SKIRMISH INITIATIVE SYSTEM


How these were devised

If you read my essay on the problems of skirmish games, you will learn that for various reasons, an initiative system is desirable in a skirmish game. The simple I-go-you-go of an old fashioned wargame doesn't give me the results I'm after, nor such an exciting game. I had seen card-based systems and dice-based ones too, and devised one of each of these, and while both gave me some good games, both also ran into problems. I then stopped and thought about exactly what I wanted to be possible, and what might give me this result.

The situation that had come up was one in which one side wanted part of its force to run past the opposition, past one of its flanks, towards an objective in the corner of the table. I wanted it to be possible for the side with the initiative to run the whole way while the opposition just stood and gawked. I also wanted it to be possible for the opposition to get the initiative and head off its enemies before they got to the objective. A card system that required the card referring to a specific unit to come up in order for it to get to move would not give me this, because one unit would never get its card coming up several times in a row. The dice system I was using also made this manoeuvre rather improbable, and gave nothing for the opposition to do involving skill or even activity. All the passive player could do was hope that the active one would run out of luck.

My idea was this: my system would be one in which the active side would have the initiative forever, and could do whatever it wanted with that initiative, until its enemy DID something active to seize the initiative. I know of no other system that uses this concept.

How the rules work

The full rules can be written on a single page, and can be downloaded in rich text format (.rtf) here, however, you might like to read the following, which carefully goes through the rules, and why they exist.

One player carries out one action. An action can involve any number of his troops, as long as all of them are doing the same thing, and so long as they are all within 4 inches and sight of another figure in the same group. All consequences of this action are resolved, such as ensuing combat, morale, etc. The opposing player then tries to snatch the initiative away by making a die roll. If he succeeds, he then makes an action, but if he fails, then the first player makes another action, and keeps making more actions until the initiative is snatched away from him. The first action made by a player who has just snatched the initiative is subject to certain restrictions (see below), but all subsequent actions can be made by any body of troops within 4" and sight of each other.

An example of an action: a big block of troops, wider than a house, marches forwards and comes to a house. To get past the house, some troops will have to go either left or right first, but others could just walk ahead. The player controlling the troops chooses to move everyone past the house on the left. Because the troops all share the same destination (some point past the house on the left reachable by the foremost figure, with the rest following as best they can), this is a single action. If the player wanted troops to pass the house on both sides, this would be two actions. Example two: the situation is as above, but this time instead of a house, there is just a tree-stump. It is possible to move troops around the tree-stump both left and right and then for them to meet up ahead the other side, at a point they could all see. This is a single action, because the troops share a destination. Example three: a body of men is ordered to shoot at a body of enemy troops. Some of the men in the active body have no missile weapons, and some men are archers who will have to move slightly to get a line of shot. The men without bows needn't do anything, and can remain still, but they cannot move off to take cover or do anything else that would be extra to the order to shoot at the enemy. The archers that need to move a bit can move, and then shoot, while the others may move a bit or just shoot from where they are. The critical thing is that they must all act to shoot at the same target. The target is an enemy body of men, not an individual man (although target priority rules still apply). If there were men in another body who could be shot at, that would be another (separate) action.

The rules had to define what an action capable of seizing the initiative is. If some troops had an innately high initiative, simply because they were a bit ace, then their player would always choose to seize the initiative with them, perhaps by getting them all to move one pace to the left, and then having seized the initiative, he could move the peasant mob that he'd been wanting to move for ages. This would be an abuse of the system. Moving one pace to the left will not make the enemy reassess the situation and falter. Therefore, I ruled that troops must do one of the following in order to stand a chance of seizing the intiative:

  1. Move at full speed towards the enemy.
  2. Engage the enemy in melee or with missiles.
  3. Move into or out of line of sight of the enemy.
  4. Move at full speed to escape the enemy and leave the table.

The first of these (1) is clear enough, I think. If troops can move far enough to engage in melee, then they must. This is therefore not a decision to be taken lightly. If you want your best troops to seize the initiative, then you might have to send them in against the foe. The second (2) could do the job, as a strong exhortation to fight harder and finish a melee could seize the initiative, and shooting at the enemy could force him to change his plans (however there is a cost to these methods, as you will see below). The third (3) can be abused by a player moving one man at the back of the table repeatedly in and out of sight. This is forbidden, and a player must move in a way that plays some role in the scenario, perhaps round the back of the enemy to engage or sneak to an objective, and once moved, a figure cannot use this rule to get the initiative by moving back. If you find that players abuse this rule, or keep trying to, you might like to alter it to "move into [but not out of] line of sight of the enemy". Forces suddenly appearing from behind a hedge or whatever might well cause the enemy to hesitate. The last rule (4) was added after it happened in a game that escape, when escape was very clearly the best option, proved too difficult to initiate. It is a necessary rule for many scenarios in which choosing to escape can be a rational move for a player.

Of course, some troops are better at seizing the initiative than others. Leaders are especially important, as men will often wait for these to act, and follow them. Making individuals important in this way is good for a skirmish atmosphere to a game. I did at first have some leadership factors that were negative (traitors and incompetents), but I got rid of these now that I play it that individuals are chosen for initiative rolls, since no one would ever choose a bad leader to seize the initiative. When a passive player wants to snatch the initiative, he nominates a single figure to make the roll, and uses the base initiative rate for that man, and adds leadership factors if the figure is also a leader.

Base Initiative Rates
Sub-human    22 Rubbish    21 Poor    20 Average    19
Good    18 Excellent    17 Demigods    16
Leadership Factors
Useless    0 Adequate    1 Good    2 Heroic    3 Inspired    4

For the system to work, the die roll needed to snatch the initiative would have to be fairly unlikely to succeed much of the time. I wanted to use a single roll of a single die, and so this meant using a twenty-sided die. To snatch the initiative, the passive player nominates a single figure and tries to roll equal to or higher than that figure's base initiative. If the figure is a leader, he may add his leader's factor to the die result. Note that "sub-human" (zombies?) and "rubbish" troops (unenthusiastic peasants etc.) will never snatch the initiative on their own without a leader to rouse them, or better troops to follow.

Next, I needed to add tactical factors. The tricky part was getting this list short and simple. At first, it had far more factors than these, but I was able to whittle it down to four that are easy to learn and apply to all games, and one other that I'll explain in a moment.

Tactical Factors
2Can engage in melee or reach objective in one move, or shooting within medium range
2Per shooting action by the enemy in its initiative
-2Out of line of sight of destination
-4Engaged in melee (unless can automatically break off)
4Order card (specifying unit and objective)

The first of these is easy enough to explain. When troops are within easy reach of what they intend to do, then they are more likely to act. Troops in a good position to shoot or charge or reach their goal are most likely to be the ones to act next. The second factor requires a little light bookkeeping. Each time a player's figures shoot (including the time they shot to gain the initiative in the first place, if that's how they did it), the player hands his opponent a counter. Each counter acts as a bonus of 2 to his opponent's next initiative roll. The reason for this is that troops do not stand around doing nothing if they are being shot at. Eventually, whether given orders or not, they will run for cover (move out of sight) or charge, or shoot back. This rule means that a game cannot be won easily by one side with superior archers getting the initiative, and then keeping it while shooting unhindered for ages, mowing down the enemy. The third factor is also easy to explain. Troops who cannot see where they are heading are far more likely to faff about, and to prefer the safety of where they are, to taking the initiative and advancing, perhaps into danger. The fourth factor is there to stop people always picking their best leader figure to seize the initiative, even when he is involved in combat. Troops fighting are usually too busy staying alive to do much else. In a skirmish, the people in a position to look about them and decide what needs to be done next, and to act on it, are those who are not parrying axes and having spears shoved in their faces. It might be that troops are in a position to break off at will, for instance they might be fighting from behind a barricade, and so could retreat without their enemies' being able to do anything to stop them, in which case this factor does not apply.

To seize the initiative, therefore, the complete formula is:

1d20 roll to equal or beat base initiative rate minus any leadership factor and tactical factors

Or, if you prefer addition to subtraction:

1d20 plus any leadership factor and tactical factors, to equal or beat base initiative rate

Order cards

The last tactical factor is the "order card". You do not need to bother with order cards at all, but they can add a bit of skill to the game. Before the game starts, players can be granted a certain number of order cards. There needn't be a limit on the number of cards, since players would be unwise to use too many anyway. Each card must specify exactly which figures it applies to, and each figure can be mentioned on one card only. The figures mentioned on the card get a bonus of 4 to their initiative when trying to seize the initiative specifically to carry out the order on the card. If the initiative is seized this way, those troops and no others get to act as specified. It is therefore wise to keep the number of cards small, because otherwise each force benefiting from them will be tiny. For example, a card might say, "Sir Gawain and his men are to engage and kill Sir Blackheart". This would give Sir Gawain +4 to his roll to snatch the initiative, but only when attacking Sir Blackheart, and when Sir Gawain and his men gained the initiative, and advanced on the evil foe, they would do so without taking with them any allied forces. Other forces would have been told that attacking Blackheart was Gawain's job, and would let him get on with it. They might join him later, but the first action after seizing the initiative would be Gawain's contingent advancing on/engaging Blackheart and nothing else.

An order card can be conditional. For example, and order card could say "When the main gate has been opened, Sir Blackheart and his men are to rush through and set fire to the barn." Another could say, "If the barn catches fire, Sir Bedevere and his men are to try to extinguish it". An order card can also be duplicated for a given objective. For example, three different figures might all get a card saying "Get across the courtyard and unlock the door to the treasury." In this case, one man seizing the initiative using his card could then run across the courtyard, alone, and try his luck. If he failed, then there would be two other men with orders to have a go, but each would only get benefit from his orders to act alone. There is nothing to stop a player from forgoing his cards' benefits and trying to get all three men to go to the door at once, nor is there anything to stop the other two men later helping the first, but the act of seizing the initiative and acting on the order card is done solely by the figures(s) mentioned on it.

An order card must be specific in what is being ordered. It must specify a objective task, an enemy unit, or a place. "Attack the enemy" is too vague, because no specific enemy was mentioned. "Occupy a good position" is no good either, since a player must specify some actual position on the board, such as a building. Order cards are to represent the fact that things work more quickly with a good plan, but if a plan goes wrong, then troops will just have to improvise without the benefit of the plan.

Melee

Troops always fight one round of combat when first entering combat. Also, a player may nominate a round of combat with a group of his troops as an action. However, this is not enough. It can happen that two figures who are not essential to the action are left next to each other fighting for an age, before either of them is defeated. They would have fought at least one round of combat when they first met, but after that they may have become left behind by the flow of the game, and perhaps neither player wants to risk losing his valuable initiative by nominating as an action a round of combat by one of these men. Another rule was therefore needed. Whenever the 1d20 roll to snatch the initiative is a natural (before adding factors) 1, 2, or 3, then every figure in contact fights one round of melee. This means that a failed attempt to seize the initiative can have the side effect of causing a round of melee to be fought by everyone, including all those men on the sidelines of the main action, who then get to do something.

Reactive movement

Troops do not stand around doing nothing when people right next to them are being hacked down by the enemy. They either run for it, or help out their comrades. Consequently, troops may move reactively during their opponent's initiative, without seizing the initiative. The problem that needed to be fixed was this: imagine two opposing forces of ten men each. One has the initiative, and uses it to gang all ten men against one of the enemy. That man is then killed, and the ten then move on to gang up on the next man of the enemy. They surround the isolated man, some of them even standing with their backs to nearby foes who stand around doing nothing because they haven't got the initiative. This is clearly wrong. So, a player may choose to react with any of his unengaged troops who are within 4 inches of the enemy troops that have just engaged their friends. They must either run away at full speed or engage and fight one round of combat. This is reactive, and does not seize the initiative, so initiative must then be rolled for in the normal way.

For this rule to be easy to apply, some definitiom of the troops that can be engaged with reactive movement is needed. Troops that are eligible to be engaged by reactive movement must have have moved in the last move action to engage, or be contiguous (each figure within base distance of the next) with others that just have.

Shooting

Shooting can also be reactive. Troops without the initiative can during the opponent's initiative react with shooting ONCE, that is to say to any ONE of the actions that the enemy makes, which may be of a string of several actions before initiative changes hands. Choosing when to react is therefore something to be done with care. Missile armed troops can only react in this way to one of two things: being shot at (in which case they must shoot at the people shooting at them), and seeing enemy troops moving. Target priority rules (if you have any) are ignored when shooting reactively, and so troops that are moving, who are further away than static enemy troops who might otherwise be target priority, may still be shot at reactively. There is always a lower chance to hit when shooting reactively. You will have to decide what this is in your skirmish rules. You might have a rule for shooting at moving targets, in which case you could use that. In my new skirmish rules, I rule that there is a -1 chance to hit on 1d10, my older rules use 1d20 and the penalty was 2, which was also 10% which seems about right.

This system was open to abuse. One abuse was that players would choose to react with a few troops to an action, then be disappointed with the result, and would then declare that they were going to react with some more troops. Unfair. When you react to an action, you declare ALL the troops who are going to react, and you may not react to that action with any more, and you THEN determine the result of the reaction, and if you don't like the result, then that's tough. Another abuse was that sometimes a figure would try to duck behind cover, and find himself being reacted to by a vast coordinated volley. To counter this, the rule is that only one figure may react with shooting per inch moved by each enemy figure, so if two men run two inches each to get behind a wall, up to four enemy archers may react. Only one archer may react to one man moving one inch or less to safety.

Sometimes, a game may get to a position where one side has positioned archers and other missile users all around the board, from where they can snipe at the enemy, while the enemy sits tight hoping for relief. In this situation, it can be frustrating for the player with the archers who must carry out desultory actions, since his men are so scattered. To counter this, is the following rule: if a player moves none of his troops, and nominates shooting as his sole action, then ALL missile troops in his forces can shoot once, as a single action. A player could do this a few times on the trot, but each time he would be increasing the chance of his foe's getting the initiative (see tactical factors).

Troops armed with bows and slings may move up to half their full movement and shoot in a single action. Javelinmen may move their full distance and throw. Crossbowmen and handgunners must be still for a whole action to shoot.

"To me!"

Games tended to end up with a lot of stragglers who were difficult to round up, because they were scattered, and so required many separate actions to bring into one group. To fix this, is this rule. A leader may stand still and call out "To me!" Any troops in his command (and any allies of theirs within 4" of them) who are further than 4" from the enemy may then move at full speed towards him as a single action, no matter how scattered they are, so long as this does not bring them within 4" of the enemy at any point.

This explanation took a while, and may seem like a lot to take in, but really the system is quickly learned, and a summary of it fits easily on one side of a sheet of A4, and can be downloaded in rich text format (.rtf) or pdf format, which might be better for people not using the same edition of Word as I used, or people tryiong to print on paper sizes other than A4.

Nikolas Lloyd 2004


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