Saturday, 2 March 2013

Initiative Without Dice? [Optional Core]

In the Optional System, the Team with the Edge gets to act first.
The problem is establishing which Team gets that honour. 
I am the Warden!!

During last week's recap of our first playtest session of High Plains Samurai, I mentioned the need for initiative in the game. On the surface, the idea sounds simple and viable because the majority of initiative rules in RPGs involve a dice roll and since the Optional System is a dice-rolling machine, this shouldn't be a big deal, right?

Wrong. Wrong wrong wrong. I had no idea how wrong that theory was.

Let's start by explaining how turn order works in Killshot, the original and only published version involving the Optional System. The main characters, AKA assassins, pretty much always go first. Because it is a game of strategy and planning, players must set a plan in motion and will likely always go first. That works for a realistic and tactical game like Killshot, but it's shit in a martial arts clone. It provides a near automatic victory for the heroes assisted by their bonus options, Pass reactions, and everything else. The only other means to force heroes to go next involves villains and thugs applying triggers before the fight scene begins, but that can get old and tired after a while. And what if the heroes set down a trigger designed to go off when the thugs' trigger activates, huh? It can potentially reach ridiculous heights.

Initiative the First: Lots and Lots of Dice Rolls

The first attempt at an initiative mechanic was a pretty standard one. All characters make an active Body, Sense, or Mind roll as determined by the Director. Body rolls represent the need for the fastest character to act first, Sense rolls involve detecting danger immediately, and Mind rolls incorporate an intuitive or anticipatory reaction to oncoming threats. The highest result claims the Edge for their Team and they're listed first on the Tracker.

The problem? That's a lot of dice rolling, particularly for the Director. What happens with thugs? If I throw 12 thugs into a fight scene, am I expected to roll twelve times and break them into Teams based on their results in between the heroes? This lead to the exception of thugs always rolling as a Team and that creates an exception, something I'm actively trying to avoid in the Optional System.

Come to think of it, there are two problems with this version. A group of 4 heroes roll initiative; two of them roll higher than the thugs' Team, two of them roll lower. Do I seriously want the mechanic to force the heroes to break up their Team simply because of an initiative roll? Not that there's anything wrong with that, but it undermines the entire concept of Teams in this system. And they can simply merge into a single Team at the start of the next series. There could be some use for this application and I'm sure some Directors would view it as an opportunity to put an extra twist on a generic fight scene, but something about it doesn't feel agreeable with this system.

Initiative the Second: Team Dice Rolls

Duels are one of the main reasons for initiative rolls,
such as this one from Red Dead Redemption.
Learning from the lessons of the first idea, I decided to allow all Teams to remain intact (barring situations that would physically separate the heroes, like falling into a sliding pit trap that separates them randomly). The Team would make a single dice roll against all other Teams and the highest result goes first on the Tracker.

Great. Now how does an entire Team make one big roll? It's not something provided for in the core rules. While initially a hurdle to this second attempt at initiative, it was easy and necessary. A group roll is basically an aid mechanic, friends helping friends. While playing around with an aid mechanic, the biggest problem facing initiative rolls revealed its ugly head.

Initiative rolls and group rolls defy the very foundation of the Optional System.

Around here, only the Team with the Edge can make active rolls and that's exactly what an initiative roll is: an active attempt to start a series with the Edge. However, only individual characters are supposed to make active rolls at a time. Allowing the entire Team to roll would cause an exception to the rules and as I mentioned before, these cannot be allowed in the game. I do not want a separate mechanic for initiative, one for combat, one for social scenes, etc. Everything has to operate from the same basic principles.

Rolling for initiative was not going to work. It needed another solution.

Initiative the Third: Automatic Initiative & Negotiation

Ironic how an initiative mechanic for a dice pool system can't make use of any dice. At least, that was my initial thought before coming up with the current version for the next instalment of HPS.

When it's time to decide initiative, every Team chooses a member as their primary character. Initiative is still determined by Body, Sense, or Mind and is based on the chosen circumstances, but it's all about which primary character has the highest number of focus dice in that stat.

In the event of a tie (two Teams can brag about having +3d12 Sense focus dice, for example), the Teams enter a negotiation by spending trained dice from their skills, fighting styles, and maneuvers (all using d6s) until one Team has agreed to spend the most trained dice. The kicker is that every Team member must willingly spend the same number of trained dice using appropriate skills, fighting styles, and maneuvers. For example, it's safe to say the Alertness skill applies with Sense-based initiatives, but Diplomacy won't do diddly in a Body-based initiative. If there is a single Team member who cannot spend any additional trained dice, the bar is set for the entire Team.

These dice are spent as if they were used normally and are unavailable until the start of the next scene, but they are not rolled - they are sacrificed. Because they're d6s, there's no major value in the oncoming fight scene, yet they really come in handy against a strong opposing roll. It also allows the Director to invest in a villain or thug's skills (because everyone uses skills to some degree) and claim initiative when they really want it.

Example time. A fight is about to break out between a Team of 3 heroes, a Team of 1 villain, and 2 Teams of 8 thugs. The Director chooses Body as the stat of choice because everyone stands in full view of each other with hands on their pistols, ready to whip theirs out the fastest. The heroes' highest Body stat is +2d12, the villain has +2d12, and the thugs only have +1d12. The thugs will definitely go last and it's time for the heroes and villains to negotiate for first crack at the Edge.

Right off the bat, the villain offers +2d6 from her Agility skill. Eager to counter, every hero agrees to pony up +2d6 from assorted skills and now the tie remains. Throwing a wrench into their plans, the villain sacrifices +1d6 from her Firearms skill and waits for the heroes to counter. Unfortunately, one of the heroes does not have another appropriate skill to sacrifice, leaving the heroes with a total of +2d6 sacrificed for their initiative. The villain has sacrificed +3d6 and will start the first series with the Edge, followed by the heroes, then the thugs.

As with a few pieces of this engrossing puzzle, this mechanic has yet been tested, but I'm very much looking forward to giving it a whirl on the 22nd. Maniacally so. Mwhahahahaha!!

NOTE: Earlier in this post, I mentioned construction on an aid mechanic. I'll share that with you next time. Promise.