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.