I must create a system, or be enslaved by another man's. I will not reason and compare: my business is to create.

- William Blake

Friday, March 27, 2015

Brainstorm in a Jar: Card Initiative

After some brainstorming on the subject, here is a complete initiative system using playing cards and segments. It is intended for D&D, but can probably be used with other systems with some tweaking.

The idea behind it is that every combatant is trying to find a good moment to attack (or act), and faster characters get better opportunities. The goal is making things unpredictable, dynamic, and tactical.

In the begging of each round, each player draws a card. Rounds last for about 10-15 seconds and are divided in 10 segments, each one lasting about a second. Characters with an ace act on segment 1, deuces on segment 2, and so on. Every action has a duration in segments, usually 4.

Immediately after taking your action, draw another card. If the card is equal or higher than your current card plus the duration of your action, you can take an extra action in this round (when the segment corresponding the new card comes up). If it isn't, you can keep the card in your hand for next round. For example, if you played a 4, and took an action with a duration of 5 segments, you can act again if you draw a 9 or 10. No more than three actions can be taken each round, which can be managed by looking on the number of cards in front of each player.

There is no problem in finishing an action on segments greater than 10 (this "extra segments" are somewhat abstract), and it doesn't affect next round, but your last action cannot finish in a segment greater than your first card plus 12. Thus, if the first card you played is a 3, you cannot start an action in segment 10 that takes more than 5 segments.

When a new round begins,the cards on the table are shuffled, everybody gets an extra card, chooses what card to play (if they have more than one), and discards any remaining cards.

Although this looks like a "second-by-second" breakdown of the encounter, it involves quite a bit of abstraction to make things run smoothly. Because of that, you resolve each action on the segment it begins, although it can be interrupted in the middle.

And… that is it, basically. You can use or ignore the optional rules below, depending on the system you're using or the effects you're looking for.


Movement: 2 segments for a 5-feet step, 4 segments for a half move, 8 for a full move, 12 for a double move.

Weapons: 4 segments for a "medium speed" weapon, 2-6 for other weapons (2 if unarmed, or if you have a longer weapon than your opponent and hasn't been hit by him yet). Bows twice the time to draw and shoot, crossbows take half the time to shoot and twice to draw.

Spells: equals to spell level+2.

The GM will decide on the duration of other actions.

You can add a simple, quick action, such as taking a single move or drawing a blade, to other, more complex, actions. Just add the durations. The GM has the final word, but the idea is that if no dice are rolled because of your action you don't need to use an additional card. For example, you can move and attack, although you have a good chance of being interrupted in the process (see below).


To delay an action, put your card on the table and say you'll wait for something to happen - an attack on yourself or an ally, a move by an specific opponent, etc. If that happens, you can act on any given segment after that. If you play a deuce, and act on segment 7, for example, you action ends on segment 12. If you don't want to declare your action right now, you can draw an extra card, as if you had just taken a 1-segment action.

Delayed actions can be changed at any time before the round is finished, but the change takes one segment (so, if you change your mind on segment 6, you can act on segment 7, without using an extra card).


You can interrupt an enemy if you can finish an action before him. You must declare this the moment the opponent declares his action. For example, if he attacks you on segment 4 with a two-handed axe (speed 6), he will hit you on segment 10. If you act on segment 5, you can hit him with a knife before that. Even if he survives the attack, enough damage (let's say, 10% of Max HP or more) can cause an ill effect. Some suggestions: spell interruption, -2 penalty to a roll, movement is halted, etc.

You can use you interruption to defend yourself or an ally. This depends on the system you're using. One example: a parry grants +2 AC.

Interrupting is about disrupting your enemy's action. You cannot simply walk away in the middle of an attack.

Optional rule: if you want to interrupt an opponent but your card doesn't allow it (and its segment is yet to come), you can trade your card, drawing another, but the new card MUST be used to interrupt. If the new card doesn't allow it, you cannot use it.


If it matters at all, give them to whoever started the action first (in the event of interruptions), or flip a coin.


Surprised characters get no cards in the first round.


DEX mods apply only to the first card you play. If you have DEX +2 and your first card is a 5, you can act on segment 3. This may allow you to act on segment 0 but not negative segments.

Another option is to let players draw an extra card for each +1 in the beginning of the round, choosing the best and discarding the rest (because of special cards, this is quite powerful).


If a character has multiple attacks, he may take all his attacks in his turn. Depending on the edition you are using, you can use special cards or specific suits to represent additional attacks instead, although exact balance becomes difficult.


Since you are using playing cards, add special effects to taste. Make them cool and easy to remember. Here are some ideas.

* FACE CARDS can be used to act in any segment you choose, but cannot be used twice in a row.

* When you attack using THE ACE OF SPADES, any hit is a critical hit. If you want to get fiddly, assign special effects to each suit.

* AND DON'T FORGET THE JOKER! It allows you to act in any segment, and choose a special effect: act on segment 0, take one action 2 segments faster than normal (minimum one segment), get a bonus on your action, etc.

The only card you need.


Because the best course of actions depends on the cards, circumstances change from round to round. This forces you to be a bit creative instead of using the same attack round after round. Some of the effects I expect to achieve:

- With the cards on the table, initiative is easy to track.
- Everybody can act every round, and some people will act more than once in some rounds, but not too often.
- No additional rules needed for fighting with two weapons, opportunity attacks, etc.
- Things such as kicking an opponent before striking with your sword, throwing a dagger at a wizard in order to stop his mighty spell (because otherwise you cannot reach him in time), moving cautiously toward an enemy, using low-levels spell at high levels, waiting for your adversary to act first, and trading defense for offense become viable tactics.


If that's your case and you've read this far, congratulations! And don't worry, I got you covered.

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