Jeffro's Space Gaming Blog

Microgames, Monster Games, and Role Playing Games

The B/X Sequence of Play for Combat

“So the set of rules we play by is the shared cultural set of rules passed down through the generations, and not the ones written on the booklet inside the box.” — The Campaign For Real Monopoly (via Noble)

Normally when I’m running a game, I just do initiative by sides. When it’s time for the players to attack, I just go around the table and have them roll to-hit and damage. I usually can’t even see the die rolls from where I’m sitting. They just holler stuff out while I frantically make notes on the status of their foes. Usually these combats end pretty quickly– either the players cast one of the “we win” type spells or else the monsters fail a morale check. (Alternately, the party is surprised and loses initiative on their first turn and then is almost completely wiped out… but that’s another story.)

Anyway, when I first start playing a new rule set, I am often extremely careful to attempt to play as much by the rules as is possible. But especially with some of these older rules sets, I’ll start coming up with rules of thumb to keep things moving and hand waving other stuff… and then after a while I’m making lots of rulings based on what I’ve been doing rather than the actual rules. For instance, I’ve been ruling that magic users that lose initiative and take damage during a turn cannot cast spells. I have no idea where I got that rule other than that I just suspected that there had to be some sort of substantial justification for the legendary tactic of targeting the magic-user first. The thing about this sort of thing is that when I go back and look at the rules they have almost nothing to do with what I actually do at the table.

So… let’s go back through this and see what’s actually there.

  1. Morale Check — This is a signature component of the Moldvay ruleset and I strongly encourage everyone to use this component of the system. It shortens the combats tremendously, makes encounters far more believable, and goes a long way towards differentiating the various monsters.
  2. Movement — I don’t tend to use miniatures lately, so this generally doesn’t come up. Note the bit there about “meleed” opponents only being able to move defensively. That would be at best at half speed going backwards. This is a mechanic that would allow fighters to move forward and pin their opponents by “basing” them. Pretty cool. Also note that if the magic-user opts to move, he just kissed his spell-tossing ability goodbye for the round!
  3. Missile fire — Nothing surprising here, but note that when the movement rules are omitted, then the range modifiers on page B27 are going to be forgotten as well. Cover is something that I have rarely applied, so be sure to note the guidelines on page B26.
  4. Magic spells — Given the extreme limitations on the number of spells that can be cast in a day in Moldvay, it’s no wonder that spells automatically hit. What’s more, there’s no saving throw on some of them. The example of combat on page B28 has the party forming a “defensive line across the room” in order to stay out a Sleep spell’s area of effect, but I don’t see anything in the rules that would nail down quite how that would have to work. (I wonder if that is an artifact from earlier editions of the game.)
  5. Melee — A lot of times in the past, I have ruled that melee attacks are effectively random in terms of who they effect. This maybe makes some sense when you’re not using miniatures, but I don’t see anything in these rules that would imply anything like that. (Where could I have picked that up…?)

So here’s the thing. Why is there such an elaborate sequence of play like this when we just do initiative by side anyway? I’m not seeing a lot of reasons here right off. All I can really come up with is that if melee happens after magic, then spells will get let loose before the party can know what they heavy hitters will do. Is that really worth not being able to just go consecutively around the table? I dunno….

What really stands out to me is that these combat rules are undeniably miniatures rules. This is interesting more for the fact that in the mid-eighties, I don’t recall anyone playing with these rules even close to as they are written. Indeed, none of us would be able to afford miniatures until after we graduated college. Never mind that we’d maybe never obtain the requisite skill and patience in order to actually sit down and work them up. Of course, these rules as remembered will always be much closer to the loose, lean, simplistic form of play that seemed to spontaneously emerge on playgrounds at elementary schools all over North Armerica right around 1983 or so and which just so happened to be reflected in computer games like Zork and Ultima II.

Is playing correctly something that would even be worth the effort? Well, with a game that was utterly opaque for as long as this one was, it is arguable that it cannot ever be played “correctly.” It’s part of the attraction. Certainly there are dozens of better explained, more tightly designed games of this sort that will effectively go unplayed for all eternity. I have to admit, I take a special pleasure in playing by the more child-like rules. They not only signal that a session played with them will be focused far more on exploration, pretend, and what we now term as resource management, but they also make what is ultimately an obscene gesture at the thirty years of design and development that have occurred within role playing games since the release of Moldvay and Cooke’s B/X rulebooks.

My retro-hipsterism is short lived however, as there are still the seeds of more current styles of play within those old rules. Most notably, there are optional rules not only for d20 style attribute checks, but also for individual initiative rolls modified by dexterity bonus. (So much for being a purist.) At any rate, if there is one case where I will attempt to apply the sequence of play explicitly as written, it is in the unusual case where the two opposite sides roll the same number for initiative. Sure, it doesn’t happen very often, but it is the one situation where the exact sequence of the five “M’s” suddenly take on a lot of significance.

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7 responses to “The B/X Sequence of Play for Combat

  1. RogerBW May 13, 2013 at 6:52 am

    I am reminded of the Call of Cthulhu system, where everyone goes in descending order of DEX… but aimed-and-ready firearms go first, in their own sequence of descending DEX, before everything else.

    • jeffro May 13, 2013 at 8:28 am

      I think the sequence of play was actually designed for the individual initiative system. It should have been redesigned for the default initiative-by-sides system, but it wasn’t. So an entire generation of Dungeon Masters assumed that you had to ignore most of the rules in order to play.

  2. Alex J. May 13, 2013 at 9:19 am

    I always figured it was group initiative within the phases. So one side moves, the other side moves, then one side fires and the other side fires etc.

    • jeffro May 13, 2013 at 9:54 am

      That is a reasonable application, but if there’s any doubt as to the intent of the designer, note the part “C” of the full sequence:

      “The side with the next highest initiative acts second, and so on using the order given above, until all sides have completed melee.”

      This implies that the ordering of the “5 M’s” is primarily a restriction on the exact sequence of a side’s turn. So… you resolve all of your side’s movement before resolving missile fire or melee. And so on.

  3. PeterD May 13, 2013 at 12:28 pm

    I think it works as written, just with the assumption that each side got to do what the phase said when it came. That’s how the example on B28 seems to ready, otherwise it’s not clear why Morgan gets to shoot her bow before the hobgoblins get to melee, since they lost initiative. If it was “one side resolves 1-5” she wouldn’t get off a shot.

    So yeah, you would roll initiative, then each side gets to shoot in initiative order (winners, then losers), then cast spells (same), then melee (same.)

    In practice we did initiative, and no phases – if you won, your side went first and each person got to take one action, no matter what it was – shoot a bow, cast a spell, swing a sword. That’s incorrect but it’s how I learned to play.

    • jeffro May 13, 2013 at 12:40 pm

      That pesky combat example!

      Note this, though: “The DM warns Silverleaf that if he wants to cast any spells this round, the hobgoblins will be able attack him before he can do so.” How can that be if Magic happens before Melee?! The answer is… the 5M’s are executed in their entirety by each side. (Also… there is some sort of unwritten rule here that spellcasters cannot cast if they have already taken damage during the round.)

      I think Morgan got the benefit of a special house rule that didn’t make it into the rules: missile weapons (and maybe weapons like pole arms with long reaches) may resolve their attacks first against charging foes but only if the weapons were ready on a previous turn. These special case attacks occur outside of the usual initiative order.

      The text says, “since Morgan still has her bow out, she may shoot at the charging monsters.” Note that when the rest of her party took their turn, it says “Morgan has already attacked this round, so she may not do so again.” The text acknowledges that Morgan went out of order.

      • earlburt May 14, 2013 at 3:33 pm

        Isn’t it pretty obvious that all the early versions of D&D are just sloppy games, poorly written? I don’t believe for a heartbeat that they were playtested faithfully and as-written. Just think of the production qualities of almost every aspect of almost every early RPG– rules, artwork, indexing– they’re just terrible. Charming, but clearly terrible. Trying to make it all work together gives the writers WAY too much credit. Though I do understand the appeal of trying to do so.

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