Tuesday, December 1, 2009


One of the key advantages of OD&D is its simplicity, which makes it very easy to modify. One of the areas I'm thinking of modifying is initiative, because I'm not really happy with any of the systems I've tried over the past year. I'd like something a little more complex, or at least that better takes into account things like weapons used, armor worn, and Dexterity.

As luck would have it, Judges Guild's Ready Ref Sheets already provides a system very much like this. As written, the system provides for a static initiative number for each combatant based on several factors but not so many as to make it difficult to re-calculate if, say, an archer drops his bow and starts wielding a sword. My only beef with it is that there's no random factor and I don't much like that, for reasons of both "realism" and esthetics. I'm tempted to add a small random factor (1d6?) to ensure that the initiative sequence isn't absolutely identical each round.

Here's my re-working of the JG tables:

Initiative Score



Read Scroll


Spell (Levels 7-9)


Short Weapon (Dagger, Hand Axe, Mace)


Medium Weapon (Sword, Hammer, Battle Axe) or Touch


Long Weapon (Morningstar, Flail, Pole Arm, Halberd, 2H Sword)


Very Long Weapon (Mounted Lance)


Spell (Levels 4-6)


Extreme Weapon (Pike)




Spell (Levels 1-3)


Breath Weapon



Armor Worn

Initiative Adjustment

Speed (for Monsters)














3 or lower


Initiative Adjustment











As usual, Initiative is counted backwards from highest to lowest. In the case of ties, the actual Dexterity of the combatants is compared. For monsters, I assume no adjustment due to Dexterity unless the creature is either notably agile or I want to mix it up and grant a +1 or +2 bonus due to the creature being an exceptional example of its species.


  1. What about a small modifier due to level? a 6th level fighter similarly armed as a 1st level fighter should get the first blow in.

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  3. Interesting. If you exclude 'randomness', this method reminds me a little of Runequest's strike ranks, which included even more variables that affected initiative. I liked some of the added complexity of that system, but it could definitely slow down gameplay and lead to longer combats.

  4. I usually just go in Dex order and only do a roll-off when two players have the same (I almost always have mosters or NPC's go after a player if having the same Dex).

    One system I really hated for initiative were the Star Wars Saga games I recently ran. Take a base number, then roll a D20. Slow dudes kept getting lucky high rolls, while fast dudes kept getting two's and three's. If I could change one thing in that game...

  5. I think you are on the right track with adding a dice roll.

    I would complicate it, though, by using a 1d4 - 2, giving you a range of -1 through +2 to initiative.

    I'd even assign the bonuses:

    -1 poor footing
    [0] even ground
    +1 good stance
    +2 adrenaline

    for example

  6. Personally, I'll never go back to individual initiative. I much prefer party-based initiative, and just go around the table in order. Makes it very clear and easy who's up next (without records or props).

    I get asked, "Can we delay/ready actions?" And I say, "Sure, as long as you switch where you're sitting before your turn comes up." So they wind up running around the table on occassion for a particularly involved maneuver. Which is pretty awesome. :)

  7. Is this pure individual initiative or individual within the party? In any case, I think it looks fine, although maybe more involved than I would use.

    In any case, the one thing that I have never been able to happily address is the relation of small to large weapons. I keep wanting to have a dead-simple way to address the idea that the large weapon has an advantage at first, but that if a daggerman gets in, he now has a substantial advantage.

    I think I did an okay job addressing this in Swords of Fortune and have been thinking of trying to apply it to Ye Auld Game.

  8. I switched my campaign from 1e to BRP Classic Fantasy recently and use pretty much the same system. It's basically a dumbed down version of RQ strike rank with a d6 on top of it. I just inverted the strike rank on a 20 point scale, and initiative counts up from 1. My players have been happy with it so far. During the 1e period of the campaign (about 7 months real time, ~15 sessions), we changed the system 4 or 5 times. This method is the closest to 1dx for each side without being that clumsy. I've had too many issues over the years with group initiative turning sour by causing combats to slow to a crawl while we figure out spell segments. My congratulations to those who can do it, I envy the intended simplicity, but I've never seen it done right.

  9. I just go in Dex order (including monsters, since I use BRP) and I've sometimes toyed with using a d4 to add some randomness. What you describe looks fine, but is more detail than I need.

  10. Hmmm...this is something worth trying out. I would also agree with adding 1d6 to randomize things, but nothing higher than that, lest it duplicate Brunomac's problem. Currently I've just been using d6 party initiative, but it's too arbitrary for my tastes and I would like something that takes lightly armored characters or those who use smaller, lighter weapons into account. I will give this a try in my next session and see how the players like it. I will have to add a few entries though, like characters who are just moving and doing nothing else. I will also have to adjust for lasers and firearms, which occasionally turn up in my game. Still, it's a reasonable starting point for my needs. Thanks for posting it.

  11. I have all parties roll 1D10, the lowest goes first, then second lowest, as a count-down. The roll can be mofied by: Dex, higher ground (-1 bonus), heavily encumbered (+1 penalty), longer weapon (-1 or more), shorter weapon in close quarters (-1 or more), difference in casting time between opponent casters (-1 or -2 to shortest time)...
    A 1 is automatic success, while a 10 is the opposite. If the lowest number wins by 8 or more he gains a bonus attack, and so forth to spice things up.

    I do not use speed factor or the such, and try to keep it as simple as possible.

  12. I forgot to mention this goes for individual initiative, which I think is more realistic than: this group strikes, then that group, like in some napoleanoic war.

  13. Delta:

    Jesus, man, although a couple of us might find a Chinese Firedrill every combat or two funny (including myself), I'm pretty sure I would lose at least a couple of players after a few sessions of that.

    Although I do find players wanting to delay (for no real good reason) to be a pain in the ass generally. Maybe making them switch up for it would be just the right punishment.

  14. I can't deny the appeal of a chart-y initiative scheme like this one but I do wonder if it might discourage teamwork among players, however indirectly.

  15. ... But I suppose it may be no more discouraging than any other individual initiative scheme.

  16. One thing you might want to try for creatures is to base their Initiative Bonus on their movement rate. This should be similar to the initiative bonuses for wearing armour, and for much the same reason.

    Also, on the rounds after they have engaged you might want to reverse the initiative bonus for weapon length, unless the wielder of the longer weapon is able to fall back to keep the range open.
    [Many are the times I have joyously chased great sword wielders around the field whilst armed with shield and shortsword.] Of course this is probably getting far too complicated, since I think you really want to keep initiative as simple as possible. [And it's not really initiative; it's really attack order (or strike rank to borrow the Runequest term) that you are talking about. <grin>]

  17. James,

    Do I correctly understand you to say that the addition of the proposed d6 will then extend the range from -01 to +23 with the inclusion of modifiers?

  18. Neat system, and I think its probably less complicated than some commentators think. There's some initial calculation, but it looks like initiative scores would stay largely static from round to round (and even combat to combat); weapons, armor and Dex will stay largely consistent after all. Only spell-casters would have to be adjusted more often based on the spell being cast.

    Word ver: "Coluball," Querl Dox's favorite spectator sport.

    Two additions come immediately to mind. First, the rating of magic weapons could be added to initiative as well. It would be a nice simple way to evoke enchanted blades dancing with a seeming mind of their own. Second, I'd allow characters to trade in swifter initiative for proportionate penalty to AC (maybe To-Hit as well), as it calls to mind desperate lunges, brash charges and other common S&S combat descriptions. Perhaps characters could also conversely lower init' in exchange for an AC bonus (holding back cautious and guarded). With such discretionary modifiers available, I wouldn't bother with a die-roll; initiative is something to be seized, not stumbled into after all.

  19. "a dead-simple way to address the idea that the large weapon has an advantage at first, but that if a daggerman gets in, he now has a substantial advantage."

    Chainmail says that the longer weapon always gets first strike on the initial round of combat, while the shorter one strikes first in all subsequent rounds. (That's a more substantial advantage the man-to-man combat system, where a single hit is likely to be lethal.) As James notes, the weapon lengths are prominently categorized in the Ready Ref Sheets, on the same page as the Chainmail 2d6 to-hit numbers.

    I've been using this for most of my initiative needs. When we need to resolve something that's not melee we do individual d6s. For example, last session the party was fleeing under arrow fire from 14 gnolls. I rolled a total of 14d6 gnoll initiatives, and rolled to hit for the ones that beat the target's own d6 initiative; the other arrows arrived after the target had already fled. - Tavis

  20. After all the times we had to fetch someone from the kitchen and re-explain what was going on when their turn came up, I've gone the way of party-based initiative so that players can decide as a team how they want to handle the round.

    Check out this Ars Ludi article Initiative: the silent killer.

  21. I find it fascinating when people talk about the simplicity of OD&D. Very often the rules made little mathematical sense, which is why it was so chart heavy (How many issues of Dragon had articles that were nothing but charts). It is true that chart systems are easier to modify (which is not the same as simple), because you can adjust the individual points of the chart without having to fit it to any particular mathematical formula. But more often than not, what you got was a mess of arbitrary, interdependent charts that were hard to make sense of.

    For example, I don't understand your charts at all. I get the impression that higher numbers are good, because of the way bonuses for dexterity and armor work. It certainly makes sense that gaze should be as fast as possible (and that reading a scroll is slow).

    But if that is the case, the rest of initiative score table doesn't make any sense. Short weapons are slower than pole weapons? That is crazy. And spell levels 7-9 are faster than levels 1-3? That is incredibly unbalancing; I do not know any game designer that would do something like that.

  22. Walker might have a point about the weapons order. The spell thing he's misreading.

  23. The weapon order thing makes sense if you've ever messed around with re-enactment, SCA, European martial arts. Long weapons do go first because they are long. If there was a flat speed advantage in having short weapons then pikes and rapiers would not exist. There is an argument for having short weapons once you have past the initial danger zone. Get past the spears and polearms and your xiphos or katzbalger comes into its own.

    I often wonder why it seems that dice geeks and sword geeks don't seem to correspond much. A little bit of practical experience with the situations you are trying to simulate/emulate could come in very handy

  24. Oops. Don't read so good with no sleep. <grin> I see you already prempted me on monster speed.

  25. @Thomas asks I often wonder why it seems that dice geeks and sword geeks don't seem to correspond much.

    Don't know. I spent years trying to convince someone that (1) his image of how to wield a greatsword (based on Sword & Sorcery illustrations) was wrong, and (2) a shortsword and shield can often work better, especially if you are willing to forgo your first attack to go entirely defensive when crossing the spear/greatsword engagement zone. Even to the stage of dressing him up in armour and proving that it doesn't work 100% of the time.

    Of course, that being said, there are two situations where that changes. If the opponent has room to maneuver they can generally keep the range open. And if you are on horseback then you need a long weapon just to reach the opponent. Then again formation shock fighting is different from free melee.

    Then again, the advantage of a long weapon is that you have a larger effective radius of engagement with the target. And by that, I mean it is very easy to switch target zones. In using a spear (yari) properly you are taught to target the extremities (head, feet, hands) by preference.*

    Anyway, all of this gets far too complicated in a game. Especially since in real life martial arts you train to execute the maneuvers and recognise the openings without really thinking about it too heavily. So it game terms it's best subsumed into your combat ability.

    So probably this means that you do need to add the THAC0 bonus to Initiative as well, to represent this experience. Attempting to model it directly leads to far more complexity than you want in any game, let alone D&D.

    [You could model it properly in a tactical battle game such as 4E, and it can be done quite well in The Fantasy Trip.]

    [* One problem with a lot of recreation groups is that these are often considered no-hit areas, because they are surprisingly easy to damage. The damage to these areas generally won't kill you, but it means a hefty disadvantage for the follow up shots. Which is why you're trained to target them in real life.]


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  27. After add'l bits of thought, I came to the conclusion that my own discomfort with such an initiative scheme may be informed by philosophical difference, but it's also informed by suspicion that successful application of the scheme depends upon a certain virtuosity with the game (a virtuosity that I don't have).

  28. Too complex.
    Full plate with visor down gives almost no penalty to initiative?
    What is missng is a good conceptualization of combat on which to base game mechanics. D&D's whole assumption that a man with a dagger facing a man with sword will have the same chance to "dance" and maybe score a hit as a swordsman is wrong and with the linear hp/damage system kills realism and any chance for player skill.

    What to do?

    Here are some suggestions:
    - Apply GROUP INITIATIVE in a massed line of battle situation where the party is either attacking or is receiving a charge.

    - Traditional initiative rules are fine when the two groups first see each other and missile combat is possible.

    -Traditional initiative rules are also fine in a duel, where the weapons are evenly matched.

    - Otherwise, in individual melee, weapon with the longest reach strikes first.

    - When to use individual melee and when to use party initiative for massed combat? DMs decision. Whether it's a battle on not. What is a battle? Party waits in ambush to attack an enemy group. Party is in a battle formation advancing or receiving a charge. Group initiative applies while the party fights in a formation. In order for the party to fight in a formation, it either must have an "anchor" - stand in a line across the doorway AND/OR it must have a LEADER who will maintain formation.

    -When is a melee not a "battle"?
    When the party does not have a chance to make a formation. When both sides run into each other in a dungeon encounter unawares and unprepared. Most dungeon melee will be individual and not formation combat.

    -It is possible that one side will be formed to fight against a disorganized group. Historically this is a victory giving killing advantage. In game terms, I would say that while fighting in a formation, for every two characters with a shield, a third charcater without a shield can benefit from this shield wall and fight from the second rank with a separ or a missile weapon, egtting an AC advantage of a shield. While in formation and fighting against the unformed opponent, the fighters can direct their attacks agaisnt any one opponent, while the unformed enemy must engage the enemy his is facing. if the unformed enemy attacks any other target, the warrior in formation gets an extra attack of opportunity. This advantage diasppears when two formations face each other in melee.

    - In individual combat, opponent with the longer weapon attacks first unless s/he fumbles.

    Also, I'd make foration fighting a non-wepin proficiency open to warriors. Checks of this proficiency will be required (in the order of increasing difficulty): To make a formation on an anchor, make a formation, make a formation under fire, maintain a formation after one or more players get killed, make a formation on short nortice with a charging enemy, make a formation while in melee, finally, the most difficult feat: Re-form a formation after it has been breached and broken. (not the same as rallying henchmen who failed their morale check)

  29. While ODnD is simple and easily modded, we have to avoid the trap of making the game complicated by adding extra rules.
    I view ODnD combat rounds as a flurry of blows unlike BRP whichis based on 1 role 1 swing/Parry. becuase of this I make all combat simultaneous. What the character is doing determines when they do it. So ready range goes first and reloads during the turn, doesnt take long to loose and arrow. Melee is second. Spells go last, speel chuckers having to spend all round getting the spell to work. If a character is do something other then these 3 things then you determine how long it will take and in which "phase" the action will happen.

  30. "The weapon order thing makes sense if you've ever messed around with re-enactment, SCA, European martial arts. Long weapons do go first because they are long... There is an argument for having short weapons once you have past the initial danger zone... I often wonder why it seems that dice geeks and sword geeks don't seem to correspond much."

    Wow, do you realize how many early Dragon articles reference the SCA?

    At any rate, I'm perfectly willing to agree with what you say about the history/reality. What bothered me was that this list in particular seemed entirely focused on the "speed" issue (past-initial danger), with one particular subject (weapons) instead based on reach.

    I'm deliriously happy to use Chainmail's system of reach-in-first round, speed-in-all-later rounds approach, for example.

  31. This is the first system that ignores casting time (I play 1E) that I really, really like. It's simple without being stupid, easy to modify and adapt.

    Magic items (wands, staves, rods, etc.) are missing from the chart, though. It would be fairly easy to assign them a value. (I'd rule 7.)

    Two possible problems, though. First, how would you handle/allow purposeful delay by a PC?

    Second, my biggest problem is the elimination of the random factor a die roll introduces. Not insurmountable, but I'm not sure what a fair and easy to implement solution would be.

    Those issues aside, though, I really, really like it.

  32. @ Walker:

    And spell levels 7-9 are faster than levels 1-3?

    Umm, they're not. The lower the number on the initiative scale, the slower the action is. Anything with a 2 initiative score would be the second-to-last action to be done in the round.

    @ Brooze the Bear:

    Full plate with visor down gives almost no penalty to initiative?

    That's a level of detail/verisimilitude that, if I'm not mistaken, neither OD&D nor 1E ever dipped into. Hell, with the current bastardized version of 2E initiative I currently use in my 1E game, we completely ignore weapon speed and weapon vs AC adjustments. We're gaming, not aping reality.

  33. Michael,
    You can APE reality and have a great game at the same time. Elegance of game mechanics is effective simplicity. And you can have your cake and eat it too if you model accurately that, which you are role-playing.
    Why bother? Because it gives players food for thoght and room to apply individual skill and resourcefulness.
    Socially and historically accurate game mechanics also make for the more vivid portrayals of the FANTASTIC-magic, monsters, deities, etc, because with a historically accurate gaming mechanics they change tactical equations in fantastic and unexpected directions.

  34. Love the charts! This could be very handy for my campaign, when i get it re-started...

    For adding a small random factor, I'd suggest grabbing some Fudge Dice (available at better game shops as well as directly from Grey Ghost Games). Each die is six-sided, but marked with a +, a -, or a blank face, two of each. Thus, if each player rolls a "dF," there's even odds of modifying the otherwise static initiative by 1 up or down, or having no change.

    If each player rolls multiple dFs, the range of variation increases, but the likelihood of dice canceling each other out increases as well, so combatants are more likely to perform as expected with occasional exceptional changes. 4dF creates a proper bell curve, though it may be a little cumbersome for every round of combat. Not as cumbersome as rolling dice and then subtracting to achieve similar results, of course...

    Anyway, that's one more option to consider.

  35. Individual roll:
    1D6 + DEX adjustement + (descending)AC.
    Highest score wins.