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Old D&D and D&D3E/4E treat initiative and combat order differently like so:

D&D 3.5 / 4E: All participants roll individual initiative, once only at the start of combat. Each player takes all of his combat options on his own turn. No morale rules.

Basic D&D / Labyrinth Lord: Each side declares its actions ahead of time, then rolls group initiative, at the start of each round. Each side, as a group, makes all their movement at once, then ranged, spells, and finally melee, before the next side gets their actions. Morale has monsters roll to flee when the first ally is killed and when half their number are killed.

How does the difference affect combat? What are the advantages and disadvantages of the oldschool system? Is combat faster or slower under the old system, or is it more or less difficult to keep everything in order?

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Worth noting: there's a third alternative (AD&D) that uses group initiative, but everyone does their full set of actions before the next player. All of one side goes before the other, but the characters on each side can go in whatever order they decide together. –  SevenSidedDie Apr 19 '11 at 17:35
+1 for @SevenSidedDie's comment. In our chat-based game, we used this method several times. Roll individual initiative for each PC and Monster as normal - the best group average wins top of the round. Then, depending on your play/DM style, you can either have everyone go in order of highest-to-lowest initiative within the group's turn or let the turn orders be negotiated on-the-fly. Of course, to maintain this you'll have to do away with (or modify) some of the 4th Ed. rules on delayed turns and held actions. –  Iszi Apr 19 '11 at 20:57

4 Answers 4

up vote 16 down vote accepted

Combat in the old-school systems is immensely faster. Yes, there are also fewer interdependencies between actions than in WotC-era editions, which reduces the amount of tactical wrangling over what each player should do; but even apart from a simpler choice of actions, everyone taking actions at once just vastly simplifies the process of getting the round done.

Having players all take their turns together simplifies the planning of the round. Because order of the players' actions when moving or attacking isn't a rule-bound thing, it's easy and comfortable to declare an action, realise it's a bad idea, and quickly roll that back to do something else. Getting everyone's actions to work together cleanly is just a much simpler process due to the flexibility of moving all at once. Even in a tactically-complicated round where people are thinking hard on the best way to execute things, even one where people are declaring actions and then rolling them back because they suddenly see a better alternative, the rounds are quick and there are few mental, logistical, or rules barriers to moving the action along at a brisk pace.

Since the players are all going pretty much together, they don't tend to "check out" and stop paying attention to the round. The gain in speed from not having to remind the next player that it's their turn, and not having to repeat everything that just happened to get them up-to-speed, is not inconsiderable.

Keeping things in order is actually simpler because there is less to the mental model the players have to individually retain and collectively synchronise. You just don't have to keep track of turn order or think about who should do what when on which turn to make a tactic work. There are no wait actions, no triggers, no finicky positioning work to make sure people are in the right place when someone casts a certain spell three initiative-turns later in the round.

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+1 +1 +1 +1, speed is a huge advantage. Unless its mano-a-mano, I alwasy do group initiative and just work around the table. Much simpler, much less overhead. –  GrandmasterB Apr 19 '11 at 18:33
+1. What we do: Pick a character who seems to be the group 'commander'. That character rolls initiative, and any 'tactics' skills (or the like) come into play on this roll. The rest of the group uses that initiative. If you wish to break off from group initiative (e.g., left the immediate area, acting on your own), roll your own initiative before the round starts and use it. Seems to work well for us. –  James Apr 19 '11 at 21:15
@James Write that up as an answer with your experiences. Sounds fascinating and deserves an upvote. –  Brian Ballsun-Stanton Apr 20 '11 at 2:02
In my experience, it has been true that the players work together more often when using group initiative than when using individual initiative. –  Robert Fisher Jun 4 '13 at 13:35

In old school D&D (Basic/1e), no group I ever played with did the declaration of actions. We knew it was there, but it was universally ignored as slowing things down and being pointless. We simply did group initiative. And it helped make combat colossally faster than in 3e/4e.

The main drawback of group initiative is that it makes combat more "swingy." One side can get in a blistering array of attacks before the other and potentially disable enough foes that the combat is one sided. Individual initiative tends towards a more staggered approach where the damage each side deals out is amortized a little more over the round.

Also, some players like being "faster than the others," so group initiative rains on their parade.

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The 'swing' factor is hugely important here in terms of outcomes. When whole sides get to act at once, before the other side can act at all, you will find more Curb Stomp Fights. This can be avoided by using simultaneous resolution - effects of damage happen after all actions have been taken in the round, etc. 3.5e initiative means that interruptions and back-and-forth skirmishing are the norm, with less concentrated fire resulting in instant-kills on one side or the other. –  qoonpooka May 6 '11 at 17:48

There were, in BXCMI D&D, 2 options for initiative.... Group and individual, both rolled every round.

Group is fast, simple, and straightforward. It also ignores individual considerations like Dexterity, gear, and racial sensory bonuses. It's harder, however, to keep track of who's doing what, since the players can act in any order. It's much easier on the GM, however, as he can work through his NPC's and monsters in any logical order.

Individual is slower, since every round the GM has to determine who goes in what order. It does, however tend to give PC's an advantage in AD&D and BXCMI/Cyclopedia... because all monsters are presumed to have +0 from attributes! In 3.X and 4.X, where full stats are provided, it's less advantage. Note that, in AD&D, weapon speed factors into this, a lot. Many AD&D groups did use it just because it ekes just a hair more performance out of the PC's.

Persistent Group: makes it just "Our turn, their turn." Fastest option of the bunch.

Persistent Individual: fairly fast; the order can be written, and everyone knows when their turn is coming. In large battles, however, this tends to reduce attention span, as people will know when it's close to their turn, and are more likely to grab a book or get a snack.

  • AD&D 1 & 2 presumed individual initiative with weapon and dex adjustments
  • BXCMI presumed group, but allowed readily for individual
  • 3.X presumes individual persistent, but allows for individual non-persistent. Making the change, however, slows things down immensely.
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There's a few neat tactical elements that come out of old school initiative that are worth considering:

Intraparty Action Order

Notice how Missles>Spells>Melee within any given side? The important thing to note about this is that ranged weapons will never get the benefit from spells in the same round, while melee can always gain the benefit of spells in the same round.

There's also considerations as to which order people move/attack for the sake of placement or not wasting actions.

Declarations and Nullified Actions

If the enemy wins initiative and ducks behind cover before you can shoot an arrow, you just wasted your action. If you win initiative and get into melee with the enemy, they don't get to run without risking another attack, etc. (This becomes really nasty when you combine it with morale rules - you hit first, they run, you hit again...)

A/B/A style of Old School Initiative

I swear I've seen this elsewhere as well, but Philtomy's D&D ideas about initiative take the same basic structure but instead of one group goes (move/missle/magic/melee) it lets them go back and forth within that.

Philtomy's version is a bit more in depth, but a simpler version to consider is:

Group A fires Missles

Group B fires Missles

Group A casts Spells

Group B casts Spells

Group A Moves (Either full or 1/2)

Group B Moves

Group A Moves (if they've moved 1/2 before)

Group A Melee

Group B Melee

This means the group has to really think about who they target and where they place themselves and what order.

Winning Initiative is a big advantage

In the old school method, you can see your side can get several attacks or spells in consecutively - which makes it more likely for you to knock out at least some of the opposition - when an opponent is down it's not returning the favor. Given how low the hitpoints were for many characters/creatures, you could quickly wipe out a fair number of them and get them to face a morale check.

Initiative modifiers are based on teamwork/larger conditions

Since you're rolling for a whole side, you don't have to track each monster's modifiers for initiative - it really only comes up if it's a group of the same type and they have some kind of special ability ("Surprises people 3 out of 6 times because they're NINJA werewolves" or whatever)..

This is either a feature or a drawback depending on how you want to look at it. Sure, the fast guy is probably going to go before everyone else, but in a large team fight when you have combat rounds that are a minute long, we're talking a different scale than a single attack or two.

New Individual Initiative

The individual initiative systems allow a lot for specific characters to have bonuses/modifiers on different things and getting to go first, "ready actions" and all kinds of tactics around that.

On the other hand, outside of readying actions, you pretty much are 100% crap shoot as to which order characters go in, which means coordinating spells or combined actions ("No, let me shoot him with the arrow before you run in") becomes significantly more complicated for players to deal with (many groups never figure it out and just give up on that kind of teamwork altogether).

It also takes longer to adjucate and you end up tracking a lot of initiative round to round.

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