Saturday, July 15, 2017

Take the initiative, please!

I've been a bit stymied about what to discuss next in my series of posts that I've tagged "me-20;" my self-indulgent hack of d20 gaming. I've been inspired by a coincidence: First, Brandes Stoddard publishes an article about some alternative initiative systems on his blog. Then, shortly after, Mike Mearls publishes an article on WotC's Unearthed Arcana blog about the initiative system he's been using for his 5th edition group. So suddenly talking about initiative seems like a good idea. Apart from kismet, it actually makes sense: I've talked a lot about how combat and other systems could work in general, but not offered a specific example of them in practice. And what better way to begin talking about encounters than by starting at their beginning? It's a very good place to start, as the sages say.

RPG veterans may skip this paragraph, but perhaps the reader may wonder what I'm talking about. Basically, in an RPG encounter, like other sorts of games, there must be a way of figuring out who goes first. In American football, it's determined by a coin toss. In baseball, by who the visiting team is. In many RPGs, it's a special roll called initiative. Every player rolls a d20 at the start of combat or other encounter, taking into account special modifiers (faster players often react faster) and situations (being ambushed usually means going last). The GM does the same thing for individual monsters or groups of monsters. The character with the best initiative result goes first, whether it's the PC's ranger, the GM's archvillain, or a mob of NPC orcs. The next highest initiative goes next, then the next highest, until the lowest-scoring player goes and the top-initiative roller goes again.

Pretty simple, right? Everyone goes in the order they roll, like people waiting in line with numbered tickets at the deli. Why would anyone want to futz with this? Well, as Stoddard point out in his article, it's actually a bit of a slog trying to figure out who goes in what order. Yes, there are apps and more analogue hacks like index cards that make it easier, but you still have to go around the table, figure out how everyone scored, then record it somehow. It's a bit of dreary data-entry that kills the dramatic momentum of what should be an exciting event.

It's a cosmic coincidence that Stoddard and Mearls took up the subject of initiative systems at around the same time, but their approaches to the problem couldn't be more different. Stoddard offers a few radical simplifications: the first is by adapting the "first player button" that changes hands in many board games and doing away with initiative rolls entirely, the second by replacing initiative rolls every encounter with a single initiative roll every session (i.e. once every afternoon or evening of play). Mearls, on the other hand, attempts to make the tedium of calculating initiative more interesting by adding more tactical variety to the roll. So characters roll different dice depending on the actions they want to take, with a ranged attack being quicker than a melee attack, and either attack being slower if you want to both attack and move. Mearls makes no bones about the added complexity here, but the hope is that this complexity makes the process of determining initiative more relevant and engaging.

Mearls' system has some interesting concepts, but overall I agree with Stoddard's take: that the added complexity is kind of arbitrary seems less likely to engage and more likely to frustrate. That said, Stoddard's systems seem a little bland. The "First Player Button" has little to do with character skill, which is something I want expressed in any RPG activity. And while initiative once per session by necessity reduces bookkeeping, it's a pretty ruthless, cut-off-your-leg-to-stop-a-cramp solution. It seems that both designers are kind of stuck on the idea of what initiative and taking your turn actually means in RPGs, and that we could benefit from a more fundamental reimagining of the idea. And that brings us to Hackmaster.

Hackmaster has kind of a weird history, finding its conceptual origins not in any real gaming group, but in the world of the cult RPG parody comic "Knights of the Dinner Table," as the old-school-D&D stand-in the protagonists play. But as is often the case with fictitious games, eventually someone had to design and market the real thing, in this case the publishers of the comic, Kenzer and Company. The style is true to the gritty old-school feel of the comic, with lots of granular combat mechanics like facing and individual weapon speeds and "threshold of pain checks." It's all a bit too fiddly for my tastes, but the one unique idea that I love is "the Count Up."

With the Count Up, players and the GM roll for initiative as described above, with lower rolls being desirable. But instead of the GM killing the excitement by going around the table and recording the results, he revs the excitement into high gear. "One! Two! Three!" he counts, each number announcing a second of time going by. At this point, the players are waiting for their initiative result to come up, hoping the monsters don't come up first. That's because any character is considered surprised before his or her initiative count and can't do anything but rather weakly defend themselves. But after their count comes up, the players can act as they wish, whenever they want, so long as they have the time to do so. Walking one space takes a second, or one step of the count, and you can move whenever you want. Attacking takes a certain number of seconds, depending on a number of finicky factors, your weapon's speed being principle among them. The same is true for casting spells. The result is that attacks and spells sort of adhere to the traditional round-by-round structure of many combat RPGs without being bound by it. And it seems like it can be very exciting: check out the combat example in the free basic version of the game, starting on page 136.

A lot about this is very brilliant, even beyond the way jumping right into the Count Up reduces the annoying bookkeeping of most initiative systems. The absence of traditional turns means players are always engaged even as they wait for the next chance to attack or cast a spell. The option for any player to move at any time makes play more dynamic and reactive. The various "tie-breakers" (ranged-vs-melee-vs-spells, weapon reach for melee attacks) for simultaneous attacks make a lot of sense. Making surprise part of the core initiative system is much more elegant than the rather clumsy "surprise round" rules found in many d20 games*.

Sadly, there's a lot about the system that's pretty kludgey. Each weapon has its own unique speed and reach. Each spell has its own unique casting time as well. Even something as simple as moving depends on a bunch of factors like the character's size, race, and preferred pace (There are four different movement rates!). But this is all a result of Hackmaster's old-school philosophy, where complicated tables are part of the look and feel of the game. The basic idea of the Count Up system works even when other parts of the system are greatly simplified. Someone just has to do it.

This post is running long, but next time I'll take a crack at exactly that!


  1. *Comments are a good place for footnotes, right?

    So maybe I should mention why surprise rounds are usually annoying, and how Hackmaster's approach works for me. In most d20 games, if you want to set up an ambush, you make a special check (like the Stealth skill in 5th edition), opposed by Perception or similar skill. If you succeed, your opponent is surprised, giving you some sort of advantage on the attack (it varies from system to system). Again, it's pretty basic, but the problem is that with basic initiative systems involving so much bookkeeping already, adding another set of opposed rolls at the beginning of combat is a little maddening.

    Now, being able to set up ambushes is a basic combat tactic, so having something like a surprise rule is understandable. What's nice about the Hackmaster approach is the way initiative is calculated, and what that says about what initiative represents. In most d20 games, initiative is modified by the Dexterity ability, meaning that initiative is all about physical reaction time. The Wisdom ability, which represent mental awareness, usually modifies the aforementioned Perception check. So perceiving an attack and reacting to it are two separate things. But in Hackmaster, initiative is modified by both Dexterity and Wisdom, meaning that initiative is both perception and reaction, and that those two concepts don't need two separate rolls.

    That said, the Basic Rules aren't very clear about how you set up an ambush in the first place, but it seems like you need to make an opposed "Sneaking" vs. "Observation" skill check anyway, with the result meaning that the successful ambushers act on Count One. That's still pretty good, since it doesn't require a separate Surprise Round, but I'd like to see the number of die rolls reduced even further. Maybe the ambushing character uses her Stealth check in place of her initiative check (still opposed by the NPCs' Initiative check), with an advantage for success and a disadvantage for failure. You could potentially use Deception in a similar way, for all those times smooth-talking characters want to escalate a tense conversation into a fight. But we'll see what I come up with next time.

  2. That Hackmaster initiative/Count Up system is probably the cleverest solution I've never heard of. As you say, makes everyone a sort of active participant while keeping something resembling a traditional round structure. Having initiative modified by both wis and dex is clever as well, makes it a little more dynamic than (guy who goes first = thief). I'm sort of a fan of kludgey weapon systems with lots of speed/reach/damage/attack variety, but it definitely isn't always done elegantly. Looking forward to what you come up with!

    1. Thanks! Working on it now.

      The free Hackmaster Basic game has enough cool ideas and fun presentation that I sprang for the full PHB PDF during the current GM's Day sale, but its old-school trappings just aren't a good fit for me overall. It definitely sounds like something you'd dig, though.