The trouble with Initiative..

Monday, 29. November 2010

Looking at Christan’s post over at Destination Unknown, I have some mixed feelings about initiative systems in general. A lot of them are cumbersome and generally a pain to work with. It’s another layer of complexity that slows down the action… depending on how its handled that is. There is some added obscurity in that the first acting person isn’t necessarily first… depending on the circumstances.

As the title was saying, the trouble with initiative is that at least in melee combat – the person who is “first” is often the loser. The trick is to get someone to mentally commit to an action, then respond to it. There is a large variety of methods of accomplishing this, but unless the defender really is “flat footed” so to say, its often to their great advantage to go second. Make them miss, then kill them. Of course, this only applies with melee weapons.. if there are ranged weapons such as guns that are brought into play then the first person to connect wins. There is no choice but to beat them and control the weapon or take evasive action until you can bring your own weapons to bear (Incidentally, 4-10 feet is about the worst possible distance you can be in that instance, but thats another conversation entirely.)

Any case, the point is that the person who shouldn’t be “first” per say isn’t always at an advantage.. which is where at least somewhat of the random factor in initiative comes from. So what factors are there to consider?

1) The mental willingness to commit acts of violence – #1 the largest single factor in combat. It is one thing to hit someone with a fist, it is another large step to attack them with something that is obviously lethal. If the mental resolve isn’t there, this person loses. Period.
2) Physical preparation for combat – If your hands aren’t up you’re probably going to get sucker punched. Likewise for the person balancing oddly on one foot or in other strange positions. There is a weight shift necessary to respond and it works in strange fashions.
3) The characters speed in question – How fast can the character respond.. both mentally and physically. This places a pretty respectable effect on how bit that reactionary gap is.
4) Weapon type & Distance – What weapons are being brought to bear, and how far away is your target? Woe to the person who is within the reactionary gap of the weapon in question.
5) Luck – Not to be discounted. Training only hedges your bet to survive a fight – sadly it has diminishing returns as well.
6) Superseded action – An interrupted combat plan has a tendency to slow people down considerably further as they have to rethink what they’re doing.

I would rate speed based on the above, with a healthy dose of luck and an order change in between rounds based on interruptions, if I were to normalize away from regular systems dice throws.


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9 Responses to “The trouble with Initiative..”

  1. Don Says:

    Initiative isn’t necessarily who goes first, but is simply who is best able to react first. If my character wins initiative, yes, I can run up to the bad guy and take a swing.

    Most games allow for some type of hold on your action, such as D&D’s actions Ready an Action, or Delay. With these, I can wait until Bad Guy does something I want to react to (comes in melee range, takes aim at an ally, etc) then deal with him as an interrupt to his action. For the Delay, I can wait until any other combatant has taken their turn, then take mine.

    With either, I have the option of setting up a response, first.

    As for your numbered items:

    1) I see it not as the character losing initiative, but delaying while he ascertains the nature of the fight.

    2) A lot of surprise connotations here. But also remember the Quick Draw feats that allow the characters to bring out weapons fast.

    3) I see this as the initiative modifier for the character. Improved Initiative feats mean the character has trained in gaining a reactionary advantage to threats.

    4) For weapon type and distance, I’m afraid I dont see this as an initiative factor, but rather as a weapon selection factor. If the Bad Guy is within 15 feet, it’s not the right time to draw out a longbow to start the fight. Go for the sword or daggers. Similarly, if you round a corner and you become aware of Bad Guy at the same time he is aware of you (but he has bow in hand), initiative will decide if he fires first, or you got 100% cover by ducking back behind the corner.
    Sphere of influence =/= initiative.

    5) The die roll.

    6) Some DMs force all players to submit their actions as a group, interpreting the speed of a combat round to preclude any real mid-turn organizing. I’ve done a campaign at school with this and it is interesting. The action then plays out, but the characters don’t get to react as quickly to combat dynamics. The advantage is it forces the group to talk tactics ahead of time, and try to get their plan to work. (In this system, you could still react if your plan didn’t go off as intended. Spellcasters got the biggest shaft in the system because just prior to casting they’d decide if they wanted to or not, depending on how the combat developed.)

  2. The Red DM Says:

    Certainly I have seen many instances where the winner of initiative quickly gets into a lot of trouble (or dead), but that doesn’t mean they didn’t gain an advantage by winning initiative, it means they didn’t effectively leverage that advantage.

    In a group where the winner of initiative charges the loser as a defacto strategy, then the winner is very frequently going to get into trouble. But again, its not the initiative roll that made the winner charge.

    The problem is that many players see getting that first blow in as all important, where in all but the most lethal of games making the first attack roll is only a slight advantage. To properly leverage initiative the winner needs to take actions that will steer the combat in a direction that suits them; not worry so much about getting the first blow, but instead worry about how to get an advantage for the balance of the fight.

  3. Grey Says:

    Hello Red GM, great to hear from you.

    In matchs that tend to be more longer drawn out, then the strategic placement within the fight longer term becomes far more important. In fights that turn into a bloodbath immediately, then that first hit is weighed pretty heavily… so there is a definete systemic weighting there.

    I think part of what I’m looking at might be how tight the combat rounds actually are, leaving how much room for editorial control? That was an excellent point in the old D&D systems, 1 minute rounds (Which were totally unrealistic but hey!) left excellent room for editorial and dramatic fighting, and meant that the initiative winner was able to move to their greatest advantage, rather than just “first”.

  4. runjikol Says:

    Have to agree. Initiative is, IMO, a mutation of the surprise check; and that’s all that is required. Is anyone surprised, or otherwise unready, for combat? See my #2.

    #1) This can be simulated, or abstracted away, by having a fixed initiative score: like the post at Destination Uknown suggests.
    #2) Hands ready, not in pockets, not playing with magic rings, strumming instruments, smoking pipes, drinking wine, or tucked in belts.
    #3) Reactionary gap exploitation is the bread & butter of prison-ambushes. Should you be exploited then you have to respond with commitment and aggression to have a chance. Most gamers don’t understand this because they are without experience in fighting or martial science.
    #4) Weapon type is mainly about reach, IMO. A rapier (not the sport fencing type) is a good example. Very long, light and easy to thrust with.
    #5) Luck: is modelled with a lot of systems having random damage &/or a random attack roll. In nearly all RPG’s this doesn’t need to be changed, IMO.
    #6) Interruption/stymied: whether this works depends on commitment. Some things are easier to interrupt a person’s action than others. Eg. sand in the eyes, is worse than a kick in the shin.

    I’ve done away with iniative in my system, Simple 2d6, and only need to check if there is surprise or readiness to fight. Most of the time it will be obvious. If your enemies have not got their weapons out by the time you close on them; then they’re in a great deal of trouble. With melee it’s roll vs. roll. With missiles it’s hit the TN.

    PS. If the link is busted, Grey; could you please fix? Thanks.

  5. Grey Says:

    Best able to have actionable effect first is probably a better way of defining it. As the time margins in game rounds get more and more razor thin, there is less leeway with the GM to do things.

    1) Characters resolve to be able to inflict damage. If its not there or able to be ramped up quickly they more or less lost. You can certainly escalate as needed, but if the will isn’t in you it’s more or less not ending well.
    2) There is a certain amount of posturing you can get away with. It’s not so much the hands that tell the story (unless they’re real close.) but their weight distribution and posture thats limiting action. Thats the real killer, especially defensively.
    3) Initiative modifier for sure, could probably throw agility in there to a certain extent depending on how much you want stats to encompass. Training can have a fair amount to do with this as well, so you could wrap that in too.
    4) Sphere of influence has a huge effect on whether or not your reaction time to do something actually matters. If you are only slightly faster and out of reach, the other character could easily do something even acting “slower” persay. It comes down heavily to how tight the games rounds are and how quick you “need” to act.
    5) Agreed. The context is how frequently is it necessary.
    6) Unified action is good, but I’m talking about how being punched in the face or slashed in the leg breaks your action cycle and slows you down.

  6. Grey Says:

    I answered some of these in Don’s posts a minute ago, but I’ll touch on a few more details.

    3) Yes! On all accounts.
    4) More or less talking about sphere of influence rather than weapon “speed” directly. A knives may only be a few inches, but the rapier in your situation may be a 3 feet. If they’re within that one step distance + the weapon, huge advantage to the person going first.
    5) Still good to have something from the getgo as to something of a random order. Dosen’t need to be rolled everyone round, maybe just once or if the fight grossly changes.
    6) I’m thinking actual neuromuscular interruption. Sand to the eyes is good, but damage has a way of accomplishing the same thing and changing the tempo of the fight entirely.

  7. The Devil’s Initiative « The Red Box Blog Says:

    [...] over at Pen and Sword has a post about “The Trouble With Initiative” (which itself references a post at Destination [...]

  8. Don Says:

    For the sphere of influence, ie, how much battlefield you can reach and cause harm, I still maintain it has absolutely nothing to do with initiative.

    Initiative is, in my mind, not the first chance to strike a blow, but who reacts more quickly in a situation. The example I used with the guy with the long bow 50 yards from a corner, and a guy with a dagger walks around it. Assuming weapons are in hand, initiative is going to decide who reacts more quickly.

    If the bow user wins initiative, he may get the shot off first. If the dagger wielder wins, he can duck behind the corner and gain total cover from the attack.

    Initiative is not about doing damage, it’s about who reacts to a situation first.

    Now, in combat starting at 50 yards, I have no doubt the bow user is better of tactically, and the dagger wielder has some maneuvering to do to make the fight favorable to him, but it is important to separate and differentiate the tactical advantage issue from the initiative concept.

  9. Grey Says:

    It does though, because we are talking about limited timeframes that each character gets to operate in. You may get to act first in whatever case, but it’s not tremendously faster than the other guy in a 6 second round. It may only be a split second. That sphere of influence is what it allows you to capitolize on it… because it can very much be the chance to strike the first blow. It can also be the chance to dive for cover, but it needs to be a great enough margin for you to actually make it.

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