Thursday, September 24, 2020

Dynamic Initiative

Last month, I talked about my recent experiences playing wargames online with friends via VASSAL. Our most recent game is Liberty or Death, which concerns the American War of Independence (or the American Insurrection, as the game calls it). I've been enjoying it, though I'm finding it a much more complex game than Falling Sky. Partly, I think it's a function of the time period and scope of the game and partly it's because I'm playing a more significant faction. In Falling Sky, I played the Belgae, who are a minor faction; in Liberty or Death, I'm playing the Patriots, who are, obviously, one of the two primary antagonists. Even so, most of the things I learned playing Falling Sky carried over into Liberty or Death, which only makes sense, given that they both use the same underlying mechanics.

One of those mechanics is its unique approach to turn order. Each turn, an event card is drawn. At the top of each card is a series of symbols, all of which is associated with a faction. For example, in the image above, the card "Benjamin Franklin Travels to France" shows the so-called Betsy Ross flag of 1777 first, followed by the flag of the Kingdom of France, the Union Jack, and lastly an arrowhead representing British allied Indian forces. The order of the symbols indicates the action priority of the factions in a turn. 

However, there's an added complication. If you look to the bottom left, there's an area entitled "Sequence of Play." In that area are two boxes called "Eligible Factions" and "Ineligible Factions." After the very first turn of the game, in which all factions are eligible, whether or not a given faction can act is determined by what happened the previous turn. If a faction acts in one turn, it is generally ineligible to act the next turn. Thus, only a faction that didn't act the previous turn can make use of an event card in the present turn – and which one of them gets the option to do so first is randomly determined based on which event card appears and which symbol is listed first.

There are a couple of additional wrinkles to the turn order. The player of a faction may forego his action on a turn in order to sit out the turn and gain resources. In doing so, he keeps his faction eligible for the next turn, which may be a wise move, since players can see the next upcoming event card. Further, by passing on an action in this way, a player changes the order of initiative for future turns. All factions also have a "brilliant stroke" card, which enables eligible factions to act of sequence once per game. Though rarer, this can nevertheless shake up the game's turn order.

In play, this system is dynamic and enjoyable. It keeps the sequence of play from stagnating into an "I go, you go" sort of affair. Having seen it in action during the course of two different wargames, I found myself wondering about how to do something similar in RPG combat. Plenty of roleplaying games have had dynamic initiative systems before, but they tend to rely on rolling dice every round or some kind of action point economy. Both approaches are fine, though action points require bookkeeping, which, in my experience at least, tends to lead to their being ignored. Rolling dice every round is better, but it can slow things down. What I like about the system in Liberty or Death or indeed any of the COIN series of games is that it requires only the turning of a single card, which provides all the information needed to adjudicate turn order.

I have no idea how this would work yet, or whether it's possible at all. A few years ago, I toyed with a chit-based initiative system – I really wanted to find a way to incorporate Holmesian chits into contemporary RPGs – but I was not satisfied with the results. I will have to keep thinking about this.


  1. I am sure you have played it, but Deadlands uses a deck of cards for initiative, I have only played it at cons, but I liked it. just flip up cards to each player/npc, and starting at aces, go, ace of space, ace of hearts, ace of diamonds, etc.

    I loved it, and it was intuitive for gamers to immediately see their card and know how well they had done...

  2. A very long time ago, I toyed around quite a bit with the idea of using cards to handle all aspects of RPG combat. I don't remember all the details now, but the idea was that each weapon and each class would have access to a specific list of combat cards. From that pool, characters could build their own personalized deck, and in battle, would pull a hand of cards each round to get access to actions.

    So, for example, a fighter using a short sword would have a blend of short sword cards (with faster speed rating and lower damage, for example, compared to a two-handed sword) and fighter cards (which might emphasize strength and allow more powerful maneuvers than other less combat-focused classes).

    By comparison, a thief using a short sword would share the same short sword deck as the fighter, but then would mix in a separate pool of class cards (weaker attacks, but also cards that would offer big damage against disadvantaged opponents to represent backstabs, etc).

    I thought it would be complicated to design, but offer lots of advantages if done well. Attacks and maneuvers could be pretty detailed, given that the rule for it could be printed right on the card. Fatigue and wounds could be easily handled by reducing the hand size and number of cards that could be pulled each round. It would also add a lot of fog-of-war. Rather than going up against a rather generic "sixth-level fighter with a longsword," you might be facing a foe with unique cards you'd never encountered before.

    Even better, it would work very well to simulate the fantasy trope of training. Want to learn the 'Fell Stroke of Grim Decapitation' maneuver and add that card to your character's combat deck? Well, the only one that can teach it lives way out on the Misty Isles and may need a favor or two before consenting to do so....

    Anyway, it all sounded pretty great in my head, but I never got a sustained group of playtesters to make it happen. Thanks much for this post. It was fun to read and clearly brought back a lot of great memories for me!

  3. I have found that my favorite initiative system in practice is from Holmes Basic where DEX = initiative. After a few encounters, everyone at the table knows exactly how the order of combat goes and it speeds up combat. It also invites mechanics which break the normal order: two-handed weapons do more damage, but users go to the bottom of the order (something a low-Dex character can take advantage of) or polearms automatically moving users to the top of the order for the first round of melee. Magic items, spells, or class abilities could allow characters to switch initiative order with someone else. In other words, it allows for simple ways to use initiative tactically without bogging things down with extra die rolls or complicated mechanics.

    1. These are good ideas. Have you written about them anywhere?

  4. First keep in mind that in a wargame all possible actions are defined from the start. This is not the case with RPGs even for combat. So whatever system you use has to handle the common stuff and the uncommon stuff that players try to do as their character.

    The main concern about any card or chit system is that it narrows what PCs can do to specifically named actions.

    As for me, I use individual initiative rolled each round. Combined with a count down call, I find it efficiently handles who goes when while keeping combat dynamics. I have been using it for nearly a decade with success.

    I explain in my free version of my Majestic Fantasy Rules here.

    The basic gits is that everybody rolls 1d6 + dex mod + the fighter to-hit bonus or 1/2 of the creature's hit dice (round down).

    If the system uses descending AC then the init bonus is the difference between what you need to hit an AC (10,9 or 0) at 1st level versus what you need at your current level.

    I then call out “does anybody has higher than a 10?”. Usually they are few and far between and resolve those first.

    Then I call out “does anybody have a 9”, I follow this with 8 and so on down the line until the last character goes. I find this handles groups of up to 8 players. Beyond that I have to go with group initiative. I also roll initiative for groups of monsters and only roll individual initiative for named NPCs.

    Finally I will not roll initiative in certain situations. A corridor fight is resolved from front to back due to the relative situational awareness of the front rank versus the back rank. Something I personally experienced while dungeon crawling in a LARP.

    Hope this helps.

    1. It does indeed. You've given me a lot to think about. Thanks!

    2. No problem, one thing I forgot to mention is that those who play fighters really like adding their to-hit bonus to their initiative. It felt right from the get go and remained that way through the other groups I ran since.

      Mainly because the effect is subtle. Not in your face like an increased number of attack or increased damage. If you are a non-fighter don't expect to go first when facing a fighter. I found this makes even higher level PCs spellcaster pause before wading into a fight with fighters.

  5. The wargame Bolt Action has the neatest initiative system I've seen in a game.

    You gather a bunch of same size dice, but two different colors. The dice should be the same size and shape (# of sides), so they cannot be told apart by feel. Each player chooses a color, and places a number of dice equal to the number units they have into a bag or can.

    Player 1 reaches into the bag and pulls out a die - if it is their color, they get to move 1 unit. Then they pull another die. This continues until they pull a die of Player 2's color. When that happens they had the die to Player 2 and Player 2 is now allowed to move 1 unit. Player 2 then draws a die from the bag.

    In an RPG this could be 1 pool of dice for the DM and one for the Players. When a DM die comes up, the DM makes a move. When a Player die comes up, the Players decide which character takes their turn. You could alternate or roll for who has the first draw, but I would probably give it to the players every time.

    1. Bolt Action is a game I'd dearly love to play, but the combination of the costs involved and, well, the inability to meet up with people right now has prevented my doing so. That's probably for the best.

      Still, that sounds like a very fascinating approach to initiative. I think something like it could be adapted to an RPG without too much trouble. Thanks for bringing it to my attention.

  6. Another interesting take on initiative is to . . . not use it at all.

    The DM secretly determines the actions of monsters and NPCs. The players declare their actions. Most actions in a round are considered simultaneous, with certain exceptions. For example: ranged attacks against moving targets occur before the targets make contact with an enemy and engage in melee; contradictory moves can be decided in favor of the creature with the higher movement score; the winner of an opposed roll acts first, etc.

    Playing D&D without using an initiative roll is explained and justified in great deail by Hedgehobbit, in a wonderful video entitled "Roll Initiative! ... or not":

    I playtested this for the first time last weekend, and it worked just fine. Combat moves faster, which is a good thing.

    1. I tried that for a time and didn't like it at all. Too chaotic and disorganized for my tastes.

      These days, I go with Classic D&D's simple "1d6 for each side" group initiative, but with a little twist: when the dice turn up a pair and indicate simultaneous initiative, we switch to AD&D 2nd edition style individual initiative rolled on d10s for just that round. Works a dream.