It is probably fair to say that the main line of D&D development never had a coherent initiative system until AD&D 2nd Edition came along in 1989. Gary Gygax was many things, but a writer of clear, unambiguous combat rules was not one of them. The systems in the various versions of Basic D&D were used by many as the basis of how to run combat in AD&D, but it was something of a relief when we looked at the new Player’s Handbook in 1989 and saw an initiative system that made sense. In fact, we actually saw three initiative systems!
There were two big changes to AD&D initiative in this system. The concept of segments was now entirely gone. Spells had a casting time, but it was expressed as an abstract number and not at how many seconds it actually took to cast the spell. The second change – and rather more noticeable – was that initiative was now rolled on a d10!
Gygax himself would later reveal that he used d10 for initiative in his D&D games, although we are unsure as to when he took up the practice. First edition is not always a reliable guide as to what actually happened in Gygax’s campaigns – there is much in it that exists because he was writing for publication, not because that’s how he played the game.
The basic system of initiative in 2nd edition was very simple: Both sides rolled 1d10 for initiative, and the side who rolled lower acted first. AD&D 2nd edition kept the idea of spells being spoilt if you were struck first, but there were no special rules in the basic system accounting for blows being struck before spell-casting as in first edition. Everyone acted together, either first or last. There were some modifiers for everyone in a group being hasted, slowed or on higher ground, but they were all or nothing: if one character in the group wasn’t hasted, no-one gained the modifier.
The second system of initiative used one die roll for everyone in the group, but then the result was modified by what characters were doing – and this is where the casting time was used. It was added to the die roll. What is particularly interesting is that weapon speed was also added to the die roll, thus meaning that magic missile would have a fair chance of beating a longsword to the attack. Creatures attacking with natural weapons gained a modifier based on their size: Tiny was +0, Small +3 and that continued all the way up to Gargantuan at +12.
This is a system that hearkens back to the Eldritch Wizardry system, albeit more coherent and complete than that attempt ever was. It could be a little complicated to work out order of actions, but it worked for the most part. It should be said that I normally went with just the basic system.
The third system of initiative was as the second, but with every player and creature using their own die roll as well! As can be expected, it was not recommended for large combats.
Multiple attacks were handled in an entirely different manner to AD&D; instead of those fighters gaining the first attack, all characters who had attacks left after the normal initiative order had been completed could then attack again – once more using the round’s initiative order. And so on if there was a third attack to be made as well.
All of the preceding made sense, right? Well, after having a table for the second system of initiative that quite clearly has both weapon speeds and casting times on it, the book then suggests that Weapon Speed is yet another optional rule, while casting times should always be applied! This is likely just a problem with the formatting…
It should also be noted that 2nd edition does make explicit the order of a round as follows:
- The DM determines what actions the monsters will take.
- The players declare what actions they take
- Initiative is declared
- Attacks are made in order of initative
1st edition only really made clear that spells needed to be declared first – with 2nd edition all actions had to be declared before the initiative roll, although that has always been the system I’ve employed.
Steve Winter, who wrote the examples of play in the PHB, later noted that AD&D initiative wasn’t meant to be a rigorous system. Instead, it was intended as a guide for the DM and players as to when actions occurred. My interpretation of this is that the players and monsters all have their actions, and the DM makes sense out of the chaos by ordering their actions (movement, attacks, spells) with reference to the initiative system.
He has more to say on this topic:
This topic was hotly contested while we were working on 2E. I played a lot of Melee/Wizard and was a big fan of its rigid definitions for what a character could do and how far he could move under various circumstances. Zeb favored the exact opposite view, that the less these things were defined, the more the DM and players could bring the scene to life and adapt to anything. We debated that more and longer than anything else. The standard rule is Zeb’s; the individual initiative rule is mine. In the end, however, I came over to Zeb’s way of thinking. For a game like AD&D, I now prefer the standard rule with its heavy dependence on narrative and interpretation. Which is not to say that I dislike or disavow the individual initiative approach. It serves very well for one, entirely valid style of play. I’ve simply come to appreciate a different style of play more. – Steve Winter on the TravellerRPG.com forums (need to be forum member to see)
And, as much as I love miniatures, they’re a big part of the problem. As soon as you put miniatures on a grid and define their movement in squares, people begin thinking of AD&D as a boardgame. In a boardgame, I take my turn, then you take yours. D&D 3rd and 4th Editions fully embraced that impulse and made it a core feature of combat. 2E was in a sort of transitional state; the fringes (supplements) were moving in that direction but the core rules were rooted in narrative-based, semi-simultaneous action. When playing AD&D, I use miniatures but I’m the guy who moves them around. I know what the monsters intend, players decide what they want to do, we roll initiative, and then I shuffle the pieces to show the new situation, with initiative as a tie-breaker as described earlier. Sometimes it takes a few slaps on the hand before players accustomed to newer editions get the idea that we aren’t playing Parcheesi or Descent. There’s negotiation, in the form of “no, I didn’t mean to go that far,” or “I’ll keep swinging around to the left if there’s room.” I’ll allow changes on the fly if the situation warrants, like “I’m going to stand here and keep the orcs away from the door until everyone else gets through,” followed after the initiative roll by “since we have initiative and the monsters aren’t charging after all, when everyone else is safe, I’ll step back through the door and slam it.” Flexibility is key.
Oh, and I’ll add one more bit about initiative. The positioning of the initiative roll within the round sequence was a topic of much debate. The question was whether it should come before or after declarations. You can make a strong case for doing it either way. If you want to emphasize narrative and planning, then keep it after  declarations. If you want initiative to be more of an advantage, put the roll before declarations and make the losers declare first so the winners can adjust their plan accordingly. We approached this differently in different games, and the genesis is enlightening. The Conan RPG and Top Secret: S.I. use declarations-then-initiative-roll; Boot Hill (1990) uses initiative-then-declarations; GangBusters uses a rigidly interlaced, action/reaction sequence with no initiative rolls at all; and Indiana Jones uses a very free-form “who wants to go first” approach. Zeb was the chief architect of 2E, Conan, and Indiana Jones. Doug Niles was the lead behind Top Secret: S.I. with much guidance from Zeb. I was at the helm of Boot Hill. Mark Acres was the mastermind behind GangBusters (NOT Rick Krebs, despite what the credits state), and Mark was a huge fan of Wellington’s Victory, a wargame with a rigidly interlaced, action/reaction sequence. – Steve Winter on the TravellerRPG.com forums
It should be noted that these systems weren’t the last word on initiative for 2nd edition: in 1995, the Player’s Options books would come along, and Combat and Tactics provided an even more defined system for initiative. Looking at it now, I can see how it developed in to the 3rd edition system. I’ll describe it more fully in a later article.