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Intent, Initiation, Execution, and Effect

In our game last night: "Sebastian killed the ogre."

Now you and I know that Sam (the player) and the rest of the people he played with had to do something to establish that. Dice and whatnot may have been involved, but ultimately, it was social and verbal. Sam had to propose something and through whatever mechanism, everyone else came to agree with it and how it came to pass. Never mind whether dice were used, or whether Sam had to roll high or low. I am talking about whatever Sam and anyone else said during that process.

OK, during play, here we are, and Sam is playing Sebastian, and there's the big evil ogre. Sam says, "I attack him!" What the hell did Sam just establish in the imaginative game-world? Depending on the game system and/or the group, it could have been any of the following.

Intention: Sebastian has not quite yet moved or done anything. That must wait upon some other step of the process; all we know is that he is about to do it.

Initiation: Sebastian has officially moved into action; his sword is raised, he is moving and grimacing and so on.

Completion: Sebastian has completed his sword stroke; the action, for all purposes, is finished.

Effect: Sebastian's sword-stroke has produced its consequences and we have established just what has happened to the ogre and to Sebastian.

In actual role-playing, I have seen every one of these categories, that is, how far Sebastian automatically gets, as an interpretation of Sam's statement."But I said it!" is the issue. What, in fact, did you say? Intent, Initiation, Completion, or Effect?

For a role-playing situation to be functional at the most basic level, the group as a whole must know and agree upon which one it is. I think that most of us are aware how jarring, disruptive, and plain Not Fun it is, when people at the role-playing table are disagreeing about which of the four categories is being established by an announced action.

Diversity of design

Game designs vary in the extent to which they either establish or assume the status of Sam's announcement in regard to the four categories.

By far and away, the most common solution is to break down the game-world causality into linear form.

  1. Establish order of actions among all participants. Each character may now be considered "frozen" in the beginning of the sequence.
  2. Resolve the action of the first participant by (a) unfreezing him, such that the action may now be announced in full by the player; (b) and then (as the others remain frozen), carry out the motions of the character from initiation through completion.
  3. Continue through all characters.

The order may be pre-set or randomized in any number of ways. For purposes of the present topic, this distinction does not matter.

Several tweaks of this way to do it exist. They include: - "Saved" actions - explicitly permitting characters to reserve their actions past the point of order, to use as an "interrupt" prior to another, subsequent character's action. (Champions) - Formalizing and fixing the announcements of actions prior to step two. In some games, the characters' actions are announced in order of slowest-to-fastest between steps 1 and 2, and then resolved in order of fastest-to-slowest in step 2 as normal. (Sun & Storm, Streetfighter) - Assigning point-costs to actions such that one may manage a resource to distribute one's moments of action through the round (Feng Shui).

I suggest that this entire approach raises such a problem that even the tweaks introduce new problems. For instance, the "saved" modification tends to result in everyone announcing "I save" and then playing multiple-interrupts on each other during each person's action. Or, some people dislike the "freeze" effect generated in the imagination.

However, this approach is not the only one. Another is essentially "laissez-faire" for actions, in which everyone is expected to agree about the order informally, which in practice usually means the GM may rearrange who is going first and what happens when, for each series of actions in a group situation. It assumes that everyone's good faith is more reliable than a step-by-step method. In practice, this usually gives so much power to the GM that he or she may as well be writing the entire scene, especially since climactic scenes rely very heavily on the timing and sequence of actions. (Over the Edge, The Window)

I have also observed the laissez-faire method to founder due to confusions between the four categories. When Sam says, "I attack him," Sam and the GM and everyone else can be quite at odds about whether Sebastian is actually in motion or not. A subsequent announcement may influence Sam to say, "Um, actually I don't," or conversely, "But I'm already attacking him!" or anything in between. When it does work, it's because the group informally worked out a standard for which category is being applied for a given announced action - in other words, an unwritten system of some kind.

One functional solution is to have all announced actions only ever be Intent, and finalized as Initiation only at the end of a "free discussion" about them (Fair-and-clear). The order of the actions are established simultaneously with the resolution of the actions (it's the same roll). Results of the actions are all then established in order. (Zero, Sorcerer, Trollbabe, In a Wicked Age ...)

Another solution is to fix the order is fix the order based on some variable, but adjust it using some resource (Hero Wars).


How actions and events in the Shared Imagined Space are resolved in terms of

  1. real-world announcement and
  2. imaginary order of occurrence.

Relevant threads

Origins: The four steps of action and What is IIEC? A necessary feature of System during play, usually represented by several Techniques and many Ephemera.