Welcome Back to the Labyrinth

"We have been away far too long, my friends," Ashoka declared, his face lit by the eldritch green glow of his staff. "But we have finally returned to the labyrinth whence our adventures first began."

"Just imagine the treasures that lie within," said Yun Tai, flexing his mighty muscles. "Wealth enough to live in luxury the rest of our days."

"And arcane artifacts of great power," added Ashoka his words dripping with avarice. "All ours for the taking!"

"Umm...guys?" Nysa interrupted. "Do you hear something dripping?"

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Seizing the Moment

After nearly ten years of running 3E campaigns, using personal initiative rolls for combat became so deeply ingrained that it became second nature, and thus I automatically incorporated it into my Castles & Crusades game.

But over the last little while, I've been getting tired of using the personal initiative system.  It gets cumbersome having to keep track of every player's initiative and there are always cries of: "hey, you missed my turn!" from across the table.  From the player's perspective it is an awkward system as well.  Consider the party magic-user who wants to cast an area effect spell in the first round of combat while the enemies are still nicely grouped together.  He not only has to beat the enemy initiative roll, but all of his team-mates as well, lest the fighter run into melee first and ruin the opportunity for that sweet fireball.  Likewise it seems that the last guy in the marching order always seems to get the highest initiative roll and needs to push his way past everyone else in order to act.  Considering that this character was in the rear for a good reason, pushing in front of the heavily armoured and hit-pointed fighters is probably not a good idea.

Sure, characters can always hold their actions and wait for other team members to go first, but this is just one more thing to keep track of, and sort of defeats the whole point of personal initiative to begin with.

During last Sunday night's game I decided to return to D&D's traditional group initiative rolls.  I expected that it would speed combat up a bit, but I was amazed to find just how much faster the combats ran without the regimented structure of individual initiative bogging things down.  I found the fights a lot more fun and dynamic, too.  The players, during their action, would quickly come up with a plan of action and implement it in whatever order best suited them without having to worry about holding actions and such.

I also really enjoyed rolling for initiative every round instead of once for the whole combat.  The swingyness of potentially attacking, or being attacked, twice in a row if one side first lost, then won, initiative was a lot of fun and added an extra element of risk that nicely reflects the ebb and flow of dynamic combat rather than the structured 'your turn/my turn' sequence of the personal initiative system.  The players really seemed to enjoy the group initiative system, too, so suffice to say it is here to stay.

Carpe temporus punctum!


Nykster said...

Is "swingyness" a word?

Sean Robson said...

No less than 'hit-pointed.' I'm coining so many terms I should work at the mint.

charles mark ferguson said...


I'm very interested to see how this goes for you Sean. I love the idea, but don't have the opportunity right now to put it into practice.

I played in a Con 3.5e game recently, my first for many years. I had a blast socially but was totally turned off the whole artifice of the initiative system in a single moment: my thief/scout PC had leaped a stone parapet onto a kind of broad parapet below, with a huge cavern below that which was home to some (I dunno, like armored dinos or mini-bulettes or something) critters that were big and heavy and fast. So I had my turn, did the leap over the parapet to check out the space. Then everyone else had their turn. Then the dinos charged, scrabbled up the parapet, and hit me while I stood around watching them get closer and closer and then maul me.
Now I know that mechanically this was totally fair. That's what bugged me: it was playing within the parameters of a tactical turn-based game, and I wasn't, so I deserved to get hit. But it made the disconnect between the way I imagined play, and how the 3.5 init system enforced play, jarringly obvious.

At the same time, I understand many of the real-world logistics issues that such an init system is designed to address.

So I'm heavily interested in how more dynamic alternatives work in actual play. I'd love to hear your AP experiences, if you don't mind sharing.

Sean Robson said...

Hi Charles,

Thanks for your comments. One of the problems I have with 3.5, and even more so, 4E is the highly tactical nature of the games. WotC seems to be leading the game down the board-game path and is becoming less and less a role playing game.

The personal initiative system works well for a highly-structured tactical combat game, but it falls short for a free-form role playing game. As you point out, there can be a big disconnect between how you envision the scene and how it is forced to unfold due to the rigidity of the rules.