An Improved Initiative System

Initiative is extremely important to spellcasters. It is initiative rolls that determine whether you get hit during spellcasting, and are thus spell-spoiled. It is initiative rolls that detemine whose spells go off first, and thus who wins a mage's duel. It is initiative rolls that determine whether you can Lightning Bolt the giants before they close with the fighters. It is thus unfortunate that the initiative system for AD&D1, despite numerous references to it, is nowhere explained, and that in AD&D2 is (to put it politely), badly designed. This chapter gives complete details of the initiative system we have developed over the last decade, which is detailed, playable, and fits the hints given in AD&D1 as to how its initiative system is supposed to work.

Before adopting this initiative system, it is worth being aware of the effect it will have on you campaign. It is likely to put a premium on high DEX, since now high DEX characters will now tend to be able to act before low DEX ones. It makes combats more structured and the timing of things less subjective. It may help avoid all your players trying to talk to you at once, but conversly it may make large combats run slower (or at least seem to: a player who knows at the beginning of the round that they don't act until segment 9 and that everyone else in the party plus two dozen monsters are acting before then may become bored, start chatting to other players, or even wander off in search of snack-food). It enables you to decide questions like "Did the fighter manage to spell-spoil the Lich?" and "Where was the thief when the Fireball went off?" by dice-roll rather than by DM's whim (which may remove one of the ways for the referee to adjust the difficulty of an encounter on the fly—"Sure, you can drink the healing potion before the dragon breaths again...").

Each round is divided into ten segments, numbered 1 to 10. We tend to assume that the round is a good deal shorter than the one minute rounds given in the rulebooks. This is because none of us can conceive of a reason why it should take a whole minute to hit someone with a dagger: having done quite a bit of mediaeval combat, I can assure you blows come a lot faster than that: several a second or two apart, normally, interspersed with 2–10 second pauses as both sides back off, pant, and look for openings. Also, even at outdoor movement rates, 24" move, 240yrds/minute is about 8mph, rather slow for a galloping light horse. (In AD&D2 they have noticed this, and introduced increased movement out of combat to compensate.) The normal value we use is 20-second rounds with 30 rounds to the 10-minute turn (which gets movement right but makes combat still slow), or some referees prefer 6-second rounds with 10 to the 1-minute turn (which makes combat about right but requires that you slow all movement to indoor rates). If you shorten the turn length, some long duration spells should have their duration changed from turns to tens of turns. However, the initiative system below will work equally well for any round length, even the ridiculous TSR ones (though you will find that your character's reaction time is about 20 seconds!).

Initiative Roll: Initiative is rolled separately for each character. The referee will normally roll one initiative roll for each group of identical monsters, at least for cannon fodder. The standard roll is D6+3 segments. The dexterity reaction/attacking adjustment (we use a slightly modified table) is subtracted from this, so the roll is as follows:
Dexterity Initiative Roll
1–2< D6+6
3–4 D6+5
5–6 D6+4
7–14 D6+3
15–16 D6+2
17–18 D6+1
19–20 D6
21–22 D6-1
23–24 D6-2
25 D6-3
This is the segment on which the creature would attack in melee if it had a single attack and started the round in melee. Results of less than 1 should be rounded up to 1; results of greater than ten are discussed below (in general they round down to 10, but there are exceptions).

Multiple Attacks: If the character or creature has multiple attacks this round, there are two possible systems: either roll initiative for each separately, rerolling if this results in two attacks with the same limb in the same segment (the "chaotic" system), or apply the following (the "lawful" system, which we find more playable):

2 attacks: one attack two segments early, and one two segments late.
3 attacks: one attack three segments early, one as rolled, and one three segments late .
4 attacks: one attack three segments early, one one segment early, one one segment late, and one three segments late.
5+ attacks: distribute attacks evenly through the round, using the D6 roll to judge whether to round fractions up or down.
Melee Attacks Initiative Roll Modifiers
1 0
2 -2, +2
3 -3, 0, +3
4 -3, -1, +1, +3
5+ Spread attacks evenly through round
In the case of monsters with several sorts of attacks, mix them in some previously defined order, with the biggest one near the middle (standardly Claw, Bite, Claw?or for dragons Claw, Wing Buffet, Bite, Rear Foot Stomp, Tail Lash, Wing Buffet, Claw if the party stand all round it: breath attacks are treated like missile attack and spell-casting and come on a reaction roll: see below).

Note that this does not distinguish between multiple attacks due to skill and mutiple attacks due to multiple weapons. If you think this is a mistake, you can use the "lawful" system (roll modifiers) for multiple attacks due to skill and the "chaotic" one (multiple rolls) for multiple weapons, but it will make combat less playable (particularly if you have to referee a hasted four-armed ambidextrous high-level fighter...).

The result gives the number of segments of melee required for the character to make the attack. If the character does not start melee at the beginning of the round (for example because they are still charging towards the enemy), then their attack will be delayed by the number of segments that they spend before starting combat. Attacks delayed to after segment 10 by movement are lost.

Reaction Rolls: Certain actions are quicker than that of spotting an opening in combat, and attempting to land a blow through it. The principle examples are: reacting to an unexpected change in circumstances (eg deciding to start running away), starting to cast a spell (if you know what you want to cast, and have the components to hand), drawing a sword (even more so if you have Fastdraw proficiency), firing a missile weapon, grabbing a potion from your belt, etc. For these actions, use a reaction roll: this is half the result of an initiative roll, rounded down. Note that at very high DEX a reaction roll can be zero segments, allowing the character to react almost instantly. If the character reacts to several things in around, roll separately each time: rolling a 1 at the beginning of the round does not allow you to react quickly for the whole rest of the round!). If the character is reacting in a previously decided way to an expected event (Eg. "As soon as I see Fred, I'll lob the acid through the door"), they can act in 1 segment (or zero if they can roll a zero segment reaction roll, which requires DEX 19+ and luck).

Missile Fire: The first missile of the round is fired on a reaction roll (unless it was already nocked and aimed, and the firer was waiting for a specific event, when they can fire it in one segment). Even a zero-segment reaction roll will not allow a missile attack before segment 1: it gets rounded up to segment 1. In the case of multiple missile attacks:

2 attacks: second attack four segments later.
3 attacks: second attack three segments later, third three segments after that.
4 attacks: attacks at two segment intervals.
5+ attacks: distribute attacks evenly through the round, using the D6 roll to judge whether to round fractions up or down.
Missile Attacks Reaction Roll Modifiers
1 0
2 0, +4
3 0, +3, +6
4 0, +2, +4, +6
5+ Spread attacks evenly over round

Spellcasting: Spellcasting standardly starts on the segment indicated by a reaction roll (minimum of segment one). The spellcaster is casting (and so may be spell-spoiled) for the number of segments given in the casting time. The spell goes off the segment after they finish. For example: Joe Average, a DEX 10 wizard, is tring to Fireball a charging ogre. He rolls a 2 on his D6, so his D6+3 roll is 5, which halves and rounds down to a reaction roll of 2, a quick response to this charging brute. Thus he starts spellcasting on segment 2, and since Fireball is a three segment spell, will be casting during part of 2, all of 3 and 4, and part of 5. Unless the ogre manages to hit him late in segment 2, or any time in 3 or 4, then the Fireball will go off in segment 5 (three segments later than if he had thrown a dagger). (If the ogre hits him in 5, since actions in one segment are simultaneous, it is too late for Joe to be spell-spoiled.) The ogre, meanwhile, starts two segments move away (13–24 feet), so will only be able to start meleeing Joe on segment 3. Unless it has high DEX (and referees normally assume monster DEX is in the 7–14 bracket) and manages to roll low on its initiative D6, the ogre is going to get fried, as it needs an initiative roll of 1 or 2 (difficult on D6+3) to spell-spoil Joe. Unfortunately Joe is likely to be in the Fireball too, unless he's awefully careful targeting it...

Simple Actions: Our normal rule of thumb for the time taken by quick and easy actions such as sheathing a sword or grabbing an item from your belt is that it takes a reaction roll. (Note that this allows very high DEX character to do several such actions in a round, while most characters can only do a couple.) Combat-related activities, such as sheathing a sword or picking up a dropped shield, may alternatively be done by using up an opportunity to attack (this can be useful to high-level fighters with poor DEX, who may have multiple attacks but long reaction rolls). Generous referees may allow a character to drink a potion and have it take effect all on a Reaction Roll; referees using short rounds and wanting more realism may rule that it takes a Reaction Roll to start drinking the potion, plus some time (perhaps 5 segments, possibly modified by the character's CON) to actually drink it and maybe even longer (perhaps D4 segments) for it to take effect. Actions requiring any aiming or direction (beyond the character's own body), such as throwing a healing potion to somone else (or catching it) count as attacks (usually missile attacks), and are treated as such for initiative purposes.

Movement: The characters or creatures may move up to their movement rate (standardly one foot indoors, or one yard outdoors, per segment for each 1" of movement rate) each segment. (Normally only flying creatures need worry about acceleration, unless you are using out of combat movement rules.) Deciding to move due to an unexpected change takes a reaction roll: deciding to dodge or stop due to obstacles or obvious danger (such as rounding a corner and seeing a dragon) once you have started moving does not.

Charge Attacks: If using a weapon such as a lance or horns, and charging (or with weapon set against charge), you attack in the segment you close. If fine point is needed, the attacks come in order of weapon length. (If you run old-style barbarians, you may wish to let them have succesful first-attack-ferocity attacks as charge attacks.)

Free, Surprise and Parting Attacks: If you are fighting someone and they turn and run, or start standing there and ignoring you, or are unaware of you (and you are not manouving slowly for a backstab), or they are tied up, you can take extra attacks, one each segment (or even a complete attack sequence each segment, if the referee so rules). Of course, if they are turning and running, or this is surprise, you are unlikely to get more than one segment's worth of this!

Additional Actions: Once the character has finished doing one thing, they can start doing another. Additional actions will normally take either an initiative roll, or a reaction roll from the segment when they started to complete, and if this takes you past segment ten, you've run out of time: try again next round. However, melee combat is a continuous activity: if you stop to drink a potion once you've hit the Giant, it's going to get lots of free attacks on you while you're doing it (unless it's dead, of course!).

No character may make more than one "attack" per round, except as allowed by the standard rules for skilled fighters in melee, or for certain missile weapons. "Attack" is in quotes, as any action which needs to be aimed or directed counts here: touching Alf in order to heal him counts as an attack, and so is casting Haste on him from range, but shovelling handfulls of Delayed Blast Fireballs out of your balloon is not, if you are not bothering to aim them.

In addition, no character can cast more than one spell per round (though they might be able to trigger other spells off items). Most magical items cannot cast more than one spell (or similar effect) per round. This need not be an "attack": a mage could toss a dagger at some-one, and then cast Shield upon himself (casting self-affecting spells does not require aiming them), if he had good enough initiative.

Haste and Slow: A hasted character has two rounds during any one round for normal characters, and two segments during any one normal segment, except for the purpose of spellcasting. Thus they have already started a new round when everyone else is starting segment 6. A hasted characters's odd-numbered segments come in before everone else, so their segement 1 is at segment 12, their segment 3 is at segment 112, etc, while their even-numbered segments are at the same time as everone elses segments (so their segment 2 is simultaneous with everyone else's segment 1, their 4 is everyone else's 2, etc). (If the entire party is hasted, just double casting times and treat all the monsters as being slowed: it's less hard on the brain.) Similarly, a slowed character takes two normal rounds to have one of their rounds, and has a segment only on even numbered normal segments.

Miscellaneous Points: There is no segment 0: the only way anything can happen before segment 1 is by being hasted and acting on segment 12. Any rolls indicating this should be delayed to segment one.

If the roll indicates that something happens after segment 10, then if it is the result of a continuing action (such as casting a spell or binding someones wounds), then the extra segments needed extend into the next round. If it is a single action, then it will normally be lost, and the character will have to try again next round. (Eg. Since it took you three rounds to get to the hobgoblin, and you rolled a six for initiative, your attack would have been on twelve: you dont get an attack that round, having arrived late and been slow to find an opening to attack into.) However, no creature can loose attacks due to this rule if it did nothing during the round but fight and has a DEX of at least 3: the attacks come in in segment 10 instead (or 9 and 10, or whatever). DEX 3 means that you usually attack last, but doesn't actually cause you to loose attacks entirely!

All actions in one segment are normally considered to be simultaineous. If this does not make sense in a particular circumstance, roll fine point: each roll a D6, lowest goes first, and if they're the same it really was simultaneous.

Using the System: If you don't need initiative that round (no-one's going to die, the order of the blows doesn't matter), don't waste time using it. If it only matters for one thing, then only use it for that thing. If the fight is really two independant fights (even in the same room), it is usually quicker if you deal with rounds from each one alternately. To speed play, enforce the following:

Step 0: The players decide their intentions for the round and roll their initiative. (Additional reaction rolls to react to events during the round can be made later as required.) They remember when they are going to act, or if this is complex (as when running several characters), note it down. Meanwhile, you are deciding what the monsters are going to do this round, rolling initiative for each group and for all the important individuals, and jotting the results on the same piece of paper you are using for their hit points.

Steps 1–10: Start calling off segments. (If people don't act when their segment is called, tough: their character must have hesitated or been distracted, and is acting late.) If several characters are acting in the same segment, and they all try to talk at once, you will need to go round them in order (actions in one segment are simultaineous, so the order doesn't matter). Normally just the segment count will ensure that only one player is trying to talk to you at once. Frequently you can shortcut some of these steps by "The orcs all attack in 6. Any attacks before then?", or "Any more party actions for this round?".

Step 11: Say "End of Round!", loudly. This will normally produce a stream of "Just a sec, I had an attack in 8!", "Can I drink a potion this round as well?", "I didn't hear you call 10", etc. Deal with it, and then call "Beginning of Round Five!" (or whatever round it is). Go to Step 0 again.

This all sounds fairly regimented, and it is, but sometimes you need this to organise a large complex high-level combat. And if you don't need it for a fight (or even for this round of one), then don't bother!

Complicating the System: Scattered around AD&D1 and AD&D2 are assorted tables that give adjustments to the times it takes to do things. These are all entirely compatible with the above system (indeed it was initially assembled by trying to deduce what could be compatible with the AD&D1 modifier tables!)

The one exception to this is weapon speed factors (PHB1 p.38/124, PHB2 p. **/**). In AD&D1 these were never explained, looked complicated, and thus are usually ignored. In AD&D2 they are fully explained, but are the wrongwayround. According to AD&D2, if two matched people fight, one with a spear and one with a dagger, then the one with the dagger almost always strikes first (by ** seconds on average!). We have tried this (with blunt weapons!) frequently, and we can tell you that this is not what happens. The two combatants start, at the beginning of the fight and during the frequent (2#8211;10 second) pauses for breath that punctuate combat (and are the real justification for a structure as artifical as the combat round), in a position such that they are both out of range. One of them sees an opening and lunges or jumps forwards. Unfortunately, it takes considerably longer to move your whole body forwards than it does to jab with a spear, so unless the spearman misses, or is parried, the dagger wielder stops suddenly with a spear in the chest, and never gets in range. If they do manage to rush past the spearpoint, they may manage to get a slash at the spearman before he frantically backpedals. Only rarely will the dagger-user be able to stay in range for any time (they either have to back the spearman in a corner, or grab him, or run a good deal faster than him), and then the spearman can do nothing with his spear (as it is too long) except try to parry or push the dagger-user away with the middle.

The above example is obviously too complex to be accurately treated by any playable combat system (though GURPS gets surprisingly close), but there is one obvious conclusion: the guy with the spear gets the chance to hit first, and the person with the dagger has to get past this, by luck, armour class, or extreme speed, in order to get an attack. It is faster, from a standing start, to slash with a light dagger than to thrust with a heavy spear (though not as much so as you might think#8212;the dagger wielder is mostly pushing their arm, not the dagger), but combat doesn't start from a standing start: it starts by trying to move into range, and if his range is shorter, it takes him less long to reach it. This is an very general rule, applicable to all kinds of weapons, not just daggers vs. spears, and can be a very important factor in combat#8212;any fencer will tell you that an inch or two of extra reach is a major advantage. Thus if you want accuracy in your combats sufficiently to use weapon speed factors, dont use TSR's! Reversing them is a good start, and while you're at it you can let large monsters (which have a long reach, and can suddenly lash out a great distance) hit before tiny ones with short legs: watch a pack of dogs attacking a deer at bay on the TV sometime. Alternatively, steal the weapon-length adjustments to initiative from Runequest, which were written by someone who had actually used a weapon at some point in their life.