Saturday, 3 February 2018

Alternative initiative systems: 'Split-side' and 'guerrilla' initiative

If you want to read the new rules rather than me rambling about a unified theory of initiative, skip on to the end.

The variables of an initiative system

The most common division made between initiative systems is in the granularity: individual initiative versus side initiative.

In individual initiative (the default in 5th edition D&D), the initiative order is written down, with each character acting on their own initiative count. Sometimes in battles with several types of monster, the monster types are grouped to act on the same count, but the key part is that each PC gets their own count, and their individual traits (Dexterity score, feats) affect that count. The benefit is that players get to feel the rewards of investing in those aspects of their character. The drawback of individual initiative is the need to constantly consult the initiative track, and the process of writing it down takes long enough to take us out of the exciting "combat is happening" moment.

In side initiative, the players and monsters make a contested roll to see which faction gets the first turn. This is then repeated (either in the same order, or re-rolling at the top of each round). Players are free to choose in which order they want to act during their side's turn. The benefit of side initiative is that it's fast, simple, and there is no need to write anything down, so it doesn't take us out of the moment. The drawback is more apparent in systems where action economy is important; if all the monsters focus-firing a single PC can down them in a single turn, fights can become even more swingy than they already are, with the first turn deciding it all. 

But this "side/individual axis" is only one variable of initiative systems. As an example of another variable, you could disregard rolling entirely, instead using the characters' passive initiative modifiers to determine their order (the 5e DMG presents this variant as "initiative score). This speeds things up, but only slightly, as the initiative order still needs to be written down. It also makes it rather static for the players, who end up acting in the same order relative to each other every time. It probably depends on your players whether they would be bummed out by that, or enjoy using it to discover trademark strategies.

This presents a second axis along which to customize initiative systems: the contested/passive axis. You can even introduce a hybrid of the two, in which only one side rolls, using the other side's passive score as a target number, but I see no particular benefits in this and only mention it as a curio.

Setting-specific initiative

To recap, the default 5e initiative system is a "individual + contested" initiative, in which everyone rolls, contested by everyone else, and the DMG presents an "individual + passive" variant. Many old-school games such as Moldvay Basic use a "side + contested" system as the default. But to really add flavour to our initiative system, we can create a "side + passive" system, and make the deciding factor something other than Dexterity score.

Veins of the Earth has "Lamps are Initiative", which has only the people with the brightest lights roll initiative - but if you decide that those with the brightest lights always go first, no rolling, you've got something interesting going. To give another example, consider what I'm calling "guerrilla initiative". Under this system, instead of rolling initiative, the side with the smaller numbers always has initiative. The players storm the lair of a solitary dragon? The dragon reacts first. The lair has a dozen kobolds in it? The players go first. The rule communicates something about the world: it really emphasizes the stealth in small numbers and the overhead of organizing as a larger group. You can come up with an infinite number of ways to decide which group has initiative in each setting.

Putting that aside, the system that I feel like combines the most strengths with the fewest drawbacks is something that, strangely, I haven't seen in any books. I call it split-side initiative.

Presenting split-side initiative

Like Moldvay and 5e, this is a contested roll, but it sits between side initiative and individual initiative.

The DM rolls a single initiative check for the monsters's side. The players then all roll initiative individually, using the monsters' roll as a target number. Players who roll equal or greater than the monsters' number are in group A. Those who do not are in group B. The turn order for a round then goes: the players in A, the monsters, the players in B. The player side is "split" in two. Each group of players acts as they would in side initiative.

This system is very simple, almost as simple as the old side initiative. But it also allows player characters to differentiate (rewarding high Dexterity scores), and reduces the impact of the "everyone focus-firing down a single character" problem. It's equally usable in old-school games, and games like 5e with a variety of feats and class features that interact with initiative rolls.

What do you think? Do let me know if this variant has been included in any books. It must have, seeing as there's no such thing as an original idea, right?


Jon Bupp said...

I do pretty much the same thing, and roll initiative every round. Each player rolls, and I'll roll for each each group of foes (sometimes only one roll, say against a group of goblins, but two rolls if worg riders or hobgoblins are also present).

I'll announce the highest roll for opponents with a "anybody beat a ___?". Anyone that rolled higher can act in whatever order they decide. Anyone that rolled lower acts in whatever order they decide.

It is quick and very easy to do, even every round.

Psiker said...

Midlands Low Magic Sandbox Setting has a kinda of similar initiative variant. Only players roll. They must make a Dex check (roll equal or under). If successful, they act before normal monsters. If a great success (roll under half stat) they also go before boss monsters. This seems to speed up combat slightly. I think your variant would also work well; there is an extra roll involved (DM rolls too), but that allows for more variation.

Ynas Midgard said...

The Nightmares Underneath does that, too. The monsters have a constant initiative score and players roll against that.

thekelvingreen said...

I think this is how Monte Cook's Cypher does it. Opponents have a static initiative score and players roll against that, going either before or after. It's then up to the players to decide in which specific order they act within those two categories.

Ynas Midgard said...

At any rate, even if there are examples of this initiative system, bringing it up occasionally is important. I also prefer it to regular side-based initiative.

Homebrew Homunculus said...

Yes, I've heard that the Black Hack and GLOG do a similar thing as well. That is, a player gets to go before the opponents if they succeed on a roll-under ability check for Dexterity. I count them as the same type of initiative system, just with a slightly different way of resolving it.

Maybe this system's not brought up so often because we don't have a common name for it (as far as I know). "Side initiative", on the other hand, seems to be relatively widespread terminology.

Charles A said...

Even larger than the individual/group or contested/passive splits you discuss here is a division which largely goes un-discussed in RPG circles: you-go-I-go vs we-go.

I think the RPG community has a huge blind spot regarding initiative - some time ago, I realized *initiative is totally valueless* and adds nothing but complication to the game, and it can be removed while doing nothing but speeding up combat and making it more intuitive, all by switching from you-go-I-go to we-go style turns.

I wrote about it a while ago here:

Homebrew Homunculus said...

Charles A: I've also pretty much come to the conclusion that detailed initiative is 90% meaningless. However, action declaration systems wouldn't work well at our games. Instead, I now just tend to go clockwise around the table taking turns. Sometimes I don't even roll to see which side goes first, just let the players go first automatically.

There are a couple interesting gameplay elements that arise from B/X style initiative, though (that other 10%). These elements may be worth reimplementing case-by-case by hacking new mechanics that achieve the same ends, instead of implementing rolled initiative just for the sake of those ends. I might write about that later.