Jeffro's Space Gaming Blog

Microgames, Monster Games, and Role Playing Games

The Fractal Nature of the AD&D Game

Peter Conrad writes in with a question about the AD&D:

Hi Jeffro, I’m really enjoying these play reports, and have been planning to run “orthodox AD&D” as well. I’m wondering how you interpret the initiative rules? I have been pouring over the DMG and online and I can see a few ways that people do it.

Thanks for the great question, Peter!

I think Gygax is pretty clear about how initiative works in the DMG. (His surprise rules do make a bit of static, though.)

Here’s my take on it:

1) DM decides what the monsters will do. Check reaction and/or morale if need be.
2) Players declare their actions. If they want to win at rpgs, they will advise a high t caller who will then speak for group.
3) Roll for initiative by side. Highest gets to resolve their actions first. Ties indicate simultaneous action.
4) Gygax has detailed direction on how to handle multiple attack routines and spell spoilage, but this tends to not to come up a whole lot.

So the pattern is (a) make a plan in the face of uncertainty, (b) commit to it, (c) accept the consequences, and (d) imagine and describe the new situation that emerges from all this. This is the soul of the game and both requires and inspires imagination.

The vast majority of people have looked at these rules and dismissed them without considering the consequences of doing so. When you pick up this game there is going to be a great deal of social inertia in play to allow each and every player to operate independently. Don’t give in to it Even in the seventies there was a great deal of pressure to move to a separate initiative roll for each figure in the game. This is a disastrous move for a lot of reasons.

In the first place, AD&D is a game that is primarily focused on the strategic level. Making a design change that will inevitably inflate the amount of time it takes to resolve a given combat situation absolutely destroys this. It puts a lot of pressure on the dungeon master to make smaller, less epic battles that are unlike the epic monster mashes that Gygax took for granted. Furthermore, it creates a whole host of game design issues. The AD&D rules do not have the sort of granularity required in order to manage the hyper-detailed situations that emerge from this type of thinking. One tempting house rule in this area fundamentally changes the game while creating an impetus to overhaul practically everything about it.

The worst aspect of it is the social dimension. The meat and potatoes of AD&D is forming a plan with your friends. It’s something you can do sitting around a camp fire drinking beer. You don’t need a basement full of Napoleonics miniatures to get into this. But what happens when you switch to individual initiative? Players stop coordinating so much with the other players. They are not as inclined to think outside the box and work together. Lots of people just check out. You go in a circle and then multiple times re-explain the situation to the guy that stopped paying attention or the girl that started playing a game on her phone. They then hem and haw about what they want to do in isolation from everything else with knowledge that the AD&D game assumes that they can’t have!

Definitely hold the line on this! If you do, you’ll begin to rediscover the “lightning in a bottle” that made AD&D such a phenomenal cultural force in the first place. The social dynamics involved in players learning how to coordinate and work together and use their imaginations are far more engaging than anything that war games, euro games, or computer games have to offer. It’s crazy fun.

So accept AD&D for what it is, a game of epic adventure and imagination. Go all in on this core concept of the game: (a) make a plan in the face of uncertainty, (b) commit to it, (c) accept the consequences, and (d) imagine and describe the new situation that emerges from all this. This is how you run the game when the players arrive at the tavern looking for something to do at the beginning of the session. It’s also how you can run each and every encounter– including those that involve combat.

Good luck!

10 responses to “The Fractal Nature of the AD&D Game

  1. MishaBurnett May 22, 2020 at 11:02 am

    So do you not use rules that give PCs a bonus to initiative, or does the bonus of one character apply to the entire party?

  2. Peter Conrad May 25, 2020 at 1:12 pm

    Thanks for this! I 100% agree that individual initiative is objectively worse from an actual real-life play perspective. I play in a 5th Ed game (with admittedly too many players) and it causes people to retreat into their phones when it isn’t their turn, which sucks. Who would have thought 1978 was the year that the best edition of D&D for playing in the information age was published!

  3. Glen Sprigg May 25, 2020 at 4:22 pm

    Over on, there is a document available called ADDICT (AD&D Initiative and Combat Table) that is the most accurate and complete overview of 1e initiative. It can be found at this link:

  4. altimatewriting May 26, 2020 at 3:57 pm

    I really like the ‘make a plan, commit, accept consequences, determine new situation’ description of the cycle, but I think it’s important that it’s what emerges from play rather than being coded in at the play level. (I’m looking at you, Dungeon World.) Since – like so many others – I’d like to waste my time by making and publishing yet another RPG of perilous ventures that nobody else is asking for, I’m going to try to keep that natural loop in mind.

    One related thing I’m going to try to do is create 3-4 systems for combat. The first would be a blow-by-blow system intended mainly for one-on-one duels, i.e. the ‘flynning’ combat that Gygax is supposed to have been inspired by to come up with hit points, and I should make sure to include support for bystander actions; the second would be a round of about 12 seconds that is supposed to act a lot like the ‘combat round’ of AD&D and Basic D&D – 12 seconds because a minute is a really long time in combat – while the third would be a minute-long combat round for abstract resolution or for things where the combat is a sideshow to something more important that other players are doing; and finally maybe a 5 minute round for when the skirmishing melee of individual PCs starts to rub up against small-unit battles.

    Assuming I get it to work, one advantage would be to clearly distinguish between ‘you are making a single attack’ and ‘you are making several exchanges against your foe, let’s see how that worked out for you’. (Or, in the case of archery, whether you’re doing aimed fire or Lars Anderson bullshit.)


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  8. ckubasik June 5, 2020 at 7:20 pm

    Jeffro, if I wanted to contact you off the radar, how do I do that? (G+ is gone, and all that.)

  9. Christopher J Carpenter June 10, 2020 at 1:03 pm

    I am attempting to do something bloggish on a new social media platform that promises to be more like Google plus ( In my first foray on the new platform, I am talking about bringing back Star Frontiers for a group of young twenty-somethings. I am going too far off the old-school route by bringing in individual initiative? I know. “my game my rules”, but you have me wondering (with the above post) if I am being too hasty to dump the SF group initiative rules for something more contemporary.

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