The GM Awakens – Taking Back the Initiative

This series follows the trials, tribulations, successes, and failures of a fairly inexperienced GM who has recently picked up the hobby after a long time away. It aims to assist new GMs by examining what worked, didn’t work, and what failed miserably as he spins up new campaigns, modules, encounters, and adventures for his friends and family.


So in my previous two articles I discussed different things that you can do to get younger players enjoying your favorite RPG, and we looked at some things that I did wrong as I have tried to get some younger new players into FFG’s Star Wars RPG lines. They are friends of my oldest, my son Sean, who is 13. They are all huge Star Wars fans, but they’ve never played an RPG before. Some of my other tips and tricks can easily serve any age of new player but this next one might actually be rather specific to younger players. This article continues this discussion with an odd look at initiative.

Taking Turns

Another miss on my part while on-boarding these teenage newbies was with a simple game mechanic nearly all RPG’s have…initiative. How complicated could that be? It’s just the order in which PC’s and NPC’s act. Well, with a room full of young teenage boys, it got complicated beyond my wildest dreams.

The Edge of the Empire system from FFG uses a variable initiative order, in that the PCs aren’t ordered by their initiative roll, but rather any PC in the party may act when a “PC Slot” is ready. Each time a PC is up in initiative order, the team discusses who should go next or, a player with an idea takes the slot and takes his/her actions. I played with the rules as written (RAW) and let the boys choose who went first, second, etc. Well, the table quickly devolved into friendly, but highly competitive character comparisons: “Oooh I want to go first! I have the best gun!” “No you don’t, my gun does 7 damage, I should go first!” “Oooh no my guy has a grenade?” No one could agree or work together, so stalemates and debates stalled the game at each encounter. The boys constantly argued and overthought who should take each initiative slot, and these boys are all best friends.  It was the closest thing that caused arguments at the table, and after analysis it was all stemming from trying to figure out who goes next.

The variable initiative system in FFG’s Star Wars system is one of my favorite aspects of the system as it encourages and almost demands teamwork and team synergy. I love how much teamwork my group has as they work out their methods to take on each encounter. The boys, however, because of their natural competitive and excited nature, couldn’t get to that point. They just worried about skill ranks, talents, and who did the most damage.

Other systems have specific initiative orders based on their initiative roll or score. This can also cause issues if one player is always first or always last due to their specific attributes that determine the initiative roll. It can cause competitive issues at the table in youngsters like at my table.

Instead, try taking a different tact when it comes to initiative in your first game session with younger players:

  • Throw the RAW out. Whether you have a variable initiative system, or a fixed one, throw it out. Use an initiative order that rotates players. The PC who went last one round, goes first the next. If a PC goes second, next turn he goes third. All players will feel evenly treated and debates at the table will fall away.  Instead of saying, “OK, so…who wants to go next?” you’ll be saying, “Ok, Nick, you’re up.” I would suggest this in any initiative system.  It completely pulls out this element of competition in younger players, especially boys!  Later when they learn how to play better, introduce the RAW initiative roll rules.
  • Keep the encounters simple so that a rotating initiative system won’t hurt the party, regardless of whose turn it is to “go first.”  Some encounters naturally would dictate a certain player should go first.  Like, a pilot in a starship, or a warrior with a two-handed sword in a room full bad guys.  Make the encounters so they don’t punish the PCs by throwing out the initiative system.
  • Give each player very similar equipment, possibly even the same things if you can. Luckily in Star Wars there are blaster guns and in many cases they do similar, if not exactly the same, amounts of damage. So, I gave each player in the 2nd session the same blaster. It ended the discussion of who did the most damage. It won’t stop the skill ranks and talent competition but at least it might help. In future sessions work more on tuning the PCs’ equipment.  Give them the same bows and arrows, the same swords, etc. as rules allow, or at least comparable items.

Following each of these steps eliminates one of the very things I love about the new Star Wars system, but for the first few sessions at least, they’re things that can help while teaching the rest of the system and the dynamic of RPG’s.

Next week I’ll conclude the discussion of teaching younger, new players an RPG by examining a few easy things you can do as a GM to overall make the experience better and teach the new PC’s the power and possibilities of a great roleplaying game!  Have you experienced this highly competitive streak in younger players before?  Perhaps even adults?  Have you ever had initiative become a problem with younger players?

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Scott Alden

Scott Alden

Scott is a full-time IT Manager living in Lawrence, KS. (Rock Chalk, Jayhawk! Just outside Kansas City for those who don't know.) Scott is a veteran of several role playing, table top miniatures, video, and board games, starting with the Atari 2600 when he was 6, and the classic red box Dungeons and Dragons game when he was 12. After a long hiatus away from the hobby, Scott has recently picked up gaming once again, and is running two different campaigns in Fantasy Flight Games' Edge of the Empire/Age of Rebellion/Force and Destiny lines. He is an avid X-Wing miniatures player, as well as Armada, Imperial Assault, Space Hulk, and Rebellion. (His family is obviously a Star Wars family, right?) Scott is married to his high school sweetheart, and has 2 children in middle school, both Black Belts in Krav Maga martial arts.
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