Wednesday 1 February 2023

ONLY Roll Initiative

What if initiative was the only roll in a combat system?

Less a question of "can I murder this horrible horse?" and more "can I murder it before it murders me?"

Let's imagine we start with Into the Odd. Replace the damage of each weapon by its average, rounding up. If it's something fancy like "roll a d4 and a d8 and keep the highest" then take the average of the high die and add 1 for each additional die being rolled. Yeah this isn't the same as the average but it's much easier to do on the fly.

So you might have:

Axe d6 = 4 damage
Musket d8 = 5 damage
Cool Sword 2d6 keep highest = 5 damage

If you want to use the Electric/Mythic Bastionland style ganging up rule then the first attack to resolve against a target does normal damage and additional attacks just do 1. 

Pretty straightforward. 

Now we're not rolling STR Saves to avoid Critical Damage. Instead, you take Critical Damage when you lose half or more of your STR in one attack. 

So your STR 18 monster goes down if they lose 9 STR, kind of unlikely, but if you chip them down to STR 12 first then you only need to hit them for 6 to deal Critical Damage. Do you have a weapon big enough?

But what's the point in all this? Let's get onto Initiative.

First the GM declares what the enemy are doing this turn in narrative terms. "The otyugh is going to spray toxic filth in the area around it and the goblins are aiming their bows at your pack mule." I probably wouldn't describe the exact mechanical impact but I'd at least want the players to get a sense of what to expect. If you're ambushing the enemy then they won't be doing anything this turn. 

Then have the players discuss and declare what they're each doing specifically.

Then we all roll initiative. 

A d6 for each combatant. We work down from highest roll to lowest, with ties resolving simultaneously. You're locked into your action, so you can't change your mind based on what's already been resolved. 

Now you can add in some trickery where players can manipulate the initiative roll in certain ways, or their gear impacts their roll, but that's the core of it right there. In the ambush example maybe you just manage to get your guard up when your turn resolves, so you won't be fighting but there's a chance you won't be completely exposed. 

If you've got enough armour and weapons that you can just stomp the enemy even if they get their hits in first then congrats, at least this will be done quickly.

If it's more of an even fight then sure you can just hope you get your hits in first, or bank on being able to take a bit of recovery time afterwards, but is this fight really worth it? Wouldn't you rather slip away and ambush them later?

If the enemy outclasses you then you really have to decide if it's worth it. Maybe you know that any given attack from this purple worm will kill one of your characters, and you don't have enough power to take it out in a single round. Somebody's going to die if you fight this thing, how can it not be one of your characters?

Sure there's a bit of bookkeeping involved with big combats, perhaps requiring you to jot down what each combatant is doing so that things don't get muddled, but I think this could be a fun experiment to play out. 

By the time your sword bounces off its iron hide it's already too late.


Art by Midjourney

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  1. I'd definitely give it a go!
    I've used fixed weapon damage when I had player gamble their hit dice to try and beat the damage. I found that giving some traits/details to each weapon is helpful to differentiate them and make players think about tactics (like we did in CRACK! since all weapons do d6 damage with the basic rules).

  2. I tried something quite like this initiative method years ago (possibly back on G+).

    I had every character roll their d20 to-hit rolls and then resolved them from highest to lowest. I found it far too fiddly as a GM because I had to track what all my NPCs were planning and also add different to-hit bonuses to each of their d20s. Your method skips most of that by having everyone auto-hit.

    One thing you might be interested in: I would let my players change their declared action but they would have to re-roll and it would only work if they rolled an initiative which hasn't come up yet.

  3. I like the idea of doing away with to-hit and damage rolls, but I kind of feel Initiative should go as well. I know the theory is that it's all happening at once but you can feel stuck in stasis on low initiative roll. And what if your declared action is "I attack the otyugh" but then with a low initiative roll it's dead before you get a turn?
    Turns are quick this way, sure, but this doesn't seem super optimal for player engagement.

    1. I may have some solutions about your example "I attack the otyugh" but someone already killed it before my initiative.

      If several characters attack the same target, we could consider as if all them were acting at the same time (probably following the best initiative roll in order to be a valid option, though choosing the median could grossly simulate the characters moving around to allow each of them enough room to attack their target).
      This choice can help to secure Critical Damage, but at the same time if there were other threats they'll continue to act unscathed.

      Otherwise, the ganging up rule could be interpreted as rolling once for each group of characters targeting a thing. Or leaving the choice to players? Either ganging up (but doing less damage) or acting separately (and potentially overkilling a target and wasting their action).

      At least, the fact that the damages are static values can help the players to avoid this case of wasted turn if they can evaluate (or remember) how tough are their opponents.

      Anyway, thanks for the food for thought.

    2. I like the idea of teaming up for an "overkill" but as you say then opponent knowledge is vital and I'd like to see that be attainable in game, through something in game (an archivist class, lore skill, Npc/scroll system) rather than by players who have half-memorized the monster manual.

    3. I agree that forcing players to memorize the monster manual isn't interesting. I thought about characters who could spend a turn to assess the toughness of the opponents, with advantage if they already encountered similar enemies.

      I love the idea of archivist, or knowledge related to the background of a character though, it contributes both to the backstory and to the game story.

    4. I like the idea of adding a +1 to that player's next initiative roll if their intended target or goal gets accomplished before they can act. Still not super interesting, but it does smooth it over.

  4. As someone who has lots of experience running games with Knave, initiative is often the determining factor in a combat. If the enemy/s rolls a higher initiative then they can often kill a level 1 PC on their round before the party can act. Makes tactics and combat avoidance very important.

    I'd also be interested in trying a system that does away with damage rolls. Just have a 'to hit' roll and then each hit removes a HD worth of damage. Mothership 0E had something like this, I think? It kind of evokes video game logic - especially if you use a 'shields can be splintered' ruling too.

    1. Maybe Skorne (by Dreaming Dragonslayer) could interest you?

      Damage rolls are replaced by announcing damage dealt to both sides if you fight head-on. The players are encouraged to be creative and mitigate or avoid the damages by clever approaches.

      This kind of game mainly relies on trust between GM and players, but there is still a dice roll option for uncertain situations (2d6 vs 2d6 with simple modificators).

    2. Cypher/Numenera does away with damage rolls. Every weapon has a category of light/medium/heavy. The categories get static damage. Some abilities can add a point or two of damage. Rolling high on the d20 also nets some extra damage. Pretty efficient.

  5. I love this. I want hard to use this. My only but: This procedure requires you to say what the monsters roughly do before players decide their actions. This is "unfair" for the monster side in a way, which is not bad by default, but makes combat assymetric and difficults PvP combat, which triggers my autism.

  6. The One Roll Engine does this, sort of. It was designed for Godlike, and then also used for Wild Talents and Reign.

    It's a dice pool system, and you make a single roll that determines the speed of your action, if you succeeded, how well you succeeded, and in the case of combat how much damage you do. I think it also determines hit location as well, but it's been a while since I played it. It seems clunky the first couple times, but you get the hang of reading the results quickly.