The other night, I participated in my very first OD&D game, played via Google+ with Brendan as the GM. I could be wrong, but I think Brendan may be only the second person to GM for me. He’s good, and the game went exceptionally well. One of the other players has already written a pretty thorough recap of the game, so I won’t go into too much detail. Suffice to say that I have thus far made a good account of myself, considering that I’m easy to hit, have only 1 HP, and can prepare only a single spell per day. Instead, I’d like to focus on system analysis, specifically with regards to initiative.
In Pathfinder, initiative is mechanically simple. At the start of combat, following any surprise round, each participant in the combat rolls a twenty sided die. They then add their dexterity modifier to the number they rolled, and each of the battle’s participants are ranked. They then begin taking turns in descending order of initiative. There are ways to gain an additional boost, or a penalty, to your initiative, but that’s the system in a nutshell. The mechanic is quite simple.
In OD&D, initiative is handled en masse. The battle’s participants are divided into groups (usually consisting of “the players” and “the stuff which wants to hurt the players.”) Each ‘side’ of the encounter then rolls a single six sided die. Whoever wins the roll is allowed to take their actions first, along with everyone else on their side. Once the winner’s turn is over, the other side takes their turn. Following that, initiative is rolled again to determine which side will go first in the next round.
Amusingly, I recently encountered this rule during my ongoing perusal of the AD&D 1st edition Dungeon Master’s Guide. It was featured in Part 6 of that series, and at the time I was not impressed. To be specific, I wrote:
There seems to be an excessive amount of computation involved in determining the order of combat.
A comment which I now find rather ironic.
The problem is that while Pathfinder’s initiative mechanic is simple, it is not elegant. When my entire game group is all able to get together, I’ve got six players. Even the simplest encounter must include at least one foe for them to face, so that’s a total of seven initiatives to track at a minimum. When I ask for an initiative roll, I need to quickly write down the names and numbers of each person. This is often an awkward task, since I can’t write even simple initials as fast as my players are able to recite their initiative scores to me, and at some point I need to roll and record the initiative for the bad guys as well. Going through this arduous process isn’t just annoying for me, it’s damaging to the player’s experience as well. Deciding to fight an enemy is an exciting moment in gameplay, but when the group spends 30-60 seconds rolling and recording initiative, some of that excitement is drained.
That’s not even the end of it, because once initiative in Pathfinder has been recorded, it must betracked.Since it’s impossible to have the initiative order written down linearly (unless you want to re-write it after initially recording it, thus wasting more time) you need to bounce around on your list and do your best not to skip anybody. The best method I’ve come up with is to quickly draw a “bouncing line” between names on the list. But even this is a pretty hit-and-miss technique.
Comedic overstatement aside, these complaints are not what I would call game-breaking. Until recently, I would have even called them necessary evils. Evils which, frustrating as they may be, are minor in comparison with the benefits the system provides. Using Pathfinder’s initiative, players and player foes get mixed together in the combat order, creating an interesting and chaotic effect for battle. Additionally, it allows for individual characters to be particularly good, or particularly bad, at leaping into a fight. Rogues can move in quickly to attack before their foes are prepared, while a character who used dexterity as a dump stat is forced to deal with the consequences of that choice. Plus, it adds structure to the tactical combat, and I like tactical combat. There’s a lot of good to be said about how the system works.
By comparison, OD&D’s initiative mechanic sounds not only chaotic, but intrusive. At least with Pathfinder, order is determined at the start of combat, after which it only need to be referenced. Plus, when rolling as a group, how does one determine who in the group goes first? It all sounds pretty sketchy in theory.
In practice, however, OD&D’s initiative is simple, and surprisingly intuitive. Who goes first when the player group has initiative? Well…whoever feels like going first, that’s who. I can see how that question might pose a problem if you were running a game for children, but we’re all adults. We’ve stood in lines, waited at traffic lights, and given our bus seats to old ladies. We know how to be gracious, particularly when it doesn’t really matter who goes first. In function, the person who went first was whoever had an idea they were excited to try out. It even turned out to be a large benefit, since one of our players had never played the game before. He was able to wait until last during each round until he gained some confidence in how the game was played.
And since rolling for initiative is so simple, (a single opposed D6 roll, no modifiers), re-rolling it each round didn’t intrude on gameplay at all. If anything, it enhanced the excitement of combat. Remember above how I mentioned that Pathfinder’s initiative allows friends and foes to be mixed in the combat order, which makes things a little chaotic and exciting? That effect is enhanced when either you or your enemies might be able to take two turns in a row!
The system isn’t flawless. For example, I’m pretty sure there was a round or two where a PCs took an extra action than they should have, or no action at all. And as an avid player of rogues, I would be pretty disappointed to permanently shift to a system where I couldn’t jump the initiative order by a significant margin. But these are minor complaints. The bottom line is that OD&D’s initiative mechanic is better than Pathfinder’s. As such, I propose the following amendment to Pathfinder’s rules:
Initiative: At the start of combat, separate each of the battle’s participants into groups based on affiliation. (Most battles will be between two groups, but some battles may be between three or more). The member of each group who has the highest initiative modifier rolls 1d20 and adds their initiative modifier. The members of the group which rolled highest take their actions first, followed by the other groups in descending order of initiative.
Once everyone has taken a turn, initiative is re-rolled, again by the group member with the highest initiative modifier. The process repeats itself until combat has concluded.
I considered adding a few other mechanics in there, such as players with the Improved Initiative feat being moved into a separate group, or an incremental decrease in initiative bonuses as the combat goes on. But I think stuff like that would just complicate an otherwise simple mechanic, without adding anything of value to it. Though I might later amend the rule so that initiative bonuses only count during the first round.
I think this should serve as a good compromise between the two systems, and look forward to using it. Though I doubt I’ll be springing it on my current group just yet. I think they get a little confused by my constant re-tooling of the game’s mechanics.