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Roleplaying GM Tip: Organizing Initiative - Baxil [bakh-HEEL'], n. My Sites [Tomorrowlands] [The TTU Wiki] [Photos]
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July 27th, 2010
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Roleplaying GM Tip: Organizing Initiative
If you've ever played a tabletop roleplaying game, there's a phrase I guarantee you have heard, no matter what system, no matter how fresh or how experienced your fellow players are:*

"Whose turn is it again?"

Initiative is a pain. That's one of those natural laws of gaming, right up there with grappling rules being unusable. When you're bouncing the turn order arbitrarily between players and NPCs, and around the table seemingly at random, things get lost in the shuffle.

Every GM has their own way(s) of mitigating this problem. Some read awesome articles like ars ludi's Initiative: The Silent Killer and break the initiative mold. (That approach has worked well in my Fireborn game - but Fireborn also connects all of the PCs with a full-time mental link, giving them a plausible excuse for the scary levels of tactical coordination that team-based initiative creates.) Others offload initiative tracking to a player to keep the workload manageable. Most write in numbers on the gaming mat, or on scratch paper, to keep a reference list handy.

One of my players recently turned me on to a more elegant solution for that latter group: "character initiative cards" that fold over and hang atop the GM screen. Not only can you arrange the cards in initiative order, in a way that doesn't take up valuable table real estate - but the cards also let you keep players' crucial combat statistics (armor class, etc) available at a glance, as well as pre-combat statistics (such as perception skills, so you can quickly determine who got ambushed).

"That's brilliant!" I said, quickly followed by: "But we're not playing D&D!"

So I wrote the original author (Stu at Happy Jacks), got their source files, and spent my weekend tampering. When I play with neat ideas, sometimes I get a little swept away.

First order of business was a system-independent initiative card. It simply has blank sections for Perception, Armor, Defense Abilities, and Special Abilities that are relevant to one of those categories. The section order is deliberate: having Perception up top not only keeps the pre-combat stats first, but also means that if you use condition markers (see below), they don't cover up anything you'll need mid-fight.

Then, of course, you'll need cards for your NPCs big and small. Separate sheets for those! I made two types: individual PC-like cards for important people, and blank lists for groups of weaker combatants. The lists are designed to be freeform and single-use; cram your whole minion army onto a card, cross off individuals as they die, and start with a fresh list for the next combat. Icons on the player-facing part of the cards help indicate at a glance when your allies and enemies get to go.

Condition markers are based on a suggestion in the Happy Jacks comments: hang smaller strips of paper over the top of the character initiative cards to track important status changes. It's a great way to remember that +1 bonus from when Bob cast Bless on Dave way back on the second turn. I threw a few generic markers and a few blanks onto a sheet, differently sized so they can stack semi-gracefully if need be.

And what sort of GM would I be if I didn't make them immediately useful for my own campaign? There are also Fireborn character initiative cards. I can never remember who has which heightened senses when making up my descriptions, so there's a specific checklist in the Perception section for those. And the Defense section lets you precalculate how much damage you have to do in order to actually wound a PC (which is based on their armor's Armor Value, the natural armor of their scales, their Water score, and any levels in the power Skin of Stone), so you know when your NPCs should chuck a few extra Power moves into their sequence (or when you should withhold that instant-kill +25 damage payoff). Lastly, the Nobility power can give combatants crucial but easy-to-forget successes or penalties - which I made some specific condition markers for.

Anyway, all the download-and-print PDFs are at http://www.tomorrowlands.org/gaming . If they come in useful for your campaign, pass the link around.

--
* No, it's not "I suplex the grizzly bear!" - but if you've only ever played in my RPGs, you could be forgiven for thinking so.

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From:arethinn
Date:July 27th, 2010 07:22 pm (UTC)
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aj: “George picks up the Magic 8-ball from the vendor’s stall, and asks ‘Are dragons real?’”
GM (Bax): (Picks up his iPhone, loads up a Magic 8-Ball app, and hands it to aj to shake)
Magic 8-ball: “It is decidedly so”


LOL!
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From:baxil
Date:July 27th, 2010 07:39 pm (UTC)
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Spontaneous outbreaks of random like that area always great fun. The best part is that I only had a Magic 8-ball app on my iPhone because I had planned a totally scripted 8-Ball shaking (I had made a custom 8-ball that would only come up "What are the odds?", our house name for George's luck-bending powers), but after the scripted shake I reset it to normal and the thing STILL kept on hitting our questions out of the park.
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