Musings on Game Design and Revisiting AD&D 1st Edition: Initiative #DnD #RPG #ADnD

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Introduction to Each Post in This Series

On Friday (July 23, 2021), I mentioned that I was relearning AD&D 1st Edition (“1e“) with the intention of running it. As I read through the Player’s Handbook (“PHB“), certain mechanics or text will strike me as odd or surprising, but in either case worthy of discussion. In fact, the most surprising thing I’m experiencing is that I’m finding a lot more great ideas in 1e that we’ve since abandoned. I find myself asking, “Why?” As a result, I’ll be writing several posts over the next few weeks. I’m sure everything I’m thinking has been discussed before — sometimes be me — so perhaps my questions have been answered, and my concerns resolved, years ago. My experience with RPGs is relatively limited in scope, having played a small number of games, so I’m sure a lot of what I’m going to say has been incorporated into games I’ve never even heard of. (Some have certainly been addressed by future editions of D&D themselves.) Nevertheless, bringing this directed conversation to the public is new to me, so here it goes.

Posts in this series: | My Playlist | Campaign Settings and Pantheons | Languages | Level | “Dead Levels” | Division of Labor, Distance, and Time | Initiative | Combat Subsystems | Armor Class Ratings | Alignment and Reputation | The Feel of a School of Magic | Boring Magic Items | Ability Score Bonuses and Skill Rolls | The Problem with Democracies | Hitting More Frequently | Encounter Balance and Shooting Yourselves in the Feet |

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Initiative in 1e starts off simply but doesn’t stay there. Each side gets a single roll, but each character deals with that roll differently. Characters may add bonuses or penalties based on their Dexterity scores and, if a character has multiple attacks per round, staggers those attacks. For example, if a character attacks twice per round, and its enemy attacks once per round, then then character attacks first and third in the round. Maybe. It depends in part on surprise. The net effect is that, unlike every other RPG I’ve ever played, initiative affects combat resolution but isn’t dispositive of it. Instead, other things largely determine combat order, and where there’s a tie, initiative breaks that tie. I was so confused by the writing that I posted to various social media outlets looking for clarification. Even worse, rules aren’t presented in a couple of paragraphs under an appropriate header. Instead, the rules for initiative are found in two different places in the Players Handbook, and elsewhere in the Dungeon Master’s Guide. This isn’t uncommon. Optional rules are in Unearthed Arcana. You really have to do a lot of research just to get the rule for initiative, and that’s just a small part of combat as a whole.

To get clarity, I often go to the Facebook and MeWe hiveminds. Unsurprisingly, there was only a sliver of consensus in the responses I received from my question on initiative, so other people’s interpretation of the initiative rules as written still left me confused. In the end, here was the best response I received from Pete on Facebook (referencing the entire ruleset):

The rules are crazy complex, have some bizarrely overpowered aspects, and tons of exceptions and unexplained aspects. I found it best to take what I liked, toss out what I didn’t, write up my initiative system on my game wiki so everyone understood it, and play like that.

This makes sense, except there are some real issues with rewriting initiative. Many spells have casting times given in segments, so you can’t ignore those divisions of a turn unless you want to rewrite a lot of 1e rules. No thanks. Fortunately, David Prata did a lot of research and work to clarify and summarize the entire combat system, complete with references in the footnotes. The linked document seems like the kind of thing I’d write — it’s a 20-page outline with footnotes — and it makes the system a lot easier to understand.

Why is this a big deal to me?

True story.

Among the many reasons I’ve stopped playing D&D, I don’t like DMs that treat the game like it’s their table, and not our table. I never intentionally DM like that, which means, in part, the rules should be open and understandable to everyone.

So, my current plan is to stick with initiative as is. Once I get the hang of it, it should be fine. However, tomorrow I’ll discuss some other aspects of the combat system, and the push and pull between strict and flexible systems. As with languages, 1e has some really good things to offer that modern game designers have left behind.

My table is a constitutional democracy, and the rules can be deemed void for vagueness (see Skilling v. United States, 130 S.Ct. 2896 (2010)).

Follow me on Twitter @gsllc

Dungeons & Dragons is a trademark of Wizards of the Coast, LLC, who neither contributed to nor endorsed the contents of this post. (Okay, jackasses?)


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