Combat is broken into a series of 10-second rounds. Each round has two phases.
In open conflicts (assume combat for now), the participants are divided into Heroes (the PC’s and allies) and Villains (bad guys and their allies.) Most times, the whole of one side — the Heroes or Villains – acts in one phase (in descending order of Dexterity), and their opponents the other.
Having The Initiative means you have the choice between the two phases. You can choose to act first, taking the battle to the enemy, or choose to act second, allowing the enemy to act, then taking action to disrupt their strategies.
At any given point in time, one side can have The Initiative, the other can, or neither can. The Initiative can switch back and forth at any time, but once one side has it, they keep it until the enemy manages to Seize the Initiative and take it away from them. This requires an attack or gambit that shocks, demoralizes, or disorients them so much they are forced to react to the attack, forced to be the defenders rather than the aggressors.
Concurrent with The Initiative is The Advantage. This reflects, in game mechanical terms, how organized and effective the aggressors are, and how disorganized and ineffective the defenders are.
This is measured in terms of an Advantage bonus. Each round the aggressors make a successful attack against their foes (called Pressing the Attack), their Advantage bonus grows. (Reflecting what a Civil War General called “keeping up the skeer”).
Their opponents can Counter-Attack, countering the Press, or even Seizing the Initiative for themselves. If they successfully Seize, they gain the benefits of the Advantage, and can begin to garner their own bonus.
Most importantly, The Initiative doesn’t indicate who is winning or losing (in terms of raw body count), and doesn’t automatically go to who is winning or losing.
It goes to the side who is forcing the enemy to react to his choices. Who is disrupting his enemy’s plans, time and again. Who is choosing when and how to attack, thus forcing the enemy to flail desperately as he tries to respond.
In an individual combat, in a battle, in a theatre, in a war, one side has The Initiative and one doesn’t. It is key to winning the conflict.
[Note: This is a multi-part post. Keep track of the previous posts here.]