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, May 15, 2020

Minimalist D&D II - DITCH initiative!

Still writing my "minimalist" Dark Fantasy Hack, as we've mentioned in part I.

I tried MANY complex ways of fixing initiative in the past, as you can see in this blog - and I've found it is not especially useful, realistic or fun.

First, initiative DOES nothing. You roll a dice to see when you'll have the right to roll another dice, and then MAYBE accomplish something.

If you win initiative and miss your roll, nothing is accomplished (and you rolled twice for nothing). If you lose initiative and one side wins before your turn (or you're taken out), it is just frustrating. If a monster loses initiative and gets attacked by the whole party it can be taken out without even appearing menacing.

Of course, whoever loses initiative can at least react to everyone else's actions... which doesn't make much sense.

And when initiative does something fun - you win initiative, and you hit, AND you roll well for damage - is lots of rolls and calculations where ONE would suffice.

If you use initiative just to give some semblance of order to combat, that's understandable. But do you really want to turn combat into an orderly affair instead of something unpredictable and chaotic? Is it really a good idea?

Anyway, IF that is the case, I'd use side initiative - one "side" acts, in any order they wish, then the other side. Or just let everyone act in order of Dexterity, without even rolling.

But wait - Dexterity? Why? Why would a wizard or sorcerer need to be agile to cast a spell first? Dexterity covers a LOT of unrelated things already - picking locks, dodging, shooting arrows and (gasp!) even playing stringed instruments in 5e. Why does quick-thinking need to be included in this unholy hodgepodge?

Now, imagine a 11th level orc fighter with Dexterity 10 (in 5e for example). She can attack THREE TIMES in a turn, or SIX TIMES with action surge (seven, with light weapons). Why would the 1st level rogue with Dexterity 16 be able to attack before ANY of the seven attacks?

(In fact, 5e DOES realize this and attempts little "fixes" such as giving initiative bonuses to champions and barbarians. But this shouldn't need fixing in the first place. If you're a good fighter, you should master your timing in combat by default).

What if we inverted this rationale?

A competent fighter attacks fast. A competent wizard casts a spell before the low-level ranger can act (unless we are interrupting spells, but that's a different matter). However, the old wizard CANNOT throw a punch that quickly!

In short - how fast you act depends on what you want to do.

But then you must DECLARE what you'll do BEFORE you roll, which makes PLENTY of sense.

So, try this.

EVERYONE says what they'll do. Ogrok the barbarian attacks the dragon. Maellus prepares a spell. Melfin draws his bow while moving behind a rock. The dragon inhales, ready to breathe fire over all of you! Oh my!

NOW everyone rolls at the same time.

Ogrok rolls best! Then the dragon, Maellus and Melfin.

The barbarian flanks the dragon and attacks before it can react, causing massive damage. The dragon  breathes fire, but now the barbarian moved to the side, and he chooses to toast the barbarian instead of the rest of the party. OR: the dragon already chose where to attack (and thus cannot change the action), and burns the other two before they can act!

And what if Melfin rolled a 1? Well, he knows shooting the dragon will lead to failure, but he declared his action already. Maybe he can change it, for some price? Or maybe his roll meant he also failed his saving throw and is badly burned? Maybe he has more than one dice to roll with many attacks?

I don't know, there are many specifics to think of.

But, overall, this kind of combat feels faster, more chaotic, real... and fun.


  1. It's reported that this was how it was in some very, very old games of D&D: no polite exchanging of blows -- highest attack landed first.

    This is also how it was in 1E WEG Star Wars, and it was great -- of course, in a dice pool game, there are more meaningful choices to make than simply hoping your d20 lands on "20".

    I've been reading the recently re-published The Fantasy Trip by SJG. I like the initiative system it uses. Side initiative for movement (which is the first phase of every round, and the winner can decide to move first OR last), then resolve attacks (including magic) in Dex order. (There's only Str, Dex & IQ, and spells require Dex rolls to land, so it's reasonable.)

    For large D&D battles (and I mean battles that look more like historical open-field battles than sewer skirmishes), I prefer side initiative, then break it down into ranged, magic & melee phases. I've found that really makes it FEEL like a medieval battle that way.

    1. "Highest attack landed first" seems very flavorful and fun to me.

      I like the older, stricter, "old school" initiative too. Feels more "real" than the one used by WotC, and agree that it would make more sense in large battles:

  2. I ran a game without initiative for a while. It was very much a dungeon crawl style game, and it went well.

    I found that having any order to resolution to be extra work, so switched to everything resolving simultaneously. Even if a character or creature died, their action still took effect. Combatants could kill each other in the same round.

    1. I like the idea of "everything resolving simultaneously", feels grittier, more chaotic.

  3. I like initiative somewhat because it adds a bit of randomness to the combat. I hate the idea of everyone going in their turn by DEX. Same order every round.

    Also the whole thing makes more sense back in the day when rounds were a minute long and the whole thing was somewhat stylized instead of seeming to be one swing per attack.

  4. It would be interesting to have fast combat:
    (1) Everyone attacks simultaneously. Yes you might pick the order of who rolls first but you can't 'kill' your opponent before they have a chance to strike.
    (2) Your damage is determined by how far above the number to beat you rolled. Need a 15 and roll a 20 you do 5 damage. One roll... The only problem is that doesn't take into account different weapons and I like having a battleaxe do more damage than a butter knife.

    1. Yes, you see, I appreciate the randomness too, but I dislike the endless dice-rolling. So maybe do something like you suggested here; initiative+attack+ damage in a single roll.

  5. Going by the order people sit around the table is my goto method. I mainly use group initiative for traditional reasons. If feel it adds nothing.

  6. We ditched initiative after playing too many games with Fast Actions, Delayed Actions etc that became too boardgamey - which is a different kind of immersion. The better the group get at declaration, the easier the interpretation is.

    1. That is a good point. The group must get used to the idea of declaring actions/intentions without waiting for their turns.

      "Waiting for your turn" is a bit boring by default, really...

  7. Also, if you run "theater of the mind", then ditching initiative becomes even easier because you can just take everyone's declarations (like a waiter taking food orders) and resolve their actions in the way that make the most sense to you, the DM. Requires high trust, naturally.