• All Systems Considered: Initiative

    by  • July 4, 2010 • Hobbies, RPGs • 0 Comments

    SoldierWhat is Initiative?

    From a mechanical perspective, initiative is the way we regulate actions in conflict resolution.  Even if all action is considered simultaneous, we still need some way to parse out those actions so we can judge the results.

    Yes, but What Does Initiative Represent?

    Initiative represents a character’s ability to comprehend a situation and decide how to act.

    Initiative should be influenced by a participant’s intelligence, agility, training, experience and to some degree, luck.  A modern soldier or police officer is drilled on how to react in various dangerous situations.  That training is augmented by real-world experience.  Higher intelligence helps a participant judge the nature of a situation and evaluate courses of action in a split second.  And better agility allows a participant to put the resulting decision into action swiftly.   Most game systems utilize some or all of these factors in judging who has the best initiative.

    But, what comes next is generally wrong.  One of the most popular ways of handling initiative is to have participants act in the order of the best-to-worst initiative dice rolls.  This strikes me as a simplistic compromise that actually detracts from the illusion of reality.   It doesn’t actually provide participants with a higher initiative result with any real benefit.  They go first without knowledge of what’s happening around them.  Now, many game systems attempt to fix this by letting a character ready an action with some sort of trigger event.  Or they can delay their action until later, but without round-by-round initiative rolls, they lose their good initiative result.

    I think a better system is to determine an order of initiative first, and then from the worst score to the best, have each participant state in general terms what they will do that round.  Then play proceeds from the highest score down to the lowest.  Participants must perform the action they stated, or suffer some major penalty.  The penalty would represent the split second hesitation that should give an enemy an advantage.  The participant could add to or adjust his actions with no penalty, as long as he has fulfilled his stated intent for the round.


    Roland and Grigory are in a running gun battle with two guards inside a data center.  Initiatives are rolled and the results from highest to lowest are: Roland, Guard #2, Guard #1 and Grigory.

    In the normal system, Roland would go first.

    1) Roland knows Grigory is going to take the lead, so he provides covering fire at Guard #2 in the hallway where Grigory is headed.
    2) Guard #2, if still able, fires at Grigory, who is closer and headed his way.
    3) Guard #1, fires at Roland.
    4) Grigory, if still able, moves toward the door, firing at Guard #1

    Note that Grigory, despite having the worst initiative, already knows what’s happened before he acts, so he can make a decision then on which Guard to shoot at that round.  Yes, he could be down, but if he isn’t, he’s gaining a great advantage.

    In the system I like, everyone state’s their intentions first.  Note that the better your initiative, the more you’ll know about what’s happening before you make a decision.

    1) Grigory: “I will move toward the door, and shoot at Guard #2 down the hall.”
    2) Guard #1: “I’ll hide behind a desk and fire at Grigory.”
    3) Guard #2: “I’m going pull back inside the doorway.”
    4) Roland: “I’ll shoot at Guard #1”

    Then, they act.  Roland shoots at Guard #1.  He knows no one is aiming his direction, so he doesn’t need to take any defensive precautions.  Guard #2 knows he’s a target, so he conceals himself.  Guard #1, if Roland didn’t drop him, has no way of knowing that Guard #2 would be safe, so he’d still shoot at Grigory instead of Roland.  Grigory, if he’s still alive, must move toward the doorway, and must take a shot at Guard #2, who now is covered by the wall.  The GM might allow him to throw himself prone at the end of his round because he knows he’s come under fire from the other Guard.


    As GM, you might allow some form of Initiative check to allow a participant to change their actions after Intents have been stated.  I’d allow this, but only to change to a completely defensive action.  If the character passes the check, they take a defensive action (seek cover, drop prone, crawl away, etc) without penalty.  If they fail, they’d take some penalty for hesitating too long.

    Or perhaps, you’d allow a participant to take cover instead of taking their action without penalty.  Very few combatants in reality are going to wait to take a shot when they know they’re going to be a target for several enemies!


    I’ve not had a chance to put this house rule into play yet.  I think it would work for pretty much any game that uses initiative rules.  And I think it could apply to social conflict in addition to combat.  I think it could potentially lengthen a combat encounter.  However, in games I’ve played, some players won’t even think about their actions until their turn comes up, which slows things down considerably (and drives me mad).

    Adapting the basic concept to different game systems would take some engineering, but I don’t think it would be anything too painful.


    Have you house ruled initiative?  If so, what have you tried, and how has it worked?


    Michael has been writing professionally for print, television and the internet for thirty years. As a Senior Producer at CNN International, he examined the future of technology with dozens of brilliant scientists, philosophers and entrepreneurs on the acclaimed series Future Summit. Before that, in the CNN International newsroom, he helped lead the production of award winning coverage of news like the 9/11 attacks, the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, and the devastating 2004 tsunami in Asia. As a director, he has created a dozen short films in the last seven years. He lives with his wife, dog, four cats and two horses in the suburbs of Atlanta.


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