Tuesday, April 16, 2024

Making Things Too Hard

All right. Tax season is over (for me, anyway). And the house got (mostly) cleaned yesterday. And I have time before my next engagement (volleyball practice...our team made the playoffs!). How 'bout if I throw folks a D&Dish blog post? For a change.

SO...over at the CAG discord, recent converts to AD&D are still a bit kerfuffled when it comes to grokking the combat system...which is, you know, kind of an important bit to get straight. D&D is a game that features violence, and the largest section of systems pertains directly to running combat: if you're a new DM, having a grasp of how combat works is IMPERATIVE to running the game smoothly.

My game tends to run fairly smooth, so how about if I offer my take?

[yes, this post is for AD&D newbies. Old grogs who have altered/kit-bashed/deciphered their own mechanics for a smooth game...well, there might not be much for you here]

Let's start with the bare basics:
  • Combat is divided into one minute rounds; each round is composed of ten segments of six seconds. These minutes and seconds are "game time" and can thus be abstracted and (in some cases) safely ignored. Remember that game time is elastic and is there to help bring order to chaos. It is your FRIEND.
  • A combat will occur between two or more sides. In the vast majority of cases there are only TWO sides: the players (working together) and the DM played antagonists (working together). 
  • BEFORE initiative is determined, the players declare their characters' actions. I also (usually) allow the players to declare what their NPC henchfolk are doing, since they are (presumably) receiving shouted orders from the players. The DM decides what the other NPCs (generally, antagonists) are doing, but need not declare their actions to the players; however, I will usually give the players a general idea (the trolls are charging, the wizard is casting a spell, the goblins continue to fire arrows, etc.) AFTER the players have declared their characters' actions.
  • Each side gets to roll 1d6 to determine initiative. It doesn't matter if the player's side has four PCs or 20 the assorted henchfolk. It doesn't matter if the party faces a dozen tasloi backed by yuan-ti commanders or a passel of Drow cavalry on riding spiders with bugbear foot soldiers and a mind flayer commander. One d6 per side determines each side's order in the round. The initiative roll is made after declarations. The roll is made at the beginning of every round and the initiative winner may (and probably will) vary from round to round.
  • Generally speaking the side that won initiative (by rolling a higher number on the d6) performs their declared actions first. After they've finished, any survivors of the side that lost initiative performs their declared actions (if still able to do so). If there are still multiple sides wanting to continue combat at the conclusion of the round then a new combat round is started: declarations are made, initiative dice are rolled, and play proceeds.
Pretty straightforward and simple. At this point the most complicated part for the DM is just remembering what everyone's going to do as you work through the round. Fortunately, the players are usually pretty good about remembering their own actions ("Lisa, roll to attack." "No I said I was drinking my potion, remember?" "Oh yeah, sorry!") and with groups of creatures I usually have them performing the same action (all the goblins charge, while all the bugbears shoot arrows, for example)...group think, you know? However, I also keep a notebook and pencil handy to...um...make notes. Good as a memory jogger.

SO, simple. However, there are three things...all designed to add complexity and depth to the Advanced game) that trip folks up, causing them to throw up their hands and run for a Basic edition in panic. These three categories (which I've named myself) are: circumventing actions, extended actions, and simultaneous initiative. I will explain each of these in order or (what I consider to be) complexity, from least to greatest.


When two sides roll the same number on their initiative dice, there's no re-roll...instead, all actions occur simultaneously! Yes, this means that two combatants might kill each other in the same round! This is fun! Interesting stuff happening in battle makes AD&D combat interesting!

But also: remember that "weapon speed factor" from the PHB? This is where that becomes important. On a tied die result (which, for the record, has a probability of happening one time in six...not too often, but often enough) between combatants in melee using weapons, the weapon with the lower speed factor gets to strike first...and sometimes gets to strike multiple times! This is awesome! It makes one's choice of weapon more meaningful than just its damage dice. It provides a real advantage to fighters who can learn a variety of weapons. If the slower weapon's speed is FIVE points higher than that of the faster...such as a scimitar (4) to a halberd (9)...or FOUR points higher in the case of a dagger versus anything...then you get two attacks before the slow guy gets their first. That's fantastic.

[in the rare instance where you have a speed factor difference of 10+...only occurring with an awl pike against a dagger, jo stick, or short sword...the faster character receives a third, simultaneous, attack]

Note: this only comes up when both combatants are A) in melee, B) using weapons (not claws/bite), and C) tie the initiative roll. But...it adds a little spice.


AD&D is an advanced game and deals with the logistics of both space and time. Extended actions are actions that take a longer time to function simply making an attack roll. These fall into three main categories: movement (over distance), item usage, and spell-casting. Each of these take more time than punching someone in the face (or stabbing them in the belly), and can change when someone's action in the round actually occurs...this is the purpose of those ten, six-second segments

Segments are your FRIENDs: they bring order to chaos.

At the beginning of an encounter, the DM sets the stage explaining where all the combatants are in relation to each other; this is why we use maps with scales. Closing distance for melee combatants requires movement, and movement eats time...or, in this case, segments. Each character has a movement rate based on either A) encumbrance, B) armor worn, or C) their entry in the Monster Manual. The standard AD&D scale is 1" = 10'; since movement is a number given in inches per combat round (9", 12", etc.) and scale is generally 10' per square, it's easy to see how far a character can move in a given combat round. If my fighter is 40' from the goblin he wants to hew, I know (from his 6" movement) that he'll be able to get there in this round (since he moves 60' per round)...the question is: when? Fortunately, his movement is easily divided by 10 (10 segments in the round), so I know he moves 6' per segment and my rudimentary math skills tell me that 40' can be covered in seven segments, roughly...or FASTER (twice that speed in a dungeon) if he charges, which he can do once every ten minutes (rounds). Electing to charge, my fighter would reach that goblin in four segments, or three if the DM is generous (especially given the 4' length of his bastard sword, however some might only require a 30' charge distance anyway, given the note on DMG p.66). 

Likewise, magic items have a usage time (given in segments) and AD&D spells have a casting time (given in segments, rounds, or turns). A potion takes effect 2-5 segments after imbibed, rods/staves/wands take from 1-3 segments (per the item's description), and scrolls take the same length of time as the spell it casts.

But...okay: understanding that some actions take longer than others is simple enough. How does that interact with initiative?

Well, here's the thing: MOST OF THE TIME, it doesn't matter when in the round your action occurs. Your cleric is trying to turn the zombies? Your dwarf wants to cut down the hobgoblin he's standing next to? Just roll the initiative dice and high roll goes first. BUT if you have an extended action, THEN it becomes important when that extended action starts. That is, it becomes important on which segment of the round is your side's "go." ESPECIALLY, if you want to interrupt a spell-caster's casting.

Okay...deep breath: the wining side goes on the segment equal to the loser's initiative die roll; the losing side goes on the segment equal to the winner's die roll.  If the evil wizard rolls a 4 for initiative, and your fighter rolls a 2, then the wizard's one segment magic missile spell fires in segment 2, and your fighter gets his/her "go" in segment 4. I choose to ignore the bit about comparing weapon speed factor to casting time (DMG p.67) because A) it is apples to oranges (we don't compare WSF to claws/bites), and B) it's already easy enough to disrupt spells given casting time (extended action!) without delaying a caster's "go."


These are actions that ignore or (rather) circumvent initiative altogether. Remember charging? Well, if a combatant chooses to charge, their attack no longer becomes dependent on the initiative roll. Same in the case of a character that decides to initiate an unarmed (pummeling, grappling, or overbearing) attack. Same in the case of characters with extra attack routines, whether due to magic (a haste spell) or being a higher level (in the case of fighters with multiple attacks). There aren't a whole lot of these, but the complication is that they all have their own, individual spot rules that must be remembered.

Charging for instance: initiative no longer determines first strike; instead, the weapon with the longer length goes first. If you charge a row of spearmen with naught but a dagger, they get to make their attack rolls prior to you REGARDLESS of the initiative die roll. 

Multiple attack routines (such as a fighter with extra attacks or an archer shooting multiple arrows) perform their action both before AND after their opponent's initiative. If both combatants have multiple attack routines, than initiative is diced as normal and the two combatants alternate attacks.

Unarmed combatants (effectively) surrender initiative when attacking an armed attacker, who may make a successful attack roll to drive the character away (fend them off) while still doing damage. 

Psionic attacks occur lightning fast (the speed of thought, etc.) treating segments as rounds, and resolving prior to other actions in the round.

Some creatures always attack first (quicklings, if I remember right) or last (like zombies) due to excessive speed of slowness. Some spells (haste and slow, for instance) have similar impact on combatants initiative order.

Hmm...maybe one or two more incidents of circumventing action that I'm forgetting at the moment.  ANYway...

ALL THESE THINGS INTERACT TOGETHER. The fighters charge the slow-moving zombies, while the second rank archers unleash multiple volleys at the necromancer attempting to conjure a demon, while the cleric is exercising a turn attempt and the wizard uses her wand. To the outside, this makes AD&D combat appear to be incredibly complex and fiddly. However, in practice, it all works rather seamlessly, so long as you remember the basics (declare actions, roll initiative) and then take the individual exceptions piece-by-piece. In practice, with practice, it is as smooth and easy to run as Basic D&D, yet with far more depth and richness.  And because of the way the game scales over time, the combat system is both functional and intense from novice up into the highest levels of game play, with little noticeable "slowdown"...not something that can be said for later (3+) editions of the Dungeons & Dragons game.

It's really not as hard as people speculate. Don't let it intimidate you or psyche you out. The 1E game was designed to be fast and furious; it was designed to be fun. And it IS those things, all of them. 

All right...back to the grind. Hope this helps some people. Feel free to leave questions in the comments.
; )


  1. OK, here's my question: What's "CAG" discord?

  2. "Classic Adventure Gaming" discord. It was started by the guy(s) who do the Classic Adventure Gaming podcast. CAG is an acronym that, I suppose, is more palatable to some folks than FAG (for "Fantasy Adventure Gaming")...the term I generally use to express my approach towards old edition D&D play. Adventure Gaming is used as a term distinct from "Role-Playing Games" because of the difference of opinions in the definition of "role-playing" and its place in games like D&D.

    Which...*sigh* I don't know if that makes any sense. It does in MY mind. I've been using the term since at least 2013 (my fantasy heartbreaker, Five Ancient Kingdoms, calls itself a "fantasy adventure game" not a "role-playing game").

    1. We wanted to be able to have discord and youtube accounts that wouldn't get drive-by slammed by people without any contextual understanding

    2. Wait, now we can't use the term RPG anymore? I think I'm about fed up...

    3. No, you can still use the term RPG. "Adventure Gaming" is (if anything) a means of distinguishing a particular sub-niche of the broader "old school" gaming niche.

      Except it's not, really: it's more a "mindset" that embraces certain principles or (rather) EMPHASIZES certain elements of D&D game play, regardless of edition. The focus of adventure gaming is squarely on "game" and "adventure" and unconcerned with (what modern gamers think of as) "role-playing," i.e. playing in character, "acting" at the table, pursuing "character arcs," or worrying about telling "stories" through game play.

      Yes, I'm still playing an RPG...but, dude, the "RPG" term has already been appropriated by the computer (video) game people. We're already fighting a losing battle to retain the term RPG as it was used 30-40 years ago.

      Me adopting the term FAG (or others using the term CAG) is just a way of saying "RPG" in the 1980 sense of the term. Or something. I don't know. These distinctions help keep ME from getting "fed up" and any help in that regard is (I consider) a blessing.
      ; )

    4. Sorry, I don't mean to sound critical. And thanks for patiently explaining to me. To restate then, TTRPG (if we must) play styles could theoretically be sorted into "character-focused" and "gaming-focused." That's fine, although I think like anything else it's more of a continuum with every individual's sweet spot laying somewhere along the line. I kinda don't like to see the tribalism creep in though, but heck it's the internet so what do I expect? (BTW I don't think the popularity of CRPGs ((such as it is in the overall video game market)) lessens the validity of using the term RPG for TTRPGs. I sorta deplore the jargon that accumulates around any given subject matter.) Regardless, again I thank you for explaining the terms for me.

    5. I've been using "TTAG" for a number of years now.

    6. @ Baron:

      Oh, I didn't think you were being critical. And I agree there's a 'sliding scale' there: play the same character long enough, and you definitely begin to identify more strongly with it, adopt mannerisms, accumulate 'character arcs,' etc. This attachment is both expected and enjoyable.

      But it isn't the object of play. The object of play is ADVENTURING: risking (imaginary) life and limb for (imaginary) reward.

      Is tribalism bad? Maybe? But I think there's a benefit to SOME labeling, in order to set expectations. Someone sitting down at my table and expecting a "Critical Role"-type experience is probably going to be disappointed.

      (maybe...admittedly, I haven't watched more than five-ten minutes of CR in my life, so I don't have any real knowledge for comparison; my statement is based on reputation and hearsay)

      That being said, my "tribe" is a fairly open and welcoming one to folks looking for adventure.
      ; )

  3. I wondered about CAG too. On RPG I was blocked by a person on twitter because I left a remark that his interesting photos of Bosnian castles and towers looked like a series of "excellent RPG sites". I was puzzled and a bit hurt about this for a day or two until I twigged that he thought that RPG meant rocket-propelled grenade.

    I try to avoid TLA and FLA where possible (three & four letter acronyms).

    1. Ha! That's a funny anecdote...at least, it is to me.

      I will tell you that MY first introduction to the acronym "RPG" was "rocket powered grenade" also (courtesy of early G.I. Joe comics...thanks, Marvel!). I didn't start using the term RPG ("role-playing game") until...probably...middle school (circa 1986 or '87) and only then to distinguish the types of game we were playing for our parents (since they referred to ALL such games as "D&D"...THAT acronym being synonymous with imaginary fantasy dice games).

      Weirdly enough, my own kids are much like my parents in this way. They rarely use the term "RPG", instead calling all RPGs "D&D." I'm making my own D&D, they tell me, showing me a game based on Star Wars or featuring giant robots.

      Acronyms are probably only really useful for academics and military personnel.

    2. And engineers and defence contractors. Dilbert was seen as a style guide not satire.

  4. I was running an adventure based on G3, and the party took ALL their friends and henchmen, down to the 1st level types. The 'main body' of the party had some 32 characters.
    It got a bit slow but it was doable. We'd get through 2-3 rounds a session. I think the hardest thing to keep track of was who was doing who to what, but I used a table to do that.