When combat in a roleplaying game begins, it usually begins with these two words “Roll initiative!” Everyone knows that now, there’s going to be a fight. Get out the damage dice and miniatures. Lay down the combat map. Etc.
When I talk about initiative in Parsec, I am using the word’s more common meaning – where initiative just means going first, or more generally perhaps, being pro-active. In Parsec combat, one side starts with the initiative. It is usually the side that started the fight, but if not, then it is the side with the best position, or with some other advantage. In situations where no side has clear initiative, then the first round of combat will determine who has it after that point. For that first round, everyone should act in order of their Resilience scores.
The side with initiative has the privilege of declaring what they are doing first. This means that they will control the tempo and the action to a large degree. In Parsec, you basically get either a normal action in a turn or a long action, depending on what else you do. But you don’t get multiple actions. That means that the side with the initiative during a combat can force the other side to defend if they remain aggressive.
For the side without the initiative, the challenge is to use tactics to steal the initiative. It is possible to defend in various ways, depending on terrain, the kind of fight you’re in, etc. Also, the side without the initiative has the chance to capitalize on any mistakes the initiating side makes. Attacking usually leaves you vulnerable to counter-attack.
No question, though, having the initiative will be a big advantage. It is one of the things that makes ambush more powerful in this system than in many others, as well as other kinds of tactical decisions. Its rare that in an rpg, combat depends on group tactics per se. Usually its more an issue of how the various individuals work together – or not. I wanted some components to the conflict system that were broader than particular characters’ decisions, and the initiative is one of them. I like that the ‘tide of battle’ is something that is tracked rules-wise and has an impact on what is going on and what decisions you can make in a conflict.
Addendum: I forgot to mention this in the original post, but if you’re paying attention, you’ll realize that whichever side in a conflict has the initiative also sets the stakes. This means that they define the conditions of their own victory over their opponent. So if one side has the initiative, and they are out to kill the other side, then the stakes of the conflict are “life and death”. If, however, they only want to capture their opponents, then the stakes of the conflict are “capture”.
When/if the initiative is taken away, then the side that now has the initiative can set new stakes. So, for a simplistic example: a security officer is in a conflict with a suspected criminal. The security officer gets the initiative on the suspect and tries to subdue him. The suspect, however, turns the tables on the officer – capitalizing on a mistake or utilizing a clever tactic. Now, the suspect ups the ante – he feels he needs to incapacitate the officer and get away or else the background check will reveal outstanding warrants for arrest. So in this example, a change in the initiative means a change in stakes from “arrest” to “incapacitation”.