Friday, July 28, 2017

Initiative Count Up, Simplified

In my last post, I talked about initiative, taking my cue from Brandes Stoddard's and Mike Mearls' coincidentally presented alternative initiative systems. I mentioned Hackmaster's Count Up system as the most innovative and promising alternative to traditional initiative systems that I've encountered, but that it suffers in my opinion from being too fiddly. So here's my promised attempt at simplifying the system.

Some theorycraft

There are two basic weapon stats in Hackmaster that affect the Count Up. Speed says how many seconds it takes to attack with a weapon after attacking an opponent with it for the first time. Reach says who goes first in melee if two attackers try to attack each other at the same time. The unnecessarily complicated part, in my opinion, is that every weapon has its own unique speed (measured in seconds) and its own unique reach (measured in feet, which is especially odd since tactical movement is measured in 5-foot squares). So a dagger has a speed of 7 and a reach of 1', a longsword a speed of 10 and a reach of 3.5', and a spear a speed of 12 and a reach of 13'. These stats aren't even based on predictable series; it seems like any possible score within a certain range is represented in these stats. It's all rather extreme, complex for the sake of simulation, I presume, but seemingly for the sake of complexity.

We could eliminate this complexity by just making all weapons have the same speed and reach, but that's pretty boring. There should be a middle ground between extreme simplification and the extreme simulationism that Hackmaster favors. Thankfully, there's an answer: combinatorics!

All I mean by combinatorics here is that by combining qualities from two or more small sets, you can get the same sort of complexity as one longer set, but with much less to keep track of. So if one set has numbers from 0-9, and another has letters from A to J, and you combined them so you have a new set from A0 to J9, that gives you as many items as a single set of 100 arbitrary symbols. But keeping track of two smaller sets is much easier than one longer set. A familiar application of this principle in d20 games is the alignment chart:

There are nine alignments, but no one really thinks of them that way. They think of the two axes, with each alignment being a combination of two points. Two sets of three is much easier to internalize than one set of nine, plus there's a pleasing symmetry that other alignment systems, like 4e's unloved 5-alignment remix, lack and suffer for. This is a good general trick for simplifying complexity in RPG design, by reducing a long list (like the list of weapons in Hackmaster) to two simple dimensions. And for weapons, the qualities I like to think of are Weapon Type and Weapon Size.

Type, Size, and Speed

By Type, I mean categories of weapons like swords, bows, axes, polearms, etc. Each Type would have its own simple rule to make it unique, but the particulars aren't terribly important for now. Size obviously refers how big the weapon is, but the frame of reference is not the size of the weapon itself, but the size of the character wielding it. That is, a Medium weapon is designed to be wielded one-handed by a Medium-sized character, like a spear or longsword. A Small Sword might be a dagger to a human, but a longsword to a gnome. A Large Sword has to be wielded two-handed by an orc, but a Large troll could use it with one hand. (In 5e, Small weapons are basically "light," and Large weapons are "two-handed", for those wanting to adapt these rules to conventional D&D.)

Like with Type, weapon Sizes have their own rules, but since we're talking about Hackmaster initiative and Count Up rules, we only have to worry about rules related to speed and reach. Here they are:
  • A weapon the same Size as its wielder has a base speed of 6. If it's larger than than the wielder, its speed is 8. If it's smaller, 4.
  • If two characters attack each other in melee on the same count, the one with the larger weapon has the larger reach and goes first.
  • Polearms count as one Size larger than they are for the purposes of determining reach.
  • An unarmed melee attack usually has the same Size as the character making it.
I'll talk about other rules for weapons in another post, but that's everything we need, and it's much easier to keep track of than Hackmaster's fiddly weapons tables.

The rest of these initiative rules are similar to Hackmaster.

Rolling Initiative

At the start of combat, characters roll a d20, subtracting their Dexterity and Wisdom scores from the check. The GM begins the Count Up, with characters acting when the result of their initiative check is called. Before their turn is called, they are flat-footed; they continue to do what they were doing and can only act to defend themselves. Afterwards, they can move, attack, cast a spell, make a skill check, or do anything else so long as they have time. A character is no longer flat-footed and may act two seconds after taking damage from an attack, unless her initiative count would allow her to act sooner.

Surprise Attack

Instead of rolling a normal initiative check, players may opt to roll a skill check to make a surprise attack. They may roll Stealth if they are hiding in ambush, or roll Deception if they are out in the open and feigning helplessness or passivity. This works like a normal skill check, except you subtract from your d20 roll as if you were making an initiative check. If your check is lower than any other hostile characters', you act on Count 1 and gain advantage on both attack and damage* checks against any flat-footed opponents. If not, however, you are flat-footed until your turn on the Count Up comes up, as though the result of your skill check were your initiative check. In addition, you have disadvantage on both defense* and toughness* checks until your turn on the Count Up comes up. (*These rules are discussed in this article. Adapting these initiative rules to 5e D&D should not require them.)


Characters can move one or (if their speed is greater than 1) two spaces at any time. They may also move up to their speed, but only if they moved two spaces on the previous second. To slow down, they must move two spaces. Note that moving while engaged in melee may provoke reaction attacks from your opponents. Some actions, like drawing or picking up a weapon or other item, can be done instead of moving.


Ranged attacks can be made at any time. If two characters attack each other with ranged attacks at the same time, they may resolve their attacks against each other as normal. For melee attacks, an aggressor must get in range of a defender. When they are in range, the character with the greatest reach (usually the largest weapon, see above) goes first (unless the defender is using a ranged weapon, in which case the attacker goes first every time). If their reach is the same, they may attack at the same time and resolve those attacks against each other as normal. Afterwards, these two characters are engaged in melee, and are so engaged until one is incapacitated or retreats. Moving away while engaged may provoke reaction attacks from your opponent; see below.

After making an initial attack, a character must normally wait a number of seconds equal to his weapon speed before attacking again. When a melee engagement a character is involved with ends, this time is reduced to zero, meaning he can freely engage in a new melee at any time.


Certain actions may leave an opening for opponents to attack. This may include moving out of a melee without properly withdrawing, attempting to cast certain spells next to a melee combatant, or critically failing an attack roll. This is called provoking a reaction. If a character adjacent to you provokes a reaction, you can take the reaction to make an immediate attack. You can only make a reaction attack if a number of seconds equal to half your weapon speed has gone by since your last attack. Making a reaction attack also resets your count in the Count Up, meaning that you have to wait your weapon speed to make your next attack, unless someone provokes another reaction, as per the above rules.

Some final considerations

These rules are pretty rough, but should give some idea how this could work in game. One big change I could make is to turn the Count Up to a Count Down, in which case characters add their initiative score when making an initiative check. The Count Down would then start at the highest result and proceed down. This would have the advantage of making initiative checks more like other d20 checks in contemporary D&D. The disadvantage is what to do when the Count Down reaches 0. Bounce back up to 1? Continue into negative numbers?

If you're adapting these rules to 5e, I wish you luck! I would consider turning Extra Attack into a -1 enhancement to speed every time it's earned. The same goes for each attack to a monster's Multiattack if it's making the same attack more than once. For spells, a round of casting converts to 6 seconds, so you could just make that the default casting time for such spells. Recharge times for monster powers could be done a few ways. It takes an average of 6 rounds for a Recharge 6 power to recharge (and 3 rounds for a Recharge 5-6, I think), so you could give such powers a speed of 36 and 18. Or you could let the powers recharge as normal whenever the monster makes a "normal" attack.

The default weapon speeds in Hackmaster seem really slow to me. The speeds I picked are much quicker, based on the standard of one attack per "round" (which equals 6 seconds) in normal d20 games. But maybe there's a good reason for such slow speeds?

I haven't dealt with two-weapon fighting yet because there are still some things to consider. But one key will be that dual-wielding means that weapons count as one size larger than they are for purposes of calculating speed. Shields count as weapons here. Whether both weapons attack at the same second or one after the other, and which weapon takes precedent if the latter; all that needs to be worked out.

There are probably some things I haven't thought of yet. Please ask questions so I can consider them, or comment if any of the above seems weird or confusing!

No comments:

Post a Comment