Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Design Philosophy - Initiative

Initiative (or any other term for turn order) in combat exists in some form or another in almost every role-playing game. The majority of popular rule systems call for a die roll contest between characters or groups of characters to determine this order. In Venture!, this contest is skipped entirely - play flows around the table, starting with the players / player characters and ending with the game master and her non-player characters (with the only exception being when the non-player characters ambush or get the drop on the player characters and start the turn).

Why implement a potentially unpopular system like this?

1. The Narrative Benefit of Initiative Checks (or its Lack)

First of all, let us say that having an initiative check with the game's rules isn't an inherently bad thing. If you are looking at an RPG as a means of telling a story, however, it should benefit the narrative at the table. Many games do incorporate important details of the setting into their initiative rules - superhero or cyberpunk-themed games come to mind, where having a superhuman reaction time ensures that a character acts first or even multiple times in comparison to slower characters. A similar benefit is gained in implementing action speed rules - letting lighter weapons or simpler attacks occur earlier or faster than bigger weapons and slower actions. This can add a fun tactical element, but it also sets a tone for the grittiness and feel of combat in the game world.

If the initiative rules aren't helping to set the scene in your game universe, is there anything to be gained by using them? 

2. Keeping the Action Flowing

Experienced role-players are probably familiar with one of the potential problems with a typical initiative system: the lull in action that it can cause. The game master will be working with the player characters, building anticipation for a fight to come, everyone is getting their weapons ready for the upcoming fight, challenges are issued, the enemies charge.. and then the game master halts the story to call for an initiative roll. Where are my dice? What is my modifier? Can I do one thing before we go into combat? OK, what did everyone roll? Let me write these down - you two both got an 18, who has a higher Agility? Alright, we're all set - Alice, you're up.

With focused players, this can be a minor speed bump, just taking a few moments to resolve. If everyone at the table is distracted or tired, this can take at least a few minutes, and can kill the anticipation that's been building up. Its like pausing a movie right before the climactic fight scene to grab snacks and take a bathroom break, it doesn't ruin the experience, but it does kill some of the momentum.

There is an additional lull if any of the players at the table aren't aware of their place in the turn order. Suddenly caught unaware, they can flounder, trying to decide on a course of action. Again, this adds a few moments more to the combat. While this doesn't sound like much on paper, trying to maintain that initial rush before the fight grows harder with every second wasted. By going around the table, each player knows exactly who they will be acting after and how many characters will act before theirs, all without having to consult (or have the game master maintain) a list of the initiative order.

3. Maintaining the Game's Tone

Venture! is trying to emulate pulp novels and film serials. The player characters typically go first, making them proactive, charging into a fight with the first blow. Ideally, this should immediately gain them momentum in the fight and make the players feel like the daring heroes they should be emulating in the game setting. In a few moments, they'll have dealt with several faceless minions of their adversaries, and be ready to face down the remainder.

After these initial blows, things become a back-and-forth once the non-player characters strike back. The player characters take out a few mooks, and dive away from the return fire. As the lieutenants and mastermind of their foes become exposed, things flow like a duel - these greater foes exchanging strikes at one or more player characters until one manages to connect.  This is a deliberate attempt to make the action at the game table progress as the cuts in a filmed action scene would: the heroes strike a blow, evade a counterattack, strike another blow, get engaged in a desperate struggle with their equal, and ultimately, dispatch their adversary.

4. Ambushes are Dangerous!

One additional benefit to this system was discovered during playtesting: ambushes by non-player characters become frightening and dangerous. The players become accustomed to acting first, so if their enemies get the drop on them, it puts them in an unexpected, perilous situation (just like their characters). Most ambushes will turn into a desperate struggle quickly. The worst will end with the player characters capture, which helps feed the story.

Agree? Disagree? Have a question? Leave a comment below!


Venture! Thrilling Adventures in the World of AEthrem and its associated characters are the property of Weird Science Games, LLC, Copyright 2015.

West End Games, OpenD6, and The D6 system are trademarks and properties of Purgatory Publishing Inc.