I must create a system, or be enslaved by another man's. I will not reason and compare: my business is to create.

- William Blake

Friday, June 29, 2018

Old school initiative is the BEST initiative

As you might know, my favorite types of D&D are BX and 5e - because I find them to be the easiest ones. I'm not really into AD&D (or 3e/4e for that matter) becasue I find it to be needlessly complex with its tables, weapon speed, strange XP charts, etc (most AD&D fans usually reply that they weren't using most of the rules anyway).

Which means: when it comes to D&D, I usually prefer to err on the side of simplicity.

Now, one thing I actually like in old school D&D that is a lot MORE COMPLEX than WotC D&D is the intricate initiative system that we see in AD&D (and probably OD&D, BX etc, although AD&D is more detailed - there is a famous 20-page document trying to make it SIMPLER). Although it might be unclear and not easy to understand, the ideas behind the system are in many ways a lot more intuitive - and sensible - that anything WotC has used in their games.

Modern D&D initiative is mostly an abstraction without footing in the real (or fictional) world. It often feels "fake" or artificial - even tough I find it good enough to just ignore most of the time. This has nothing to do with "Greyhawk initiative", BTW, who feel more gimmicky than real IMO, although its goal is probably the same as mine.

Old school initiative, on the other hand, tries to reflect what would REALLY happen in a battle. To see what I'm saying, try to picture a fight. Not necessarily in a boxing ring, but IN YOUR IMAGINATION - maybe with monsters, and spells, and swords, and missiles.

First, the parties would see one another and quickly EVALUATE the other side (are they approaching fast? Are they scared? this is the declaration phase, BTW). Distance would be vital - if they're close enough, the thief might stab the enemy wizard before he draws his magic wand. If one side is using bows, they might get a shot or two if they are far enough, but once the other side closes in... the bow is nearly useless. If parties are reasonably far, one side may choose to flee before the other side can reach them - unless the other side has bows or spells. If both want to fight, who moves first doesn't matter - its all about who strikes first. One could always say a few words before getting pursued and hit, but a spells might take a few seconds to perform - can the barbarian reach the Wizard before his allies are hit by a fireball? And so on.

This is what initiative is for - the action, the tension, the tactics, the randomness and unpredictably.

Most modern initiative mechanics have no function in the fiction: there is no reason why the dexterous character should act before someone who is smarter or more attentive, for example, and there are mechanical incentives to do things that would make no sense in the real (or fictional) word, such as staying 35 feet away from you opponent for the fear he might approach and attack before you do anything at all.

Of course, the upside of new school initiative is that it is really easy - just roll a dice and see who goes first. Arguably, they might be easily replaced with a coin toss with no significant loss. And, to be honest, that would be alright - make it so simple that it doesn't get in the way.

Anyway, let me illustrate my point to be clearer.

Imagine your PC is a soldier of the blue faction, walking down a road. The GM says: "you see a red soldier turning a corner... you're 30 feet away from him... roll initiative!"

PC: "15!"

GM: "He rolled 19! He walk to you and attacks you three times!"

PC: "Huh... okay".

Some situations can get even more ridiculous. Say you can move 30 feet, for example, and you're 50 feet away from your enemy, both with no ranged weapons. Nobody wants to approach first - since this means you cannot hit your enemy but your enemy will be able to hit you, even if you're holding a long sword and he is holding a dagger.

Or imagine your enemy is prone (in 5e): if he wins initiative, he can stand up, walk to you, and attack you a couple of times before you can do anything.

Not to mention silly things such as the infinite line of fighters: fighter A moves and strikes fighter B, who then moves and strikes C, "ad nauseam", covering the space of a mile in six seconds.

How should an actual fight go?

If both sides want to fight, both should approach at the same time. Then they would exchange blows. Any side with ranged weapons might have a change to attack. The longest melee weapons will always attack first. Complex actions - such as moving 30 feet, than attacking four times, then casting a cantrip with a bonus action - would be broke down into smaller components - maybe you can move 10 feet before your opponent shoots you with an arrow, for example.

But... this would be TOO complicated, right?

Well, we will see in the next post.

(Thanks Telecanter for the silhouettes).


  1. great stuff
    i guess it is why adnd had segments or rounds also

    1. Yeah, segments rounds etc make plenty of sense... the difficult part is making them simple!

  2. A couple solutions to the "who goes first?" problem in D&D come to mind:

    1) Allow players to add their weapon's proficiency bonus to their armor class, similar to the Defense Bonus from 3.5. This more accurately simulates a skilled warrior's ability to parry, block, and dodge blows.

    2) Combat is resolved as a series of skill contests: No matter which side has the initiative, both combatants roll 1d20 with proficiency bonus + other attack modifiers. High roll then inflicts damage if the modified roll exceeded the opponent's AC.

    In both cases melee is represented as a simultaneous exchange of blows/parries/grapples etc. during the combat round, and initiative becomes less important.

    1. A curious idea... it would make combat faster and more exciting, at least.

  3. If one has missile weapons they just attack until the target has closed the distance or taken cover. If they close the distance, you roll initiative when they are in melee range. That's how I'd do it, fairly simple.

    1. Yeah, I'm looking for something like that too: simple and sensible at the same time.

  4. You mentioned in other posts that the initiative system was turning out to be fairly fiddly. Reading a bit of Pathfinder 2nd edition, and I wonder if their streamlining of Pathfinder action economy may be useful for you.

    They give everyone 3 actions, I main action, 1 secondary action, and 1 reaction. Movement between actions is free. Spellcasters spend actions to modify their spell effects. So Cure Wounds could be a Touch Spell, a Ranged Single Target Spell, or all Allies within a radius spell depending on if you spend 1,2, or all 3 of your actions.

    For a 5e game, you could take the spell casting idea more or less as is, with higher level spell slots upping power of the spell, while actions spent "shape" the spell. While it would probably be a lot of work to do, perhaps it could work to use this to condense the spell list where most healing spells are combined into one Heal spell that is modified by spell level and actions spent.

    For martials, perhaps the Greater action becomes the weapon attack action, so all Extra attacks are added to it. The Lesser action can be used for a second attack for TWF, Skill actions (Shoves and Grapples), or perhaps give range a 2nd attack. Reactions can be spent on an attack of opportunity, or a 3rd ranged attack.

    If I were to use such a system, I would be tempted to throw in the dynamic initiative that allows for everyone's actions to overlap.

    The only thing I am not a fan of here is that ranged characters get a high number of attacks per round. It makes intuitive sense, but it might rub people the wrong way.

    Hope this helps!

    1. Doesn't seem like I can easily edit my above post, but a thought I had to potentially mitigate the advantages of ranged combat is to get rid of adding ability attributes to damage, as well as any "power shot" options (-5/+10 to damage). If you want to get high damage, get into the thick of things, otherwise you stick to range and shoot at people.

    2. Pathfinder 2nd edition has some interesting stuff, but TBH is too fiddly for my tastes. You mention some cool ideas - the difficult part is turning it into a cohesive, simple rule-set.

      I completely agree with the -5/+10 thing BTW. Should be limited to melee. Ranged weapons are a bit overpowered in 5e IMO.

    3. I agree that Pathfinder 2e would be fiddly, but I think the 3 action idea works well for spells (imagine getting closer to the 1 page spell list summary), and it could make martial combat more dynamic, since if the 2 "on turn" actions trigger at different points in the initiative order, then combat feels more real time.

      Maybe it would be too much to make Speed Boost features like Fast Movement 15' instead of 10' and make 1/3rd of your movement shift cost 1 point on the initiative track to make running at someone costly, and to make monks and barbarians really mobile in the now more chaotic battle environment (15' would make them 45' movement or 15' per point of initiative rather than the standard 10', but 5' steps for positions are still doable).

      Another thought from the martial side would be to tie your idea of balancing weapons and making weapon properties tables. "Great" weapons can only be used with Greater Actions, and hit hard. "Balanced" weapons can be used with both actions, but can only be wielded 1 at a time (No dual wielding long swords. Light weapons can be used to get a Reaction attack on a critical hit. Perhaps two Light weapons can allow for both weapons to be used in the Reaction attack (Can't say what the numbers on that are like). From the Dual wielder Fighting Styles and Feat, one gains the advantage of +1 AC and bonus damage to offhand attack, plus perhaps a Rend Attack if you land both attacks on one target. Perhaps fold the Double Reaction attack into the Feat (for your Rogue).

      Anyways I'm a bit off topic now, but this stuff sort of weaves together. If I can summarise this ramble, I like the idea of "3 actions" because I think one can tie it into both spell casting and martial combat in a way that self reinforces the structure of combat and initiative makes definitive differences in how martials and casters approach combat, and also makes weapon combat feel different as well.

      I guess since you've read this far, I suggest the idea to drop static bonuses to damage and instead use a table of (3/5)* Stat mod+0.5 = die average. This formula is developed by saying let a STR 20 character get +3, indicating they add 1d6 to all STR based damage rolls, which caps out at +1d12 for those that get 30 in a given stat. Because for me, rolling more dice is fun, and adding a static number is boring.

      That's all for now.

    4. A lot of stuff to unpack there, but I think you're on to something... The hardest part is making all of this easy to use during the game.

    5. I can try and write up a more comprehensive post and post on Giantitp where formatting can be done better.

    6. Leave the link here if you do!

  5. Link: http://www.giantitp.com/forums/showthread.php?569840-Murder-and-Mayhem-A-more-Dynamic-Combat-system-for-5e

    The only feedback I got is "too complicated", but I personally feel that a summary table plus use would make it work well. Plus it (to me) gives Bonus actions a more natural feel to them.

    1. Interesting stuff! Greater/Lesser actions are a good idea IMO. I"m writing a new post on initiative, will address this issue briefly.


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