The Development of AD&D Initiative

A recent conversation made me interested in why AD&D initiative works as it does. Or at least, why the description is so darn complicated.

In doing so, I went back to Chainmail, which has two initiative systems.

The first is for regular mass battles. They work like this:

  • Both sides make an initiative roll on d6, with the winner of the die-roll choosing to move first or last
  • One side moves first. At the half-way point of moving, the opposition may react by firing with non-moving missile units, with hits being taken immediately. This is called “pass-through fire”.
  • The other side moves, taking pass-through fire as well.
  • Artillery and Missile fire of both sides is resolved, with casualties being removed simultaneously.
  • Melee is then resolved, with casualties being removed simultaneously.

So, that’s pretty simple. Initiative only really affects movement (and pass-through fire).

The second initiative system is for man-to-man battles – one opponent, one attacker. They work as follows:

1st round, the first blow is struck by…

  • The attacker, unless
  • The defender has a weapon which is two classes higher, or
  • The defender is fighting from above

2nd round, the first blow is struck by….

  • Whoever struck first blow previously, unless
  • The opponent has a weapon which is two classes lower, or
  • The opponent is fighting from above.

Weapon classes are 1. Dagger, 2. Hand axe, 3. Mace, 4. Sword, 5. Battle Axe, 6. Morning Star all the way up to 12. Pike.

So, in man-to-man battles it is greatly dependent on which weapons are being used, with no reference to initiative dice at all. A single hit between two men would kill the opponent, with a table requiring that score on 2d6 or higher. Against fantasy creatures, scoring exactly the target number would cause the monster to fall back one move. Missile fire in Man-to-Man combat worked basically as in mass battles, with range being calculated from the mid-point of the move.

This is the system inherited by the original Dungeons & Dragons. There is, in fact, no full description of combat in the original 3 books. The basic system is to use Chainmail, with the adjustments being that “kills” and “fall back” results now reduce hit points (by 1d6) rather than just kill figures. The familiar d20 chart appears here for the first time to optionally replace the 2d6 chart in Chainmail for heroic types; it would become necessary as more and more monsters didn’t conform to the lists in Chainmail.

All of this still meant that initiative was rather poorly defined when it came to spell-casters. As spell-casters began with just Fireball and Lightning Bolt, a lot of groups probably treated them as being resolved in the Artillery step above. The concept of spells being disrupted was not yet part of the game.

The Strategic Review #2
had this to say about initiative:

Initiative is always checked. Surprise naturally allows first attack in most cases. Initiative thereafter is simply a matter of rolling two dice (assuming that is the number of combatants) with the higher score gaining first attack that round. Dice scores are adjusted for Dexterity and so on.

I guess we’d use the Dexterity AC modifiers for initiative? -1 for a Dex under 9 and +1 for a Dex over 12?

The first attempt at an Initiative system specifically for Dungeons & Dragons came in Supplement III: Eldritch Wizardry (1976). It is worth quoting the system:

The question of when various actions take place during a melee round often arises. In order to simply and easily satisfy the problem of when any action can take place the melee round has been further subdivided into premovement, movement of six segments, and post-movement, or eight parts in all. All melee activities, including missile fire, spell casting, movement, and combat are then assigned to some – possibly all – part of the melee turn.

Actions other than moving or fighting are based on the modified dexterity rating of the character in question. Movement is based on the standard movement allowance (with optional adjustments by the Dungeonmaster recommended).

To compute Adjusted Dexterity simply take the dexterity rating of the player-character or monster in question, including any additions or subtractions for magical devices, and then compute bonuses and penalties.

After the 1st melee round the pattern of missile fire or spell casting should be re-adjusted with regard to bonuses and penalties. Thereafter, the same pattern is maintained for successive melee rounds. For example, if it is determined as of the 2nd melee round that the Adjusted Dexterity of a player is in the +15/+19 range, there is an interval of six parts between his actions, so that on the 3rd melee round he would act during the 5th movement segment, and on the 4th melee round he would be able to act during the 3rd.

Missile Fire or Spell Casting Table: 1st Melee Round

Pre- 1 2 3 4 5 6 Post-
-30/-16 X
-15/-11 X
-10/-6 X
-5/-1 X
0/+4 X
+5/+9 X
+10/+14 X
+15/+19 X X
+20/+24 X X
+25 & + X X

If surprised, lose the 1st segment on a die roll of 1 and the 1st and 2nd segments on a die roll of 2.

Attacks by combatants are made whenever the respective parties come within range, but movement need not cease until bodies are actually in contact.

The adjustments to Dexterity are quite long. To give a few examples, we have a +4 for complete surprise, a +2 for weapon in hand, a -6 for plate armour, a -1 for entering door and a -2 for second rank.

All in all, it’s a fairly complicated system, and it is not surprising that it did not make it into AD&D. However, two aspects of it did make it into the game.

The first is this: Surprise. The idea of losing segments of action for surprise does make it into AD&D, even though the initiative system in full does not.

The second is more subtle: The effects of armour on initiative. They are not, in fact, any part of the AD&D rules, but the table on the effects of armour and encumbrance in the Player’s Handbook (pages 101-102) makes reference to how reaction and initiative is slowed by poor encumbrance. Normal Gear gives “normal or better” Reaction and Initiative. Encumbered gives “slowed greatly”. These descriptions are accurate if the Swords & Wizardry initiative system is employed, but, as we discovered when the Dungeon Masters Guide came out, there was no mention of any such system as Gygax had created a new initiative system.

Although never truly considered part of the Dungeons & Dragons line, Swords & Spells (1976) saw Gygax return to the subject of mass warfare with miniatures. It is, in many ways, an update of Chainmail but with D&D more in mind when the rules were constructed. The round sequence is as follows:

  1. Sides “A” and “B” may opt to fire loaded missile weapons, cast ready spells and/or discharge breath weapons; casualties from any such attacks are immediately removed.
  2. “A” moves all, some or none of its figures up to a maximum of one-half of normal movement, including split-movement.
  3. “B” now moves all, some or none of its figures up the maximum distance allowed, including charge bonus. At the mid-point of this movement, excluding charge bonus movement distances, mid-turn fire is taken. All missile fire, spell-casting, and discharge of breath weapons desired and possible take place simultaneously on both sides.
  4. “A” completes its movement, including charge bonus.
  5. Both sides fire missile weapons, cast spells, and/or discharge breath weapons of those figures not meleed.
  6. Melees are fought for one round, and retreats due to poor morale are made immediately.
  7. Opponents alternate the role of “A” and “B” for steps 1 through 7 for the balance of the game.

Although there is an initiative roll (highest die-roll) for who gets side A or B during the first turn, from thereafter it alternates. In this system, you can’t cast spells once in melee, but spells will take effect before melee (and simultaneously with other missile effects). What the summary doesn’t tell you is how long spell-casting takes – it’s longer than you might think.

Wands, Staves, Wands and 1st & 2nd level spells may be cast immediately. 3rd-6th level spells require a ½ turn preparation before casting, and 7th-9th level spells require a full turn’s preparation before casting. (A scroll takes an extra half turn compared to the non-scroll spell of the same level). While a spell is prepared, the character cannot move, although wands and the like negate that requirement.

The fact is, there’s an awful lot of different initiative systems out there – and it’s hard to guess what Gygax had in mind for the AD&D system. The fact is, you’ll find discussions of the AD&D Initiative system back through the history of the web. There are some pretty good discussions on Dragonsfoot, for instance, and nothing has really been resolved despite them taking over a decade with it. They’ve discovered some excellent things, but ultimately the system Gary wrote in the DMG is not complete – it makes assumptions that we don’t know about, and some of these assumptions may, in fact, be contradictory.

One comment

  1. Pingback: Initiative in Basic D&D | Merric's Musings

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