Tag Archives: D&D third edition

How D&D Got an Initiative System Rooted in California House Rules

Some groups playing first-edition Advanced Dungeons & Dragons might have run initiative by the book, but with the incomprehensible rules text, no one knew for sure. Besides, the full rules proved so complicated and cumbersome that most groups threw some out in favor of a faster pace. Even AD&D author Gary Gygax ignored most of it. “We played to have fun, and in the throws of a hot melee, rules were mostly forgotten.” (See For 10 Years Dungeons & Dragons Suffered From an Unplayable Initiative System. Blame the Game’s Wargaming Roots.)

For the designers working on second-edition Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, updating these rules posed a challenge. D&D’s management had required the designers to make their new version of AD&D broadly compatible with the original. Even after years on store shelves, plenty of first-edition products continued to sell. TSR wanted to keep that income coming. (See From the Brown Books to Next, D&D Tries for Elegance.)

So second edition needed a version of the first-edition initiative rules, but which rules? First-edition players handled initiative in countless ways, none precisely by the book. The second-edition team settled on all of those ways. Like before, each side rolled a die and the winning roll went first. Beyond that, second edition offered enough optional rules to reconstruct whatever system a group already used. Groups that favored a system complicated by spell casting times and weapon speed factors could keep it.

Second edition also kept the wargame-inspired rule where players declared their actions before a round, and then had to stick to plan as best they could. Many groups chose to ignore this rule. Wizards of the Coast founder Peter Adkison says, “I’ve had many conversations with fans who were really big fans of AD&D and who never really left second edition. I would say, ‘So you like the declaration phase?’ And the answer would always be, ‘Oh we don’t play that way.’ So you like AD&D better because you don’t play by the rules!”

When Adkison led Wizards of the Coast to buy TSR, he granted the third-edition design team permission to redesign initiative—and the rest of D&D—without keeping broad compatibility. Adkison simply charged the team with creating the best D&D game possible.

To start, the team looked at how gamers actually played second edition. Few groups declared actions before a round, and groups that did found the process slowed the game. Third-edition lead designer Jonathan Tweet explains, “Eventually what you ended up doing is you had to tell the DM what you were doing every round twice.”

Most tables did roll initiative every round. That added some exciting uncertainly, but also friction. “It takes forever to go through the round because no one knows who’s next and people get dropped.”

Despite having so many systems to choose from, none of the options pleased anyone. Co-designer Monte Cook says, “Initiative was probably the longest knock down drag out kind of fight. We must have gone through—no exaggeration—like 8 different, completely different, initiative systems.”

Meanwhile, in Tweet’s home games, he used a system that he hesitated to propose to the other designers. “I said to the group, ‘I want to try this cyclical initiative. It’s always worked for me, but it’s so different from AD&D. You know what, it’s probably so different that even if it’s better, people would not like it.’”

For the origin of cyclical initiative, the story goes back to D&D’s early days.

The original D&D books omitted a rule for who acts first in a fight. For that, co-designer Gary Gygax supposed gamers would refer to his earlier Chainmail miniatures rules. In practice, players rarely saw those old rules. As the game spread virally from the creators’ local groups and from the conventions they attended, gamers in the Midwest learned to play D&D.

Gamers in the West found D&D too, but those communities lacked the same word-of-mouth connection to the game’s creators. Necessity forced those players to make up rules to patch the gaps in the rule books. Copies of these fans’ informal game supplements spread from table-to-table.

Warlock in the Spartan Simulation Gaming Journal #9 August 1975

A group of gamers around Caltech created Warlock. “What we have tried to do is present a way of expanding D&D without the contradictions and loopholes inherent in the original rules and with various supplements.”

Future RuneQuest designer and D&D supplement author Steve Perrin wrote a set of house rules that came to be called The Perrin Conventions. He distributed his rules at California’s DunDraCon I in March 1976.

The enthusiasts working on these West coast D&D enhancements lacked Dave and Gary’s deep roots in wargaming, so they found fresh answers to the question of who goes first. Instead of an arcane system built on weapon types, they worked from the description of the Dexterity attribute in original D&D’s Men & Magic booklet (p.11). Dexterity indicates the characters “speed with actions such as firing first, getting off a spell, etc.” So Warlock lets the spellcaster with the highest Dexterity goes first, and The Perrin Conventions explain, “First strike in any situation, whether melee combat, spell casting, or whatever depends on who has the highest dexterity.”

Meanwhile, D&D hooked California physician J. Eric Holmes, but the original game’s obtuse and incomplete rules frustrated him as much as anyone. So he contacted Gygax and volunteered to write rules for beginners. Gygax already wanted such an introduction, but he lacked time to write one because he also wanted to create his new advanced version of D&D. He welcomed Holmes’s unexpected offer and compared it to divine inspiration.

Starting with the original rule books plus the Blackmoor and Greyhawk supplements, Holmes made D&D comprehensible while keeping “the flavor and excitement of the original rules.” As much as he could, he reused wording from the original game. But J. Eric Holmes had learned to play D&D from the Caltech Warlock rules and he probably had seen The Perrin Conventions. That experience led him to pitch Warlock’s spell-point system to Gygax. We know how that turned out. Gary hated spell points. However, Holmes’s take on D&D included one West coast innovation: The character with the highest Dexterity struck first. Back then, monster stats lacked a number for Dexterity, so the rules explain, “If the Dungeon Master does not know the dexterity of an attacking monster, he rolls it on the spot.”

Holmes’ revision became the 1977 Basic Set known for its rule book’s blue cover. That version of the rules introduced young Jonathan Tweet to D&D. Even when new versions of D&D appeared, Tweet stuck to his interpretation of the 1977 initiative rule. “It was really fast. Everyone knew what order you went in.”

Fast forward twenty-some years to the design of third edition when Tweet proposed his home initiative system inspired by that blue rule book. He called the system cyclical because instead of re-rolling initiative every round, turns cycled through the same order.

The design team’s third member, Skip Williams brought deep roots into AD&D. Williams had played in Gary Gygax’s home campaign and came from years of experience answering AD&D questions as Dragon magazine’s sage. Tweet suspected Williams would hesitate to test an initiative system that defied AD&D tradition, but Williams said, “Well, let’s try it.”

“We played one battle using initiative that goes around in a circle instead of being different every round and it was so much faster,” Tweet recalls. “It feels more like combat because it’s faster. By the end of the turn, by the end of the 5 hours playing D&D, you’ve had way more fun because things have gone faster.

“One of the big things that I learned from that experience is how well people took to a rule that on paper they rejected but in practice they saw how well it played.”

Monte Cook says, “If you can look at something that happens 20, 30, 50 times during a game session, and eliminate that or decrease it hugely, you’re going to make the game run faster, more smoothly. That idea is now a big part of my game designer toolbox.”

In today’s fifth edition, cyclic initiative now seems like an obvious choice, but the D&D team still considered alternatives. Some players tout the side initiative system described on page 270 of the fifth-edition Dungeon Masters Guide. The opposing groups of heroes and monsters each roll a die, and then everyone in the group with the highest roll goes. Unlike in past editions, nobody re-rolls initiative; the sides just trade turns. The designers chose against this method because the side that wins initiative can gang up on enemies and finish them before they act. At low levels, when a single blow can take out a foe, winning side initiative creates an overwhelming advantage.

Many players find side initiative even faster than individual initiative. Side initiative could also encourage tactically-minded players to spend time each round planning an optimal order for their turns. Some players enjoy that focus. However, if you aim for fast fights where rounds capture the mayhem of 6-seconds of actual battle, avoid encouraging such discussion.

Why do you prefer your favorite method for deciding who goes first?

Related: 13 of the Craziest Quirks in the Dungeons & Dragons Rules

5 role-playing products that shaped how I play Dungeons & Dragons 1978-2000

Tomb of Horrors (1978)

In the early days, I enjoyed plenty of time to create my own adventures, so I had little interest in playing the published ones. But I still drew inspiration from them. Nothing inspired like Tomb of Horrors.

tomb-of-horrors-1e-coverBefore the tomb, dungeons tended to lack personality. Dungeon masters followed the examples in the rule books, serving players bland tunnels, square rooms, and monsters waiting to be killed.

The tomb overflowed with the personality of its fictional creator and its real-world author. Gary Gygax admits to “chuckling evilly” as he developed the tomb. His wicked fancy suffuses the dungeon. The tomb brought a menace unmatched by other dungeons. Its legend still draws players, despite its reputation for dead characters and tedious play.

The best part of the adventure might be the keyed illustrations that revealed its locations. The illustrations transported me into the tomb and tantalized me with potential clues to its the mysteries. I think writers sometimes avoid locations that demand long and unwieldy explanations, so we encounter too many conventional 10’x10’ rooms with a pile of debris in the corner. With the tomb, Gary and his artists loosed their imaginations, and the place came to life. See “Picturing the dungeon – keyed illustrations.”

For more, see “Tomb of Horrors tests patience, but still ranks as Dungeons & Dragons’ best villain.”

Queen of the Demonweb Pits (1980)

You can fault some details in Queen of the Demonweb Pits, but not its big ideas. This adventure took the scope of Dungeons & Dragons and blew it wide open.

Q1 Queen of the Demonweb Pits CoverStart with the Demonweb, a web of pathways floating through impenetrable fog. The material of the path moves slightly. “Close examination will reveal faces, twisted and tortured, pressed against some invisible barrier, silently mouthing screams and howls.” These are the lost souls of the Abyss. Along the path, unsupported doors open into extradimensional spaces. At first, these doors lead to Lolth’s creatures. On the last level of the web, the doors open on alternate material planes that she targets for attack or other schemes. In unlocking these planes, the adventure made the world of Greyhawk and its kin seem like specks floating an a sea of creation.

Once players leave the web, they find Lolth’s stronghold, a colossal, steam-powered spider that walks across an alien desert. Many players disliked the spider-ship for its collision of fantasy and steampunk, but I loved it. A diet of Michael Moorcock books and Arduin had already shattered my reservations about mixing such elements. The spider-ship seemed like a fitting creation for a goddess whose power spanned a multiverse. The ship’s inscrutable purpose and destination suited her chaos.

Lolth’s spider-ship, the  Demonweb, and its portals suggested a D&D game with a scope that felt breathtaking.

For more, see How Queen of the Demonweb Pits opened Dungeons & Dragons to the multiverse

Escape from Astigars Lair (1980)

In 1980, Judges Guild published Escape from Astigar’s Lair, a slim module that sold for just $2. The adventure so charmed me that after I ran it, I created a similar challenge of my own to unleash on players.

Escape From Astigar's LairThe action starts when the wizard Egad dons a cursed helm and becomes possessed by the evil spirit of the mighty Astigar. Players take the roles of the druid Danier and the ranger Therain, who begin shackled to a wall in Astigar’s dungeon complex. The escape encourages shrewd problem solving. How can you cross a chamber swarming with flying lizards as voracious as piranha? How can you force Egad to remove the cursed helm? The obstacles in the lair inspired challenges that I would add to my own game.

I loved how Escape from Astigar’s Lair showed that combining oddball powers with ingenuity could prove more fun than blasting away.

For more, see “Little-known D&D classics: Escape from Astigar’s Lair.”

Fez (1980-1985)

In 1981, my buddies and I, at our first Gen Con, stumbled into the Fez tournament and had a blast, more fun than we had in that year’s AD&D Open. For several years, even as our interests wandered from AD&D to other role-playing games, Fez remained the Gen Con event we most eagerly anticipated.FezI The Wizard’s Vale was originally printed as Fez I Valley of Trees

In this blog, I’ve shown how a reliance of skill checks tends to encourage players to focus on their character stats and to lose interest in the game world. When a skill check solves any problem in the game world, the details of the problem become unimportant.

When I played Fez, little seemed to demand a roll. Behind the dungeon master’s screen, Fez was a D&D game complete with AC and HP. From my perspective, Fez factored rules out of the game, making immersion the game world all important. Normally, I would not want to play battles without character stats, but in Fez, the objective seemed to be to avoid fights.

Fez featured a play style different from the typical D&D game, and it blew my impressionable mind.

For more, see “Little-known D&D classics: Fez.”

Dungeons & Dragons third edition (2000)

Game historian Shannon Appelcline calls D&D’s original design chaotic modeling, with inconsistent game systems handling different parts of the game world. So strength has a range of 3-17, and then 18/01 to 18/00, while other attributes range from 3-18. Thieves roll under a percentage to gain success, attackers try to roll high on a d20, and (in some versions) ability checks require a d20 roll under an ability score. “The fact that the game couldn’t even keep its core range straight (was it yards or feet?) says a lot.”

3E edition launch shirtIn Thirty Years of Adventure: A Celebration of Dungeons & Dragons, Steve Winter wrote, “By 1987, the science and/or art of roleplaying game design had progressed significantly since AD&D’s first appearance. Games such as Runequest, The Fantasy Trip, Chivalry & Sorcery, Paranoia, Pendragon, Warhammer Fantasy, Star Wars, Call of Cthulhu, and many others showed that there were innumerable ways to build a quality, innovative RPG.”

Second edition designers Steve Winter and David “Zeb” Cook did their best to sort out D&D’s “ugly little systems that didn’t integrate with each other,” but the system’s core remained mired in the RPG stone age. In a D&D podcast episode examining the second edition, Steve Winter said, “There were all kinds of changes that we would have made if we had been given a free hand to make them—an awful lot of what ultimately happened in third edition. We heard so many times, ‘Why did you keep armor classes going down instead of going up?’ People somehow thought that that idea had never occurred to us. We had tons of ideas that we would have loved to do, but we still had a fairly narrow mandate that whatever was in print should still be largely compatible with second edition.” So D&D held to chaotic modeling.

In 1997, Wizards of the Coast took over TSR and new head Peter Adkison set the direction for a new edition of D&D. In Thirty Years of Adventure, he wrote, “After twenty-five years D&D was due for a major overhaul, but that the changes to the game should make the games rules more consistent, more elegant, and support more possibilities for different styles of play.” Adkison gave lead-designer Jonathan Tweet and the rest of his team the freedom to bring 25 years of innovation into D&D. The centerpiece of the revamp came in the form of the d20 core mechanic that became the name of the game’s foundation.

Future_of_D+DIn addition to the chaotic rules, D&D’s characters suffered from limitations Gary had created either for game balance or just to make humans the dominant race. “My biggest beef with the older rules were the consistent limitations on what characters could become,” Adkison wrote. “Why couldn’t dwarves be clerics. Why could wizards of some classes only advance to some pre-determined level limit? Why couldn’t intelligent monster races like orcs and ogres pick up character classes? In my mind these restrictions had no place in a rules set but should be restrictions established (if at all) at the campaign-setting level.”

I shared Peter Adkison’s beefs. When Wizards of the Coast made their big announcement leading to the third edition, they produced a shirt giving a taste of the barriers that the new edition shattered. For me, this shirt showed how third edition would embrace 30 years of role-playing game design ideas, and how it swept away senseless limitations. After years often away from D&D, playing other games, third edition welcomed me back.

In 1980, Bushido anticipates third edition D&D

Bushido (1980) by Paul Hume and Bob Charrette

Bushido (1980) by Paul Hume and Bob Charrette

Twenty years before the release of third edition Dungeons & Dragons, the Japanese-themed RPG Bushido included this rule:

Saving throws…represent the chance of making a supernatural exertion of the Attribute, such as dodging a trap or missile (Speed), resisting a spell (usually Will), or neutralizing a drug or infection (Health).” – Bushido (1980) by Paul Hume and Bob Charrette

I suspect the near match between the saving throws in Bushido and the Reflex, Will, and Fortitude saves in 3E comes from designers working at the same problem and arriving at a similar solution, rather than from a direct influence. Nonetheless, the similarity is striking.

Battle maps take over Dungeons & Dragons

Early versions of Dungeons & Dragons always included miniature rules for movement, range, area effects, and even for actions similar to attacks of opportunity. But I never witnessed those rules in action. They seemed to require miniatures. Collecting miniatures cost a lot of money and invited another hobby consisting of painting miniatures.

D&D second edition arrived in 1989 with the usual easily abstracted and easily ignored rules for miniatures. However, six years later, Player’s Option: Combat & Tactics finally introduced the gridded battle map to D&D. In the Foreword, Skip Williams promises that, “You will find plenty of ways to make combat more than a dice-rolling contest or an exercise in subtracting hit points from your character’s total.” Combat & Tactics reads like an early draft of the third edition combat rules, complete with rules for opportunity attacks, reach, and cover. Combat & Tactics probably scared more players away from battle maps than it converted. The supplement moved deep into wargame territory, with over 250 pages of rules for facing, fatigue, and things like direct and indirect bombardment.

TSR supported Combat & Tactics with The Gates of Firestorm Keep, which Dungeon magazine ranked at number 11 on its 2004 list of greatest Dungeons & Dragons adventures. The Gates of Firestorm Keep started the tradition of including printed battle maps for major encounter areas, and also included cardboard counters for the monsters. So The Gates of Firestorm Keep stands as the first adventure to invite D&D players to use a battle map.

Update: A few adventures prior to Firestorm Peak featured both battle maps and cardboard counters. See “Early combinations of adventures with battle maps” for more.

The complete change in approach arrived with third edition, co-designed by Combat & Tactics co-designer Skip Williams. When third edition debuted at Gen Con, vendors such as Chessex immediately sold out of their battle mats. While the third edition rules tried to phrase its rules so you could play without a map, everyone used a map, so 3.5 abandoned any nod to play without one.

For most folks playing D&D in 2000, the adoption of battle maps represented a big change. For instance, I played all three rounds the D&D Open tournament in 1999, and none of the DMs resolved combat on a map. (Now the D&D Championship plays as a tactical miniatures challenge. Still fun, but very different. In the lower left corner of the photo, you can see my figure, a turn or two away from being treated like a steak in a Benihana by a marilith.)

Fourth edition showed that some of the D&D community will rebel if an edition fails to adequately support their favored play style. But the third edition’s switch to battle maps brought no rebellions. Everyone started using maps and figures, and almost everyone felt the addition improved the game. Maps and figures enable all the players to share a clear understanding of the battlefield with the DM. The maps enable the tactics that make fights interesting.

Fourth edition brought changes that can make D&D combat more dynamic and exciting than ever, but some of the changes have threatened to sour players’ attitudes toward the battle map. Fourth edition forces every encounter to be a big set piece, and often these battles seem to take too long.

The set-piece problem comes from encounter design. Fourth edition works to prevent one-sided fights by bringing greater formality to what constitutes a combat encounter, and what adversaries the players can expect to face. This puts a stake to the heart of the old-school possibility of stumbling into 30-300 orcs, but it also eliminates short encounters where just you slew their sentry. In fourth edition, every encounter requires a battle map, because every encounter takes the same scale.

The problem of long combats has prompted much discussion, but I do not blame the map. Most players used maps in third edition, and the few who complained about the length of combat typically favored the non-combat pillars of the game.

So when D&D Next comes out, I’ll embrace it, but I’ll still use my battle maps.

Next: Solving the limitations of battle maps