Reconsidering Initiative

Reconsidering Initiative

I was thinking about initiative recently--what it means in the game world and how it ought to work.

Initiative in RPGs is kind of an of an odd beast. In the real world when two or more people get in any sort of conflict, they are mostly moving and acting at the same time. RPGs, on the other hand, tend to break this down into a number of discrete actions that are taken sequentially.

Initiative in an RPG usually represents not just the who acts first, but also works as an ordering mechanism for the game abstraction of discrete actions. In a sense, Initiative is usually used to handle two related, but different functions. This leads to some strangeness regarding what it's actually accomplishing, and I'm going to look at each in turn: Initiative as a simulation and Initiative as a game abstraction.

Somehow all reason, compromise and appeals to humanity have failed, and you've chosen to raise your Glock-9 semi-automatic and with one small twitch of your finger blow two to three quarter-sized holes through the brainpan of the fellow human being standing in front of you, thereby splattering the back wall with something resembling an abstract expressionist painting comprised of bodily fluids and meaty chunks of gray matter. In one small motion every hope he's ever had and every dream his mother ever had for him while he was a small child playing in the back yard, making imaginary pies out of mud and grass, will be brought to an end. Irrevocably. Forever.

From what I understand, in the real world, who gets the initiative in a violent conflict has very little to do with a person's manual dexterity or agility or anything like that. Rather who gets the initiative in a fight is more about who can come to grips with the fact that they're about to do something terrible to another human being first, and then do it. This makes it less a matter of agility and a more a function of how battle-hardened or simply how uncaring and sociopathic a person is.

When thinking about Initiative as a simulation, this makes a lot of initiative systems in RPGs not make a lot of sense.

In the real world this sort of battle-hardening is a lot of what makes seasoned or veteran troops better at what they do than green troops. And a number of of old hex-grid war-games determine Initiative based on exactly this: the troop's classification as green, seasoned, veteran, etc. And a few RPGs have a sociopathic hardening mechanic. But most RPGs don't model this sort of thing--the internal drives of the character are left as a matter of player decision and role-playing.

Speaking simply as a game abstraction, initiative serves a different purpose. Because most combat systems divide up the action into a number of discrete turns, these turns need some order of resolution. If you forget simulation for a second, this order could be entirely random or it could be set or whatever--what's important, though, is that it's quickly and efficiently resolved so that it doesn't stall the game.

This is usually done by giving each combatant an initiative value, and then simply just going in order. Some systems do this by making some sort of roll, some do this with a fixed number and some are totally random, but most systems boil down to assign a value and go in sort order.

Now in this sort of system ideally, every combatant would somehow get a unique value. Ties are problematic in that they slow down the game as the system resorts to some sort of tiebreaker. In Saga Machine the Initiative formula is as complex as it is (and a different scale from everything else) because it's trying to minimize the number of ties. It's also a fixed number, as this cuts down on the overhead of having to make some sort of initiative action.

Okay, so we've looked at Initiative as a simulation and initiative as a game abstraction. Let's piece them together and see what we can do.

Saga Machine does not (yet at least) have a system of model battle-hardening. Sure there's the Combat Shock weakness, but taking that's more a matter of campaign focus or character focus than it is a system for simulating this sort of thing. We do, however, have a stat that represents to some degree the ability of a person to get their mind to do what they want: Determination. And there is a good argument for basing Initiative on Determination.

But in the end Saga Machine, like most systems, leaves a character's mental state mostly up to player decision-making and role-playing. Yet there may be a way to leverage that in an Initiative mechanic.

What if on a given count who gets Initiative is a matter of who declares their action first. Stay with me here, there's a good argument for this. New character, fumbling around with options? Takes a little longer to decide, but that's okay the character's still green. Been through a few dozen combat and already know all your usual tactics? You can declare that pretty quickly. But this sort of situation may indirectly be pretty decent at simulating the character's mental hardening. It also may have the added bonus of speeding up combat by cutting down on the amount of time people dither and waffle on their options.

Of course, there are a couple difficulties with this sort of Initiative system. One is what happens if two people declare at once and there's no clear first. This is the tie problem all over again. And you can always break the tie by comparing Determination or making an opposed action. Without playtesting, however, I have no idea how often this sort of tie would occur.

And finally, there's the big question of the first count. The count system does a reasonable job of spacing out combatant actions so that there are only a few to resolve on a given count. But the first count there may be a lot of actions to resolve, and thus a lot of people yelling out actions at once. As a consequence there may be the need for some means to space out those first set of actions. This could be done by spacing out initial actions over the first few counts, or through some other means. It may even be that this is less of a concern that I anticipate. But either way, it's something to consider.

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