Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Individual Initiative - the Curse of the Modern Age!

Oh look - it's Plan A. Again.
Let's talk about initiative.

I was once a big fan of individual initiative. AD&D 2E made it a pretty significant thing (and a lower number meant going sooner!), then for me personally Shadowrun, especially in 2E form, blew the lid off - with ridiculously souped up reflexes you might be able to act 3 or 4 times before some poor meatbag mook could pull a trigger. It was all about ME baby! The the d20 revolution took place at the dawn of the new millennium and ingrained it into an entire generation of players. I don't think I've had a party yet where someone didn't take Improved Initiative in the first 3 levels.

But there are other ways to handle it. Behold a passage from the Red Book of Moldvay!

Notice this - it refers to the side - not the individual! The side! Having seen it in play both many years ago and more recently with the Apprentices it really encourages a group approach to combat. Planning! Tactics! Letting the ranged characters shoot or cast before the melee types charge in shouldn't be a revelation but it is when someone uses this approach that either never has or has forgotten how much fun it can be!

I know some of you are saying: "Well you can do that in a d20 game, you just have everyone hold or delay until everything is set up."

This tells me you haven't actually tried to make this work in play. One thing we see from time to time is when Player A needs to hand a healing potion to Player B to administer to Player C. try doing that without rejiggering the initiative order in the middle of the fight. The other reality is that the barbarian who paid a feat for improved initiative isn't going to hold his action to let the bow ranger shoot first - he's going to charge! The rules encourage it both mechanically and with the spirit of the game due to the emphasis on individual initiative.

Timing is everything
Shocking Side Note: you can do pretty much anything with any set of rules. The feel of a game isn't so much what the rules allow - it's what they encourage. People play games with the "wrong" set of rules all the time and yet they somehow manage to have a good time. That said, it's good to find a set of rules that works with you  rather than against you.

Yes, you can try and force a group approach to initiative in d20 games but you're fighting the system - why do that? Why not modify it to make it easier in the first place, or try it in another game and see if you like the way it plays? See a few paragraphs below for one idea.

It wasn't just old school D&D  that did things this way:

Guess what game this is from? Hint: It has lightsabers and uses a bunch of d6's. It's about as far from D&D mechanically as you can get, and this version of the rules is about 15 years newer than the D&D rules above, yet per-side initiative was a good idea!

 Individual capability affects the order things are handled but only within your own side. But look - there's a way for an individual character to shine by giving his side the win with a high Perception roll! We have a 4th member of the trinity: Tank, Healer, DPS, & Initiative Guy!

To bring it in to the modern age, guess what approach the FFG Star Wars game takes?

Wait, what was I thinking? They're using individual initiative here! But wait ...

Look at that! There's a way to reconcile individual awesomeness with a team approach at the same time! Now the initiative works for you instead of handcuffing you. Think in D&D terms: The healer is often OK going last because they can move up behind the fighters and heal them after they get hit. But what if two fighters get hit hard in one round? Round one you go last, move up, heal PC#1, then in Round 2 you go first, move over, and heal PC#2. That's just one, limited example of how a flexible group-oriented approach to initiative can make a situation more interesting.

I've saved my favorite for last ...

This is the late, lamented, Marvel Heroic Roleplaying approach. The GM picks a player to go first. No dice, no numbers at all. one of the players gets to go first. Unless ...

So now we have some mechanics for breaking the standard approach, and it's harder to jump in front of faster or more perceptive heroes. This is one reason why supervilllains have henchmen.

Note the blue text there - the player who just acted gets to pick who goes next. Again, no dice, no numbers. If games at their best are a series of interesting choices, then this is a great example of one. The pattern of the new team typically is to let all of the heroes go first - yay team hero!

Well ... until this ...
 Then when the badguys get two uninterrupted turns to respond, well, things can get  ... dicey. My players learned pretty quickly to mix it up. It makes interesting choices for the GM too, as you weigh piling on with a bunch of mooks, or how exactly to break it down and keep an ace in the hole.

There are other interesting approaches to initiative - Savage Worlds card-based approach yields some interesting options with multiple cards and jokers while Runequest's strike ranks mainly apply to melee situations. The ones I am coming back around to liking best though are the ones that use mechanics to encourage team thinking as I assume would happen in the game world. Less "me" and more "us" makes for a more interesting game in my experience.


Kelvin Green said...

I like the Marvel way of doing initiative but when I tried it in a WFRP2 game, my players bounced off it; that was a shame.

I'd like to try side-based initiative next time I have an opportunity, as I like the simplicity and flexibility of the approach.

I've also been thinking about a "declare second, act first" approach in which the side that won initiative goes first in terms of taking actions but get to declare what they're doing after the losers decide their actions. I feel that captures the sense of outwitting the opponent, but I don't know if it makes things too complicated.

Anthony Emmel said...

Not sure how this would work in RPGs, but I really like Bolt Action's initiative system. Each unit in the game gets an order die. all the dice are put together in a bowl, a cup, a bag. Each action, a die is pull, and a unit of that side gets to move. You never know who's going next. I'm definitely adapting that for Battletech. :)

Adam Dickstein said...

Why is initiative such a big deal for so many people? I've never understood it. Ever.

WQRobb said...

My own players discovered the perils of not letting villains go until the end when it came to MHR and then the villains started dogpiling on a single PC, using their previous person's damage to boost their own attacks. It was an interesting tactical element, especially when you could interrupt using a plot point as well.

WQRobb said...

"Why is initiative such a big deal for so many people? I've never understood it. Ever."

Because sometimes you want to shoot Greedo first before he shoots you.

Adam Dickstein said...

Sure OK, but that's not standard initiative. That's an NPC (Greedo) monologuing when the player declares, "Han shoots this guy".

Has no gamer ever been in a real fight? Who goes first? The person who makes the decision to throw the first punch. Who goes next? The person with the fastest reaction time (going by whatever means reaction time in your system of choice).

The time it took to right that is the longest amount of time I've ever spent thinking about initiative.

JDsivraj said...

And since we aren't dealing with real people we use numbers and related rules to keep eveything manageable.We're playing gammes where people are sitting arround a table sharing an experience and paart of that shared experience works better when we take turns.
The person who first makes the decision to throw a punch is not always the guy who actually get's to hit first.

Blacksteel said...

Anthony - We play bolt Action here and I agree - the alternating random-ish activation is very slick. I don't know that it would work for an RPG, but it's cool.

Blacksteel said...

A real fight? Really BA? Who goes first - Thor or Hulk? Who goes first, Kirk or Kor? Who goes first is a pretty big deal in a high noon style gunfight, and anytime you have characters who are good at different things in a big group of players. It's especially important when the game mechanics allow players to invest heavily in going first - particularlly when it turns out to be detrimental (in my opinion of course) to working as a team in confrontational situations.