Elastic Initiative

The token based initiative system in Marvel Heroic has held up pretty well for me, and has left me chewing on more physical artifact solutions to pacing problems. In this case, I’m thinking about dealing with asynchronous play. That is, what do you do when the party splits up, but you still want to have a finale that draws in everyone? Few things are as lame as being that character three rooms away from the fight who can’t join in because you have no in character reason to rush over.[1]

Marvel addresses this by largely discarding the notion of time, and just moving from action beat to action beat. This works pretty well, provided you’re in a situation composed entirely of action beats. The problem I run into is in more open ended games where players have a lot of mobility and authority (Amber being the biggest offender) where the beats are a lot broader.

I’m averse to a strict scene framing economy (which would technically solve the problem), since I think the scene is a terribly inconsistent unit of currency. I use the word “beat” because it’s intentionally a bit more muddled, but generally means “Something happens” – a beat can be a single gesture or an entire scene, depending on what’s going on.[2] I admit, I like that kind of muddle.

So I’m wondering if it might be possible to do a currency-based initiative for asynchronous play. Give everyone maybe 5 tokens, and just go nuts, making players pay out to act, with “act” defined intentionally loosely, but roughly equivalent to a writing beat[3]. So long as everyone is spending at parity, then everyone can refresh regularly, but if anyone gets too far ahead, the distribution of tokens creates a natural elasticity that brings things back in line.

So far so good, but a good GM can generally juggle this without tokens – it’s basic spotlight management – but the point at which it becomes useful is when one player hits a “fixed point” – a dramatic scene which is going to have consequences and impact. If you “freeze” that player at that point, then each player now has their own units of currency to (if they wish) build a path to the fixed point. That is, if you end up facing down the dark lord and I’ve still got 3 tokens, then I might build three beats/scenes that culminate in my joining the big fight.

Not 100% sure of it – this merits some experimentation, but I really like the idea of elasticity rather than strict progression, so the question is whether this really serves that end. Well, only one way to find out.

  1. Yes, there are almost always cheats to try to handwave this, but I’d rather avoid the problem entirely.  ↩

  2. In a curious bit of serendipity, the previous Marvel RPG (the one with “stones”) is actually built upon a very similar idea, in that the currency of time is measured in comic book panels and pages, with panels roughly equating to actions and pages to scenes, but with the qualifier that the model allowed for cheating – travel and time could pass in a single panel, while a fight might go on for panel after panel. It feels a little artificial if adhered too too strictly, but it’s a very useful model to think about.  ↩

  3. I’m pulling terminology out of my ass here, but I say a writing beat in the sense that if I were writing this for TV, how many index cards would I use up? That is, Discover the crime, chase the fleeing witness and interrogate the fleeing witness are 3 beats. If I’m using a system that makes any of these beats particularly intricate (like chase or social combat rules) then I might treat them as more beats, depending on the game. I call this out as “writing” beats so as to distinguish from “emotional” beats, moments that reveal something about a character which may be important and significant, but are part of the flow of the scenes. It might be a shrug, a gesture or a line of dialog, but it’s a character moment, and they should be something cool that happens, not something to track in play.  ↩

One thought on “Elastic Initiative

  1. Phil Vecchione

    I like where you are going with this. In some ways it reminds me of the pacing of Fiasco, especially in Act 2, where every player knows they have to drive their story to conclusion, and they need to cooperate to bring their story in line with everyone else to arrive at the Aftermath.

    I think that directly involving the player with a tangible currency is a great way to have them help sync an asynchronous set of scenes. Often when GM’s try to do this without player involvement, through aggressive scene cuts and increases in tempo, the feeling comes off as rushed. If the player knows they have X beats to make it back to main chamber for the big battle, they can work with the GM to bring the story in line.

    Nice idea.


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