In honour of National Game Development Month, I thought I'd share a new basic mechanic I've been tinkering with. I call it the Initiative system. It has its roots in Fraser Ronald's very fun Sword's Edge system (which powers Kiss My Axe and Sword Noir), but has a much crappier name.

One of the ideas in Sword's Edge is that only players ever make rolls. In combat, you're either on the offensive or on the defensive, and the rolls you make are either to inflict or avoid damage. It's a unique way of thinking about modelling conflict, and it occurred to me that this idea could be expanded to cover ALL situations.

What if the key mechanic in a game system revolved around possession of "initiative"? What if in order to accomplish things you had to acquire and act with that initiative, and failing to get it, or losing it, would force you to try and regain your cool?

We see this all the time in situations that aren't physical confrontations. When one person gets rolling in a debate they can steam-roller their opponent, sway the room to their side. Many of our social institutions contain elaborate rules to try and limit this effect, precisely because it's so powerful. And when you don't have that initiative, when you're stammering and struggling to make a response, always on the defensive, it's very hard to advance your own agenda. So Initiative is meant to try and model that aspect of getting along in life.

Here's how it works:


You have five Traits. Two are Active Traits -- Deadly and Compelling. Two are Reactive Traits -- Cool and Aware. The fifth Trait is Quick, which is what you'll use to try and gain the initiative.

Success and Failure

At the start of any confrontation, all the players roll their Quick to determine if they have initiative or not. Those who do can use Deadly or Compelling; those who do not can only use Cool or Aware.

In the Initiative system, all results have degrees of success or failure. This comes into play here.

If you're making a Deadly or a Compelling roll, success means you "inflict damage" on your opponent -- essentially, you advance your position while damaging theirs. If you're making a Cool or Aware roll, on a success you resist any efforts to do damage to you.

If you succeed really well on a Cool or Aware roll, you might be able to take the initiative (allowing you to make a Deadly or a Compelling roll next round); likewise, if you fail really badly on a Deadly or Compelling roll you might lose the initiative this round.

That's it!

There's more details, of course, but that's the heart of the system. It's a very different sort of model than most simulationist games, I know, but once I got the hang of the basic idea it really took hold of me. 

When working against natural phenomena, or anything that isn't an independent agent able to respond to the players, the players always have Initiative and can use any Trait they want.

I'm toying with the idea of allowing Quick rolls at all times -- that Quick can be both Active and Reactive (inflicting and resisting damage, basically). I'm worried that will overload Quick and make it the only Trait worth investing in, however.

Am definitely thinking about ways to implement this in new games. I think it suits any game meant to tell high-action stories in which conflict, success and failure form the driving narrative.