In most of my years roleplaying, initiative usually works the same way. We roll dice, whoever rolls higher goes sooner. If you wanted to cut the rope on the chandelier and crash it on your enemy before the party’s combat monkey blasts the baddie back five feet, then you need to roll high. If you want to talk things down before it all goes downhill, the dice had better cooperate. That kind of play changed a while back when I found the Doctor Who RPG.
I have a number of great things to say about the game, but where it really shines is the initiative system. Instead of a traditional initiative system, what actions you want your character to perform determines turn order. Talkers go first, Movers (usually Runners) go second, Doers go next, and Fighters go last.
Talkers going first is a brilliant emulation of the series, providing an opportunity for players to try to talk their way out of combat. They can rely on skills of persuasion, deception, or de-escalation as a first-order resolution. You can also get your enemy monologing to reveal information. Your character can surrender to henchmen in order to see the head honcho directly. You still have the make a successful skill roll, but you get to use your words before anyone else – including your enemy – comes out swinging.
Movers are up next. While that might apply to sneaking, it usually means running. The game is full of Cybermen, Daleks, Ice Warriors that can take you handily in a straightforward fight. If you’re confronted with overwhelming danger, run or sneak away so you can set up a plan and do something really clever later on. By the time the fighters are up, you have a head start for your chase scene.
The Doers category covers a large spectrum of actions. Do you want to deadlock a door behind you? Reverse the polarity on the artificial gravity? Making an escape hole with your squareness gun? All of these actions and more are Doing. It’s an opportunity for players to get creative, change the scene, create a hazard for your opponent, or accomplish something to their advantage.
Now the Fighters, with their fists or guns at the ready, get their turn. Except the Talkers may have talked you down, the Movers are already down the hallway, and the Doers have set the ship’s drive to overload before you can pull the trigger.
Emphasis on talking and roleplay
This change of operations massively impacts not only the tone, but the entire style of gameplay. First (and unsurprisingly), it emphasizes verbal problem-solving. Players who want to solve problems in-character through roleplay always have first crack. Never do you walk away from a combat encounter thinking, “Dang. I really wanted to question that guy. Now it’s too late.”
It also allows quick-witted players have a chance to use their creativity to change the situation, shift the focus, or cast doubt in the minds of their enemies. This is not to say that it defaults to roleplay over roll-play. Players still must make high enough skill rolls to convince, intimidate, or use diplomacy. But the resolution is more rooted to the character’s personality attributes than it is their combat prowess.
Allows for asymmetrical encounters
If you look at the Doctor Who television show The Doctor is always facing enemies that are far more physically powerful. In a straight fight between The Doctor and a Dalek, Cyberman, or Ice Warrior, The Doctor would lose every time. The Doctor is outgunned and outnumbered. The adventures modules in the game are very similar. If you played in a standard “who rolls highest goes first” initiative system, the PCs would probably be vaporized.
If your GMing style is anything like mine, you ask yourself the question “Is this enemy too tough for my players?” This question fades away in this initiative system. You never worry about if they are too physically imposing or too powerful in combat. The enemies are supposed to be too powerful to fight, because usually you are not fighting them.
Instead of fighting, players have the opportunity to get creative and use other means to success. The characters can turn their adversary’s own weapon or plan against them (i.e. a “Superman 2 switcharoo”). The party might jury-rig the enemy hyper-spatial field generator (or other fun technobable) to suck an enemy horde into a pocket dimension. In other words, the Doers can use their skills, equipment and creativity to foil an enemy plot without ever firing a shot.
If the scene looks too overwhelming, the PCs have the chance to run away, regroup (usually after a chase scene), and come up with a new plan.
Changes what challenge looks like
A good nine months into playing our Doctor Who RPG, our GM said, “I feel like I’m not challenging you guys.” And we replied, “Oh, you challenging us. We have to stretch ourselves!” In a stereotypical D&D encounter, challenge equates to using your feats, talents, and skills in synergy to beat back a powerful foe. In Doctor Who it is using your skills, creativity, and problem solving to change the scenario to foil the enemy plot. It might well result in your enemy’s downfall or death, but the PCs are not the ones delivering a coup de gras.
The challenge for the players is to look at the assets they have on hand, their unique abilities, and get creative to affect their enemy’s weakness. The challenge is in problem solving and creativity. Though it looks very different from a typical RPG session, it still is very much a challenge for the players.
Applying this to your game
The beautiful thing about this method is that it isn’t system specific. There is nothing stopping a GM from importing it into a D&D, Star Wars, Numenera, Pathfinder, or most other games. Gamemasters often suggest to their players that a particular session is designed to be “combat light.” Applying the Doctor Who RPG initiative system allows the GM to incentivize diplomacy and problem solving over combat. It also offers a change of pace for a group that is growing weary of a “smash the monster and take its stuff” style of play.
This is not to say that combat disappears. It is always an option. And even in my group’s Doctor Who games, we have combat. The difference is the other options come first, but fighting is always there if we want it.
It also facilitates a story telling element that players of all systems and genres like to talk about. Gamers love to tell stories from amazing moments in their games. And while you do have the occasional, “I critted, and one-shotted the big bad,” I more often hear the amazing and improbable stories of a clever idea gong amazingly well in game. The stories people love to tell about the moment, “And then I bluffed the Stormtroopers into believing my officer disguise and ordered them to escort me through the checkpoint!” Or maybe a scenario of, “We got in by opening a portal above the enemy guards and dropping a boulder through the other end.” Such options make for memorable and enjoyable sessions.
In short, Cubicle 7 has done an amazing job with facilitation stories based on a media where the hero is clever. It supports the players by rewarding clever ideas before facilitating combat prowess. It is a unique, but highly transplantable format of play. Whether for a change of pace, an experiment in a one-shot, or just an alternate mode of play, Who can change initiative in your game.