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Actions and Initiative

It’s all like, connected, man.

Editor Greg had another point about magic and spell-casting last week that gave me pause:

What gets my head crunching here is what is the spell equivalent to an attack? [In LBB D&D, the] problem with equating a spell with an action equal to a sword attack is that if the effect of the spell isn’t equal to the effect of the sword it’s imbalanced. The D&D sleep spell in this specific context is horribly unfair. Therefore is a power appropriate and equivalent to an action? Should it be? If not, what difficulty should be presented that makes its use fair?

Short Answer

I see where Greg is coming from—within D&D’s wargaming origins, actions/attacks produce fairly consistent results, regardless of source (BTW, this goes a long way in explaining non-variable weapon damage in early incarnations of the game). If you wanted a greater-than-normal outcome, it would cost you something. As Greg pointed out later in his note, “[spells were] effectively limited by the spell table, which broke the equivalency of the action with sword fighting by saying you only get one of these, and you only know this one.”

I never played the LBBs or Holmes, and I'm not familiar with the "spell table." Instead, I starting D&D with Moldvay Basic, wherein the concept of cost-for-benefit was in full transition, if not actually well-entrenched. Variable weapon damage is a perfect example: instead of doing 1d6 damage regardless of weapon, you could, for instance, do 1d10 damage with a pole arm. But the "cost" of doling out that extra damage was that you were using a 2-handed weapon, which meant no shield and automatic loss of initiative.

sleep spell

Too tired to cast sleep

The sleep spell is another good example. I don’t know how the LBBs or Holmes addressed it, but in B/X, a PC could cast spells only after the “missile fire” phase of the combat round. The "cost" here is that you had to wait until everyone else had moved and your foes had fired at you. It was quite possible that your (crap armour class) MU wouldn't get a chance to use his spell before getting shot and wounded or even killed.

As many of you know, these precedents are built into Chimera, which owes a goodly bit to the influence of B/X. So, to Greg’s question, yes, wielding a power is equivalent to an action, even though a power could have a far greater impact than a sword attack. The "cost" here is that you risk fatigue on a failed Wield roll. Compare that to a weapon-based attack—there is no penalty if you miss. But a power can do more than a sword, hence the greater risk of failure.

Which Reminds Me...

I’m embarrassed to admit that I never gave the official B/X initiative rules their due credit. We always fudged it with a simple 1d6 on each side (i.e., monsters and PCs)—whoever won did whatever they wanted before whoever lost (and I do mean whatever—attack, climb a wall, drink a potion, overturn a table and hide behind it with your crossbow, you name it). Unfortunately, this apparent open-endedness spoiled the concept of “per-side” initiative for me, which led to a complexified™ house rule system that ultimately made its way into Chimera.

The sleep spell example above gave me a reason to check the official rules, which I’m repeating below, in full (albeit naïve) confidence that WotC’s legal team can distinguish fair use from copyright violation:

A. Each side rolls for initiative (1d6)
B. The side that wins the initiative acts first (if simultaneous all actions are performed by each side at the same time):

  1. Morale checks, if needed (page B27)
  2. Movement per round, meleed opponents may only move defensively (spell-casters may not move and cast spells).
  3. Missile fire combat:
    1. choose targets
    2. roll 1d20 to hit, adjust result by Dexterity adjustment, range, cover, and magic
    3. DM rolls damage
  4. Magic spells (roll saving throws as needed: 1d20)
  5. Melee or hand-to-hand combat:
    1. choose (or be attacked by) opponents
    2. roll 1d20; adjust result by Strength adjustment and magic weapons
    3. DM rolls damage; adjust result by Strength adjustment and magic weapons

C. The side with the next highest initiative acts second, and so on using the order given above, until all sides have completed melee.
D. The DM handles any surrenders, retreats, etc. as they occur.
(Moldvay, B24)

A few things jump out at me. First, even though you’re rolling “per-side” initiative, the sequencing of action by activity means that individuals will be doing different things at different times, and that matches my vision of how chaotic combat probably is. Second, tactical movement is automatically incorporated into the mix (though Moldvay doesn't say it here, you can only move so far if you still want to attack in the same round). Third, there’s an inherent assumption that each activity has a certain speed, which—plain and simple—takes the guesswork out of weapon speeds and casting times.

viking battle

Melee phase

This certainly affords more opportunity for tactical strategy than the simple “I-go-you-go” d6 initiative that I was taught to emulate (because, really, one tends to play D&D according to how the group plays, not how it's presented in the rulebook). Given this, consider your combat objectives: Want to strike fast? Shoot a missile weapon. Want to cast a spell? Make sure your caster is protected from missile fire. Want to pin down a foe? Engage him in melee. Want to make a melee strike? Make it count because you’re going last.

There’s also an interesting by-product to this arrangement: character class influences when you get to do stuff during a fight. Clerics, for example, don’t get any missile weapons in B/X, so the earliest they can act is during the Magic phase[1]. Fighters don’t get spells but have access to any weapon, so they go either first or last in any round. Elves, who have spells and access to any weapon, get the most latitude in when they get to act during the round.

Add to this the demonstrable trade-off between striking fast and dealing out damage (spells have the potential to do more damage than missiles, as do melee weapons using variable weapon damage) and both your position on the battlefield and attack mode become important tactical considerations. Finally, given the relationship between character class and damage potential, this initiative model reinforces the strategic benefits of fielding a well-rounded party...

When revising Chimera (at one of its <sigh> many, many revision points), I considered a similar model, but realised that the “per-individual” initiative system in place already provided a good strategic framework:

  • Actions were chosen first (which forced players to think on their feet and avoid “gaming” the system)
  • Each character’s turn was determined randomly (1d12) but affected by the action they chose (via that action's Initiative Modifier)
  • Any action could occur on a combatant’s turn: movement, missile fire, melee attack, spell, or something non-combatative
  • Actions were resolved immediately, so the battlefield changed constantly

This isn't exactly an apology for Chimera initiative, but I do wish I had played around more with B/X’s official initiative system (and I can hear Greg’s eye(s) rolling already...)

Final Words

I’ll tell you what: I’ve already decided that the 5th Printing of Chimera will be final. But because I know I’m going to tinker with this, how about I make “per-side” initiative an option in the Core Rules?

Any takers? Nudge, nudge, wink, wink?

  1. The Magic Phase is a wonderful catch-all, because you can also use it for quaffing potions, reading spell scrolls, invoking a magic item, or calling forth whatever supernatural power you have at your disposal. All magic, all the time.

Works Cited

Moldvay, Tom, ed. Dungeons & Dragons Basic Rulebook. Lake Geneva: TSR Hobbies, Inc. 1981.

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  1. deimos3428
    April 28th, 2011 at 01:10 | #1

    Worth noting the action sequence only applies to individuals on the same side, with the exception of simultaneous combat. It doesn’t really matter much tactically if you’re attacking before or after your allies, and the whole winning side goes before the whole losing side. IMO, this was designed more for bookkeeping than anything else. However, that doesn’t take away from the fact it is very well designed.

    What I would suggest for Chimera is to employ whatever per-side initiative determination system you have in mind, but apply the result more granually than B/X did. Keep the sequence above but in lieu of simultaneous combat have the side that wins initiative goes first in each step in the sequence. So winning morale first, then losing morale, then winning movement, losing movement, winning missles, etc.

    One problem with that approach is that there’s no chance of beating a faster class of attack (melee always follows missles and spells, for example.) So I’ve got a plan B for you that I just dreamed up in keeping with Chimera’s existing mechanics, but it’s not side-based.

    Plan B: Simply roll an Action Roll to see if you succeed at initiative. All the winners go in phase 1, all losers go in phase 2, with the order within each phase determined by the action sequence above. You could even have four phases including Critical success/success/fail/critical failure.

  2. Greg MacKenzie
    April 29th, 2011 at 08:57 | #2

    I don’t think final implies finished, nor need it imply something static. Naturally evolving, might be a better way of thinking about the progression of Chimera’s rules, as seen over the last few years, but as you point if you have your introduciton down there is another place for subsequent developments.

    I’ve been thinking lately about the original D&D game, which subsequently became “basic” when the refinements to the rules became the “advanced” game. The various iterations since then have complicated matters considerably. Certainly at the time the need for a simple primer was seen as a stepping stone to greater things which only proved to me the value of the original. However TSR seemed to recognize the value of what it had, post Holmes, and refined it’s “basic” rules into an entirely separate and competing product line.

    Really, I think what you have now is the “core” of the rule system, and whatever flows from this wellspring is supplementary.

    With regard to rolling Vecna’s remainin eye, my only real suggestion is that if you are terribly unsatisfied with something like the sequence of play, I would encourage you to go ahead make the change. I think the bottom line with regard to playing the game is to keep it simple, and fair, and easy to use. That way you can be satisfied with your primer and move forward.

    What I meant by the question of the sleep spell is this and I’ll make a partial quote of the old LBB rules here for comparison:

    “Sleep: A Sleep spell affects from 2-16 1st level types (hit dice of up to 1 + 1), from 2-12 2nd level types (hit dice of up to 2 +1), from 1-6, 3rd level types, and but 1 4th level type (up to 4 +1 hit dice)…”

    I see the origins of the tabletop miniatures battle in this sort of rule, and in a large tabletop battle it makes perfect sense that a Wizard should be able to lay low a group of figurines. It begins to vex us though in the context of a dungeon, unless of course you keep thinking that what you are doing is really having the same tabletop battle underground.

    Perhaps that is why the Wizard was modified to make the character more vulnerable, and given a limited ability to fire off such devastating spells, in that sense the Wizard is much like an artillery piece. I note that the original characters are rated in terms of Chainmail fighting power “Man + x” I don’t think magic suspended the rules of the old game if you look at it that way.

    It’s worth looking at where we came from which was the purpose of my probing thought.

  3. April 29th, 2011 at 19:41 | #3

    @Greg MacKenzie : Well, evolving is more apt… ;)

    I agree with your take on how this action/initiative approach might have evolved, and also why the MU was made so relatively vulnerable. That said, I don’t want to imply that I’m unhappy with the way Chimera handles initiative now, just that it was built on my dissatisfaction with B/X initiative, which (in retrospect) wasn’t really merited given a closer read (and 20 years of reflection…).

  4. April 29th, 2011 at 19:47 | #4

    @deimos3428 : I’d thought about making Initiative an action roll before, but wasn’t really feeling the love for two reasons:

    1. What’s the target number?
    2. How do you fit the results into the Critical Failure, Normal Failure, Normal Success, Critical Success framework (because if you don’t bother with that, you’re just making an opposed roll, which is pretty much where it’s at now).

    But the CF/NF/NS/CF framework could address doing certain things faster (like melee before missiles). Perhaps…

    I agree with you that this is a good bookkeeping model. It’s also evident that it stems from the wargaming gene. Compare with Axis & Allies, where you attack, move, reinforce and all the players go in set order of country. I had considered the winning morale, losing morale, winning move, losing move, etc. as well, but then it seemed just like individual initiative within a set framework, and it seemed overkill, like using a sledgehammer to drive a nail.

    Maybe what I really want is a more structured round, in which individual initiative has its own place? Hard to say–it’s been a long week, and I sense that my ability to convey concepts has eroded terribly. Must. Get. Rest.

  5. Greg MacKenzie
    April 30th, 2011 at 06:59 | #5

    Oh, I thought you might be re-considering your combat sequence. Your not the only one with TGIF syndrome :) I guess w hat I was thinking was that Chimera has evolved a lot and is looking very polished to me.

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