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Binding (or Chicken) Initiative: An Experiment

fheredin

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I'm in the middle of writing a hard SF RPG focused on strategic and tactical play. A number of the mechanics I want to use are unconventional. In particular, I want to discuss initiative, as my model for binding initiative is both a ton of fun in playtests...and can break most core mechanics. I want to know if this is an interesting enough mechanic to risk the gameplay problems which can result.

This is also a test to see if I can clearly explain the mechanic.

Binding Initiative is loosely based on the Magic: The Gathering stack. The idea is rather than having turns follow a set order or by a choice mechanic like popcorn initiative, you put players into a game of chicken. You start with Action Points (AP) which you can spend to buy actions whenever you want, and when you flinch by declaring an action, you get placed on the initiative tracker. If a player flinches in response, they have effectively won the game of chicken--at least relative to you--and that response binds the actions before it. They can't happen until after the response has finished. If several responses are declared, the last one declared goes first.

(There's a Reaction Limit to cap the amount of AP you can hold onto, eventually forcing you to use AP or lose it. But this is roughly the whole mechanic. The GM picks an appropriate character to start combat with the first AP recharge and then you go in the order that characters are sitting around the table.)

The Problems

From actual playtests I can tell you that when binding initiative works, it's a blast. It's both strategic and cinematic at the same time. Unfortunately, it also puts immense stresses on a game's core mechanics. Consider if 3-4 players decide to react to the boss taking action (a not unreasonable thing to do). You now have 4 or 5 actions bound up in a single sequence. This is a hill core mechanics die crying on. As one playtester put it, I want players to be "eyes up" with their attention focused on how much AP they have and where their action is in the bind. Not on running the core mechanic. Most core mechanics are designed with the idea that players will briefly focus on running them, especially for a crunchy tactical game like I'm trying to make.

Now, I have made an arithmetic-free core mechanic based on Cortex which I believe performs acceptably. But is it putting the cart before the horse to have a custom core mechanic just to support an initiative experiment? You tell me.
 

Knaight

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Not remotely. You have a fun, cool mechanic. It's a selling point - so let it shine. Half the reason having so many dice mechanics is good is that it allows for this sort of thing, where there's support for your new cool thing.
 
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samuel.penn

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Other than playing it a few times 25 years ago, I don't know M:tG at all well, so I have no idea how that system works.

By the sounds of it, it's a LIFO stack - if A declares that they are shooting at B, and B then declares they are dodging into cover, then when actions resolve B dodges into cover and A misses because B is no longer there? So what prevents everyone just sitting around the table bored waiting for someone else to declare an action first? What causes them to 'flinch'?

But I'm all in favour of a different initiative system, since the standard "go in order of initiative roll/skill" don't really work.
 

Anatosuchus

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I definitely think you have something interesting in there, but I have questions. What is the benefit of declaring first, bearing in mind everyone gets to react to you? If there is no benefit, why doesn't everyone just hang on to their declarations until the last possible moment (presumably mechanically limited)?
 

fheredin

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I don't get what you mean by "flinch".
Flinching was mostly a word I chose to indicate that your "initiative" isn't dictated by the system, but by the moment in metagame time the player decides to act. The metaphor is not perfect, but the general logic of the system is to both make combat fast and tense and reward patience and forethought.

Not remotely. You have a fun, cool mechanic. It's a selling point - so let it shine. Half the reasin having so many dice mechanics is good is that it allows for this sort of thing, where there's support for your new cool thing.
Ahh, thanks. I mostly felt this was the case, but opinions can drastically differ. Especially when I'm talking about a dice mechanic with little to no prior art. At least not that I can find.

Other than playing it a few times 25 years ago, I don't know M:tG at all well, so I have no idea how that system works.

By the sounds of it, it's a LIFO stack - if A declares that they are shooting at B, and B then declares they are dodging into cover, then when actions resolve B dodges into cover and A misses because B is no longer there? So what prevents everyone just sitting around the table bored waiting for someone else to declare an action first? What causes them to 'flinch'?

But I'm all in favour of a different initiative system, since the standard "go in order of initiative roll/skill" don't really work.

I definitely think you have something interesting in there, but I have questions. What is the benefit of declaring first, bearing in mind everyone gets to react to you? If there is no benefit, why doesn't everyone just hang on to their declarations until the last possible moment (presumably mechanically limited)?
I'm going to reply to these two comments together because they are closely related.

Use it or lose it AP mechanics. A player can only hold onto so much AP before they hit their Reaction Limit (which is a derived stat from all their character's attributes and a rough estimate of the equipment weight.) Say you have 4 AP, a Reaction Limit of 7, and get your AP recharge for the round (5 AP). You now have a total of 9 AP to play with, but if you don't use at least 2 AP now, before letting the next actor gets their AP recharge, you'd lose it. You'd drop down to your Reaction Limit of 7. Sure being in an ideal position in the bind is useful, but actually getting to spend your action points to take an action will always be important. Whenever players hit their Reaction Limit, they will take action to avoid losing AP.

Also, if an opponent is getting an AP recharge next, it's usually better to go ahead and take action, even if you aren't at your limit. You are in a better relative power situation if you act when you have 7 AP and your opponent has 2 than if you wait. Sure you might wind up in a better position in the bind, but you and your opponent would both have 7 AP after it recharges. There's no rule against reacting to a reaction or that you can only have one action in the bind. Just that you have to have the AP to spend to put an action on top of the bind. If that opponent spends 3 AP to take an action, he still has 4 AP left to react to your reaction.

RPGs are more collaborative than competitive. Even before I implemented hastening and canceling rules--which are left out of this model for brevity--players would do things like plan to sandwich a monster in the bind after it reacts. With the new rules--which is basically an AP bidding war to put your action on top of the bind, and that you can only cancel to recover most of your AP if you are currently on top of the bind--players can actually make feints by declaring an action they always intended to hasten and cancel.
 

Xander

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Maybe an full (simple) example of play would help, like Dude A getting ready to punch Dude B.

Conceptually it is interesting, but I don't get your mechanics so far.
 

fheredin

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Maybe an full (simple) example of play would help, like Dude A getting ready to punch Dude B.

Conceptually it is interesting, but I don't get your mechanics so far.
How about this.

You have three actors in the encounter: Player A, Player B, and Monster 1. All of them start with 3 AP and Monster 1 is about to recharge 5 AP.

After Monster 1 recharges, it has 8 AP and a competitive advantage over the players. It spends 3 AP to attack Player A. Player B responds by spending 3 AP to cast a damage reduction spell on Player A. Monster 1 responds by spending 1 AP to hasten it's attack. It deals 4 damage to Player A. Player A responds to taking damage by spending 2 AP to shrug off 2 damage, but the rest goes through. Then Player B's damage reduction spell goes into effect. (Player A has 2 AP, Player B has 0 AP, and Monster 1 has 5 AP.) Then Monster 1 decides to conserve it's remaining AP and allows Player A to recharge.
 

Xander

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Ah, so a recharge would be like an untap phase from Magic the Gathering!

Now I get it, cool idea. Probably hard to build it but could be great if it works.
 

GoaltimeExposure

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It sounds interesting.

Are there any "common" actions that can't be used at instant speed (if we're sticking to M:tG terminology)? In the example above, it seems that a pretty good strategy for Player A would be to move out of the way (i.e.: using a move action at instant speed). I suppose this would make him an illegal target for the monster's attack (the targeted object has moved to another zone), causing the attack to fizzle.
 
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