Thursday, April 5, 2012

Holmes and OLD School Initiative

You know, I thought I was done with the whole initiative discussion (or, at least ready to move on to other combat issues using it as a context)…but then I was reading through my copy of Holmes Basic and realized – holy moly! – Holmes completely drops initiative from his edition of D&D.

I mean, he has SOME order of combat…when opponents come into melee range (within 10’ of each other) melee attacks are resolved in descending order of dexterity (with monsters’ dexterity being randomly determined). A six-sided die is rolled for “first strike” (I don’t believe the term initiative is used at all) only when the two combatants have the same dexterity scores.

Otherwise, things would appear to occur in their order as determined by action…a character with a readied arrow can shoot it before the opponent can engage the archer (though would do archers attack each other simultaneously? So it would appear…).

Now looking through my copy of OD&D I find…nothing? No initiative rules at all?

Oh, boy.

[*read*read*scan*scan*] I went through my LBBs. And there's NO initiative. Greyhawk? Nothing. Blackmoor? Nothing.

Finally, we get to Eldritch Wizardry where there are notes very similar to Holmes basic (order of the round being determined by actions - missile, magic, melee - followed by DEX sequence)...but the dexterity determination is crazy complex, including modification for armor worn and...

Oh, boy.

I read through Chainmail, just to see what the "original" version of man-to-man combat was and wow, here's where the size of one's weapon really DOES matter, since Lo and Behold first strike is solely determined by length of one's pole (*ahem*) or strategic location (defending from cover or elevated). Oh, wow...once again we see the original concepts were far more realistic, even in the abstract, than the later evolutions of the game rules.


Wow...I'm going to have to digest my thoughts and reflections on the issue before I say anything more. Initiative. Apparently an ugly, bandaid add-on.



  1. Wow...more proof of the unoriginality of my thoughts.

    Since I've never played a game of 'straight' OD&D or Holmes, it has just never come up for me before. It's only when I start deconstructing the design of my own edition (necessitating a return to the source material) that I encounter this stuff.


  2. I almost commented on your previous post to mention this, but it looks like you found it on your own.

    It looks like the idea for "initiative" as opposed to first strike based on weapon length came from Chainmail's rule for which side moves first. It's a die roll resembling group initiative, but with the group with the highest roll choosing to go first or last. It doesn't represent anything "in game", it's just a way to pick which players go first without giving anyone an unfair advantage.

    That's fine for a minis wargame with no referee, but for OD&D, why not just let the players move first and resolve actions selected in order of weapon length? No fuss, no muss.

  3. I like rolling initiative. It's exciting!

  4. Unless I missed it, those two links that Brendan posted above don't mention the "OD&D FAQ" from Strategic Review #2 (Summer 1975), which is where the d6 initiative (with Dex modifier) system was explained.

    See here: OD&D FAQ

    "Combat Example:

    10 ORCS surprise a lone Hero wandering lost in the dungeons, but the die check reveals they are 30’ distant at the time of surprise, so they use their iniative to close to melee distance. Initiative is now checked. The Hero scores a 3, plus 1 for his high dexterity, so it is counted 4. The Orcs score 6, and even a minus 1 for their lack of dexterity (optional) still allows them first attack."

  5. In Dragon #52, Holmes reviewed the new Moldvay Basic Set and wrote:
    "The new rules introduce surprise and initiative die rolls into the combat situation. I had merely had the creature with the highest dexterity strike first. The initiative roll makes combat a good deal more chancy, and I'm not sure I like it. I will not object to it on the basis of its being less "realistic," however!".

  6. The new Marvel superhero game has a crazy smart idea. First guy goes first... and then picks who goes next, on down the line. This makes for some interesting tactics, because if the bad guys go last in the round, they may pick themselves and go first the next round. Basically snake draft style. The method also allows players to set each other up and do teamwork stuff.

    1. Doesn't that just reduce to group initiative with more die rolls? Because it sounds from your description like everyone needs to roll to see who gets to go first, and then the person that wins will chose one of their team mates, and so on until all of one side has gone, and then the next side will go similarly. Note that I have zero experience with the actual game so I may totally just be not getting it.

  7. Yeah, I think too much player choice (deciding who goes next) would just grind things down... I think the novelty of players agonising over who goes next as they try and decode some sort of meta-tactic would wear thin rather quickly...

    TBH it seems strange to me that a game that celibates its abstraction should care about the representational details of initiative too much anyway... Why not everyone rolls their hit & damage dice at the same time... in mechanic terms it all happens simultaneously, then after the die have been cast the DM interprets the results... HPs already represent a kind of attritional hodgepodge of tactics, luck, fatigue, thrust, parry, magic... so why not some measure of initiative too?

    1. That's a reasonable rule. If a monster makes a successful attack in the same round that it is killed, you just assume it got a hit in right before it was killed during the round.

      Or, using Holmes, you could just compare Dexterities in a round when someone dies, or takes another action that matters.