Friday 25 May 2012

AD&D Initiative - The Main Event

Gary Gygax (centre)
Explains Initiative to a Fan (right)
Mike Carr looks on (left)
AD&D initiative is legendary for its incomprehensibility. This is a reputation well-earned but fortunately it is not, unlike some other problem areas, because the rules are simply missing. They are all there; just not necessarily in the right order. So, here they are in a different order. As with the other posts in this introductory notes series, I'm assuming that you have read the relevant sections of the DMG in particular, so I'm not repeating literally every rule here.

Initiative Phase 1: Who's On First?

The most fundamental principle of the initiative system is that those who have lots of initiative commence their actions before those that have less, so the most basic question is to decide which of any two (or more) figures has the most initiative. Initiative is given in this order, from good to bad:
  1. Multiple attacks - ether from level, haste, missile weapon use, or monster ability (see below).
  2. Dice roll of 1d6 with high being good and reaction modifier applied for missile weapons.
  3. Zombies and characters under the effects of a slow spell.
"Multiple attacks" only counts if the character commits to using those multiple attacks this round - simply having the ability to fire a bow twice is not sufficient to give the character initiative if they decide to flee, however being under the effects of a haste spell does qualify automatically. Obviously, more multiple attacks is better than fewer and so three attacks beats two, and four beats three etc.

If several combatants vie in the same bracket then use the d6 roll to break ties and if that's equal then the two figures do in fact act simultaneously. Although groups share a single initiative die each member of the group may have its own modifiers.

So, an exceptional party which contained: Albert (hasted), Bertie (Bow with +1 reaction mod), Clem (normal cleric), and Zombie Dave (a zombie) who rolled a 4 for initiative would have this order of action:
  1. Bertie (ties with Albert for number of attacks but has +1 to initiative from Dex)
  2. Albert (multiple attacks)
  3. Clem (rolls a 4)
  4. Bertie's second attack (ties with Albert but has +1 to initiative).
  5. Albert's second attack
  6. Zombie Dave (is a zombie)
If they faced a party of normal orcs, say, who also rolled a 4 for their initiative then Bertie and Al would commence acting first, then Clem and the orcs together, then Berite, Al, and then Zombie Dave bringin up the rear (or whatever else he's been eating).

Once the order of initiative is determined each of the figures declares which of options A-H (DMG p61) they are using. In the above example Bertie's player would do this, followed by Al, Clem and the DM for the orcs, and finally Zombie Dave's player. Notice that Bertie has the advantage of acting first but everyone else knows what he's doing when they pick their option; he doesn't know what anyone is doing for sure.

War Houri Unleashes
her Maracas, gaining +1 to
(Art: Jed Dougherty)
Once everyone has declared their actions they must be resolved. Conceptually, everyone commences their actions at the start of the round with relatively minor delays (ie, less than 6 seconds) between those with initiative and those without less. The archers nock their arrows; the spell casters ready their components, the fighters pick their targets, the thieves run away, and the houris loosen their clothing. In particular, movement and spell casting begin here so all parties involved get a full 10 segments of movement and casting time each and every round.

Initiative Phase 2: Finishing What You Have Started
If everything took the same time then that would be more or less all there is to it - each action would be resolved and then the next round would begin. But some things take more time than others. The two most important ones being movement and spell-casting, although things such as winding up or down a drawbridge, finding a potion in a bag, or even falling also come under this heading and a specific time (usually in segments) is assigned to them. Everything else - archery, striking blows, most magical device effects - has a time requirement of zero (representing "unknown"). Which brings us to the golden rule of AD&D initiative

Actions which have initiative always complete before actions of the same duration or longer which do not have initiative.

Notice that if both actions require the same time, including zero, then the above rule covers the situation and the initiative die will break or confirm the tie.

The question that remains is what happens if the slower action has initiative? To decide that, you need to find the segment on which the faster one completes. If both have a specific time requirement then that answers the question straight away: If you need 3 segments to reach me then any two-segment action by me (such as teleport) will complete before you arrive.

That leaves situations in which only one action has a non-zero time requirement. I'll call the non-zero time action "untimed" (eg, a dragon's breath or a crossbow bolt or a sword in the gut) and the other sort "timed" from here on. There are two possibilities:
  1. If the untimed event does not have a speed factor then Method I below is used.
  2. If the untimed event has a speed factor (ie, it's a melee weapon attack) then Method II below is used.
Method I (no speed factor): The higher of the two initiative dice is consulted (without modification) and that indicates the segment on which the untimed action completes.

A fighter runs across a hall through the line of fire of an NPC with a heavy crossbow ready to fire. The distance to cross is 30' and the fighter has a move rate of 9" (9' per segment; doubled to 18' for charging movement) so he will take just 2 segments to cross. Here's how various initiative dice rolls work out:

Fighter rolls 3 and the crossbowman a 4: crossbow wins and gets a to-hit roll (this is just the Golden Rule from above).
Fighter rolls 3 and the crossbowman a 2: fighter wins and is across the gap before the attack roll.
Fighter rolls 2 and the crossbowman a 1: fighter wins and is across the gap before the attack roll.
Fighter rolls 3 and the crossbowman a 3: attack comes too late again.
Fighter rolls 2 and the crossbowman a 2: crossbow gets a to-hit roll but the fighter complete his actions regardless of the result. So, if taken to 0 or less hp they will be prone but out of the line of fire.
Fighter rolls 2 and the crossbowman a 3 but this crossbowman has a -2 to initiative for poor dexterity (or some other reason): the higher die in this case is still the crossbowman's 3 and so the fighter is safe.
All these cases can be replaced by a spell caster attempting to cast a spell with the same results. Note that any action which takes more than 6 segments can not possibly complete before an untimed action.

Method II (with speed factor): If initiative is otherwise tied, then the untimed action completes on the segment equal to the speed factor. Otherwise, the timed action comes on the segment determined by the difference between the speed factor and the losing initiative die.

If a dervish makes an attack with a scimitar (speed factor 4) and loses initiative with a 3 the attack will come on segment 1; similarly if he loses with a roll of 5 the attack will also come on segment 1.

When the losing initiative die is equal to the speed of the weapon, the segment indicator is zero, meaning that even a 1-segment action (or spell) will be interrupted by the attack.

Remember that you only use Method I or II if the shorter action has not gained initiative and that means that one of the actions must have a specific non-zero time requirement, otherwise the action with initiative is the one that completes first.


Notice that the system does not assume that what is being dealt with are attacks by one figure on another. There are many times when the players will want to know if, for example, a hold person spell takes effect before a monster attacks a member of the party who is not the spell caster. The example above of the fighter crossing a gap is likewise not one where the characters are in direct combat with each other.

Another thing worth pointing out is that the actions listed on page 61 of DMG are commenced in order. Thus, if a party's cleric turns undead which its fighters are in melee with then those fighters will get a an attack at +4 against the undead as they turn to flee. It is only those actions which have a time requirement which are set aside and resolved in potentially a different sequence from the raw initiative order.

Multiple Attacks

When a creature has multiple attack routines half of those attacks will have automatic initiative against other actions and half will automatically lose. If the creature has an odd number of attacks, then one will be evaluated in the middle in the same way as any other single attack (including using initiative dice to resolve its order).

"So, is this multiple attacks or multiple routines?"
"Shut up"
Gygax seems to have decided that running so many monsters with multiple attacks in the way that is outlined above would be too much complexity,. so he introduced the idea of the attack routine. Basically, when a lion does its claw/claw/bite attack it does so as a single unit against a single target albeit with three separate to-hit rolls. A thief using a sword and a dagger likewise attacks with them together, making two attack rolls against a single opponent. Meanwhile a high level fighter, on the other hand, with two attacks per round gets the benefit of automatic initiative for the first one and can attack two different targets.

In the monster manual, you will find occasional references to monster which are capable of splitting their attacks between targets (trolls, demons, devil, octopuses and a few others). It is never explicitly stated but I think the intent was that these monsters do fight in the same way as the high-level fighter or bowman, gaining the advantage of first strike against those with but a single attack.

Closing to Melee/Charging

A careful look at the options A-H in the DMG reveals an interesting fact: if you are not within melee range at the start of a round you can not make a melee attack this round without charging. Your only options for getting into melee range are to close (make a normal move) or to charge (make a double move with combat at the end), and the latter is only available once per 10 rounds. This has important safety implications for spell casters who are not in the front line at the start of an encounter.

A Clash of Arms

No initiative summary would be complete without a look at the wacky world of initiative ties as they relate to melee weapons. Let's have a table too, why not?

These rules only applies when both combatants' weapons have speed factors and they have tied for initiative.
  1. The weapon with the lower speed factor (ie, the faster) attacks first.
  2. If the higher weapons' speed factors is three time the speed factor of the faster (or 5 or more higher in any case), the faster weapon gets a bonus strike which is also resolved before the slower weapon.
  3. If the difference in speeds is 10 or more (only possible when facing pikes!) then the faster weapon gets a third attack simultaneously with the slower one.
Nobody can claim that is an elegant system, so here's a table instead:
Look out! He's got a dagger!

We'll stop there since 13 is the highest speed factor in the game. The first column is the speed of "your" weapon and the "+1" column indicates the opposing speed factor needed to get an extra attack, and "+2" that needed for two extra attacks.

Extra Reading
In particular, the section entitled "Actions during Combat and Similar Time-Important Situations" on DMG p71 is a useful thing to keep in mind, as is the fact that the rules are a base and you can riff off them and develop your own standards for what happens when in combat. The only real requirement is consistency. Initiative is an important topic in an adventure game as it frames the part of the game where characters are most likely to die - combat. Realism is not as important as being fair in this regard, in my opinion anyway, and AD&D combat is brutal enough without also making it hard for players to predict what is a good idea and what is not.


  1. I reckon in cases where it matters what player's choose as actions relative to each other (player versus player), I would have them use "written orders" à la Chain Mail. I am still not happy with the interpretation that initiative plays no role when timed actions have different lengths, but live and let live, I guess. :D

  2. Well, I know what you mean and I know why because I generally agree that it's unsatisfactory in many cases but I just put it down to granularity. Some things get hand-waved and this seems to be one of them.

    Your solution of having the winning initiative be a sort of "minimum time" for losing timed actions is very workable IMO, but it's not BtB and it does raise some issues that the book doesn't handle.

    Written orders is also potentially a good way of handling things but it doesn't float many players' boats IME, particularly what are called "casual gamers" these days.

  3. Well, that is the issue for me, I reckon, which is that the DMG never describes how timed actions interact with one another (the only clue is a cryptic comment in the PHB about spell versus spell). So, whatever answer we come up with is not going to be "by the book". These days I am inclined towards adapting the weapon speed versus casting time rules (difference between initiative dice compared to the difference between casting times in cases where the higher casting time has won initiative).

    As you note, though, there is a basic tension in rounds and timed actions that just has to be hand waived away, because playability has priority over everything else. :D