GMing Lessons #7: The Importance of Initiative!

22 Dec GMing Lessons #7: The Importance of Initiative!

Initiative is a subject that has received a minimal amount of attention over the years, at least by a good chunk of the games out there. From what I’ve seen of Initiative systems they usually seem either way too static or way too clunky (hmm…how does Initiative clunk again?).

But what do I really mean by that?

I guess, simply put, Initiative doesn’t usually flow. It just is what it is…and your circumstances really have very little to do with it! For example, in D&D (unless you put in some homebrew systems), having a spear didn’t mean you were any more likely to strike first in combat…but that’s exactly the advantage of a spear! Range.

And speaking of which, being tall means you have loads of range. You’re bigger than the other guy, you can hit him first, before he hits you. That’s your primary advantage. You can totally see that in this MMA match below, where a 600lbs (and much taller) man takes on a much more athletic, but shorter and smaller opponent. The little guy has to do a lot of running!

So size, range, situation all make a big difference to who gets to strike first. Obviously, your spear has no effect when being shot at by a bow from fifty metres!

Personally, I have in the past often ignored Initiative altogether, and just allowed the game to flow, free-form. And that works pretty well, but doesn’t really correlate enough. Initiative is actually really important!

Why Is Initiative Important?

Initiative is more important in games where you don’t have a lot of HP, or which are exceptionally deadly. If you really don’t want to get hit, then it’s important that you stab the other guy first! However, when you start getting up into the realms of much higher health, HP or whatever, then it’s a bit more like cutting down a tree. It’s a lot like a slogging match – a war of attrition!

Brawl - Immersion RPG

Those fights can look a lot like this…who’s striking first again?!

And as you can see…slugging matches do happen…but people tend to get their faces broken (or their bodies poked full of holes) before too long. Unless they’re in plate armour! But even then, people use knives to go for the little gaps.

Initiative is even more important again when you don’t have Armour Class. That means you’ve got to use your action to respond to the attack that’s coming in at you. You can’t just walk through it, somehow evade everything, and land your blows – you’ve got to work out how you’re evading everything! Do you dive back over a table in a ninja roll? Do you stumble out of the way? Do you run backwards? Do you block the punch/stab/slash/smash? What about if it’s something you can’t block? Do you dive for it, jump, roll, flip, etc?

The terrible thing is, if you’re spending all your time evading, you can’t really be attacking! So if they’re faster than you each and every time, you’ve either got to run away, or take the hit and step in (or, even better, dodge it and come in…but that would be hard)!

All of a sudden though, your combat is coming to life! It matters what you do to evade, strike, parry, etc. It all really matters!

Gaining the Initiative

Initiative is obviously about more than just being faster than the other person. How quick you move plays a part, but it’s also important that you see the openings, and know when and how to move. Experience clearly plays a part. So does cunning.

If you really need the initiative, you’re going to start playing smart. You’re one dude with a short sword, facing another dude with a long sword across a bar room that has suddenly fallen silent (as bar rooms do when people start poking holes in each other). Oh bugger! He’s got a long sword! Gah! That means he will likely get to chop first…which is not good.

Related:  GMing Lessons #8: Why the Best Villains are Optimists!

So what can you do?

Well…it turns out there are heaps of things you can do. But just charging in at him is likely to result in you losing a chunk out of your arm – or, at the very least, ending up on the back foot, with your opponent wailing down on you with blow after blow, whilst you can barely parry with your shorter weapon. It’s going to get messy unless you close the gap.

Ha! Gotcha!

Ha! Gotcha!

What if you lunged forward, feinted, and got him to swing early? You get the Initiative bonus, slip in after his blow and hack him on the arm. Nice!

What about grabbing a stool and throwing it at him, then following it up with a rushed attack? That could work.

You could kick a table into him, then roll over it and boot him in the chest whilst he’s still reeling – that would certainly be easier and safer than trying to dive over the table head-first with your sword…but still, that might work too (and if it didn’t you’d be on a chopping block…but hey!).

You could even pick up a stool and use its longer range to poke and hit him. Then push him off balance and come in with your short sword.

Or if you were a very fine swordsman you could lunge forwards, weave out of the way of his swing, and just embed your weapon in his torso. Game over.

All of these things would give you bonuses to your Initiative, or give him penalties.

Let Me Count the Ways…

You see there are a great many ways that you could gain the initiative. And obviously, a great deal has to do with how skilled your character is, and the circumstances you’re in, the weapons you have, and so on. But I think you can see, it makes for a more dynamic, interesting game that just automatically starts to come to life.

Heck, all of this is not even really taking into account what goes into Initiative! What if it weren’t one stat but two stats? And what if you could increase it even further with Experience? People learn all sorts of abilities – why can’t they learn to react with speed? In fact, they can! And in Immersion RPG, this is just what you’re able to do.

Even if you’re not playing Immersion RPG or another system that uses this method of Initiative, you can still apply this to D&D, Rifts, Pathfinder…whatever really. Because there are circumstance bonuses and penalties that can apply. All of a sudden, you might find your characters kicking their opponent to knock them off balance, or feinting, or doing any number of really cool manoeuvres that add colour and intensity to your games!

Give it a try. 🙂 And hey, if you would like to check out how Immersion RPG works, check out our Playtesters page for a free copy of our basic rules. Or, if you’d like to see something we’re working on, check out Infected! a nightmarishly realistic vision of the zombie apocalypse.

Enjoy your gaming!

Oliver R. Shead

  • rjschwarz
    Posted at 16:16h, 29 December Reply

    Since each round is 1 minute long initiative is not really about speed but more about being the first to exploit an opening.

    • Oliver R. Shead
      Posted at 20:18h, 18 March Reply

      Hey rjschwarz,

      yeah that’s one way to look at it. Personally I don’t really put rounds into minutes – I say that they’re a few seconds, ten seconds, a minute… or whatever. It’s a flexible period of time in which something dramatic happens. That’s how I work it personally, and it makes things pretty fluid. 🙂


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