Friday, September 16, 2011

Taking the Initiative

I will be somewhere in Yakima at the time this is being posted. Hopefully…if not, it means we got to our hotel Friday evening and there’s no internet access. That’s not very likely, but, hey, it’s Yakima (Washingtonians know what I mean).

As I write this, though, I am still in Seattle, taking a break from my regular work day and munching on beef jerky (just getting ready for Yakima, I guess…) and I realized something today:

I HATE individual intitiative.

Is “hate” too strong a word? Maybe…Lord knows I’m given to hyperbole at times, but I was mulling things over today and had a frigging epiphany regarding this, and if “hate” is NOT the right word…well, it’s pretty close. For me, individual initiative is a bunch of garbage.

I’ll walk you through my train of thought.

For the last couple years, I’ve been playing B/X and loving it for the most part. One think about it that I like a LOT is the fantastic, speedy, abstract combat system. No, it doesn’t have the bells and whistles of some RPGs, but it WORKS and it’s quick even when working with large numbers of players.

And shouldn’t combat be quick? I think so. It’s an exciting part of the game and demands a quick pacing to keep folks engaged and the game itself moving.

For most RPGs, though, combat is where “imaginary gameplay” often grinds to an f’ing halt. Even when all the players on the ball, for MOST RPGs as soon as the game enters “combat phase” everyone is buckling down for a long, tactical exercise, often lasting close to an hour (or longer) for even a small encounter.

Many games skew their systems towards a “Ninja Turtle” style of encounter because of this. The classic set-piece combat of the TMNT comics features four ninja turtles facing a single, powerful adversary (Shredder, for example). Each turtle gets to show off a few moves, working as a team to take down a single, tough “boss” who is too strong for any single character.

But in non-comic book mediums (like film and novels), this is the most boring thing to watch or read about. In film, it’s cool to see bunches of guys flying around against bunches of adversaries. Even reading allows you to "see" this in your mind’s eye. But facing handfuls of NPC opponents in an RPG gets tougher to run/manage the more specialized their abilities and the more chunkiness to the rules. Trying to run a game where each character (or antagonist “type”) receives their own “initiative rank” just grinds the speed down to a crawl.

Last night we played DCC again (no, there was no clamor to try my dinosaur game…more on that in a future post) and we ended up in three monster encounters. And things were sloooow, or felt slow to me…I often felt like I was constantly waiting for my turn to come up, even when I did not have the lowest number in the initiative order. You see, despite being produced by an “old school” company, DCC has some decidedly “new school” sensibilities, including with regard to combat, and one of its D20 hold-overs is the initiative system: each individual rolls D20 then adds (or subtracts) modifiers to determine the order of battle.

I can see why this is appealing, especially to designers:

  1. The opportunity to provide distinction between characters (class bonuses to initiative, or feat bonuses or similar, rewarding player choice with a “better initiative” value).
  2. Ways of modeling extra attacks (like when you see…in a movie, say…some character strike two or three times before anyone can touch him).
  3. Placing “power” in the hands of ALL players (no one can complain that one person rolled low; you are responsible/accountable for your own die roll, and sometimes allowed a “yippee!” moment because of it).
  4. A method of “heightening drama” as characters have to wait for their turn to come around.
  5. Potential for additional gamist tactical play (should you “hold your action” or “reset/refocus” at a higher initiative order level, etc.?).

In all three of the game designs I’ve been working recently (well, except the dinosaur one), I include individual initiative myself for one or more of these reasons. In my fantasy heartbreaker, it gives me the ability to model the effects of class, level, and equipment. In my space game it makes Jedis and Han Solo types “faster.” In my Shadowrun knock-off, it gives me a way to use wired reflexes and magically boosted reaction times. All things I thought were features that added to game play.

See? I’m just as dumb as everyone else.

In practice…i.e. in ACTUAL PLAY…it doesn’t add that much to the game compared to what it costs. My FHB would be somewhat similar to DCC (with less bonuses/adjustments over-all) and I can tell you from experience that it is a total pain in the ass. When playing the Shadowrun game, the wonky individual initiative led to quite a few complaints (especially from the players whose characters were less “wired up” than others).

And it SLOWS things down. You call someone’s number, they hem and haw and dither a bit about what to do...NOT because they’re a simpleton or ignorant of the rules, but because THEY HAVE TO ACCOUNT FOR EVERY INDIVIDUAL ACTION THAT HAS OCCURRED. For example:

Player A goes
Player B goes (reacting to the result of player A)
Player C goes (reacting to the result of players A and B)
Monsters go (reacting to players A-C and anticipating players D-F)
Player D goes (see above)

Even in B/X…a very SIMPLIFIED game…an individual character has several options in combat: moving, attacking (melee? missile?), retreating, withdrawing, sometimes casting a spell…and of course, attacking or spell casting requires a choice of target as well. That’s a lot of decision making one needs to do each round, just for B/X.

However in B/X all characters act at the same point in time; that cuts down on a lot of dithering. The DM asks everyone what they’re doing. Folks give answers. Actions are resolved. Done.

The only time PCs aren't acting at the same time is when characters with two-handed weapons are forced to strike last...but even so you never have more than three ranks of "go:" Party-Monster-2Handers or Monster-Party-2Handers.

[okay, sure, you have FOUR ranks if a mixed monster group includes zombies. Zombies ALWAYS strike last, after everyone]

Today, I spent a bit of time reflecting on last night's DCC game...what worked for me and what didn't. Not because I want to tinker with the game rules (I'm not running the game) or because I have an on-going interest in critiquing the system (Goodman's not paying me for that), but because I'm interested in game design for my own purposes and I readily steal from anything and everything, mixing and matching and trying to add my own stuff, too.

And the game (i.e. DCC) just isn't all that good. I mean...I've already written about some of the things it does VERY right in my book. But then it still drags at times. Even when we have a smaller, more manageable group at the table (last night was 1 GM and 5 players, as opposed to the usual nine). It's not the GM's fault: Luke is brisk about calling for initiative rolls and counting down the order. It's the system itself, individual initiative, that slows the shit down. It's what made my Shadowrun combats suck unless I separated characters from the rest of the party so that 1 player faced 1 monster group. I can see this now in hindsight...and it makes me want to shred and retool from scratch all three combat systems I've been writing.

I can see now why Moldvay made the whole "individual initiative" thing OPTIONAL in the Basic game; he was one sharp dude, ol' Tommy.

[edit: yes, we made it to Yakima just fine]


  1. Possible suggestion for your Shadowrun-B/X hack: Divide attacks into two phases. First, have one phase for those with wired reflexes, then another phase for those without. In each phase, one side goes first then the other, just as normal for party initiative.

  2. Couldn't agree more. I decided a while back to just have Tue players act in whatever order they want, followed by the enemies (unless they were caught off guard or ambushed, losing the first turn). It's amazing how little is lost by dropping initiative order. In my experience the game runs smoothly without it and you get the added benefits of keeping others more engaged off their turn and removing bookkeeping and downtime that comes with tracking initiative.

  3. Why not get rid of Initiative and base Surprise on movement rates - cautious people don't get surprised, those moving at speed may literally run into trouble.

    Hell, you could riff on T&T for a melee skirmish - add up the Levels or HD of each side (bonus for high Dex, Magic weapons/armour), highest wins, the difference in amounts is the dice worth of damage, the losers decide how it is meted out.

  4. I used group initiative in my last BX game and it definitely didn't slow anything down. Then I wouldn't have them roll again unless somebody was going to use a spell in a given round. I tried to remember to say, "Is anybody starting a spell?" The only reason I care about initiative is because I think there should be a chance that a spell is interrupted if the caster is hit.

  5. I'm playing in a Pathfinder game, and running a basic D&D game, and I have to say the old school group initiative is so much better, faster and more useful. None of this delaying stuff; a combat in PF that lasts 10 rounds can easily last an hour real-time; in the other game, a 10 roudn fight took a few minutes. Group initiative works better for me.

  6. I regularly run Pathfinder and find individual initiative doesn't significantly slow me down. I find the greatest delays come from using miniatures. By describing what's going on in solid detail, I find I can knock out fights in half the time without sacrificing the players' ability to use solid tactics. I visualize the battlefield in my head, notifying the players when their PCs can take an attack-of-opportunity (AoO) and warning them when a planned action will trigger an enemy's AoO.

  7. RE: Wired Reflexes - Perhaps one solution is to assume that the wired character isn't reacting significantly faster, but once he gets moving, he goes faster.

    Given the abstracted combat round of B/X, that means he gets more hits in (or attempts anyway) in the chaos of the round. That could translate to an attack bonus (+1 per level of enhancement?). By the same token, he's moving defensively & dodging more quickly too, so maybe a similar bonus to his AC.

    No need to deal with the hassles and added complexity of individual initiative, but the cybered up characters still get a real benefit.

  8. @ Faol: Not a terrible idea - similar to the "two-handers go last phase," have a "wireds go first." I'll consider it!

    @ Koren: Attack bonuses is what I was thinking about, too...the character's PERCEPTION, slows down (like many people experience in life-and-death situations), but muscle reaction time ALSO increases (unlike real people) allowing the character to say "aim better" or dodge better or whatever.

    @ James: I used to run B/X like this and there were some bitter complaints from my players who couldn't visualize how they kept getting over-run. Using miniatures have settled those arguments (now they can see their characters get overrun!).

    Do you normally run Pathfinder for 6 to 8 players? If you only have 2 or 3 then individual initiative may be more manageable (though I'd suspect still slower).

    @ Supes & Rich: Don't know if you guys had a chance to peruse my "Out-of-Time" download, but you'll notice I dropped initiative COMPLETELY from the game. I did this before my "initiative epiphany" but I'm starting to think THAT is the way to go...if I can find some way to swing it.

    It's definitely an issue I'm taking stock of this weekend. I've had a bit of a paradigm shift regarding RPG combat in the last 24 hours.
    : )

  9. DId you see the first Sherlock Holmes movie with Robert Downey, Jr? The way they broke down the boxing scene - in slo-mo with him analyzing each possible action was kind pretty interesting. Maybe that's how it works.

    I'm curious to see what you come up with.

  10. @James: that's my preferred way of playing, too, but the caveat is the players have to TRUST you. Otherwise, well, see JB's comment. Although I would have to disagree with JB on one point: since the minis came out, the party survival rate has shot up. Before, monsters tended to sort of teleport around and it was always just assumed we were proceeding in the stupidest, most suicidal method possible.

  11. @ Koren: Yeah, something like that.

    @ IJ: Now, now...besides the miniatures, the main thing that has changed is the adventures have all been home-brewed. We haven't yet used minis in the Caves of Chaos (where most of the slaughters took place). I don't think you would have fared much better...which is to say, I wasn't PRESUMING you were proceeding in the stupidest method possible.

    The zombie apocalypse that killed seven of six (with some players dying multiple times) occurred WITH just weren't there that evening to see it.
    : )

  12. Aside from a couple of odd, Leeroy-esque moments from Randy and Steve-o, the main mistake I remember anyone making in CoC was stepping foot inside. On the other hand, I do recall being sort of "fast forwarded" into the center of a rat infested room no one had said they entered, so that's the sort of thing the minis solved. That's not meant to be a "you suck!" statement, but with the number of players, the amount of booze, and the noise level, it tended to happen a lot. And now not so much, aside from whatever went down with the zombies.

  13. Group vs individual initiative is actually a wash as far as game speed. Group init might be a little faster mechanically but it's insignificant when you have that one wizard player take 5 minutes every combat round figuring out how his spells work.

    I've seen simple games drag on forever because players were there to drink and fuck around, and I've seen extremely complicated games go really fast because all the players were motivated, sober, and knew their shit. I always come back to the same realization: games aren't slow, people are slow.

    The only way to make the game go faster for a given player is to limit their options. Give them less to think about when it's their turn. This is what makes BX faster than Pathfinder or 4E. It's also what makes BX more boring for players willing and able to bite into more game mechanics.

    I learned to HATE group initiative from our BX game because I got skipped all of the time. Reminding the DM he passed me by happened pretty much every game session.

  14. @ Fumers: I don't recall you being skipped "all of the time," but I know it happened at least a couple times and I apologize.

    On the other hand, I disagree with you on the relative speeds of individual versus group initiative; I believe the latter is much faster. Even for folks struggling to understand how the magic system works, it is MUCH faster than other systems which face the same problem (especially a magic system like DCC!). There are slow players, but that's nothing next to a slow system. And in all honesty I really don't see any "value added" to a game for the addition of more game mechanics. A person who doesn't like the "I roll to hit...again" of early edition D&D (OD&D, B/X, AD&D) are free to try other actions and the DM can make up spot rulings for those maneuvers. They're also free to add whatever descriptive narrative they want with their actions, possibly earning a spot bonus to their attack rolls, but at least being engaged in the imaginative interaction at hand. DEFINING possible actions is often limiting (for example, the "mighty deeds" of DCC...sure, you can attempt a bullrush, but unless you're above 1st level, the most you can hope to do is stagger your opponent a foot or two. Thanks for nothing, DCC).

    @ IG (don't know why I wrote IJ earlier): Your memory of the rat encounter is different from mine, but that was many moons ago. My recollection may be faulty.

  15. Yes, but my recollection is the CORRECT one!!1!1!!

  16. You've sold me on group initiative. I had forgotten how much faster it made things. Thank you! :)

  17. @ Fabian: You're welcome!

    (sold myself on the issue, too)

    : )

  18. I use individual initiative in my Labyrinth Lord game.

    At the start of every round, players declare their actions. This must be done.

    Everyone rolls their own initiatives, adding or subtracting any modifiers. I give spell casters some modifiers and some choices of actions have penalties (in addition to the dex bonuses).

    Each player has a set of regular playing cards 1-10. They put their card out in front of them to show their modified initiative roll. This process takes perhaps 5 seconds longer than group initiative.

    The DM rolls initiative, sometimes for the group of monsters, sometimes with some individuals depending on the fight.

    Whoever has the highest card does their declared action. The card is taken off the table. The next highest card goes. And so on.

    If a player changes their action (such as attacking goblin #2 instead of goblin #1) they might get a small penalty to their attack roll.

    The round ends and we do it again. It goes pretty fast. Once we got in the habit of declaring actions, it went pretty good. I would not want to do it this way with more than 6 players. I'd probably go group for that. But my game has 3-6 players most nights, so we do individual.


    Btw, I typically agree with that Fumers fellow. This is another time. Slow players make slow games. Fast players make fast games. The guy spending 5 minutes on his turn learning how his spells work and the rest of the game complaining, "Why isn't it my turn yet," somehow play in none of my games.

  19. One point in favor of individual initiative: Everybody rolls! As a player, I like to roll dice. Why is it so fun? I couldn't say. But I'm glad of every opportunity I get to cast that funny little polyhedron across the table and find out that maybe something great just happened. (Even if it was only that I get to attack first.)