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Seattle, Washington, United States
I'm an old time roleplayer who became a soldier who became a veteran who became a developer who became a dba who became a manager who never gave up his dream of a better world. Even if I have to create it myself.

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Phoenix Initiative

Design Goal #3 for the Combat Round was:

Order of action must be determined separately every round, independently for each PC and major opponent (at a minimum), with modifiers for faster/slower characters.

And, of course, this all has to be very fast and not take a lot of time, to achieve the other design goals.

Although designed for Phoenix, this system could be adapted to most games by simply selecting thresholds for the various methods.

No Dice
Not using dice for initiative was a heavy decision for me - but in order to maintain fast-paced combat, I had to eliminate some common problems with dice models.
  1. The possibilities of ties, which mandates 2nd-level resolutions (looking up stats, rerolling, etc).
  2. Computation, which isn't a huge time-taker for most initiative systems, but might as well try to avoid it.
  3. Lack of persistence, meaning that you have to independently track results in some fashion.  This is a big time-killer for rolling individual initiatives each round.  You can't just leave the die alone because you might forget or have to lookup modifiers - it's too confusing.  Not to mention most people want to keep using their "lucky" die.
I saw no way to easily address all of these with dice, so I moved on and examined alternative options.  Of them, only cards made sense to me.

Most roleplayers I've interacted with like card games - whether it be poker, spades, Uno, or Munchkin.  Furthermore, using a deck of cards for initiative is not unprecedented, with the most famous example found in Savage Worlds (or Deadlands).  So, I have no problem using cards as an alternative, provided it otherwise meets the design goals.

The Deck
If I'm going to use cards, they need the right flavor!  I made the decision to use tarot cards, because it is easy to find tarot cards that have fun fantasy imagery.  My favorite deck for this purpose is the Necronomicon Tarot, which has cards that look like this:

Illustrated by Anne Stokes
This deck also comes with a great book explaining each picture in detail.  Very strong product.

I don't need the whole deck, and too many cards will slow down the results evaluation.  I selected the minor arcana suits of Swords and Wands, setting aside the others (Cups and Disks).  The standard initiative deck also includes two major arcana cards - the Sun and the Moon - but there are times when extra cards of the major arcana can be included.

The two minor suits with the two major arcana cards produces a deck of 30 cards.

An initiative method is a card-drawing procedure.  Most characters have the Normal method, but spells, abilities, and other effects can give them a different method.  There are six methods in the current draft, and they have an order of precedence.  This means that if a character has more than one method, then there is an explicit rule for which method they must use.

Table 8-2:  Initiative Methods
As you can see, the Dual method allows a character to break the one-action-per-round rule.  Obviously this will not be a common effect, but I like effects that break the rules sometimes.

The Deal
At the beginning of each round, cards are shuffled and dealt face-up around the table by either the GM or a designated proxy (or a rotating dealer, or whatever else a group can dream up).  If someone has the Gamble, Fast, or Slow methods, it is immediately resolved as part of the deal.

Highest card wins.  Aces are low.  Swords beat Wands.  That's all there is to 28 of the 30 cards in the deck.  If you have the highest card left, you go next.  When you take your action, you turn in your card to the dealer as part of that action.  When noone has cards left, Maintenance takes place and the round is over.

The Sun and the Moon mix things up a bit.

The Sun
Drawing the Sun means that the powers, fates, gods, luck, or some similar force is smiling upon that character this round.  They may act at any time during the round, although not during another character’s turn - intent to act must be declared before someone else has started their action.  Also, on their action, the drawing character gains a bonus of +2/tier to all attacks or checks.

The Moon
Drawing this card means that the character acts last in the round - by rule, no other character can do anything to act later than the holder of this card, even if they wield the Sun.  Maintenance takes place immediately after a character with this card acts.  However, the character gains great insight due to their wise delay - they gain an additional action on their turn.
Other cards?
Yes - other cards might appear from time to time.  The GM can assign special effects to these cards, especially effects associated with an encounter.

Perhaps during a collapsing-cavern encounter, the GM will include a few cards from the cups suit.  Drawing one of those cards means the character got hit by falling rock.

Maybe a fight in a temple of Aer, the god of Strength, will add in the major arcana Strength card.  Characters drawing that card gain a special power on their action.

It's all up to the GM to use these mechanics creatively, but early playtesting has shown that this system is easy to learn and fast to play, while still providing interesting mechanics to create variance and maintain interest.

Thanks for reading this far!  As a reward, check out the Magician.  Perhaps this card heals undead that draw it, but rots the flesh of the living.


  1. Very interesting read.

    Certainly different from D&D. I imagine it's one of those systems we would need to use in practice before determining how good it is. I also wonder how it will translate to online play.

    One question though: in D&D we had initiative bonuses that were always applied. In your system, a fast thief (high dex) and a slow mage would generally have the same initiative chance? I mean, there are modifiers, but I'm getting the impression that the Duel/Fast/etc. modifiers get applied rarely, not every single time like in D&D.

    1. It works well in play so far, and I'm looking forward to more playtesting.

      I don't have a "thief" class per se (although Humans can be "Rogue" if they so desire). That being said, the class with the most similar combat style currently has Fast initiative as their default method. We'll see how that works out in playtesting...

      I find that in 3e/4e D&D there isn't much benefit to a +1 or +2 init. Players already roll a d20 so the variance is extremely high compared to the difference in rolls - cheapening the value of the modifier itself. In 4e it's more of a insurance policy to help higher level characters go faster than lower level characters in the same combat (since you add your level into it).

    2. Also - I have pretty much the entire system ported into MapTool except for the ability to add custom cards for a specific encounter.


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