Taking the Initiative

During my re-reading of the AD&D PHB by candelight, I was drawn to something long forgotten. To be fair, it’s been quite a while since I played AD&D, and this has very little to do with old age and impending senility. In AD&D, Initiative was a very different beast compared to that found in Third and Fourth Edition rules. Game-changingly so, in fact. What’s more, I’d argue that it’s a better system overall, and deserves re-introduction to Fourth Edition.

In 4e (and 3e, for that matter), Initiative works roughly like this:

  • At the start of combat, each player makes their own Initiative rolls, modified by DEX, one-half level and any other bonuses or penalties
  • The GM rolls for the monsters, either invididually or by grouping identical monsters at the same initiative count
  • Combatants take their actions in Initiative order, from highest to lowest
  • Combat plays out round-by-round with the same Initiative values being used unless something interrupts the flow of the rounds. If you’re on Initiative count 15 in Round One, you’re at Initiative count 15 in Round Nine.

AD&D is somewhat different. Here’s the basic rules:

  • Each round, the players collectively declare their actions and the GM decides the monsters’ actions
  • THEN initiative is rolled on one d10 for each side
  • Lowest roll goes first. Both sides take their actions in whatever order they want on their Initiative count
  • On the next combat round, it all begins again – players declare their actions, Initiative is rolled, etc.

AD&D adds a few optional rules to the mix including using weapon speeds and other modifiers so that party members can modify that single group d10 roll and act individually. While weapon speeds add a degree of tactical realism to the game – a dagger is faster than a battle axe, for example, and that may be a consideration for weapon choice – it only works if the GM uses it for monsters too, and it gives “unarmed” clawing and biting monsters (weapon speed 0) an unfair advantage in combat. AD&D also suggests (horror of horrors!) the players rolling individual Initiative, but only if there’s a small and manageable number of foes to deal with.

Stripped to the bone though, the AD&D Initiative system is deceptively brilliant. It encourages the party to plan their tactics as a group, and re-rolling Initiative round-by-round simulates the chaotic ebb-and-flow of battle. In one round the monsters may seem to have the upper hand (rolling well for Initiative) and so be able to carry out their plan, while the next round the tables could be turned and the players gain the advantage by rolling low. I guess it helps that a combat round in AD&D lasted a full minute, as opposed to 4e and 3e’s blink-and-you’ll-miss-it six second combat rounds. A whole minute is sufficient time to plan and put it into action. The Fighter might want to charge forward, but is told to hold back and let the Mage cast his Fireball first and the Ranger pepper the Orcs with arrows before he attacks. If they win initiative, the plan works. If they don’t, the Orcs might well have a few tricks of their own to show off first (hint: never trust an Orc stood beside a lever. Ever.).

Classic D&D comes somewhere in between the two, oddly enough. In both Mentzer and Moldvay D&D, each side rolls a single d6 with the highest result taking their actions first – but the players don’t need to declare their actions before initiative is rolled, and the initiative is re-rolled each round. I quite like AD&D’s prescribed “declare what you’re going to do, then roll to see if you get there first” approach.

Surprise rounds, incidentally, work much the same across all editions. The surpriser has the drop on the surprisee, and gets a free round of actions before the turn-by-turn round begin. In AD&D, the attacker also gets a +1 to their attack round in that all important surprise round (an early precursor to combat advantage, perhaps). Gaining surprise is not something to be sniffed at when you’re 1st level with only 6 hit points to your name.

All of which got me wondering. What would happen if you transplanted the AD&D Initiative system right into 4e D&D? It would look something like this:

  • Combat rounds are 1 minute in length. This makes much more sense than the 4e character/monster’s ability to take a major, minor, move and unlimited free actions each and every six seconds. Changing the timescale changes nothing mechanically, but it gives more believable time for spells to be cast, PCs to move 30′ in the hubbub of combat, etc.
  • Each round, the players collectively declare their actions and the GM decides the monsters’ actions
  • THEN initiative is rolled on one d20 for each side. Each player (and group of monsters) modifies their sides’ roll by their own initiative modifier and any other bonuses or penalties
  • Highest roll goes first, counting down. All participants take their actions on their Initiative count
  • On the next combat round, it all begins again – players declare their actions, Initiative is rolled, etc.

What we get is a system where the players are more likely to work as a team rather than wandering around the battlefield doing their individual thing and occassionally calling for healing or support. A PC (or monster) with a high initiative bonus still gets to act ahead of the slowpokes, and a high or low Initiative roll rewards (or penalizes for dramatic effect) that side as a whole. Re-rolling Initiative round-by-round adds back a degree of chaotic uncertainty back into combat – that Spell the Wizard cast might well last until the Wizard’s next turn, but you’re no longer entirely sure when that will be!

It also means that the GM can plan ahead. Perhaps in Round One the Orcs will charge forward while the Goblins hang back and use Ranged weapons. Your Dragon could have a set-move sequence (Grab, fly and drop is always a favourite) that takes several rounds to complete, or an Epic Wizard could be busy over the first five Combat Rounds completing his Epic Ritual – unless your PCs prevent him, of course.

I suspect that combat will flow more quickly in 4e using this system, and the game feel more dynamic than it is using the existing “fixed at the start of combat” initiative system.

Time to grab the dice and test this out, methinks…….

12 Comments on “Taking the Initiative”

  1. I’ve definitely thought of going to the old system, but for two problems:

    1) It will make combat take longer since that style of initiative is more involved.

    2) If monsters or PC’s got to go twice before the other party due to die rolls…death would happen quicker. Healing might not happen after a particularly brutal attack etc.

    I think for this to work it’d have to be with individual initiative rolls. I always loved weapons speed. Perhaps with people using computers more and more it woudln’t be an issue.

    1. It will take five combat rounds before the players have rolled the same number of initiative dice as you roll under the current system (assuming 5 PCs, that is). The GM’s number of rolls depends entirely on the number monster groups, of course.

      So in theory, it’s quicker for shorter battles. In practise I suspect that it’ll we a wash, but the emphasis on group decisions and (as you quite rightly say) more brutal attacks by monsters with lucky init rolls should improve overall combat speed.

      At least with 4e D&D the PCs have a reasonable buffer of hit points to work with. A solid surprise attack could really bring on the pain though – not necessarily a bad thing, imho :)

  2. I like the effect you are going for with the proposed, retro-influenced initiative. The danger is a declared action for a player is no longer possible: I want to cast magic missile at the ork – and then ork is dead when that player’s turn comes up. What, if any, is the penalty for committing to an action your PC can’t take? Can they switch targets? This is still the case with modern initiative, but since nothing is declared, they can pick an appropriate action at no penalty.

    Overall, I think that bringing the planning to the beginning of the round is a sound idea. I’m interested to hear what your experience is once you play-test it.

    1. Actually in the early editions of D&D HP was not totaled until the end of everyones turn. Ergo a mob with 1 HP could be swarmed by 3 folks who all total their damage during the round. At the end of the round the DM says “Monster X falls due to his massive wounds!”. It was good because it meant both sides got to act in a round, and also everyone got to share in the glory of the kill!

      Later editions came along and used the interuption method so that when your HP = 0 you fell immediately.

      There was something sort of cool about the a totally at the end of a round. It meant that if you started the round, you finished the round. But, as noted, actions were declared prior to rolling inititive which was a big key to this style.

      Good Post! Very nostalgic!

  3. Just a point I feel needs attention…what stops a monster from just hitting and shifting back each round? If the monster is lucky and gets the Initiative, a melee combatant (Such as a Rogue or Barbarian) doesn’t get to swing. Do they lose the power they wanted to use? Doesn’t this make life easier on ranged combatants and possibly very frustrating for anyone on the front line? I think the same people who wander off now will wander off in your new system, and people with a predilection to fight as a team will still fight as a team. Also readying, delaying and refocusing are all ways you can change initiative in the middle of a fight and make that combat a little more dynamic. I don’t dispute it would make combat uncertain and a little more random, (definately adding an oldschool feel) but I don’t think it’ll speed combat up.

    1. > what stops a monster from just hitting and shifting back each round?

      They can use the same tactic right now. That’s why the Fighter class gets the Combat Challenge to prevent that kind of behaviour (they get a free basic attack against any marked adjacent enemy who shifts, or makes an attack against another foe).

      Ideally, tactics should be expressed in general (or role-playing) terms, not specific game terms. “I’ll attack the Orcs while the Mage takes out the Goblins at the back” gives enough flexibility without over-committing. If all the Orcs are somehow defeated before your hero gets to act… I dunno, make an INT check to refocus?

      We’ll see, during the playtest.

      Suggestions welcome!

  4. I also like hoe casting times and other things with duration fit seamlessly into this system. If you use the d10 you’ll have 6 second segments, a d6 10 second in a minute. If a mage gets a modified 3 on a d6, he’ll go after 30 seconds and a 2 segment casting time means that spell goes off at the 50 second mark, giving someone a decent chance at interrupting him. Movement could wind up the same way, I guess. It always seemed incongruous that initiative set the order at which characters then took a number of instantaneous actions.

  5. I followed the Moldvay system, rolling a particular d6 for most of my gaming life. That translucent green die was absolute murder. I could command it to roll a 1 and go first practically at will. The players feared that die.

    I like individual initiative because it splits things up. It makes it easier for the battle to be dynamic as different foes and PCs interact. It also lets the DM run the combat better. When three of my monsters go on the same init I wince… and often have one of them delay.

    I do know a DM that runs combat similarly to the AD&D way. Reactions are mixed.

    All that aside, I do really like the idea of having a moment to think about group tactics. That would help new players in deadly encounters, so they can focus their actions and get on the same page. Good stuff.

  6. One thing I didn’t like about using a d20 for initiative was that there was so much swing potential in the die roll that it reduced the impact of modifiers to initiative. For my latest iteration of d20 I went to d6 + DEX bonus.

    I do like the idea of declare then roll. I would give something like a -2 penalty to switch targets, though making a check might work also. It would give me an excuse use Alertness more with skills, like Melee/Alertness to switch targets.

    The one down side of the declare and roll every round is that it could eat up time. I would put a limit on how long the players can take to declare their actions.

    Drats… now I have to go and revisit my initiative rules.

  7. Interesting. Remember that adding takes time too, so even though there’s one roll for the party, each person has to add their modifier and then adjudicate the resulting order. The actual rolling is the quick part; putting everybody in order is less so.

    I do like the idea though. That chaotic system would make very interesting dynamics with conditions (as has been said), especially ongoing damage. A monster may be dazed, and then shake out of it before the party can take advantage of it. Another time it could be nearly 2 rounds of the effect before a chance to save.

    I think it’d slow down combat in my group a lot, but I’m very curious to hear results of playtesting in 4e.

  8. Having played both systems, I’ll definitely agree that the old-school system has merits – it encourages team-based tactics, and increases the “chaotic” feel of combat. Both at the cost of increased resolution time.

    1) Declarations take time – even if you don’t declare as a DM (which players will complain about), you’re adding an extra 0-100% of each player’s turn. In the best case scenario, they take the exact action they declared, and use no more time than they would in the modern system. In the worst case scenario, they have to come up with an entirely new tactic, effectively doubling the decision time.
    2) You’re moving 1/combat mechanics to 1/round mechanics. Rolling dice and sorting combatants into order takes time – and unless your average combat length is only 1 round, you’re going to take more time. Yes, combining initiative by groups can offset the cost, but you can combine initiative by groups in the modern system too (with more-or-less the same benefits)
    3) You might end up killing the fun – depending on the penalty for declaring an action that becomes invalid. At least a few games suggest missing your turn, and that’s never fun as a PC. Players will either make increasingly vague declarations (reducing the effects of the declaration) or you’ll have to eliminate the penalty (exacerbating issue #1 above)

    The best way I’ve found to encourage group tactics is to use group initiative (roll once for the party, use their modifiers). It reduces the chaos of battle – since the party always acts in the same order – but it definitely makes it easier to setup synergistic tactics. It also speeds up combat resolution (marginally).

    Increasing chaos typically means adding randomness, which means more dice rolls (1/round and/or 1/character), which means increasing combat resolution time. Given that 3E/4E’s primary complaint is excessive combat resolution, you’ll have to decide for yourself whether the increase is worth it. You can moderate the effect with sufficient automation: computerized initiative saves me tons of time – at the cost of players’ complaints at lack of control.

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