Seizing Initiative

Kilgore's battered Red Six

Kilgore's battered Red Six

James at Grognardia has a post up on initiative. It begins thus:

One of the key advantages of OD&D is its simplicity, which makes it very easy to modify. One of the areas I’m thinking of modifying is initiative, because I’m not really happy with any of the systems I’ve tried over the past year. I’d like something a little more complex, or at least that better takes into account things like weapons used, armor worn, and Dexterity.

Now, who am I to critique? But this touches a topic that I had meant to post on before my gaming came to a screeching halt a couple of moths ago, so I feel I must comment at bit. For the purposes of this discussion, I’m defining “OD&D” to include Labyrinth Lord.

Let’s look at that first sentence.

One of the key advantages of OD&D is its simplicity, which makes it very easy to modify.

That is very true, but it can be, in my humble opinion, improved a bit. Here’s my “punched up” version:

One of the key advantages of OD&D is its simplicity, which makes it very easy to modify.

Now, as I’ve written on this site, I’m certainly not above tweaking things here and there, and it’s much easier to do so well when using a simple system. But the primary advantage of a simple system is not that it’s very easy to modify. The primary advantage of a simple system is that it’s simple.

The d6-for-each-side initiative scheme is what I consider to be probably the most useful example of why and how I think a simple system (generally, but not always, ‘old school’) is vastly superior to a more complex and sophisticated system. I see it as sort of the “gold standard” example of why simple is better.

James has some tables to take weapons, armor, and dexterity into account when determining initiative. They are based on the good old Judges Guild Ready Ref Sheets, and look to be quite good. In fact, they’ve got a lot going for them. They are not overly-complex and get to the meat of what James wants to accomplish. Bravo. It appears that you could simply calculate an initiative score for each character (or maybe for each weapon a character uses) and go from there, not needing to consult the tables too often during actual play.

Still, I can’t help thinking that and quick and easy d6 for the party is better. For one thing, it’s quicker and easier. That carries nearly as much weight as anything. For another, the chaotic nature of combat means that a thief with a dagger somehow always striking after a fighter with a 2-handed sword (which should be slower) is easily explained. Finally, the purely random nature of the d6 roll against the other side’s d6 roll to determine something as important as who goes first is just plain fun.

And ‘just plain fun’ trumps ‘realistic’ every time.

So while James’ tables are good, I’ll be sticking with my straight up d6 for each side, thankyouverymuch.

Additionally, I don’t think I’ve ever (and I mean ever ever ever) used individual initiative in a game.

I could bring myself to allow the dexterity initiative bonus when a “side” consists of a lone individual, whether he’s fighting against a “side” of one opponent or of more. So Thadeus the Theif with a DEX of 16 would get a +1 (per the Labyrinth Lord rules) bonus to his roll whether he was fighting one other guy (who might get his own bonus) or a group.

Now that I think about it, I could even be convinced to give a whole side the bonus if every member had that bonus. This would be similar to how a halfling gets a +1 on initiative when alone or in a party composed only of halflings. So a side would get a +1 if everyone had a DEX of 13 or greater. Sort of using the lowest common denominator for initiative modifiers.

(I’d have to think about what to do with initiative penalties. Would one person with a penalty require the whole side to roll using that penalty? Not sure.)

The quick, random, exciting nature of the d6 vs. d6 is a major bonus to the old ways, as far as I’m concerned. I know that different folks have different takes on things, but I’m going to stick with that method. I think it’s the perfect model of simpler is better.

Now, if only the LOW roll won, it would match up better with all the other old school d6 checks where lower is better. I haven’t made that change yet, but I’ve considered it.

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8 Responses to Seizing Initiative

  1. Erin Smale says:

    I’d argue that the primary advantage of a simple system is that it’s flexible. This lets people with different styles of play tweak what they need to make the game more fun for them. Degrees of “ease of play” and “realism” are subjective, and one size definitely does not fit all. A simple system can help gamers obtain a better fit, with either a little tweaking or none.

    You and James have different approaches to initiative, and you each want to reflect different aspects of realism, within certain tolerances of playability. Fortunately, you can both be happy with the same simple system as a foundation.

    BTW, here’s another take on xD&D initiative; it’s for individuals, but just as fast as the Official system:

    • Kilgore says:

      To clarify, I absolutely do think that flexibility is a HUGE bonus for simple games, and that flexibility certainly makes mods much easier. No arguments on that, and I have my own fair share of mods. Though I try to limit them as much as I can.

      Also to clarify, I don’t have a problem with James’ system. I think it’s a pretty good one. It just happens that it adds complexity to what I regard as the flagship example of simplicity’s superiority, so I’m quite hesitant to mess with it myself.

      I still think that simplicity is its own greatest reward, though.

      • Didn’t mean to imply that there was an issue – I completely get what you’re saying. I think every player/GM have certain mechanics that they like from the start and others that just beg modification. That particular initiative variant came from an RC campaign with a certain group. Another group playing the same campaign preferred 1-roll-per-side initiative. Just glad the RC was simple/flexible to accommodate both.

  2. I have always used a single die per side or party; 1d6 for years but now I use a 1d10 (Castles & Crusades). When it is the players’ time to take their actions, then I have them do it according to dexterity score (highest dexterity goes first). It is simple and has worked. I have, at times, used an addition “momentum effect” where the party winning initiative gains a +1 on the next round’s initiative roll.

    • I like the momentum factor.

      Question: you’re saying one die per side – how does PC DEX figure into that? Not familiar with C&C initiative – is it individual?

    • Kilgore says:

      RE: Momentum

      In 2e I gave ties to the winner of the previous round in the name of “momentum.” I do like the idea, but with d6 instead of d10 the “momentum effect” was a little too great, and as we’ve gone less wargame and more descriptive in our combats, I like the idea of simultaneous actions more than I used to.

      Maybe something to the effect of the previous round’s winner wins with a roll of 5 or 6 regardless of what the other side rolls. Most of those would have been wins anyway, but a few extra here or there can keep “mighty mo” something to reckon with.

      Or maybe even that’s too much tinkering with a simple system that I really appreciate. I’ll have to think on that. Thanks for bringing it up.

  3. @Erin: Each side or party gets one die to roll for initiative, as opposed to each character, npc or creature getting an individual roll. It is simple and quick–virtues–but it does mean that dex, weapon types, reach, etc are lost. Like most things in life, it is a trade off and one we have made because my current in-house group wanted to go ultra lite for combat.

    @Kilgore: I use momentum with my Skype gaming group, made up of guys that I gamed with back in the 70s. We started with Avalon Hill and Stratomatic before playing RPGs. I don’t use it with my inhouse group.

  4. ze bulette says:

    Not much to add here other than I bit my tongue on reading Jame’s post you reference and feel 100% the way do. 1d6 and no individual initiative, thanks very much. In a PBP game, I could see the added time and considerations perhaps able to be overlooked & interesting (but probably not game enhancing overall), but in a live face to face game, no thanks!

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