Sunday, March 29, 2009

"Old School" Initiative?

As I start thinking about which initiative resolution mechanic is most consonant with an "old school" flavor, I wanted to throw out the general question of what systems have been used in Swords & Wizardry and in the other "official" d&d versions.  Also, house rule alternative systems are also of great interest to me.  

Four points seem most salient in discussing Swords & Wizardry Initiative mechanic:

(1) Initiative is d6 governed
(2) Initiative is decided by two opposing rolls (one for monster(s) vs one for PCs)
(3) Initiative is rerolled each new combat round
(4) Ties in initiative roll do not necessarily have to be resolved.  Simultaneous action is possible.

Here are my initial thoughts on the suitability of this basic mechanic for our purposes.

First, I like the d6, which seems very old school and very s&w.  But I fear it will have to go if we tinker with (2) as I am tempted to do.  You see, I don't really like making a single PC roll being determinant of all PCs, since it still leaves unresolved the order of action of the PCs themselves.  I understand that this could be determined via on-the-spot improvisation, but given (3) you'd be winging the ordering of PCs actions all the time.  Why not allow individual PCs to roll for initiative each round and allow for some strange ordering patterns and associated challenges that will follow? (e.g., Blaine the Thief reached 0 hit points the previous round and Johann the Cleric decides he wants to try to make it over to the thief and cast a Cure wounds during the next round.  This relatively straightforward action could be complicated by a poor initiative roll on the part of Johann...etc.)

One problem, though, with changing (2) and allowing individual PC initiative rolls (at least in any game s&w game we run in the near future) is that the number of PCs is likely to reach or exceed 8 at the minimum.  8 opposing d6 rolls is going to produce ties and time and time again.  Consequently, I wonder if we adopt individual rolls, shouldn't we change (1) to some other die?  Thus even a little tinkering in this way leads us further from the obvious "old school" trappings such as the ubiquity of the d6.
I'll offer some more thoughts in the comments as they come to me.  I do find it very interesting that the LBB and Greyhawk supplement don't seem to have any initiative mechanic to speak of.  Perhaps its the notorious lack of organization, but I don't seem to find anything on the subject.

What are the mechanics in the subsequent editions that are worth mentioning?


post festum said...

Glancing through my copies of the 1ed ad&d DM Guide and the Rules book of the Mentzer Basic set, it seems that the d6 side v. side resolution mechanic is in "official" use relatively early and still in use as late as 1983.

Ironbeard said...

This is a great question. I think one of the chief reasons for making one roll per side is to move things along more quickly, escpecially considering the number of melee participants involved in a typical combat.

Take our group for instance. Assuming everyone plays, we have seven characters and an equal or greater number of henchmen. That's 14+ people who have to roll not to mention the monsters. I think old school style assumes larger number of people involved. Remember how many people were in that party on the cover of the original PHB? It's just faster to roll side versus side given these numbers. Moreover, my sense is that while individual initiative rolls add the feeling of greater realism, they don't have that much of an appreciable difference on the outcome of combat.

I think that the d6 side versus side rule is probably a concession to expediency, one that I am inclined to adopt. Further thoughts?

post festum said...

Indulge me for a second:

I think this is one case where the lack of realism really bothers me. I completely understand the need to keep the combat "rolling" as it were, with more emphasis on "role" as opposed to "roll". Still, I just can't seem to shake a distaste for the side v. side initiative roll.

First, and obviously, this is totally out of touch with any kind of realism. It is just simply arbitrary in the worst way. I can't seem to find any justification for it other than expediency, which, again, I can appreciate. But what basis in sword&sorcery can you find for treating all members of a group as one entity in this way? No, this seems like a hold-over from miniature war-gaming that was never really reconsidered.

This leads me to my second point. Since adventuring groups are nothing more than collections of individuals, I think I'd like to see the individual tested from time to time. An individual initiative check allows for this in a way. And, as I said in the post, at least theoretically I like the chance that the shifting initiative order can itself become a tactical concern.

I can see things slowing down, but I can also imagine that players will come to appreciate the importance of a good initiative roll and look forward to trying. And, if they get a poor result, they will get another chance the following round.

Maybe a d12 with PCs calling out order closest to 12 in descending order? I think I saw this posted as a suggestion in a forum or two.

I don't think this change would producing "too much rolling" as opposed to "role", since the side v. side mechanic is just as random. And any bonuses that might apply to it could easily be imported into an individual check mechanic as well.

At least this is what I am thinking today.

Ironbeard said...

I certainly take your points. But are you suggesting though that, even if we roll initiative separately for every individual, that we still roll it every round? I think that would slow things down to a crawl.

Consider this, even under 3.5 rules, its common practice for the DM to make one initiative roll for the monsters in a combat and to have each individual player roll for initiative. In this set up, you still have the case that one side moves first and then the other moves next, even if if one sides turn straddles the boundary between separate rounds. In other words, if half the PCs go at the bottom of the round and the other half of the PCs go at the top of the next round, they are still operating as a unit.

OK< having said all that, I'm could easily live with rolling each character's initiative individually. But if we do so, I don't think we should re-roll initiative every round, as that would just take too much time.

For me, this is how the choice breaks down: I like to roll initiative individually (3.5 is rules). But I also like the idea of re-rolling initiative at the beginning of each round. It seems to me that these two elements are somewhat mutually incompatible, because combining them would make combat too ponderous.

post festum said...

Your final paragraph, Ironbeard, hits it exactly right.

Let me take this even further and reveal that part of the reason I dislike the single side v side roll stems from my dislike of the very notion of a "team leader" that is lurking just below the surface here. Reread Gygax's sample combat sessions in the ad&d DM Guide: The team leader runs the show when a roll is necessary. And while I can understand this as a nod to both efficiency and even genre realism, I think this is one case where I think it unnecessarily hurts game play. (Why does THAT guy get to make all the fun calls and roll the dice again and again and again?)

Then again I agree that individual rolls and per-round rolls are for all practical purposes exclusive options. So what to do?

In the end I think we should keep the side v side rule, as well as the d6. Simple, elegant.

Perhaps in the future I'll work out a simple system that gives the DM total discretion to determine who rolls the initiative each round based upon factors endongenous to the combat itself (location of actors, line of sight, good decision last round, etc.). Perhaps even allowing a DEX bonus if applicable.

post festum said...

So I dipped into the 2e ad&d Players Handbook to see what TSR had made of initiative by 1989.

The 2e PHB offers a "Standard" initiative mechanic as well as two "Optional" rules variations.

(Standard) side v side roll using a d10 with lowest roll winning initiative for the round. The PHB provides a list of 8-10 "Standard Initiative Modifiers" that may or may not be applied to rolls, ranging from +6 penalty for being underwater to a -2 bonus if under the effects of a Haste spell.

(Optional 1) side v side with each individual PC and NPC adding their own personalized "bonus/penalty" to the single rolls thrown by the team leader and dm.

In this case the list of "Standard Modifers" grows and becomes so exacting that it reminds me of 3.5e. For example, each PC would have to add to the roll a variety of bonuses and penalties, including based on "Weapon Speed", "Creature Size" and "Using Magic Items" (of course, each different magic item has its own unique penalty assigned).

(Optional 3) Each NPC and PC rolls initiative for themselves, including each individual monster. Not only this, but each individual is required to add from the variety of possible bonuses and penalties, including weapon speed.

The reason for including these options, states the text, is to accommodate those players who have problems with the "un-realistic" nature of the side v side. So clearly there had been a strong reaction to the d6 side v side system and this concern was strong enough to make its way into the core rule book of 2e.

What to take from 2e? In my view, not much. This initiative mechanic is clearly a step closer to 3e than it is to oe d&d. It is ridiculously complex in all but the standard option. And any system that suggests using weapon speed in your initiative determination is not going to serve our purposes in this game.

If I had to point out a positive: I find it interesting that the this edition makes the move to a d10. Why is that, I wonder? If the standard option is essentially a slightly more modified side v side roll that we've seen in the earlier editions, why change the d6 to a d10? When trying to resolve a dispute between two and only two parties, you would think that a d10 would be no "better" than a d6 at the job?

Perhaps with d10 less tie rolls? Ties in this edition are still to be resolved as "simultaneous" actions.

Next I'll go back to the basic sets since I am not at all familiar with the initiative mechanic they use.

post festum said...

I don't have the time right now to look at each of the basic sets, but the 1991 Rules Cyclopedia - which I understand to be a compilation of the various basic, expert and master sets - and found much of what you would expect:

(Standard) Side v Side roll using d6 each round. Ties end is simultaneous combat round.

(Individual Option) Each NPC, monster and PC rolls individually a d6. Ties are simultaneous combat or rerolled.

So, nothing really different from od&d or s&w. But there is an interesting option to to the Individual Option:

"Even when a DM prefers group initiative [as opposed to individual] he may prefer to use individual initiative in combat rounds where the two sides tied their initiative roll."

Potentially interesting option? Every once in a while the PCs and monsters have to roll for themselves...Could provide a bit of the tactical flavor that I've been hankering for but not slow the game down on a regular basis?


Ironbeard said...

Thanks for doing all of that exhaustive research. I agree that the simpler the rule is, the better.

I like the idea of rolling individual initiatives in cases of a tie on the side versus side roll. I think I may go with that.

Ironbeard said...

Oh, I also wanted to comment on your musings over why the d10 was used in 2ed for initiative as opposed to the d6. Your theory that this may have been done to minimize the likelihood of a tie roll is plausible, even likely. But then why not use a d20 and make the chances of rolling a tie even smaller? Why not use the d100? I suspect the shift may have grown out of a desire to simply get more use out of the d10. I never actually played 2ed.