For many players, combat is the best part of the game. It is a chance to test his or her character’s capabilities against worthy foes, to take risks and, hopefully, gain great rewards. The tension combat creates—the risk of injury, unconsciousness, or even death—builds excitement at the table and shifts focus, if only for a few moments, from the story to dealing with immediate danger. As great as combat and other conflicts can be for the game, they also place the greatest demands on the game system. To ensure each player has a chance to contribute in a meaningful way throughout the combat, to ensure that the challenge is appropriate for the characters, and to make certain that the combat or conflict poses some risk, often considerable failure, requires a rigorous set of rules. And, as a result of those rules, combat becomes a game within the larger game.
I have lots to say about combat, too much for one post in fact. Rather than drown you with words, we’ll take a bird’s eye look at how combat works and the reasons for the approach Shadow of the Demon Lord takes. Specifically, we're going to look at how the game system determines who goes first.
Combat (and any other scene that requires precise timekeeping) unfolds over a series of rounds. Each round lasts about 10 seconds, so there are 6 rounds per minute. During a round everyone present in the scene has an opportunity to do so something. A round has three parts: Fast Turns, Slow Turns, and the End of the Round. During a round, play proceeds through each part one at a time and with the players usually going first.
First up is the Fast Turn. Any player that wants to can take a fast turn. Players may take their turns in any order they wish. On a fast turn, a player can use one action. Upon resolving that action, the player’s turn is done for the round. Once all the players that want to take a fast turn and have done so, any creatures under the GMs control may take fast turns and use one action on their turns. Again, once a creature resolves its fast turn, it’s done for the round.
Slow Turns come next. Any player that did not take a fast turn may take a slow turn. Players resolve slow turns in any order they choose, though a player must resolve the entire turn before another player can act. On a slow turn, a player can use two actions. Once all the players have taken their turns, the GM has any of her remaining creatures take their turns, each creature using two actions, and in any order the GM chooses.
End of the Round
The game uses the End of the Round to mark the transition from one round to the next. The End of the Round is when the game resolves any ongoing effects, keep track of durations, and anything else that happens at this part of the round. For example, say a powerful spellcaster creates a cloud of poison gas. Any creature in the area of the poison gas would have to deal with the poison once the gas appears. However, since the gas lingers, any creature in the poison gas would have to deal with the poison again at the end of each round until the gas is dispersed.
Other events may also take place during the end of the round. A potion consumed takes effect at the end of the round. Incapacitated characters roll a d6 to see what happens to them at the end of the round. Some creatures may adjust their positions, make extra attacks, or blight enemies with their vile presence at this part of the round too.
Finally, a discrete end of the round phase reminds everyone that is tracking durations to mark off the round that has passed (for 1 minute durations, you can use a d6 to track the rounds, which is part of the reason I use 10 second rounds).
So, No Initiative Rolls?
That’s right. I tried out the game using several different initiative/turn order determination systems and they all felt bad. I find initiative to be boring. It’s a procedure everyone at the table has to undergo in order to play. It’s like having to eat your meat before you get to eat your pudding. It’s only necessary because the game says it is.
If determining initiative produces a continuous turn order for the combat—you are locked into the same point in the round for the duration of the scene, initiative only becomes important during the first round of the combat. The whole point to initiative is to determine if the PCs can chip away at their opponents before their opponents get to do the same to them. After the first round, the back and forth exchange of attacks renders the initiative result meaningless.
If the game requires initiative determination round-by-round, then the procedure just becomes more evident and intrusive into the flow and excitement of the battle. Plus, you have to track all those result each round.
I thought about individual initiative systems, wherein each combatant rolls and uses that result, but this just increases the complexity. Not only do you have to track those results, but you also have to introduce rules to let combatants change those results once they determine—by delaying for example. Also, most games that use individual initiative allow the GM to roll initiative for groups of like opponents, which, while easier, completely undermines the whole point of rolling individual initiative in the first place, which, presumably, is to determine each individual combatant's turn order.
For all the reasons and others as well, I threw initiative out of the game. The game lets players go first. The players are free to discuss tactics and plans, and then act in whatever order they want. If they choose to take fast turns, and thus act before their opponents, then they can only do one thing. If they wait until after their opponents go, they get to do two things instead but risk taking a hit from their opponents.
Liberating combat from variable turn orders accomplishes several things. It eliminates a procedure for play and thus the transition from story to combat is smooth. Allowing players to choose when they go encourages teamwork. The players can quickly discuss what they do and adopt tactics that complement each other’s actions. Finally, it focuses attention on what’s happening. Players tend to not “zone out” while waiting for their turn since they can act whenever they want.
To help you visualize how a fight works, here’s an example. Nat, Molly, and Chris play agents working for the Inquisition, a faction of the New God cult committed to rooting out slaves of the Demon Lord and destroying them. Their investigation draws them into a burned out church on the edge of town. Inside the church, their characters encounter a band of ghouls, accursed cannibalistic humans.
GM: What do you do?
<Fast Turns start>
Chris: I charge the @#$%ers!
Molly: Wait! Let me throw my fireball spell.
(Molly casts a fireball spell into the midst of the ghouls. She rolls 10d6 damage. Adding up the dice, the ghouls will take 35 damage. The ghouls get to roll Agility to halve the damage. Two fail and are incinerated.)
Molly: Now, go and clean up the mess.
Chris: I charge!
(Chris’s character moves up to his Speed and uses his extra action to attack a ghoul as the rules for charging specify. Since he charged, he has a complication for his roll. He gets a success on his roll and the ghoul takes 6 damage, which is enough to take it out).
GM: Nat? Want to do anything?
Nat: No. Not yet. There may be others in the shadows.
GM: OK. Well, you’re right. First up, Chris, a ghoul leaps at you and tries to rip you apart with its claws and teeth. (The GM rolls, but gets a failure.) You catch the monster on your shield. In the shadows, you see a couple more ghouls waiting to attack.
<Slow Turns start>
GM: Alright, Nat, back to you.
Nat: I shoot my pistol at one of the ghouls.
GM: They are partially obscured from you, so roll to attack with one complication.
Nat: OK. (He rolls and gets a failure.) Crap! I drop the pistol and I'll use my remaining action move up next to Chris. I’ll draw my sword as I do so.
GM: OK. The remaining ghouls come out from the shadows and attack Chris. (Some rolls, some damage, and Chris’s damage total equals his Health. He falls prone, disabled.)
It’s the end of the round. Chris, you are disabled. Roll a d6 to see what happens to you…