Building a Better D&D

Surprise!  It's time for initiative!


The 1st Edition AD&D surprise and initiative systems for combat are clearly complicated. Overly complicated. Unnecessarily complicated. In any 1E game I run the foremost changes I’ll want to make will involve altering initiative (well, surprise too). Can the 1E method be used? Yes. People do all the time. My question is why would you really want to? Other than to fly your geek flag what advantage is there to using it? Surely a far simpler system can at least replicate the same results if not improve upon the whole affair - and that's the point of the project.  I may have covered some of this already but this entry finally brings a lot of things together and presents my solutions.

What the Problems Are

I tried once - once - to actually run a 1E game "by the book" for surprise and initiative. It was an effort which did NOT last long. Not until DMPrata drafted A.D.D.I.C.T. (A&D Initiative and Combat Table) was I able again, or even willing to try and sort out all the crap that composes the 1E system. But with citations that document is 20 pages. Even without citations it's 6 pages. Clearly that is stupidly excessive.  That's not ADDICT's fault - it's 1E's fault.  It's the fault of whoever talked Gary into putting it in there or who read the DMG manuscript and failed to tell him to get that shit together. I resolved to get it all down to ONE page of 12-point single-space outline. I did so. THEN I hit it with the mighty Hammer of Simplification and Reason.  There were obviously some changes and "sacrifices" made but each such decision had good reasoning and cogent contemplation behind it. So, let me declare where I think the issues lie with the original system:

First thing I'm going to mention is Weapon Speed Factors (WSF). They are hopelessly, genuinely not realistic. At best they do not deserve to refer to weapon "speed". In real-world combat reach is generally far more significant an advantage than “inherent speed” of a weapon, and weapon speed as indicated in the combat system appears to conform to the mistaken perception that smaller = faster. My understanding is that just isn’t true; either from either a physics perspective or from a practical perspective. At the very least it doesn’t translate to advantage in the way the system seems to want you to think it does. Medieval warfare was generally conducted with swords, war axes and maces, not daggers or darts.  Gary may have said it best:

"Aargh!  Forget weapon speed factors. I must have been under the effect of a hex when I included them in the bloody rules."

In any case, weapon speed is a tie-breaker in AD&D initiative - it isn’t even a primary determination of who goes first. Who goes first is overwhelmingly a matter of random chance. Even if you foolishly assume that WSF’s are reasonable and accurate they aren’t the predominant controlling factor that they ought to be - they are a strictly secondary check made after purely random chance has failed to assign one attack a preemptive position over the other. To give WSF real meaning in D&D it really should be used before random chance to determine the order of resolution. As written it really is just more of a deliberate means of obfuscation and a convenient, but meritless widget being used in arcane ways.

A second problem is that missile weapons do not have speeds in D&D the way that melee weapons do - they only have rates of fire. Rates that, again, are simply not at all grounded in reality given the 1 minute length of the combat round. Arbitrary rules and strained suspension of disbelief are then necessary to attempt to determine an order of resolution of actions; to find when a missile hits as opposed to a melee weapon hit or a spell is completed.  2nd Edition perhaps oversimplified things but at least sensibly assigned ALL weapons a speed factor for those who intended to use that as an adjustment in initiative.

Speaking of spells, they list casting times of "specific" durations, albeit as segments. Now a segment really is just a widget. Though it can be said to be a specific length of time (and since the PH states there are 10 in a 1 minute round they are capable of being defined as 6 seconds in length, but it's never said, "Each segment lasts 6 seconds") its only real use is for determining initiative order. Nothing else in the combat system happens according to a specified period of time – it’s all supposed to be vague and non-committal. Two fighters swing swords at each other for the entire duration of the round, but exactly how much time passes before the actual attack roll comes is not measured – it’s simply determined which combatant's "best attack" is to be resolved first. It’s an order of resolution which disregards the passage of actual time. Likewise, missile weapons. A longbow fires twice in a round but normally the system doesn't determine on what clock tick those attacks occur – it only determines whether it or another attack is resolved first or afterward. Spells, however, have casting times listed in segments, which again according to the PH should be equal to 6 seconds.

To fit spellcasting into the initiative system it compares the measurable time of segments against pips on a die which otherwise equal no set unit of time at all since the "winner" of initiative is generally just the higher number (and the die only goes up to 6 - not 10, so it's not as if the die is randomly assigning one of the 10 segments in a round). Does this make the pips equal to actual segments, or does it do the opposite - invalidate segments as actual time which instead become undefined, random-die pip equivalents? Fighting with melee weapons is stated clearly to assume vigorous, but unspecified movements including attacks that are assumed to be taken but whose results are ineffective and therefore ignored. Instead, just one of many attacks is assigned a chance to “injure” the opponent and that one attack represents the culmination of ALL the "attacks" of that 1 minute round. Spellcasters, however, don’t cast spell after spell in a single round with just one spell being given a representative chance for effect (and missile users similarly do not fire missile after missile with just one or two being given chance to damage opponents). You ALWAYS get one chance to cast just one spell per round and no amount of increased speed or magic item effect has ever given AD&D spellcasters the ability to cast more than one spell per round (not until 3rd Edition came along was that barrier broken and even then it's a rare thing). Accordingly, the most bizarre means of initiative determination were devised to account for spells, details and descriptions for which were spread everywhere and written so inconclusively they are still argued over today (there may never be a single solution; in fact, a single, widely acknowledged interpretation is likely impossible).

The way spells were handled in initiative meant that in many games which attempt to adhere closely to the system as written fewer spells are even attempted much less are successfully cast in combat. Even if the spellcasters side won initiative the opposing side could still strike a spellcaster first. The system was clearly geared to keep spellcasters idle in combat, or at least minimally successful. In my opinion the system as written is only a fun sponge for spellcasters, pretending to be reasonably formulated to balance their great spell powers but really just an obtuse chunk of rules-for-the-sake-of-rules with spellcasting as the whipping boy. Yes, spells are powerful, but not THAT powerful and are always limited in number unlike weapon attacks. In any case, if spells were deemed so overpowered and requiring stiff "balancing" factors it would have been FAR better to revise the spells and their spell levels to fit rather than just nerf spellcasting across the board. [Note that spell descriptions and lists should still be revised for those reasons, but that's a rather massive project in and of itself.]

Lastly, 1st and 2nd editions had the interesting, but cumbersome approach of declaring intended actions, and then determining initiative. As near as I can deduce this was only necessary because of the backwards-assed, convoluted nature of the initiative system itself. Specifically, it was necessary to declare spellcasting and state exactly what spell was being attempted because the “casting time” had to be used as a factor in the otherwise random determination of order of attack resolution. Having initiative re-determined each round was a solidly random element – but it is therefore the ONLY element that was practical and meaningful despite the addition of intricate means of handling ties in initiative order. There was otherwise no reason that declaration needed to be, or should be done prior to determining initiative. Even if you still wanted spell casting times to factor in, it feels to me that it shouldn't be necessary to declare them first because of the issues that the method of declaration-then-resolution-in-random-order creates.

Where It Can Be Improved

I must openly state that 3rd Edition had a far superior surprise/initiative approach for D&D.  NOT perfect mind you, but definitely superior.

Simpler is better.  It's easier to explain, for newbies to understand, and leaves less room for the nitpicking rules lawyers to twist and torture the written word to create new ways of mucking things up. Forget all the complicated incorporations of weapon speeds, special case determinations, and so forth.  Roll a die, add a few minimal modifiers and then just proceed in order.

Greater granularity in the die roll itself increases the smoother functionality of the system and eliminates the need for excessive tiebreaking and the silly, complex, yet still heavily random means of resolving it. Moving from a d6 to a d10 in 2E, and then the d20 in 3E meant that modifiers to the roll had a less drastic, overstated effect and the random element itself was increasingly elevated in importance.  Even ties were more readily resolved or simply left to stand as ties. All the complications from 1E were made optional rules or dropped entirely and regardless of whatever other effects it had, the procedure became fast, efficient and above all sensible.

I've decided to use a d12. Why a d12? First, d12’s need to see some use. Second, modifiers adapt well from the original d6 roll. Third, it provides plenty of granularity while still allowing occasional simultaneity making it a good compromise between the extremes of 1st and 3rd editions.

In the 1E DMG Gary wrote about why a 1 minute round was settled on, stressing deliberate avoidance of realism and embracing the simplicity of an indefinite system. Yet he also makes the demonstrably contradictory statement: “One minute rounds are devised to offer the maximum of choice with a minimum of complication.” MINIMUM of complication? Even A.D.D.I.C.T.'s pared-down 6 pages is not a minimum of complication – it is wallowing in complication, plus is still debated in some of its conclusions.

Anyway, it sure seems to me that a shorter duration round enlivens combat as a tactical game and reduces issues with suspension of disbelief and realism. Shortening the duration of the round made movement of scale miniatures more meaningful: positioning on the battlefield became important and you couldn’t reach all points on the tabletop/battlefield in a single round.

Some have lamented that these sorts of changes increase dependency on miniatures and maps or grids and that this changed the nature of the game. Maybe so, and maybe you believe that that's bad. I can tell you that from Day 1 and all through playing 1E and 2E, I and those I gamed with could tell there was a more interesting tactical combat game locked inside AD&D attempting to claw its way out. Looking back, our house rules for combat seem to have always been an attempt at freeing that tactical game from the strangling vestigial roots of tabletop wargaming, and the needless complexity and incomprehensible structure that is the 1E system. Furthermore, when I began playing D&D in 1976 with the Basic rules (Holmes) we were already using map grids and miniatures and never stopped. Though it makes no attempt to require them it's mentioned clearly in AD&D that a grid and miniatures were indeed used. It is because D&D grew out of tabletop miniatures wargames that the DMG addresses itself, albeit briefly and superficially, to matters regarding the use of miniatures.

Many people played D&D without miniatures at all. I actually think it's great that that can be done, but to fight against inclusion of rules that embrace miniatures is to deny plain facts about where the game came from and how its creators thought that it would be played (and indeed how they played it themselves). D&D/AD&D is and always was meant to feature miniatures to some degree.  For D&D it was assumed that the players were already somewhat familiar with miniatures wargaming and one edition (though I forget which) even recommended the use of the Outdoor Survival board game to substitute for otherwise absent movement rules.  I realize my experience at the time I first started playing is different than the experiences of many others [just so you know I started, as I said, with Holmes basic having no familiarity with wargaming or D&D prior to that point and then within a few short months began migrating to AD&D as those hardcover rules were released over the next three years, and as we managed to figure out how to mix or replace various elements], but I take a certain pride in knowing that Gary Gygax himself declined to use many of the arcane and inhibitory systems that he had felt obligated to include in the 1E rules. Initiative, as I understand, was one of those systems. I also take seriously his notation in the DMG that,

"As the author I also realize that there are limits to my creativity and imagination. Others will think of things I didn’t, and devise things beyond my capability."

I don't know how or where Gary came up with the AD&D initiative system but I understand that it was one of many parts included in the game only by request. Gary thought little enough of it, preferring something much simpler. Accordingly I find it not just permissible but expected that a new, better way be devised rather than beat ones head against the system as written in the DMG.  To each his own.

I also have come to believe that 3E actually did swing the pendulum too far. Looking back on it now I can see that 3E cyclic initiative was TOO regular and reliable. Although over the course of a combat there was virtually no mechanical difference between cyclic and round-by-round initiative (outcomes remained the same) I personally began to strongly miss the unpredictability of the round-to-round change in order. Cyclic initiative becomes repetitious, even tedious. Some of those arbitrary, random elements and complications actually need to be reintroduced.

Changes I've made here do allow spellcasters an advantage of... debatable value (at least as far as 1E hardliners would believe). It allows them to decide, based upon immediately knowing the initiative result prior to their turn whether or not they wish to try to cast a spell - but I believe this is sensible, logical and hardly as disturbing to the 1E "natural order" as they might think. Spellcasters are in combat and should have the same capacity to judge for themselves the chances of nearby combatants hitting them before they can complete a spell, just as melee combatants can gauge whether or not they should anticipate taking damage prior to completing their own attacks.  For the spellcaster the consequences are more significant and thus they might even be more aware of the situation in that regard. Any damage that a spellcaster takes in a round prior to completing his spell, whether or not he is actually in the process of casting, will prevent spellcasting in that round due to disrupted concentration but should not then prevent other actions any more than it would for ANY other character who takes damage prior to their turn. As far as melee goes in the original system we ARE talking about a full round's worth of forward, ho, parry, dodge, spin, thrust, SPANG!  Only one attack out of the full minute of activity has a chance to hit.  Casters are already at a disadvantage by-the-book in that even after "winning" initiative they might still go later than their opponents, and are otherwise subjected to every possible attack before they can hope to get a spell off.  This method just simplifies the process of spellcasting during combat with regard to initiative and thus gives a SLIGHT advantage to casters by eliminating the declaration step, making the winning initiative die roll more of a guarantee of preemptive action.  Casters otherwise still take the same risk of losing a spell from memory if they choose to attempt to complete a spell but are struck while actually casting, but obviously without having to commit to a spell prior to initiative the chances of losing a spell are much reduced even if the chances of successfully completing a spell in a round are very much the same.

Attempting to use percentages for surprise abilities when the system is simply NOT intended nor designed to handle it that way in the first place was bad form (perhaps even for an ignorant, novice game designer). Gary, et al. probably should have known better by the time 1E came to be.  All the special case monsters and subtle class abilities should have simply prompted the creation of a wholly new system (and thus initiative would possibly have been properly re-written as well).  But I suppose that if you're acting as DM and you're tossing out and ignoring the more pointlessly complex systems anyway then you have little motivation to fix this sort of silliness in your role as a designer/publisher (and of course Gary was already on the outs at TSR by the time 2E came around, if I understand correctly). I see three ways to handle the issue.  First you could convert it all to percentages from start to finish of PH, MM and DMG and run surprise with percentiles.  (I believe this is what ADDICT actually does.)  Second; you could just make it all conform to the d6 roll which the game started with in the first place and stop trying to handle it with exceptions, though a simple d6 doesn't handle any subtleties very well.  Third; use another die type to allow for the wider range of adjustments that seems to be desired. As noted previously I decided to use the d12.

There's also the matter of what takes place in the surprise round.  Mechanically, the AD&D system makes the surprise round a staggeringly important part of an entire battle.  With so many attacks possible to inflict upon an enemy without them able to stop or even mitigate it, damage can be massively racked up, mostly with melee, only slightly less so with missiles, and spellcasting having a more limited contribution.  I have to confess that I personally have never really run or played AD&D with such generous surprise round capacities.  I see every reason to limit it to just one round's worth of  "free" attacks, not orders of magnitude more attacks.  Surprise should be a clear and very valuable advantage but even if you assume a much shorter duration round it shouldn't be THAT much of an advantage; so many unanswerable attacks.

Anyway, the common surprise adjustments to the d12 adapted directly from the existing classes and monsters would be:

According to AD&D rules (or at least according to A.D.D.I.C.T.) the ability to BE surprised less often applies to an entire side even if just one individual possesses that ability, though surprising others more often does not, as such, apply to everyone on a side.  This is still true, perhaps even more so because in my revised system the condition of surprise always applies to an entire side.  There will not normally be a time, for example, when a PC cleric is surprised but the PC ranger is not (unless the DM is choosing to implement individual surprise results, but that's strictly the optional way).  The ranger may improve the chances of his side achieving surprise and reduce the chances of his side being surprised.  Surprise is just one rounds worth of activity whereas AD&D had it as one round of melee attacks PER SEGMENT of surprise.  That introduced not only complications regarding what could be done to whom because people would become "unsurprised" during the surprise portion of combat, but as I noted, could be highly unbalancing when melee combatants managed large adjustments to surprise and could make a long, relentless series of attacks upon surprised opponents.  So, by simply keeping it a condition to apply to the entire side (as was otherwise largely done) and limiting it to just one rounds worth of attacks you eliminate the complicated determinations of action and timing.  You also establish a greater sense of balance to the advantage of surprise - an advantage worthy of extra effort to achieve, but not the "I Win!" button it could sometimes be.

DM's should be allowed to dictate that surprise exists or does not exist simply due to the circumstances of an encounter.  Sometimes not even "extrasensory" perceptions of elves ought to avail the PC's of detecting an enemy who has laid a superior trap.  Conversely, sometimes the PC's plan for an ambush should simply be deemed good enough to warrant the declaration that surprise is successfully achieved.  This is really the sort of thing that the DM is supposed to be there to decide. It is when the DM does not see a particularly clear circumstantial advantage or feels that a RANDOM determination is warranted, THEN he should simply call for a surprise roll and just let luck be the major factor in who detects whom first.  Sometimes the DM should be able to declare that the encounter is such that neither side can have a particular surprise advantage and declare that not even a random determination will be made - just move directly to initiative rolls.  Where it is warranted, however, even these DM fiat decisions should be taking the noted surprise modifiers into some consideration.  If the DM feels that having a Halfling "on point" should have normal advantages then he should call for normal surprise rolls and let fate decide.  Reserving the right to simply declare that surprise exists or not doesn't mean that the surprise roll should be routinely ignored in favor of DM fiat.

One addition regarding an issue I came to be aware of - splitting movement before and after attacks.  What I suddenly saw potentially happening is for a PC to be around a corner, not just in full cover but entirely out of view, stepping out from around the corner and attacking with missile or spell, and then disappearing back behind the corner.  That's an excellent tactic that anybody would use if they could, but if you're going to be fully exposed for some duration of the round, whether you won initiative or not you ought to be subject to counterattack.  This is why we have COVER rules - for attempting to maximize your protection while still undertaking attacks.  So I changed the rule I had originally.  You can take any portion of your movement on your turn but only before or after your other actions, not both.

Monsters with an attack routine deriving from natural weapons or attacks (e.g. claw/claw/bite) are generally considered to have just ONE attack for purposes of initiative.  That is, all such attacks are resolved on the same initiative count but are not considered multiple attacks which would win an initiative tie.

I don't think I've said yet, but I am also introducing Attacks of Opportunity (AoO).  An AoO is a single strike and nobody can make more than one per round.  If you have more than one weapon or natural attack then you can choose which of them to use.  The attack is taken at your normal attack bonus for that round.  Some, but perhaps not all special bonuses to your attack roll may apply and rather than try to delineate them all it can probably just be left to a DM's judgment what applies and what doesn't as long as he is being consistent and fair.

Now, there may be some minor details and other additions, but this should about cover 99% of it. Here then follows my preference for running AD&D initiative and combat:

The A.D.D.I.C.T. Short Form

I    Check for surprise:

A    The DM may dictate that surprise exists simply due to circumstances of the encounter. Class or race surprise abilities might factor in that decision.

B    A 1-4 on a d12 otherwise normally indicates surprise. [Conversions above.]

C    If neither side is surprised or both sides are surprised then proceed to step II.

D    Surprise lasts 1 round. If unsurprised you act as in a normal round. If needed, resolve actions in order of highest adjusted surprise die roll first.

E    Encounter distance between parties is determined by DM judgment (generally within range of visual/audible detection) but should be less if surprise exists.

II    Determine initiative:

A    Roll a d12 for the party; DM rolls for opponents. Modify by dexterity. Resolve actions in order of highest to lowest result. Simultaneous action is possible.

B    Option: DM can allow individual rolls, so even with group initiative, by adjusting the die roll (dex) you might act simultaneously or even before the enemy, even if your side "lost" initiative.

C    A spellcaster may decide on his initiative result what spell to cast, if any. Caster is then casting for the duration of the listed casting time; then the effects are resolved. Full-round spells resolve at the very end of the round.

D    Any damage prior to completing a spell in that round prevents any/all spell completion. Damage (or failed save that exerts control over the casters action) means the spell is forgotten if disruption occurs while actually casting.

E    When entering/charging into melee range of any opponent the longer weapon strikes first, regardless of initiative. Weapons always win initiative vs. unarmed unless special abilities apply [e.g. monks are always considered armed].

F    Ties where anyone has multiple weapon attacks (missiles too) go to anyone who has more attacks. Other ties are just ties - simultaneous results.

G    Option: Initiative ties; Weapon Speed Factors. Spell vs. melee strike - the lower of spell casting time or WSF.  Melee vs. missile fire - the lower of WSF or raw initiative die result.  Missile vs. spell - the lower of initiative die or spell casting time.

III    Additional combat rules:

A    A character beginning a round with missile weapon ready and target in sight fires before initiative is rolled but must fire by their turn or do nothing that round.

B    Unless otherwise specified, ALL of a characters attacks resolve on their turn in initiative.

C    You can fire missiles or cast spells if adjacent opponent is attacking with a melee weapon but draw an Attack of Opportunity.

D    All characters may move standard movement rate and use full attack routines or cast spells. This may be done before or after attacking/casting, but not both. Faster movement than that (e.g. running) sacrifices any combat or casting.

E    Spellcasters lose dexterity AC bonus only while actually casting.

F    Moving more than 5' while remaining within melee range of an opponent allows an attack of opportunity at their best possible bonus for the round. Generally only one AoO per round per character.

Entry #18
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