I am a big fan of the mechanical options turn order brings, as a board game fan this strikes a deep chord with me. Many great board games use variable turn order to great effect. In terms of simulation, being able to react quickly should be very beneficial.

Currently I have players declare an action then figure out initiative by rolling a die and add modifiers based on a few factors each round. The factors are part player build part action choice so there is a lot of choice.

The mechanics of how initiative is rolled isn't what I'll be changing at this point, but rather the "Declare then roll". I always liked declare and roll better than "roll and declare", because "roll and declare" gave an advantage to the slow and plodding, going first or going last wasn't as big of a deal and often going last gave you the best situational awareness. "declare and roll" made it a risk based on speed.

The problem is "declare and roll" in practice slows down, is forgotten, or is ignored. This leads me to my solution: "roll and interrupt".

All players will roll and mark down their initiative. The slowest person will declare an action, and anyone with higher initiative can then jump in and go first. This allows the highest initiative person the freedom of deciding what to do, based on the actions of others.

Example: John the Slow and Willy the Quick are in a fight. John scores an initiative of 1 this round, Willy scores an initiative of 6. Thus John now has to announce what he is doing and declares he is going to jump onto the chandelier. Willy can now interrupt and declare that he will slash the rope holding up the chandelier (if successful it will ruin John's turn). Then Mary Sue steps out of the shadows at initiative 7 and declares she will interrupt Willy by trying to tackle him, etc.

Problem: Variable initiative speeds

This is solved by making the modifier an "After the fact" decision. As the initiative keeps counting up, characters cannot choose to take an action of slower speed if they have already passed. If a wizard with initiative 3 this round has an option between "Slow ball of doom" (speed + 0) and "Quick flashy lights (speed + 5) then when initiative is counted to 3, the wizard has to announce he is using the "Slow ball of doom" or be forced to either use "Quick flashy lights" or pass this round.

Still, the variable weapon speed throws a wrench into an otherwise good system.



  1. Decades ago I just went with a die roll for both sides, then players going in Dex order... and never looked back. Quick, easy, fair (maybe not as fair as going around the table, but I just like the way Dex order goes for me).

  2. Supposing realism is a goal and weapons are melee weapons:

    1. Longer weapon goes first. More properly: The one with the longer weapon can either attack or wait for the other to do something and have time to react, so longer weapon means that one has initiative in any meaningful sense of the word.

    2. Supposing equally long weapons, the one with longer reach (longer arms or better stance) goes first. This might be worth abstracting into dice rolls with combat skill involved.

    3. If people are already engaged, both act at essentially the same time, or if you want to be really accurate, in sequential order: One does something, the other reacts provided he is good enough and in a position to do anything, the first reacts with the same conditions and so on.

    When two people engage, basically one of the following happens: One is dead (or both are dead if they are incompetent), one of them is thrown to the ground and the other (i) goes for the kill (ii) walks away (iii) neutralises the fallen with possibly nonlethal means, like kicking, or one is locked and the other may (i) break something or (ii) keep the position or sometimes (iii) kill with dagger, pommel or similar. Rarely do people cross blades so that after it neither is dead, broken, or at the mercy of the other.

    I don't know how mass combats work. This is for basically duels.

    So, a realistic initiative system: The one with longer weapon can attack or wait until the other takes initiative but still gets to attack first. So longer weapon attacks first. After that, if you want much abstraction, just roll dice to see who wins, or if you want fiddly bits, have the people do counter-counter-...-counter-maneuvres until one fails and is down.

    The engagement proper takes very little time. E.g. the following scenario, two people with longswords: One attacks with standard strike, the other blocks and tries to slash at arms of the first one, the first puts his sword on the way, advances and tries to grab the arms of the other, who anticipates that and locks the first one, either breaking something or forcing the first to the ground.

    This takes very little time and happens as one smooth movement and is very hard to do. Initiative-attack-defend-initiative-attack-defend does not really capture it, IMO.

  3. We play "declare & roll" from B/X in both party and individual modes but I'm willing to test this with the group later this week.

    My favourite would be "declare in reverse initiative order, execute in initiative order" but tabletop RPG stack-based timing resolution is too high-effort :)

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  5. In regards to range:

    While I do make range very important (a seperate set of rules) using range as initiative as was a no go for me, since (assuming you could get close enough, big if), a flick knife will go alot faster than a sledgehammer.

    Now if the flick knife is ATTACKING the guy with a sledgehammer, the range ruling works pretty well, after all the range issues you brought up are still valid.

    The problem comes with it being a team effort. Can the guy with the flick knife stab the wizard before the guy with the sledgehammer runs up and bashes in his skull.

    Can the guy with the saber slash the ropes holding up the chandelier before the guy with the flail mashes his skull (keeping in mind the guy with the saber is attempting to keep out of range of the flail wielder, so range offers the flail man no benefit.

  6. I've struggled with this in my designs and I've decided to abstract this out. The real snag comes with mixing missile fire in, I think.

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  8. We tried it last night with group initiative (as we were just two players with three hirelings each). It works like a charm.

    Thanks :)
    BTW: I'm working at a handbook with all our house rules we use at our table. I understand that for private use it's ok th use this, but what if I were to release in the interwebs? Would you mind? What about credits and so on?

  9. I generally make everything on this site use the following:

    But even then I am not a stickler, you can't copyright game mechanics nor would I want to. As long as you don't defame me by claiming Im a dirty thief who stole from you I'm pretty good.

  10. Hi Zzarchov. Since Google dislikes my OpenID, I'll have to use my Google account.

    Group situations are a slight problem. Here's how I do it: Suppose speed is not relevant or situation is obvious; then we are done. Everyone else rolls their skill (since they would anyway most of the time, given they are doing something interesting) or something speed-related if there is no relevant skill, and highest goes first and so on. Others may still try their actions, though some may be nullified.

    I think that counting down is fairly elegant solution. You'll probably want some sort of minimum - after counting zero, those who have not acted automatically pass, for example.

    I also think that once knife is faster than a sledgehammer you are already grappling, the hammer-wielder was out of balance (failed skill roll, maybe?) or the situation is a surprise attack of some kind. If you do have different rules that handle closing in and maintaining distance (so that closing in on armed targets is very difficult), then you are probably okay.

  11. @ZZarchov: We used the new initiative twice:
    Once with GM + two players with 4 PCs each, using group initiative and no personal modifiers.
    Once with GM + three players, four PC total, individual initiative for players, group for NPCs.

    It works brilliant: the DM starts counting up till it's somebody turn to act, declaring his action, with sometimes other people shouting "interrupt!" :D

    Sometimes the party thief rolled so high (5 or 6 on the d6, +1 dexterity, +1 halfling bonus, +1 thief bonus in our homebrew) and just interrupted ME before I started counting. :)

    Anyway, we're won.
    We'll be using this from now on, even if for group initiative it can be a bit harsh on the spellcasters of the losing side.

    re: licence. I was planning to credit additional sources as "additional game design contribution by ..." or something, if it's ok for you