Tuesday, June 17, 2014

What is initiative?

We're used to seeing initiative as a die roll to determine who goes first. Is this really initiative and how does this "initiative" build up round after round to build combat momentum? While one meaning of the word initiative is "the power or opportunity to do something before others do", there is also the meaning "at one's own discretion : independently of outside influence or control". Using this definition we can understand that holding the initiative is leading the battle or encounter and not necessarily attacking first.

If the party has a plan and they want to push the orcs to the ravine then it should not matter if the orcs attack first or they party attacks first. What matters is that the orcs don't break out and flank the party.

In that sense the characters must be able to impose their will even if the orcs attack first. Most attack mechanics work by gaining the upper hand and rolling first. The outcome is favorable for the attacker or neutral. Neutral in the sense that no benefit is gained (damage to the opponent), but no loss is suffered either. Except maybe in some systems that contemplate epic failure, but that is sometimes in the way of "you drop your sword", "hit the wizard instead" or "cuts your leg".

The way I see this working better is to have the roll represent a challenge between attacker and defender in a way that the defender may become the attacker if things go sour for the attacker. This calls for greater set of outcomes from a single roll. It's not limited to two outcomes: attacker hits or attacker fails to hit. Instead the outcomes are: attacker achieves something, neither achieve anything, defender achieves something. In this case the one who moves in first is called the attacker and the other the defender, although in truth both are attackers. The attacker is the one that "has the initiative" in the classic sense, but not necessarily the real initiative. The attacker may have a polearm and the defender a short sword. The attacker enjoys the advantage of reach, but does he enjoy the benefit of skill? A skilled defender may lead the fight by dodging and looking for the right time to move in for a kill. It is the "defender" who really holds the initiative and may guide the encounter as the "attacker" tries hopelessly to hit him, misses and instead gets injured instead of delivering damage.

Have you handled situations like this? If so how? I think that being a key player in an encounter while always losing the "initiative" roll is a great opportunity to add more flavor to a game. What do you think? Is it interesting to you?

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