Instead of rolling initiative to start combat, tracking order, etc., I’ve started using a simple “action” system: whenever the situation gets intense or time-sensitive, we slow time down and resolve everything simultaneously. It’s fast, it’s easy, and it just flows. Currently I’m using this in Mothership, but I’m looking to use the core concept in other systems as well.
When I pitched an earlier version of this system to my players, one of them pointed me to Prof. DM’s “No More Initiative” video, which is a very similar system to what we ultimately landed on here.
When things get tense — maybe it’s a chase, defusing a bomb, or someone just whips out a gun and shoots — time slows down and actions start resolving simultaneously. There’s no initiative, but if one side might be surprised, they make a Fear check. If they fail, they don’t get to act in the first round. It’s triggered by something actually happening, not because something is about to happen.
Example: “The smuggler smirks at your threats, and shifts in his seat. Make a Fear check. You succeeded? OK–you realize that shift was cover for him pulling out his pistol. He’s shooting at you under the table. What are you doing?” (You’re already in the first action round.)
Note that each character may only move and act, instead of taking two actions each round, as in the Player’s Survival Guide. Two actions per round per player character complicates this system needlessly (though monsters can still have multiple attacks).
The warden describes what’s happening — what the monsters are doing, how the fire is spreading, whatever — and the players describe what their characters are doing in response. Everyone gets to move and act each round. (The action can be a second movement). Once everyone’s declared what they’re doing for the round, all actions are resolved, like rolling Combat for attacks, making Speed checks to outrun something, etc. Even if a character is killed, their action that round still happens (narrate it so that they perform their action just before — or just as — they are getting killed).
If some actions would result in conflicting outcomes — a PC wants to shut a door that an enemy is trying to run through, for example — it will be resolved with an opposed check, per §4.2 of the PSG. Note that two characters attacking each other are not conflicting actions: it is possible for them both to hit each other and even kill each other in the same round! (An exception: if a character must close a distance to make a melee attack and are killed by a ranged attack, their melee attack is negated, as they could not reach their target.)
Players can do anything as their action during action rounds (though longer or more complex actions may be broken up across several rounds). There are some special options too:
ACTION BEGINS (someone attacks, a timer starts, the ship is venting, etc.) └→ Possibility of surprise? └→ Yes: Characters on surprised side roll fear └→ Fail: They are stunned and cannot act for 1 round └→ New round: Warden describes situation (enemy actions, etc.) ←─┐ └→ Players declare movement & actions │ └→ Resolve all actions simultaneously │ └→ Is the situation still tense? │ └→ Yes ───────────────────────────────────────────┘ └→ No: Return to normal time
The action begins with the possibility of surprise.
WARDEN: As you two are talking to the strange old man on the catwalk, the vent above you suddenly crashes open with a bang! Fear saves, please.
VASILEV: [Rolls.] Oh no. That’s a fail.
ROUX: [Rolls.] Yes! Success!
First round: Vasilev failed his Fear save so he cannot act. The Warden describes what’s happening, and Roux gets to react.
WARDEN: OK, Vasilev, you’re caught flat-footed as something large drops down onto your back, knocking the wind out of you! Roux, you’re able to react as you see what looks like a duplicate of the old man clinging to your friend’s back and trying to bite him with long black teeth. The other old man, the one you were talking to, rushes at you, black teeth flashing in his mouth. What are you doing?
ROUX: Oh, shit. I run to Vasilev and try and pull the old guy off and throw him off the catwalk!
First round resolution. The Warden guides and narrates as all actions are resolved.
WARDEN: OK, great! [Rolls.] As you’re running over there, the old man catches up to you but you deftly dodge his bite. Vasilev, you’re not so lucky. You feel immense pain as the long black teeth sink into your back. You’ll take 8 damage from that.
VASILEV: Ouch. I’ll roll Armor to save for half. [Rolls.] Dammit! OK, I take the 8.
First round resolution finishes, and the Warden describes how the situation changes, setting up the second round.
WARDEN: Yep! Roux, we’ll do a contested Strength roll to see if you pull the old guy off of Vasilev and over the railing. [Both roll.] Nice, you win and pull him off, blood trailing out of his mouth, and flip him over the railing. And with a Speed check… [Rolls.] …he succeeds and grabs the railing! He’s trying to scramble back up as the other old man rushes to attack Roux again. What are you both doing?
Both players declare their actions.
VASILEV: I want to keep the guy that bit me from climbing back up! Can I slam his fingers with the butt of my pulse rifle?
WARDEN: Absolutely. That’ll be a contested roll. Roux, how about you?
ROUX: While Vasi is handling him, I whip out my vibechete and slash at the old man rushing me.
The Warden guides the resolution of the second round actions.
WARDEN: Great — Vasilev, let’s do a contested roll — your Strength vs. his Speed. [Both roll.] Nice, you just barely beat him! How do you knock him off the railing?
VASILEV: I smash his fingers with the butt of my rifle and then hit him again quickly in his face just as he tries to leap up at me, and he fully Wilhelm screams as he loses his grip and falls to the factory floor below.
WARDEN: Perfect. You hear a nasty crunch when he lands. OK Roux, roll to attack the remaining old man and he’ll do the same for you. [Both roll.]
WARDEN: He hits you too! He closes the distance and bites into your neck as you slash at his gut. Let’s both roll damage. [Both roll.] He gets you for 6.
ROUX: Well I get him for 17! Can I use the CQC rules to counterattack?
WARDEN: You can. [Rolls.] Meanwhile he makes his Body save to disengage and starts backing away.
ROUX: I counterattack… [Rolls.] Ah, and I miss.
On the border of ending action: If the players choose to give chase, action rounds would continue, but since they don’t, action ends and normal exploration play resumes seamlessly.
WARDEN: Your blade swings wide as he ducks out of the way and leaps up into the open vent above. You hear him scrambling away into the darkness. What do you do?
VASILEV: Should we go after him?
ROUX: No, we should just get out of here.
WARDEN: OK — as you talk to each other, you each notice that the other person’s teeth have begun to darken. Make Body saves.
ROUX & VASILEV: Oh no.