Surprise & Initiative Details

A little while ago, I got a wonderful invitation from Paul S. to run a D&D game for 3 days straight of the 4th of July holiday. Which was awesome for more reasons than I can count, but one I'll state explicitly is that he has the most perfect dedicated RPG gaming space that I've ever seen (link; now with shelves full of miniatures & Dwarven Forge, old-style chairs from the Higgins Armory, etc.) Also it gave me a chance to see if my long-form DM'ing skills were still up to snuff.

Here's a thing I've had written in my house rules for some time -- not really a change of any sort, but a reminder to honor the original D&D rules for surprise and initiative. Namely: Surprise gives a free round and then automatic initiative, for 2 rounds of action in sequence (Vol-3, top of p. 10); and that at the start of the action sequence, a round of missile fire & spells are allowed before movement or melee (as seen in Chainmail p. 9, to which OD&D refers, or Swords & Spells p. 3, as an update).

Conceptually, I really like this, because it simulates arrows and spells flying and striking the opposition while they're making their charge across the space between. It synchs up with the Gygaxian/Holmesian descriptions of combat where PCs loose one round of missiles, then drop bows and pull out swords for melee. If monsters get surprise, they may not have any missiles on the actual surprise round, but they still get the free initiative to charge into combat and get one free round of melee attacks.

The main problem: The last several times I've run games, I keep entirely forgetting to enforce this rule. Even though I've got it written down as a reminder, even though I prime myself mentally to use it before going into the game; it just completely slips my mind every time. Secondarily, even when I've remembered about it in the past, players are a bit confused by the (now) unusual rule.

One thing that I'm noticing from this past Jul-4 weekend is that players were still using lots of missile weapons even in the absence of the "first round is missiles only" rule. They were using them to attack monsters at a distance, or to allow back ranks to fire over a melee in front (which should be further encouraged by my very liberal rule on firing into melee, even though I also forgot about that all weekend, too; link). In theory, if I strike out this joint rule for surprise & missiles, then I'll be matching what was done in all later rulesets, like BX/AD&D/3E, etc.

Maybe I should take a clue from my instincts in actual play, and let go of that attractive-in-theory but difficult-in-practice original rule?


  1. I like the first round missiles and spells only rule. There may be some circumstances it does not make sense (combat starting at very close range, 2 parties bumping into each other when they round a corner perhaps). It seems to me it’s a simplified form of Missiles – Move – Magic – Move –Melee. Having initiative of move – attack allows characters to close to magic and missile wielders in one round before they fire. Since this is most important in the first round, make first round magic and missiles only. You preserve the most important part of the multi-phase combat round, without the complication of using a multi-phase combat sequence every round.

    I’m not sure how surprise would actually work with this rule though. Do you drop the missile and magic only in the first round part (I think I would for surprise encounters)? If not is the first round the surprise round and the round after that?

    1. Yeah, that's totally the intention, and it seems so compelling to me when away from the table. But in-game I forget. A small part of the problem is that I have to make a cycle around the table where only some players get to do something (missiles/magic), while others don't do anything, which seems oddball in practice.

      When I have utilized this in the past I did still enforce it in the surprise round; in that way, the missiles-only and free-initiative work together. The surpriser probably gets a round of missiles (the surprise round), and then charges in for melee attacks (the free initiative on the first normal round). Or if the surpiser pops up in melee distance to begin with, then they get 2 rounds of melee (which is exactly what happens in the example with the wyvern in OD&D Vol-3, p. 9-10).

    2. That is a good point the once around with some doing nothing.

  2. Sorry this is a long comment. I’m getting ready to start an on-line game and I’m trying to work out the initiative system, I have not tested this yet, so it’s a little vague, and more fiddly / crunchy than you generally like, but I was wondering what you think.
    The idea with the initiative system is to avoid the situation where the person with the highest initiative moves all the way across the room and attacks while no else moves. Then all the monsters move and fall on that one guy and kill him… I’m also trying to avoid the situation were people don’t pay attention during other peoples turns. What I want is both sides tell the DM what they are going to do, (perhaps only the movement, I have not used this yet) then the DM moves all the figures, but I don’t want written orders or for the DM to pretend he did not hear the party’s plan. So each side roles initiative each round. This would be modified by tactics, or command kind of abilities, int, wis or char attributes of the leader of each side. The losing side must tell the winning side in rough outlines what they are going to do, with a heavy emphasis on things that can be observed, like where they are going to move. If party wins initiative, DM says the bad guys are going to cross the room and are unsheathing weapons; these 3 seem to be staying back, 2 are readying bows, the one in robes is digging in his belt pouch. The winning side then decides what they are going to do. Players say we are also going to cross the room and engage the enemy. We are going to try and beat them to the line of columns to add the columns to our fighting line, the elf and mage are going to stay back. The DM then resolves exactly where the combatants end up, in this case in the center of the room, with the party that won initiative in a slightly better position. You can allow the party to do as much planning as they want during the declaration phase, which hopefully keeps everyone engaged. You can also change it up, running a battle where time really matters, or communication is difficult, don’t let them plan.

    Attack roles are made with the individual initiative determining strike order, which is normally only important to spell casters and the round an individual is incapacitated (was it before or after they acted). Everything is happening at the same time, except for when blows actually fall, therefore there is no need to resolve the blows in top to bottom order, generally fire ranged weapons, cast spells then resolve blows. If someone attacks the mage and their strike order was before the mage, his spell is disrupted

    1. Hey, thanks for the comments! I think what you're planning on doing is philosophically in agreement with the original initiative rules from Chainmail, Swords & Spells, and the like -- it's pretty understandable why that's attractive.

      One thing I pursue in my games is that the play action be fast-fast-fast, nearly real-time, to a degree that freaks out a few players when they first encounter it. (For a differing opinion, see Jeff Rients' blog today.) Among the things that assist me in that regard are just a single init roll per party, and then cycling around the table in order of seating. Efficiencies include: (1) No rolling for each player, (2) no modifiers, (3) no rolling each round, (4) no tracking a list of init numbers, (5) highly visible to players when the turn comes physically around the table at them, (6) matches new players expectations from boardgames, (7) players stay engaged, (8) players can cooperate and not get the one fighter isolated on their individual action. On each player's action, I give a short time to decide and then a "5 countdown" on one hand if they dither (only happened once over the jul-4 weekend marathon).

      The other thing you might want to consider is how well your process can scale to track higher numbers of players and monsters. Like I can seat as many as ~9 players at a table and cycle around with no extra burden. (But maybe that's not a concern for your online game.)

      Anyway, I'd be interested to hear how your experiment comes out. Think about pinging back in this thread with how it worked!

    2. I will let you know, it may be a while. I guessing it will be too fiddly in play, but I can't stand the whole freeze frame move thing.

    3. Good luck. That's at least part of why I emphasize the fast-action sequence; the speedier the turns are, the more fluid and less freeze-frame it feels like. Kind of like upping the frame rate on a video game: the frames are still there, but fine-grained enough that people don't notice.

  3. For a long time I tried to get a good initiative system, and either they were tedious (everyone keep track of your number) or, like yours, something I just couldn’t remember to keep doing.

    I eventually got rid of initiative altogether. The players go with their characters, then I handle the NPCs, and then whoever is out for the count is out. I call it the fog of war rule, but really it's that I've come to the conclusion that initiative is more trouble than it's worth.

    1. I can kind of see that. I'm just a single d6-roll away from that myself, but I like either side having the chance to go first. Thanks for your experience.

    2. My approach splits the difference. No initiative. Everybody tells me what they are doing and the results of their roll, if there's hesitation I go around the table. At the same time I'm resolving the general approach of the creatures.

      The players can work together, and they can ask what the monsters are doing - that is, they can see the ogre is moving to melee range, etc.

      The only time I roll initiative is when the exact order of events matters. Then it's an opposed check with the relevant participants.

      I've run a game at the local store with 13 players with no problem this way. The cool thing is that it also gives a bit of the feel of the chaos of combat.

    3. Interesting! I wish I could see that in practice.

    4. It works really well. Ironically, though, I've just started shifting to a slightly different approach, in part because it's hard to quantify the "no initiative approach" for others.

      The new approach (haven't decided which we like better yet) was sparked by Mike Mearle's tweet about how he uses different initiative dice depending on what you're doing. Lowest number goes first. So a dagger would use a d4, and a two-handed sword a d8 for initiative.

      Why I like it: It automatically covers speed factor, and there's no math. Just roll the die.

      So that got me thinking - why have rounds? That also helped with Surprise. My surprise check is an opposed check, and the difference between the two is how many segments one side gets "free."

      Everybody declares their actions as they did in my old system. But now they roll an initiative die. That sets their "segment" to act. Once their turn comes up, they roll initiative again and that's when their next turn comes up.

      No rounds to make sure everybody gets their chance. Since anybody can roll a 1, it's a lot different than the old speed factor approach.

      Since this is 5e, I've settled on a dx+4 with the die type dependent on what the action actually is. That means that there is a minimum of 5 segments (seconds) between your actions, but you still have a reaction and potential bonus action in between the two.

      If you decide you want to wait, just roll initiative when you declare (whatever segment that is). If your turn comes up and you change your mind, just roll initiative for your new action. I also let you use your reaction to change your mind before it's your action if you want. Again, just roll initiative.

      The sequence of segments just continues - starts at 1 and goes until the combat is over.

      Movement is separate. Other than surprise, everybody can move any time they want. 5' per segment (with a 30' base move). Everything just flows beautifully, and there are times where the players get the upper hand with a few extra attacks, and there are times that the monsters do.

    5. Ugh, too complicated. Mearls is off in another field.

    6. It's much less complicated that it sounds. And this is only inspired by Mike's tweet - it's not how he runs it.

      For a player all you really need to know is when your Turn is, and once you use your action, you roll again.

      If it's turn #32 and you just rolled a 5, then you go on #37. Once you finish your turn, you roll again.

      Attacking with light or finesse weapon
      casting a spell of level 0-2
      Grapple maneuver

      Cast spell of level 3-5

      Attack with heavy or two-handed weapons
      Cast spell of level 6-9

  4. In my experience, one of the advantages to individual initiative is that the players are engaged in that roll. If you give them a roll plus modifiers, then do a countdown from highest initiative, things still move quickly. If you divide the round up into phases (say, 1: simultaneous missile fire, 2: magic in order from lowest level spell to highest, simultaneous within levels, 3: melee in order of initiative), it goes fast, in my experience. It's perhaps not quite as easy as in order around the table, but it is still pretty easy.

    Which probably doesn't have much to do with what you're getting at. I just felt the need to say something because, uh, reasons.

    1. Yeah, my experience is definitely different on that score. We wrestled with trying to make that flow well all through 3E, and never got it to work. There's always these pauses where the DM is recording or counting, or misses or forgets the count, or a player tunes out and misses their count, etc. I see this with me and other DMs in other games. What I see is the group roll gets more joint team-engagement happening.

    2. Well, we never had problems with players tuning out, after the first time they missed their count!

  5. Great post as usual. Some questions of clarification:

    (1) Where in Volume I page 10 does it say that winning surprise automatically grants winning initiative for the subsequent round?

    (2) Where in Chainmail page 9 does it say that there is a round of missile fire and spells before movement and melee? I am looking at page 9 of the 3rd edition, which has the "Move/Counter-Move" and "Simultaneous Movement" turn sequence systems. In step 2 of both sequences, it seems to imply that initial missile fire happens at the same time as movement. Spells are not explicitly mentioned in either turn sequence.

    1. Thanks! And good questions. Of course, since OD&D LBBs don't explicitly have any initiative rules in them, we're trying to interpret what's there as best as possible.

      (1) There's the example of a party surprised by a Wyvern. It gets a surprise round of close-up melee, and then the example ends with: "The Wyvern may attack once again before the adventurers strike back."

      (2) Considering the "split-move" and "pass-through fire" rules in phase 2 of 7, the full sequence can include: (i) a half-move, (ii) missile fire, (iii) another half-move, (iv) more missile fire, then (v) melee. So I'm summarizing in saying that there's a round (a half-turn, really) where missile fire is possible before moves are completed and melee can happen.

      The main Wizard attack modes (fireball, lightning bolt) are literally called "Missiles" on CM p. 31, and follow similar rules, so I'm assuming that's the phase they occur in. Other spells are not explicitly given a phase, but I'm interpolating from those "missile" attack modes.

      Looking at Swords & Spells, which some read as a clarification of those rules, the sequence is (p. 3): (1) Fire missiles, spells, breath weapons, (2) Move half for side A, (3) Move full for side B with missile/spell/breath at the midpoint, (4) Move half for side A, (5) More missile/spell/breaths, (6) Melee for one round, (7) Repeat, switching A/B status. So while CM is definitely a bit more wiggly, this can more solidly be summarized as saying there's a phase of missile/spell/breath weapons before any movement commences.

    2. 1. The wyvern example is in Volume 3.

      2. I interpret Chainmail page 9 as saying that full movement happens before missile fire, except in two special cases, both of which involve missile fire that occurs in the midst of movement. The two special cases are (a) the case of split move and fire and (b) the case of pass-through fire. Regular missile fire occurs in step 5, after artillery fire (step 4), and after all movement (steps 2 and 3).

      I prefer your proposal of missile fire before movement, though.

      When I play D&D (regrettably not very often these days), I have been using individual initiative, with no phases for movement, missiles, and melee. The disadvantage of individual initiative is that it slows things down (as you point out). On the other hand, the advantage of not using initiative phases is that it speeds things up. With initiative phases, the round is split into two or more parts, and each player or side acts in initiative order during each part, leading to more breaks in player’s actions, and more opportunities to forget (or at least more required points at which the players must spend time and effort remembering) the order of action.

      On the other hand, initiative phases may be worth some amount of hassle, for the sake of tactical verisimilitude (or whatever it is that is appealing about allowing missile fire before melee for both sides).

      I take it that your proposed system is a compromise, which imposes only two simplified phases, and even then only on the first rounds of combat.

      If I used initiative phases, they would be: (1) missile and quick spells; (2) movement; (3) melee and medium spells; (4) slow spells. Swords & Spells page 11 can be used to classify spells as quick/medium/slow (immediate/half turn/full turn, respectively). This would be more difficult to implement than your proposal, because it would be used every round. In any event, if one is using initiative phases, it makes more sense to allow missile fire before movement, rather than after as in Chainmail.

      Swords and Spells (page 3) comes closer than Chainmail to the missile before movement proposal, in that it allows discharge of “readied” missile weapons and spells in a separate phase before the movement phases. However, split-move and pass-through missile fire still happens in the midst of movement, and regular missile fire after movement, so the initial readied missile fire phase is for a third special form of missile fire, rather than a general missile fire phase as you propose.

      As a point of reference, Moldvay Basic’s turn sequence resembles Chainmail in that movement happens before missile fire and melee, but spells are explicitly granted a separate phase after missile fire and before melee (page B24). Oddly, the turn sequence rule seems to imply that each side in a combat goes through all of the phases before any of the other sides, rather than taking turns in each phase in initiative order, as in Chainmail. The implied Moldvay rule seems largely to defeat the purpose of initiative phases, assuming that they are intended to break up an order of action based purely on initiative rolls (allowing, for example, both sides to fire missiles before either side melees).

    3. Great observations! I fixed the Wyvern combat reference to Vol-3, thanks for that.

      You're exactly right, my proposed system is compromise, I've never actually used separately-phased turn sequencing (as in the CM/S&S wargames) in my RPG play. I totally agree that would slow things down unacceptably, and be confusing for some players to follow, moreso the more people you have sitting around the table. I am mostly trying to follow the motivation for that initial missile phase (as well as parallel described combat examples in D&D) with the "first round is missiles only, no movement" rule.

      One thing I'll say for the Moldvay sequence (broadly the same as Gygax in AD&D DMG) is that it prevents making a melee strike on an opponent and then running away in the same round. For example, 3E explicitly allowed that. I do follow the Moldvay pattern at least in this regard.

    4. Small detail, re: "Swords and Spells (page 3) comes closer than Chainmail to the missile before movement proposal, in that it allows discharge of 'readied' missile weapons and spells in a separate phase before the movement phases."

      It actually doesn't say "readied", the actual word used on Swords & Spells p. 3, phase 1 is "loaded".

  6. I also tried adopting your initiative rule after reading about it in one of your play reports, and had exactly the same experience.

    After that, I just accepted it, and now I'm a fanatic about card-game initiative. I never want to run anything as complicated as an RPG with anything more complex ever again.

    ...with one exception; I could see having a dueling mini-game that uses looser-declares, winner-declares, resolve; so long as it only ever involves two actors.

    1. Thanks so much for trying my proposal and the feedback, that's extremely helpful. I fully agree that there's lots of options that would work for 2-player only games (e.g., wargames) that you wouldn't want to implement in an RPG with more people at the table, and that we should be sensitive to that.