Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Reversing Initiative: A Modest Proposal

Here's an idea for tweaking initiative in Pathfinder and other games that use d20-style system. It is loosely based on some ideas from Exalted. The system there had some neat ideas, but it was far too complicated. The system here is simplified quite a bit and requires minimal deviation from the basic d20 ruleset:
  • Each participant rolls a d20, as normal, but they subtract their initiative modifiers instead of adding them.
  • Find the character with the lowest initiative. That character goes first.
  • Each action happens immediately upon the initiative rating of the character who performs it. That action costs an amount of Delay. Add the Delay rating to the initiative count. That is when the character will be able to act again.
  • Different sorts of actions have different degrees of Delay:
    • Free actions: 0 delay if performed as part of an action with delay 2 or more. 1 delay otherwise.
    • Immediate actions: add 1 delay to your last action
    • Swift actions: 1 delay
    • Move actions: 4 delay
    • Standard actions: 5 delay
    • Full-round actions: 9 delay
  • When time is measured in rounds, 1 round=10 delay
  • You may delay your action normally.
  • The initiative count proceeds upwards. It stops only at the end of combat.
Five effects of this system:
  1. You don't have to wait around too long for your turn to do something.
  2. You need to pay more attention to what is going on. Combat is less of a series of states and more of a fluid thing.
  3. Some combat manuevers (such as charging) become much more useful.
  4. Characters who plan elaborate multistep things to do on their turn will have that broken up (and possibly disrupted).
  5. You get to brag about how long (or short) your combat was. "I killed that dragon at initiative count 29! That's a personal best!"
Six optional rules tweaks for use with this system:

  1. Surprise. If you start combat unaware of your opponents, roll initiative as normal. You cannot act normally until you are aware of your opponent, however. Delay until your first opportunity to notice your opponent and make a Perception/Spot check, which is a standard action (5 Delay) with a DC set by the circumstances. If you fail this, you may retry it on your next turn. The difficulty is likely to be lower by that point.
  2. Quick Attack Option: You may make a single attack with a light weapon at 4 delay. This attack is made at -1 to hit, and you may not add a strength bonus to either your attack or damage rolls.
  3. Haste causes all actions to have one less delay, except for movement actions and full attacks, which have 2 less delay. Slow causes all actions to have one more delay, except for movement actions and full attacks, which have 2 more delay. These effects and modifiers to attack rolls and AC are the only effects of these spells.
  4. Attacks of Opportunity add two to the Delay of your last action.
  5. The Dazed effect simply adds 10 to a creature's Delay. To add some uncertainty here, allow the dazed creature an optional second saving throw against the effect. If it succeeds, the effect ends after 8 Delay. It it fails, the effect ends after 12 Delay.
  6. Two Weapon Fighting can be handled as follows: Attack penalties remain the same when fighting with two weapons. When making a full attack, you get an extra attack with your off-hand weapon as normal. In other circumstances, instead of getting a free attack with your off hand weapon each round, you may attack with both weapons as a standard action that has 6 Delay.
Despite the above, I'd avoid adding in too many deviations from the basic Delay costs. That's the road Exalted went down, and I feel like it rendered the system cumbersome.

This hasn't been playtested at all. If you try it out, let me know how it works.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Pushing your Luck

Let's revisit a topic that I brought up five years ago. I've never liked that luck tends to be handled in RPGs by a reroll. The other day, while driving into Baltimore, I think I realized why: a reroll is a test of skill.

This is largely system-agnostic, but I'll describe it in d20ish terms. Let's say my character is running away from an ever-expanding pool of acid and needs to jump a chasm to join the other PCs in safety. If I have a +10 to a roll and need to get a 20 or more on a d20+10 roll in order to succeed, then luck plays no more into a reroll than it did in the original roll. Sure, I'm getting a chance to have the luck work out the second time when it didn't work out the first time, but a success on that second roll wouldn't typically feel any different than a success on the first roll - nor would it usually be described differently. If I roll a 5 on the first roll and then succeed with a 16 on the second roll, would any of the other characters (or even my character) say, "Wow, that was lucky!" in response to a success on a luck reroll? Probably not. In game, there is usually nothing to distinguish success on the luck reroll from success on the original roll.

Luck bonuses are even worse here, as you don't even have that second roll to differentiate the effect of an unusual degree of luck.

It is certainly true that, in either of these cases, good attention to description can make a difference. If the second jump roll gets described as me falling a bit short but catching a convenient handhold rather than me just jumping successfully across the chasm, then the effect of luck can be seen in game. In a game where these sorts of successes are consistently described in terms of lucky breaks then, if I have a lot of luck rerolls (maybe because of some feats I took), other characters will tend to see me as lucky (rather than just skillful).

A side note:
All the OSR folks reading this have probably already said... "duh." In old-school play, this sort of thing is typically seen as part of the GM's responsibility. That's not to say that all such GMs are good at it - or view their responsibilities equally... and, really, in such games it is usually the initial die roll where luck is seen as coming into play. I find this situation really interesting, but its a topic for another blog post.

How can we support such descriptions with game mechanics, though? I can think of a couple ways. My current favorite is what I call "pushing your luck." In this mechanical variant, luck bonuses don't apply to standard rolls, and rerolls are special. When you fail a roll that you could have otherwise succeeded in, you can try to push your luck. Roll a d20. On a 20 you succeed due to the intervention of something lucky. On a 1, you hit a patch of bad luck and you not only fail, but suffer some other effect (insert typical botching rules). If you have a luck bonus, that expands your range of success on the d20 roll.

Characters might have a limit on how often they can push their luck. This would depend on genre and tone, but I'd suggest once per game session, plus one for any time they could take a luck reroll (due to feats or whatnot). There might be feats or luck powers that would allow people to push their luck on certain rolls that they wouldn't normally be able to succeed at as well.

Unless your game features a lot of luck bonuses, pushing your luck is fairly balanced. It offers chance at a lucky break, but not without a risk. Moreover, it provides a clear indicator and convenient hook for describing when luck comes into play.