I've never participated in the RPG Blog Carnival before, but this month's topic (The Combat Experience) is somewhat relevant to my upcoming Firefly finale, so I figured I'd post some of my own thoughts about combat. Specifically, two things I loathe about running combat: determining initiative and drawing up maps.
We've all been there, we're in the middle of a scene when all hell breaks loose and it's time for some fighting to occur...and then everything stops while all the players roll dice and the GM sorts out their order in the initiative track.
I know, I know. We have to roll for initiative because we need to know who gets to act first, second and so on. The result of not having initiative can be messy, players scrambling over one another (metaphorically speaking) to take control of the action, confusing the GM and each other. But the stopping to roll and the waiting while the GM notes down everybody's place in the order...when I have to do it as GM I always feel like it's breaking the flow and slowing things down. But what else can we do to establish initiative?
The Firefly RPG (and Marvel Heroic Roleplaying before it, as well as the upcoming Timewatch RPG from Pelgrane Press) has one solution that I like a bit more than the usual method of rolling and assigning initiative. The GM picks who goes first based on the situation (the players get the drop on them, or they get ambushed, someone has a 'quick draw' trigger move, etc) and then that player takes their action. When their action is resolved, they get to pick who they want to go next in the round and then that character becomes the new active character.
Not only is this a much quicker and more intuitive way of establishing turn order which keeps the energy up and allows the group to dive into combat right away, but it also creates some really neat interactions between players' moves. One player might decide that their action is to set off a sonic grenade to disorient the guards, then pass to another player who uses the distraction to gun down one or two of them before they have time to recover.
Players do need to keep in mind that their opponents also need to act within the turn and take care not to leave all of the bad guys to act last. If they take them all out before they have to pass initiative to an NPC, all well and good, but if not...they're gonna feel the pain when their enemies push back. This can conceivably lead to players pausing to tactically consider whether to pass action to friend or foe, but my experience has mostly been that the pacing remains fast and furious.
The other alternative to traditional rolled initiative in combat is to have initiative be skill based, as it is in games such as Fate Core or Gumshoe. In these systems, action order is determined by which characters have the highest rating in a specific skill relevant to the type of conflict involved. In theory, this can make things a bit quicker by removing the step of rolling dice for each participant, and a well-prepared GM might already have the PCs' initiative numbers noted down so that all they have to do is add the NPCs into the action order. I'm not so keen on this as the method from Firefly because it feels too static and it's kind of boring to be honest. It means that the same PC will always act before all the others in a given situation, which is both bland and unrealistic. Not that I think RPGs should always do what is realistic, mind.
I used to use maps a lot in my Unisystem Stargate campaign and Traveller (Mongoose version) way back when, but I discovered two things about using them that has put me off playing with maps since.
First of all, something that can happen when you put a map down in front of the players is that. Everything. Just. Stops. Everybody leans in and starts planning tactics like a football team making their gameplan before the match starts (assuming that's not just a thing they do in movies about football). It's the same thing that irritates me about rolling and assigning initiative (though, admittedly, it gives the GM time to sort out the action order and his notes before starting the combat); it breaks the flow of things and sucks all the energy out of the scene.
Second, and this is really a personal thing: I just hate drawing maps. Never mind that I can't get the scaling right - that barely matters in games like Fate Core, where ranges are more abstract - but I just have no idea how a proper building should be laid out, beyond extrapolating from what I know of buildings I've actually been in. To be fair, though, I'm sure that's not just me. Unless you happen to be a GM who is also an architect, chances are you'll be playing it as much by ear as I am. And again, you probably don't need to worry too much about realism when laying out your dungeon or your secret underground laboratory (which I'm probably going to have to do for my Firefly finale). Still, it's a chore that irks me no end, and nowadays if I do end up using maps they tend to be quick sketches done on the spot.
They can get really messy too as they're updated over the course of a battle though, with scribbled out enemy dots and ghostly remnants of dots rubbed out to reflect their movement across the battlefield. The only way to avoid that is perhaps to invest in a dry-erase board (or a Noteboard, which I'm considering getting myself), but even those can get messy with ink that won't rub out properly.
That said, I do see the value of maps as a tool in running combat sequences, having been on the player's side of games where the GM has made use of them. They help the players get a better idea of their surroundings and their position relative to the bad guys and one another, which is really important in order to decide where your character is going to go and what they're going to do within the combat.
With regard to initiative, at least there are methods of determining it that I find simpler and more tolerable than the traditional method, though it may not always be appropriate to adapt those for other systems. With regard to my pet peeve of sketching maps...I guess that's just something I'm going to have to learn to get over.