Initiative and the OODA loop in GURPS (noodling)

Thursday is GURPS-Day, and running up to next week’s Melee Academy topic on disarming, my friends and I are passing back and forth videos of violence. This led to a discussion of movie violence vs. real-world violence, and the differences between the two. The discussion came up for GURPS, largely because it has the depth of detail  that allows the discussion to be had at all.

Suffice it to say that when you look at real-world violence, one of the things that seems quite apparent is that “roll for initiative,” or “make a morale check!” isn’t just a suggestion, it’s the law.

This leads me to wonder if in more gritty games, it would be a good idea to separate Initiative and Speed. You still go in speed order, but there’s a moral/aggression factor that is different than who’s quickest.


What’s this?


Again, in movies, you see a lot of well-balanced fights. Two fighters trading blows more or less equally. You also see a lot of “this is the hero’s moment to shine!” fighting, where the Director, acting as GM, has decreed that the Mook is Just Going to Take It. If you’re watching the movie Equilibrium, this can be between the same two characters, in different parts of the movie. 

I won’t spoil it. But go watch.

In the real-world, what one tends to see other than in very circumscribed situations is that one fighter has the initiative, and the other reacts. This can change – and it’s often the goal of the one that doen’t have the initiative to make it change – during the fight.

GURPS “initiative” is really the order in which actions are declared. But fast on your feet doesn’t necessarily mean you’re controlling the course of a fight.

In the real fights I’ve seen, usually there’s someone who’s driving the action. They make a series of All-Out or Committed Attacks. The other guy is back on his heels. He’s either making Defensive Attacks or even taking All-Out Defense. 

This continues until the fight is over, or initiative somehow switches.

What are the rules supposed to do?


I got a note from Kromm on this one, which is worth reposting here to see just how far I’m going to deviate from the rules as they’re supposed to be:

“Surprise Attacks and Initiative” (p. B393) was *NEVER* intended to be used when two mutually antagonistic parties can see the other before hostilities begin! An initiative roll for partial surprise is made only in the two situations spelled out in paragraph 1 of those rules:

  • A party on alert (the “defender”) is engaged by a previously unseen party (the “attacker”). The defender was expecting hostilities but not necessarily from the attacker, who only just appeared. The initiative roll determines if being initially unseen gives the attacker the edge (attacker wins) or if the attacker fails to account for the prepared defense — in effect, the *defense* is unseen — and suffers a reversal (defender wins).
  • Two sides that were previously unaware of each other suddenly come into contact. The initiative roll determines who gets organized first and does something about the hitherto unknown threat. 

If the defender wasn’t expecting hostilities, there’s no roll at all that’s total surprise.

If each party could see the other before anyone got violent and each recognizes the other as hostile, there’s no roll — that’s standard combat, and who acts first is a function of the combat sequence.

Corner cases where two parties sight each other but don’t immediately go to fighting are best resolved by treating everyone as having taken a Wait and using “Cascading Waits” (GURPS Martial Arts, p. 108).

An Initiative Number


I’m wondering if this could be represented by some sort of initiative number. If as a fighter your initiative number is lower than your foe’s, you may only choose defensive attack or All-Out Defense. This is a variant on Untrained Fighters from GURPS Martial Arts (box on p. 113).

Rolling for Initiative is actually a thing in GURPS, as part of Partial Surprise (p. B393). The guidance for total and partial surprise is deliberately vague; there’s room for fiat and interpretation here. But some good examples for triggering it for the purpose of looking at initiative using the alternate rules would be:

  • An aggressor makes a successful Intimidation check
  • A defender is ready for trouble but fails a Perception check
  • During a fight, someone gets punched
  • A leader fails a leadership test
  • A fighter sees one of his side get thwacked hard
Looking at the YouTube stuff, you will often see that one fighter starts to dominate, and the other gives up. I saw this personally in several fights I’ve observed – at some point, one of the combatants just rolls over and gives up. You see this all the time in dominance displays in animals, of course.
Roll the Bones

Let’s use the same 1d6 roll from Partial Surprise. I’ll change the modifiers a bit:

  • If you have Combat Reflexes or Enhanced Time Sense, you get +2
  • The winner of a Quick Contest of Leadership gets +1 for their side (only one group qualifies here)
  • A successful Leadership roll by the side’s leader gets +1 (both can qualify for this)
  • If you have one point in Tactics, you get +1 for you
  • If you or your side are victorious in a Quick Contest of Tactics, your side gets +1
  • If you or your side are victorious in an Intimidation Check, you get +1
  • If you got hit last round, you’re at -1; if you were hit and injured you’re at -2; if you failed a Fright Check, you’re at -4, unless you were also . . .
  • If you were stunned, you go last, but you might figure the number in case one has to decide between multiple people who’s the least last
  • If you have to attack through a forest of high-reach weapons, you’re at -1 per each hex of Reach you’re down on your foes. Knife vs Reach 3 polearm? Yeah, -3.
  • If you don’t see any good way to hurt your foes (look! a shield wall! crap!) you’re at -1
I was just rattling off a bunch of modifiers, but let’s see if we can sum up.
  • Some advantages and disadvantages will give you permanent bonuses or penalties for the roll (0 to +2)
  • Leadership, Tactics, and Intimidation will impact the roll (0 to +4, perhaps)
  • Your perception of your ability to hurt your foe will impact the roll (0 to -2)
  • If you believe your foe can hurt you or just did, this will impact the roll, perhaps severely (-4 to +0)
  • If you think your side is winning or losing, that will impact the roll (-2 to +2)
I’d call for a re-roll of the dice if the “lower” initiative person actually manages to land a defensive attack against his foe – that’s a morale turning point that should be recognized. The total bonuses/penalties above could conceivably stretch from -8 to +8 with a d6 for randomization, so that’s a range of -7 to 14; plenty of room for all sorts of wiggle and interplay.
Parting Shot
This is just another aspect of morale in gaming, but with mechanical weight. The fact that you might “go first” because your fast, but be limited to less-aggressive options because you’re afraid or uncertain is just part of real fighting.
Now, stuff like this is a huge denial of agency to PC types. This restricts maneuver choice in GURPS to a degree that is intermediate between “you’re stunned, you must choose Do Nothing” and “you’re not stunned, do whatever you want.” It may strike people the wrong way.
That being said, such options do exist elsewhere – if you want to Aim and you’re using the rules from Tactical Shooting, you must All-Out Attack. I allow for a Committed Aim in On Target (Pyr #3/77), but defenses are always compromised.
The inability for an aggressor to choose Attack rather than only Committed or All-Out is maybe taking things too far, but again, usually one is either pushing the defender, getting pushed oneself, or has disengaged and is circling. 
Tying initiative and aggression to a Contest of Wills might be fun, too, where if you win the contest by a certain amount, you roll iniative and the winner will likely attack. Tie, and keep circling. 
It would involve more Intimidation, Tactics, Leadership, and evaluation engagement, which is good. 
It could also be something that’s just applied to NPCs (though I’m not a huge fan of such asymmetric rules, they have their place), which would give a “tide of battle” feel that is a real thing in conflict, but doesn’t jump out organically from the rules as they are now.

5 thoughts on “Initiative and the OODA loop in GURPS (noodling)

  1. A couple of comments:

    First, adding another die roll–especially one with so many potential modifiers to be calculated on the fly–could serve to bog down play. This is an issue particularly if you're suggesting new initiative rolls before each round, which I assume is the case in light of your goal of simulating the ebb and flow of combat. Or perhaps the penalties and bonuses for intimidation, wounds, stunning, etc. are enough to achieve this; it just seems a little luck (the die roll) would be welcome as well.

    Secondly, besides "quickness of mind" and experience (tactics, combat reflexes), a characters quickness isn't really considered, marginalizing a character's attributes. An easy way to work it into the formula is to simply add a character's BS to the initiative roll as well.

    Third, the influence of leadership makes sense, but would you add it in the case of single combatants? And if one character were being ganged up on, would you still use leadership for the "gang," with none for the "gangee?" It would seem to emphasize the nature of initiative you're trying to recreate.

    Lastly, it seems that modifiers can potentially add up to a point where the roll of a single die wouldn't matter. Do you think making the roll 2d6 would randomize initiative too much?

    Thanks for this post, and I hope I don't come off as too critical of your ideas; it's all great food for thought!

    1. I agree with more dice bogging down play quite a bit.

      I was thinking that it might save time to put a formulaic approach instead of precalculating and recording some sort of initiative modifier.

      If you only leave one or two variables for the change to initiative it's not too terrible to roll.

      Overall I do agree that sometimes combat in GURPS becomes less humane due to the tactical nature of it. Often there's a disconnect between the combatants as characters and as players.

  2. I think the simplest change would be to allow the "initiative order" to change—currently it stays in Speed-order regardless of what happens. If you allow it to change, I would re-order someone when they act on a wait, and probably on certain "aggressive" defenses (like Aggressive Parry or Grapple responses like Arm Lock/Throw), which would make things make more chronological sense. I would also allow it to be changed on an Evaluate or Do Nothing maneuver. Doing so would mean that sometimes a guy ends up acting twice before another one, but that's not necessarily unrealistic.

  3. how i tried to run it, was that everytime you wanted to do a offensive action or switch from defence to offense you had to roll VS will at -2 with any drawbacks that could figure in, working against you

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