The General Workings of 1E AD&D Combat

The article right above this one explains details of AD&D surprise and initiative.  This one, as the title states, deals with combat in general.  Combat isn't ONLY initiative rules.  Initiative is important, yes.  Along with surprise, it is the basic mechanics that starts combats and moves them forward to a conclusion.  However, just like with those specific initiative rules, the rest of the combat rules that lay out how it all comes together are spread out in the book and often not clearly-written.  When Gygax first assembled these rules he was working with an understanding that the people reading them were probably coming from a background of already having played many kinds of board games and tabletop war games (or would be playing with others who had), and in particular they would almost certainly have already been playing the previous editions of D&D.  The result is that he was a bit too scattershot with his rules and writing because the players he was writing to already had an assumed amount of understanding in how it would or could work.

Our problem today, about 40 years later, is that players just do NOT have that kind of background anymore.  Hell, I didn't when _I_ first started playing.  Gygax was mostly writing to his peers in Wisconsin and neighboring communities and states, not to entertain and explain the game to some geeky teenagers 2000 miles away who'd never even heard of tabletop miniatures war games much less RPG's before.  Had AD&D remained under Gygax's direct control and subsequently been given more than one revision (the one revision it got under TSR, 2nd Edition, was not under Gary's direct control) we'd probably have a much different game.  Gary admitted that the kernel of rules for AD&D combat - the rules for initiative - was badly done.  I have to assert, however, that there really is a core of a decent system to be found there.  It's just mucked up by excessive detailing that Gary had been convinced to add on to it by others (complicated and fiddly details which his accompanying commentary otherwise says you should avoid, and even tries to claim that the system does avoid).

By the time the 2nd Edition of AD&D rules had been completed Gygax had been pushed out of the design loop.  2nd Edition was designed by Zeb Cook - not Gygax.  Had Gary still been in control of his game I think we might well have seen a different approach to initiative than 1E gave and probably different than 2E as well, and in subsequent revisions the combat rules as a whole would have become tighter, easier to read, understand, and follow.  You know... simpler.  Instead, with 2E, the problem was solved by largely just whacking off big chunks of what had been originally presented and I think they were throwing the baby out with the bathwater to an extent.  They solved the issues of over-complication to be sure, but it also, I think, gutted the system of strengths and benefits that it did have.  It was then formally untouched for another 10 years (well, there were OPTIONS given in the Players/DM's Options rules, but that's no different really than just using something you read on the internet) until TSR died and 3rd Edition under Wizards of the Coast blew the whole thing up and started over - and (in my opinion) in the process lost sight of what had actually made D&D into the 800 lb. gorilla of gaming; the components which had made it successful thus far.

Naturally, much will hinge upon how you DO handle initiative.  Insofar as I understand it, this is how 1E AD&D combat is written to function:

"Look!  Orcs!  Let's kill 'em!"


"Suddenly, there's an owlbear in front of you and it's attacking!"

That's mostly how combat begins.  Your characters see an enemy and decide to attack, or an enemy is suddenly upon you.  Now even before things reach this point (the point at which you would roll initiative or surprise) there are some factors that have come together to create a combat situation.  Who sees who?  How far apart are the two sides?  Is one side or another making a lot of noise?  In a particularly formal approach these kinds of questions would generally be taken as factors which dictate distance between two parties.  The DMG does indeed have "rules" laid out that say, "This is how far apart the two sides will be."  You can certainly run it that way without too much fear of problems but I believe the original notion was that the DM could (and should!) not only just fudge up a reasonable distance between sides, but would also be able to say, "You've been caught by surprise and the first you're aware that there's an enemy to fight is when the arrow sticks in you or the claw swipes across your back."  The DM wouldn't do that ALL the time, of course, but if he thought it was warranted by the situation then he'd dictate such things rather than "following procedure".

That aside, the procedure is to determine surprise.  Then determine distance (because distance is affected by surprise).

Surprise in AD&D is written to be HIGHLY effective for the winners.  The die rolls determine how many segments of surprise there are.  Now this can be confusing if you think about it too hard.  Normal surprise is simply a 1 or a 2 on a d6 roll.  3 or higher means you are not surprised.  However, this is not a scale where 1 is most surprised and 6 is least surprised.  The die roll is doing two things at once.  First it determines if you're surprised.  Secondly it determines how long you are surprised FOR.  So a 1 is always the least degree of surprised - you're surprised for just 1 segment.  2 is two segments of surprise; 3 is three segments and so on - but only up to the maximum range of your surprise.  A result above that indicates being UNsurprised, not more segments of surprise.

The non-surprised participants mostly get to conduct one round of physical combat for every segment of surprise - technically they get their full attack routine.  Of course they might also take 1 segment of movement, or undertake other actions.  Obviously, during those surprise rounds the opponents are generally unable to properly defend themselves or return the favor.  Missile fire is even more elevated in importance.  During surprise segments missiles have triple their normal rate of fire (if the weapons are ready to be used).  So, 6 bowshots is possible in every segment of surprise for a 1st level character while a fighter gets only 1.  Personally, I just think that's stupidly outrageous, but this is about how AD&D rules are actually written.  Suffice it to say, surprise is important.  It grants a huge benefit to the side that gets surprise.

It's not all about missile fire though, is it?  What about melee combatants and that distance between sides?  Well, 1E says that if you're within 10' then as far as it's concerned you're close enough to be considered as in melee.  If not - even if it's 12' rather than 10' - then the simple rule is that you just don't get to attack.  You either have to charge into attack, use a missile weapon, or you spend your time in closing that distance so that you can attack next round.  During surprise rounds you can only move so far per segment, but if you can close the gap by moving in a surprise segment you can still get in attacks upon your enemies when they're most vulnerable in additional surprise segments.

Spell casters largely get stiffed in all this.  Even when you have the surprise advantage and everyone else is attacking at 10 times their normal rate the poor caster is still working on a 1 segment = 1 segment basis.  You can and should use surprise segments to cast (or begin to partially cast) spells but it doesn't happen any faster.  If you don't complete a spell during the surprise segments then you've at least got more of a speed advantage to complete it during the first full round.  Hit the enemy with the fastest spells you have - 1st level and 1-segment spells - because surprised enemies can't fight back to disrupt your casting.  It may not be much of an advantage for a caster but it IS an advantage, and casters get very few of those, so make the best use of it.  Now, it does seem that the intent of the rules is that a caster is limited to just one spell during surprise no matter how fast it is to cast.  If you have a 1-segment spell then you can cast it on the first segment of surprise and complete it.  Any other spell with a longer casting time you can only start on the first segment of surprise, and then no matter how many segments of surprise there are you only get an advantage in casting time for determining when you complete it in the first normal round.

There are more implications for all this than just these surface mechanics imply.  What this all means is that players need to take special care, and to work with the DM as much as they can to ensure that their PC's are not caught by surprise and that they do get the drop on others.  It isn't just a matter of, "Rules say your chance of surprise is X.  Live with it."  Players can come up with ideas and actions that the DM can rule as granting additional advantages.  If players are moving cautiously and taking precautions to remain alert then the DM might decide that gives them a bonus or even prevents them being surprised.  If players know an opponent is in their area and have a good plan for approach and note that they are taking great pains to be quiet then the DM can certainly give them better chances to surprise or just grant it to them outright.  (D&D began as a game of exploration and even with all the roleplaying-oriented changes that AD&D brought to it, it's still largely assumed to hinge upon how the players proceed with exploring dungeons, cities, wilderness.)

Then comes the start of round # 1.  Roll for initiative.  By the book, the general way of it is that there's a d6 roll for either side.  The higher roll wins initiative.  The most confusing thing about it is that the OTHER side's die roll is the one that is actually determining when YOUR side acts.  The higher roll is still said to "win" initiative but if, for example, I'm a player and I roll a 6 for our side while the DM rolls a 1 for the monsters then we players have won initiative but our die is indicating that our opponents will use the result of 6 to determine when they act, our side uses the DM's roll of 1 to determine when WE act.  It's stupidly bass-ackwards, but this is AD&D and that is simply how it was written to function, which I assume is why you're reading this - to have that explained to you more clearly.

Now that we know who won initiative it's supposed to be fairly simple.  In the DMG right at the start of the section on Combat, on p.61, there is a chart of numbered steps for combat procedure.  I'll just go ahead and copy it here:

  1. Determine if either or both parties are SURPRISED.
  2. Determine distance, if unknown, between the parties.
  3. If both parties are unsurprised or equally surprised determine INITIATIVE for that round.
  4. Determine the results of whatever actions are decided upon by the party with initiative.

  5. A. Avoid engagement (flee, slam door, use magic to escape, etc.) if possible.
    B. Attempt to parley.
    C. Await action by other party.
    D. Discharge missiles or magical device attacks or cast spells or turn undead.
    E. Close to striking range, or charge.
    F. Set weapons against possible opponent charge.
    G. Strike blows with weapons, to kill or subdue.
    H. Grapple or hold.
  6. Determine the results of whatever actions are decided upon by the party which lost the initiative (as per A. through H. above)
  7. Continue each combat round by determination of distance, initiative, and action until combat ends due to fleeing, inability to continue, or death of one or both parties.

So, after surprise is done and we've rolled again for initiative we're actually at step 4. The side who won initiative goes down that list of options A through H and their actions are resolved in the order listed.  For most of the things they're going to choose to do they get to do them before their opponents may react. They can do missile fire, start and finish spells, move, conduct melee attacks and whatever else.  Then we would move to step 5 where the LOSING side gets to take their actions.  However...  This is AD&D and it just isn't going to let you off that easy...

For one thing, complications arise when we actually have TIED initiative rolls.  For those of you paying attention that's going to be approximately 1 round out of every 6.  When that happens the actions of both sides get mooshed together and we use a lot of special rules to determine what actually happens first.  Those rules are, unfortunately, not all collected into one place for convenient reading and comprehension.  The AD&D rules are actually a large collection of house rules which expanded upon the VERY simplistic combat rules of the original D&D game.  When Gary Gygax started to compile all those house rules into a new edition he didn't start over at the beginning, he just organized the hundreds of pages of stuff that he had as best as he could and tried to tie it all together.  That's why things can seem so haphazard - the game was being assembled and revised as he went along and with all due respect to Mike Carr, the editor, the DMG really needed a MUCH stronger hand at editing.  Gary's writing should have been handed back with requests to make things much clearer and a little less prosaic.  Information should have been organized and re-organized to put related rules together.  After the PH was published there was still another year of updates and revisions to that information that got compiled into the DMG.  That's why, for example, it has all the notes about individual spells from the PH, but also likely accounts for initiative rules and information being spread across 20 pages and not summarized into a single table or at least just a single page, and THEN using the next 20 pages to elucidate and expound on that information.

Anyway, the overall idea seems to have been that when initiative was tied you were actually looking at a bunch of duels or individual contests.  There were three general possibilities for what you'd be doing - melee, missile fire, or spell casting.  The special rules for tied initiative come down to the six comparisons of each of those three actions: melee-melee, melee-missile, missile-missile, missile-spell, spell-spell, and spell-melee.

  1. For melee vs. melee it was partly a comparison of weapon speed factors and partly a matter of who had more melee attacks.  The lower number speed factor hits first if both combatants have the same number of attacks, but if one of them has more attacks than the other then each side trades off one attack at a time, but strikes from the combatant who has more attacks are arranged to have priority.
  2. Melee vs. missile fire is a little different because missile weapons weren't given weapon speed factors in 1st Edition.  It was again a matter of who had more attacks determining the order of resolution.  The higher # attacks got his first attack, the opponent then took his first, then the higher # took his second attack and so on, back and forth between the opponents.  If both had the same number of attacks?  Well, then it was just a tie.
  3. Missile vs. missile worked the same way - number of attacks took priority, otherwise they were simply tied.  [Note: see the advantages that bows get with this system simply by having a rate of fire of 2 whereas most other missiles have a ROF of 1?]
  4. Missile vs. spell.  Where initiative is tied you take the initiative die result and compare it to the spell casting time. The lower number goes first. If they're the same they are simultaneous.
  5. Spell vs. spell was a simple matter of which spell has the lower casting time, and ties were then ties.
  6. Spell vs. melee attacks meant comparing the casting time to the Weapon Speed Factor. The lower number occurs first, but if they're the same then it's simultaneous.

Ah, but it's STILL not quite that simple...

It's in how the game handles spell casting versus a melee blow that things got the most strange and complicated. There was an additional special check to be made if a spellcaster is attacked by a melee weapon - EVEN IF the spellcaster's side won the initiative roll. In that case you subtract the LOSING initiative die result from the Weapon Speed Factor. Take the absolute value of that (which means that even if it's a negative number you now treat it as a positive number). Compare that value to the casting time of the spell. The lower number occurs first and if they're the same it's simultaneous. So, if a spellcaster loses initiative then all his opponents actions occur before he gets to cast.  If it's an initiative tie then at least the fastest spells stand a good chance of being completed without interruption. Yet even when a spellcaster WINS the initiative, AD&D rules dictate that unlike any other action his spell can still be preempted by a melee attack.  That, as much as anything else, is why characters must declare their actions - any spell being cast requires knowing its casting time to make initiative determinations, and if the caster is being attacked in melee then it doesn't matter if the caster's side even wins.

It is these special cases for initiative ties and spellcasting that give AD&D combat (or at least initiative) its well-deserved reputation as clunky and complicated.

Example of Combat in Play


The set-up to the encounter

We'll start with a fairly easy example.  Let's assume an encounter between four ogres and a five-character PC party, all 2nd level, with a cleric, fighter, ranger, magic-user and thief.  The party is pushing their way through a forest looking for a lost temple.  The ogres have been using the old temple ruins as a lair and a group of four of them has just left the temple to go get some meat.  The party's corpses will do.  The PC's hear "something" approaching making a lot of noise - the ogres are annoyed at their chief back at the ruins because they were in the middle of a game they just invented and called Smack Yer Mudder and they wanted to finish it.  So, they're taking their frustration out on the trees and each other as they approach.  The party gets to quickly get to hiding spots and wait for their approach.


As DM the first thing you'd want to do is check for surprise because that changes the distance at which the parties find themselves when things start happening.  The party rolls a d6 and the DM rolls a similar die for the ogres.  Because there is a ranger in the PC party they are only surprised on a 1 in 6, but the ogres are surprised on 3 in 6.  The DM rolls a 4 indicating that the PC's are not surprised, and the party rolls a 2 which indicates that the ogres are surprised for 2 segments.  Because there is surprise the PC's find themselves much closer to the ogres before combat actually begins and the DM rules that the ranger, who is carrying his bow, can begin the combat with an arrow nocked and ready because the PC's are able to wait for the ogres to get very near before attacking.  The DM rolls and the distance between the parties (normally a range of 1" to 3" because of surprise) turns out to be 2".

Declaration of actions

The cleric begins casting a Command spell, the magic-user begins casting a Sleep spell, the fighter chooses to close the distance between himself and the nearest ogre, the ranger will be using his bow, the thief also closes the distance to the ogre nearest to him.

Resolving Surprise Segments

The cleric's Command spell is only 1 segment to cast so it is completed in the first segment of surprise.  He commands one of the ogres to flee.  It isn't smart enough to be allowed a save so it turns and runs back in the direction of the temple.  The ogres don't get a save against the Sleep spell either but the number affected is "0-1" and the magic-user rolls low - the target is unaffected.  The fighter and thief are busy moving into melee range.  The ranger, because he begins with an arrow nocked, gets triple his normal rate of fire.  16, 3, 14, 12, 8 and 7 are his attack rolls (against the same ogre that the thief is moving toward).  All the ogres are within short range for his bow.  The first one of those rolls is good enough to hit the ogre's AC of 5 without modification.  The roll of "14" is modified by the rangers excellent dexterity of 16 (a +1) so that hits as well.  The player rolls 2d8 damage.  3 + 2 for the two damage rolls means the ogre takes 5 points damage in the first segment (he had 20 hit points and now is reduced to 15).

Second surprise segment and the cleric chooses to make sure that the ogre which the magic-user tried to sleep doesn't turn the poor guy into hamburger so he draws his mace and closes the distance.  Although they don't move 20' in 1 segment the fighter and the thief can each move close enough to be within the 1" (10') distance that qualifies as being in melee range.  The fighters attack roll is 16 so it hits.  He rolls poorly for damage - only 1, but his strength is 17 so he gets +1 to that - 2 points against his ogre; it's 16 hit points are reduced to 14.  The thief gets to try to backstab the ogre he ran up to and gets a 17.  His damage roll of 5 is doubled to 10 and its hit points are now reduced to 5.  The ranger decided to spread his attacks around to all the ogres.  He hits against the fighter's ogre with a roll of 17, for another 4 points reducing it to 11 hit points, but his second roll is only 9.  His shots against the ogre the thief is fighting both missed with another roll of 9 and a roll of 1.  His two shots against the remaining ogre are rolls of 14 and 15, so both hit.  He rolls snakeyes for damage so only 2 points and it was the largest of the three with 25 hit points, now reduced to 23.  The magic user quickly pulls a dagger and throws it at the closest one to him (medium range), rolling 19 (!) [the player is told by the DM that he didn't have the weapon ready so he doesn't get the advantage of triple rate of fire, and it's probably generous that he allows even the one to be thrown].  It does 3 points to the big ogre reducing it to 20 hit points.

The ogre that was hit with the command spell keeps on running.  The players think they've got this sewn up as a result but the DM knows that it will return in 10 rounds with reinforcements from the nearby temple.

Initiative, and Round One

Now we come to the first full round and we need initiative rolls.  The magic-user had a second magic missile spell for the day but decides to save it for later and the cleric is now in melee combat so there are no issues of needing to declare spellcasting.  The magic-user draws a couple of daggers with the intent of throwing them at that big ogre.  The players and DM both roll a 2 on the d6 - initiative is tied so technically all damage is accumulated at once.  Just to keep things organized the DM rolls for all the ogres first.  The fighter is wearing chain and shield but the ogre rolls a 4 so he's missed.  The thief is wearing studded leather (AC 6) but has a dexterity bonus of 3 so his AC is actually 3!.  The ogre rolls a 12 - exactly what it needed in order to hit.  Fortunately for him the ogre rolls just 1 for damage.  The thief only had 8 hit points to start with and now has 7.  The cleric is wearing the same kind of armor as the fighter (AC 4) and the big ogre rolls 14 to hit and does 5 points damage.  The cleric had rolled well for hit points and his start of 14 is now reduced to 9 hit points.

Now the party takes their attacks and the DM asks for the missile attacks first.  The ranger is now reduced to a normal rate of fire.  He is now most concerned with the ogre facing the thief, hoping the fighter and cleric can manage on their own for at least another round.  His attack rolls are 15 and 8, hitting once for 5 points reducing it to 10 points.  The magic-user throws his two daggers and both hit (!) with rolls of 15 and 19 sending up cheers around the table.  He rolls 2 and 3 for damage so it is now reduced to 15 points.  Now the PC melee strikes are rolled.  The fighter misses with a 6.  The thief, no longer able to backstab misses with a 4.  At least the cleric rolls a natural 20 and does a full 6 more points on the big ogre further reducing it to now a manageable 9 points.

At the end of round 1 all three ogres are still standing with hit points of  14, 5, and 9.  Only the cleric and thief are wounded with 9 and 7 hit points left respectively.  The ogres are actually somewhat beat up compared to the PC's but they seem pretty determined.  The big advantage the PC's had by getting surprise on the ogres might not translate into a victory.

Initiative, and Round Two

The players roll 4 and the ogres roll 1, so the PC's have the initiative this round.  Again, no spells are being cast which simplifies things.  Following the steps on page 61 of the DMG the PC's have the option to flee but the players decide to risk it.  The magic-user doesn't have any more daggers to throw so he decides it might be wise to have a healing potion ready and he starts getting it out of his backpack.  The other PC's continue as they did the previous round.  The ranger is first up then because he's still making missile attacks.  He asks the DM if he can assess which ogre looks most wounded and the DM tells him that the ogre fighting the thief looks to be the worst off.  The ranger fires both arrows at it.  His good shooting continues and his rolls of 14 and 15 both hit - but he rolls badly for damage of only 2 more points total.  That ogre now has just 3 hit points.

Melee blows are now resolved.  The fighter's bad luck continues and he rolls a 13, so his strength of 17 won't make up the difference to get a hit.  The thief also comes somewhat close but his roll of 12 is not good enough.  The cleric rolls a 10 - a clear miss.  They may really need that potion that the magic-user now has in hand.  Here comes the pain.

The ogre facing the fighter gets a natural 20.  He does 9 points damage dangerously reducing the fighters 15 hit points to just 6.  The very wounded ogre facing the thief misses with an 8 and the player breathes a sigh of relief.  The cleric also gets hit with a roll of 13 and the damage roll of 8 puts him in a very bad spot with just 1 hit point remaining.

At the end of round 2 the ogre hit points are 14, 3, and 9.  The PC hit points are that the ranger and magic-user are unwounded, the fighter has 9 hit points, the thief has 7 hit points, and the cleric just 1 htk.

Initiative, and Round Three

The initiative roll for this round is likely to be VERY important so the DM lets the players discuss options among themselves for a few moments.  If the ogres win initiative it's likely that a couple of PC's at least are going to go down but they just can't bring themselves to flee - even though the DM warns them that would be the SMART thing to do.  Although the ranger has been doing well with his bow it's decided that he'll drop his bow and charge the ogre while pulling out his sword.  The cleric will try to move so that the ranger is between him and the ogre, and the magic-user will move towards the cleric (he's most likely to die and need the potion, and he's the only other source of healing the party has).

Dice roll, the players get 4, the DM rolls a 2 - the PC's win initiative!  Another cheer goes up at the table - they may pull this off after all!  There is no missile fire or spells but there is a charge taking place - initiative goes to the longer weapon.  The DM has been assuming the ogres were using tree branches for weapons and decides that the ogre's branch is about as long as the rangers longsword - their attacks will be simultaneous.  The ranger rolls a 15 and the ogre a 14.  Both hit.  The ranger does 8 points of damage (1 point of which is from his 16 strength)and the big ogre is now staggering with just 1 hit point left.  In turn it does a full 10 points to the ranger who started with 14, so he has just 4 htk left.  The fighter hits with a roll of 18.  More cheers!  A total of 5 points of damage so that ogre now has 9 points left.  The thief rolls a 4 - missed.  Curses!  The magic-user is permitted by the DM to hold off with the potion until after the other ogres have all attacked.

The ogres now get their attacks and the fighter is hit with a 19, but for only 2 points.  He now has 7 left.  The thief's luck runs out and he's hit with a roll of 16.  A full 10 points puts him at -3.  The DM uses the optional rule that he's not actually dead yet, but soon will be.  The ranger is missed with a roll of 1.

At the end of round 3 the three remaining ogres now have 9, 3, and 1 hit points.

End of round 3 and the ogres have 9, 3, and 1 hit points.  The magic-user is now the only unwounded PC.  The fighter has 7 hit points, the ranger has 4.  The thief is out at -3 hit points.  The cleric has just 1 point.  The players finally agree that they'll all flee in the next round though if the ogres win initiative they're looking at a potential TPK.  The DM has no sympathy, but he realizes that two of the ogres are on the brink of death and the other is very wounded.  The DM knows what the ogres will do but has the players roll initiative the next round anyway.

Initiative, and the Final Round

The players roll a 3 and the ogres roll a 4.  The players groan in anticipation of what's coming so they are pleasantly surprised when the ogres are the ones who choose the better part of valor, turn and flee the encounter.  It's technically a victory for the PC's - even the thief is saved from the brink of death when the cleric casts a cure light wounds spell (the potion is saved for another time) - but they know that even with some additional healing spells from the cleric they're in no condition to take any more risks.  AND the DM tells them they still hear the ogres hollering to each other not far away - and it sounds like more than 4 of them.  They leave, but they decide they'll come back later after healing up and carefully scout the area, then decide how to proceed.

Some things to note about that example of melee:  With a few better to-hit and damage rolls during surprise the encounter might have swung dramatically in the PC's favor immediately allowing the fighter, cleric and thief to immediately begin to double-team and then triple team the opponents with melee blows while the ranger simply concentrated on missile fire.  No consideration is given for firing missiles into melee, but in the spirit of what's written at the end of p.63 the ogre is a significantly larger opponent and the PC's are quite close so it's not unreasonable to not make this an issue.  The magic-user repeatedly makes the decision not to attempt to cast his second magic missile spell but to do other things instead.

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