Initiative is a funny thing. A typical initiative system in roleplaying games, where the fastest entity goes first and gets the greatest bonuses is kind of a two-bladed sword: On one hand you get to act first. But on the other, others get to see what you do and react. If that sounds strange, keep in mind that Magic has molded my way of thinking:
In Magic, the player whose turn it is always gets to cast spells first. If he or she does, then the next player in clockwise order (though not always) gets to react to it by casting an Instant on top of it. That spell resolves before the first one. Then another player can cast a spell on the stack. When every player has passed, the topmost spell on the stack resolves, and a new round of spells can be played.
In this dynamic, the first player is actually in a somewhat disadvantageous position. Let’s take a Counterspell / Jace’s Ingenuity scenario. Player A wants to play a spell on his turn. His opponent, player B, has a Counterspell, which can nullify A’s spell, and Jace’s Ingenuity, which allows B to draw cards. B does not have mana for both.
If the spell player A has is cast at sorcery speed (meaning it has to be played on his turn, when the stack is empty) the situation is quite straightforward. He either plays it and forces the opponent to use the counterspell, or waits until he can play something to bait the counterspell off B’s hand. But if the spell is an instant… If A does not cast the spell and decides to wait, the ball falls to B. B can play Ingenuity and draw cards… but then he does not have a counterspell ready to counter A’s spells. If he passes, neither player gets to play anything now, and the turn changes to B. And the tables have turned. Since I have used this system for about 10 years, I have been ingrained to think that the one who gets to react is nearly always in a better position.
A few days ago I pitched in to my friends’ roleplaying game system discussion. Based on their initial ponderings, I suggested the following:
Have every player roll Initiative, with whatever applicable bonuses for quickness or dexterity or whatever. Then, reverse the order. Every round, the first person (that is, the person who rolled lowest), describes his action. Then the next one, and so on, until everyone have described what they are going to do. Now, every action is resolved from the top (that is, the person who rolled highest, and described his action last). When every action is resolved, a new round begins.
An example. Alpha, Beta and Delta have concluded that their differences can only be solved via superior firepower. Alpha rolls 11 for initiative, Beta 6 and Delta -2. Therefore, Delta has to act first. He decides to fire a barrage of magic missiles at Beta. Beta, noticing Delta’s murderous intent, presses X to take cover behind a cardboard box. Alpha, sad that he is not considered a threat, casts Candy Armor on himself. Since everyone have chosen their actions, the events happen. In a stripey red-white flash, Alpha is covered in mint brittle. Beta dashes to cover. Delta rolls for attack, taking penalties for Beta’s cover and movement.
I feel that this system has potential for it is simple and elegant… provided that there is nothing to make it more complex. But this is never the case. Delta might not be satisfied that he must always be the first to act, and wants to change his place on the initiative track. Sometimes someone might want to use his or her hands and walk at the same time. Et cetera. A weaker designer might start to think about some action system. Perhaps if you could move some distance and use your hands for a simple task at the same time. And if you can do something super-fast, there could be a some sort of free action. And perhaps you could try to out-react someone by sacrificing a part of your turn?
This is a precarious phase in game design: Recognizing a problem and trying to fix it by adding stuff. This usually leads to feature creep and adds to the rules, which is rarely a good thing, especially if you want something simple and quick. So to this situation I say no. Every action, no matter how simple or fast, takes up your turn. Dashing somewhere, drawing a gun, aiming, shooting, striking someone, using magic, everything is exactly one turn. And regarding Initiative, you can choose to do nothing on your turn to move on top of the Initiative track. Since this action is most likely taken by people who did not roll well on Initiative, everyone can react to this… By also going on top of the initiative track. Therefore, you can only get a drop on someone by forcing them to use their action on this round.
So this is the Initiative system I suggested. Simple and fast, since processing actions is the only thing that takes time. And time will tell whether my colleagues will use it. I certainly would.