Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Goodbye Initiative

As a reminder for the reader, let me preface this post by saying that I use 12-second combat rounds, I use a scale of 5-foot hexes for movement and that in a combat rounds a normal person moves at a rate of 5 hexes.

That said, those of us who have done our time in wargames have seen tables like this:

However you may happen to measure your combat rounds, or the movement of one character vs. another as they both attack the minotaur or whatever other creature they happen to be fighting, tell me this:  why don't we all automatically use tables like this all the time?

I think the answer is obvious.  Players don't like them.  I don't think DMs are overly fond of them, either. But really, really gritty wargamers love them.  Why?  Because it really gets down into the meaty, deep, simultaneous mess that is instant to instant uncertainty.  The reason why it's uncertainty is because, from the games I used to play that incorporated this sort of table, both sides had to write down their entire movement for the round BEFORE any of it was played out.

That way, both sides can use their weapons, spells, bombs, tanks, etc., at the same time.  Goodbye, initiative.  Hello major pain in the ass.

This is the answer to turn-based combat.  Everyone starts at the first segment and progresses forward, and if both attack at the same instant (demonstrated here in half movements, which will mean more for those following my blog and combat stylings than the majority of the readers), then they do.

This is hard for spellcasters that have to make absolutely sure no one is in their way when they cut loose with a spell.   If everyone is sent to the four corners of the room to write out their orders silently before handing them over to the DM (or even better, another party entirely that keeps the DM honest and doesn't play at all), then the spellcaster starts getting nervous.  After all, suddenly he or she doesn't know where the fighter is going to be.  At the same time, the fighter doesn't have a clue where the spell is going to land, either ... or the thieves' arrow shot, or the grenade missile thrown by the assassin.

Fact is, parties SAY they don't like this turn system because its cumbersome and slow and inconvenient and as many other tension-alternative words they can find in their thesauri ... but suppose we found a way to get rid of all that?  Suppose, a player could punch their move into a game system (there's your third administrator, a computer!) in as long as it took to punch a tweet on your cellphone ... and then the map was instantly created for everyone?  If we got rid of the 'cumbersome' problem, would players embrace this system?

Hell no.  What players like - love, even - is the benefit of 'group mind' that turn-based combat systems offer. The round may be 12 seconds, but everyone seems to have a lot of time to deliberate between what everyone does. They also have time to ask questions that reasonably they wouldn't even have time to think.

For example, in the on-line campaign going on right now, one of the character's asked the harmless question, "Does it look like he can reach out 2 hexes with that axe?"  A perfectly normal in-combat sort of question any player would ask.  And unhesitatingly, I answered, because that's just understood; player's ask questions like that, and the DM answers.  Only ... in this case, the actual axe hasn't been swung yet.  So how does the character know?

Now, I'm not saying the character couldn't make a judgement ... but would they really, jumping around and getting into position to throw and attack, really have time to make a judgement?  I don't know what the reader knows about cognitive tunneling ... it is really interesting stuff.  I've been reading on it because even during mild stress, this can occur - and DM's experience occasionally more than a little stress.  Given that this isn't theory, this is fact, it is probable that in no way, with heart rate soaring and potential terror in dealing with a creature 8 feet tall, 425 lbs and holding a giant axe, that the character is going to be thinking all that clearly.

We ignore all that because this is a game.  And a convenient game for the players.  If the players want to have five minutes to figure out which guy the fighter has to attack so as to be out of the way of the mage's acid arrow, then everyone acquiesces to the irrationality of it all and goes along.  After all, the bad guy's have their own group mind, haven't they?  The bad guys are all the DM.

Really, the group mind of the players is harder for them than it is for me, because I am already in agreement with myself - most of the time.

I don't have a problem with time in the game being mutable, and I don't feel any requirement to install the turn system shown at the top of this post.  I just think it's important to understand WHY we don't want to use it, and what using it would do to the interactivity of the players in the game.  Calling it 'cumbersome' is an easy non-answer to those questions.  The question deserves more than an answer of, "It's hard."

If we're not going to use it, let's not use it for the right reasons.


JDJarvis said...

"can he reach me with that axe"? deserves an answer based on the character the player is playing doesn't it? the answer should come from the DM of course not a cumbersome set of rules, if asked by a player with an experienced fighter I'd tell them yes or no, if the character wasn't a very skilled fighter the answer would be less certain.

Initiative isn't about as vague and situation of course as it deal with wider range of variables beyond observation and experience. It can get as darned calculated as player and DM wish it to be.

I played Star Fleet Battles for years and it used a chart like the one you posted here for movement. You had to plot your energy use ahead of time but there was a little flexibility in what else happened in the round, but when you had to move a hex you moved a hex.
I wonder if players would want to plot out action points for their characters? You have 10 points you spend 5 on move, 3 on striking and 2 of defense before the round starts
and action unfolds from there... probably would not be popular it's too complicated and locks players into decisions they've made instead of feeling spontaneous and heroic.

Eric said...

Systems of this nature are a little cumbersome-feeling; even if they're more realistic, the longer that real time stretches between the player deciding action and the character doing something, the less in control the player will feel. So it's important to find ways to make this go quickly, I think.

http://forum.rpg.net/showthread.php?686509-B-X-Misadventures-Fellowship-of-the-Bling-Volume-II used cards to speed up declarations before initiative: you'd throw down a Melee, Missile, Magic, or Withdraw card. Most miscellaneous actions fall under Melee, but "I duck back and try to get out a healing potion" is under Withdraw. Clearly not something that would work well in a play-by-post, but it seems to be a useful technique in a face-to-face game.

Alexis Smolensk said...


You both seem to have been fooled by the post title.

JD, I did give the player the answer. I also said it the post that I should. I also explained why turn-based is probably better. I also said I had no intention of using the chart for my game. So I'm not sure why you sound like you're arguing.

Eric, I'm not using the chart. You don't seem to have read that, either. So I'm really not looking for methodologies, am I?

Eric said...

I was trying to specify the general problem "you can get positive game effects from forcing declarations before the order of actions is precisely determined, but there's negative effects as well- players don't like it." Beyond that, I was qualifying where I think some of that dislike comes from, and I picked out a specific example of how a speedy resolution mechanism made declare-then-determine-order work for a particular player group. I wasn't trying to say "use this methodology" but rather "this methodology is an example of a partial solution to a general problem."

JDJarvis said...

I sound like I'm arguing? Actually, supporting.
Most folks want to feel like they are being spontaneous, impulsive, and heroic not locked into a predefined process flow. Rules supporting that are the right reason not to use an impulse based action chart.
I don't even like when games break a round into a movement phase, a missile phase, a melee phase and a magic phase because of how it flies in the face of "spontaneous" action.

Matt said...

This seems to share some similarities with player complaints about not being in perfect formation when interrupted during travel, or about not knowing their exact HP value. A lack of information makes the players stressed, confused, and leads to them occasionally doing stupid things in a very realistic manner.

Unfortunately it tends to start fights when I begin withholding information that characters wouldn't necessarily have that players are used to having.

I think there is an interesting game hiding in limited player knowledge, but I agree that it would be a tough sell to the players. Maybe one day I'll just have to explain that it's what we are doing, and see how long the game lasts and who's still satisfied with it.

Alexis Smolensk said...

Well then, I clearly can't read.

Alexis Smolensk said...

Once, Matt, I played out an extensive, slogging fight between a group of orcs and a group of goblins using the staggered method described herein (without pre-written orders, I was playing against myself), just to see how it would play.

It was fantastic.

But it's a wargame, with all the things wargamer's love, and that is probably why I enjoyed it. What it isn't, is D&D. I suggest you give it a try, however. Just to see.

Jhandar said...

While I am a gaming luddite in that I want to hold my dice and write on paper with pencil when it comes to my gaming (although while DMing I do use a laptop), this is an opportunity for the brave new world that we are in to shine.

Several of my group use tablets or other devices to manage their characters. This would be a place for proper programing to shine. If there was a program where a group could interactively see a map and provide orders for their character, and the DM the monsters, and then once all orders were in a simple 'execute' that the DM could pull for the round and resolve all of this without 10-15 minutes per round, it would be great.

I know some will say that this is bordering on video gaming rather than role playing. However, if it is just a combat tool would it really be that bad?

I have always personally enjoyed segmented combats like this as it provides more options for the players. However, like everyone that has used this system, it bogs down combat and these events take significantly more time to run that a less detailed combat interaction.

Matt said...

Only two of my players show much interest in things wargamey. Of them, only one really has the patience for it.

There are some large scale conflicts brewing, so maybe I will take your advice and give it a try while playing against myself. set up the combatants on both sides, and roll all the dice. It's likely the PCs won't be in the area for some of these combats, so it will probably be more fun than just relying on fiat or a simplified roll.

Thanks for the push!

Lukas said...

Yes, I think it's very important to analyze these things for why they aren't desirable. I think that DnD actually has a number of things that wouldn't suffer from this type of initiative should we implement it properly.

There are a number of friend/foe recognizing spells, suddenly fireball and lightning bolt are less desirable and targeting spells like magic missile and acid arrow become more useful.

I would expect a shift from "I move to hex 1020 and attack orc B" to valuing hexes adjacent to multiple opponents and "attack the nearest orc" just in case the primary target dies first.

I expect there to be more broken front lines.

But I also expect there to be a degree of DM advantage if the opponents have more than one creature.

You're right, we should stick to turn based, but it does help keep those casters powerful...

Frank Mentzer said...

>So how does the character know?

Because the characters are experienced professionals in their fields -- which the players really know very little about.

Alexis Smolensk said...


Oh no, I'm not saying the character doesn't have the educational power to know the axe on sight and what it can do; that is a given. I'm am saying that in the middle of a battle, during a condition of heightened stress, they probably wouldn't be able to judge it because they wouldn't be in full control of their faculties.

Look into the events surrounding the shooting of Amadou Diallo, February 4, 1999, and investigate the effects of stress upon perception, in this case of four experienced police officers who fired a combined total of 41 shots into an unarmed black man in his front hallway. Malcolm Gladwell's Blink covered the subject brilliantly. There's plenty of detail on the internet.

Eid said...

I'm rather fond of breaking up combat 'rounds' into mulch-segments, coming from 2nd Ed. with weapon speeds and casting times.
Got to say, Its the real reason I never got into 3rd or even 4th Ed.

I'm also perfectly fine with the concept that the PCs DONT have a group mind to coordinate inner-round actions (while the DM does). If we wanted that kind of benefit, then we should have to pay the cost with a telepathic spell or psi.