Monday, January 05, 2015

Initiative in an action thriller game

What's the role of initiative in an action thriller and how does this relate to character skills? In my recent experience initiative is a key element in game mechanics that brings out great stories and one aspect of game mechanics that hasn't been exploited as much as it could.

Seldom have I seen games that focus on determining exactly when something happens. On one end of the spectrum there's a lot of work done on detailed weapon damage, range, bonuses, modifiers, hit locations, etc.; on the other there's a quest for a simpler and faster conflict solving mechanism that focuses more on a fast paced game with easy to learn rules, but that don't really get down to determining when things happen and how the character's skill contributed to this. In both cases initiative is mostly a thing that says you go first, then me, then her, then him and so forth.

I wanted something that had "action thriller" written all over it. So after a year working on the Saints & Sinners game I've come to realize the value of precise time measurements in an action thriller game and how much this can add to a story with such little effort. While I believe a game's mechanics don't make a thriller on their own they sure can add or subtract depending on how they work. Specially if the player has control over this and the decision making process is in itself thrilling.

Action thrillers are packed with anticipation, expectation, uncertainty, surprise, anxiety and maybe even terror. I can't have much of this if my character has high hit points and I'm confident it won't get killed in the first round of combat or two. While games such as D&D can be thrillers at first level they quickly lose this quality as characters level up and hit points increase. Balance, another buzz word in some games, is also a thrill killer. Thus the first thing to go in the game were high hit points and balance. A character can die at any moment. Survival depends on skill and player planning. Balance is not guaranteed by the system, it's provided by the player.

Lower hit points took the game in the right direction making the game more tactical with role playing and planning taking a central role, but still it wasn't enough. There was this gap between the hero and the common minion. An inexperienced NPC could very frequently get a kill out of pure luck, particularly at short ranges where it gets close and personal, and the odds of missing is low. What I needed was something extra, something that was missing. That missing element was initiative as a skill.

Initiative was transformed from a means to determine order of events to an extension of the skill system. It's a product of some degree of randomness (dice), attribute bonuses and skill. Linking skill to initiative and providing a relationship between higher skill or higher speed allowed the unfolding of thriller styled events. Characters now have a means to leverage their skill to gain an initiative bonus. This bonus is in turn a concrete measurement of time. Each initiative point is a quarter second difference in time. If your character is really good, great aim isn't going to help you much at short range. The game allows the player to trade in some skill from the attack roll and convert it into a bonus on the initiative roll. A half second can be the difference between life and death.

Half second and quarter second you say? That's surely got you thinking about how counter intuitive this seems. If I'm resolving things at quarter second intervals even the simplest encounter will take all day. Well that's not the way it's done. Having quarter second intervals doesn't mean players are asked what they do every quarter second of game time. That would be ludicrous. A key element in action thrillers is speed. Without a fast pace you quickly lose the adrenaline rush needed to keep you at the edge of your seat.

What it means is that when facing opponents your character can lower the attack skill and gain a speed bonus. If your character is a grand master with the katana, then two or three levels can be dropped in exchange for initiative bonuses; thus by attacking as a pro or expert your character can gain an 8 or 12 points bonus. If you add applicable attribute bonuses and a good roll that can increase to 16 or more initiative points ahead of the first opponent. Considering that masters such as the bride can have as little as three points to an action a 16 point lead translates to 5 actions before the first minion can even blink. In the time it takes you to figure out the exploding dice your character has killed five guys.

It is easy to see how this can be very advantageous for a skilled hero, but what about bosses? When facing more challenging encounters "mano-a-mano" it requires greater attack and defense skill and initiative will be more on par. In this situation the player places more skill on the attack and defense than on the initiative as now the odds of missing or being hit are a lot higher. But still as a player you can gamble and go for a quick kill, and that's where all the thrill is after all! What will your character bet on this round, speed or skill? Will you risk a weaker defense just to be the first to attack?

Under its modern warfare facade, Saints & Sinners is an action thriller role playing game. It's an easy to learn system and at only 70 pages it's breeze to read and start playing. You can download it here as PWYW. Contributions are, as always, greatly appreciated.

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