Thursday, March 22, 2012

Gutshot Rules: Behind our random Initiative

As a game designer, I think one of the most important things you can do is to impose a sense of balance into the game mechanics. For every plus, there must be a minus. For everything that gives you power, there must be something to counteract it. From time to time I'm going to use this blog to explain some of the behind-the-scenes thinking that went into fine tuning some of the rules in Gutshot.

For example, here's a question I get asked at conventions a lot:

"Why do you guys use random initiative? Why not just roll dice or draw cards and let everyone go in order?"

A fair question, and one with a very simple answer. But first, for those of you who are not that familiar with our game, here's an explanation of how initiative works in Gutshot:

  • Each player creates a character and fills out a Character Sheet. Every character must have a name (sorry, but "Cowboy #1 in yellow shirt" is not a name)
  • Each player writes the character's name on three slips of paper
  • All the slips are placed into a hat or other suitable container (I actually had to stop using my cowboy hat because name slips kept getting caught under the rim -- nowadays I use the old gamer standby: the Crown Royal bag)
  • One at a time, a name is pulled from the hat/bag: the character named then takes his action (usually movement and shooting at someone)
  • This goes on, one at a time, until the hat/bag is empty. When that happens it is the End of the Turn.
  • Refill the hat/bag with the names of surviving characters and keep on repeating until the end of the game.
Every Gamer's Friend
Now, even a quick reading of that should make it apparent that your name is going to be pulled out in a completely random manner. You might even have two Actions in a row... or all three at the end of the Turn. Critics of this system argue that this cuts down a LOT on planning and coordination because you can't easily predict exactly when a character is going to have his name drawn. And that, saddle pals, is exactly what we like about it!

Let me go back in time and set the stage for you...
Way back in 1999 and 2000 when Mike Murphy sent me the first drafts for this game, I was NOT impressed by the initiative system he described. I came from a long and checkered past as an RPGer (D&D, Vampire, etc.) and I was used to the simple: "roll dice and let's go in order" method of doing things. Murph strongly suggested I playtest it the way he wrote it... and I did. And I wasn't super impressed for a few reasons, the main one being that it was possible for me to die without ever firing a shot or moving to defend myself. So, naturally, I tried it again with a simple, orderly initiative system. And it worked... but too well.

Now that the players knew who was going when -- and more importantly, that everyone would only get one Action in a row), they suddenly started using modern combat tactics like advancing in waves and securing entry/exit points. It was highly efficient... and not at all a Western. That type of initiative was just too predictable, which is why we went back and figured out how to fix the I-never-even-got-to-move-before-I-died problem.  This improvement would end up being The Retaliation Shot...

And we'll talk more about that next week.

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