Monday, April 16, 2012

Player-Facing Initiative

There is a nice effect that goes along with keeping monsters mechanically freeform. From planning to implementation in the campaign, such enemies remain open-ended in the minds of both the judge and the players. The unknown shifts from simply "what the players cannot see behind the judge's screen" to the unknowable, as it draws from the vague and unthought potential of the judge's ongoing process of imagination and reimagining. Such monsters are free to continually evolve with the world as it is explored by the players, and are infinitely malleable to the twists and turns of plot that are inspired during play.

Dungeon Crawl Classics supports this, and goes so far as to say that monsters and players are not equivalent, and that they do not play by the same rules. This is a refreshing break from other games that try to "stat-out" monsters in terms of player-centric mechanics (giving them levels, classes, feats, skills and so on). Instead of these constraints, monsters are completely unfettered by design limitations, and are freeform enough to allow the judge to continually present them in new and unexpected ways (this is also encouraged by Lamentations of the Flame Princess, I have heard).

Even on a small scale, it is nice to break the symmetry between players and monsters. In the spirit of Robin Law's innovative GUMSHOE system, I have been thinking of using more player-facing mechanics with my world. This sets up monsters and players not as equivalent pawns in a wargame, but rather monsters are just part of a rich environment that players must struggle against. By leaving monster ability and behavious nearly completely undefined, the game simply feels more narratively oriented.

As a concrete example of this, I am strongly considering dropping traditional initiative rolls in combat. The systems that we have come to recognize (group initiative or individual initiative, rolled at the beginning of combat or each new round) are simply not tied to the narrative of the battle at all. For the most part, they are highly random, disconnected from the actions of the combatants and (perhaps with the exception of group initiative) discouraging of cooperative actions. Instead, I am proposing that all combatants describe their actions at the beginning of the round and, if any actions conflict, the player must dice their initiative against a (10 + Monster's Init. Modifier) DC in order to get his action off first. If the sequence of actions is obvious (i.e. ranged attack versus melee attack), no dice are needed.

For example, if a second level warrior (Agility 11) was going to hack an Android (Init. -2) in the Denethix sewers, and the Android was going to toss the damsel he is carrying over his head into the incinerator, the warrior dices 1d20+2 versus DC 8 to see if he makes it in time. The same would go if the Android was going to attack the warrior (to see who gets to roll their attack first).

This nicely mirrors Robert Fisher's advice, and keeps the actions of opponents fairly inscrutible. Monsters fall into the greater narrative backdrop, and are struggled against for narrative goals. Such player-facing mechanics ultimately make opponents less like discrete actors, and more part of the rich environment.


  1. Why even roll Init for monsters? Just have the players roll their Init and decide if it is enough. Or, if you wish, replace the "Init -2" entry with "Init 8" and have it be a set DC the players need to beat.

    Also, one of the things I did in 3e was make the players roll all the dice. So instead of having them sit there taking hits, they made a dodge roll to avoid monster attacks. It was easy to convert (monster att of +1 became a DC 13 and PC AC of 13 became +3). This really helped keep the players guessing as to the power the monster's had and made it so that anytime they got hit it was their own fault (since they rolled low). While mechanically identical, it changed the feel of the game and, since I didn't have to roll dice, helped speed up the game.

    I think you could do an identical thing with DCC since it's based on 3e.

  2. I like the idea of making players roll to dodge hits, and then roll their own damage as well. With both this and with the alternate initiative, you are taking dice rolls that are vague and poorly defined (from the player perspective) and turning them into concrete goals for the players. Instead of "everyone roll initiative, you want to roll high", you get "roll your initiative - if you don't get a 13 or higher, the Android will toast the princess!" and instead of the referee rattling dice behind the screen and telling you that your character is dead, you get "if you don't roll a 16, you'll take 2d6 damage from his claws!" Clear goals and clear risks. And plus, rolling your old defense reminds me of that line from "Beyond the Black River" by R.E. Howard:

    “How did you get away?” he asked presently. Conan tapped his mail-shirt and helmet. “If more borderers would wear harness there’d be fewer skulls hanging on the altar-huts.”

    1. I didn't make them roll there own damage. That just seemed mean. Also, I -never- told them the number they needed to roll. Often, I didn't even look up (or decide) what it should be because if they rolled really well or really bad I didn't need to bother to calculate the actual number in the first place. Anything to save precious brain power. Gotta stay one step ahead.



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