Thursday, 29 September 2011

I Blame The Children; Or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Declaring Actions Before Rolling Initiative

Yesterday's post aroused considerable comment that I think merits a full reply. (The good thing about having a blog that generates lots of comments is that you rarely have to sit around thinking about what to write today - you have a self-referential fall-back at any time.) For some reason I don't think I got my point across, as is evidenced by the number of people who seem to think I was worried about the fact that I or others was "playing it wrong".

It's far from the case. I couldn't give a monkey's how you, the gentle reader, play the game, and I certainly don't think that the game designer's word is Holy Writ. My position is much more reasonable than that, and is as follows: the designers of D&D are not stupid people. In fact, they are intelligent, thoughtful and creative people. This is true whether the year is 1974 or 2011. The things contained in the game manuals are there for a reason and deserve exploring.

Two such things are the declaration of action before the initiative roll, and forcing spell-casters to have a full night's rest in order to have a clear enough mind to memorise spells. These serve as useful examples, because they are rules that are commonly ignored (or Piledrivered) and they illustrate my wider point, which will become clear at the end of this post (yes, the suspense is killing you). Let's explore each in turn:

1. Declaring actions before rolling for initiative

In AD&D of either edition, the combat round has three steps. (We'll ignore the DM and focus on the players.) Step 1, all the players declare their actions. Step 2, all the players roll initiative. Step 3, their actions are carried out. What are the implications of this and why is it so?

  • Most importantly, it's intuitively "true". Fights in the real world occur in real time. You don't take things in turns in real life, and although turn-taking is inevitable in a game there's an argument to be made that this should be reduced as much as possible.
  • Second most important, it's fair. Everybody states their actions and then the person with the highest initiative roll is rewarded by being the person who can act first, in knowledge of what everybody else will do, rather than being punished by being the person who declares their action and then acts first, and thus cannot respond to what the rest of the combatants do. Perhaps this requires unpacking: the "Piledriver" way of resolving combat is for everybody to roll initiative and then go from top to bottom, with everybody stating and performing actions in turn, so that Step 1 above becomes folded into Step 2. So initiative is rolled first, then everybody states actions and carries them out in initiative order. What are the consequences of this? Arguably, in many situations it makes losing initiative advantageous, because what are the disadvantages to coming last in the round and being able to see exactly how the melee has panned out, where everybody's position is, what their weak points are, and what they are doing, before you decide how to act? But similarly, in some circumstances it also makes life even harder for the slow than it should be: picture the following scene. Bob the wizard has terrible DEX and rolls poorly for initiative. Everybody knows he will move last. So, the enemy concentrate their attacks on him, knowing that they have a good chance of killing him before his player can even state what he is going to do. In what sense is this better than having everybody declare their actions first, thus forcing people to act with caution rather than direction mass pre-emptive strikes at the slower characters, since they don't know what initiative order will be?
  • Third, it allows for a more subtle approach to spell-casting. In every edition of D&D, the complaint has always been that spell-casters are too powerful and at mid- higher- levels come to dominate even combat, making it pointless to be a fighter (your niche isn't even your niche any more). But if you use the correct procedure for combat, this is much less of a problem: spell-casters have to declare their action first ("I'll cast fireball") and then wait their turn; if their concentration is ruined in the meantime (rather likely in a chaotic melee) their spell fizzles. Suddenly fighters are important again - they protect their allied magic-users' concentration and also try to disrupt opposition spell-casters before they can cast. Their role is vital even at the highest levels. I repeat: The game designers were not stupid.
2. The Full-Night's-Rest Rule

In AD&D, it is not assumed that spell-casters get to memorise spells automatically each morning before the day's "play" begins. The rules stipulate that "Memorization is not a thing that happens immediately. The wizard must have a clear head gained from a restful night's sleep and then has to spend time studying his spell books." Again, what are the implications of this often-forgotten rule?

  • Instead of just camping wherever, players have to think a little more tactically about where they set up camp and how their sleeping arrangements are. Suddenly, something which players take for granted has to be carefully thought out. Do we want to risk sleeping in the wilderness, or push on to see if we can reach a settlement and possibly not find anything and get no sleep at all? The players' choice about where to camp becomes meaningful, and we know that giving players meaningful choices is  always interesting and one of the key characteristics of good play.
  • The magic-users, who are important, have to sleep. They can't be disturbed by, say, wandering monsters. What does this mean? Players have to get damn good about picking places to rest if they plan on staying longer than a day in the dungeon. Goodbye 10-minute-adventuring-day, where players explore a bit of the dungeon for 10 minutes, have a fight, sleep and re-memorise spells, explore the dungeon for 10 minutes, have a fight, sleep and re-memorise spells, etc. Wasn't this cited as being one of the huge problems of D&D that the 4e designers were going to solve? Had they actually read their AD&D texts properly?
  • Coming back to the old "magic-users are too powerful" discourse, the full-night's-rest rule obviously makes magic-users less all-powerful at higher levels and reliant on the rest of their party for protection and aid. I repeat: The game designers were not stupid

So how do we account for the Piledriving of these rules? In the comments to yesterday's entry, Zak writes that 
[I]t is strange how a bunch of mostly non-communicating non-overlapping groups all over the world all changed the same rules.

I agree with this, but what is really interesting is the question why. The simplest response would seem to be: it's because those rules were stupid or poorly explained. I'd like to suggest something different: the vast majority of people start playing D&D when they're, like, 12 years old and frankly not able to take in a big book of rules originally written by grown-ups for grown-ups. Because they're 12, they're not able to think very deeply about things, they find it difficult to speculate in a calm and orderly fashion about the underlying reasons for the way things are, they have very little patience for reading rulebooks carefully and looking things up in charts, they have short attention spans, and they act impulsively. They also, crucially, find it difficult to order each others' behaviour; managing the 3 steps of a combat round I outlined above is kind of hard when you're a 12-year-old DM and your 12-year-old players want to keep things moving. In fact, it's a rare 12-year-old DM who would think about things deeply enough to want to use the proper 3 step sequence anyway.

These things have a momentum of their own and once the Piledriving has started it's difficult to stop. This is why these misunderstandings persist until adulthood - that, and because even with bastardised rules D&D is still fun. Many of my readers will have been thinking, reading this, something along the lines of, "Who cares? We roll for initiative and then everybody states actions and performs them in turn, and it works." Yes, it does work, and this is why it doesn't get corrected. The question whether the standard rules may work better is never explored because the habit is too ingrained.

I'm not the first person to argue this. Faustusnotes, who often disagrees with me, seems on exactly the same page. And here we have Malcolm Sheppard saying something very similar:

I’ve really grown to love AD&D1e as a game of its own, however, and understand it now much better than I did when I was a child, playing Dragonlance or running my own game world hacked together out of Dragon Magazine articles, canned modules and seat-of-the-pants improvisation. AD&D1e is a grownup game, believe it or not: an RPG that requires a slow, deliberate exploration of your options, plenty of discussion and a willingness to look up fiddly bits.

I like this very much and think it an appropriate point on which to close.


  1. I have to say I'm with you on this, especially casting times (and the use of verbal, somatic, and material components). Some say this makes Magic Users too weak at early levels. But Magic Users can be very deadly - and that party of first-level adventurers is likely to face an early campaign 'big bad' who can cast spells...

  2. I think those people who piledrive AD&D would rather be playing Basic with all the classes and doodads and they just don't know it.

    All I can say in my group's defense is that (a) my ruleset is Basic-derived in so many ways, including side-based initiative (b) my players' ages contain from 2 to 4 12 year olds and we have still "voted with our memory" to value the speed, ease and immediacy in combat over the splitting of will and enactment. The advantage of going last is tempered by having the option to hold a move or an attack if you have initiative.

    I am more insitent on the good night's sleep to recover spells in AD&D; what are people getting away with, catnaps? To really make camping a chore, you can rule that the setting of a watch means you don't see the location as a safe space, so no spell recovery and only limited HP recovery can take place.

  3. In regards to initiative.

    I ran it that way for years, and it has its rewards.

    It also has its problems.

    1.) Analysis Paralysis
    2.) Slows down the game

    I used to use an egg timer to deal with 1, with "too slow, lose your turn". It really cranked up the stress and I still bring it out occasionally.

    The problem is it cranks up the stress. That really began to make it un-enjoyable as more and more of our day jobs were drinking stress smoothies 24/7.

    That said first and (most importantly second) points about it were not something I was willing to abandon. Nor was I willing to let the game revert to a crawl in what are supposed to be fast paced moments, nor was I willing to stress some people out (as first and foremost I play games as something to do with friends).

    Now those may not rise up as problems for you and your group.

    If they do, I would like to share my solution to that, which still meets points 1 and 2.

    Players roll initiative.
    Lowest Initiative goes first, someone with a higher initiative can interrupt their action (and go first) or hold it till later. If they interrupt then someone with an even HIGHER initiative can interrupt them and go.

    Same net effect, less book keeping (And remembering who said they were doing what will come up).

    Of course I can really only say I've gone through the evolution with my own home group so it may be completely different with your group.

  4. I think a lot of people change how initiative works because in practical terms, it doesn't work all that great.

    So I declare my action, then a couple of people go before me on initiative, rendering my action impossible. Do I lose my action? Can I then change it?

    Also, how is it even an advantage to "see what everyone else did"? If you're flat-footed, and you get held, charmed, stabbed, don't you react to that?

    People mostly changed that rule for a reason. I've tried both, and I'll stick with the one I use. It's not a piledriver if it's a conscious decision.

  5. Most of my experience of fighting is kickboxing, which happens at I guess a much faster pace than armour-and-sword fighting, but it leads me to believe that initiative as a concept is a horrible fiction, necessary for keeping a game functioning but not easily mapped into any realistic framework. Whether or not people declare their actions at the start of a round should really be decided by the exigencies of the particular combat rules, rather than realism, imho. But as you say, implementing the rule in this way for AD&D makes sense, because of spell-casting. I guess in 3rd ed/Pathfinder it doesn't make as much sense because of concentration checks, etc.; but in those rules we also have free actions, etc.

    (and speaking of piledrivers, I never really could get my head around the 3rd ed combat details; I just ran it like AD&D, with more skill checks!)

  6. while i agree on "piledriving" in general i believe with initiative you have chosen a terrible example. my group started out using the rules out of the book, but like several posters before me after a time we changed them because they caused a lot of problems.

    i also believe that while you are right when you say designers "are not stupid" we have to realise that while that might generally be true sometimes they simply are... :)

    take games workshop, for example. they are well known for producing tabletop games (and army books) that are terribly unbalanced. i doubt there is a tournament in europe that doesn't make extensive use of houserules and an army choice system. everyone agrees that some rules are simply unplayable (or unclear) as written.

    while designers might have good intentions concerning a partcular rule, actual play on the table often works out very different. i am not sure how much playtesting is done for rpg-products, but if its the same as for some tabletop games (i fear it might be even less) it's certainly not enough.

  7. You're right, and backed up the reasons why nicely. I would just like to add that I think it's shameful how some of the modern designers did not even understand how D&D worked before changing it to solve supposed problems. What they need to do is understand why the game was how it was, and then take good care of that legacy. D&D needs to be D&D, not some other fantasy game. If that's what they want to write, let them call it something else.

  8. I think if the rules would have been organized better they wouldn't have been so difficult to understand.
    There are quite a few variables that affect initiative/suprise and segments and their descriptions are spread out a bit.
    Maybe if they were consolidated in one spot more players would see how it all works together.

  9. "I'd like to suggest something different: the vast majority of people start playing D&D when they're, like, 12 years old and frankly not able to take in a big book of rules originally written by grown-ups for grown-ups."

    I suspect quite a few 12 year olds started out playing with just one player and the DM, which would also tend to make strict adherence to the initiative rules seem somewhat superfluous, compared with when multiple players are involved. Then, when multiple players *did* get involved, the old habits remained in effect.

    Also, kids might gravitate towards simple turn-based combat, since so many other games they'd played are simple turn-based rules.

  10. I don't find it convincing that the reason so many people use simplified initiative is because they learned it young and weren't wise enough to see the logic of the rules as written.

    I think the big thing with actions-first initiative is that the player's choice becomes more abstract and difficult. With a simpler system you can look at Player Bob and say, "what do you want to do?"

    With the rules as written you have to ask something like, "What would you like to do if you roll initiative higher than anyone else, keeping in mind you may not, so it has to be an action that would also be reasonable if you go last?" Huh? How do you answer that question?

  11. 'Piledriving' D&D is a quite a bit different from the Games Workshop tabletop game example quoted above (and the example in an earlier post).

    D&D isn't a competitive game. The DM isn't your opponent. He or she isn't trying to find some rules exploit or win-at-all-costs army list that'll make it impossible for you to win.

    Unfortunately, that is how many people play tabletop miniature games. It's not the only way - and it is pretty clear that both WFB and W40K began as games that be built around narrative scenarios with a GM designing scenario-specific rules, with forces determined by the narrative (with points values as a guide) rather than mathhammer.

    I don't think that Games Workshop rules are poorly written, and as for unbalanced Army Books, well, tournament and competitive gaming are a poor, degraded cousin of what tabletop gaming can be.

    As the first edition of W40K said (I paraphrase), the correct attitude is not that you're playing *against* your opponent, but that you're playing with him.

  12. Goodbye 10-minute-adventuring-day

    I've never encountered this problem and never previously understood why so many gamers took the position that, say, 7th or 8th level MUs are overpowered. For every group I've played in, camping in the dungeon was a desperate last resort for parties too badly injured to move for the moment. PCs had some chance to clear rooms in simple series only if they kept the momentum up and scouted the exits before taking on any fighting.* Camping offers the monsters an opportunity to randomly find them, form a plan and counter-attack intelligently - in which case getting to the exit becomes a whole other problem than just surviving the current combat.

    *It's hard to justify dungeoneering with realism. My own handwave is that the monsters in the dungeon are habitual homebodies - they're surrounded by enemies too! - but once alerted to threats they'll try actively to remove them. The individual monster's problem with recognizing danger is (a) sound carries very badly - the dungeon is actually quite noisy, what with everything that's down there; (b) the monster faces several known threats from other dungeon denizens, so it's busy defending its territory, gathering food, taking the kids to school etc.

  13. drbargle, most of what you say is true, but even if you approach tabletop gaming with the attitude you desire, some rules and items (from gw) are unusable. i still play like that often and we use all the houserules from tournaments.

    and while it is true that games workshop games started out differently, today they are played in a competitive spirit most of the time (with gw hosting their own tournaments). and the rules sometimes get in the way of that. you know, that was kind of my point, designers being stupid. ;)

    bad choice of example on my part there i guess...

    what you seem to have missed about my comment is that when people use army choice systems they are explicitly trying to avoid armies that make it impossible for an opponent to win. these systems are only used to limit certain choices, to increase both balance and fun for each player.

    tournaments for warhammer and 40k are played in a different spirit than you might imagine.

    anyway, we digress. this is about smart/stupid designers.

  14. I understand the benefit of stating your actions and then having them adjudicated (I'm playing Burning Wheel, which takes that to a greater extreme). But one of the things I always liked best about TSR-D&D combat was how fast it always was. Wouldn't having everyone declare their action and then adjudicate the action slow things down? If so, by how much? I'd like to hear some more people's experiences. Zzarchov says it slows things down a lot, would others agree?

    If it slows things down too much (will have to try it in practice to see) maybe just having spells always go off the next round, which gives people a full round to interrupt them.

  15. I have one use for rolling initiative before declaring actions - turn-taking.

    The game designers aren't stupid, but my players are excitable. When you have a table of excited players all trying to declare actions at once, things get a bit hectic. Some form of turn-taking device to govern who gets the GM's attention first is required. Using the initiative roll for this is tidy - it doesn't add an extra step to the mechanical process of a fight, it uses a mechanic which everyone at the table is familiar with and, in systems where build optimisation exists, a mechanic which can be gamed for advantage (which is an attraction of such systems and one reason why people choose to play them).

    I use the initiative roll for looting corpses, talking to NPCs and deciding the 'cutting order' when the party is split, too: anything that creates a player pile-up is mediated by initiative.

    That said, I see your point about losing the initiative being a disadvantage. Perhaps this is why the postponing of actions until a later point in the round became a popular feature of new-school systems? Their designers were quite clever too.

  16. re initiative - how long are your combat rounds?

  17. Wickedmurph: Fair enough, play the game how you want it, but you're missing out.

    Regarding how you determine actions that have been invalidated, the answer is you don't have to be too specific. The PHB even says so. Players are allowed to be vague and say stuff like "I attack the goblins". Otherwise it's up to the DM to adjudicate and there are no hard and fast rules about what happens - it's up to the people at the table. This is what I and Michael (who I linked to) are getting at when we say this was a grown-up game and required players to be willing to negotiate.

    shlominus: If the rules cause a lot of problems for you of course you should change them. I think that's a given!

    David and Richard: I'd say that declaring actions first takes a bit more time, but not a great deal more. This is where you get into the subjective area of what each group prefers, though. When I play D&D it's at a Wargamers' club where some role playing goes on, and everybody who participates in the latter also has plenty of experience in wargames. They're the type of people who like thinking about combat, coming up with tactical plans, and strategising. Having combat take a little bit longer is not a disadvantage to them.

    That said it really only does take a little bit longer. It goes something like this:

    DM: Okay, declare actions.
    A: I attack the orcs.
    B: I start casting a fireball spell.
    C: I try to sneak around behind the orcs to position myself for a back stab next round.
    D: I fire arrows at the troll.

    DM: Okay, everybody roll initiative.

    DM also decides on actions for the monsters, then rolls initiative for them as above.

    DM notes down everybody's result in order and starts resolving actions from the bottom up. Not very slow, and also orderly and logical.

  18. Thanks, that's enlightening. I had another question in mind, though: I was wondering how much time each round is supposed to simulate in the game world - I don't remember if 1 minute was consistently used across all editions; 10 seconds was also popular in play. I favour 5 or 6 seconds.

    Despite my agreeing with Jeff Rients, that a combat round is "as long as it takes to improve or worsen your condition," the implications of 5 or 10 or 60 seconds are big - for movement, readying equipment, trap action, and even initiative. With GURPS' 1-second round dexterity is king for initiative bonuses. I'd argue that over a 1 minute round intelligence becomes at least as important, reflecting tactical placement and awareness of opportunities.

  19. Oh, right. They're 60 seconds. I favour the "there's a lot of 'combat' going on during the course of a minute and the hit roll represents the entire thing" approach.

  20. I just wanted to say that I'm rather taken with Zzarchov's solution.

    "Players roll initiative.
    Lowest Initiative goes first, someone with a higher initiative can interrupt their action (and go first) or hold it till later. If they interrupt then someone with an even HIGHER initiative can interrupt them and go." - Zzarchov

    Well done, sir!

  21. Well, good sir. When you put it that way, who am I to argue? I think I'm going to try declaring actions before rolling with my players and see how it goes. You can still keep the tension going, and in fact increase it: everyone is hanging on that initiative roll to see if their plan will come together or be pre-emptively smashed by the enemy.