Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Handling Initiative So It Doesn't Break Narrative

On Monday we talked about initiative and how it was seen by some as something of a jarring transition from narrative flow to mechanical book keeping. Today, for those who agree that this is a problem, I wanted to look at some ways to handle initiative so it doesn't break flow as much.

Initiative As A Static Stat
This is the most common method I've seen bandied about. It's not without merit. Initiative is based off a stat. In D&D it is heavily influenced by your Dex modifier. So what if we just took all those static initiative modifiers, assumed a 10, and that was everyone's initiative? It could work. What about other systems?

Well, systems like L5R and World of Darkness that work with dice pools could key off of stats and skills as well. For these you could just take the number of dice in the pool and use that to determine initiative. The more dice, the faster you go.

The benefit a lot of people see to this is it makes things play out about the way everyone expects it to play out. The person with the high dex should be going faster than the dwarf who can barely stand up straight whether she's drunk or not, right?

On the counter side of things though, when scores are close there should be a chance for a person with a lower dex/pool to be faster. Chance should play a factor, because sometimes you just get lucky. By removing die rolls you remove that factor of luck. It enables someone to just invest heavily in a great initiative, and then abuse it for relative safety with a strong alpha strike that leaves little to no need for any follow up damage.

Pre-Roll Initiative
This is my favorite way to handle initiative being a problem. In 20+ years at the gaming table I count less times than I have fingers when a session of RP had me rolling initiative more than four times. As such, why not just have everyone roll four initiative scores at the very beginning of the session, the GM writes them down on a notecard, and then when initiative happens you have it already pre-generated.

The counter argument that pops to mind is people meta-gaming because they know they have a great initiative score for the first fight and so don't have to worry too much about not getting taken by surprise. You can solve that by randomizing which line of initiative you take. You have 4 lines of initiative, so the GM just needs to roll a D4 at the beginning of the fight to decide which column is being used for that fight.

Problems do come up in two forms though. The first is fights the GM doesn't expect. You have initiative for the players but not the NPCs. To solve this I'd recommend just assigning an average roll for the NPC. The second is accounting for modifiers to the initiative of a player or NPC. Some systems give bonuses for ambushing, or have penalties for being wounded. The thing is, these are usually static. So just add or subtract them to the stat block that you have and you should be golden.

GM Handles Initiative
This is another solution I see bandied around. The thing is, I don't think it is actually a solution. For this to really work and not break flow, the GM needs to have people's initiative pre-rolled, in which case it counts as the above solution. Otherwise, all having the GM roll initiative for everyone does is just burden one person, a person needed for the narrative most of the time, to do all the book keeping.

Also, it gets obvious when the GM starts rolling out everyone's initiative. Though, good GMs have ways to fool players with that too.

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