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Thursday, December 05, 2019

Initiative in OD&D: Remember when D&D Combat was "Simpler" and "Easier" to Understand than 5e? Me Either. (Part 2)

Copyright Jody Lindke 2019
Two weeks ago (sorry for the break, but Thanksgiving), I posted the first in a series of articles discussing the complexity of early editions of the Dungeons & Dragons role playing game. With each new edition of the D&D game, some players like to reminisce about how much easier to understand to play the game was "back in the day." The fact is that the old game was extremely complex and difficult to understand for neophytes. Heck, as an experienced gamer I had trouble understanding how to play OD&D (that's the little brown books) and could only figure out how to play Chainmail because of my experience playing Warhammer Fantasy.

While it would be fun to do a read through of all the little brown books, that isn't the intention of this series. This is just to show how complex OD&D combat was, and later how complex Basic and AD&D were as well, starting with the little brown books and moving forward into the various supplements and official articles that expanded the combat rules.

The first few articles will cover the following topics:

1) Initiative -- The Turn Order. Who goes first and when and how do they go?
2) Hitting and Damaging Characters and Monsters and Why Do We Have So Many Subsystems?
3) Expanding Play with Greyhawk...(followed by the other supplements).

Combat in OD&D has two main subsystems, Chainmail and the "Alternative Combat System." There are numerous references to Chainmail in the rules, which indicates that using Chainmail was a possible way to play D&D even though David Arneson made it clear that those rules were expanded upon and changed over time. Here are some examples:

  • On page 5 of Men & Magic (Book 1 of OD&D), the rules list Chainmail under "recommended equipment." 
  • Elves (page 8 of Men & Magic) "also gain the advantages noted in the Chainmail rules..." 
  • Halflings (page 8) "they will have deadly accuracy with missiles as detailed in Chainmail."
  • Fighting Capability (page 18) "to use in conjunction with the Chainmail fantasy rule, as modified in various places herein..."
  • On page 5 of Monsters & Treasure "Special ability functions are generally as indicated in Chainmail." 
  • Page 5 of Monsters & Treasure "Combat is Detailed in Vol. III"
  • Page 25 of Vol. III (The Underworld & Wilderness Adventures) "Land Combat: The basic system is that from Chainmail, with one figure representing one man or creature..."
These are just some of the examples from the book, and they leave out the brief and not very revealing mentions of the "Alternative Combat System," so it's pretty clear that whether or not the creators of the game had moved on from Chainmail and were playing using the Alternative system that the rules assume play with Chainmail is possible. No place is this more clear than in the lack of rules for initiative. The first mention of initiative processes is under "Aerial Combat" in Book III where they recommend simultaneous movement. There is no such recommendation for Land Combat, so we are left without a written initiative system in the OD&D books and must look to Chainmail for our solution. Thankfully such a solution is available.

What does initiative in Chainmail look like? There is a "Move/Countermove" system and a Simultaneous system. Since Book III only specifically recommends the simultaneous system for "Aerial Combat" and "Naval Combat," but not for "Land Combat," I'm going to assume that the standard method for initiative follows the "Move/Countermove" system in Chainmail.  Here is a brief breakdown of that system.

Ignoring split-moves (which are for missile fire by certain troop types), pass-through fire, artillery fire, and missile fire, the system follows a simple format.

  1. Each player rolls 1d6. The player with the higher roll moves first and the lower roll moves second. There are no modifiers for high Dexterity or anything like that.
  2. After all movement the players resolve any melee combats. 
In the initial discussion of the turn sequence, there is no way to determine who goes first in melee. In fact, basic melee resolution is simultaneous in nature, "After both players have rolled the number of dice allotted to them for their meleeing troops by the Combat Tables, casualties are removed, and morale for both opponents is checked (Chainmail, 15)." In the basic initiative system, all combat is simultaneous. That system, however, is designed for mass combat where figures represent actual people at a ratio of 1:20, later in the book we are given a more detailed account of determining who goes first in man-to-man fights.


From this we know that characters enter Melee combat when they are within 3" on the table (30 feet in OD&D per Book III page 8). We also know that the combat is no longer simultaneous, if you kill your opponent there is no return blow. This makes going first important. So, who goes first?

  1. "The attacker" is the first option. One imagines that the attacker is the player who moved the figure into within 3" and initiated combat.
  2. UNLESS the defender has a weapon that is two classes higher, or the defender is fighting from above..."You cannot win Anakin! I have the High Ground!"
Figuring out who has the high ground is easy, but what are these weapon "classes"? Those are listed on a chart on page 41, but I've made a new version for reference below.

Weapon classes are listed next to the weapon with higher numbers referring to longer weapons. This is where the weapon class mention above comes into play and if a defender has a weapon two classes higher than the attacker then the defender attacks first. For example, if a warrior with a sword charges a man with a pike it is the pikeman who strikes first (12 is significantly higher than 4).

It is important to note that who acts first might change in the second and later rounds of combat. As stated above, the first attack in the second round is:
  1. Struck by the person who attacked first last round, UNLESS...
  2. The opponent has a weapon two classes lower, or
  3. The opponent is fighting from above.
If we assume the same "sword vs. pike" scenario above, the character who strikes the first blow in the second round will shift from the pikeman to the swordsman. This would reflect the swordsman getting past the pike and closing the distance during the prior minute of combat. Combat in OD&D is minute long combat rounds. As stated in Book III (page 8) "Movement is in segments of approximately ten minutes...Melee is fast and furious. There are ten rounds of combat per turn." The minute long combat round helps to explain why Dexterity doesn't play a role in the initiative system. This provides a realistic, if complex, initiative system for how combatants engage with one another in melee.

Now that we have a basic understanding of the melee order, we can ask what "split-moves and missile fire" and "pass-through fire" are, since these can happen before melee. "Split-move and missile fire" is a relatively unique ability possessed by special light horse troops in Chainmail. On page 12 of the Chainmail rulebook, it describes "Split-move and Fire" as follows, "Horsemen armed with bows are permitted to perform this type of movement. To accomplish a split move and fire, the horse archers move up to one-half of their normal movement, immediately conduct missile fire procedure and continue to move out the balance of their normal movement, not to exceed one-half of their normal movement. The horse archers may be fired upon by opponent missile troops during their firing pause."

While one might be tempted to limit "Split-move and Fire" actions to specially trained troops in D&D, that doesn't seem to be the intention here. While it is true that this kind of action is inspired by Mongol horsemen, it is the fact that the move action is done by the horse rather than archer that allows for the ability to fire during movement. This seems to imply that any mounted combatant in OD&D should be allowed this ability if they have proficiency in bows. Chainmail's Man to Man Fantasy Supplment section states that Elves may split-move and fire on foot.

You'll note that the quote above mentions that "horse archers may be fired upon" during their movement, even though this happens outside the "missile" phase of combat. That is because of the possibility of "Pass-through Fire" which allows "stationary missile troops...to give pass-through fire to any enemy units which are within their missile range at the half-move portion of the turn. This would include any enemy troops split-moving, passing by, or charging missile troops." This means that the "missile fire" component of the combat round actually happens during two possible segments of the combat round. It can either happen during the movement phase "at the half-move portion of the turn" or during the missile combat phase.

While this process seems simple at first it is confounded by the rate of fire rules for missile weapons, which state, "Crossbowmen, Archers, and Longbowmen may fire every turn. If Archers and Longbowmen do not move and are not meleed at the end of the turn, they may fire twice." The ability for stationary units to fire twice adds some complexity to the rules as this can mean that a missile unit fires once during "Pass-Through and Fire" and once during the "Missile Fire" phases of combat, or just twice in the "Missile Fire" phase.

This all makes for an extremely complex initiative system that has dynamic realism, but is anything other than simple. Let's illustrate this with a simple combat between four combatants: (A) A Human Swordsman, (A) A Human Archer, (B) A Goblin Spearman, and (B) A Goblin Archer. These combatants meet in a clearing.


Terrain by Dice Grimorium and Tokens by 2 Minute Tabletop.

For the sake of argument, we'll say that group A wins the initial roll and gets to move first and that the squares represent 10 feet instead which was standard for earlier editions of D&D. To make things simple, we will assume that all figures can move 12" during combat. This example will only cover initiative and not resolution.

Having the first movement, the swordsman rushes to close the distance and charges ahead toward the Goblin Spearman. As he is in range of the Goblin Archer, he triggers pass-through fire as he makes his way towards the Goblin Spearman. Assuming the Goblin Archer failed to kill the Human Swordsman, that character can enter melee combat as soon as it is within 3" of the Goblin Spearman.

Terrain by Dice Grimorium and Tokens by 2 Minute Tabletop.

Since the Human Swordsman can move 12", and since we ruled it survived "Pass-Through" fire, the figure can continue until it is in base to base contact with the Goblin Spearman and engage in a "Charge" move. This would allow, and would in fact require, the Human Swordsman to continue moving if he defeated the Goblin Spearman in combat.

Now that Player A has moved all the combatants desired, in this case only the Human Swordsman, Player B has the opportunity to move. Seeing there is an Archer, the player elects not to move and suffer "Pass-Through" fire.

All movement being completed, it's time for the Melee round to begin. It's important to note that the Goblin Archer is not necessarily engaged in combat as page 15 of Chainmail states "Missile Troops interspaced with other footmen forming a defensive line may "refuse" combat and move back 3" out of combat range. However, if the other footmen who are meleed are killed or driven away, the missile troops must fight if the attacker is able to continue his charge move." In this case the Human Swordsman charged and would benefit from this if it killed the Goblin Spearman. Since this is 1:1 combat, we will move the Archer back 1" rather than move it off the map.

Terrain by Dice Grimorium and Tokens by 2 Minute Tabletop.

Now that the two Melee units are in contact and the Movement phase is complete, we must resolve missile combat. The Human Archer (A) has not moved and may thus fire twice at opponents. The Human Archer can choose to fire both shots at the Goblin Archer, split them between the Goblins, or fire both at the Goblin Spearman. They are able to do this because as an "Archer or Longbowman (they) may fire over the heads of intervening troops, friendly or enemy, providing they are more than 3" distant. Indirect fire reduces the range of the weapon firing by one-third. Indirect fire automatically classifies the target in the next higher armor category..." The Goblin Archer, having moved 3" to avoid melee, can only fire once. These shots will be resolved simultaneously as they fire at one another.

Having finished the missile phase, we resolve the melee. In our example we have a Swordsman attacking a Spearman. If both had been wielding swords (weapon class 4), the Human Swordsman would have gone first, but the Goblin is a Spearman (weapon class 8) which is more than 2 classes higher than the Human's and thus the Goblin attacks first. If the Human lives, then it may strike again. These two figures are locked in melee combat until one is killed or routed by the other. There is a strict Zone of Control here.

If all combatants survive, a new roll is made and combat starts at the beginning with movement, then missile fire, then melee. During this second round of Melee, the Human Swordsman will attack first because it has a weapon 2 classes or more LOWER than the opponent and has managed to get through the weapon's reach.

As you can see, this is a very complex system. It is likely more complex than it was actually played, but having worked my way through it I see it as a very workable system that would have benefited from clearer writing. It's also a system I just might try to use in a few session in the future.

The next post will discuss how to hit and damage opponents using the Chainmail based system for combat and not the Alternative System.

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