D&D 5e Scaling Spells, 1st-3rd

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One of my favorite mechanics in D&D 5e is the scaling spells. No need to have a bunch of copies that just do the same thing, only at a higher spell level, when you can just have a lower level one improve when cast with a higher level slot. However, I remain baffled by spells that don’t have a scaling mechanic. Especially when playing a Warlock, spells that don’t make full use of your pact magic seem much less useful than ones that do. But most other casters are also often strapped for spells known, such that low-level spells that let you get full use out of your higher level slots for which you might not have a lot of appropriate level spells known are very helpful.

So this is just me going through and trying to tack an At Higher Levels tag for every spell that doesn’t have one and isn’t a ritual. I went for brevity whenever possible, so admittedly a lot of these scale so linearly that they probably aren’t worth that much at much higher slot levels (but at least they’ll do something more than with a base slot). I’m also purely eyeballing the math, so I welcome arguments in the comments about why I’ve made something unbalanced with the scaling effect.

Level 1 Spells

  • Detect Evil and Good: When you cast this spell using a spell slot of 2nd level or higher, the range of the perception increases 10 feet for each slot level above 1st.
  • Detect Poison and Disease: When you cast this spell using a spell slot of 2nd level or higher, the range of the perception increases 10 feet for each slot level above 1st.
  • Disguise Self: When you cast this spell using a spell slot of 2nd level or higher, the duration of the spell increases 30 minutes for each slot level above 1st.
  • Divine Favor: When you cast this spell using a spell slot of 3rd level, the damage increases to 2d4 radiant. For each additional two spell levels, increase the damage by one die (to a maximum of 5d4 when using a 9th level spell slot).
  • Entangle: When you cast this spell using a spell slot of 2nd level, all creatures restrained by the spell take 1d4 bludgeoning damage per round as they are crushed by the vines. The damage increases by one die for each slot level above 2nd.
  • Expeditious Retreat: When you cast this spell using a spell slot of 2nd level or higher, the duration of the spell increases 5 minutes for each slot level above 1st.
  • Faerie Fire: When you cast this spell using a spell slot of 2nd level or higher, all creatures affected by the spell take 1d4 fire damage per round as they are burned by the light. The damage increases by one die for each slot level above 2nd.
  • Feather Fall: When you cast this spell using a spell slot of 2nd level or higher, the spell can affect two additional targets for each slot level above 1st.
  • Goodberry: When you cast this spell using a spell slot of 2nd level or higher, the spell produces five additional berries for each slot level above 1st.
  • Grease: When you cast this spell using a spell slot of 2nd level or higher, the grease becomes highly flammable. If ignited (deliberately or by any area of effect fire attack), all creatures in the grease take 1d4 fire damage at the end of their turns (1d6 if they are prone), applied after the check to fall prone. This damage increases by one die for each slot level above 2nd. The fire burns until the spell expires or extinguished (by an effect that can douse a large, hot fire).
  • Hideous Laughter: When you cast this spell using a spell slot of 2nd level or higher, you can target on additional creature for each slot level above 1st. The creatures must be within 30 feet of each other when you target them.
  • Jump: When you cast this spell using a spell slot of 2nd level or higher, you can target one additional creature for each slot level above 1st.
  • Mage Armor: When you cast this spell using a spell slot of 2nd level or higher, you can target one additional creature for each slot level above 1st.
  • Protection from Evil and Good: When you cast this spell using a spell slot of 2nd level or higher, you can target one additional creature for each slot level above 1st.
  • Sanctuary: When you cast this spell using a spell slot of 2nd level or higher, you can target one additional creature for each slot level above 1st.
  • Shield: When you cast this spell using a spell slot of 2nd level or higher, a residual protection from the shield grants you 3 temporary hit points that last for 10 minutes. These temporary hit points increase by 3 for each slot level above 2nd.
  • Shield of Faith: When you cast this spell using a spell slot of 2nd level or higher, you can target one additional creature for each slot level above 1st.
  • Silent Image: When you cast this spell using a spell slot of 2nd level or higher, the duration of the spell increases 10 minutes for each slot level above 1st.

Level 2 Spells

  • Alter Self: When you cast this spell using a spell slot of 3rd level or higher, the duration of the spell increases 30 minutes for each slot level above 2nd.
  • Arcane Lock: When you cast this spell using a spell slot of 3rd level or higher, any Knock spell must be cast at the same or greater slot level to suppress the lock.
  • Arcanist’s Magic Aura: When you cast this spell using a spell slot of 3rd level or higher, the number of days required before the effect becomes Until Dispelled decreases by 1 for each slot level above 3rd (e.g., it only requires 10 days of casting this at 5th level before it becomes effectively permanent).
  • Barkskin: When you cast this spell using a spell slot of 3rd level or higher, you can target one additional creature for each slot level above 2nd.
  • Blur: When you cast this spell using a spell slot of 3rd level or higher, the duration of the spell increases 1 minute for each slot level above 2nd. In addition, when cast using a spell slot of 5th level or higher, the spell no longer requires Concentration.
  • Calm Emotions: When you cast this spell using a spell slot of 3rd level or higher, the duration of the spell increases 1 minute for each slot level above 2nd.
  • Continual Flame: When you cast this spell using a spell slot of 3rd level or higher, the material cost of the spell decreases by 7 gp for each slot level above 2nd.
  • Darkness: When you cast this spell using a spell slot of 3rd level or higher, the spell suppresses any light spells cast at the same or lower slot level.
  • Darkvision: When you cast this spell using a spell slot of 3rd level or higher, you can target one additional creature for each slot level above 2nd.
  • Detect Thoughts: When you cast this spell using a spell slot of 3rd level or higher, the duration of the spell increases 1 minute for each slot level above 2nd.
  • Enlarge/Reduce: When you cast this spell using a spell slot of 3rd level or higher, the duration of the spell increases 1 minute for each slot level above 2nd.
  • Enthrall: When you cast this spell using a spell slot of 3rd level or higher, the duration of the spell increases 1 minute for each slot level above 2nd.
  • Find Steed: When you cast this spell using a spell slot of 3rd level or higher, the steed’s maximum hit points increase by 5 for each slot level above 2nd.
  • Find Traps: When you cast this spell using a spell slot of 3rd level or higher, you gain more information about the traps present. At 3rd level, you learn the distance in feet to the closest trap you’ve detected. For each slot level above 3rd, you learn the distance to the next closest trap (e.g., the three closest traps at 5th level).
  • Gust of Wind: When you cast this spell using a spell slot of 3rd level or higher, the distance targets are pushed increases 5 feet for each slot level above 2nd.
  • Knock: When you cast this spell using a spell slot of 3rd level or higher, it can suppress Arcane Lock effects cast at the same or lower slot level.
  • Lesser Restoration: When you cast this spell using a spell slot of 3rd level or higher, you can end an additional disease or condition (on the same creature or on multiple creatures you can touch) for each slot level above 2nd.
  • Levitate: When you cast this spell using a spell slot of 3rd level or higher, the weight limit of the target increases 300 pounds for each slot level above 2nd.
  • Locate Object: When you cast this spell using a spell slot of 3rd level or higher, the range the object can be from you increases 1000 feet for each slot level above 2nd.
  • Mirror Image: When you cast this spell using a spell slot of 3rd level or higher, the duration of the spell increases 1 minute for each slot level above 2nd. Additionally, you can spend a bonus action to recover an illusory duplicate that has been destroyed; you can recover one such duplicate per casting of the spell for each slot level above 2nd.
  • Misty Step: When you cast this spell using a spell slot of 3rd level or higher, you are also affected by Blur (cast at two slot levels lower than the slot level used).
  • Pass without Trace: When you cast this spell using a spell slot of 3rd level or higher, the duration of the spell increases 1 hour for each slot level above 2nd.
  • Protection from Poison: When you cast this spell using a spell slot of 3rd level or higher, you can neutralize an additional poison and/or affect an additional creature you can touch for each slot level above 2nd.
  • Ray of Enfeeblement: When you cast this spell using a spell slot of 3rd level or higher, the spell also deals 1d10 necrotic damage for each slot level above 2nd.
  • Rope Trick: When you cast this spell using a spell slot of 3rd level or higher, the duration of the spell increases 1 hour for each slot level above 2nd.
  • See Invisibility: When you cast this spell using a spell slot of 3rd level or higher, the duration of the spell increases 1 hour for each slot level above 2nd.
  • Spider Climb: When you cast this spell using a spell slot of 3rd level or higher, you can target one additional creature for each slot level above 2nd.
  • Spike Growth: When you cast this spell using a spell slot of 3rd level or higher, the damage dealt to creatures moving increases by 1d4 for each slot level above 2nd.
  • Suggestion: When you cast this spell using a spell slot of 3rd level or higher, you can target one additional creature for each slot level above 2nd.
  • Warding Bond: When you cast this spell using a spell slot of 3rd level or higher, you can have any self-only spells or any touch spells that you cast upon yourself instead affect your bonded target. The spell must use a slot level equal to or lower than the slot level used for Warding Bond – 2 (e.g., if you cast this at 3rd level, you can only have spells cast at 1st level affect the target).
  • Web: When you cast this spell using a spell slot of 3rd level or higher, the duration of the spell increases 1 hour for each slot level above 2nd. Additionally, burning the webs also deals an additional 1d4 fire damage for each slot level above 2nd.
  • Zone of Truth: When you cast this spell using a spell slot of 3rd level or higher, the radius of the zone increases by 10 feet for for each slot level above 2nd. Additionally, the duration of the spell increases 5 minutes for each slot level above 2nd.

Level 3 Spells

  • Beacon of Hope: When you cast this spell using a spell slot of 4th level or higher, the range of the spell increases 30 feet for each slot level above 3rd.
  • Blink: When you cast this spell using a spell slot of 4th level or higher, you may choose to add or subtract 1 for each slot level above 3rd to each d20 roll to determine if you vanish (e.g., at 6th level, you may modify the roll by +3 or -3 depending on whether you do or do not wish to vanish at the current time).
  • Clairvoyance: When you cast this spell using a spell slot of 4th level or higher, the duration of the spell increases 10 minutes for each slot level above 3rd. Additionally, the range of the spell increases 1 mile for each slot level above 3rd.
  • Create Food and Water: When you cast this spell using a spell slot of 4th level or higher, the amount of food increases by enough to sustain nine additional humanoids or three steeds for each slot level above 3rd.
  • Daylight: When you cast this spell using a spell slot of 4th level or higher, the spell dispels darkness effects cast at a lower slot level than the chosen slot level for Daylight. Additionally, the radius of the spell increases by 20 feet for each slot level above 3rd.
  • Fear: When you cast this spell using a spell slot of 4th level or higher, the spell additionally deals 1d10 Psychic damage to every target that fails the saving throw (half damage on a successful save) for each slot level above 3rd.
  • Gaseous Form: When you cast this spell using a spell slot of 4th level or higher, you can target one additional creature for each slot level above 3rd.
  • Haste: When you cast this spell using a spell slot of 4th level or higher, you can target one additional creature for each slot level above 3rd.
  • Hypnotic Pattern: When you cast this spell using a spell slot of 4th level or higher, for each slot level above 3rd creatures affected by the spell ignore one source of damage or action used to shake them awake.
  • Nondetection: When you cast this spell using a spell slot of 4th level or higher, the duration of the spell increases 8 hours for each slot level above 3rd.
  • Phantom Steed: When you cast this spell using a spell slot of 4th level or higher, the duration of the spell increases 1 hour for each slot level above 3rd. Additionally, if cast using a slot of at least 5th level, the steed can travel on water, ice, or mud as if it were solid ground (ignoring difficult terrain from these and similar sources). Finally, if cast using a slot of at least 7th level, the steed can Fly (as the spell) for the duration of the Phantom Steed spell.
  • Plant Growth: When you cast this spell using a spell slot of 4th level or higher, the area affected by the first application of the spell count as if it was under the effects of Entangle (cast at 3 slot levels lower than the casting of Plant Growth), and the second application of the spell has its casting time reduced by 1 hour per slot level above 3rd.
  • Protection from Energy: When you cast this spell using a spell slot of 4th level or higher, you can target one additional creature for each slot level above 3rd.
  • Remove Curse: When you cast this spell using a spell slot of 4th level or higher, you can target one additional creature or object for each slot level above 3rd.
  • Revivify: When you cast this spell using a spell slot of 4th level or higher, the creature heals 2d8 additional hit points for each slot level above 3rd.
  • Sending: When you cast this spell using a spell slot of 4th level or higher, the message can be increased by 15 words for each slot level above 3rd. Additionally, if cast using a slot of at least 6th level, you can immediately make one more twenty-five word followup message to the target after the target’s reply.
  • Sleet Storm: When you cast this spell using a spell slot of 4th level or higher, creatures that fail the Dexterity save to remain standing take 1d4 cold damage for each slot level above 3rd (half damage on a successful save).
  • Slow: When you cast this spell using a spell slot of 4th level or higher, you can target three additional creatures for each slot level above 3rd.
  • Speak with Dead: When you cast this spell using a spell slot of 4th level or higher, you can ask the creature two additional questions for each slot level above 3rd.
  • Speak with Plants: When you cast this spell using a spell slot of 4th level or higher, the duration of the spell increases 5 minutes for each slot level above 3rd.
  • Stinking Cloud: When you cast this spell using a spell slot of 4th level or higher, creatures that fail the Constitution save against poison take 1d6 poison damage for each slot level above 3rd (no damage on a successful save).
  • Tongues: When you cast this spell using a spell slot of 4th level or higher, you can target one additional creature for each slot level above 3rd.
  • Water Breathing: When you cast this spell using a spell slot of 4th level or higher, you can target ten additional creatures for each slot level above 3rd.
  • Water Walk: When you cast this spell using a spell slot of 4th level or higher, you can target ten additional creatures for each slot level above 3rd. Alternatively, if you cast this spell with a slot level of 5th level or higher, it can target an unwilling creature (plus one creature for each slot level above 5th); targets may make a Strength save to negate the effect.
  • Wind Wall: When you cast this spell using a spell slot of 4th level or higher, the damage dealt by the wall increases by 2d8 for each slot level above 3rd.
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Fae Empowerment

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The following is a short rules set I worked up for an offer from a sidhe noble in my Beyond the Wall game: when the fae really want to tempt you to do something for them, they can offer up some of their own ability scores to give yours a permanent boost. The gift tends to come with quite a bit of the resonance of the sidhe, making it a bit of a mixed blessing and pulling you closer to becoming fae yourself. Permanent ability score boosts are obviously a pretty big reward for most D&D iterations; in my game, this was the gambit for the fae asking for ownership of the ancient crown mentioned last week (which the players, some with more regret than others, passed on taking).

Basic System

The fae can offer up to +4 to a particular quality, such as might or beauty (noted in parenthesis and mapping to an ability score). You may choose to give the player full control over how much is taken, the faerie may only offer a point or two, or you might offer it on a sliding scale (e.g., characters starting with a low score can get a bigger boost than those with a high score already).

Taking +1 has no ill effect. Characters that accept +2 gain the cosmetic side effect for the trait. Those that accept +3 gain the cosmetic and the minor side effects. Those that accept +4 gain all three side effects.

If you take one less increase, you also gain the boon. Thus, if you want the boon, you could take it, no ability score increase, and no side effects all the way up to the boon, +3 to the score, and all three side effects.

Qualities of Nature Fae (Spring/Summer/Seelie)

Strength (Might)

  • Boon: Weapons you wield made entirely of plants (e.g., clubs, staves, etc.) increase damage by a die size. Double your progress rate when using force to move or alter plants (e.g., blazing trails, hauling wood, etc.).
  • Cosmetic: Your muscles creak like tree branches when exerting themselves.
  • Minor: Treat iron as adamantine for the purposes of bending/breaking it (i.e., basically impervious to brute force).
  • Major: Iron or steel weapons you wield are at -1 attack penalty and iron or steel armor you wear is at -1 AC (due to feeling heavier than they are).

Dexterity (Grace)

  • Boon: You always Pass without Trace through forest environments (includes immunity to the Hedge).
  • Cosmetic: You exhibit unearthly thinness and a great degree of androgyny.
  • Minor: You are helplessly immobilized when bound in iron.
  • Major: You must save vs Spell or dance when exposed to certain music (as if Tasha’s Hideous Laughter in 5e).

Constitution (Health)

  • Boon: Double all healing (natural or magical) when outside in a natural environment, and gain +2 to saves vs. Poison from natural sources.
  • Cosmetic: Your skin takes on the appearance of bark.
  • Minor: You automatically hibernate when sleeping in Winter (each day you must be woken forcefully or you will sleep until Spring).
  • Major: You suffer vulnerability to Iron.

Intelligence (Wit)

  • Boon: You gain your choice of either the Glamour Weaving or Second Sight cantrips (Minor Illusion cantrip or Detect Magic as ritual in 5e).
  • Cosmetic: Flowers and vines twine through your hair while sleeping and are difficult to remove.
  • Minor: You must save vs. Spell to refuse a riddle game (Cha save in 5e).
  • Major: You are incapable of telling an outright falsehood (this may impose situational penalties to Deception if not well-roleplayed).

Wisdom (Intuition)

  • Boon: You gain your choice of either the Druid’s Touch or Beast Ken cantrips (Druidcraft cantrip or Speak with Animals as ritual in 5e).
  • Cosmetic: Your eyes and ears transform to strongly resemble those of the fae.
  • Minor: You can be commanded by someone who knows your True Name (you may be able to save to resist commands).
  • Major: You must save vs Magic Item or be paralyzed by sound of bells (Str save in 5e).

Charisma (Beauty)

  • Boon: You learn the spells Commanding Word, False Friend, Inspiration, and Word of Courage and may cast +1 spell per day (Cast your choice of Bless, Command, Charm Person, or Heroism at 1st level 1/day in 5e).
  • Cosmetic: You take on a fae cast to your features and assume the skin and hair coloring of the donating faerie.
  • Minor: You become a physical duplicate of the donating faerie (less any fae traits not assigned from other side effects).
  • Major: You become unnaturally aged during the Winter, taking -1 penalties to most physical actions.

Qualities of Ice Fae (Autumn/Winter/Unseelie)

Strength (Might)

  • Boon: Weapons you wield made entirely of ice and spell attacks you make that deal cold damage increase damage by a die size. Double your progress rate when using force to move or alter ice or snow (e.g., sculpt ice, break through ice walls, blaze snow trails, etc.).
  • Cosmetic: Your muscles creak like stressed ice sheets when exerting themselves.
  • Minor: Treat iron as adamantine for the purposes of bending/breaking it (i.e., basically impervious to brute force).
  • Major: Iron or steel weapons you wield are at -1 attack penalty and iron or steel armor you wear is at -1 AC (due to feeling heavier than they are).

Dexterity (Grace)

  • Boon: You treat snow and slick ice as solid ground when you desire to do so.
  • Cosmetic: You exhibit unearthly thinness and a great degree of androgyny.
  • Minor: You are helplessly immobilized when bound in iron.
  • Major: You must save vs Spell or dance when exposed to certain music (as if Tasha’s Hideous Laughter in 5e).

Constitution (Health)

  • Boon: You take half damage from cold/ice attacks and treat temperatures down to freezing as comfortable (adjusting sub-freezing temperatures as if freezing was room temperature)(Cold Resistance in 5e).
  • Cosmetic: Your skin takes on a bluish pallor.
  • Minor: You automatically hibernate when sleeping in Summer (each day you must be woken forcefully or you will sleep until Autumn).
  • Major: You suffer vulnerability to Iron.

Intelligence (Wit)

  • Boon: You gain your choice of either the Glamour Weaving or Second Sight cantrips (Minor Illusion cantrip or Detect Magic as ritual in 5e).
  • Cosmetic: Frost patterns form on your skin whenever you are exposed to cold.
  • Minor: You must save vs. Spell to refuse a riddle game (Cha save in 5e).
  • Major: You are incapable of telling an outright falsehood (this may impose situational penalties to Deception if not well-roleplayed).

Wisdom (Intuition)

  • Boon: You gain your choice of either the Blessing or Hexing cantrips (Guidance cantrip or Bane at 1st level 2/day in 5e).
  • Cosmetic: Your eyes and ears transform to strongly resemble those of the fae.
  • Minor: You can be commanded by someone who knows your True Name (you may be able to save to resist commands).
  • Major: You must save vs Magic Item or be paralyzed by sound of bells (Str save in 5e).

Charisma (Beauty)

  • Boon: You learn the spells Obscurement, Petrifying Gaze, Terrifying Presence, and Whispering Wind and may cast +1 spell per day (Cast your choice of Dissonant Whispers, Fog Cloud, Hex, or Tasha’s Hideous Laughter at 1st level 1/day in 5e).
  • Cosmetic: You take on a fae cast to your features and assume the skin and hair coloring of the donating faerie.
  • Minor: You become a physical duplicate of the donating faerie (less any fae traits not assigned from other side effects).
  • Major: You become sluggish and uncomfortable during the Summer, taking -1 penalties to most physical actions.

Items of the Hedge

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We’re 15 sessions into my Beyond the Wall game at this point, and I’ve given out enough treasure that it’s time to reflect on my itemization rules as well as include some significant treasure that my players seemed to really like.

Minor Items

At this point, I’ve given out most of the example weapons on the minor weapons post:

  • They found a Blood Drinker axe buried in an ancient battlefield. They’re so creeped out by it that they might opt to not use it even if someone was a primary axe user.
  • I think they now have five or six Coffin Nails in various states of discharge (and one is currently pinning down a revenant at a crossroads, so it’s not really available). The primary user is the party rogue, who seems to enjoy managing the monthly discharge/recharge cycle now that he has enough of them that a budget of uses is a realistic thing to consider.
  • They found a Commoner’s Holdout knife at some point, and I’m not sure they remember they have it when it’s useful. Honestly, they don’t get seriously injured enough to make the trigger condition frequently available. Maybe I should try to change that…
  • The Landless Noble’s Family Weapon was a big help earlier in the campaign, when they stumbled on a demon that could only be hurt by magic. Overall, the infrequency of magic weapons seems to have helped keep magic-vulnerable monsters special for longer: because most enhanced weapons aren’t technically “magic” it makes the ones that genuinely are more special.
  • They recently got a Hedgecutter under less-than-ideal circumstances (off of the corpse of one of their higher level NPC allies who they’d had to kill because he’d been vamped). They haven’t gotten to use it to actually travel through the Hedge, but will soon, and probably would have loved to have it a few sessions ago when they had to run and hide from a Shambling Mound.
  • No Sidhe Swords have come into play yet, though they’re on the hex map to be discovered. The Fae Foundling in the party would probably love to get her hands on one, though she is normally a ranged combatant.
  • They recovered a Siegebreaker fairly early on (well, stole it from goblin storage and are hoping the owners don’t notice it). It’s being used by the Gifted Dilettante (rogue/mage), who shouldn’t really be in melee at all but, if he’s going to be, he might as well swing a really big weapon. He doesn’t actually connect with it all that often, but does seem to enjoy the option of smashing through doors and walls like the Kool-Aid man.

I believe I’ve also given out a couple of other weapons using the same minor weapon rules: a bow that is extra harmful against beasts, some arrows with one ability each, and Siegekeeper: a longbow that’s Magic and extra effective (Penetrating and Warning) against soldiers of their rival empire.

Overall, I’ve been pretty pleased with the minor weapon rules: keeping the players from chasing pluses allows them to use weapons that fit their styles.

I’ve also given out quite a few of the items from the minor items post:

  • I believe that most of the main PCs have, at this point, at least one reroll item. I seem to remember putting in play items of Cantrips, Hunting, Perception, and Rituals. Most of them are one charge per day, and I don’t see them get used that often (mostly because those checks are so good for the bearers that failure is unlikely).
  • An item of Warmth and one of Sustenance have come into play and are interesting curiosities, but haven’t been used to great effect yet. In particular, the Chalice of Sustenance (turns liquid put into it into a satisfying meal) has picked up a bad connotation of “Dysentery Chowder” after the bearer experimented with “I wonder if it can turn this awful sewer water into a meal?”
  • The single-charge Belt of Stoneskin has already saved the Gifted Dilettante’s life twice (though I think I need to pay more attention to making sure he declares activating it up front rather than as soon as he takes a big hit). It’s probably the MVP of items so far.
  • The rogue seems to really enjoy the Gem of Seeing in principle, but hasn’t gotten much actual use out of it.
  • They just got an item of Protection this past session which may also find a lot of use. The item of Regeneration is currently in the hands of a character that doesn’t get injured much, but she seems glad to have it in the event that she does get injured.

Ultimately, the minor items aren’t getting used nearly as much as I expected, but the players seem to enjoy receiving them and figuring out how to distribute them to take advantage of party roles and number of fortune slots for each character. I’ve begun handing out items with more than one charge per day, which may increase their overall utility.

Significant Items

The following items are named treasure, mostly with strong links to the game backstory. Like the other items, they don’t carry pluses, just modular effects. They ought to port over fairly easily as items for D&D; feel free to add the enhancement bonus of your choice in that case.

The Ancient Crown

This crown is suspiciously non-magical, particularly coming from the long-dead ruler of a magically potent ancient empire. For certain, it’s valuable enough: it would be an extremely good find for a low level party just taking it apart for its platinum and gems. As an art object, it’s worth even more.

But the real potency of the crown is in its political weight. The inheritor state of the ancient empire craves trappings of legitimacy. A long-lost crown could be enough to elevate a minor claimant to the national stage, by brokering a deal to give it to the current rulers or treating it as proof of a previously significant bloodline. Simply handing it over to a friendly noble NPC to deal with should be a major quest reward, and trying to figure out how to use it for themselves could be a campaign-spanning PC goal.

Beyond the purely mortal parties that would love to get their hands on such a valuable item, there is also the question of immortal interest. Faeries, demons, and other such beings have a great use for items that are important even if they aren’t technically magical. What rituals could they wreak upon the fabric of the empire with such a token of rulership? They’d probably go to great lengths to find out…

The Anydress

In some ways little more than a toy, this dress is woven of glamour by a skilled faerie tailor. For most fae, it’s a long-term savings on fashion. For shapeshifters and other infiltrators, however, it can be a vital tool of the trade…

When unworn, this looks like a simple shift of nice but unremarkable fabric. When donned, however, it adapts to properly fit anyone of roughly humanoid size and shape, and transfigures seamlessly into a dress appropriate for the wearer and the environment. On the streets of the merchant district, it’s fashionable but not ostentatious. In the bad part of town, it seems respectably plain. And at a royal ball, it’s festooned with gems and needlework.

Obviously, none of this lasts if separated from the item, and it can sometimes have its own whimsical interpretation of what’s appropriate rather than strictly appearing as the wearer desires. But, unlike many such faerie crafts, it’s remarkably durable and can last indefinitely without deteriorating or losing its powers.

A little known component of the dress’ whimsy is also the ability to tune into times of significance. For example, if curious adventurers were to try on an ancient crown while wearing the Anydress, it might give them a hint as to what might happen if they claimed the crown by adapting to reflect what kind of ruler they could become.

Wælcyrie’s Raiment

This suit of leathers is fitted for a woman and extremely well made. It features dozens of long, dagged strips hanging from the mantle and skirt. It is strongly magic (for any effects that interact with magic on armor), ghost touch (spectral entities cannot bypass its AC bonus), and grants +2 to saving throws the wearer makes against the attacks of any kind of undead or spirit. The strips writhe in the presence of ghosts, even unmanifested/invisible ones.

If a ghost can be convinced to voluntarily grasp one of the strips, it becomes infused into the armor. It is always considered to be in Protective stance: the ghost will interrupt and take the next hit against the wearer. Most ghosts can only take one such hit before being discorporated; more powerful ones may be able to take multiple hits, and may grant additional abilities to the wearer while infused. Discorporated ghosts seemingly pass on for good. The armor can support multiple ghosts at once; generally the one that has been infused the longest will be the one that takes hits.

Græfenrót Banner

This silken banner was seemingly wielded by the outriders of the Wælcyrie. The horses of any allies under the banner suppress their natural fear response to undead, and even mundane horses can keep up with supernatural horses within the cavalry.

When grasped by someone with authority over mindless undead, those undead will never attack allies of the bearer within sight of the banner, even in the bloodlust of battle. The bearer and all allies within sight of the banner gain +4 to saving throws against any mental (fear, charm, etc.) effects generated by undead/ghosts.

Allies slain within sight of the banner always leave a weak and somewhat confused ghost (which will usually pass on at sunrise unless infused into the Wælcyrie’s Raiment), which is generally still friendly and will continue to fight beside its original allies if it can be effectively directed. This effect may intensify other necromantic auras, causing the fallen to rise as physical undead instead of ghosts.

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.

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.

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.

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