Playing with Initiative: Declaring actions separate from resolving them

One common problem in RPG combat is the idea of separated turns or actions. In a typical game a combat round last 6 seconds and each character acts independently. This plays out on the map as one character moves and performs 6 seconds worth of actions while all the other characters are frozen. Then that character freezes and the next character acts taking his 6 seconds worth of turn. The mechanical metaphor is completely separate from real life having everyone act in series instead of parallel and either forcing a character to somehow squeeze 30 feet of running, a few attacks and parries or a spell into under a second of time, or having a round actually last somewhere in the order of a few minutes(which it turns out the original D&D was supposed to).

There are numerous ways to deal with this problem. A good GM can take the input from the combat mechanics and weave together a very coherent and compelling story as output by narrating that actions all happening at the same time. GURPS cut down the round limit to 1 second and gave active defenses. It matter less that people acted in queued order because the actions are much quicker, giving the illusion of simultaneous movement. Dungeon World took another approach giving the GM the ability to cue people to act at the narratively appropriate time and she can sew it together into a realistic and epic fight scene in real time. However my favorite way of dealing with this comes from the One Role Engine.

The One Roll Engine(ORE) has a simple mechanic for determining not just how well an action was performed but how quick it was. You can read about it here. This allows them to switch the typical order of combat on the Meta level. Usually we determine initiative once, than start with the first player, declare his actions, resolve them, and finally move onto the next player. In ORE everyone declares there actions at the beginning of the combat round, than they are resolved with the player who acted quickest going first. This makes the decision making aspect of combat a touch more realistic and changes the strategy.

In real combat you can guarantee when your swing, movement, or block will arrive, nor do you really know what your opponent will be doing making it a gamble that whatever action your taking will even help, regardless of if you pull it off or not. Perhaps you start to charge her only to realize she’s moving across the field to engage your ally. Or perhaps you decide to turtle to handle the incoming assault but before the guy about to pummel you can act your buddy has stunned him giving you the perfect opening. If only you were ready.

I’ve thought of a few variants to this I want to try out though I’ve yet to get my group to let me use them as lab mice for most.

First is declare blind. Everyone writes down their actions on a sheet of paper, than reveals them at the same time. Speed is determined by character stat, as part of a single roll, rolled separately from the resolving action, or even simultaneous. The key here is everyone is working on the same lack of information. You can mix it up by giving a few people special abilities to check peoples writing or force people to write two options show both and pick from them, etc etc. I’ve only seen this done once, in Vincent Baker’s Apocalypse World:Dark Ages. I don’t know if you can still get the documents from the playtest but if so I highly recommend them. In the one experience I’ve had it really amped up tension prior to the resolve. The resolve itself sometimes felt weird, but I blame that of the lethality of that system. Going from full health thinking you’re about to dominate to severely injured or dead in one second can really knock the wind out of your sails. I wouldn’t call it anti-climatic per se, but there were definitely did not build on the tension the declaration phase created. There is also a feeling of Rock Paper scissors that accompanies it, so that it feels less strategic and more luck based, even if it may not be.

The other is more heavily based in the ORE way. Declare based on a stat meant to emulate ability to perceive. Wisdom, Sense, Notice, ect. The person best in the ability declares last letting them see everything before acting. I highly suggest pairing this with a system that does speed in one roll as opposed to any other method. Variable speed is nice as it means the person who declares last still isn’t acting on perfect information, but a static initiative is better than multiple rolls for speed and competence. If you do two rolls I suggest doing a declaration phase, than an initiative phase, followed by normal resolution phase.

While this is in my opinion the more strategic option it does have a large downside. It front loads all the analysis and discussion in combat to one part of the round. In addition to being another step removed from the RP than normal combat and thus tending to bring discussion more meta and players out of RP, it also breaks up the pace of combat. The resolution phase is fast and furious, it feels like your there as everything happens at once, damage flying this way and that, characters dropping at the same time they drop monsters, a giant mechanical and narrative clusterfuck that mimics combat brilliantly. That all comes grinding to a halt when the analysis phase starts again. It’s like pausing a movie during a fight scene to count the extras or worse, stopping a fighting video game mid fight to look up button combos. Still it’s a great break from traditional combat and can really change how you think and run combats.

So please, try some of these out. Or better yet, suggest some other alternatives I haven’t brought up. I always love hearing about new mechanics.

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