|This initiative system has been given a number of different names since its introduction. The best “neutral” name for it would be Elective Action Order. The best “give credit where it’s due” name would be Balsera-Style Initiative. Other terms such as “popcorn initiative” have been floated, but are not preferred.|
So, back at the GenCon where Margaret Weis Productions announced that they’d gotten the Marvel license, I had an odd sensation. Due to the whole NDA thing and whatnot that happens around many licenses, I’d had no clear idea this was coming (though I did piece together it was Marvel just the night before), but it turned out that many of the folks I knew did… because they had been brought on board as part of the design or editorial team for the game. After I got over my brief “left out in the cold” moment (understandable that I was, since I had Evil Hat to be running, etc), I got pretty excited. See a bunch of Evil Hat or friends-of-the-Hat folks working on this game — seriously, look at the credits — meant it was going to be awesome, and I hope for the folks who have laid their hands on a digital copy (physical ones coming at the end of the month) it’s apparent how true that is. This is really the Marvel superhero game I always wanted it to be.
That doesn’t mean I didn’t try to nose into the process whenever I could, of course.
Aside from a little bit of playtesting, I occasionally pulled Cam Banks, the head showrunner on this thing, into chats to talk about my impressions and thoughts about where the game design was going. And one of those times, Cam was butting his head against the call for there to be some kind of initiative system in the game, but really, really not wanting it to be the bog standard seen in most any game that has an initiative system. It needed to feel fluid and comic-booky, but also it needed to respect character powers at least a little. That’s tricky as hell, but thankfully, I know Lenny Balsera, and I know how he runs games. So I thought about how to blend that into the whole Marvel/Cortex Plus dynamic, and pitched an idea based on it, to Cam.
What I pitched to Cam is pretty much what you see in the game. Cam put some polish on it, the right specific system hooks and regulators and all, all light touches.
So, there you have it, is how I ended up doing some design work on a game I did no design work on. Nosing into the process indeed.
So what’s it do?
The action order system in Marvel Heroic Roleplaying is dead simple at its root, which makes sense, because it’s the dead simple concept that Lenny runs with: Action happens in the order that makes sense, and everyone gets their turn before a new round begins. Super simple, and a solid foundation, but the real traction for this implementation of it comes into the fore with how “the order that makes sense” is determined.
First, a quick bit of background, here: the trick with an action order system like this is in the teamwork. How do you put together “intiative” such that it supports teamwork looking and feeling and working like teamwork?
With Marvel, one key example was the Fastball Special. Colossus doesn’t necessarily strike me as the “oh yeah, he’s totally going to go first” guy in a bog standard initiative system, but you really want him to be going before Wolverine if they’re going to do the Fastball. Colossus sets up the assist, improving Wolverine’s subsequent attack. This gets a little weird if Wolverine is a go-first guy but has to “hold action” so he can be thrown by the big C; it gets a lot weird if there’s all sorts of action happening between Colossus setting it up and Logan actually delivering the blow. Lots of systems address this in lots of ways (hold action is popular), but here Cam and I wanted to see a sort of natural handoff between these two players that felt like it made comic book sense.
There’s also the question of the super-senses dudes and the speedsters and such. In a world of initiative bonuses and such, they should be going first pretty much all the time, right? But if we crack open the comics, they don’t, nor are they getting tons of extra screen time because they can be twelve places at once. Going by the source material, then, we know that such powers can put a little bit of English on the order of actions, but not a lot; further, we know that things like speed don’t mean that the fast characters occupy, say, twelve times as many action panels as anyone else. One power, one panel, little bit of tweak.
So in MHR, a fight starts, someone’s going first. It might be the fast guy, it might be the guy with spidey sense, it might be the guy who’s quick to anger and so acts without hesitation. Folks at the table look at the situation, see what makes sense, and elect a first guy. The GM (the Watcher) can have his guy go first in this, but he’s gotta pony up a little game currency to do so, and he’s got to pony up currency (or special character abilities of his own NPCs) of at least equal magnitude to the best “reactor” on the players’ side. (Why do you partner up with Spider-Man? Because he drains heavier currency from the GM’s pool o’ doom. GM’s gotta beat that spider-sense if he’s going to act first.)
So, your first guy goes first, and then — as an organic way of following the line of “what order makes sense” — his player chooses who goes next. Maybe it’s another PC (hey, teamwork!); maybe it’s one of the Watcher’s NPCs (let’s see what he’s got in store). In this way, every character/player has a moment of power where they get to choose who goes next; and in practice, it produces an order of events that “reads” a lot like the panels in a comic book do. Everyone gets a turn, there’s little need to do book-keeping (aside from some sort of marker saying “I have/have not had a turn in this round”), and the flow of action to action works with an exciting kind of hand-off tempo that feels like it makes sense instead of following arbitrary dice or humdrum-sameness of stat bonuses.
Seriously, you should steal it for your game. I know I will. Uh, from myself.
You get to the end of the turn, and the last guy to act has the power to determine which character acts first in the next turn, with everyone back on the table (markers flipped back to “I’m available”) as an option. This, then, is where some of the “tactics” of the system show up.
So, I’m writing this blog post because a guy on Twitter asked me to talk about how I came up with the system (done), benefits over roll-for-initiative systems (done, whether or not you buy my argument), and “guidance for Watchers especially re getting PCs to choose NPCs”.
Now, I see why this last bit might be seen as a problem. Early on, there will probably be many a group who will simply default to chain-reaction-ing through the PCs, so everyone gets to deliver their first blows to the villains before the villains do squat, with the hand-off to the NPCs happening only at the tail end. While that phenomenon is in effect, Watchers should absolutely be spending their Doom pool dice in order to interrupt that flow and step in and do the violence to the PCs, mucking up their beautiful chain-reaction plan. Some players will look at that happening and will be satisfied that things are working as they should, because hey, that’s depleting the Watcher’s Doom pool. This is as intended, for this scenario, and as such, it’s perfectly fine.
It’s not, however, the optimal path to controlling the fight. What you have in the above dynamic is each side of a conflict taking turns and getting to do plenty of collaborative stuff together, unfettered by the intrusions of the other side (short of the GM spending to interrupt the order). But there is another way, one which I think will show up over time in many a group, that leaves the GM with a little more Doom, but less in control of the fight. Flipside, this technique is also something the GM can potentially leverage to be more in control of the fight, himself.
It’s mainly a numbers game: if you want to really control the fight, you want your side to have both the guy who goes first and the guy who goes last. The last guy picks who each successive first guy is, right? The ability to maintain control of both ends of a round, then, depends on shoving the other side into the middle of the action order. You can only really successfully do that, guaranteed, if you have more folks who have not yet acted than the other guy has. So, if you have Wolverine, Colossus, and Rogue facing off against two Sentinels, you open with one of the PCs going first, who should hand to an NPC; then there are two PCs and one NPC who hasn’t yet acted. Regardless of who that first NPC picks to go next, so long as the PCs are always picking NPCs to act next, the NPCs won’t end up in the last-to-act position.
Watchers are in control of the numbers of the opposition enough that they can tweak scenarios to give them superior numbers (from an action order determination standpoint) or inferior numbers, depending on which sort of behavior scenario they want to bias things towards.
You’ve Lost Me; or, How To Take Advantage Of This
This might be a little heady, so I’ll briefly talk through two scenarios:
Wolverine, Colossus, and Rogue (W/C/R) face off against two sentinels (S1/S2).
In scenario “A”, the PCs all bunch up. They pick Colossus to go first, so he can fastball Logan, and Rogue can pound on their target too. Sentinels are tough, tho, so even this might not take one of them down before they get to act. Let’s assume it doesn’t. So our action order goes: C W R S1 S2. That’s the first turn. But, the players left the Watcher acting last, so the Watcher, as S2, gets to pick who goes first in the next turn. If he wants to really give them a “holy crap, they’re pounding on us!” vibe, easy: S2 picks S1 to go first. S1 acts first, picks S2 next, and then S2 picks Wolverine, preventing a second Fastball Special team-up because Logan will have gone already by the time Colossus has his turn. As it spools out, the second turn runs: S1 S2 W C R.
Looking at Scenario A’s turns back to back, the order of actions is: C W R S1 S2 S1 S2 W C R. Chop off those last three for a moment: C W R S1 S2 S1 S2. The bad guys get to pound on the heroes twice, with each of the heroes only pounding once, in the early part of the fight. That’s what controlling the fight looks like, and is why having one of your guys in the last position can be critical. S1 might not go down after that C W R opener, and if he doesn’t, he then gets to whallop on the heroes twice before they go again, due to the action order.
But what if they decided to skip the fastball special for an opener, and instead go for controlling the fight? That’s scenario “B”.
In “B”, the players decide they’re going to shove the Watcher’s characters towards the middle of the action order for the round. They might elect Wolverine to go first, because he can take a lot of punishment and come back from it and after all, we gamers know that the guy who sticks his head up first usually gets hit hardest and worst. Or they could have Rogue go first, have her hoover up some teammate powers or whatever, so they’ll have more of that bounce-backness needed for a fight against giant mutant killing robots. This time, they go with Wolverine. He goes, and then to push the Watcher towards the middle, chooses a Sentinel to go. If the Watcher wants to try to get his other guy in the last position, he’s gotta push for a player to go next. He picks Rogue. Rogue, following the “push towards the middle”, picks S2 next. And so S2 must pick Colossus, the only remaining character, for the last position. Action order for the first round comes out: W S1 R S2 C.
Now, here, the team could do more of the same; C picks W to go first in the next round (and there’s your Fastball Special opportunity), and it’s lather, rinse, repeat. If that’s the case, their back to back looks like: W S1 R S2 C W S1 R S2 C. Tho, really, they could change it up a little in round 2, and have it come out: W S1 R S2 C W S2 C S1 R. Whatever. Point being, at least one hero gets to act twice before either evil robot gets a second go.
And if they wanted to mash up Scenario B thinking with Scenario A thinking, they could construct a sequence of two rounds that looks like so: W S1 R S2 C W R C S1 S2. And that’s pretty dangerous — by pushing the Watcher to the middle, maintaining more control of the fight for themselves, they’ve given themselves an opener where each hero acts twice before the bad guys get their second actions. And, yeah, S1 might stand up fine to that first round of all three heroes trying to take him down, but two rounds of that?
I’m not betting on any team that doesn’t start with “X”, I’m just saying.
Anyway, that’s my take on the thing, and I gotta admit I kind of love everything about it, from the organic, loose, but fair way it lets everyone within a given round get a chance to go, to the light-but-still-relevant tactics of controlling the fight by staying alert to who keeps the option of choosing who goes first and who goes last.