For 10 Years D&D Suffered From an Unplayable Initiative System. Blame the Game’s Wargaming Roots

While every version of Dungeons & Dragons has a rule for who goes first in a fight, no other rule shows as much of the game’s evolution from what the original books call rules for “wargames campaigns” into what the latest Player’s Handbook calls a roleplaying game about storytelling.

Before you old grognards rush to the comments to correct my opening line, technically the original books lacked any way to decide who goes first. For that rule, co-creators Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson supposed gamers would refer to Gary’s earlier Chainmail miniatures rules. In practice, players rarely saw those old rules. The way to play D&D spread gamer-to-gamer from Dave and Gary’s local groups and from the conventions they attended. D&D campaigns originally ran by word-of-mouth and house rules.

Gygax waited five years to present an initiative system in the Advanced Dungeons & Dragons Dungeon Master’s Guide (1979). Two things made those official rules terrible.

  • Nobody understood the system.

  • Any reasonable interpretation of the system proved too slow and complicated for play.

Some grognards insist they played the first-edition Advanced Dungeons & Dragons initiative system by the book. No you didn’t. Read this 20-page consolidation of the initiative rules as written, and then try to make that claim. Grognardia blogger James Maliszewski writes, “Initiative in AD&D, particularly when combined with the equally obscure rules regarding surprise, was one of those areas where, in my experience, most players back in the day simply ignored the official rules and adopted a variety of house rules. I know I did.”

Not even Gygax played with all his exceptions and complications. “We used only initiative [rolls] and casting times for determination of who went first in a round. The rest was generally ignored. We played to have fun, and in the throws of a hot melee, rules were mostly forgotten.”

With Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, the D&D story grows complicated, because original or basic D&D soldiered on with workable initiative systems. My next tale will circle back to D&D, but this one focuses on first-edition AD&D, the game Gygax treated as his own. (See Basic and Advanced—the time Dungeons & Dragons split into two games.)

Some of the blame for AD&D’s terrible initiative system falls back on Chainmail and Gygax’s love for its wargaming legacy.

Chainmail lets players enact battles with toy soldiers typically representing 20 fighters. The rules suggest playing on a tabletop covered in sand sculpted into hills and valleys. In Chainmail each turn represents about a minute, long enough for infantry to charge through a volley of arrows and cut down a group of archers. A clash of arms might start and resolve in the same turn. At that scale, who strikes first typically amounts to who strikes from farthest away, so archers attack, then soldiers with polearms, and finally sword swingers. Beyond that, a high roll on a die settled who moved first.

In Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, the 1-minute turns from Chainmail became 1-minute melee rounds. Such long turns made sense for a wargame that filled one turn with a decisive clash of arms between groups of 20 soldiers, but less sense for single characters trading blows.

Even though most D&D players imagined brief turns with just enough time to attack and dodge, Gygax stayed loyal to Chainmail’s long turns. In the Dungeon Master’s Guide (1979), Gygax defended the time scale. “The system assumes much activity during the course of each round. During a one-minute melee round many attacks are made, but some are mere feints, while some are blocked or parried.” Gygax cited the epic sword duel that ended The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938) as his model for AD&D’s lengthy rounds. He never explained why archers only managed a shot or two per minute.

Broadly, Advanced Dungeons & Dragons held to Chainmail’s system for deciding who goes first. Gygax also chose an option from the old wargame where players declared their actions before a round, and then had to stick to plan as best they could. “If you are a stickler, you may require all participants to write their actions on paper.”

Why would Gygax insist on such cumbersome declarations?

In a D&D round, every character and creature acts in the same few seconds, but to resolve the actions we divide that mayhem into turns. This compromise knots time in ridiculous ways. For example, with fifth edition’s 6-second rounds, one character can end their 6-second turn next to a character about to start their turn and therefor 6 seconds in the past. If they pass a relay baton, the baton jumps 6 seconds back in time. If enough characters share the same 6 seconds running with the baton, the object outraces a jet. Now expand that absurdity across AD&D’s 1-minute round.

Years before D&D, wargamers like Gygax had wrestled with such problems. They couldn’t resolve all actions simultaneously, but players could choose actions at once. Declaring plans in advance, and then letting a referee sort out the chaos yielded some of the real uncertainty of an actual battle. Wargamers loved that. Plus, no referee would let players declare that they would start their turn by taking a relay baton from someone currently across the room.

Especially when players chose to pretend that a turn took about 10 seconds, the Chainmail system for initiative worked well enough. In basic D&D, turns really lasted 10 seconds, so no one needed to pretend. Many tables kept that system for AD&D.

But nobody played the advanced system as written. Blame that on a wargamer’s urge for precision. Despite spending paragraphs arguing for 1-minute rounds, Gygax seemed to realize that a minute represented a lot of fighting. So he split a round into 10 segments lasting as long as modern D&D’s 6-second rounds. Then he piled on intricate—sometimes contradictory—rules that determined when you acted based on weapon weights and lengths, spell casting times, surprise rolls, and so on. In an interview, Wizards of the Coast founder Peter Adkison observed, “The initiative and surprise rules with the weapon speed factors was incomprehensible.”

In a minute-long turn filled with feints, parries, and maneuvering, none of that precision made sense. On page 61, Gygax seemed to say as much. “Because of the relatively long period of time, weapon length and relative speed factors are not usually a consideration.” Then he wrote a system that considered everything.

Some of the blame for this baroque system may rest on the wargaming hobby’s spirit of collaboration.

Even before D&D, Gygax had proved a zealous collaborator on wargames. Aside from teaming with other designers, he wrote a flood of articles proposing variants and additions to existing games. In the early years of D&D, Gygax brought the same spirit. He published rules and ideas from the gamers in his circle, and figured that players could use what suited their game. In the Blackmoor supplement, he wrote, “All of it is, of course, optional, for the premise of the whole game system is flexibility and personalization within the broad framework of the rules.”

I doubt all the rules filigree in AD&D came from Gygax. At his table, he ignored rules for things like weapon speed factors. Still, Gygax published such ideas from friends and fellow gamers. For example, he disliked psionics, but he bowed to his friends and included the system in AD&D. (See Gary Gygax Loved Science Fantasy, So Why Did He Want Psionics Out of D&D?.)

Weapon speed factors fit AD&D as badly as anything. In theory, a fighter could swing a lighter weapon like a dagger more quickly. Did this speed enable extra attacks? Not usually. Instead, light weapons could strike first. But that contradicted Chainmail’s observation that a fighter with a spear had to miss before an attacker with a dagger could come close enough to attack. Gygax patched that by telling players to skip the usual initiative rules after a charge.

AD&D’s initiative system resembles a jumble of ideas cobbled together in a rush to get a long-delayed Dungeon Master’s Guide to press. The system piled complexities, and then exceptions, and still failed to add realism. In the end, AD&D owed some success to the way D&D’s haphazard rules trained players to ignore any text that missed the mark.

In creating D&D, Dave Arneson and Gary Gygax faced a unique challenge because no one had designed a roleplaying game before. The designers of every roleplaying game to follow D&D copied much of the original’s work. Without another model, Gygax relied on the design tools from wargames. His initiative system may be gone, but ultimately Gary’s finest and most lasting contribution to D&D came from the lore he created for spells, monsters, and especially adventures.

Next: Part 2: “It’s probably so different that even if it’s better, people would not like it.”

77 thoughts on “For 10 Years D&D Suffered From an Unplayable Initiative System. Blame the Game’s Wargaming Roots

    1. Durin

      I’m sorry I disagree. I lived my entire early teen life with good friends playing 2nd Ed. It kept us out of trouble. We’re all successful business folk now. We figured out how to play. Use our imagination. Improvise. Memorize. What’s the concern here?

      1. Lyricana Rokarin

        Where in the article did it say anything about there being a concern? You make it sound like it slammed 2nd Edition and said something horrible.

      2. Christopher Dicely

        The article is about the 1e initiative system, which was scrapped for 2e. So your 2e experience isn’t really relevant to the subject matter.

  1. ericscheid

    “Then he wrote a system that considered everything.”

    To be fair, he wrote a system that considered everything when it came to resolving ties.

    That obsession about there being no ties, that someone must go first, is where it all went wrong.

  2. alphastream

    Back in the pre-internet days, it was amazing to play with a new group of players and see how differently they played! They might roll a d8 instead of a d6 for initiative. They might use a caller (but most groups I played with did not). They might not allow spells to be interrupted (but most did in some minor way). They might handle surprise differently. And so on.

    Each time you met a group, or even when a player in your group decided to DM and finally read the rules and interpreted them their way, you ended up adjusting your own game a tiny bit. On a grand scale, this was happening a lot in the US, with variants of play on the coasts influencing play in Lake Geneva. What a fascinating time.

    One thing that was nice about the way D&D wrote rules is that it bred creativity. DMs would pick and choose, but they would also tweak the rules. The rules were so obviously imperfect, contradictory, and confusing, you knew it was okay to tweak them a bit. This led to a lot of design by fans. Had D&D provided a simple and focused system, we might not have seen such creativity and so many other RPGs during the early years of the game.

    1. Davjd

      Great comment, a – very illuminating about how things were. I think you and the author are thinking on the same lines. Regards from the UK.

    1. Amari Martin

      Might just be me, but this seems to ignore modern Wargame rules which are easier to learn and some of them are even easier and quicker to learn than DnD rules.

  3. Fredrick Rourk

    D&D was not the only game around. It was just the first to have it’s rules printed. The first to be marketed.
    Have you ever played
    Warlock or Arduin? You can even count Judges Guild. Their rules drastically changed D&D.

    You should do more research before writing. You have no mention of Dr. Holmes D&D game. Which cleared up a lot of rules.

    Immediately after the release 9f AD&D we have Barony from Better Games and Arcanum from Bard Games.

    1. Jason Leopold

      I grew up on Arduin, and still play my own version that relies on a lot of original content. I remember the first time my dad DMed me through Caliban… Epic.

  4. Garrett Moffitt

    It’s adorable you base who used the rules from one person who couldn’t understand them. Moste of us had no problem understanding them

    1. MTB

      How did you interpret and apply the weapon vs spell rule, as described below? I find this paragraph hard to understand.

      “Compare the speed factor of the weapon with the number of segments which the spell will require to cast to determine if the spell or the weapon will be cast/strike first, subtracting the
      losing die roll on the initiative die roll from the weapon factor and treating negative results as positive.”

    2. Beoric

      Yeah, in the 16 years I played AD&D I never played with a single group that even tried to decipher the initiative rules. Everyone I ever played with used Basic initiative or much simplified house rules. The first I encountered of people claiming to follow the rules exactly was on the internet in the last decade, and they never seem to explain them consistently.

      For anyone who wants to see in action the rules that “Most of us had no problem understanding”, check out this explanation and flowchart:

      1. David Hartlage Post author

        Hi Beoric,
        Thanks for the links. That 20-page explanation supports my claim that no one played original AD&D’s initiative system as written better than any of my quotes from experts.


    3. Nicholas Bergquist

      My own group found the DMG combat rules so difficult to parse that we used the D&D Basic Red Cover Otus ediiton to cover he combat and then applied the charts, tables (and Combat Wheel from Dragon) to settle THAC0s.

      I never met a single group in the 80’s who did it the same way twice. Never. No one liked (or fully understood) the mechanics; if you understood them as a rule you didn’t like them, and if you liked them as a rule then you didn’t understand them.

    4. Shimmerdream

      Hmmmm, I started playing in 78′ and as a 10 yr old my friends and I had no problem comprehending the rules for 1e as they were written when they came out. You probably have issues understanding THAC0 and calculating spell range and AOE as well. Perhaps you should stick to playing 4e…

      1. Jesus

        How do you asign segments to multiple conventional attacks per round when some go against to casting MU? Travel from bare initiative order (weapons) to segments (magic) is only covered for duels with the casting MU, comparing the MU with its attacker….but there are maybe more attackers to be compared to each other and with that MU..
        Nothing in RAW explains that. Regarding multiple attacks it just say “first, last, in the middle…”

        1. Jesus

          Setting the order among concentional atttacks is easy (initiative per side, etc) But what if one of those attacks go to a casting MU (and no the rest).
          Rules only cover relative order (segments) for that duel.

  5. Christopher L Wilson

    A turn is not 6 seconds. There is no time dilation involved. A ROUND is “about 6 seconds.” A turn is an abstract not involving a specific amount of time.

      1. Christopher L Wilson

        “For example, with fifth edition’s 6-second rounds, one character can end their 6-second turn next to a character about to start their turn and therefor 6 seconds in the past. If they pass a relay baton, the baton jumps 6 seconds back in time. If enough characters share the same 6 seconds running with the baton, the object outraces a jet.”

        Fuck AD&D, that is not relevant. He is blatantly wrong about many thing in this article. Enough so, that the entire piece is invalid because he couldn’t read the current edition’s rules. He also makes the assumption that literally everyone that played AD&D was doing it wrong because he thinks the rules were too complicated. This has to be the worst dumpster fire of crap I’ve ever read.

  6. Christopher L Wilson

    You make the claim that people didn’t follow the old rules because they didn’t understand them. Then you fail to grasp the current rules or simply didn’t read them. Try page 181 of the 5th Edition Player’s Handbook to learn that a ROUND is 6 seconds. Not a turn. 10 rounds = 1 minute. Most combat is over in 2 to 4 rounds, making combat quite lethal as one side or the other is dead in 12 to 24 seconds, well under a minute. Are you a new DM?

    1. Pyotr Ivanovich

      Settle down Oscar! You’re getting so worked up that you aren’t paying attention to what he’s saying. 1 minute is comprised of 10 six second rounds. In every six second round every participant, both pcs and non pcs gets 1 turn. Therefore a players turn is six seconds and a round is every players six second turn compressed into six seconds.

      It could potentially raise timing issues. That’s the point he’s trying to make. If you don’t like it sit down, shut up and move on.

      1. Christopher L Wilson

        That is not at all how that works a turn literally takes no time. The turns in a round likely take place at the same time. It’s simply an abstract to show what the order at the table is. There is no time compression.

        1. Bill Carter

          Mr. Wilson, you are correct in your explanation of the abstract conception that underlies the melee rounds system. You might note that the author has also stated that 5e rules work pretty well, much better than AD&D. However, you have missed the author’s point: the current system still allows for unrealistic situations. Imagine an object starts with the first character in the initiative order and the figures are in a line each a move apart in space and ordered per initiative. They could move and pass the object down the line such that, by the end of a six second round, the object could have moved at hundreds of miles per hour over those six seconds.
          Note that in many early war games, players wrote their moves down in secret before a turn, then executed them all simultaneously – with a referee (and relevant rules) resolving conflicting orders. Something like that would be the ultimate solution to timing problems in D&D, but it would slow the game way down and, overall, make it less fun. Nonetheless, you should keep simultaneous movement in mind, as if it were a potential option, when teading about early editions of RPGs, because the writers and players back then had played plenty of games that used “simultaneous movement systems.”

        2. Matthew Tuell

          Let’s imagine a simple relay run with a 10-member team and run it strictly according to the rules of tactical combat in 5E. Given a running movement rate of 60′ per turn, our athletes, provided they are initially spaced 60′ apart, can carry a baton a distance of 600′ in 6 seconds. A 100-member team can cover 6,000′ in the same amount of time. Obviously, the 5E combat system is not optimized for resolving this sort of activity, but this illustrates how time compression is baked into it. When you begin your turn as the last combatant to act in a round, the activity of every other combatant is — strictly speaking — in the past. Time compression and abstraction are not mutually exclusive concepts here. Time compression is a function of the abstraction that keeps the system playable and fun for its intended purposes.

          1. Rade Vujcic

            That can’t happen because if you’re spaced 60′ apart & you wait for the other player to deliver the baton that means you have delayed your movement to collect the baton & thus have not movedat all. Otherwise if you moved you would be moving away from the player before the baton is delivered to you. Even though you may have won initiative all the actions happen & finish at the end of the round, so you might move first & cover some ground before the next person if he wauts for you to deliver the baton then he has delayed & can’t move. Common sense should prevail

    2. Nurok

      Do you have anything better to nitpick about? Oh WOW the poster informally conflated turns and rounds. They must not know anything. Also what are you talking about? OP mentions a couple of times that a round is 6 seconds in 5e.

  7. Savage

    DM David, stick with what you know, and leave AD&D to the “professionals”.

    It’s obvious you’re not well versed in the game.


    1. The Badger

      Of all the comments thus far, I this is one that I fully back without hesitation or reservation.

  8. Savage


    Is Dungeon Mastering an art or a science? An interesting question!

    If you consider the pure creative aspect of starting from scratch, the ”personal touch” of individual flair that goes into preparing and running a unique campaign, or the particular style of moderating a game adventure, then Dungeon Mastering may indeed be thought of as an art.

    If you consider the aspect of experimentation, the painstaking effort of preparation and attention to detail, and the continuing search for new ideas and approaches, then Dungeon Mastering is perhaps more like a science – not always exacting in a literal sense, but exacting in terms of what is required to do the job well.

    Esoteric questions aside, one thing is for certain – Dungeon Mastering is, above all, a labor of love. It is demanding, time consuming, and certainly not a task to be undertaken lightly (the sheer bulk of the book you hold in your hand will tell you that!). But, as all DM’s know, the rewards are great – an endless challenge to the imagination and intellect, an enjoyable pastime to fill many hours with fantastic and often unpredictable happenings, and an opportunity to watch a story unfold and a grand idea to grow and flourish. The imagination knows no bounds, and the possibilities of the game of ADVANCED DUNGEONS 8 DRAGONS are just as limitless. Who can say what awaits each player, except a cornucopia of fantasy and heroic adventure? So much is waiting, indeed!

    This book holds much in store for you as a DM – it is your primary tool in constructing your own “world”, or milieu. It contains a wealth of material, and combined with the other works of ADVANCED DUNGEONS 8 DRAGONS (the MONSTER MANUAL and PLAYERS HANDBOOK) gives you all the information you need to play AD&D. But, as always, one more thing is needed
    – your imagination. Use the written material as your foundation and inspiration, then explore the creative possibilities you have in your own mind to make your game something special.

    Dungeon Mastering itself is no easy undertaking, to be sure. But Dungeon Mastering well is doubly difficult. There are few gamemasters around who are so superb in their conduct of play that they could disdain the opportunity to improve themselves in some way. Fortunately, this work addresses the matter at length, and gives you plenty of suggestions on all aspects of Dungeon Mastering (as well as some of the finer points) in order to help you improve your own efforts. Take heed, and always endeavor to make the game the best it can be – and all that it can be!

    Mike Carr
    TSR Games & Rules Editor

    16 May 1979

    1. David Hartlage Post author

      Thanks for the good word. When I choose a provocative title, and then make absolute claims undiluted by ‘virtually’ or ‘almost’, I’ve learned to expect some folks to tell me I’m wrong. That goes double when a post reaches past my usual audience.


  9. MTB

    Thanks David, another thought-provoking and well-researched article. I agree with your assessment of the AD&D initiative rules. I strongly suspect anyone who says they are using them all as written has actually house-ruled a few things.

    I asked Rob Kuntz if Gary played AD&D at home and he told me absolutely not – Gary used a modified version of OD&D at home. He said it was a very simple system.

    1. David Hartlage Post author

      Hi M.T.
      Thanks for the support! Keep those excellent adventures coming.


  10. Daniel Boggs

    >>>For that rule, co-creators Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson supposed gamers would refer to Gary’s earlier Chainmail miniatures rules.

    Well, no. The game as played by Arneson and company relied on player first initiative. If the players hesitated to long, then Arneson would have the monsters go first. Sometimes long weapons, such as spears might be allowed to go first regardless. Gygax learned the game from Arneson and played this way at first too, which is why no initiative rule is mentioned in the 3lbbs. But then…

    >>>Gygax waited five years to present an initiative system..

    No again. As D&D exploded in popularity Gygax found he needed to systematize things left vague. One of those early efforts was the D&D FAQ which appeared in TSR’s The Strategic Review Vol. 1, No. 2 (Summer 1975). Among other things, the FAQ introduced the initiative role:
    ” Initiative is always checked. Surprise naturally allows first attack in many cases. Initiative thereafter is simply a matter of rolling two dice (assuming that is the number of combatants) with the higher score gaining first attack that round. Dice scores are adjusted for dexterity and so on.”

    This basic rule was then turned into something really complicated in Supplement III Eldritch wizardry that broke rounds down into segments of what can happen when. Best we not delve to deep into that quagmire.

    So that’s the history there –

    Rounds and turn length is a whole nother can of worms. There are very good arguments that OD&D was intended to have roughly 6 second rounds like all the other TSR games of the era, and many people at the time played it that way. Basic D&D, which Gygax edited in 1977, specified rounds of 10 second duration. So there was always a split between D&D’s rounds of seconds vs. AD&D round or 1 minute.

    Good post though, overall I enjoyed the read.

    1. MerricB

      Hmm. The explanation of Turns and Rounds on page 8 of Volume III of OD&D explicitly says that a turn is 10 minutes, and there are 10 rounds in a turn. (The Move/Turn in the Underworld)

      Chainmail turns are 1 minute (and correspond to combat rounds in D&D).

      Now, I’m sure many groups said that rounds were quicker, and they certainly became 10 seconds by the time of Holmes’s Basic in 1977. (With the oddity that 1 turn in combat was 10 rounds!)

      Supplement III is fascinating because of how poorly explained the initiative system is! Did anyone use it successfully?

      1. ericscheid

        Wait .. is that describing the unit of time named a “turn” (i.e. 10 minutes), or the word “turn” as in “taking turns”, as in a method sequential resolution?

        Easy to get the different senses confused. D&D is like that, on so many “levels” (if you know what I mean 😉

        1. David Hartlage Post author

          Hi Eric,
          So many levels indeed.

          Confusion between 10 minute turns vs. turns vs. rounds threw some folks. Based on other comments, those folks included me.

          The other day, I was paging through the DragonQuest RPG, which was written by the wargamers at SPI and features a precision of writing that wouldn’t reach D&D until fourth edition.

          DQ calls a round a pulse and uses ranks to rate spells and skills.


    2. David Hartlage Post author

      Hi Daniel,
      Thanks for filling in some gaps. I didn’t know how Dave played it.

      I chose not to follow the Strategic Review and Eldritch Wizardry tangents because they seemed like dead ends. These suggestion do support my notion that Gary readily floated he or his friends ideas for rules in a way that seemed official.

      I probably shouldn’t have been so absolute in stating that Gary waited until 1979 to present an official rule for initiative.


  11. Ilbranteloth

    Interesting that I still prefer the AD&D Initiative rules over 5e, although at this point we don’t use either.

    But I also don’t find the AD&D ones as terribly complex. Their presentation, like so many things in AD&D, could be better, but overall I think they are fairly complete. In fact, I can’t find that line about declaring actions first (or writing them down), but I haven’t been digging too much. Initiative is spread across several pages in different books, so that’s definitely an issue.

    Having said that, it has been a while, so it’s possible some house rules creep into my thinking, so let’s dig into them a bit more:

    For the most part, it’s very simple. For the moment we’ll cover initiative itself (instead of surprise).

    Both sides roll a d6 and the side with the higher roll goes first. If there’s a tie, then all damage is determined for both sides. That is, you can’t make a killing blow to avoid damage, the other’s attack happened simultaneously and you’re still at risk even if you are landing a killing blow.

    Very simple.

    What exceptions are there?
    Creatures with multiple attacks. They go first and last in the round, with the rolled initiative in the middle. If there are creatures with multiple attacks on both sides, then they follow initiative in phase I/III.

    Charge. The longer weapon attacks first. Doesn’t get much simpler than that.

    Weapon Speed Factor. If the weapon was faster by 5 or more, then you got 2 attacks against the slower weapon before initiative is accounted for. If it was 10 or more, you also got an extra attack after the initiative order. Otherwise

    The spell thing does seem kind of strange. Subtract the losing die roll from the weapon factor, treating negative numbers as positive. This makes sense though when you work through the second example of a dagger (SF 2). I’m not saying it’s the best mechanic ever, but if you just learn it and follow it, it’s simple. Dagger SF2, lose initiative by 4. 2-4 = -2, ignore the negative, and you are left with 2. Which is faster than the spell with a casting time of 3 segments.

    So Weapon Speed factor only comes into play with very different weapons (not all that often) or against spellcasters who are casting a spell in combat. Of course, that also meant that spellcasters did everything they could to make sure they weren’t in reach of a melee opponent.

    Segments (6 seconds of a 1 minute round) generally only apply to spellcasting, and provides a system to interrupt spellcasters. Such an important balancing consideration for spellcasting at the time and, in my opinion, sorely missing since.

    Wait. That’s it? That’s the extent of the initiative system for AD&D? Dex modifiers don’t apply to initiative? Reroll each round so there’s variability? Each side declares what they are going to do ahead of time so the players can coordinate their actions if they’d like, and then the DM can narrate a logical combat scene rather than the current freeze tag approach?

    Count me in!

    As for the 1 minute rounds? One thing that bothers me about the current style of play is everybody envisions it as “one die roll, one swing of the sword.” The length of the round itself doesn’t necessarily matter in my opinion, but I much preferred the idea that it was a combat in motion, with moving, feints, blocks, etc. and the die roll accounts for that moment you find an opening.

    A common complaint in 5e is that Dex is too powerful. Why? Because it now applies to Initiative, AC and to-hit. In AD&D it didn’t and there were even explanations as to why. As a result, there are also fewer modifiers applied throughout the process. With the excellent AD&D character sheets of the time, there were places to record all of the info, including weapon speeds, that didn’t come up that often but were important when they did.

    Is it the best initiative system ever? Of course not. But I think it has a lot of advantages over the current one, depending on what sort of approach you like. We generally went with everybody rolling individual initiative rather than the two sides.

    But to me, most of the problems that have arisen due to initiative, or things like the “passing the baton” have resulted in part to the shift to a very turn-based approach and often seem, at least in part, to stem from “fixes” to a system that doesn’t really seem broken to me.

    1. M.T. Black

      * Dex modifiers don’t apply to initiative *

      Doesn’t the Dexterity Attacking adjustment get applied to the initiative roll of each missile-firing combatant on an individual basis – unless they are carrying more than light gear? (DMG p. 64, PHB, p. 102)

    2. Chris

      For combats with many participants, rolling individual initiative and then rerolling it every round definitely bogs things down. As for verisimilitude, I think that the main issue is with tactical movement and not with the attacks themselves.

    3. TheLivingKiltedPirate

      Ever since 3rd edition and the feats system arrived there has been an option to have DEX apply to attack rolls. I would have to go back through (if I can fund then) the Player’s Option set to see if there was such a choice in 2E.

  12. Jon Rogers

    I’m currently a DM for a 5th ed game and a player, playing a 24 year old character, in a 2nd edition game. I have never been able to figure out a good way to recreate the tension that weapon speed modified rounds make. The one roll initiative gives the mechanicking player a flowchart style arrangement of round actions, and takes away from the impromptu processing that a bad initiative roll creates.
    I know I know, rolling one single die and writing that one number down seems pretty daunting, and I know that many players have a hard time imagining a world in which they would have to do that repeatedly, round after round, positively wearing the numbers off of their dice. Also doing subtraction as well as addition at this point really gets the steam pouring out of the ears.
    I suggest that 6th edition leaves the initiative up to DnDBeyond, so that they can alleviate themselves of the hard cogitation and save a pencil or two in the process, as well as making sure those dice stay as pristine as possible. Just simply log on to the site, pay the associated fees, make sure you’re using the sanctioned dice roller (not the playtesting set!) and click the button.
    Shall I bring up THAC0? I probably shouldn’t.

    1. M.T. Black

      * I have never been able to figure out a good way to recreate the tension that weapon speed modified rounds make. *

      Jon, did you apply weapon speed factors to every round of initiative? In what way did you do that?

      1. Jon Rogers

        Yes, we do as we roll new initiatives every round. This greatly varies the situations round to round, and also alters our weapon usage depending on the monster we fight. There are scant time where the fighter (weapon speed 8 +d10) can go faster than the rogue (weapon speed 2 +d10), and make it to me, the cleric casting a weapon speed 8 spell and protecting me before the monsters who rolled a 10 + WS6 for natural weapons can get to me. This would be in opposition to the roll once and suck it method, where I may never be able to properly time…or hope for some luck to properly time…a spell due to monster coverage.
        It’s pure magic when I’m trying to beat the initiative to make it to a downed comrade and heal them before they go into our homebrew version of true death at -10hp. It’s wonderful to watch the fighter go on 9 and absolutely blast an ogre into shreds before it can lay a hand on anyone, using a weapon that shouldn’t move that fast. It absolutely tears the heart out to miss an initiative roll and watch a comrade get caught before they can escape and killed.
        we’ve rolled more “hail mary” initiatives than I can count. Every time it’s riveting. Literal shouted cheers when we beat the baddie by 1 point.
        The 2e version is: D10 + the weapon speed in the book, lower is better. Everyone gets one set of swings, i.e. dual weapon is 2 attacks. Those with additional attacks wait until the end of the round and then perform their secondaries in order, and so on.
        The 3e one I was going to implement was roll high, subtract weapon speed, either using 2e speeds or a 3e variant, every attack happens after a weapon speed’s increment until you hit zero, then just roll the rest of them. Big slow fighters would have a pretty huge initiative zero.

    2. ericscheid

      “and writing that one number down”

      Ah, that’s where you are going wrong. When initiative is re-rolled each round there is no need to write anything down, and no need to sort all those numbers into sequential order.

  13. Griff

    Judges Guild had a system before AD&D. It was called weapon priority and was included on the Judges Shield which was the first DM screen ever published.

    i’m told they cut up a Beatles White Album cover to make the prototype.

    I prefer parallel actions where everyone rolls and the effects happen at end of turn. It’s the old style of play, maybe?

    I keep my OD&D simple and fast.

  14. James Black

    You are aware that 3e came out with the 6 seconds = a round rule well before 5e was thought up right? It’s literally in the players handbook. (At least 3.5 it is) so yeah. 14 years before 5e it was a published ruling.

  15. Dennis

    We didn’t need a rule for EVERY little thing. DM’s had more leeway which made DMing for more fun.

  16. DM_Bill

    Just got done running a 1.5 year AD&D campaign and then switched to modern rules.


    Four out of four middle aged throw-backs prefer re-rolling initiative every round.

    Me, the DM, prefers the older rules. I can make initiative as complex or as simple as I want to make it. New rules, there is no such flexibility. Get tired of just saying, “roll d20”.

    1. Nurok

      In a low level skirmish scenario or with players who REALLY know what they’re doing this can work. Otherwise it’s bogged down the game every time I’ve tried it.

      1. ericscheid

        I’ve seen tables where everyone rolls initiative and then the DM arranges cards or tokens or flags into the rolled order, and with that ordered list in hand proceed to resolve the actions in initiative order. Yup, bogs down the game.

        Which is the slow and dumb way to roll initiative every round.

  17. Davjd

    Great post – thanks for making it. Very interesting chunk of history for someone who played AD&D in the early eighties and wondered whether anybody anywhere ran initiative and combat as written. I used to (mildly) dream about being in a notional exemplary group that played the game to the full, and didn’t kludge.

    Nano-thing – ‘in the throes’ not the ‘throws’ in the Gygax quote. Lose precisely no sleep at all. All best from Over Here.

  18. MerricB

    There’s one comment here where I think you misunderstand the old initiative system, David: “If enough characters share the same 6 seconds running with the baton, the object outraces a jet. Now expand that absurdity across AD&D’s 1-minute round.”

    AD&D does not have cyclical initiative. It has simultaneous initiative – all player actions are happening at the same time, with the initiative roll and spell casting times determining which attack gets resolved first. A character in AD&D can’t move their full distance, hand a baton to someone else who then moves their full distance because the movement takes place over the course of the same round – two combatants running are doing so simultaneously, starting at the beginning of the round, and ending their movement at the end.

    Note that you can’t move then attack in AD&D, with the lone exception of charging into combat. It’s either move OR attack – and moving out of combat triggers free attacks from your opponents. Someone fighting an opponent is doing that for the full minute of the round, with the initiative roll simply determining when the telling blow lands.

    1. David Hartlage Post author

      Hi Merric,
      Thanks for clearing that up. With the “expand the absurdity” line, I intended to point out that such paradoxes would become worse with 5th-edition-style cyclical inititiative. I think I just muddied the water.
      My next post tells the story of cyclical initiative.


  19. Enrique Dueñas

    Excellent article, as always. I started in the 2000s with D20, so, exploring the past, I was always quite surprised that something so simple as “who comes first” could be so obscure and weird in past editions. One of the best things about 5e is its flexibility. I always use the standard initiative system, but I’ve tried the alternatives in the DM guide (and some of my own) and everything works just fine. What definetely doesn’t work, however, is the speed factor thing and the surprise rules uin AD&D. They tried to bring some of that stuff back with the “Greyhawk initiative” and it backfired in spectacular fhasion.

  20. Up Yours

    In wargaming you decided who had the initiative and by morale checks the initiative could pass to the other side. When we played D&D the DM just determined who had the initiative and it did have a lot to do with what you had your character doing.
    Call me “grognard” to my face and we’ll see who still has teeth in their head.

    1. DoktorFavstvs

      Are you actually taking offense to the word “Grognard”, or are you trying to be funny? I get that threats online are usually idle, but I’m worried about you. Are you okay, Up Yours?

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  25. Griff

    Hmm… late as always.

    The first question one should ask:

    Do you need initiative in OD&D?

    Answer: Nope, because all actions are parallel and happen at once.

  26. vanveen

    An unmentioned, and comprehensive, source for Gygax’s thinking on melee is probably his typically turgid article in Dragon #20, “The Melee in D & D [sic]” (April 1979, pp. 17-19,
    Now, forty-two years later, I’m struck most by the design assumptions Gygax makes and discusses, and what that discussion reveals about the assumptions and Gygax himself. Most prominent is his insistence that the game is a coherent, well-designed system, something that even contemporary amateurs knew was wrong whether or not they could articulate it.

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