GMing Tricks from the Defenders

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One of the first things I noticed about the new Defenders show on Netflix was that, by virtue of making an ensemble out of a bunch of established solo characters, it wound up feeling more like an RPG than many TV shows do. And that makes it an excellent example for some GMing techniques that I think it highlights. This post, obviously, may contain SPOILERS for the Defenders (though I’ll try to keep them to minor structural ones), so proceed at your own risk if you didn’t binge it over the weekend.

Splitting the Party

The first thing I noticed about Defenders was that it was using a technique I’ve really only seen in World of Darkness games (and mostly in a subset of WoD games where the GMs all learned it from one another). The group starts out split, doesn’t know one another, and gradually their solo experience compounds into winding up as a team. Importantly, this isn’t just a series of preludes that were all run individually and then the first full session has everyone meet up. Instead, like in Defenders, scenes alternate between PCs (often cutting on a cliffhanger), sometimes two PCs will briefly meet and then continue on separately, and only once the plot is well and truly laid out do they realize they need to work together. Sometimes, it can take multiple sessions. And the other players are all there while this is happening, waiting their turns for the spotlight.

This has several useful effects:

  • The other players get a better sense of your character by watching without being able to interfere when you have spotlight time. Though it’s an entirely metagame experience, it gives everyone a better sense of what you and the GM have agreed is cool about your character.
  • The metagame aspect is also important: it gets the players used to the idea of firewalling what they’ve experienced in and out of play. Inevitably, there’s some slippage as you eventually can’t remember whether you were there for a scene where a crucial detail happened, but the important thing is that you’re trying.
  • It also gets you used to allowing other players to have spotlight time without being disruptive. The social contract is that you’ll get a similar amount of spotlight time where the other players will also keep quiet and let you have your moment.
  • Finally, it establishes that splitting up is a thing that is safe to do.

The adage to never split the party often comes from the idea that you could, at any moment, run into a party-scaled encounter by yourself and lose. Letting the players run around solo for a while gets them used to going off solo or in pairs to do things when the situation demands it, and makes it apparent that this isn’t likely to get anyone killed. Sometimes you’ll run into something that you don’t want to tackle without the whole party, and rarely you’ll get in over your head and have to escape a threat that the party would trounce, but you’re not terrified of being alone.

This technique probably works best in a city-based game, rather than one spread out or in hostile territory.

Recurring Villains

One of the things a lot of games suffer from is insufficiently involved villains. Sure, you might have heard of the guy from his minions and former victims, but you don’t actually meet him until you get to the final room of the final dungeon in the module. Then it’s a fight, maybe after a brief monologue. Boring.

In order for your players to really feel connected to your villains—whether that be total hatred or conflicted aggravation—they need to meet them multiple times. The villains need to do things on screen that drive the players mad, take thing from them, or fail to do things and narrowly escape. The problem is that your players are likely to go nuclear if they’re allowed at all: if they identify the main villain, especially if it’s a combat encounter, all available resources go into putting her down quickly and completely.

The Defenders answer to this is that the bad guys are mostly very experienced ninjas. They go into every fight with the heroes with a cheater’s escape route planned (there are numerous scenes where the “taken out” result for the bad guy becomes “and you knock him offscreen and he’s just gone“). This is a trick you can use for ninjas and teleporting wizards, but it only works so long before the players start planning countermeasures. Other techniques from the Defenders prelude shows are that the bad guy is legally clean, and the law would take a dim view of assaulting him in public, so there can be confrontations in public spaces without either side feeling like it’s a kill-or-be-killed situation. Finally, never underestimate the villain having a conversation, the PCs thinking they have her right where they want her, and then she wanders out after summoning a horde of minions or environmental disaster that keeps the PCs away from her.

Ultimately, the real trick is making sure you’ve designed the villains’ motivations so they don’t necessarily want to commit themselves fully to a fight until the end game. Come up with reasons why they feel their goals can be met without endangering themselves. They should be willing to walk away several times rather than fighting to the death, even if they outclass the PCs.

Constrained Villains

One of the things that’s always in the back of my head as a player is whether it feels like the opposition’s resources are infinite until they’re suddenly not. Will taking out these minions have a measurable impact on the villains’ ability to operate? Is it worth it to strike at a target, or will they just have a similar resource later if we capture this one? Do the villains have to play by the same rules I do, even if they start with more resources?

Defenders does a really good job of constraining the villains (though it’s unclear if those constraints would be totally clear to the PCs if they weren’t seeing the internal bad guy discussion scenes that we’re privy to as the audience). They’ve gambled their most precious resource on obtaining a big payoff, and the time is running out for them to get that payoff.

This gives you a number of really useful plot levers to use as a GM:

  • There’s a natural time pressure: the villains need to do things soon, and aren’t going to wait on the PCs to be ready.
  • There are a number of things that the villains can do that are mistakes to give the PCs an advantage, because they’re out of options.
  • The PCs can capitalize on information to put the villains on the defensive, giving the players an enhanced sense of agency.
  • The PCs can ultimately realize that they have several methods of victory, including taking away a key villain resource and/or just running out the clock on their scheme.

Fighting a group of stressed, worried, and grasping bad guys is ultimately going to make your players feel a lot better about their own options and place in the game world than if every set of bad guys is powerful and secure until the PCs can finally work out a fait accompli to cut off the head.

Supporting Cast

Like a lot of GMs, I’m bad at remembering to use supporting cast. When you’ve got a short session, it can feel like a waste of time to take a minute to have a brief roleplay scene with one PC’s family and friends. But if your player gave you those NPCs in the first place, it was out of hopes that they’d get used for more than damselling or other pathos. Sometimes, you just have to do the groundwork to have them recur enough to feel like part of the fabric of the world, and to give the player an opportunity to express elements of her character that aren’t seen when in full adventurer mode.

This is certainly easier if you’ve started off with a split party, so it’s more usual that there are scenes with one PC off alone dealing with NPCs, playing out what she’s doing when not with the rest of the group.

Defenders does a good job of providing a use for most of the supporting cast. It helps if your system has rules for mental stress that your loved ones can help you remove. Even if it doesn’t, they can be hooked into resources that the PCs don’t have: reporters to get you information you’d missed, cops and lawyers to get you out of legal trouble, doctors and nurses to handle physical ailments, and even less-skilled adventurers that can take some minor threats off your plate so you can focus on the bigger problems.

Also, remember to have the players add their useful NPCs to their character sheets. NPCs immediately become more real to players when tracked as a resource.

Protagonist Plot Glue

The downside of several of these techniques is that it can sometimes be hard to hit the ground running with fully committed protagonists. When you do group character generation, it’s much easier to motivate everyone to follow the plot as a team, as their characters are intimately connected to one another and, usually, the story as a whole. But when the players have made independent, fully realized characters, they may have trouble finding proper motivation to engage. You’ll need to devise the plot to glue the PCs together and to the story.

Some of your players may be like Luke Cage and Jessica Jones: despite their outward complaining about being wrapped up in something that doesn’t truly concern them, they’re at the game to play and will figure out a motivation to dive in. At worst, the GM will need to have an aside with the player and ask what kind of thing would flip the PC from on-the-fence to fully-committed. It may just take a minor incident to convey that the bigger problem will have follow-on problems to things the PC cares about.

Some may be like Matt Murdock: he’s created a deep and robust character, and talked himself into doing less fun things because they’re more true to the character. Without the right motivations, he’ll sit on the sidelines playing lawyer, because he’s convinced himself that the character doesn’t want to risk his mundane life and supporting cast. At best, there are a number of contrived scenes where he gets to play legal counsel to the rest of the team, and maybe secretly help out a little. At worst, you’re spinning your wheels running repeated side scenes where he agonizes over not being able to help while going through the motions of his mundane life. For this type of character, you need to make sure that the plot leaves no escape: the things he cares about are in direct danger, the plot is directly relevant to his backstory, and, what the hell, his ex-girlfriend is back from the dead and deeply enmeshed. The player will thank you for making the decision to engage as easy in character as it is out of character.

Some may be the opposite problem, like Danny Rand: they’re gung ho to go after the plot, but the other players are going to have a really hard time justifying hanging out with this guy. There’s often a Danny Rand in the group, who made a character that just doesn’t fit. Maybe he didn’t understand the memo about, “we’re making down-on-their-luck, street-level heroes,” or maybe there was less direction and everyone else just settled on a theme by happenstance. Maybe he’s a new player who just doesn’t get the social norms of the group. Honestly, modern occult and superheroes games often make “one of us is super wealthy, and the rest of us are broke” an issue with how they price wealth in character creation, and nobody can figure out why they’d hang out with the rich guy as peers, and don’t want to be his de facto minions. This last problem can often be the toughest, and you pretty much have to do what Defenders does: make the odd PC out key to the whole plot, until the party settles into being used to having that guy around.

If you’re lucky, after the first major storyline, the PCs will have gelled well enough that you can be less heavy-handed for the second. But be prepared to keep tabs on where the players are at with their PCs’ emotional lives (possibly through supporting cast), and be ready to keep tuning the game until they’re ready to stick as a group to your satisfaction.

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Assorted Game Seeds

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I tend to have a bunch of adventure ideas that I’ll never get around to running. This post is me putting them down in writing to maybe get them out of my head (with an aside of having a place to link to if I later ask players what kind of campaign they want to play short notice). They’re mostly tuned for various flavors of D&D. Feel free to steal them.

We Inherited a Magic Shop

The PCs were all low-level retail staff at one of those mysterious old magic shops run by an elderly wizard of great power. Maybe it was one of those stores that appears suddenly in a dark alley when you least expect it, and sells you something that changes your life and then is gone when you look for it again. Regardless, the boss’ vaults of miscellaneous items were impossibly deep, and the shop seemed to be less about turning a profit than giving the old man something fun to do in his retirement.

Then some high level evil adventurers showed up and tried to roll the shopkeeper to rip the place off. Turns out, they weren’t quite prepared for him to be as formidable as he was, and he died driving them off… for the time being. Now you’ve got this whole shop full of items, a dead mentor to avenge, and some much more powerful enemies that will probably be after you for the contents of the shop.

But, hey, you’re outfitted in gear valued for the greatest heroes in the land. That ought to let you punch above your weight class, right?

(I would essentially stock a shop with a random assortment of gear with a value appropriate for a party of 20th level characters, as generated by my magic shop app.)

Pacifist Apocalypse

The end of days is happening, and the gates of the afterlife have closed. Any souled creature that dies soon rises again as an undead of potency based on its power in life, and attempting to preemptively dismember or restrain the corpse tends to just have it come back as an incorporeal spirit.

Unfortunately, most of the rest of the world doesn’t seem to have figured this out quite as readily as you have. Can you work your way through the usual high fantasy tropes to try to save the world while trying really, really hard not to kill any of your living opposition? Every slaughtered goblin is just a zombie you’ll have to deal with in a moment, so it’s worthwhile to see if you can just talk out your problems before the walking dead truly outnumber the living.

Former Unwitting Hosts of Heroes

None of you started as anything special; you were just peasants scattered throughout the domain with no hopes of bettering your place in the world. The only thing interesting about you was that you were about to die at the right moment. Some epic heroes from another world needed to get something done on this one, and the ritual they used to travel actually had them possess the bodies of those fated to die at about the moment of travel. One moment, you were about to die badly, surrounded by brigands or facing down a monster or other impossible hazard. The next, you were someone else, suddenly merely a passenger in your own body.

The heroes had a plan. Easily escaping the hazard that would have proved fatal to you, they began to travel. Their wizard teleported to their rendezvous point and began creating some rudimentary magic items that they’d need in their quest (for their raiment had not traveled with them). As the others traveled over land, they did odd jobs throughout the realm for coin and miscellaneous useful magical trinkets. Reconvened, they did what epic heroes do: they marshaled armies, knocked over villains with resources they needed, and then, ultimately, saved their world and yours. The quest accomplished, their spirits returned to their home dimension.

And the group of you were suddenly standing around with a completely undeserved reputation, a decent but not exceptional brace of gear useful to skilled heroes, a strange smattering of adventuring experiences from your dreamlike time as the host of a hero, and… perhaps most importantly… a whole legion of enemies that the heroes made in their haste to accomplish their quest in an expedient faction. There are going to be a ton of people that expect you to solve the next set of major problems they face… and a ton of really pissed off bad guys that would just love it if you split up and tried to go back to your pedestrian lives. Good luck.

(Play a short series of sessions with the PCs as 20th level badasses, using in medias res a lot to heighten the sense that the eventual PCs don’t really know the full scope of the intentions or capabilities of the heroes they’re hosting. Give them lots of no-good-answer choices to make enemies and upset the politics of the campaign setting. Then leave them drastically (but not completely; they did learn a little from watching after all) de-leveled in whatever state they were at the completion of the adventure.)

The Inevitable Sessility of High Level

This is more of a rules hack that implies a setting concept, but it’s been bouncing around my brain for a few days, so I’m including it.

Any XP awards gained from completing encounters are divided by your level. You can reduce this penalty (to a minimum of 1) by undergoing downtime equal to one day per Tier level per point of penalty. For example, an 11th level, Tier 3 character needs to spend 30 days of downtime to be back to no XP penalty (3 days per divisor point from 11 down to 1). After 15 days, the same character would be at a divisor of 6. (It’s left up to the math skills of the GM to rework the XP system so this is phrased as a rested bonus rather than an unrested penalty, because that’s often more palatable to players.)

At the GM’s option, having small one-off encounters does not reset this penalty, and a serious one-off encounter should bump it back up by a point. Normally, the penalty stays the same for the duration of an entire adventure (as long as there are not significant downtime breaks; travel to and from adventure sites doesn’t count). Basically, you spend some downtime, you go on an adventure, and then you’re ready for another vacation.

What qualifies as an “adventure” doesn’t necessarily change just because it’s trivial for you. If a high level party spends an afternoon clearing kobolds out of a mine, even though they’re in no real danger, it’s still an adventure. It resets their penalty.

The intention of this system on the setting is to create a natural explanation for why high-level characters spend so much time lurking in taverns trying to recruit newbs to do things (it’s a total waste of their time if they’ve been building up downtime for something worth their while). It should also encourage higher level characters to spend more time on domain play (spending a lot of time building strongholds, recruiting followers, and researching magic). Finally, it should introduce a system to slow down leveling to something that’s “reasonable:” one of my annoyances with D&D adventure paths is the tendency for PCs to rocket up to high level within a few months, which it’s heavily implied that most characters in the setting took years and years to become high level.

Ultimately, the setting that ought to emerge from this rule is one where up-and-coming adventurers are constantly on the road, building up their treasure base and taking the odd couple of days of downtime between adventures, receiving quests from semi-retired adventurers. Once they start hitting the mid-levels, they begin to need longer downtime, so start thinking about investing their earnings into residences that cut down on their costs (staying in inns every night is expensive) and sources of renewable income (like a tax or tithe base). At the higher levels, “adventures” mean dealing with threats to your domain (or your liege lord’s greater domain) no more than once a month that can’t be pawned off onto lower level adventurers, when what you really want to do is spend time getting that new tower built just right or that new spell researched.

Hacking Initiative, Part 3

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This final installment is an inventory of some of the commonly used initiative systems, at least in games I’ve played, and what I find to be their strengths and weaknesses.

The Modern D&D Standard

Since 3e, D&D has been using pretty similar variations on Declare and Act in Order-style: each character gets a unique imitative score once per combat that’s the sum of a d20 roll and modifiers (usually Dex modifier plus miscellaneous bonuses from feats). The GM then counts down from the highest to the lowest each round, with some ability to ready and/or hold to reset initiative. Your order seldom changes within a given battle.

Strengths: The main advantage of this style is that it allows you to use “until the [start/end] of your next turn” as a counter that means “this will give everyone else in the fight the chance to go before it ends. If it’s something defensive, it lasts through a full set of enemy actions. If it’s a group buff or debuff, it affects everyone else once. If it’s something that can be interrupted, all the enemies get a chance to interrupt it. There’s also low overhead after the first round: once you get everyone’s order worked out, you can just cycle through it until the fight ends without further delay from recalculation/reordering.

Weaknesses: This initiative system is so powerfully boring that the current lead designer is publicly trying to replace it. After the first round, you just get locked into the same cycle over and over again, and having a really good initiative bonus really only gets you one round of benefit due to the continuous cycle (e.g., if you go first and can’t get to an enemy, it’s almost like you’re going last). While subsequent rounds are easy enough to keep track of, the first round actually takes a non-trivial amount of work to figure out, as you have to write everyone’s name down with their initiative result and make sure you leave enough space to fit in the players that tell you a result that’s between two existing results. If you have enough actors, you can inculcate further delay as players forget when they’re going to go, get distracted, and don’t start planning their actions until called upon by the GM.

Beyond the Wall

The system used in Beyond the Wall is very similar to D&D, with a crucial difference: initiative score is fixed rather than rolled. All PCs have an initiative score equal to level + Dex mod + class bonus. Most NPCs just use level unmodified (so will often go last unless they outclass the PCs, and won’t go first unless they significantly outclass the PCs, due to PC rogues often getting a +4 or better to their level for this score).

Strengths: In addition to most of the strengths of the standard D&D mechanic, the crucial benefit is that you don’t have the first round calculation drain. It’s even recommended that you have the players sit around the table in the order of their PCs’ initiative scores, so you can just whip around the table, pausing for wherever the monsters are inserted.

Weaknesses: This has most of the same weaknesses as standard D&D, with the addition of losing any kind of variation at all. In practice, however, this isn’t much of a drawback. I don’t really feel like the variations due to rolling mean that much in the long run when you’re only randomizing once per combat (and characters with good bonuses are going to go first more often than not anyway), and the speed in this method is a big help. Additionally, by placing the players in order around the table, it’s much more obvious when your turn is about to happen, so it’s not a surprise when you get called on (and, thus, you’ve often started planning your action, further speeding things up).

Group Initiative

As mentioned previously, when running D&D/Pathfinder I actually tend to use group initiative for the reasons outlined by Ben Robbins. In my particular variation, I average out the NPCs’ initiative bonus, have everyone roll, and the players with a higher score than the enemies get a free turn, the enemies go, then all the PCs go, and so on, alternating between NPCs and PCs. Players are free to strategize and trade their order within the PC turn.

Strengths: This preserves most of the advantages of the standard D&D initiative, while encouraging much more tactical play as players coordinate. Particularly in 3.x/Pathfinder, when you could freely delay your action and lower your initiative score, players could choose to coordinate in this way if they wanted to anyway. Players tend to consider their overall strategy and cooperate much better, in my experience. It’s also a little faster than the standard, because the GM doesn’t have to write anything down, just figure out who gets a free turn before the NPCs.

Weaknesses: There could be some disruption in the timing of effects (players can decide to go before or after their allies, depending on whether stretching or shrinking the duration of an effect is helpful). If a lot is going on, you may need some kind of marker to remember to get to everyone (“Wait… did I go this round already? It’s been so long since I’ve gone…”). Pushier players can dominate play, always going first and/or puppeting the choices of less opinionated players (though, as discussed in the previous posts, this might not always be the worst thing).

Balsera/Popcorn

Used first in Marvel Heroic and later in various other projects including Atomic Robo, this system includes a few varying mechanics to decide who goes first and sometimes to break the order, but otherwise simply has the last player to act declare the next character to act (from a pool of characters that haven’t acted yet this round).

Strengths: This is extremely fast to set up, and has even stronger tactical play than group initiative: there’s a lot of strategy in picking an order that provides synergy to your team and disadvantages the choices of the enemies. It generally results in a natural shakeup of the action order each turn, without any randomization required.

Weaknesses: It’s very hard to do much with bonuses in this system (unless they’re constructed to allow you to seize the initiative somehow). You cannot reliably use “until your next turn” mechanics with it, as the length in between turns can be extremely variable.

Shadowrun

Superficially a Declare and Act in Order system similar to D&D, Shadowrun’s system features multiple turns within a single round as a core feature. Essentially, while basic characters will usually have an initiative result under 10, enhanced characters can easily exceed this limit (possibly getting initiatives in the 20s or even 30s). Once a full pass through in decreasing order of initiative has happened, everyone deducts 10 from their score, and those that still have a positive result get another pass for additional turns (e.g., if one character has a 22 initiative, and the rest have under 10, the 22 initiative character will go first, everyone else will go, and then the 22 initiative character will get to go twice again before the end of the round). Initiative is rerolled every round, and there are other actions that can cost initiative (making it less likely to get an additional turn).

Strengths: Shadowrun is the pinnacle of focus on how character speed grants a huge advantage due to the imitative system: it’s a really good system to advantage playing fast characters. Since each round can include multiple passes, effects that use your action but last for the remainder of the round can actually be hugely helpful if you’re going to get to go again while the effect is still active. Due to rolling each round, and the breakpoints in results that means a great initiative roll can get you an extra action beyond just a good roll, the order remains meaningful and interesting.

Weaknesses: The system is hugely time consuming and fiddly. It has all the time delay drawbacks of D&D’s initiative, and beyond. There’s a tremendous amount of bookkeeping for the GM. Effects that last for the rest of the round can matter hugely, or not at all, depending on how many actions are left.

Classic Storyteller

The Storyteller initiative mechanic, which solidified in the Revised editions and seems to be more or less intact in the 20th anniversary editions, is a Declare First, Act in Order system with reverse declaration of actions and a general intention of rerolling each round. The roll is unusual for the system: in an attempt to speed up the slowness of it all, you roll a single d10 and add your relevant traits instead of rolling a dice pool. Multiple actions (very common in most of the games) work a lot like Shadowrun, in that everyone with additional actions takes them after the first normal pass through the initiative.

Strengths: Honestly, there aren’t really a lot of pluses to this system, unless you really, really like reverse action declaration and re-randomzing each round.

Weaknesses: It’s slow and cumbersome. It is key to the system’s defensive death spiral (in that you have to sacrifice your upcoming action to try to dodge or parry an attack, which still might do a little damage, and now you don’t have an action to fight back so you really just hope you go first next round to put the enemy on the defensive). It really only works at all because combat tends to be very rare in the World of Darkness compared to D&D. And, honestly, I don’t think anyone I’ve every played with remembered that you’re supposed to reverse declare, implicitly turning it into a Declare and Act in Order system.

Fading Suns

The initiative system in Fading Suns is clearly derived from the same 90s sensibilities as Storyteller’s, but takes it in a different direction (possibly because combat was supposed to happen a lot more in the setting). Initiative is a pure comparison of whatever primary skill you’re using for the round (e.g., if you’re shooting someone, your initiative is equal to your Shoot skill), with ties broken by speed-related traits. It’s technically then a Declare and Act in Order system, except that you’ve implicitly at least made something of a declaration by choosing which skill you’re using.

Strengths: It’s almost as fast as Beyond the Wall’s system, and easy to understand, with some interesting room for variation.

Weaknesses: Practically, it’s just Beyond the Wall’s fixed initiative system: you’re almost always just going to use your best combat skill in a fight, so your initiative is going to vary extremely rarely.

The One Ring

The latest Middle Earth-themed RPG has a very straightforward and interesting initiative system: your initiative order is purely based on what “stance” you take each round (which is basically your position + intention; in order to make a ranged attack, for example, you have to take a particular stance and have party members that are taking melee stances to screen you from the enemy). Each stance has its own mechanics, so you’re picking it for tactical reasons and your initiative order just falls out of those decisions.

Strengths: Unlike most other initiative systems, there’s an extremely strong tactical component: your turn order is intimately linked to your action choice, but in a way that’s faster than typical declarations or weapon speed rules.

Weaknesses: Practically, there’s a very limited range of initiative results, so there could be some annoyance breaking ties in big fights. I don’t have enough playtest experience with this to fully understand further limitations.

One Roll Engine

An interesting variation on a Declare First system, the One Roll Engine games (e.g., Wild Talents, Better Angels, etc.) get everyone to decide what they’re trying to do, everyone rolls their actions, and then the order is determined by the results of the roll (the system generates success results with both a “width” and a “height,” so one can be used for effect and one can be used for speed). Your intended action can be invalidated by your opponent getting a faster result (taking damage tends to also damage your success total if you  haven’t acted yet).

Strengths: As far as actually simulating the chaos of a “realistic” combat, ORE’s mechanic is probably a much better model than any other system where everyone takes discrete turns. It collides intention and execution in a way that nothing else does.

Weaknesses: ORE is confusing as hell. As discussed previously, we wound up converting my Better Angels game to Savage Worlds because everyone was so baffled by the system. I suspect that it all becomes very cool if you have a group dedicated to really learning the dice paradigm and using it effectively, but that was not my group. I may try it again at some point and hope for a better result.

Savage Worlds

Speaking of Savage Worlds, its initiative system is the one that’s pretty much completely divorced from in-game traits or decisions: you draw cards from a deck each round and Declare and Act in Order from the best card to the worst (with a Joker giving you a bonus and the ability to act at any point in the round).

Strengths: Since it’s so divorced from the rest of the system, it’s probably the fastest way to re-randomize each round if that’s your bliss. It’s extremely easy to mod further to your tastes, because it’s so detached from the rest of the mechanics.

Weaknesses: It’s very detached from the rest of the mechanics. You’re not really modeling anything more than, “It’s exciting when we go in a different order every round!” It’s ultimately the epitome of randomization equaling fairness: sometimes you go first, sometimes you go last, and you’ll probably get to do both within a fairly short collection of combats.

The Rest

Most of the other games I’ve played with any regularity are very similar to one of the ones above, or are games with such little relative space devoted to combat rules that the initiative system is basically “go in the order that makes sense; if you have a disagreement, break ties this way…” Clearly this isn’t an exhaustive list, and I’m interested in hearing from commenters about other games with interesting initiative mechanics.