Hacking Initiative, Part 2

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Last time, I laid out the components of common initiative systems. This time, I’m going to look deeper into the potential ramifications of hacking the initiative system in your own game.

Integrated Systems

The first step to take before tinkering with initiative in an existing game is to consider what other elements of the game system are integrated into initiative: if you make major changes, what other rules are you going to have to alter as well?

Since D&D is the inspiring example, the following are the major follow-on effects of changing initiative:

  • A number of effects in the game have their durations set to the activating player’s next turn. The intent with these is often that every other character in the combat will get to take a turn before the effect completes. How does changing the fixed initiative order affect these durations?
  • All characters normally get to add Dexterity and potentially other bonuses to initiative. Will you be changing the perceived value of Dexterity if you change how initiative works? Will you have to adjust feats or class abilities that previously gave a bonus to initiative to keep them worthwhile?
  • Some mechanics trigger based on permutations of the initiative round. For example, Assassin Rogues get a bonus to attack anyone that hasn’t acted yet; does this class feature become less valuable with a different initiative system?

You can also have these problems in reverse. For example, in Savage Worlds, by default initiative isn’t tied to any stats or other major mechanics (in core, a couple of powers make changes to the system). If you changed it to a more traditional initiative system, you’d be giving a new bonus effect to whatever traits enhanced your initiative result.

Especially if you’re tinkering with a game where your players have already made build choices, it’s important to get buy-in for any changes: your players might have made different purchases if your house rule had been in place from the start.

Speed and Coordination

The more often you make decisions and randomizations in your initiative system, the more time it’s going to eat up at the table. This can be entirely related to time to employ the system (e.g., rolling and adding each round is obviously more time than just doing it once at the start of combat). It can also have to do with the coordination overhead involved (if you’re using a system that allows players some discretion in who goes next, there’s much more impetus for table chatter to work out the optimal order).

Even beyond the speed involved, degree of player coordination is a major component of different initiative systems. In team initiative and Balsera/popcorn-style, almost the entire point is to get the players to figure out what order makes the most tactical sense. Conversely, in declare and act in order and tick-based styles, there’s not often a lot of control other players’ needs can have on when you get to go. In the middle, declare first systems can have some level of up-front coordination (e.g., “I’m almost certainly going to go first and kill that guy this round, so don’t declare your attack on him.”), but less than when the players have precise control over who goes before someone else.

Due to the level of coordination allowed, your group makeup can have a huge impact on what makes sense for your initiative house rule. If you have players that aren’t comfortable thinking tactically within the system, choosing a style with more coordination can help get players to work better as a team. Conversely, if you have players that are too comfortable thinking tactically, you might want to limit coordination out of worry that they’ll boss the other players around. Meanwhile, you should also consider how long your turns wind up taking. If your players are generally very fast to choose and resolve actions, you have space to change initiative to something that takes a little more time. But if your rounds already drag under a faster initiative system, it can create further slog in your combats to change to initiative that requires more time.

The Simulation Trap

Ultimately, a lot of initiative tinkering seems to me like it happens out of a desire to fix combat on a simulation level. Initiative, as mentioned in the last article, is a huge abstraction with results that are highly counterintuitive if you’re looking for something that simulates reality (or at least would make sense in a movie). In real fights (and even the “real” fights of popular entertainment), everyone acts at the same time, and the more people that are involved the more chaotic everything becomes. It can be very tempting to try to fix the obvious fakeness of RPG fights by coming up with an initiative system that’s a better simulation of reality.

However, the closer you get to something that feels genuine, the more complex your initiative system will become. It’s probably a Zeno’s paradox of systems design: something that gets halfway closer to perfection takes twice as much time and effort at the table. If you could create a system that perfectly matched your expectation of what can happen in a “real” fight, it would likely require minutes for every in-game second for each person in the fight. Given that so much of combat is a huge abstraction in the first place, when attempting to hack initiative, make sure you’re not turning your fights into a boring slog in pursuit of a level of simulation your players won’t really care about anyway. The end result of lovingly creating a voluminous rules engine that captures an element of the world in a thorough way is almost always to have your players avoid it as much as possible because it’s way too confusing and time consuming (see, also, D&D 3e‘s grappling rules).

Next time, I’ll do a lightweight review of initiative systems in various games I’ve played, and why I like or dislike them.

Hacking Initiative, Part 1

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I’ve been thinking about initiative systems lately, after an excellent article by Brandes and a video by Matt Colville (responding to Mike Mearls’ short initiative house rule). In this first post, I lay out the various components and styles of initiative I’m aware of, for hacking your own initiative system.

Initiative’s Goals

Why even have an initiative system in the first place?

The first (and probably most important) reason is simply to mechanically simplify the chaos of decisions in an action scene. In many video games, action happens in real-time, so there’s no need for an initiative system: the computer is fast enough to run all the math for making decisions without a discernible delay. But, obviously, tabletop games lag real time resolution by various factors such as the number of acting players, the complexity of the rules set, the assumed duration of the action round, and the math talent and rules memorization of the group. Initiative systems, at root, strive to ensure that everyone in the action scene gets to act at a cadence that makes sense. Without one, there’s much more pressure on the GM and players to use their best judgements to “play fair” with only taking actions that make simulation or narrative sense within a given time frame.

A secondary goal is to simulate quicker characters within the scene. Any system that attempts to prioritize characters based on Dexterity or other speed- and wits-related stats follows this goal, while several systems forego it almost entirely to simplify resolution. This goal becomes important if you subscribe to the idea that certain individuals (either depending on their innate capabilities or the choices they’re making) will tend to have an advantage in simulated action. Most games with initiative systems tend to resolve actions completely for one character before moving on to the next one, instead of having action resolution for each round be “simultaneous.” In the latter kinds of system, simulating speed is less important, because weakening, incapacitating, or otherwise hindering a character on an earlier initiative step doesn’t actually affect them for that round. But it’s far easier to fully resolve each action before moving on to the next, and in those cases going before your opponent is a big advantage that it’s common to award due to character traits or other important system elements.

Finally, an often overlooked goal is to firewall individual player decisions. When an initiative system presents a player with a straightforward question of “it’s your turn, what do you do?” it’s much easier to be certain that player has full agency over the outcome. Fuzzier systems that allow for more player-to-player collaboration can inadvertently create a hero-and-henchmen scenario where more invested players wind up overtly stage-managing other PCs as part of a group declaration of actions. When each player has a designated turn for his or her PC, it becomes much easier for the GM to prevent that player from losing agency, because the structure makes it more obvious whether the player is doing what he or she actually wants, or just what the group’s loudest member suggested. This may be more or less of a problem for different groups, and GMs should be on guard against someone having less fun because of lost action scene agency regardless of initiative mechanism. Some players with lower investment and/or rules knowledge may actually prefer being given orders by other players.

Initiative Styles

There are so many RPGs in existence at this point that the actual range of initiative styles is probably far beyond the capacity of a single article to enumerate. So I’m going to try to list the most popular styles of which I’m aware. If you think there’s a really cool style that I left out, feel free to note it in the comments.

  • Declare and Act in Order: Likely the most common style these days, in this style each character in the action scene gets a turn that is fully established and resolved when the initiative order reaches the character. The character’s action decisions must incorporate everything that was resolved on previous turns and all successive turns will include the resolution of this turn’s actions.
  • Declare First, Act in Order: Another fairly common method, in this style all players declare their general or specific intentions for the acting characters at the start of the round (possibly with faster characters getting to declare actions later after hearing what slower characters intend to do). Characters then take their turns in initiative order, but must attempt what they’d originally declared even if the results of earlier turns change the tactical value of the action (the system may involve some ability to change actions with a penalty when the situation changes).
  • Team-Based: In some ways a subset of the first option, in this style there is only one “turn” per side within the scene (typically PCs vs. NPCs). Each team can vary the individual order of each character’s actions within the turn to create the best synergy and coordination. The turn ends when everyone on that team has taken the granted number of actions.
  • Tick-Based: In this style there are no formal rounds once an action scene has begun. Instead, each possible action has a cost in units of time (often referred to as “ticks”); when the character acts, that character can then act again at a time equal to the starting value plus the action cost. Characters taking faster actions may wind up acting many times more than characters taking slower actions, and may even get to act multiple times between turns for the slower character. There is typically some kind of system for breaking ties at the start of a round or when characters land on the same tick.
  • Balsera/Popcorn: This style works similarly to the first style, in that actions are declared and resolved fully in a character’s turn. However, rather than having an overall order, after resolving a turn, the player of the character that just acted chooses another character that hasn’t yet acted this turn to act next. When there are no more characters that haven’t acted, the round resets and the person that ended the last round gets to decide who starts the next.

Initiative Permutations

The overall styles also have specific permutations that change their exact implementations:

  • Fixed vs. Random: Any of the styles that sort characters into an initial order can do this via a fixed or random mechanism. In a fixed permutation, given the same choices, characters will always go in the same order (this might be truly fixed by a stat that changes infrequently, or based on some kind of decision like active skill/weapon or action type/stance). In a random one, players must use dice or other randomizer (likely plus a trait) to determine order each time initiative is determined.
  • Frequency of Ordering: It has become increasingly common to decide an initiative order only once, at the beginning of combat (with each subsequent round of combat featuring a repeating order unless there are actions or events that can change the order). However, many games expect initiative to be re-determined anew each round, changing the order of actions within each round of the fight.
  • Multiple Segments: There are certain systems (like Shadowrun and Feng Shui for all characters, and Storyteller for characters with bonus actions from speed powers) that allow characters the possibility of getting multiple turns in a single round. This can work similarly to the tick-based style, with an action’s time cost deducted from total initiative (so characters with high initiative and fast actions can go multiple times before slower characters), or resolve everyone’s first turns once in order before then resolving second turns in order (and so on until no one else has a bonus turn).
  • Source of Advantage: The choice of what traits add to initiative make a big difference in how players prioritize choices within the system. Many games simply give a fixed advantage based on some combination of quickness-related attributes and modifiers from bonus traits and gear/magic. Others make the decision based on action/skill type, action/weapon speed, stance, or other element that is a much more tactical choice (and is, thus, frequently combined with reordering each round).
  • Ally-Swappable Slots: Common to Fantasy Flight Games RPGs, in this permutation a turn may be traded to any ally that hasn’t acted yet that round. Fast characters may choose to go later in the round if slower allies can make better advantage of an earlier turn.
  • Delaying, Holding, and Reacting/Defaulting: Most initiative systems have some concept of ways to break the turn order. Commonly in Declare and Act in Order, faster characters can choose to skip some or all of their turns to interrupt an enemy’s action once declared (or just to better coordinate with a slower ally). There is often also some concept of reactive action choices, either as essentially an extra action when needed or as a way for slower characters to give up an active turn to defend against a faster attacker.
  • Resolve at End: Very uncommon these days, virtually any initiative style can choose to have any changes in status not take effect until the end of the round (as if everything happened simultaneously even though the system handled it in a fixed order). This method reduces the advantage of going faster and in-round coordination: trait changes (including being incapacitated/killed) won’t actually affect the current action, but will only take effect starting the next round.

Next time, I’ll look more at the potential effects of altering styles or permutations of existing games.