The Point of Initiative Systems
It’s a new year, so it seems fitting to me to start off with a blog post about initiative systems in roleplaying games. (My yearly “think about the future” sort of post will come next week, promise.)
I think that initiative systems are awesome, and are frequently looked down upon by some segments of the community as being part of the oldest way of things. And certainly they’re as old as board games are, with static turn-taking mechanisms. But many old things hold purposes not necessarily obvious to everyone, and that’s what I want to talk about today.
What Initiative Systems Can Do
It’s easy to see that initiative systems structure turn-based play. In classic systems, we all roll initiative and know that, for instance, I’m going to go first, then Billy, then the GM’s mob, then Erin, and finally the GM’s big monster. Without initiative, you have chaos as to who goes when — which isn’t inherently bad (I’ve had fun doing that!) but can lead to people feeling shorted because they weren’t loud enough to draw attention in the chaos.
Initiative is a ritual signaling a shift in play. Games with initiative systems that involve mechanics, like rolling a die, make it easy to know when one form of play is done and another is being entered. It causes us to shift our mindset from, for instance, narrative freeform to structured conflict. It might even be a trigger that someone pushed a moment to far, like classic bits of this form:
“Did you just insult the Bandit King? Roll initiative!”
This ritual is even one that we as a gamer culture have integrated into our basic lexicon, the class “Roll initiative!” in non-gaming contexts. And in the proper context, it’s a ritual that people get elated about, grin when they say, etc. (Not always, but a non-trivial amount of time.)
Classically, it’s also a metric of character competence and a touchpoint of distinction. It a way to mechanize “I’m the fast one,” to give that identity weight. And with that identity, it’s a way to challenge it, either without the group (players trying to be the first in a fight because that’s how they personally have fun at the table) or in the world (a fast foe built to challenge the identity of fast-dude).
There’s more that initiative systems can do, but I’ll leave going further for comments because I want to talk about non-traditional initiative setups.
Non-Traditional Initiative Systems
The first game I played with a non-traditional initiative system was Truth & Justice, using the PDQ system. PDQ is a fast, free-flying system where there’s no separation on conflict and non-conflict time, and “initiative” is handled by being the first to say something. It feels very four-color comic book because of that, and a later PDQ game, Swashbucklers of the 7 Skies, works with that same principle. Though not really much of an initiative system, it’s worth mentioning for that reason.
My own Mythender has a simple turn-taking setup: the GM (or Mythmaster) goes, then all the players go, then it starts again with the GM. The players decide among themselves who goes, but there’s no mechanic for that — which allows them to get tactical on each round. The GM has to go first because that causes the initial sets of pressures, and the players get to choose because that reinforces that they are equals of great power.
The One Roll Engine of Reign and Godlike handles initiative and competence in the same roll, where everyone declares what they’re doing and rolls their pools of d10s at the same time. Whoever has the most matches (5-5-5 would be three matches, a.k.a. a “width of three”) goes first, but competence is measured by the die number of those matches (5-5-5- would have a “height of five”). The one time I played Godlike, it felt like a war story in that there’s chaos — but it’s all mechanized chaos, which means it’s untrustworthy and uncaring. I dug it.
Feng Shui does the shot clock thing, where you roll to get an initiative number, and that determines not just went you go, but how often you can. (Many other games have since played with this formula.) For instance, if you get a result of 18, you go on 18, counting down. If you do an action that only costs 1 shot, then your shot goes down to 17…and you’ll go again. If you then do an action that costs 3 shots, then you’ll go again on 14, and so on. It’s fiddly but interesting.
The initiative system in Marvel Heroic Roleplaying is really fascinating, and I’ll just point you to Fred Hicks’ post about it.
So, what other initiative systems have you seen that intrigue you? And what else does initiative do in a game?