Throughout most of our development of Forthright, we used the traditional D&D model for combat initiative: at the beginning of a combat, all combatants would roll a die, add some sort of modifier, and then they would get their go in descending order by number. We weren’t particularly happy with this model, we didn’t really think it lent to exciting games, but we hadn’t really thought of anything better. We played Fantasy Flight Games’ Star Wars system (Edge of Empire, at the time) and loved its “initiative slotting” model, so we borrowed it wholesale for a little while.
But we still weren’t satisfied.
So, inspired by the new Action Resolution system (Setback, Exchange, Win, Boon) and Youtube commentator Lindybeige, we were able to come up with something a little more actiony, something that constantly changes the flow of combat while still ensuring that everyone (eventually) gets a go.
Okay, so here’s how it works: the person who initiates combat goes first. The first person to shoot, punch, stab, whatever – their turn is first.
If that actor rolls an Exchange, Win or Boon, then initiative switches to the “other side” in the combat and one of the people on that side gets to choose to act next. If the actor rolls a Setback, then the actor’s side keeps the initiative and someone else on the actor’s team gets to choose to act next.
Initiative is traded in this fashion until combat concludes. Only once everyone on a side has gone can someone on that side get a second turn. Only once everyone on a side has had a second turn can someone on that side get a third turn. And so on. Example:
Fighter Bob and Wizard Joe are fighting Gorax the Destroyer and Borax the Cleanser.
Bob decides to act first, stabbing Gorax. He rolls a Win, dealing damage and then passing initiative to Gorax’s side.
Borax wants to shoot Wizard Joe, so he takes his turn. He rolls a Setback, getting exploited but keeping initiative on his side.
Initiative passes to Gorax, who rolls a Boon against Fighter Bob. Fighter Bob is battered and initiative passes to Fighter Bob’s team.
Fighter Bob has already had a go (the first), so now it’s Wizard Joe’s turn. He enspells Gorax with an Exchange, dealing damage, getting exploited, and passing initiative to Gorax’s team.
Gorax and Borax have both gone, so now either of them can choose to take the turn that’s come up. Gorax goes first this time. . .
If one side in the combat has more members than the other side, then the combatants on the side with a smaller team get to go more often than each individual combatant on the larger side. This illustrates “fighting harder” when cornered by a larger force, and neatly allows enemies to scale without having to change their numbers.
Ling and Li have finally cornered the cruel master Pei Mei and, knowing how dangerous he is, Ling attacks first.
Ling rolls a Boon, getting an excellent hit on the surprised Pei Mei.
Pei Mei now has the initiative, striking back at Ling with a Boon of his own.
It is now Li’s turn, he attacks Pei Mei with a Win.
Pei Mei, in response, attacks with an Exchange. Li exploits, and initiative passes back to Li and Ling.
Li and Ling have both gone, so now either of them can go again. This will be their second turn, whereas Pei Mei has already had two turns.
In situations where there are more than one side in a fight, Initiative is traded between the sides like it’s traded between team members. If the Guide is controlling multiple teams, for instance, the Guide can choose which of his or her teams goes next. If the Players are controlling multiple teams, then the Players can choose which of their teams goes next. The normal rules still apply, though: no one on a team gets a repeat turn until everyone on the team has had a turn. Teams can keep getting a go, though, if their controller wants to hold one of the multiple teams involved in reserve or if the controller wants to illustrate a team “holding off to see who’s weakest.”
Our Heroes, having interfered with the politics of Relandia for too long, are facing off against two different teams: the Knights of the Dale and the Bloody Knives. The Guide controls both the Knights and the Knives.
The Knives attack first, and Our Heroes engage with them.
The Knights join in, attacking the Knives first.
Our Heroes continue their fight against the Knives.
The Knights, seeing that Our Heroes are only fighting the Knives, attack Our Heroes when their flank is exposed.
Our Heroes respond by attacking the Knights.
The Knives, seeing a potential double victory by letting Our Heroes and the Knights defeat each other, back off.
Our Heroes and the Knights trade blows until the Knights are forced to flee.
The Knives leap in to attack Our weakened Heroes.
So far in playtests we’ve been very pleased with the way Basketball Initiative works. Initiative trades frequently, combat is engaging because players must always be ready to interact (rather than just waiting half an hour for their turn to come up again), and there is a lot of flexibility to engage with the narrative in different ways because everyone isn’t “locked in” to a set order.
For larger groups or groups new to the idea, we’ve found that having some sort of token to indicate who’s gone and who hasn’t is quite effective. For smaller groups or groups used to the idea, though, we’ve found it largely unnecessary – combat runs so quickly that players and guide alike can generally keep track of who’s had a go and who hasn’t.
Though one thing to note: this definitely works better with small groups vs. small groups. Having a vast “PCs vs. armies of enemies” does not work well with this initiative system, as it is a deep burden to the guide to keep track of all the pieces he has on the board. But overall that works for us, because that’s not a style which we wanted to necessarily emulate in Forthright.
Thoughts, comments, questions? We’ll entertain them in the comments below! Thanks for reading, and have a great Labor Day / Dragon Con weekend!