Monday, March 2, 2015

System vs. Narrative - Initiative

Over the weekend NewbieDM was talking about initiative and how he has issues with how it is handled in games. His problem, in specific, was that initiative is kind of a smash cut that breaks you out of the narrative at an intense moment in the story and slows everything down so that book keeping can be had.  Today I wanted to talk about that.

A Smash Cut?
A smash cut is a term from filmmaking. A smash cut is a quick cut between two scenes, without transition, that startles the audience. It is used here more to exagerate the suddenness of going from narrative to system. Consider the following "example of play" esque text.

Sarah: I climb down the ladder and look around the temple basement.
GM: Your feet splash into water that reaches up to your ankle, apparently the basement has had flooding issues. Your torch light carries out a little more than fifteen feet around you. You can see something glimmering near the ceiling
Sarah: I go towards the glimmer, holding my torch up high.
GM: As you move forward you see a large silver scaled creature holding itself to the ceiling. It looks much like a spider with eight legs, each tipped with a sharp blade the length of a long dagger. As you see it, it shrieks, hisses, and drops from the ceiling towards your face. Roll for initiative

What follows is then a break from the action as Sarah - and the rest of the group - roll their initiative dice, add their bonuses, report them, and wait for the GM to figure out the actual initiative order for the coming fight.

Why Is This A Problem?
I'm not necessarily saying this is a problem, however  that doesn't mean the break isn't jarring. The question then becomes is it a break that you want in your game, or one that you don't want? To be honest, I can't answer this question for you. Every game is different. However, I figure we can list out some pros and some cons of it.

Some pros for the "smash" cut effect.

  • It wakes people up and lets them know it is time to definitely pay attention.
  • It gives people a chance to think about how they want to react
  • Some players are just better at handling things with mechanics involved.
Some cons for the "smash" cut effect

  • You can lose the tension in the moment when you break for book keeping
  • You can lose out on genuine surprise when someone is taken aback by something
  • Book keeping can take longer as people who aren't involved or were half paying attention need to be caught up to speed
Next Time
On Wednesday I'm going to look at some ways I've seen/thought to keep initiative a thing but avoid the smash cut effect. Hopefully that will help for those who agree more with the cons to the pros, or who see more weight on the down side than the up side.

Happy Gaming!

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