Under the Hood – Co-operation?

By The Warden

Roleplaying games are a group experience, there’s no question. While there are versions allowing players to go solo (in fact, right after this, I’m working on a review for Open Design’s Party of One adventure), RPGs are primarily designed for two or more people to share the game and work together to achieve a goal. It’s what makes RPGs stand out against board games, which are usually built on the premise of “first player to score the most wins” and other solitary objectives.

Knowing that, it’s strange how co-operation is not a mechanical function of a majority of popular RPGs. Instead, it’s left to the etiquette of the players involved to work together through description and action with a few options allowing one character to help another with a certain kind of dice roll. Mechanically speaking, there’s very little in most RPGs for allies to automatically benefit from working together. They are instead a collective of individuals who happen to walk the same path in the same direction.

Take initiative rolls, for instance. In most RPGs, every character rolls their initiative individually and acts according to who rolled highest/lowest on a sliding scale. Enemies roll their own initiative and the working order of character progress is determined based on all these individual rolls. Various options remain to alter your result slightly and nearly all of them result in you delaying your turn until a later point in the line. This version of initiative is incredibly dice-dependent; you can create as detailed a plan for starting a fight all you want, it just gets chucked out the window as soon as those totals are added up.

To use a fantasy example, some characters are heavily armored and capable of taking the brunt of any damage from melee and ranged opponents. In some cases, those characters specialize in standing on the front line to block access to other classes such as wizards, archers, and more. It’s to a group’s benefit for these guys to go first as often as possible. If you were real people (and I’m sure we’ve all wished for that at some point and time in our gaming lives), you would send out these combatants first before the rest of your group acted. Or maybe you’d want your wizard to offer up a spell providing cover or concealment to aid those armored bastards, whatever your choice may be. You would not simply rush forward like a bunch of Stooges trying to step through a doorway at the same time – the results in combat are never as comical. Yet this is how initiative plays out; everyone rushes forward in the hopes of going before the enemy.

This includes surprise rounds, the first series of turns where one side of the battle has such an advantage over their enemies that only the advantageous characters can act during this round. Yet still, the best they can hope for is to rush forward and get there first before the other allies. And the initiative roll you gain in the surprise round remains throughout the remainder of the encounter, so if your entire party delays to go after the spellcaster and her enabling spell of assistance or crippling spell of penalizing, you’re cursing your allies to go after the enemy on the next round. Does that allow for an advantage or just a temporary boost?

It’s an issue I’ve had for years for most strategic RPGs. As detailed and tested as every other aspect of the game may be, determining character order is just a necessary evil. “Hmm, how are we going to determine who goes first? Meh, let ‘em roll for it.” I’m happy to say this trend in popular RPGs have been bucked by the recent Marvel Heroic Roleplaying Game from Margaret Weis Productions (but I don’t think I had to tell you that, did I?). While I’ve yet the pleasure to read it for myself (my copy sits behind the counter at my FLGS until I can get my ass behind the wheel and drive there to get it), I have read threads and posts on how the Marvel initiative system works, particularly the one posted by Fred Hicks on his Deadly Fredly blog.

“So in MHR, a fight starts, someone’s going first. It might be the fast guy, it might be the guy with spidey sense, it might be the guy who’s quick to anger and so acts without hesitation. Folks at the table look at the situation, see what makes sense, and elect a first guy. The GM (the Watcher) can have his guy go first in this, but he’s gotta pony up a little game currency to do so, and he’s got to pony up currency (or special character abilities of his own NPCs) of at least equal magnitude to the best “reactor” on the players’ side. (Why do you partner up with Spider-Man? Because he drains heavier currency from the GM’s pool o’ doom. GM’s gotta beat that spider-sense if he’s going to act first.)

“So, your first guy goes first, and then — as an organic way of following the line of “what order makes sense” — his player chooses who goes next. Maybe it’s another PC (hey, teamwork!); maybe it’s one of the Watcher’s NPCs (let’s see what he’s got in store). In this way, every character/player has a moment of power where they get to choose who goes next; and in practice, it produces an order of events that “reads” a lot like the panels in a comic book do. Everyone gets a turn, there’s little need to do book-keeping (aside from some sort of marker saying “I have/have not had a turn in this round”), and the flow of action to action works with an exciting kind of hand-off tempo that feels like it makes sense instead of following arbitrary dice or humdrum-sameness of stat bonuses.

“Seriously, you should steal it for your game. I know I will. Uh, from myself.”

– From Deadly Fredly,
Accidentally Designing Marvel’s Action Order System

In other words, the players determine the order of turns at that moment. It’s a sort of honor system for initiative and allows the heroes to act as a team (an incredibly fitting premise for comic book characters). I know my first thought was that nasty habit of assuming players would take advantage of it and that was quickly kicked aside by the eternal words of John Wick: “Why are you playing with people like that?”

With that in mind, there are other components of the same games I’ve just bitched about which do provide assistance and teamwork options effectively, though they often require the use of an essential action (like the standard action in Pathfinder and D&D) and demand someone has to use up their action to offer nothing more than a +2 to an ally’s roll. Like I said, it works and my gripe is more of a personal dissatisfaction than anything else. Certain classes are also built with allies in mind, such as anyone who provides healing to the team. But that’s only so long as you have a healer in the party and the decision to have one remains up to the players, not the game itself.

To explain this point, I turn to a XBOX game I’ve started playing recently, War of the North. In that game, you work as part of a trio to take on Sauron’s forces in the northern tip of Middle-earth and when an ally falls, anyone can rush to their side and hold down the “A” button to pick them up and bring them back into the fight. Any character, not just the elven healer. To my knowledge, there isn’t a RPG providing this aspect of camaraderie mechanically and therefore it’s another example of how individualistic these games are constructed. Only by choosing to play a character that can heal and revive allies can you actually heal and revive allies. Otherwise, you’re just yelling at the guy to get up.

If we receive experience as a group, why aren’t we working together as a group? When all the words in the introduction to a game highlight the importance of working in a group and co-operation, shouldn’t the mechanics support that concept much in the same way mechanics simulate the tone of a genre or setting? If an ally falls in the woods and the only adjacent ally cannot help until the end of the round, does the fallen ally complain about how useless their friends are?

All that aside, it’s a difficult component of game design to pick at because initiative is perhaps one of the most abstract gears of any game. It’s goal is to bring order to what would otherwise be a horrifically chaotic event; while the characters themselves are reacting instantaneously with nothing more than a heartbeat in time to decide their next course of action, players sit comfortably at a table and have the luxury of minutes while waiting for their turn to arrive. But that is turn sequence mechanics. Setting down mechanics for characters to act individually based on dice rolls is an initiative mechanic, a related yet separate piece. Without the ability to choose how you will work together, your game will never truly be a co-operative experience. Instead, it is reactionary. How you work together is based on how you deal with each situation before you. This begs the question: Does this create the proper form of teamwork established in the fluff text of this game? If not, is there something you can alter in your game to restore that intended purpose?

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