Initiative Stack: Making combat order a meaningful choice for players

The Initiative Problem

I continue to churn along in the development of Playtest 005. One of the things that struck me the other day is just how dull and meaningless the current iteration’s initiative system of Tier Die + Response score is. It’s almost entirely luck-driven, and there’s nothing about it that would lead players to make interesting decisions. Plus, it shoehorns characters into acting in a relatively similar order every combat.

A Solution

After mulling this over for a little while, I was struck by a bolt of inspiration, and after a day or so of furious tinkering, emerged from the darkness with a brand new initiative system! The intent of this revision was to make determining initiative a meaningful decision for the players. The party can virtually guarantee that it will act before the baddies they face, but there will be an immediate impact in terms of reduced capability in the first few rounds.

How the Initiative Stack Works

Each adversary the players face has an initiative modifier: arranging these from lowest (typically minion opponents) to highest (fast, mobile enemies) before the fight provides you with the Initiative Stack.

To determine when they go in each combat round, the heroes first decide among themselves the order in which they would like to act. It might make sense for the nimble Rogue to go first in one combat, but in the next, the party may wish to get its heavily armoured Knight into position right at the outset. This decision is made by the party, and the GM has no role to play. Once the heroes have determined their combat order, they as a group exhaust combat powers (as many as they like), totaling the Force Score of the powers they have bid to form an Initiative Stack of their own.

The order in combat is determined by comparing the values of the competing stacks. The side with the highest-valued stack goes first, the largest value is removed from the stack. This done, another comparison is made, and the next-highest value is removed. This continues until the full order is determined. Once determined, initiative order does not shift for the remainder of the combat.

Players begin the first round of combat with all powers chosen for the purposes of determining initiative order exhausted.


An Example

In the above Stack, the heroes have committed to winning the initiative, and have exhausted five powers to try and make sure they go first. In the first comparison, their stack has highest total value (9 vs. 8), and Sue acts first. The heroes remove the rightmost value from their stack, and another comparison is made. This time, the adversary stack is largest (6 vs. 8), and so the Sargent is placed next in initiative order. The adversary stack is reduced, and another comparison is made, identifying Bill as the next to go (6 vs. 4). The comparisons continue in this manner until the order of one side is full determined. At that point, the remainder of the other side is appended to the initiative order.

These comparisons leave us with the following combat order: