Destiny: In Real Life: Mutual Surprise [pt. 8]

In Real Life: Mutual Surprise

Prokhorovka, July 1943. It was one of the biggest tank battles in history, involving 600 Nazi and Soviet tanks, started by accident when two maneuvering forces ran into each other while trying to get to other places. Neither side tried to take control of the battle, instead fighting to disengage and retreat, but ended up inflicting serious casualties anyway.

“The Soviet tanks thrust into the German advanced formation at full speed and penetrated the German tank screen. The [Soviet] T-34s were knocking out [German] Tigers at extremely close range … The tanks of both sides were in the closest possible contact. There was neither time nor room to disengage from the enemy and reform in battle order or operate in formation. … Frequently, when a tank was hit, its ammunition and fuel blew up, and torn-off turrets were flung through the air over dozens of yards. … Soon the whole sky was shrouded by the thick smoke of the burning wrecks. On the black, scorched earth the gutted tanks burned like torches.

“It was difficult to establish which side was attacking and which defending.”

– Soviet General Rotmistrov

Total chaos. Utter confusion, neither side being organized or having any control over the pace or tactics of the battle, just reacting to events as they occur. Shooting at the same time, moving at the same time.

This is mutual surprise, when neither side has The Initiative. In such cases, the two sides act at the same time, in order of Dexterity:

Villain, Hero, Villain, Hero, Hero, group of Villains.

Mutual Surprise doesn’t happen often, but when it does it is exhilarating, but deadly. It only ends when one side successfully Seizes the Initiative or flees the battlefield.

[Note: This is a multi-part post. Keep track of the previous posts here.]

Destiny: Assigning Initiative & Multiple Factions [pt. 7]

Assigning Initiative

The primary question, at the beginning of an open conflict (which includes, but isn’t limited to combat) is: who has the Initiative?

In some case, this will be obvious. If one side has surprise or complete surprise (see Chapter 6, Combat), they begin the fight with the Initiative.

If both sides have surprise or complete surprise (“mutual surprise”, such as when the encounter was wholly unexpected by both sides) neither has Initiative. In such cases, both sides act at the same time, in order of descending Dexterity. The side which manages to Seize the Initiative will have it for the second round of combat.

(These situations are chaotic, and no side may be able to Seize Initiative. See the In Real Life: Mutual Surprise sidebar, for a historical example.)

In many cases, both sides will be expecting a combat. In standard combats (which occur most of the time), the Heroes start with the Initiative. In climactic combats, which typically occur at the end of a session and involve multiple enemy Leads, the Villains begin with Initiative.

Multiple Factions

The Initiative rules assume two sides to every battle, Heroes (and allies) against Villains (and Allies). In some cases, there may be more than two sides.

In these kinds of combats, only one side has the Initiative. They choose which phase to act during, and can begin to garner the Advantage.

The other combatants — no matter how many separate groups — all act in the other phase, in order of descending Dexterity.

Example 1: The Heroes and Villains are fighting in a village. The Village Militia are neutral in the battle, they only wish to protect their homes and repel the interlopers.

At any given time, the Heroes, Villains, or Militia may have the Initiative. They choose which phase to act in, and can earn Advantage points. The other two groups act simultaneously in the other phase, in descending order of Dexterity.

Example 2: In a gladiatorial arena, seven fighters are each fighting for their life. At any time, one of them will have the Initiative, and can choose in which phase to act. The other six will all act in the other phase, in descending order of Dexterity.

The Initiative system can (theoretically) be extrapolated to cover any number of factions. In general, the more sides in a combat, the more complex tracking Initiative is. Such situations, however, are rare.

[Note: This is a multi-part post. Keep track of the previous posts here.]

Destiny: Seizing the Initiative [pt. 6]

Seizing the Initiative

Seizing the Initiative is all about tactical surprise: doing something so unexpected that it sets the enemy back on their heels, it inflicts shock and surprise in sufficient quantity as to break their momentum.

There are guidelines given for this, but the basic idea is this: the enemy’s confidence must be shaken, their feeling of control disrupted, and their tactics interrupted.

As a basic rule, Seizing the Initiative requires:

Successful attacks — combat, spell, miracle, or CI — against a majority of the opponents in the same round, or any attack that scores a Superior Success (11+ Result Rating) against a significant opponent (leader, named character, influential or important character, or Lead character).

Despite the given guidelines, there are innumerable gambits, events, and surprises that can occur which don’t fall neatly under the Seizing the Initiative and Pressing the Advantage rules.

Any time one side or another succeeds in pulling off an unexpected attack or gambit, the GM can rule that one side or the other has effectively Seized the Initiative, or that no one has the Initiative.

Example 1: The Heroes are being badly beaten, and decide to set up an ambush. Half the party retreats and prepares an ambush. The rest fall back, and when the enemy chases after, they launch an unexpected attack. If successful, they have Seized the Initiative.

Example 2: A group of Knights is fighting a band of Elves in a courtyard. The Elves have been building up their Advantage, and the Knights are being worn down.

Suddenly, a warband of orcs comes screaming into the courtyard and attacks both sides. The orcs have Seized the Initiative (by succeeding in an ambush). It’s up to the Knights and Elves whether they want to continue fighting each other and the orcs, or whether they want to join forces.

Example 3: The players are in the base of a supervillain, in the caldera of an ancient volcano. They are being beaten, badly.

One player runs over and hits a switch that releases the lava from the geopower conduits. The lava flows into the room.

Everyone is shocked by the move, and the GM rules that no one has Initiative.

Similar results can come from unexpected reinforcements, the use of innovative tactics, an overwhelming counter-attack, an attack from an unexpected direction, a sudden flanking maneuver, the destruction of a key piece of equipment, setting up an ambush, killing a leader (particularly a Lead character), or any other gambit the gamemaster feels qualifies as shocking, surprising, or dispiriting.

This isn’t a situation easily amenable to rigid rules, clearly delineating what qualifies as a Counter-Attack and what allows one side to Seize the Initiative.

The gamemaster will have to use their judgement. The most important question is this:

Is this attack unexpected, shocking, or demoralizing?

Did the enemy expect an ambush (and how many people did the ambush kill or incapacitate)?

Was something or someone important to them (their great general or invincible tank) killed or destroyed?

Did their opponents use or deploy wholly unexpected weapons or resources in a successful attack?

In general, the more successful a Counter-Attack, the more likely it is the characters Seized the Initiative.

When in doubt, the gamemaster should err on the side of the faction that has made a sound tactical plan, is cooperating on implementing the plan, and is succeeding at their plan. Even if no single attack qualifies under the given guidelines, this is evidence of the faction taking aggressive and coordinated action, and thus Seizing the Initiative.

[Note: This is a multi-part post. Keep track of the previous posts here.]

Destiny: Pressing the Attack & Counter-Attacking [pt. 5]

Pressing the Attack

In order to increase their Advantage, the side with Initiative must continue to attack the enemy with successful attacks. Successful attacks keep the enemy off their guard, and prevent them from regrouping and Seizing the Initiative.

Any successful attack will allow characters to Press their Advantage. In game terms, this means:

Pressing the Attack requires one successful attack — combat, spell, miracle, or any other form of attack — that causes any level of Injury to an enemy combatant, or a Combat Skill use that scores a Superior Success (11+ Result Points) against any opponent. Alternately, an attack causing any level of damage or any level of CI success against a significant opponent (leader, named character, influential or important character, or Lead character).

Such attacks are significant enough to keep the enemy off balance and increase the attacker’s Advantage.

In the case of unusual or unforeseen circumstances, the gamemaster may declare that a Press was successful, even if none of the above applied.


Counter-attacking is an attempt to disrupt the enemy’s Press or to Seize the Initiative. It uses the same guidelines as Pressing the Attack.

If this occurs, the Press was neutralized. The aggressor’s Advantage will not increase in the next round, but will not decrease either.

Example: The Villains (a platoon of soldiers lead by a sergeant, with a Lead captain in command) have Initiative, and successfully Injure a Hero. Normally, this would qualify as Pressing the Attack.

However, in their phase, the Heroes strike back, Injuring the sergeant. This has Countered the Villain’s Press, and no Advantage will be gained.

For those battling a superior foe, defending against their attacks (denying them a successful Press) or successfully Counter-Attacking are the best way to reduce the enemy’s Advantage, or even eliminate it altogether.

[Note: This is a multi-part post. Keep track of the previous posts here.]

Destiny: The Advantage [pt. 4]

The Advantage

When I was an Israeli paratrooper a general stopped by to give us a little speech about strategy. In infantry battles, he told us, there is only one strategy: Fire and Motion…If you’re not [attacking], the enemy gets to decide what happens, which is not a good thing. If you’re not firing, the enemy will fire at you, pinning you down.

I noticed how almost every kind of military strategy, from air force dogfights to large scale naval maneuvers, is based on the idea of Fire and Motion…You have to move forward a little bit, every day….Watch out when your [enemies] fires at you. Do they just want to force you to keep busy reacting to their volleys, so you can’t move forward?

– Joel Spolsky

Each combat round, one group acts first (as a group, in descending order of Dexterity), the other second. At its most basic, The Initiative is the right to chose which phase you will act in: first or second.

Each round you keep The Initiative and Press the Attack, your enemy will grow more demoralized and more confused. This is represented by an Advantage bonus (as you have the Advantage in the engagement).

The Advantage bonus starts out at +0, the first round the aggressors have The Initiative. By making at least one successful attack (including physical attacks, Combat Interaction Challenges, spells, miracles, psychic abilities, or any other action that harms the enemy or keeps them confused and harassed), their Advantage grows by 1 point next round.

1 point of Advantage provides a +1 to all actions taken against the enemy, including defending against enemy attacks. Each successive round the aggressors Press the Attack, this bonus increases by +1, to a maximum of +9.

Combatants can lose their Advantage bonus. By failing to make a successful attack, the enemy can reorganize, becoming better able to fight back. The next round, the aggressor’s Advantage decreases by 1.

Example: Round 1. The Heroes have the Initiative, with an Advantage bonus of +0. They succeed in an attack (thus successfully “Pressing the Attack”).

Round 2. Their Advantage bonus is now +1. They also succeed in an attack.

Round 3: Their Advantage bonus increases to +2. They fail to Press the Attack (all attacks fail).

Round 4: Their Advantage bonus is now +1.

By making a successful counter-attack, the enemy can also Counter a Press: they disrupt the aggressors’ attack, so they don’t gain Advantage next round, but they don’t lose it either.

By ignoring the enemy, or by failing to Press, a faction can lose all of their Advantage, one round at a time. They can never lose the Initiative, however, even if their bonus drops to +0. In order to gain The Initiative, the enemy must Seize the Initiative.

[Note: This is a multi-part post. Keep track of the previous posts here.]

Destiny: Visualizing the Initiative [pt. 3]

It is the commander who can fight his fight – that is, setting the terms of battle and not allowing the enemy to recover — who will be the winner. [G]aining and maintaining the initiative clearly the most important tenet [of battle doctrine].

– LTC Kenneth R Pierce, in a publication of the US Army Command and Gen’l Staff College

Combat revolves around the struggle to Seize and maintain The Initiative, and to Press the Attack and increase the Advantage, until the enemy is defeated.

So what does this look like in play? Here are some examples, drawn from history and fiction:

Our Hero, a tramp starship captain, is goaded into a sword duel with a much more experienced opponent (and the captain knows nothing of how to use a sword). He makes a valiant effort to attack, and the opponent lets him, easily parrying or dodging his blows, just to mock him. Then he strikes, wounding the captain in a precise spot intended to cause him to bleed out, weaken, and faint.

Game mechanically, the Villain had The Initiative, and used it to Actively Defend, all the while taunting the Hero. His taunts allowed him to Press his Advantage, increasing his Advantage bonus. Once his bonus was high enough, he attacked the captain directly and scored a bleeding wound (an Injury Trait assigned by the GM).

Pinned down on the beach, the Heroes are exposed to withering fire from a series of machinegun nests, with tightly overlapping fields of fire. Heroes are dying in droves.

The Captain finds a ridge of sand, where he can organize his shattered command and launch a coordinated attack against a machine-gun nest, so as to gain access to the enemy’s rear. 

His attack is successful, and his troops pour into the enemy’s rear, attacking them from behind their emplacements, slaughtering the enemy.

The Captain managed to find cover, which prevented the enemy from Pressing the Advantage and increasing the Advantage bonus. He organized a successful Counter-Attack, which allowed the Heroes to Seize the Initiative. They then took the battle to the enemy.

On the western front, the Hero generals gather men and material, taking their time until they have assembled a huge invasion force. Just when the cache of gasoline and shells is assembled, their opponent, a wily Villain bastard, attacks unexpectedly, breaks through, and captures the supplies.

In game terms, the Villain acted second, kept The Initiative, and attacked when and where he chose, after the enemy had amassed supplies. He kept the Hero generals off guard, never knowing when he would strike, and never able to organize a successful Counter-Attack.

Initiative is the key to all (or nearly all) conflicts. Not just in the game, in the real world. Sports. Negotiations. Business competition. Individual duels. Interrogations.

In all these situations, the most important factor is keeping The Initiative and Pressing the Advantage. He who has the Advantage wins.

[Note: This is a multi-part post. Keep track of the previous posts here.]

Destiny: Initiative Rules Overview [pt. 2]

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.]