I Concede: OD&D Initiative is Superior

Charging into BattleThe 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.

Keeping track of initiative in Pathfinder can be confusing

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.

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8 thoughts on “I Concede: OD&D Initiative is Superior”

  1. Amusingly, initiative is actually nowhere mentioned in the 3 LBBs. The “die per side” method is from Chainmail, and then institutionalized in Moldvay Basic (and AD&D). Holmes has combattants act in order or dexterity, which requires rolling dexterity scores for every monster; not very streamlined. There are lots of problems with combat as written in Holmes though, so I’m not even going to go there.

    In the case of a one on one fight, I would give characters with a high dexterity a +1, but I figure this averages out in the case of a general group-based struggle, especially at the d6 resolution. Also, I think weapon length may sometimes (by ruling) override the need for a general initiative roll. Also also, were a thief or other character stealthy, one of the benefits would almost certainly be acting first (if they wanted to). I think that gets to your concern about not being able to jump the initiative order. Another good way of acting first is to use a ranged weapon with a greater range than your enemy’s weapon.

    For your proposed Pathfinder system, it seems like it would be better to average the dexterity modifier for the group, so that one player does not feel obligated to have max dexterity (the “skill tax” dynamic). Such an average need only be calculated once, so it would be fast. And, it seems reasonable that a party of fleet elves would have a better overall initiative than a party of plate-armored slowpokes with one super-agile rogue.

      1. That’s what I was thinking, too. It’s not in the books. :)

        Also, a round lasts a minute, right? And each PC’s turn represents not a single attack but a full minute of combat. So who cares who goes first on a detailed level? If I’m not mistaken Pathfinder rounds are a matter of seconds. So a rogue getting the jump makes more sense there, whereas in OD&D it’s not significant enough to represent mechanically.

  2. The initiative rule my group has been using for Pathfinder has worked quite well and is a favorite. I think it combines the best of both old and new. The DM rolls a single Initiative value for the enemies, using an appropriate Initiative bonus (usually the best Initiative bonus of the enemies).

    The players then roll their individual initiative. Everyone who beats the DMs roll gets to take a combat action (with bad guys considered flat footed as normal). Then we alternate between DM’s turn, in which all enemies make their move, and the Player’s turn, in which all player’s take their turn in any desired order.

    No initiative tracking, retains the usefullness of high personal initiative bonuses, and no need to bother with as many delay actions. A major side benefit is that players are engaged more in the combat, no longer just waiting for their individual number to come up and tuning out. During the players turn, the whole group actively discusses the best course and order of actions and combat is sped up as a result as players take their turns in rapid fire fashion.

  3. Ha ha, welcome to the dark side my friend. No seriously, I agree the OD&D way seems to convey the ebb and flow and chaos of battle a bit better than a fixed initiative system does.

    Another benefit of this system that I wrote about a while ago was that (at least in my games) it appeared to keep the players engaged more. Actions seemed to pass more quickly this way (as there isn’t as much “Well I was going to do this, but now that X Y and Z have happened…”) and since initiative isn’t fixed, your players don’t have the temptation to zone out until it comes back around to them. Did you find the same thing?

    Incidentally, there are two variations on this system I’ve come across in the OSR and reading about how “they” used to play the game. The first variation I read about I think came from a play session report from Blog of Holding in one of his Mike Mornard posts (though I can’t recall at this time for sure). Basically, initiative is still rolled on a d6, but it’s rolled individually modified by the dex modifier. The trick is, rather than processing each person’s order and breaking ties, the DM just goes down the list (“Any 6’s? Any 5’s? Any 4’s?” etc). Then at each number, all combat occurs simultaneously as it does in OD&D. The second variation comes from Dark Dungeons and extends on the previous one a bit. During the intent phase (Intent -> Initiative -> Move -> Missile -> Magic -> Melee -> Other Side -> Repeat), players choose whether to declare their intent before or after the DM declares the monsters. Players who choose to go before get a +1 to the initiative roll as a “charging into battle” bonus, where as players who go after (and thus waited to see what the monsters were going to do) get a -1 as a “cautious fighter” penalty.

    Both let you add individual bonuses to initiative back without making it into the larger production the 3 and 4e initiative is, and with only 6 numbers to count down you can reasonably manage to re-roll every round more so than if you were counting down from 20.

  4. What I like about simple initiative in OD&D is that it is both simple and increases the deadliness of the combat. Since almost any strike has the potential to be lethal random initiative means that even a single bad initiative role can make a combat turn the wrong way fast.

    This encourages avoiding combat, or any straight forward combat where one can’t get other advantages. Compare our success vs. the bandits (mostly thanks to using the doorway for cover) vs. the straight forward fight with the rats. Now in both cases we had certain advantages – but the rat fight was a lot more straight forward tactically, and we lost poor Gavin and almost lost the fighter. The key was that in fight one we surrounded and cut down each enemy as they emerged and in the second they got in more attacks due to numbers. Fighting in OD&D is horribly dangerous as any attack has at least a 5% of hitting and likely killing (I could launch into a babble about why +1 bonuses to hit are pretty good bonuses). Simple initiative adds to this by making it unclear which side is going to get less attacks due to attrition.

  5. I prefer the groups initiative that Brendan uses because it helps force the players to act together rather than each wander about doing their own thing.

    However, I also like the 3e/Pathfinder method. I had a printout of every character’s sheet for all my players plus one for the monsters (just cut and paste from the SRD usually). When the players announced their rolls I would put the sheets in order, highest to lowest, with the monsters secretly inserted at their die roll.

    Now you just look at the top sheet and see which character’s action it currently is with the added advantage of having all their stats right in front of you. When the character performs his action, place his sheet on the bottom of the pile and the next character to go is on top. Continue until combat is over.

    Also, one thing to realize, is that in Pathfinder with it’s delay rules, once the monsters have made their first move, the players can really go in any order they wish (those at the top of the list simply wait until those below go). So combat become: all the players move, then all the monsters, then all the player, then all the monsters, etc. There’s really isn’t need to keep strict track of the actual initiative values among the various players.

  6. As the new player in the group, I very much enjoyed the simplicity of the system, it made it so we could speed through the action at a great pace :)

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