Thursday, January 12, 2012

Initiative and Decisions, Part 2

I recently wrote a post about initiative, throwing in some real world experiences. The question I left off on was how to translate this into a workable mechanic.

Get a shot off fast. This upsets him long enough to let you make your second shot perfect.
- Robert Heinlein

As a simple principle, I want the players to be able to make a choice between accuracy, speed, and perhaps power (damage). It may be better to get a wild attack in first, or maybe you need to take your time to line up a fight-ending hit on a tough foe.

Here's a simple rule that would grab some of that idea:
"If not surprised, on the first round of combat, gain +1 to an initiative check (D6), +2 to hit (D20), or +1d6 per three levels damage on any one attack."
This is the carrot approach in that it makes PCs more powerful, unless, of course, you give such an ability to the monsters as well. You could also take another approach, allowing the PCs to "wager" for initiative:
"If not surprised, on the first round of initiative, each side may accept a penalty to hit or damage for the first round of combat. For every -2 to hit or -1d6 per three levels damage penalty, each side gains +1 to an initiative check."
However, subtraction is always harder than addition, so I'd be wary of this approach. One could also invent some sort of "penalty token" that could be gained in various ways (attacks by enemies, curses, fatigue, etc); maybe the penalty tokens give -2 to hit each. In that case you could say, "Gain one penalty token but gain bonus to initiative."


Let's assume we go with the first option -- it seems simplest, and will gain little resistance as it gives the PCs a nice little benefit. Clearly I would not want to reroll initiative every round with this. However, I do want some option to mix things up in the midst of a fight. I see two ways to do this:

(A) Every few rounds, recheck initiative. The easiest way to do this is probably to roll 1d6 at the end of each round and if it comes up as a 1 (or 1-2), it is time to reroll initiative. You could also tie this to spell duration and stop having to track spells in rounds, if you like.

(B) PCs and major NPCs can force new initiative checks. For example, maybe a player can spend a full round action to force a new initiative check for all players. Or, if characters have some sort of "encounter power" (don't get all 4E on me -- remember how a PC could charge only once every turn in 1E? That's arguably an "encounter power," right?) that can be expended on a variety of things, including a new initiative check.
I think either would work fairly well--of course, this needs to be playtested.

Monday, January 2, 2012

Initiative and Decisions, Part 1

Ars Ludi has an interesting post about initiative, arguing that individual systems where each player has their own initiative check are silent killers for RPGs, causing players to tune out when it isn't their turn.

I tend to agree, and would further agree that the dice rolling orgy that is initiative is a bit silly sometimes. I see a few options, if we assume that you're getting rid of individual initiative.

(1) Roll initiative once in the first round. This is simple and fast. The tradeoff is that the fight is very predictable, with no chance for one side to "seize a tempo" and go twice in a row.

(2) Roll initiative every single round. This can get complicated. I'll admit, I've forgotten to check initiative in the quick "they go/we go" tempo of an OD&D style game. It also results in fairly frequent changes in tempo, but they're totally random.

I don't really find either of those satisfying, although I'll admit that I find the former to be better if for no other reason than it is simpler and faster. If the players are not making any significant choices and the outcomes are totally random, I tend to prefer quick, fast solutions.

While taking a firearms class recently, I thought about seizing the initiative in a fight. There are a few thoughts here. First, acting is better than reacting. When you act you often get a small window that can be exploited through speed, surprise, and violence of action. The Tueller Drill is perhaps an example of this; this drill, named for a police officer, shows that a melee attacker can cover about 7 yards in the time it takes a defender to react, draw a sidearm, and get a shot on target.

In personal experience I've found that getting that optimal reaction time is highly dependent on a vigilant state of alertness. If you're dialed in on the potential threat and postured to react then the reaction is much faster.

I've also found that there is a significant and adjustable tradeoff between speed of response (or action) and the accuracy of that response. For example, I've done some competitive shooting. There is a balance between speed, accuracy, and power. I can get bullseyes at relatively far ranges fairly easily with a low powered weapon and plenty of time. As I push myself to go faster and faster, using a combat-caliber weapon, accuracy degrades. But, accuracy may still be "good enough." For example, in some competition disciplines you get full points for any hit in the vital area or on a steel plate -- it doesn't have to be a bullseye. In this type of competition it is better to go fast and compromise accuracy as long as you're still in the target area.

The question is how to capture this with an efficient, elegant mechanic.