Initiative and Reaction Times

Been thinking about that crazy lil’ thing called Initiative recently, in the context of this and that, and also of the problem of timing in the round.  A player is called upon to take their turn.  They sit there, jaws agape, emitting a noise like a vacuum cleaner in distress.  How long do you let them hang there before making their decision?  Likewise, sometimes players confer over the best tactical approach to their turn.  How long do you permit this to continue?  I’ve been in a Deadlands game where the opening round of a fight ran to twenty minutes as our resident Napoleon Nerdaparte insisted on having all factors enumerated and codified so he could devise the ultimate plan.

What is Initiative?

Initiative is something bone-dry and mechanical – a device for determining which player goes first in a combat simulation game – or something moist and representative – a device for indicating how quick off the mark a fictional character played by a person is.  If you are fortunate enough to be old-school to the core, it’s probably the former; if you are die-hard new school and see every last digit on the sheet as indicating something about a person, it’s as likely the latter.  If you come down somewhere in the middle, in that fuzzy grey area where I suspect most actual gameplay happens, then there’s a tension between values.

Decide what initative is in your game before you decide how to handle it.  If it’s anything more than a convenient system for ordering play, you might want to consider Kent’s notion of the intelligent player playing an intelligent character – not that I’m into “preventing stupid people playing clever characters” or any elitist nonsense like that.  It’s more to do with intelligent players forgetting that their characters are not as smart as them.

For instance, KL-404, my Star Wars character, has a low WIS and is consequently less sensible than me (not by much, admittedly, but he shouldn’t be as risk-conscious as I like to play him – I hope it’s redeemed somewhat by his glaring paranoia and tendency to leave giant loopholes in his plans) – I also find it hard to adequately account for K’s superhuman INT on occasions since I’m just not that smart.

I would never stop anyone from playing a character with X score in Y stat.  I might suggest that I can’t see them playing someone with merely average scores in it, or point out that roll has an influence on role and that high mental stats are not just game mechanics but indicate something about the character’s personality and behaviours.  Sometimes, you end up with the shyest person in the group trying to play the slickest thing since Ventrue invented Presence and just not being able to represent the person described by their character sheet – I would argue that to be the biggest potential failure of new-school play, for the record.  I would also like to point out that I like to get to know people a bit before I roleplay with them, and consequently have a basis for these judgements extending beyond “you’re dead quiet so no high CHA characters for you”.

Anyway, let’s assume that you’re somewhere in the middle; Initiative is a description of how quick a character is to react, but also a system for establishing the structure of a game round.  There are three elements to that structure and I’m going to break them down into more clearly named concepts because multiple definitions are troublesome.

from the d&d 3.5 rulebook

Who goes first?

My absolute favourite take on this whole IGO-UGO thing is the tack taken by Advanced Fighting Fantasy, where both sides are abstracted into an opposed roll that resolves pretty much any combat situation that can be thought of, and does so with remarkable swiftness.  Player and GM resolve relevant actions at the same time and so which player goes first becomes more a matter of convenience than tactical advantage.  Of course, players may always hold off from combat, waiting for the opportune moment; likewise, spare monsters may hang back and commit later.  Point is, when dice hit table, both sides are going at once.

If your system doesn’t favour simple opposed roll mechanics, try this.  The party (collectively) and GM roll whichever die has the most Significance in the system you’re running (a d20 for D&D, a d10 for Vampire or WFRP).  If your system has Initiative modifiers for characters and you want to use them, apply these to the roll.  Highest roller gets to activate one thing first, then the other side goes, then the other side goes.

If the GM’s running one Big Scary Thing, it needs either allies, minions or multiple activations (because the GM shouldn’t be sitting there not doing anything for four rounds).  If the GM’s running a Horde Of Things, they should gang up on players, and all monsters attacking one player should go at the same time (because the players shouldn’t be sitting there not doing anything while the GM moves all the monsters).

How long to think?

The length of a combat round in real time, plus the character’s Initiative modifier or score, however it’s calculated in your system, in the same unit of measure.  Imagine you’re playing Pathfinder (six seconds per round) and your character has a +4 Initiative modifier; that nets you ten seconds of sitting there filtering plankton from the air while you desperately try to think.  GMs who prefer player skill over character build optimisation may prefer to award a flat rate of system combat round in real time.

How long to talk?

These are games with a tactical element and so planning is to be encouraged, but not for too long; for one, it derails play and bores the uninvolved, and for two, it’s all the players’ brains against one and the best GM in the world will have trouble coming up with a plan to match what six people can manage.

Cumulative Intelligence or equivalent statistic score in seconds sounds about reasonable for systems with D&D-like stat ranges; maybe multiply it by four for the WoD to give an equivalent range.  If I’ve worked it out right a party of six average-INT D&D characters should get sixty seconds, while a party of six geniuses could maybe manage a minute and a half and the typical party will be somewhere in between.  Smaller groups tend to need less elaborate plans, so the system should scale down fairly well – maybe a minimum of thirty seconds plus INT modifiers to be on the safe side.

Author: Jon

Sententious, mercurial, and British as a bilious lord. Recovering Goth, lifelong spod. Former teacher and amateur machine politician, now freelance writer and early-career researcher.

3 thoughts on “Initiative and Reaction Times”

  1. In my WoD game I try to bear in mind people’s Intelligence and Wits statistics when it comes to choosing their next action or being able to Ask the Audience. If they’re playing Intelligence 2 or Wits 2, they’re going to have to go with their first gut reaction. If it’s very high, especially with Wits, they get more time to think on their feet.

    1. Ooooh, nice one. I do like to have a rough formula for these things so that crunch-loving players understand there is a system at work, but I like that as a break point between “six seconds or you stand there flapping” and “your character’s smart so you need time to play that”.

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