On Abstracted Initative Confusion

A concrete example of a problem with fictional positioning.

We are using OSRIC as a base, which uses a D6 initiative group system. The number on your die portrays when the other side takes their turn (allowing the high roll to win). Contrast this with first edition where the roll determines who "possesses the initiative for the round."

The disconnect occurs in the elimination of abstraction that occurs in later editions. For example, in second edition, initiative is rolled on a d10 which specifically determines what segment of the round your action occurs, modified by weapon speed, casting speed, and your dexterity modifier. OSRIC works from this definition also - the number show on your opponent's die is literally the segment you act on.

In first edition, it is assumed that the roll does not represent the actual time measurement that the action takes place, but rather an assumption on who possesses a momentary advantage during the chaos of the round. Actions are then assumed to be modified from this momentary advantage -- not in a quantitative sense. One example that shows this can be seen in that spell-casting disregards initiative when compared to other spells being cast - initiative is only referenced when the spells have identical casting times. Otherwise the spell with the shorter casting time goes first regardless of the dice roll.

The problem occurs, in that in the old system actions are announced before initiative and then remain unchanged. Since it isn't representative of time, arguments based around the idea that 'if I lose initiative I can change my action because it happens later' disappear. Because the action doesn't happen later -- it's happening currently, we just resolve the action in a certain order and apply effects based on an abstraction of 'advantage'.

However, when the result is tied into an actual time-key, several problems result.
  • You have this kludge, where you're rolling for the other side to keep "High roll wins".
  • Players legitimately want to know why they can't change their actions if they lose initiative.
  • Winning initiative becomes less of an advantage.
  • It results in more calculations and math.
I'm less concerned with a review of all the possible systems and advantages of each. (I'll leave that to Delta who will do a better job than I.) I'm much more concerned about how to handle something like this at my table. I have several guidelines.
  1. It must be short, simple, and easy to remember
  2. It must cover the most common cases
  3. It must make enough sense that it doesn't create Fridge Logic moments
My current outline is like this.
Initiative is not representative of when things occur during a round. It is an abstract that determines during the chaos of a round which side achieves the results they wish first.
  1. The DM decides monster actions and keeps them secret
  2. Players declare their actions. If a spell is not explicitly declared by either party at this point, the opportunity to cast is lost.
  3. Pre-initiative actions are resolved.
    1. Movement only
    2. Missile Fire
  4. The winning side resolves their actions. Spells may be canceled, but new actions cannot be taken.
  5. The losing side resolve their actions 
Problems? I would very much like everyone to tell me what they think of this. If you were running this, what would you change? If you were playing under this, what wouldn't you like?


  1. I run a weekly AD&D game, and after various experiments with detailed segment to segment simulation (which never seemed to work that well for us) we basically abandoned all that. We have for the last nine months used the system you described above- the only exception being movement and missile fire are done in order too. I like the approach you suggest, but wonder how my players would cope with being shot with arrows prior to their chance to attack on a round where they won initiative.

    Strictly speeaking, you are right in that regard. Now you have me thinking this over again. Hmmm....

  2. I've tried to implement a system of 1. everybody announces intent 2. group initiative is rolled 3. actions are resolved in all of my Labyrinth Lord games (three groups of players). The one thing that always fails is the declaration of intent. Players just grab the dice and roll, who goes first, we do, yay, I hit him in the face! Thus, where as I agree that your current outline seems rational, how will you implement it without being a cold blanket and dampening the enthusiasm at the table?

    1. Natural Consequences? Lose the opportunity for enough spells and missle fire and movement and they take the time to say 'hold up'.

      Also, the first thing I say is, "it's a new round. Actions?"

  3. From a player perspective, fiddly initiative systems and declared actions don't make the game more enjoyable. Just roll 1d6 for each side and include modifiers as needed.

    It sucks to have your guy acting out outdated/illogical attacks or lose your action because of a system you don't quite understand. It sucks to feel like a certain character style is unplayable because of initiative fiddling.

    So much in the game is abstracted,why agonize over this one piece? If you feel your monsters are getting jacked, give them a bonus to initiative. Stating an action then waiting then acting it out later will always be kludgy.

    At this stage in the life of RPGs, gamers are comfortable with sequential initiative (from turn based games, D&D rules over time, etc). I would argue there is no player disconnect to the simpler/abstracted system (roll 1d6 per side and modify), and that agonizing over initiative and declared actions is an argument that happens almost entirely in the DM's head.

    It probably helps to quantify the modifiers somewhere ("you're charging this archer/pikeman, so the arrow will hit you first no matter what"), but ideally both sides of the screen should be non-confrontational enough to accept fair calls on this by the GM.

    1. Declaring an action and rolling one die isn't fiddly.

      Your second statement isn't accurate to the example at all. There is no case of any character at all in any case not being playable because of any initiative issue.

      The idea that is sucks because a decision (Three players attack the ogre) has consequences (two attacks don't matter because the first person attacks the ogre and kills it) reeks of entitlement.

      What you are bemoaning is a choice that matters. One with real consequences. Hence it is important.

      "I should always get my action," is the worst kind of player entitlement. I have enough players that I'd not invite someone back who whined that they are forced to make a choice that matters.

      There is no text in the article where I even vaguely imply that this is about some disadvantage to the monsters.

      I don't know whether you are viewing this issue through a glass darkly, or are truly incapable of engaging in an activity that isn't based around tediously telling you how wonderful every action you take is -- but there is nothing "kludgy" at all about asking someone to make a choice and then holding them accountable for the consequences of that choice.

      "This stage of life" what you are talking about is an expectation of entitlement. This is dull, boring and an anathema to play.

      There was no argument and it certainly wasn't inside my head - this is the way the game we're playing works; and it's the way first edition works; and the discussion occurred because a player was entitled. It was discussed here because the point is a important one for the player skill based, agency rich, skill light, discussion based play I am engaged in.

      Namely, rolling and then doing whatever you feel like isn't very 'skill light'. It's about trusting in your build and using rolls. Being forced to make a choice and accept the consequences of that choice means that your success or failure is much more focused on your skill as a player.

      There are no modifiers. The word modifier is not mentioned once in the entire post.

    2. I think you should calm down and change your tone. You asked a question and somebody bothered to answer it. With the reply you've given them I'm not sure they'll ever bother doing that again.

    3. I am calm.

      The comment I replied to did not successfully parse the article.

      This is either because they are incapable of parsing the text; because they are unwilling to take the effort to parse the text; or because they are deliberately mis-parsing the text.

      The fact that the viewpoint of the comment is essentially, "Your article is confusing and your system is fiddly because I might not get to do what I want every turn" is not a coincidence.

      I am of the opinion that my tone is the correct one when faced with such behavior. It's factual, addresses the salient [as they are] points of the original poster, and explicitly defines the issues he appeared confused by.

      Does it read as if I am not calm?

    4. I think I've parsed your post just fine, I just disagree. This initiative system creates "gotcha" moments and increases player/character separation for no good reason.

      - You're going through the action twice (in intention and in "real time).
      - Players have to have 100% trust and DM's have 100% honesty that no fudging is happening between "monster intention" and action
      - Players are punished for not being able to guess/anticipate what's going to happen
      - Players are forced to think in an unituitive, deconstructed sequence of movement/action/missile/spell, interupping narrative and verisimilitude.

      All this for what? I guess the only bit I didn't parse is the logical disconnect at the root of this, is it an effort at historical accuracy? A conceptual rift? Adding chaos to combat? I don't think the goal of this system is clear.

    5. @Lord Bodacious: Thank you for clarifying.

      I will try to explain.

      1) You do indeed break the round into several phases. These are the five steps listed in the article. It is not entirely accurate to state "You go through each action twice", because as I've pointed out, you sometimes don't because your action becomes irrelevant. I do understand what you mean.

      2) If the monsters are simple ("Skeletons") I state their actions. If the monsters are complex ("Humanoids") fighters can attempt to discern their possible actions for free. All spell-casters must announce spells, because it's blindingly obvious. We have that trust. I am completely willing to write things down if necessary, and do in fact if the combat gets complex.

      3) You are correct. There is a consequence for making a bad decision. Since this is the goal of this style of play, this is a non-issue.

      4) And finally I think we come to the root of the problem. I am not telling a story. The narrative is a by-product of events and actions during play - not something that the rules have anything to do with. It isn't an interruption, because we are playing a game - like Chainmail, or Heroscape, or Dungeon, or Poker, or Axis and Allies. The turn structure is itself the rules.

      Players simply must do one thing. Declare what they wish to do at the start of the round. They understand the order of resolution (It's only like 5 steps, they are listed in the article.)

      All this for what? Well, that's a good question and one I didn't realize was left unanswered in the article.

      1. It takes the burden off the 'build' and the 'sheet' and how 'powerful' your character is as the deciding factor to the outcome of battles, and puts the onus on the decisions and strategic choices the player makes. Success depends on player skill.

      2. It explicitly separates trying to tie actions to specific time keys or tactical positions on a battle mat. Combat is abstracted for several purposes; such as speeding it up due to the lack of tactical maneuvering or slowing down actual game play to discuss minutia It's fast.

      3. It's simple enough (five steps) that no book must be referenced. It's simple and easy to remember.

      4. It engages players by holding them accountable. They ask questions about the monsters, the environment. The result of their choice matters, so they become invested in play. Players are more engaged.

  4. In the campaign I’m prepping for, I plan to up-end the initiative thing. But I think it may come out similar to what you’ve outlined in practice.

    1. DM decides actions for the monsters.
    2. The players declare their actions.
    3a. The DM decides the order actions are resolved based on what the actions are.
    3b. When the situation doesn’t dictate a specific sequence, then initiative is rolled.

    I expect some issues may crop up in actual play, but that’s the general direction I want to go in.

    1. I find that I am not able to predetermine monster actions if I'm running more than 4 or 5 monsters or NPCs without writing things down.

    2. Me too, though I tend to have groups take similar actions.

  5. Unrelated to your iniciative method, I had a glimpse of a combat system when only a side can act in a round; the ones that win a 50% odds roll. So, this could allow a umpredectible combat when a side can have luck and act a lot of times in a row; or a more balanced combat where each side can attack one round.
    Sounds like a interesting optional rule for more gritty campaigns, or maybe for a special plane where the flow of time is chaotic.

  6. @Robert

    It's abstract, right?

    The problem with agency based player-skill focused play is that you will openly be using some metric to decide who goes first. This will greatly influence the choice the players make about how to engage the monsters, because they will desire to be the first actors in combat.

    The situation without the die roll is more complicated and I look forward to seeing your solution.


    Or, you know, just a system to represent something as dangerous and chaotic as combat.

    Again, I'd like to point out the entire body of the article is saying that they don't act first. Their actions occur all at the same time. The winning side just resolves their actions before the other side.

    1. Arguably I’m trying to add some concreteness to the abstract D&D combat system, which could backfire on me. The idea is to reinforce a view of combat as a simultaneous flow of actions rather than a sequence of discrete turns.

      And also it is intended to increase player agency—or at least the perception of player agency—since player choices have a consequence they didn’t explicitly have before. (The player choice determining the order of resolution was an exception to the initiative rolls. Now the initiative rolls are a tie-breaker for player choice.)

      One thing I’m not sure of is how well it will work if the circumstances dictate order of resolution less often than I’m expecting.

      In general, though, I completely agree with what you say in this post. Initiative represents an abstract advantage and order of resolution rather than an ordering of actions. (And the name “initiative” doesn’t really fit for me, but that’s neither here nor there.) That’s certainly how I played it in my last classic D&D game, and I’ll fallback on that if necessary.

    2. I want to see it. My concern is just that if you say "Polearms go first when closing, then daggers when in close"; then everyone carries a polearm and drops it once the opponents are in close to switch to their daggers.

      I'm even using weapon damage by class to get away from that. They can fight with a beer stein for all I care.

    3. I see what you mean.

      I’m kind of moving back in the other direction. I thought I’d be moving from “everything does d6” to class-based damage by now, but I’m not. My group doesn’t want everyone using a beer stein because it is cheaper than real weapons but just as effective. Although that probably wouldn’t actually happen. We choose the real weapons anyway, but it still bugs many of us. Maybe it’s the remnants of our rules-lawyering and min/maxing pasts.

      (On the other hand, weapon-based damage, “by the book”, has effectively the same problem with a few weapons being clear price:effectiveness leaders. So I’m going to try a “price determines the stats and describe it as whatever you like” kind of thing.)

      If doing initiative this way encouraged, e.g., a kit of javelins + spear + longknife/shortsword, that’d make me happy.

      The thing is, if the effects of my order of resolution rulings are looking more like mechanical artifacts than natural outcomes to me (and the group), then I’ll adjust the rulings appropriately.

      shrug We’ll see.

      The other thing this discussion and the surprise post make me realize is that it is so hard—at least for me—to always keep the abstract nature of D&D combat in mind. I’ve been banging that drum for years, but I still make the mistake of thinking of the mechanics too literally at times. (And this may be one of those cases.)

  7. -C, it almost seems like missile fire deserves a separate initiative roll. Then it would be: missile round, movement, melee round. Thoughts?

    1. I dunno. One of my precepts was to keep things simple. Missiles either fire once or twice a round. You fire the first at the start of the round and the second at the end.

      Since in practice, if you fire into melee, you hit a random target in the melee (possibly your own people); people tend to fire once and then engage in melee. The only safe targets are out of melee.

      Fighters and elves can gain the ability to become more accurate archers.

  8. What about ditching initiative and just having all actions be simultaneous?


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