As always, the commenter’s thoughts are indented, purple, and italicized.
Also note that alternate initiative concepts have been done before. +Christopher R. Rice did one on Reordering Initiative in a prior Melee Academy post, and +Peter V. Dell’Orto followed up with a spin-off concept over on Dungeon Fantastic. Both are worth reading.
I first want to deal with Raymond’s comment, because it gets to a bit of what I was thinking, and why. It’s the OODA loop part of the discussion.
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.
Changing the initiative order – which is currently descending order of Basic Speed, ties go to DX (I’ve also seen ties go to skill, but that’s into house rule territory), and further ties broken by something else – is fraught with peril in GURPS. So I’d not do that.
Agreed. If the order is always ABCD ABCD, then everybody gets a “reset” after all possible rivals have had a chance to act. Unrealistic? Maybe, but GURPS is a game and fairness trumps realism for the majority of the customer base.
If it’s possible to end up with ABCD DCBA, then A could get pounded on six times instead of just three times, B could get attacked four times instead of three, C would have to deal with just two possible attacks, and D would be free to All-Out Attack without consequences. This evens out after several turns . . . but there won’t be several turns if C and D are aggressive, especially if C and D are on the same side: A acts, B acts, and then C and D beat the jelly out of A and B using unanswered All-Out Attacks that saturate defenses.
To make this work, you would have to rewrite much of the combat system. You would have to posit a universal turn and define what occurs at its outset — not just initiative rolls, but also duration countdowns and defense refreshment. This would insert bookkeeping phases between bouts of action. You would have to consider declarations, so that D’s intent to All-Out Attack has an effect, and/or make acting first a significant advantage. And so on. You would end up with a game that’s far more like a tactical boardgame or a wargame than like an RPG that prioritizes the Rule of Cool and player agency.
Beyond that, there’s the fact that some characters pay serious points for Altered Time Rate and Extra Attack so that they can gain benefits that the luck of the dice could give to anybody. So those traits would need rewriting, too, and there would probably need to be a “realistic” version of such abilities . . . which would then become the gimme trait that the Speed attribute is in the Hero RPG. So rewrites would spread to the character-creation rules. While a few diehard realism nuts like that idea, they aren’t even close to the majority.
The conceit or general idea here is that even if you’re the quickest (in speed order, which speaks to a point below), if you’re not mentally prepared to attack, then the more-aggressive options will not be on your list of things to do.
Kromm Speaks Again
It’s worth pointing out that though Basic Speed is (DX + HT)/4, it *is* meant to represent mental preparation as well as reflexes. There are a lot of places in the rules — starting with “Mind vs. Brain” (p. B296) and treated in much more detail in GURPS Bio-Tech — that suggest that DX is partly or wholly a mental attribute, and represents the “acting” side of the brain rather than the “contemplating” side. The fact that so many IQ-based skills are floated to DX for action tasks is a further hint. I’m not sure I could successfully argue against a claim that DX and Basic Speed calculated from it are measures of aggressiveness and preparation.
Honestly, I think that an Action Points system (now who do we know who has written one of those?) is the optimal way to handle ebb and flow. More prepared fighters have more AP. More aggressive fighters tend to spend more AP per turn, and if there’s a cap on how many you can spend per turn, they might have a higher cap. People who run out of AP can’t do as much. But everyone spends what AP they have *on their turn,* any refresh happens *on their turn,* and turns always cycle in the same order to remove a bookkeeping headache. The effect of taking two turns in a row, or taking and holding the initiative, comes from outspending your foe in AP, either on a per-turn basis (higher cap) or in absolute terms (more AP).
So to the direct point: no, I’d never rearrange turn-order in the middle of the fight, because GURPS turns are not “second 1, second 2, second 3” on an absolute basis. Though sometimes I wish they were.
So, on to another commenter’s notes, with occasional reference to the prior issue and comment as well . . .
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 absolutely true. The key, always, for new die rolls is whether they actually improve the game. Where possible, roll once strategies are better than “roll each turn,” if nothing else, it reduces book-keeping.
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.
I could see a roll each round, but thinking about it, that means every character and NPC will face an extra die roll each round. That’s less cool than I’d like. That observation makes me think that a re-roll should be a side effect of an Evaluate action, or occasioned by a mid-combat Tactics or Leadership roll. Or even a Wait that is not triggered. This may not improve your situation, of course!
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.
Many of the permanent bonuses for things like combat reflexes will be fixed factors, serving in their own way like the permanent initiative bonus you get in D&D. The ebb and flow for wounds and stunning should provide the adjustment I need.
Again, as this idea develops, what I think would be useful is an Aggression score. If I did it right, it would be centered around zero, so that unless you had a positive Aggression number for the fight, your choices would be limited.
Oh, but that goes against player agency! Yes it does, so instead of “you can’t do that” you’d wind up saying “do what you want, but pay for it.” So maybe if the normal bound of aggressiveness is -8 to +8, that you take a penalty to any aggressive actions equal to (say) twice the difference between your aggressiveness and the guy you’re fighting. His total is -2, but yours is 0? He is at -4 if he tries an Attack, Committed Attack, or All-Out Attack. If he chooses Defensive Attack or All-Out Defense, he’s fine.
Some of this could actually be a good thing. GURPS has so many options that having guidance as to what you’d do is not a bad thing, especially for the GM who might be controlling many characters. Oh, Bog the Barbarian’s aggressiveness is 6 this round, and his foe is at -2. Another All-Out Attack (One Foe) for him! Or something like that.
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.
I disagree here, in that quickness is accounted for in the turn order itself. A fast character with a (perhaps temporarily) low aggression score might well act first and nail his foe with a Defensive Attack. This will impose shock penalties and such on his foe (lowering Aggressiveness) and provide a bonus to the successful attacker (raising his Aggressiveness). His foe, who goes after him in the turn order, may wind up facing a case where that first defensive attack puts him back on his heels, restricting his actions.
Turn order, and striking first, still matter here, I think.
Third, the influence of leadership makes sense, but would you add it in the case of single combatants?
No, I probably wouldn’t. A Will roll (or a Will-based weapon skill roll) might be the better call here, or even Tactics. I’ve written about other things that Tactics might be used for before.
And if one character were being ganged up on, would you still use leadership for the “gang,” with none for the “gangee?”
If it’s truly a gang, as opposed to a unit, perhaps leadership might not apply. But certainly a lower Aggressivness score would be appropriate if you’re being dogpiled. That being said, using the tentative ideas on an aggressiveness number above, it might be that a strong, skilled, Overconfident PC has full choice of maneuver in that situation. And there are going to be cases where dropping back and trying to defend is a terrible idea – taking the fight to the enemy is the right call. I’m not sure that’s something that you want to interfere with that much.
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?
You may be right. the modifiers I tried to sketch out go from -7 to 14 with a 1d6 roll. With a 2d6 (and penalties/bonuses from -8 to 8), then the values go from -6 to 20, with a potentially much wider range for a particular fighter. I’m not sure that’s a good thing either. I would tend to want who has initiative to initially be determined mostly by the fighter himself, and then by the circumstances. The large range in a 2d6 or other roll doesn’t speak to me as favorable, but it’s the sort of thing that only playtest can tell.
Ultimately, the concept here is to use something that measures the ebb and flow of the fight. What you don’t want to do is track it every single round. Getting wounded or driven back, or seeing a friend disemboweled should drive a change in Aggressiveness. But not something you fiddle with every turn. That way lies GM and player frustration.
What I would want to do is have a badass-o-meter ranking that helps the GM and player decide what tactics (specifically: maneuver selection between AoA and AoD, in the usual five steps) are on the table for a given exchange. This might even include something like “if Aggressiveness drops below -5, the combatant will seek to withdraw.” That’s something that is right now (usefully) left to GM fiat in most cases, but guidance is a good thing.
You can also differentiate fighting styles this way. Overconfident? Berserk or Combat Fury? Combat Reflexes? Fearlessness? Yeah – Aggressiveness likely goes up. Pacifism? Easy to Kill? Lower.
You might also use that sort of aggressiveness tally as a good way to gauge fear checks and pre-combat posturing. Think the muster of the Uruk-Hai in The Two Towers. Having that many orcs screaming for blood with high aggressiveness numbers is going to make for a very intimidating initial encounter. Until you get the “If it bleeds, we can kill it” rationalization going on. (Though that only worked out well for Ah-nold, in the end . . . )
Finally, a counterpoint on fair and unfair and realism and game-balance, from a professional instructor for firearms, self-defense, and use of force. He addresses the topic that it’s possible to go first (or not go first) and have a whole bunch of people pound you into a wet prune before you get the chance to go again.
Shawn Fisher speaks:
Generally, this is not unrealistic. Is it unfair as hell? Yes. That’s why striking first is such a huge advantage. It sucks to get pummeled and never be able to seize the advantage. GURPS bakes in the first strike as a power you buy at character creation, and also through various stunning effects from hit locations and damage. There’s nothing wrong with that approach, but it’s equally possible to play without that. Instead, as you point out, you may be buying the right to strike first most of the time, but not all the time. As it is there is no ebb and flow, just first strikes all the time, if you choose. This is also the problem, if you will, of omniscient PCs who know where the enemy is, know the ammo count in their guns, know the ranges and mods and calculate them perfectly to avoid wasting a shot, etc. Can you critically fail Basic Speed? No. You can invest in DX and HT, which are uber important in combat and the by product is you get to whack the guy first. Every time.
This is why making a roll works. FWIW, I think even a (1d/2, or something) would be fine. That way Move 6 guy is probably safe from Goon with move 5, but not necessarily. He could roll 1 and get an order of 7 and the Goon could roll 3 and get 8. The ads might be +1/-1 for Combat Reflexes or Combat Paralysis, and that’s it.
Big follow-up post for me, with no fewer than seven people’s ideas being represented, including myself. I hope you enjoyed this as much as I enjoyed compiling it!