Cinematic Initiative

In tabletop RPGs the order in which the players and their opponents go is critical. This order can literally mean the difference between life and death. This is why Improved Initiative is so important for wizards in d20 games.

What I’m about to share is my method on how I handle initiative in my story-based RPGs. Story-based RPGs are ones that I define as light to medium rules crunch. (I define tactical RPGs as ones that are medium to heavy crunch, e.g. Pathfinder, Dungeons & Dragons (2e-5e), True20, etc.) By defintion Fate falls into story-based, so when you sit down at the table with me this is what you’re gonna get.

It All Started With Angel

I was just starting to explore RPGs that weren’t D&D when a friend introduced me to Unisystem, by Eden Studios. We played a couple of sessions and enjoyed it. That’s when I found the Angel RPG. It and it’s companion game, Buffy, used a streamlined version of the rules called Cinematic Unisystem.

Preparing to run the adventure in the back of the book I discovered that initiative was handled in a very strange way, foreign to my d20 game brain.

The GM chooses when everyone goes.

This couldn’t go well, I thought to myself.

Keeps the Action High

I ran that first session and my group loved cinematic initiative! It kept things lively and action oriented, and I could keep players motiviated to pay attention to the game (and not mobiles).

I’ve been using this method for more than a year, first while we played Unisystem then migrating it over to Fate. Here are a few tricks that I’ve learned.

Have your players trust. This method doesn’t work without it. If your players feel tricked or betrayed then this doesn’t work. You can counter feelings like this by talking openly about decisions.

The big guy in this scene is a serious opponent, so it’s likely that he’ll get to go before some of you do. His mooks will trail towards the end of the round like most bad guys.

Keep the players in the spotlight. This is the characters story. More often than not they should get to act first.

James is hanging from the broken window for dear life while a giant ettin in a pizza delivery uniform stalks over to him. Becca is throwing bolts of fire at the two animated pizza boxes while Reba hides in the bathroom, peaking through the door.

Reba goes first, rushing over to Becca’s side and distracts the animated pizza boxes. Then Becca throws a bolt of fire, reducing one of the constructs to ash and blackened pepperoni…

Keep it logical. Think about the round/turn as a scene in a tv show. The camera moves around the action, but in a way that makes sense to those paying attention.

“I’m going to leave James to sweat a little bit longer,” says the GM. “Let’s wrap up this part of the scene first with Becca and Reba.” And with that the last animated pizza box bites Reba’s leg, wounding her…

Help the players build narrative momentum. If the players are going to work together, facilitate that.

The apartment is on fire, the last animated pizza box is dust, and James got back inside the window, leaving the party with just the pizza delivery ettin to deal with.

Becca starts by catching the entertainment system next to the ettin on fire with her magic. Next Reba pushes the flaming entertainment system onto the ettin, catching it on fire. Lastly James shoots the supersoaker full of gasoline at the ettin, creating a fireball that takes off everyone’s eyebrows and hurts the ettin.

Charred and angry, the ettin throws what’s left of the entertainment stand at James, knocking him out the window again…

Between each round/turn have the players declare their action before the next turn starts. Part of why cinematic initiative works is that the GM can thread together player intention to weave a great scene together. That can’t happen if a player doesn’t decide until it is their turn.

On a sheet of paper I write down a list of whomever is going to act in the scene:

  • James
  • Becca
  • Reba
  • Ettin
  • Pizza boxes

Before the start of a round I ask each player what they intend to do. Once the round starts a player cannot change their mind. I jot down a note to remind me what the action is.

  • James — Get inside
  • Becca — Fire!
  • Reba — Distract
  • Ettin — HIT THINGS
  • Pizza boxes

Depending on the foe, I’ll leave their area blank since I already know what they are going to do. And honestly, their actions adapt to what the players do. (It isn’t cheating, it’s GM MAGIC.)

Not For Everyone

This style of initiative is prone to biases and abuse. If you use it make sure that you aren’t starting to unconsciously favor some players over others. And especially be careful not to have your precious opponents be too blessed.

End of Round

So that is what I call Cinematic Initiative and it works out very well for my group. We have a lot of fun with it and I’m glad to share it with you.

Perhaps someday I’ll post my thoughts on initiative for tactical RPGs, like Pathfinder, which go off in a different direction.

EDIT: There is a lively discussion going on over at Google+ about this post and initiative in general.

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