So I mentioned during what's turned into a multi-blog discussion of initiative in GURPS that I have some not-exciting alternate surprise rules for my DF game. I didn't like the margin of "almost any time you roll one side is going to be surprised" but I liked the uncertainty of rolling to see if one or both sides were surprised, and rolling to see which side goes first.
So I made up some rules, and someone asked me to post them.
So here they are.
Be warned - I don't use these as they are written anymore.
Alternate Surprise Rules
Use the rules for Total Surprise (B393) if one side is totally unready for combat. Characters with Combat Reflexes, as usual, treat this as Partial Surprise.
This may occur when the both sides surprise each other, or when both sides are expecting trouble.
Use the rolls and modifiers from p. B393. The GM may apply a bonus or penalty of +/-2 to either side if they are especially alert, especially lax, or otherwise acting at above or below normal alertness for a potentially dangerous situation. A normal, unmodified roll assumes alert combatants expecting trouble.
Tie: Both sides are surprised (see below).
Won by 1-2: Losing side loses the initiative, and acts after the winning side.
Won by 3-4: Losing side is surprised (see below).
Won by 5+: Losing side suffers Total Surprise.
The side that gets the highest roll gets the initiative, and can move and act normally. Everyone on the other side is mentally stunned, and must make IQ rolls on their turns, as described for total surprise, to snap out of it. However, with partial surprise, there is a +1 bonus to IQ on the second turn, +2 on the third turn, and so on . . . even low IQ characters catch on after a few seconds. Note that animals often have Combat Reflexes, which counteracts their low IQ.
Note that certain mentally slow or mindless foes automatically lose the initiative but cannot be surprised. These usually include mindless undead. Others cannot be mentally stunned, but still must resolve initiative - constructs, IQ 0 oozes; slimes; and fungi, and "attacking" traps.
How does it work in play?
Not bad. The 1d roll isn't ideal, though, and I have some ideas for a 3d-based roll instead. It's easy to stack up obscene bonuses - a party of typical DF delvers with a leader with Tactics (+1), Born War Leader 2 (+2), Combat Reflexes (+2) rolls 1d+5, +6 if the foes are less intelligent, vs. 1d-2 for most leaderless monsters. On average, that's inflicting Total Surprise (9.5 vs. 1.5) vs. unintelligent monsters, which wasn't an intended effect. I didn't realize what using the alternate talent benefit for Born War Leader would do to the margins here. We didn't apply that early on, but once we decided to use the alternate benefits it skewed it too much. Foes with BWL are rare, non-organized creatures with Tactics are rare, and mostly the PCs surprise everyone anyway. This system before BWL was already skewed to the PCs; after, it meant the NPCs go second unless they attack from ambush when they haven't been detected and are often surprised.
I've run this a little more loosely recently, getting rid of Total Surprise unless one side was totally not expecting combat. If the roll didn't matter (i.e. the PC leader rolls a 1, and still causes automatic surprise) I didn't bother rolling.
I've been considering doing this as a two-part system - roll for initiative. Winning side goes first. Losing side leader makes an IQ roll for Mental Stun - if successful, the losing side isn't surprised but loses initiative. If the roll fails, the losing side is Partially Surprised and must make Mental Stunning rolls to recover. Basically, most of the time you lose you don't suffer Mental Stun because your leader makes the roll and you lose 0 seconds. You just go after the winning side. I may start doing this. But it doesn't take away from the "automatic victory of DF delvers vs. all monsters" issue.
I also wondered if Born War Leader shouldn't just give a +1, not a +1 per level. +1/level is steep on a 1d roll. On a 3d roll, though . . . I've got some rough notes on a replacement system, using 3d, and a wider margin needed for surprise. But I haven't really developed it out yet.
How Can I Be Stunned?
One thing about initiative is that some players don't like the idea that any party of adventurers can ever really suffer from Mental Stunning from being attacked. After all, aren't adventurers in a dungeon on the ready at all times? Sounds reasonable, except it's not so easy to stay totally ready and on guard for the unexpected at all times without losing your focus. Plus, there is the haunted house effect - you go into one expecting surprises, but people still jump when they happen. Still don't agree with the possibility of Partial Surprise? Buy Combat Reflexes, you get a +6 to your IQ roll along with all of the other stuff. That means surprise is rarely more than one second of inaction.
And the "applies to both sides" thing works here, too - if adventurers delving in a dungeon aren't ever surprised, because they are expecting trouble . . . then no denizens of the dungeon should be surprised, either. They live in a dungeon, and they know it's trouble. It's better to assume that you can't be ready for everything, that sometimes you really do get attacked and don't get off the mark instantly. That can be true even if you initiated the attack, if you weren't really 100% certain what was behind that door you kicked down.