Initiative: A Duel to the Death

This is a sample combat I wrote up for TheRPGSite forums, to illustrate how the Initiative rules work. This is a duel between two equally matched swordsmen, Alain and Bayard, who are fighting to the death over an insult Bayard (a provincial) unwittingly offered the cosmopolitan (and easily offended) Alain.

The Duelists
Strength 9 (bonus: +2)
Dexterity 11 (bonus: +3)

melee weapons (fast): +7, Skill Rating 10.

Endurance 10 (bonus: +2)
Spirit 5 (bonus: +1)

intimidate: +4, Skill Rating 5.

Rapier (Str +2): damage 11.
Padded dueling suits (End +1): Tou 11.

Attack (for both): 21.
Defense (for both): 21.

(The italicized text below is what a GM might say to describe the results of the die rolling, “in character”.)

Round 1: Both fighters start out without the Initiative. They act at the same time.
• Alain strikes at Bayard. Rolls a -3, misses. Your blade whips past his head.
• Bayard announces a Seize Initiative and attacks. Rolls a +1, Attack of 22. 1 Result, doing 1 Wound to Alain. Bayard fails to Seize. Your rapier slashes through his sleeve, and blood seeps from the shallow cut.

Round 2: Neither has Initiative.
• Alain (1W) strikes at Bayard, and announces a Seize attempt. He rolls a +6, meaning 6 Result (6 Wounds and a Moderate Injury). He Seizes. You stab him in the left shoulder, and he gasps in pain.
• Bayard (6W, -2) misses. The pain is excruciating, and your arm is shaking uncontrollably. Your thrust is wide of the mark.

Round 3: Alain (1W) has Initiative, Advantage +0.
• Alain decides to play with his bloodied opponent, and intimidates him. “I will kill you tonight.” He rolls a +1, for a total of 6. This gives him 3 Result or 1 Success Rating (meaning Bayard suffers a -2 on his next action) and he Presses. Your opponent appears unnerved.
• Bayard (6W, -2) attacks, rolling a +9. Even with the cumulative -4 penalty, he hits for 5 Wounds (scoring a Moderate Injury to Alain, who is now at 6 Wounds). This Counters the Press. In desperation, you strike out wildly and manage to cut into your opponent’s thigh.

Round 4: Alain (6W, -2) has Initiative, Advantage +0.
• Alain decides to finish Bayard off. He attacks, but rolls a +0, missing (and failing to Press). You thrust at his heart, but Bayard flips his blade up and deflects the attack.
• Bayard (8W, -2) attempts to Seize. He rolls a +5, scoring 5 Wounds. His Seize fails, meaning Alain automatically Presses. Alain, however, is at 11 Wounds, -4 penalty, and takes a Serious Wound. His is also faltering, meaning each Action he takes costs him a Wound. You slice into his gut, and he yells, in rage and agony.

Round 5: Alain (11W, -4) has Initiative, Advantage +1.
• Alain attacks, taking a Wound (12W). He rolls a +6 and (thanks to his Advantage bonus) does 5 Wounds to Bayard instead of 4. He also Presses. Bayard is at 13W, -4 penalty, and is now faltering. (He also takes a Serious Injury.) You step inside his defenses, and clout him across the head. Blood seeps from his ear.
• Bayard (13W, -4) steps back and attacks (taking a Wound), but rolls a 0. 0W, a glancing blow. You push him away and swing, but cut no deeper than his padding.

Round 5: Alain (12W, -4) has Initiative, Advantage +2.
• Alain attacks (taking a Wound, now 13W). He misses. (And fails to Press.)
• Bayard (13W, -4) attacks (and takes a Wound, now 14W). He also misses. The two of you trade blows in a flurry of steel, but neither can penetrate his opponent’s defenses.

Round 6: Alain (13W, -4) has Initiative, Advantage +1.
• Alain attacks (now 14W). He misses and fails to Press. You swing, and Bayard parries neatly.
• Bayard (14W, -4) attacks. He rolls a +3, doing 2 Wounds to Alain. (Alain is now at 16 Wounds, and is dying, meaning he takes 1 Wound every round. He also takes a Critical Injury.) You thrust at him, your blade slipping through his ribs.

Round 7: Alain (16W, -6) has Initiative, Advantage +0.
• Alain takes a Wound (dying) and attacks (taking another Wound). He’s now at 18W, -6. He rolls a -3, missing. You swing at your enemy and miss, and blood pours from your wounds. You are starting to black out.
• Bayard (14W, -4) tries to reason with his opponent, while circling him and keeping his guard up (taking a Wound). “There’s no need for you to die.” He fails his persuasion total. Your bloodied opponent refuses to yield, even at death’s door. “One of us will die tonight,” he says, then attacks.

Round 8: Alain (18W, -6) has Initiative, Advantage +0.
• Alain takes a Wound (dying) and attacks (taking another Wound). He’s now at 20W, -6. (1 more Wound, and he’s dead.) He rolls a -1, missing. Weak from blood loss, you strike at your enemy but fail to connect.
• Bayard (15W, -4) Holds his Action. (Preferring to let his — obviously nearly dead – opponent’s folly do him in.)

Round 9: Alain (20W, -6) has Initiative, Advantage +0.
• Alain takes a Wound, and drops to the ground.
• Bayard kicks away his opponent’s sword, and calls for a chirurgeon.

That’s a sample combat. It demonstrates how the Initiative rules fit together (and how other rules enter into combat, like Combat Interaction skills).

(And, like always, just putting this together has caused me to rethink a couple of rules. Nothing to do with Initiative, so I’ve left all the examples as-is. But some of those numbers will be different in 0.2a.)

Rules Change, Round Numbers

I’ve been writing up a sample combat for posting, and while doing so I keep finding myself mistakenly placing critical points at “round” numbers: 5, 10, 15 etc. I assume that, if I do so, most people will.

(Someone, I think maybe Glen, already pointed this out to me and I ignored him. Glen was right, I was wrong.)

So, starting with 0.2a, the break points for Wounds and Success Ratings will be “round” numbers. This will mean some rewrites, but I wasn’t planning on running the next playtest session until after the New Year anyway.

Initiative: Pressing & Seizing

[Another effort to simplify/streamline the game’s mechanics.]

Initiative revolves around two central concepts: Pressing the Attack and Seizing the Initiative.

Once a faction has the Initiative, they have an Advantage. The rules for this are located here. Those rules are the same (ignoring the first paragraph), the definition of Pressing the Attack is different.

To Press their Attack, at least one member of the faction must make at least one successful attack in a round. Period.

“Successful” means “achieving at least 1 Result”. For combat, this is 1 Wound to an enemy combatant, for Combat Interaction Skills, this is a Success.

To Counter a Press (or Counter-attack), at least one member of a faction without the Initiative must make at least one successful attack in a round. The same criteria applies.

Why do it this way? The previous (lengthy) definition revolved around making not just an attack, but a significant attack. Here’s the problem: if you’re tracking it, it’s significant. If it isn’t significant, you shouldn’t be tracking it.

That’s Pressing the Attack. As a rule, it’s simple and direct. “Any successful attack.” Done.

Seizing the Initiative.

Seizing the Initiative is a special type of action, a declared maneuver like Hold Action, Charge, or Volley Attack. The player(s) declare they are attempting to Seize, and make an attack (combat, Combat Interaction Skill, FX use). They need to achieve 2 Success Rating (6 Result).

If they do, they have Seized. If they fail, the enemy automatically Presses, even if the attack was otherwise successful.

That’s fairly simple. Some caveats, however: The attack must be against a significant target. (What qualifies varies by the scope and nature of the conflict. This is kind of vague, I know.) If the faction is a group, at least half the active members of the faction must be involved in the Seize attempt.

The caveats are a little more complicated, but not unduly. I think.

That’s it. With these rules in place, I can move forward on 0.2a. At this point, it’s down to chopping wood and carrying water (code for “a full writeup, not just notes”). When that’s done, I’m looking forward to scheduling the next playtest (after the Holidays).

Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year!

The Name Game

For a short while now, I’ve been dissatisfied with the name “Destiny”. It was alright as a development code name, but as a name that encapsulated what the game was all about, it was lacking.

Then, just today, I found out there is already an RPG called “Destiny”, which turned my mild dislike into a decisive opinion: It’s time for a new name.

I’ve got one in mind that I’m mulling over until my brain spits out a definite yes or no. Until then, I’ll keep using the code name.

But “Destiny” is dead. Long live… whatever name comes next.

Initiative, Take 1.5

After discussing Initiative with Winston (in the comments on “Take II“), I’ve revised Initiative yet again. This version combines some aspects of Take II and the original, and hence is Take 1.5 (halfway between each).

Before I post that, some blathering: I based the Initiative system off the psychological realities of battle. I did research into Boyd’s OODA loop, how Initiative (in the military sense) works, and how it underlies all conflicts, even non-military ones.

Take 1.5 reflects all of that… and none of it matters. A game mechanical subsystem has to stand on its own merits. It has to be fun to play on its own, no matter what research underlies it.

This is a common failing of RPG designers, both amateur and professional. (I’m on the amateur side of that line, just to be clear.) We write “realistic” rules that are an overly-complicated mess.

I do not want to do that with Destiny. I am committed to revising and polishing the game mechanics until they’re as simple and straightforward as possible. If I cannot find a way to implement the desired Initiative, I’ll go with a more traditional approach. I hope I won’t have to, but I will.

That said, I think the system is fairly unique (a plus) and I don’t think it’s complicated. Here’s how 1.5 works.

• Sides are called factions. These can be one person, an adventuring party, an individual military unit, an army, a business, a team of lawyers, whatever. (Depending on the nature of the conflict and the scope of this individual engagement.)

• “Initiative” represents one faction having the psychological advantage in an engagement. They are the aggressors, they are driving the pace of the combat, making decisions faster than their opponents. As the combat goes on, their opponents become more and more demoralized and disorganized.

• Any number of factions can be involved in a fight. At any given moment, either none of them has the Initiative or one does. Only one faction can have the Initiative.

• Combat is divided into 10-second rounds. (In basic combat. Round length can vary based on type of conflict and scope.) All participants can act once in any given round. (A change from Take II.)

• When no one has the Initiative, everyone acts in descending order of Dexterity. (In a physical conflict. In a business or legal conflict, this may be Intellect. In a social conflict, this would be Influence.)

• When one faction has the Initiative, members of that faction can act whenever they chose. They can go before everyone, after, or can interrupt the actions of people in other factions. (They lean out of cover to shoot, or stand up to throw a grenade, you shoot them. Some games call this “overwatch”.) If two players on the same faction want to act at the same time, use Dexterity. If that’s tied, their actions are simultaneous.

• When a faction has the Initiative, they can only lose it when someone else Seizes the Initiative. (There are specific rules for this, specifically the “plan and tactics” rules from Take II.)

• When a faction has the Initiative, each successful attack causes the enemy to become more and more disorganized and demoralized. This is represented by the Advantage bonus. This bonus starts out at +0 (the first round the faction has Initiative) and increases by +1 ever time a member of the faction successfully attacks the enemy (using a Combat Challenge or a Combat Interaction Skill.)

• Each round that passes without successfully pressing, the Advantage decreases. The enemy can regroup, reorganize, recover.

• When the Advantage exceeds the enemy’s Morale score, they break. (Morale only applies to extras. Leads, including all PC’s, are immune.)

The key to winning battles is to Seize the Initiative and Press the Attack. Go on the offensive, hurt the enemy, keep them disorganized, and continue hurting them until they are killed, surrender, or flee. “Keep up the scare.” These rules reflect that.

Initiative: Why Do It This Way?

Alright, given the previous re-implementation of the Initiative system, the most obvious question is this: why do it this way?

Let’s take it back to the reasoning behind Destiny’s idiosyncratic approach to Initiative: “Initiative” is a real aspect of real-world combat, one of the most fundamental concepts generals and officers need to grasp (intuitively if not consciously).

In order to fight and win, you need to aggressively attack the enemy, keep them off balance, and keep up the attack until they are defeated. You cannot give the enemy time or space to reorganize or catch their breath. To do so is to court defeat.

To defeat the enemy, you need to go on the offensive. When you do so, you have Seized the Initiative.

Reaction time is key:

Col. John Boyd studied air battles, dogfights, and warfare of every kind. […] He conceived a theory, and put the theory to the test. It was a theory about how to fight a battle.

Fighter pilots, the best fighter pilots in the world, came to fight Boyd in an airfield in Nevada. He handed them their asses. Every. Single. Time. They had better eyesight, quicker reflexes, a better intuitive grasp of how to fly: he still shot them down. His critical breakthrough was this:

The battle didn’t go to the person who made the best decision, or who acted with technical perfection. The winner – every. single. time. – was the person who acted the fastest. Period. Quicker decisions beat better (but delayed) decisions.

Or, as Gen. Patton put it: “A good plan, executed violently now, is better than a perfect plan next week.”

– Bill Whittle

Speed is of the essence, hence why having the Initiative is reflected in the speed of your actions: you act twice for every time the enemy acts once. And, when you act, you can interrupt them. They are responding to you.

They run to cover, you see them and shoot while they’re in the open. They charge, you see it coming and hit their flank. They retreat, you harry them as they flee the battle.

With the Initiative, you are in charge of the pace of the battle. You determine what is happening. You act first and twice, they act last and once.

This makes having the Initiative a key benefit in combat. By itself, it gives you enough of an advantage to tip the scales in an otherwise even battle, and makes a victory over superior forces possible.

This drives PC’s and NPC’s to aggressively attack, to Seize the Initiative. It drives those involved to go on the offensive, which is what happens in a real battle. It adds urgency to combat.

“A good plan, executed violently now, is better than a perfect plan next week.”

These rules highlight the importance of making and carrying out plans, thus placing focus on teamwork. More about plans in the next post.

Initiative, Take II

After the first playtest I decided to revise the Initiative rules. This took much longer than I anticipated, but I finally finished the revision last night, so here it is.

Short description: Sides in a combat are called factions. Only one faction has Initiative any given round, and they keep it until another faction manages to Seize the Initiative. The faction with Initiative gets to act first every round and twice every round. Everyone else acts once and last.

Details:

  • Combat is divided into rounds and phases. Each round lasts 10 seconds and is broken into 2 phases.
  • Each side in a conflict (characters + allies) is a faction. There can be any number of factions. (By default there are two: Heroes and Villains.)
  • At any given moment in time, either one faction has the Initiative or none of them do.
  • That one faction keeps the Initiative until another Seizes it (rules below).
  • If no one has Initiative, everyone goes in order of descending Dexterity.
  • If one faction has the Initiative, that faction acts first, in Phase 1 (in order of descending Dexterity).
  • In Phase 2, all other factions act simultaneously, in order of descending Dexterity.
  • In Phase 2, the faction with Initiative acts again, whenever they please: beforeafter, or during the actions of other characters. (This functions as an interrupt: when a player or GM declares an action, a character with Initiative can watch them begin, and interrupt the action before they have a chance to complete it.)

Seizing the Initiative

When one side has Initiative, the other can attempt to Seize it. This requires taking aggressive action and achieving tactical surprise, thus disrupting the enemy. To Seize, you must:

  1. Make a plan.
  2. Carry out the plan.
  3. Succeed at an opposed tactics (Intellect) check. (This assumes a typical RPG combat, a party of heroes against multiple villains. Other skills are used in other circumstances. In a duel, you use the weapons skill.)

Most combats involve factions, rather than individuals. Each character involved in a plan is assigned an action: taunting a guard, throwing a grenade, shooting a watchdog.

(Plans must involve more than half of the active members of that faction. “Active” meaning awake and able to participate. In larger scale combat, this is changed to units rather than individuals, but the principle is the same.)

The Seizing rules are a special case of Coordination During Combat. Each character involved attempts their action. Every character who succeeds grants a +1 to the tactics (Intellect) check, in addition to the effects of their action. The more characters who succeed at their action, the more likely the plan as a whole is to succeed.

However, if all the characters fail at their part of the plan, the plan fails (no tactics roll needed). This implies that factions should be intent on disrupting plans, doing anything they can to make sure each individual part fails.

Any level of Success at the tactics roll means you have Seized the Initiative. The next round, your faction acts first and twice.

Failing the tactics roll means you have failed to Seize (no matter how well individual aspects went). In this case, the plan succeeded, but you failed to achieve tactical surprise.

Notes

The above rules are simpler than the original rules. They implement important aspects of Initiative, in particular the speed of reaction (as described under the OODA). They encourage teamwork and cooperation. They emulate real world combat and cinematic combat.

Having the Initiative gives you control over the battlefield. You can act with relative impunity. Being on the downside of that… isn’t fun. This should motivate people to Seize and maintain the Initiative. (Which is how real-world battles and wars are fought and won.)

The Movement and Action rules are designed to fit into this framework. Once finished, I’ll be posting them.

During the next playtest session, I’ll be putting these rules through the wringer. Comments are, as always welcome.

(Note: I’m still open to participation in the ongoing, if sporadic playtest. Anyone interested can email me.)