Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Hating Initiative (Part 2)

Now where was I? Oh, right...hating on initiative.

Specifically INDIVIDUAL initiative, which has definitely come to the forefront in the last 20 years. Just in case anyone misunderstands what I mean by the term, I'm talking about the initiative system that has every individual player at the table roll dice (or use some other mechanism) specifically with the sole purpose of determining their order of action in combat. I've written before that my actual in-play experience with this (on both sides of the GM screen) has been nothing less than unsatisfactory...and sometimes downright maddening. Even when all the players involved are "veteran gamers," well-heeled in the rules and tactics of a particular system.

ALWAYS unsatisfactory...and that's just from a "play" perspective. Let's go ahead and examine the idea of individual initiative from the point of view of everyone's favorite old school punching bag: that elusive chimera we call "realism."

Who in the hell ever thought individual initiative was more realistic?

If a party of adventures meets up with a gaggle of owl bears in some deep, dark dungeon, the result is NOT going to look like some carefully choreographed dance-fight between the Sharks and the Jets. No, all f'ing hell is going to break loose, rest assured. Sure, there might be some Charismatic (or blow-hardy) leader-type shouting out orders, but people are going to panic, people are going to have adrenaline bursts, people are going to act and react and generally do what they think is the best course of action...lunge forward and attack, ready a spell or arrow, or just cower in a corner wetting themselves. I mean, THAT's "realism:" a chaotic slugfest in the dark, all by the flickering light of dropped torches.

So who the F came up with the idea that Individual Initiative was somehow more realistic in the first place? We did. People like ME and my friends.

See, you've got this OPTIONAL rule in your B/X set or whatnot that says characters with a high dexterity score can get a bonus to their initiative when in individual (dueling-style) combats. And then you start thinking, "well, shoot, my character Mr. Quick with a 17 dexterity should be faster than a pack of goblins, even when NOT dueling...I should get a bonus to my initiative roll to see if I can strike before this bandy-legged numbskull."

Ah...but THEN you say, hey! What about Olaf the Slow with his heavy armor and measly dexterity of 9. Sure, he's "average" in reaction speed (barely), but he shouldn't get any special bonus...but how can you resolve old Olaf and Mr. Quick when they're both on the same side of a group initiative roll? Does Mr. Quick get slowed down by Olaf's rusty reflexes? Does Olaf's reaction time miraculously speed up due to Mr. Quick being part of the party?

The answer is as elementary as it is dumb: give everyone their own individual "go" in the combat round. Have everyone roll a D20 and chalk themselves into the order.

[and then there's the even dumber bandage to the slow clunky-ness: to speed up combat we'll force everyone to KEEP their "initiative number" every round, without re-rolling. Because OF COURSE there's no back-and-forth, shift of fortunes during the battle, right? Once you blow your roll, it's blown, baby...]

Look, a round of combat should appear (in the eye of one's imagination) akin to a round of Slap Jack. That is, when one imagines what is going on in the imaginary game world (that's what we do when we play these RPGs, right? or am I missing something?)...WHEN we imagine what is going on, we should be able to see something that resembles, well, a battle...people trying to kill each other for cripes sakes. Not a back-and-forth chess match.

In B/X you've got 10 seconds to do something: what's it going to be? Attack, run, chug a potion, cast a spell...look, there's a lot that you can do in 10 seconds. And at the same time, there's a lot you CANNOT do...because in the pressure of the situation, once you commit to a decision, you do NOT have a chance to change your mind, man. This idea of multiple actions, simple versus complex, and 5' steps to boot is just nutty. You DO something and that is what you are doing, period.

"I'm charging to attack!" "No, wait! Don't do that! Let me cast this spell first!" What do you think's going to happen in this situation? Only a complete jackass would actually try to pull up short after steeling himself (or herself) for mortal confrontation and throwing himself bodily at the foe. Remember what happens when you try to break from melee? Your foe gets to cut you down from behind (i.e. the opponent gets a free attack with a +2 to hit). That's one of the best and most realistic rules in B/X, in my opinion.

"I'm casting a spell...yadda-yadda-hocus-pocus..." "Wait, no! I'm going to --" "Arg! You bastard! You ruined my concentration and now I've lost the spell!"


No one's telling anyone what to do. No one's getting together and brain-storming the best course of action (that kind of thing should be considered before battle is ever joined, not in the thick of combat). Roll one initiative die for the mob, roll one initiative die for the other mob, and then resolve. If both dice come up the same number, there's a chance for simultaneous stabbing to occur.

In my earlier post on the subject, I said that my reflections were leading me to consider re-vamping the initiative mechanics in all the games I've currently got in the hopper (all of which included some version of the ubiquitous individual initiative rules). Well, I'll admit the only thing that was really causing hesitation on my part is the re-writing that such sweeping changes would make.

Since that post, I have shredded and reconstructed the initiative rules on all of them, including my personal version of D&D and the mythic-cyberpunk game. Some of the other games, in fact, have done away with an initiative sequence entirely (the current version of my space opera game, for example). But D&D and CDF (the Shadowrun-y game), are closer to the wargaming archetype...close enough and "traditional" enough that I don't terribly mind having a "roll for initiative" phase.

But it's group initiative only. None of this slow and clunky "okay Fred you got the high roll, what do you want to do?" while Tim and Larry are seething and impatient with their low die rolls. Nope, that kind of think is a thing of the past. I ain't NEVER doing individual initiative again. Ever.

With one possible exception. There is ONE game...and only ONE game...that actually does a great job giving each individual player their own initiative roll, their own spot in the turn sequence...and yet the flow of combat remains quick, efficient, and downright realistic for the scope of the game.

That's Boot Hill, folks. But as I've gushed before, Boot Hill is an exceptionally well-designed RPG.

All the other RPGs with individual initiative can go suck it...and that includes my own games, if you ever catch be doing something so stupid again. Hopefully you won't.


  1. I'm sure I mentioned this before, but I seat all my players around the table in Dex order (high to low) and players take their combat turns in that order. If they don't know what they are doing when I point to them, they get passed over. Once I get to the end of the players, the monsters take their turn. Then I go back to the people that were passed over and give them their opportunity to act. Still don't know what you're doing? Then you miss your turn and we go to the next round.

    1. how long do your players have to decide?

      i play in a similar way and i think giving players very little time turns every battle into a "chaotic slugfest" very quickly.

      using group initiative often results in more elaborate planning and usually takes longer in my experience.

    2. I don't think i've ever timed it, but probably not more than 5 seconds. If they havn't started describing their actions by then, I move on.

    3. yeah, that's about as long as i give my players as well.

  2. You might want to look at Aces & Eights (Kenzer) if you have not already, for a different take on realistic (ahem) initiative.

  3. Old School Hack has an interesting approach that harks back to Warhammer tabletop; the round has phases when things happen. The only time you test initiative is when you are in the same phase as others and it matters who goes first. That way if you want to go earlier in the round, you pick an action resolved earlier. Realistic? Not really. Satisfying and fast? Yeah.

    1. @ Andrew: Sorry, cross-posted.

      I had to read your paragraph three times before I understood what you were saying. It actually doesn't sound all that terrible...but, again, I had to read it three times before I understood what you were saying!
      ; )

  4. @ Pal:
    You HAVE mentioned this before. It's not a bad way of ordering combat (is it built off the Holmes edition?). In effect, you are still doing group initiative (all the players followed by the NPCs or vice versa, right?) even if you have a set order to how the players get to declare/act.

    @ Shlomo:
    Not sure if you're addressing myself or Pal. I'm fairly patient with allowing players to think about what they're doing (in the group format), but my players tend to be 'chomping at the bit' to roll dice...I let those folks act first and the ditherers don't really have time to plan (they're trying to play "catch up" in the round). I like to keep pacing brisk...which is why the play-testing of my own "individual initiative" rules was sooo frustrating.

    @ Runes:
    I haven't read Aces & Eights (as I've mentioned before, I'm a Boot Hill guy), but my understanding is that it attempts to model real time...which to me is kind of a fool's errand no matter how slickly done. Does the system work with groups of 6-8 players without grinding to a screeching halt? I've played similar, second-counting games before (though memory of their names escape me at the moment) and I recall them being fairly clunky. Hmm...maybe I'm thinking of DragonQuest.

  5. Not that we _ever_ seem to agree on rules questions, JB, but I'm going to throw out that as bad as individual initiative might be, group initiative is much worse.

    Reason? Because then either the bad guys go first, or the PCs go first. The side that goes first get the First Strike ability. They will nearly always kill first. And since in D&D and a lot of other games, fighting ability doesn't degrade with hit points, the key strategy in a D&D fight is concentration of fire on one enemy, move to the next, since that is the most effective was of reducing enemy damage. In other words, the group that goes first wins.

    If which group goes first is determined by a die roll, why not reduce the combat to that one die roll? Monsters win initiative? Ok, every one roll up new characters. (A little hyperbole going on here, but you get my drift.)

    I'm not saying that individual initiative solves this problem, but it reduces it, and even more so probably, appears to solve it.

    I will say, since I've been running some 4th Ed. D&D lately, the most annoying part of the evening is making that initiative chart, more because as the DM I have to roll init for a bunch of monsters and keep track of the number while the list is being formed. ;)

    There's my two cents,


    1. JB already responded, but I will just point out that in BX/BECMI group initiative, the roll is made EVERY ROUND. So losing the first round's init doesn't mean an auto defeat every combat.

  6. @ Tim:
    I appreciate the differing opinion on the matter, Tim, but with all due respect, what are you talking about? I mean, you seem to have missed the whole point of my post.

    But maybe I didn’t do a good job explaining my POV.

    My interest, personal though it may be, is in playing a role-playing game, not a tactical strategy game. Call me an escapist, call me a weirdo…sometimes I want to imagine myself to be some sort of fantasy adventurer exploring a dangerous environment. I want that experience to be as “real” to me as possible without actually facing pointy-toothed monsters or going into a real underground sewer system.

    Now I realize that it is impossible to model REAL LIFE, partly because A) we are dealing with a fantasy world, and B) because there’s no way to recreate all possible things that might occur in the real world. I mean the more you try to model an imaginary environment…creating penalties for the slipperiness of the footing or the cross-wind that throws off arrows or the flickering shadows in my eyes or the smell of unwashed bodies on my character’s empty stomach because he’s been down in a hole two days…look, you cannot model everything! You can’t folks.

    But you CAN make an abstract system that allows the imagination free reign. You can say “here, you’ve got 10 seconds to act, what is your basic goal.” And I can say, “I am trying to hit the troll in melee.” And ALL those little things are all summed up in the random die roll to see whether or not I succeed. If my character is more experienced (higher level), all those little things have less detrimental impact on my ability to damage and (hopefully) kill my foe. And once I’ve seen the result of that die roll (and the damage roll, if any) I can imagine the actual “story” of what just happened. Maybe I did slip in rat droppings and my blade swung wide…maybe I knock my opponent’s guard aside, but my weapon only grazed his ear.

    Who knows? That’s up to MY imagination, facilitated by dice rolls and the narrative contributed by the DM.

    What you’re talking about…the risk that monsters will get the initiative and somehow kill the whole party…is so far out of left field, I’m hard-pressed just how to respond. I guess I need to ask: what is the point of play for YOU? You play 4E so I guess you’re interested in a tactical exercise? Okay, fine. I don’t give a shit about that and it doesn’t even come into the equation. You’re worried someone might get killed? Um…that’s kind of the game, man.

    What if someone steps on a trap and falls on a poison spike and fails his saving throw? Does that not happen in 4E? I mean, it’s certainly a possibility in the kind of game I play…death can happen at any time without ANY initiative rolls whatsoever. Being worried that monsters might kill you in combat…well that’s kind of the game, yeah? At least it is in the edition I play…I don’t know about 4E.

    But then you say it’s a pain in the ass to work out the individual initiative for monsters (holy crap!) in your games…and certainly what you describe sounds like a pain in the ass to me. It’s this kind of thing that has made me drop individual initiative of any kind from my game…it sounds like we’re on the same page there. But you’re willing to put up with the inconvenience on the off chance monsters might kill the PCs after getting a good initiative roll?

    I don’t know…that’s kind of weird to me, man.

    1. Or maybe it was me who didn't do a good job of expressing himself.

      I'm the first to agree that roleplaying is about imagination and about playing a character, not about how many goblins you can kill or turning a story into a strategy game. RPGs are about characters making non-optimal decisions for reasons that go beyond the scope of the rules -- because it is immoral, because it's in their personality to do it, etc.

      That said, the parts of an RPG that are most like a strategy game are the combat rules.
      The combat rules of nearly every game that I can think of do not reward you for non-optimal play and they do penalize you for it (with character death). So, players are encouraged to treat combat with more tactical thought and with less consideration of roleplay, at least while in the heat of battle.

      The die rolls of any game combat are left to the players' imagination. Some go into more detail than others, or require more exposition about each action, but no pen-and-paper RPG is like a movie where every viewer has exactly the same interpretation of exactly what happened. There's quite a bit of imagination involved.

      While you may feel your imagination is stifled by a turn sequence, I don't. I see the ebb and flow, the simultaneous action-reaction that happens "between the lines" of a turn-based combat system, whether a turn is 1, 6, 10, or 60 seconds long.

      But, to the point. You said you preferred group initiative over individual initiative. I, probably obviously by now, prefer individual, and I was trying to point out the primary reason for this preference, which is entirely a rules-based, game design reason.

      Group initiative allows for concentration of firepower. All of Group A's damage hits and takes effect before Group B has the chance to inflict any damage. If Group A's initial attack manages to kill someone in that attack, Group B cannot deal as much damage.

      With two equal groups and average rolls, Group A will ALWAYS win. They are always ahead in damage. The dice may mitigate this some or excentuate it. Good tactics from one side or the other will have a small effect. Sure, but Group A's damage is always hitting first and they will always have an advantage. A large advantage I would argue.

      One way to solve this problem, would be to always allow the PCs to go first -- to be Group A. Then the DM is free to pad Group B with an extra combatant or two, to make up for that initial smackdown.

      But that’s not what you’re suggesting. You want the groups to roll off to see who gets to attack first and this is the core point I was trying to make. Because going first has such a huge advantage, you are essentially deciding the victor of that combat on the initiative roll. Yes, it will take another 30 minutes of dice rolling to prove it, but the result (more often than not) will be that Group A wins.

      And if you’re the DM, trying to put together a challenging but not impossible combat encounter, what do you do? If you make the encounter weak on purpose, in case the PCs lose initiative, it’s not going to be any challenge at all if they win initiative, and if you make it tough so that it’ll be challenging when they win initiative, why do you do if they lose initiative? So you have to design it as close as possible (a hard thing to do, let’s be realistic), and a little bad dice rolling leads to a TPK.

      Like it or not, whether combat is the center of your game or not, those rules effect your roleplaying game -- because they kill characters. Now I don't mind killing characters (well, not entirely true. It depends upon the game. But I know we're talking about a game that doesn't mind killing characters), but I don’t want to kill them on _an initiative check._


    2. The point of play for me is the roleplaying, not the combat. But if there is combat, I’m going to pay attention and do, within my character’s nature, what it takes to survive or protect others. I’m certainly not playing an RPG _for_the combat. There are a lot better boardgames for that.

      Do you really not see the potential for this sort of one-sided damage dealing problem?

      So, this is why I like individual initiatives (even if the dice rolling is a pain in the butt). Because it splits the groups up. Some on both sides will be fast, and some will be slow, so it evens out the damage a little. So you get:


      Or something like that. Some fighters on both sides get the opportunity to deal damage before they start dying.

      Oh, and I was about to post this reply when I went back and read Lord Gwydion’s comment about re-rolling initiative each turn which . . . is in some ways better (because it will switch those up) and some ways worse (because those back to back turns -- Group ABBA -- are just viscious). Either way, it still means that those initiative check are SO important.

      I guess, when it comes down to it, how can anything my character does be heroic, when what determines victory in combat is an abstract initiative check?

      Not trolling, really.

  7. "Remember what happens when you try to break from melee? Your foe gets to cut you down from behind (i.e. the opponent gets a free attack with a +2 to hit). That's one of the best and most realistic rules in B/X, in my opinion."

    Are you sure that's how it works? (This isn't a douchebag question, I'm genuinely confused about this one). I don't have my Moldvay in front of me, but I have Labyrinth Lord, which has this to say about the "full retreat":

    "A full retreat occurs when a character moves backwards at a faster rate than 1/2 of encounter movement. The character making the movement forfeits his attack this round, and his opponent attacks with a +2 to hit. In addition, if the retreating character is carrying a shield, it does not apply to the character's armor class during the retreat."

    It's unclear as to whether the opponent's attack is a *free* attack or if it's made only if the PC loses initiative. In other words, the rule can be interpreted as: the PC must declare his intention to make a full retreat, and if his side wins initiative, then he's able to withdraw from his opponent at full encounter speed, and thus out of melee range of the opponent, but if his side loses initiative THEN the opponent may attack the PC's shieldless AC with +2 to hit, after which the PC moves out of melee range.

    Of course, the attack mentioned could be a free attack too, and it's explicitly so in AD&D (I think the rules for breaking off from melee are on page 68 or 70 of the DMG), but it's just not clear to me. Again, I'm not sure if the B/X description is the same or different as what's in LL, but if my alternative interpretation is correct, it makes initiative matter that much more. (For what it's worth, that's why old school initiative is infinitely better than the new-fangled crap: initiative is something that can actually be won or lost, and it matters who wins, as opposed to just queuing everyone up in a nice neat order.)

  8. @ Tim:

    For what it's worth, I don't think you're trolling (and wouldn't care much if you were...the only comments I delete off this blog are spam-bots).

    I can say that in over two years of playing B/X (in which I've always used group Initiative), I have never encountered the problem you hypothesize. While I've had plenty of TPKs and near TPKs, the reason had nothing to do with the initiative roll...I can't ever remember a time when life-and-death hung in the balance based on the throw of a D6.

    And because of THAT, and because of my LOATHING of individual initiative...well, that's why I've decided that all future games of MINE will be using the B/X "group initiative" system, if it has any initiative system at all.

    @ Chris:

    I reviewed the Basic book this morning and you're right...there's no "free attack." However, since retreating allows no other action in the round the end result looks the same more often than not: the opponent gets to attackat +2 without fear of reprisal while the opponent moves (unless the attacker decides to let the routed opponent go). I've never had an issue with a speedy retreater "out-running" the attacker...but I can see how that might require a closer examination where movement is super disparate.