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:
- The opportunity to provide distinction between characters (class bonuses to initiative, or feat bonuses or similar, rewarding player choice with a “better initiative” value).
- 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).
- 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).
- A method of “heightening drama” as characters have to wait for their turn to come around.
- 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]