Wednesday, 15 February 2012

Why Must Having Initiative Always Be Good?

In skirmish combat rules, where the chance to go first is re-determined every round, it's common to see some additional rules layers to make sure that the winner of initiative is not disadvantaged.

For example, if the rules say you move, then attack, all on your go, this could happen if you win initiative.

That's terrible, right? Ivar the barbarian wins initiative, rushes to attack, and Koko the gorilla steals the de-facto initiative, closing and getting the first attack.

So Ivar should be smart. Ivar shouldn't advance, and if Koko wants to fight, she can come halfway and hope to get lucky on the next attack. But still, that's not the greatest reward for winning initiative.

All right, so that's terrible.What if we fix the rules so that everyone's movement happens in one phase in initiative order, then everyone's attacks in a subsequent phase? We get this:

The guy with initiative runs up to attack, and the guy without plays keep-away. Only if the gorilla paradoxically wins initiative do her slow legs not carry her beyond the reach of the barbarian's axe. This can go indefinitely even if the barbarian is faster than the gorilla, unless you have some rule about locking in combat - let's say, if the barbarian ends up with 3" or more of move left over, the gorilla can't disengage until the next round.

There's also the whole idea that you might want to wait and see what the other figure might do, stand or run, before you commit yourself. To this end, a lot of initiative-based game systems have both a forward and a backward countdown, so that an individual with initiative can go first or last, as he or she prefers. Or, the option to hold one's move until the other side has gone, which works out to much the same thing.

All this is fine for systems where the initiative roll is somehow given a bonus or penalty according to the personal attributes of the fighting figures. You don't want the high Dexterity guy or the ranger to be disadvantaged. But a lot of our games - including my own - advocate a simple roll, either individually or for each side. Straight d6 on straight d6, no bonuses or modifiers. In that case, why even talk about losing or winning initiative? Why not talk instead of high and low initiative, each of which has its own advantages; like yin and yang?

  • High initiative is generally advantageous, especially with two combatants already in range of each other. It also allows seizing the initiative, taking over some point of vantage, grabbing the sword on the ground.
  • Low initiative is a more passive and patient stance. It gives the advantage of being able to act second, seeing what the opponent has done and performing the move to outfox that. Especially where movement and melee attack are rolled into one action, having low initiative can be more of an advantage than having high initiative.
I find that it simplifies combats enormously to have people say and do everything they can when their turn comes around. Multiple phases, pre-calling actions, holding actions, all put obstacles in the way. At the same time, I have worried about gaming this system, so what I actually use in play is a multiple-phase system (missile, spell, move, melee) with held moves possible. But I've just realized I might not need all this, if I let go of the idea of initiative having to always be an advantage.

With all the initiative systems out there, is there one for you that strikes the balance between ease of use, strategic depth, and players gaming the system?


  1. It's an interesting concept of balancing out both extremes in the yin/yang fashion, which makes the roll less of a fallacy of action.

    What we do on my end is everyone rolls initiative per round of combat (individually) with the lowest openly stating what they're doing, followed by the next and etc. up to the last. Which allows those higher up to say they'll "wait to interrupt such and such", "attack the BBM-U", or "nail the archer lining up a shot on Bob". It's the whole idea that initiative rolls per round measure how quickly characters can pull off their actions per turn, and by restricting the lower initiatives to state their actions first we've still got gritty, chaotic battle.

    It at least works out fine when we're playing without figures.

  2. But Ivar is okay in 3.5, where he can ready an attack, and gets attacks of opportunity, against Koko!

  3. The first case is easily dealt with by not simply allowing winners of initiative to move and strike first in order but instead allowing the winner of initiative to move first and strike first when an opponent is in reach such that closing on a foe with higher initiative means that foe may be able to strike the fighter with lower initiative first. Such a rule gets rid of a host of readied action and overwatch rules.

    One of the earlier versions of Jorune had combatants roll for advantage instead of simple initiative. A highher score allowed more movement and attacks and a lower one limited movement and actions without a picky action point system. Low advantage foes might be able to move for example but they wouldn't be able to move and attack.

  4. I normally use the CHAINMAIL initiative rules for D&D, but at times I run a game where people would rather use a more unified initiative system. I have shamelessly ripped off some of the Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay 3e initiative rules, and used them to great effect in those instances.

    In this variant, players and the GM roll initiative as normal, but the GM does not assign a particular player to a particular roll. Instead, as the initiative counts down, any time a number that a player rolled comes up, the players decide who gets to act at that point. In this way, they can gain a genuine advantage over the "monsters", who are acting on their fixed initiative scores (assigned as normal by the GM).

    This seems to keep some players more involved in the combat, as they're not waiting for "their turn", and since the players are not tied to a particular score, they can adjust their tactics as the situation demands.
    It's a pretty simple little modification, but it can make a huge difference in a fight. Of course, there are times when the players are all heaped at the bottom, but that's life with random number generation and even then at least the players can coordinate to make the best of their situation.

  5. One solution I've seen is that players announce their actions in reverse order of initiative. So the people who get to act first also get to anticipate the actions of foes. Thus, Ivar would see that Koko was going to rush forwards, and he could then set spears against charge, or attack her only as she came into range, or himself step back, etc.

  6. Kyle - I've seen that too. That's quite elegant if you're using pre-announced actions. I tried playing with them and people always forgot to do it (including myself), so I'm looking for more immediate solutions where you announce, act and have resolution all in one pop.