C Series • #1
Initiative. All games have some form of this rule to determine who acts first in combat or other time sensitive moments in the game. The initiative system has a big influence on how combat is run and for characters it can be a matter of life and death. I am going to review some of the more interesting (in my opinion) initiative systems and give my thoughts on initiative.
The ‘base’ system used in many games is what I call the ‘Rocky movie’ approach to initiative. Once an order is determined, each character and NPC go in that order taking their action (or actions) then waiting until the next round to act. The action has the feeling of the big boxing fights in the Rocky pictures: I hit you and wait until you hit me, then I hit you, then you hit me…. This has the advantage of being simple to keep track of and everyone knows when their action is going to be. I think its biggest disadvantage is that it really doesn’t make much sense when you think about what combat would be like. Picture the combat where everyone is standing around waiting for the Rogue to make an attack with her dagger, then Orc#1 takes a swing at the Wizard, then Orc#7 fires an arrow at the Rogue, etc.
Another approach to initiative I found interesting was in 1st Edition Star Wars from West End Games where combat went through a Declaration and an Action phase. Players declared actions from lowest Perception to highest Perception ability scores allowing more observant characters to see what everyone else is going to do before deciding what their action will be. Those declared actions were carried out in order of Dexterity ability scores from highest to lowest. Even though your character with a high Perception can see that the Bounty Hunter is going to shoot at you, the Hunter’s faster reflexes means they go the shot off before you could react. The downside is that all the actions for the round are set once the declarations are done, and you can’t adjust them from previous results, so you can find yourself shooting at a Stormtrooper that has already been killed. Within this system were reactive defense actions (Dodge) that you could always use to attempt to avoid an attack.
White Wolf Publishing’s Storyteller rule set had a similar premise in its Combat system. Players declared what their actions were going to be before the initiative order was determined (as certain attack movements would affect initiative bonuses). While this was similar to the WEG Star Wars, there was one significant change — the initiative order was acted out from the lowest (worst) initiative to the highest. Higher initiatives could interrupt a lower initiative before they could complete their action. Some defensive actions could always interrupt an attack, so even if you had a bad initiative you could still attempt to defend yourself against an attack. I loved the fact that this system gave players with higher initiatives a significant advantage in that they could hold their declared action until it was most effective in the round rather than simply going first.
Another initiative format is what I will term the ‘continuous combat’ approach. In this method action is not limited to a ‘round.’ Instead, once you have completed your declared action, you immediately declare what you are going to do next and determine when that action will be completed. You can also declare a different action if your previously declared action is interrupted or no longer valid (you were going to hit the Orc, but he was killed by an ally’s arrow so instead you turn your attack to the Ogre). In this case a combat ‘round’ is merely a matter of timekeeping and doesn’t restrict characters from acting. AD&D had this system implied in its use of Weapon Speed Factors (WSF) and Casting Times (CT). Say you have a Rogue wielding a dagger (WSF of 2) against a Fighter wielding a two-handed sword (WSF of 10). Initiative is a d6 roll, modified by Dexterity, and added to the WSF to get final initiatives of 5 for the Rogue and 13 for the Fighter. The Rogue makes his attack then declares another attack and rolls an Initiative of 4, so the second attack completes on segment 9. The Rogue declares another attack action with an Initiative of 3, so the third attack completes on segment 12. End result is the Rogue would get three attacks with the dagger before the Fighter completes a single attack with the two-handed sword. This is my favorite style as it flows more like a combat would. Fast characters, with quick weapons, not only act faster but may get multiple actions in before a slower character burdened with a heavier weapon can take any action.
Given the different approaches to initiative, many game systems have optional rules developed for gameplay. In all games, the group has the ultimate decision on how the rule is going to look. If the group decides that a specific systems approach does not work with how they feel combat should look, play with developing an alternate rule set. There is no ‘perfect’ system out there (well, maybe Rolemaster …) so feel free to experiment and see what works best for your play style and just be aware that there is more than one way to determine who is on first.