Wednesday, April 4, 2012

The Downside of Initiative

One of the things I had to clean up when I went back to the design board on the new game was the initiative rules, which previous play-testing revealed to be fairly flawed. I’ve posted my “evolved feelings” on initiative previously and if anything, those feelings have just grown STRONGER over time.

After skill systems, “initiative rules” may be THE worst system to infest role-playing games.

Now before I start my rant proper, let’s talk about the idea of the “turn” in general gaming. In many, many games…not just RPGs…including almost any game involving cognitive strategy, the play of the game is divided into turns or “go’s” which alternate between players. This element of “taking turns” not only helps organize the flow of the game, it ALSO acts a theoretical equalizer between players of differing physical ability.

Here’re a couple simple examples: in the card game Slap Jack, there is no alternation of turns. The game “turn” is a round (nice term) of play in which all the players flip over a card. If a Jack turns up, the first player to SLAP it takes all the cards in the round. Cognitive strategy has little to do with it…card counting doesn’t matter much when everyone is focused on the play…instead the observant eye and quick hand is what carries the day. Physical attributes, in other words, which gives ME a distinct advantage over, say, a 6 year old child or a 90 year old invalid.

Compare that to the game of Chess: physical attributes count for nothing in the game. I may have no trouble arm wrestling Stephen Hawking, but if he cared to set his mind to it, I’m sure he could take me apart over the chess board. On the other hand, if we played a “speed game” and made no accommodation for his disability I might be able to run the clock out on him.

But most strategy games from Go to Checkers to Backgammon to Scrabble (yes, Scrabble) have no time limits to their alternating turns save that imposed or agreed upon by the players. Fortunately, these games are simple enough…and the possible actions LIMITED enough…that they can still be finished in a reasonable amount of time, regardless of the relative “slowness” of a player’s cognitive strategizing.

[can you see where I’m going with this discussion?]

War games…of the type from which D&D is descended…is akin to these board games. They require thinking and strategy, not physical ability. If I’m playing Warhammer 40K with a short kid, we get him a stool to reach the table and help him move his pieces when they get to the center of the table. It’s not a matter of who rolls the dice faster or harder; placement of cannon on the miniature battlefield takes little effort, just thought. Aside from reading and learning the rules, the most challenging part is painting all the damn minis (or coming up with the money to purchase all the damn minis, if you’re in to the GW games).

They also require alternating turns. Well, perhaps they don’t require it, but it would be pretty tough to track the flow of the game if everyone was rolling dice willy-nilly and removing pieces simultaneously (or as quickly as they could manage it). It would be CHAOS…kind of like actual battlefield conditions probably (depending on what era of war we’re talking about). But war games are not about the REAL chaos of war…they’re strategy games A LA chess…or perhaps reenactments of famous engagements (for Civil War and Napoleonic buffs). And as with those other alternating-turn strategy board games the play of the game is still SIMPLE and the possible actions LIMITED in scope, allowing turns to be accomplished relatively quickly, only slowing down when scores or hundreds of miniatures are involved.

D&D is descended from these games, by way of the Chainmail (medieval miniatures) wargame; is it any wonder that the designers (avid wargamers) used wargaming conventions in the form of alternating turns? Not to my mind…not with the original design of the game: its discussion of “sides” and “referees” and “campaigns;” not to mention the ability to hire and field mercenary soldiers of all stripes (archers and heavy foot and horsemen of various types). The initiative system presented in D&D helps to organize the game turns in a D&D combat because, like those war games, it is a cognitive (thinking) game, not one in which the physical attributes of the players/referee has impact on the outcome (thank goodness, as many of my fellow players outweigh and out-muscle Yours Truly!).

However, despite being a game of “imagination” and wide open to player action, D&D provides specific rules of engagement which are (at least originally) very SIMPLE and LIMITED in scope. You want to attack your opponent? Okay…given the “forces” (i.e. characters) on your side, what do you want them to do: melee, missile, or cast spells? Period. Done. And look how easy it is to resolve those actions in OD&D:

Melee: roll D20 to determine if attack successful (chance of success determined by character level versus opponent armor class). Only adjustments are from magic weapons and armor. If successful, attack does D6 damage (some monsters do more).

Missile: roll D20 to determine if attack successful, possibly with +1 or -1 for DEX. Otherwise, procedure is same as melee.

Magic: does caster have spell? Cast it. Resolve effect. Possibly roll saving throw. Done.

And that’s it: simple and limited and then the other team gets their “go,” and if combat isn’t resolved we play another round until one side breaks morale or is destroyed, falling to the crushing blows of their opponent.

Now as many critics of D&D’s combat system have pointed out, real combat isn’t anything like the civilized, alternating turns of the initiative sequence. I know this from my own experience with very civilized “sparring bouts” (martial arts, fencing, and a little casual brawling). Even in the sport of fencing, where one has issues of “right of way” and first action, things go pretty quick (and degenerate into body-on-body fairly readily)…and in epee it’s perfectly acceptable for two fencers to score simultaneously.

I remember as a kid absolutely hating the Battle Tech turn sequence, because while it resolved actions in initiative order, all combat was considered to occur simultaneously and it was possible to mecha would head-shot each other in the same turn, resulting in a draw. Now…well, I think the argument could be made that Battle Tech combat is far more “realistic” than that of D&D: the use of initiative rolls simply to order the declaration of actions and organize the players is about as good a use of the system as there is.

But that’s not really what I’m railing about. While I like the idea of simultaneous combat (especially in warfare) there ARE times when one side will act before the other…when one side gets the jump on the other or the other side hesitates, for example. Even without THAT “realistic” consideration, I’m fine with resolving combat (not just declarations) in “initiative order.” It’s an easy, straightforward (if arbitrary) procedure for resolving a cognitive game like D&D.

But oh boy do I HATE “individual initiative.”

The more I experience it in any form, the more I am absolutely certain that the whole premise blows chunks. Whether it’s D&D or Shadowrun or just about any other game you care to name, the resolving of combat actions based on individual initiative rolls (as opposed to group initiative rolls) is terrible from just about every perspective one can examine:

- Speed of play
- Ease of play
- “Realism”

Hmm…I’m a little short on time right now, so I’ll be revisiting this theme in a future post. However, suffice is to say I think there’s a sea change that would be a welcome occurrence in the way RPG designers (and players) think about the initiative sequence in combat…and I’m talking about the granular gamist types (like me) not just the narratavist proponents who want combat-as-a-whole to be “about something.” In my games, combat is about kicking someone’s ass. And I want to do it in the most efficient way possible.

Okay…To Be Continued.


  1. In the system I built, those in a fight generate successes, then those with higher initiative use those successes to do things, and those with lower initiative can defend themselves or, if unaffected by actions of those with higher initiative, attack those who have overextended. I call it fluid combat. It is neat.

    I usually invoke a leadership rule; those who accept the leadership of a character can all act on that leader's initiative, and the leader can direct their actions. Tactically, it's helpful, and it motivates the party to choose a leader who can be a quasi-caller, a very old-school idea.

    Yes, initiative is a difficult issue.

  2. The BattleTech sequence of play is very strange when applied to a duel situation. However, it works fairly well with four to twelve mechs to a side. I hated it as a kid though, but I have to admit... the simplicity of its sequence of play was key to its outpacing of CAR WARS and Star Fleet Battles in popularity.

    Random tidbit: In Basic D&D (Moldvay edition), action is simultaneous if both sides roll the same initiative.

    Also... the GURPS equivalent of individual initiative seems to work okay because almost every attack that hits gives the defender a "saving throw" in the form a of a defense roll.

  3. Andrew is right, initiative should decide who gets the jump on the opponent... the winner can choose to attack, how to attack, or other active actions, etc... the loser can respond to the active action (defend, dodge, parry) and hope he survives till the next round, hoping he'll win the initiative then.

    The next initiative roll should probably give a bonus to the previous winner, assuming he doesn't royally fuck it up when he got the jump... I suppose the looser might try to turn defence into attack by possibly increasing his chance to be be hit...? If it's a draw then both get to attack simultaneously.

    The advantage to this is the initiative roll can double as a to hit roll if you wish to go for a minimal abstract combat system, a la T&T. Or you can keep initiative, attack, defence, damage all separate, as most RPGs do... Either way less dice rolling could and should be possible as the dogma of both sides metronomically rolling to hit (and damage) every round would be gone. It also would reward tactical play, surprises, ambushes, etc... as he who strikes first, would increase his chances of striking second, etc... possibly leading to very quick combats... but also sturdy defence skills would allow the loosing side to soak up the initial flurry, then turn defence into attack...

    Circumstances and the size of a melee might determine if individual or group initiative rolls are made, although I do think this system really would require individual initiative rolls to work - which might put old school fanatics off. However, I think this could be striped down a little by only rolling initiative for two or more characters opposing each other in some action, thus most movement actions, unless under fire, really shouldn't need to be rolled very often.

    BTW it is the devil's own job to log onto this blog with either my wordpress or openid for some reason. It's taken me three screens to do so with my google account. Or maybe I just lost my own initiative roll against the internet...

  4. What you wrote manages to organize a lot of the thoughts I've had about initiative. In my mostly-Whitebox campaign, I use group initiative, and I treat winning initiative as just that split-second edge of timing, hardly noticeable to an observer but spelling life and death for the combatants. My biggest diversion from the norm is that I only roll for the first round, and simply alternate sides after that. I don't see too much point in giving each side a chance to randomly act twice, and would rather just keep things moving briskly.

    I generally let my players coordinate their actions, since it keeps everyone engaged. I usually handle actions in the order suggested by BECMI and (I think) B/X: missile, melee, magic. When I have a big enough group, I've been known to have the party declare actions in marching order, rank by rank. This keeps things organized when I have 8 or 9 players, and I think it grants a small nod to realism as well, as the rear ranks need a few extra seconds to figure out what they've encountered, and are more likely to react to what the front ranks are doing than to the actual encounter.

    I'll be interested to see your further thoughts on initiative.

  5. @0levelinhuman:

    I gave up and switched to my google id to log in here, I couldn't do it with Wordpress at all.

  6. I realized how much I hate individual initiative after seeing how Warhammer RPG 3rd edition did things. That was so much more fun and interesting.

    I was going to use a similar system in D&D but realized in the larger battles typical of D&D (with henchmen and such) that was going to slow things too much.

    In the end I have opted for individual initiative on the first round only (I give bonuses to long weapons to simulate "1st strike" capabilities along with dex bonuses to allow for "quick draws"). After that it's group initiative the rest of the combat. I figure once battle starts it's too chaotic to track who does what when. Group initiative is just fine. So far I'm loving this system.