Thursday, November 24, 2011

The Articles of Dragon: "Who Gets the First Swing?"

There's that word again -- "realism." As I've noted before, it (and variations on it) were a commonplace of Dragon articles after 1983 or thereabouts. This instance of it appears as part of the subtitle to the article "Who Gets the First Swing?" which appeared in issue #71 (March 1983). The article, by Ronald Hall, is an attempt to produce a "simple yet realistic" alternative to the convoluted and much misunderstood initiative system presented in the AD&D Dungeon Masters Guide. I think almost anyone who ever attempted to run combat in AD&D by the book would have been sympathetic to Hall's intention.

Initiative in AD&D, particularly when combined with the equally obscure rules regarding surprise, was one of those areas where, in my experience, most players back in the day simply ignored the official rules and adopted a variety of house rules. I know I did. My system was a variation on rolling 1d6 per side with modifiers and a dash of common sense. D&D's combat has always been pretty abstract, so it never made much sense to me to fixate on making one of its aspects more "realistic." Unfortunately, in this period of D&D's history, that opinion wasn't held by all, least of all those who wrote articles for Dragon. "Realism" was all the rage.

Hall introduces an attack priority system that makes good use of weapon speed factors -- another aspect of AD&D many gamers dropped -- in order to model advantage such "faster" weapons have in combat. His system is an individual initiative system rather than a group initiative one, which, right there, means it's going to be much more complex than the commonest house rules used at the time. Add to this that there many, many modifiers to a character's attack priority, such as weapon length, dexterity, size, hit dice, among others, and you have a recipe for a system that, despite its claims does require "more work." The other issue is that, like many such systems, Hall distinguishes between manufactured and natural weapons, which necessitates that there be seven pages of supplementary stats to cover the modifiers for all the creatures in the Monster Manual. What one is to do with the Fiend Folio monsters is never addressed.

Articles like this were no doubt extremely well-intentioned, but, even at my most obsessive, I never felt the desire to use them. I understood the logic that leads to creating an individualized initiative system with lots of modifiers and special cases, but, at the end of the day, the result always seems like more work than is necessary for a combat system as abstract as D&D's. I'll readily grant that AD&D is a mess when it comes to initiative and the other complexities it bolted on to OD&D's "alternative combat system." However, articles like this strike me as cures worse than the disease.


  1. Weapon speed, attack priority, and convoluted initiative have been with d&d since day 1--it's all right there in the man to man rules in CHAINMAIL, much of which was modified or verbatim carried over into ad&d.

    What you see is a product of someone coming over from holmes edition--0d&d with all the CHAINMAIL removed.

  2. Adventures Dark and Deep uses an individual initiative system with weapon speed (and spell casting times). It really does flow better and faster, in my opinion.

  3. The best D&D initiative system is that of RQ! :) (which I guess is partly tied to the one in supplement 3...)

  4. Space Coyote is on to something here. At this period, AD&D was under pressure from the up and coming RQ2, which had a lot crunchier combat system. There were a lot of nice things about RQ, the most important one was that you could pretty run the game straight from the stat blocks. Coming from something as table-heavy as AD&D, that felt freeing.

  5. Does anybody use an ipad app or some such for handling initiative? It would seem good for handling the complexities, reducing things for the players to I go, you go, he goes. Heck, we used to run champions games with 20 characters involved, just by using the provided speed charts. A little tooling can go a long way.

  6. I wonder if AD&D was ever played as written before being published. It seems Gygax didn't come close to using the full system when running con games later. If it was put in as a reaction to RQ rather than as what was successful around Gygax/TSR's tables, it may not have gotten any playtesting at all.

  7. I don't recall this article, but I think our group just went with (usually) individual initiative on a d10, modified for DEX bonuses. More complicated systems, while interesting in theory (and I think we did experiment with modifiers for weapon length), just didn't add enough value for the work they required.

  8. The basic Chainmail/OD&D turn sequence goes I move, you move, then our attacks are resolved at the same time. So the CM Man-to-Man details basically order the joint attack phase; and they could kind of make sense transcribed into AD&D, and reserved for the one corner case when initiative has come up tied/simultaneous. *

    But on top of that, AD&D also overlays what I'd call not one but two separate new systems for spell-casting complications (one sort of comparing to the initiative d6 roll, the other comparing to weapon speed factors). The final combined mass of rules in the 1E AD&D DMG does wind up collapsing in on itself, IMO.

    * Although it would certainly be simpler to just say "re-roll" in that case.

  9. The speed factor rules were stupid as they were counter realistic at most ranges. In reality, the longer weapon is advantaged until closing. As such I ignored them mostly.

    Eventually I think I reversed the rules and made "higher was better" but if the lower weapon one they were assumed to close and "lower was better" . It worked fine and gave enough verisimilitude in the results as well.

    As for critters, I can't remember what I did.

  10. I suggest that everyone interested in some degree of realism in D&D watch this video of a dark ages reenactment with commentary:

    One takeaway for me was that the most unused factor from AD&D, weapon length, actually matters quite a bit. The same poster has many other interesting videos on youtube as well.

  11. Group intiative really is the way to go, for speed and simplicity. I always seat my players in Dex order, from highest to lowest, and then just go around the table. If you're not ready when I point to you, you go to the bottom of the priority order and I keep movin on to the next person.

  12. My group did fool around with these rules back in the day, but they felt bolted on and non-intuitive. They didn't stick.

    The basic assumption in RQ was that every roll represented, more or less, the actual swing of a sword, and therefore you could get crunchy as all heck and it still felt very organic to the game. Whereas in D&D there was a very explicit understanding (spelled out in the DMG of all places) that much happened inside the one minute combat round, only some of which was attack/parry. It was very abstract, and "crunchy" felt like a gilded lily.

    It was a lot like the difference between the PC and Mac. Back in the day, you either liked the one or the other. As years wore on, both systems started to "feel" a lot more like each other.

  13. Some more weapon length love here:

  14. Looking for realism is a game full a dragons and fairies is kinda...stupid.

    Happy Thanksgiving!

  15. @Aaron Steele

    Seating players in dex order is a great idea. Definitely trying that during my next game.

  16. I remember this. Wasnt the example a Halfling and a Gnoll? If I have remembered that right isnt it funny the things you remember.
    We tried to use it. Tried. Maybe once. Too hard.

  17. I remember this system, if you pre-calculated your initiative scores for each of your weapons and recorded them it was not hard at all. Peoples initiative got better as they went up in levels, if you rolled a high enough initiative, you could get multiple attacks. So instead of getting 3/2 at 7th level , you got it over time as you imitative score got better. You recorded a speed initiative score and a length initiative score. The length one was used to start, and until you closed. The guy with the quicker weapon was usually trying to close and the other guy was trying to prevent it. The other effect was fast monsters like Lions might roll high enough to get multiple attacks, this made them very deadly.

  18. For individual initiative: d10 modified by dexterity reaction adjust plus weapon speed/cast time, lowest goes first. Additional attacks come at the end of the round, best dex goes first.

    My players can't seem to grasp this concept.

  19. 5stonegames said: "Eventually I think I reversed the rules and made 'higher was better' but if the lower weapon one they were assumed to close and "lower was better" . It worked fine and gave enough verisimilitude in the results as well."

    Admittedly, that's actually how the weapon speed-factor rules are written (DMG p. 66 "melee at end of charge", or even clearer in CM p. 25 "1st round... 2nd round and thereafter").

    Alex J -- Thanks for that video! Interesting assertions about spears being a group weapon, and how you're more likely to strike a guy not directly opposite yourself.

  20. blackstone said: "Looking for realism is a game full a dragons and fairies is kinda...stupid."

    This I always disagree with. If there were some way to elegantly model the mundane man-to-man combat at a foundational level, then I can't see any reason why not to do that. (You don't even spend much time in D&D fighting dragons or fairies, after all.)

  21. At the Carleton University Strategy Club in Ottawa, Canada, some of us used this system when it came out. It worked very well. We were all gamers, so added complexity was never a hardship.

  22. In answer to tracking initiative with an iPad, I use a simple program called Tabletop Initiative. It simply allows you to put in the order of combatants, with some abstract symbols for effects. My group loves the simplicity of it as do I. It is not an automated system, you put in the players, npc, or monsters name and go.

    Here is the link to see what it is all about:

  23. The Hall article presented completely useable system that only failed as any other system may becasue players have an odd resistance to writing down their weapon stats on their sheets.

    If it's not on the same line as the price 75% of the players I've ever gamed with ignore the stat.

  24. There's little disagreement that the AD&D initiative/action system is flawed in explanation, if not in use. However, regardless of the strengths of this article, the author does not understand it:

    "The reason for this is that the AD&D system does not use range, weapon length, weapon speed, and dexterity as factors in determining who strikes first."

    This statement is incorrect.

    Efforts for realism "Realism" get complicated. I don't know if simulation is a better word, but you can have abstraction with simulation, which is what AD&D aims for. Most initiative systems, particular the common variations of individual initiative are fine for determining what blow would strike first between two combatants already at swinging distance. They fail to take account for simultaneous movement. AD&D at least makes an attempt. I'll have to finish my half written blog post on it.

  25. Simple weapon-based initiative: roll the same die (or dice) as your weapon damage, order is low to high.

  26. Actually, I generally do not care who strikes first. Even mortally wounded foes that have been stabbed or shot through the heart can often survive long enough to retaliate in kind (in the Old West, this was referred to as a "Dead man's 15 seconds", which is about how long there is sufficient oxygen rich blood in the brain to allow voluntary activity). It only matters in cases where one or both opponents strike catastrophic blows that are instant kills, such as decapitation, etc.

    Note that it is quite possible to come up with a combat system that has a fair deal of verisimilitude without a lot of rules overhead or complexity. I've come pretty close, though I'm still finessing some kinks.

    W.r.t. the above, I would suggest that the focus be on overall "reach" of the combatant (i.e. the person's size + weapon length) with the shorter combatant having a penalty to hit the one with greater reach, reflecting the difficulty of getting within range to deal a telling blow. This sidesteps the whole issue of who swings first - just roll and its done.

    And it is not at all "stupid" to expect a bit of verisimilitude in a combat system. D&D is, afterall, a wargame at its heart. And no less a designer than Steve Jackson (of OGRE fame, among other achievements) has stated, "But not all fantasy is completely artificial. With magic or dragons, you can do pretty much as you like - but swords and clubs perform in known ways. A fantasy designer who ignores the realities of ancient/medieval combat will hear complaints, just as if he'd messed up the order of battle in a Civil War game. Where fantasy corresponds with an ancient reality, *IT MUST BE TRUE TO REALITY*" (emphasis added)

  27. I seem to remember - after years of struggling with and arguing about the D&D/AD&D combat system - I came across a step-by-step article in the Dragon (a Leomund's Tiny Hut column IIRC). I photocopied and carried it for years in my rulebooks; I found it made running combat much easier.

  28. I was in a gaming group that used this system from the article. The closing and in range initiative made a lot of sense to me back then. Later in life I studied the medieval fighting arts and found that you can do some nasty and effective close-in work with big weapons like the 2 handed sword, bastard and long sword, and the pole axe. Other weapons have similar potential. Nowadays I just go by the standard initiative system in whatever ruleset I am using.

  29. I can't believe I found a Group devoted to Old School Ad&d..
    I found you guys recommended by
    Lev Grossmans - Top Long Reads of 2011 congrats!

    The best system for INitiative I ever accounted was a modifier for old AD&D 1 - Use 2D6 - If you Rolled (Double 6's) 12 it means you scored twice the amount of attacks-- lucky you!. If you got Double 1's -- Your opponent got Twice the ammount of attacks on you! If the rare moment came that you Double 6's he got double 1's ----4 x the amount of attacks... (Made for interesting initiatives)

    ---------For everything else values between
    3 to 11 represented the segment you acted on..modified by the weapon speed factor or spell segment time...

    This made for interesting intitiatives..and great timing.. High Dex came in really useful.

    The only exception to this rule were crossbows..which take a round to load. A preloaded Crossbow always shot at segment 1. (They don't do as much damage..but in reality a crossbow is always faster than a bow)

    Nuff said.


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