Friday, 12 October 2018

Seizing the Initiative

Initiative is a very deep and complicated subject. We all know it when we see it - typically when watching a sporting event. Suddenly, it seems as though one side gains the capacity to act, while the other can only react. The reasons why this happens, though, are not always easy to elucidate. Sometimes it can be put down simply to a sudden flash of individual inspiration - a football manager makes a substitution which makes a decisive impact on the game; a boxer lands a solid punch which momentarily stuns his opponent; a bowler gets a fire in his belly and somehow gets an extra few miles per hour from the ball (cricket fans will remember Mitchell Johnson's complete destruction of Jonathan Trott on day two of the 2013 test at the Gabba, which came out of the blue and not only gave Australia the initiative for the match, but the entire 2013/2014 series - and caused Trott to effectively lose the initiative for the remainder of his career). But other times it seems to simply be part of the natural ebb and flow of a game: when two teams are roughly equally matched, they seem to take turns with the initiative in a way that is hard to attribute to any one factor and can seem to happen almost at random.

We also know it from military history, too. I think the most famous example has to be Thermopylae, which according to cliche gave the Greeks the chance to "wrest" the initiative (when is the word "wrest" ever used but in that context?) from the Persians; other examples are the Battle of Kursk (after which the Wehrmacht "never regained the initiative" on the Eastern front) and Napoleon's failure to "wrest" the initiative at the Battle of Borodino by committing the Imperial Guard, after which he, er, "never regained the initiative" in the Russian campaign. You almost imagine "the initiative" as a physical entity in these descriptions: you take it, seize it, wrest it - reach out and grab it, almost. And then do your best to make sure the opponent doesn't grab it back.

D&D initiative is a bit milquetoast in comparison: if one party is surprised, the other has initiative, but otherwise...roll a d6 and the highest wins. This is modified in various editions, but even then in a boring way, taking into account Dexterity and so forth. It can add some dramatic tension and unpredictability, which in some sense reflects the chaotic and unforeseeable nature of "initiative" itself, but it doesn't give anybody the opportunity to, in British sporting parlance, "seize the game by the scruff of the neck" and, well, wrest it.

What if there was a rule that went something like as follows?

Initiative
When one side is surprised and the other is not, the side that is not surprised has initiative for the entire encounter.
Otherwise, roll a d6 to determine which side has initiative for the entire encounter.
A side which "has initiative" acts first.
A side which does not have initiative can attempt to "wrest" it from the other. The method for doing so is as follows:
The player (or DM if acting for NPCs) announces his character is attempting to wrest the initiative by either carrying out an attack or - at the DM's discretion - performing a difficult task. He declares his intended action in the ordinary way at the start of the round. If he succeeds in hitting his target or performing the declared task, he wrests initiative and his side has initiative from the next round onwards. If he fails, in the next round he cannot act at all because of loss of focus.

32 comments:

  1. It would be interesting to make set-piece encounters or 'rooms' in which 'the initiative' is a gamified part of the encounter. It could be a position "whoever is higher has the initiative" an item "whoever has the magic cup has the initiative" or a tactical option "whoever has done most damage/killed most of the other side has initiative"

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    1. I think I would prefer the tactical way of doing it, but I suppose the problem there is that it just reinforces the side who are already winning. That might be more realistic but put too much emphasis on being successful early...

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    2. What are your thoughts on rubber-banding more generally? I know in Kill Team you didn't really like it but as you mention here, some degree of rubber banding is probably almost necessary for an interesting game. In real life advantages accrue too quickly and though they can take a long time to play out, things really can end in the first turn a lot of the time.

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    3. I think in a proper war game rubber-banding is to be avoided at all costs. In Kill Team I can forgive it because Warhammer 40k isn't really a war game - just a way to do fun shit with models. I guess you could say it depends on the aim of the game. In Mario Kart rubber-banding is great.

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  2. Meld with morale? If conditions trigger a morale check, the triggering side wrests/keeps initiative, regardless of the results of the morale check.

    Could also make having initiative more powerful by attaching certain effects to it, like a point of damage resistance or +1 damage to attacks, AC, etc.

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    1. That's a nice simple one - I like it.

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  3. Maybe, instead of risking only 1 person, half of one side has to attempt to wrest, and half of the have to succeed.
    If you think about it in terms of actions, if a player takes initiative, then that basically doubles the actions of the whole party. If he loses initiative, the party loses 1 action.in any party bigger than size 3 or 4, they will wrest pretty much every round. Plus, monsters are generally more numerous than players and benefit more from wresting.
    If it instead takes half of the party (halving the actions), the risk-reward calculation is way harder. Also, I think, if a party is bigger than 5 people, the wresting half must have 1 character use his action to rally the others and communicate that they are wresting. This, in addition to making sense (characters aren't telepathic, normally), gives some pretty cool opportunities for role-play in combat, which isn't often done.

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    1. I like that, although it could make things a bit complicated?

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  4. In warfare, at least, initiative seems to correlate with the ability to keep up multiple simultaneous offensive actions. The German blitzkrieg involved lots of simultaneous attacks and then following up the successful ones. That kept the enemy reacting, unable to make any offensive moves of their own. (Later on in the war, the Allies had tactics to deal with this and so could still maintain their own offense.) Similarly, in the Pacific the Japanese had the initiative until the Americans sank their carrier strike force, at which point the Americans could make attacks along two or three different vectors at once — MacArthur pushing along New Guinea toward the Philippines, and Nimitz/Halsey pushing through the central Pacific.

    So initiative seems to be connected to speed and "resources." On the tactical scale, resources would include personal stamina. So perhaps something like what original Traveller had: you can only fight offensively for a number of rounds equal to your Endurance stat. After that you have to be defensive or withdraw. This would allow a fast person to "seize the initiative" but then lose it if he wears out.

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    1. Maybe replaced endurance with CON?

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    2. Same thing. It's called Endurance in Traveller, and it's a 2-12 range rather than 3-18.

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  5. While Initiative is presented in D&D as a *game mechanic* its only real effect is to organise the dice rolling at the *game table* in the same way that players of any simple boardgame take turns. It would be better termed Order.

    Mechanically it has only a small randomising effect on the sequence of attacks over many rounds and it is a nonsense to roll dice so often for a negligible game-mechanical effect, for example:

    ---- In a combat lasting 20 rounds, the *difference between* one side winning Initiative in every single round (with a probability of less than 1 in a million) and the other side winning Initiative in every single round ... is one extra attack at the beginning, as if by a surprise round. Just compare the two sequences -- ABAB...AB and BABA...BA. That is unnecessary dice rolling in my book.

    So, I agree with rolling once at the beginning of a combat to establish an Order for dice rolling. So much for D&D initiative as it is written.

    However, to capture the notion of 'initiative' you described, which arises naturally in battles, at the scale of party conflict I think there needs to be a sense of selecting from several modes of attack or defense -- the party gaining 'Proper Initiative' should get to select a strong mode of attack and restrict his opponents choice of defensive mode.

    It strikes me that at the scale of the party without some conformity most combat rounds are too chaotic (individualistic) to allow for 'Initiative' in the interesting or battle sense. But with conformity for example one might have three fighters (or PC with henchmen) who train together with spears and when they gain initiative can keep foes at bay in a constricted environment, or a single large monster in the open but losing initiative their foes get inside their spears with the advantage of short weapons to hand. There is an infinite variety of these ploys and it requires an agile DM to grant to players an encouraging advantage for clever stratagems.

    I am starting to wonder though if D&D isn't extremely subtle because it is not clear to me that there is a difference between battle-initiative aiding combat success and combat success aiding initiative at the party level, and that the two aren't incorporated in ordinary combat so long as respect and attention is paid to what players describe they are doing with mechanical reward.

    Overall, for round by round conflict I am inclined to a single roll to determine Order for the whole encounter and to liberal modification based on player description. I am not convinced there is a genuine initiative unless it is rare and better called morale - there does seem to be a deep principle in D&D that you don't give PCs a fear stat.

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    1. It it is interesting to consider why watching a rugby match of 15x15 feels more like watching a 'battle' than a D&D-scrap. It must have something to do with the ball, a stroke of genius. D&D has 15 balls on the pitch at the same time and in a weird way this makes a Dungeon Party less of a team. Having one ball on the pitch creates a sense of distance from play (strategy) and movement off the ball (anticipation).

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    2. I am starting to wonder though if D&D isn't extremely subtle because it is not clear to me that there is a difference between battle-initiative aiding combat success and combat success aiding initiative at the party level.

      That thought did occur to me as well. Maybe initiative is just taken into account in the ebb and flow of combat as the PCs or monsters perform well and badly, and there's no more detailed rule required.

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  6. I've not played it, but Exalted 3e seems to have an interesting approach to combat and initiative. Here's a high level summary: https://www.reddit.com/r/rpg/comments/5podmc/discussion_gaining_initiative_the_combat_of/.

    It would be interesting to hear if any one has tried and how compares to the goals outlined in this post.

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  8. This is interesting, and I've been thinking of something similar for a while now. Something to model the flow of the battle. I've been calling it momentum in my notes, to differentiate from classic initiative aka order (as William Morris calls it). As William points out, and as I've been saying for years, initiative in the D&D sense is basically totally irrelevant. Group, individual, constant, rerolled, it all boils down to much of a muchness.

    I like this line of thought, but risking losing a turn for what is essentially no benefit whatsoever doesn't make sense, mechanically. It's not an interesting choice, because the right answer is to never do it.

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    1. But the benefit is to win initiative!

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    2. In this context, "the initiative" means "going first", which is nothing.

      "Going first" only means something if it ends the fight right there, but that's unlikely to be the case. If there's more than one round of combat left, it's basically totally irrelevant.

      As William says, what's the difference between ABABABABAB and BABABABABA? Even the difference between those and ABBABAABBA (where "initiative" is being stolen here and there) is more or less nil. By the end of it, A has had 5 turns, and B has had 5 turns.

      With the proposed "risk a turn to go first" system, B is trying to trade ABABABABAB for ABBABABABA (no meaningful difference), and the risk is this: ABAABABAB (A attacks 5 times, B attacks 4 times).

      Mechanically, there's a large risk: missing a whole turn, and no benefit (no extra turn).

      At its simplest, risking a turn should give the possibility of an extra turn or its equivalent. Otherwise, it's just not worth it and there's an objectively correct choice: never risk it.

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    3. Why does initiative exist? Purely to manage the logistics of who happens to declare actions and roll first?

      Seems a bizarre argument. Acting first is massive because you get to do all your attacking, missile fire, spells etc. first. That's especially important if you do the combat round properly and have spellcasters declare spellcasting at the start of the combat round so they can't cast if their concentration gets disrupted.

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    4. Yes, that's precisely why initiative exists. It's strictly an artifact of the you-go-I-go system D&D inherited from wargames.

      There's no "acting first" in the world of the fiction, it's an abstraction of the game mechanics. The advantages of acting first you describe are also artifacts of the game system, and patently undesirable ones, at that. I wrote about this years ago - you get all sorts of weirdness out of a you-go-I-go system. For one, winning initiative isn't always an advantage, although it's supposed to be. As an example, if you begin combat 1.5x your movement distance away from your opponent, you don't want to move closer if you're going first, because they'll get a free hit on you. This is absurd in the fiction, but is a necessary consequence of initiative-as-turn-order and you-go-I-go mechanics.

      The initiative (i.e. ordering) abstraction works only because over the course of a few rounds, it largely becomes irrelevant.

      Far better to use the kind of pulsed-realtime system TacOps 4 (and some other computer wargames) use - declare actions, resolve them. This is what I use in tabletop RPGs, too. No order, no you-go-I-go. DM hints at the monster actions (to present interesting choices to the players), the players declare their actions, then we resolve engaged groups as if they are acting in real time. It's actually faster at the table, makes more sense, avoids artifacts of the system, etc.

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    5. This discussion inspired me to write up my thoughts on the subject in more detail. In case you're interested:

      Abandon tedious initiative rolls. Abandon your rancid sequential turn structure.

      This is as close as you can get to real-time combat in your tabletop game.

      https://spellsandsteel.blogspot.com/2018/10/phased-real-time-combat-solution-you.html

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    6. I don't disagree that declaring moves and then resolving them simultaneously is bad for wargames - it's obviously the best way of doing things in that context - but I'm talking about a method of keeping D&D combat's simplicity while making it slightly more interesting.

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    7. A) phased real time is simpler than the existing sequential method D&D uses

      B) As I've explained, "going first" isn't even close to worth risking a turn for... So it doesn't make combat any more interesting, because there's an objectively correct choice: don't try to wrest the initiative.

      I am interested in this sense of the word initiative; I think there is definitely something here. I'm just not sure this is it.

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    8. I feel like you must be playing D&D differently to me. Especially at first level going first is huge because it means you often kill the other side before they can respond, and can also prevent mages spellcasting, which means no battle-altering sleep spells and whatnot.

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  9. Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay 4th edition has similar system called Advantage. In short doing stuff increases your subsequent chances of success by +10% (cap of +30%) until an opponent does something to mess you up.

    Might be interesting to shift that from an individual bonus to a team one.

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  10. You know, initiative was the one thing I LOVED in the new Exalted 3rd edition....

    Basically, Initiative is "hit points", where the highest goes first, and you attack to steal the other's initiative.

    When you want to inflict actual damage, you would use your initiave as "damage dice" and if your attack was successful you get to roll damage - but after the attack you loose the initiative (reset to 0).

    Combat had that ebb and flow which was very awesome.

    Also made weapons very interesting - the only difference is in how much they steal initiative, but when doing actual damage it doesn't matter - a bare hand has as much chance of killing as a warhammer, if you have the same "advantage" :)

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    1. I think I would have to see that in action to properly get my head around it...

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  11. Point of interest: in recent editions of Warhammer 40,000 (I don't remember it from early editions I played as a kid) both sides roll a D6 to see who goes first; the loser can choose to roll a D6 again, 'seizing' the initiative on a 6+.

    This mechanic certainly feels like the same as what you're describing here, initiative as a physical thing, vital (not necessarily integral) to victory.

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    1. Is there a consequence to failure in that roll?

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  12. It's very interesting that you've got some responses saying that the players would want to seize the initiative every turn, and others saying that it would never be worth it! I think you would need to playtest it to find out what the truth is. The key question the players need to ask themselves is "If I get two turns in a row here, how much can I expect to reduce my opponents' ability to harm me?" If you can take out a fragile spellcaster or a boss monster that's already on low HP, then seizing the initiative could definitely be the difference between life and death. I can also imagine a situation where, say, the PCs roll badly and conclude they need to run away, so the last player uses their turn to seize the initiative and allow the whole party to flee before the monsters get to attack.

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  13. Here's an initiative system I developed for my own game: https://wyzzardblog.wordpress.com/2018/10/13/wyzzards-combat-initiative/

    Basic idea is initiative determines the order in which you declare your action (giving informational advantage to faster characters) and in which you act (allowing them to interrupt slower characters).

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