Reading Advanced Dungeons & Dragons Part 18


Encounters, Combat, and Initiative
This fairly well-done section gives us all the basics of AD&D Combat in less than two columns of text. It begins with a clarification that combat is broken down into one minute melee rounds (a serious change from later editions, wherein a melee round is equivalent to what would be a segment in AD&D). This also results in a far greater abstraction of events than appears in later editions of the game, and in other games that have followed. It's not that AD&D combat was not cinematic; it's that all those cinematic elements were on the impetus of the DM to describe. The old adage, "it's all in how good your GM is" was never truer than in the handling of combat in AD&D first edition. Your attack roll does not represent the fact that you only swing your sword once per minute. Rather, it represents an assumption that the monsters you're fighting are in fact trained (or at least, desperate) warriors themselves, and that roll is the sum total of the openings you get in a one-minute battle that may allow you to have an effect upon your opponent.

I don't say "damage your opponent," because that presumes a largely mistaken idea, which is that hit points represent the physical damage a character can take before dying.


The book is pretty clear: any character or monster or creature can be killed by a single direct sword blow. What, then, does the escalation of Hit Points represent? They represent your prowess in battle situations. They represent endurance, skill, parrying, dodging, the works. The decreasing of a hit point total represents all of those near misses and exertion that wear down a warrior in battle. The increasing base--after the first hit die--represents your character getting better at going the distance before taking that fatal hit. The closest any character comes to an actual total of increasing damage points (again, beyond the very first hit die) is his Constitution bonus, though even that is not an exact representation and itself represents endurance as well as toughness. Gygax writes:
Damage scored to characters or certain monsters is actually not substantially physical -- a mere nick or scratch until the last handful of hit points are considered -- it is a matter fo wearing away the endurance, the luck, the magical protections. With respect to most monsters such damage is, in fact, more physically substantial, although as with adjustments in armor class rating for speed and agility, there are also similar additions in hit points. (DMG, p. 61)

This is getting slightly ahead of ourselves; a more substantial discussion of hit points comes 20 pages later, and I'll address it in more detail when I get there, but it fits here as well, and it is here that it's first mentioned.

It's not a perfect system by any means--particularly when one considers the variance in weapon damage. If hit points represent dodging, weaving, and parrying, then why does a long sword deal more damage than a short sword? Surely it doesn't take more energy to duck one or the other. And why doesn't swinging your weapon cause you to suffer hit point loss? Swinging a two-handed sword or battle axe is heavy business. Still, as an abstract, it works wonderfully, and really, I've yet to encounter a system where combat runs as fast as it did in AD&D. But we'll get to that later (and I'd ask people to withhold comments on the speed of play or lack thereof until I get to the combat matrices).

Following the explanation and rationale for 1-minute melee rounds, we are given a step-by-step breakdown of how combat works in game. The steps are as follows:

1. Determine surprise conditions
2. If not already known by the DM, determine distance (most people, I think, skip this step)
3. Following surprise, or if equal conditions exist, roll for initiative
4. Adjudicate actions taken (avoid, wait, attack melee or missile, parley, grapple, etc.)
5. Determine results of actions (damage, held conditions, etc.)
6. Lather, rinse, repeat from step 3.


The instructions on determining surprise are pretty clear: roll a d6, and a result of 1 or 2 indicates surprise. A single roll is made for the party, and a single roll is made for all enemies, using the most favorable conditions available. Thus, if a party has, for example, a ranger that is surprised only on a roll of 1, his condition affects the entire party (making rangers really useful to have around).

Individual characters (and monsters) can mitigate surprise situations based on their Dexterity reaction. In this manner, the party might be surprised, but the thief, with a high Dex score, might get to act as normal during that period.

The die results, when compared, serve to determine how many segments of time the surprising party has to act against the surprised, to a maximum of two surprise segments. The following conditions can result from a surprise check. 

  1. Neither party is surprised--both parties roll initiative and act as normal. 
  2. One party is surprised. The surprising party gets a number of surprise segments as indicated on the surprise die (1 or 2) of the surprised party. 
  3. Both parties are surprised. Compare the surprise dice. If one party rolled a 2, and the other party rolled a 1, the party that rolled a 1 is surprised for 1 segment, while the party that rolled a 2 is surprised for 2 segments. Thus, after the first segment, the party that rolled a 1 gets a single surprise segment to act. 
Note that under normal conditions, a party will never be surprised for more than 2 surprise segments. The only exception would be if they face someone that surprises on, for example, 1-3. In such a case, it's possible to be surprised for up to 3 segments. Though the rules are unclear (probably because such situations would be so rare), my assumption would be that if the "only surprised on" die is more beneficial, that would trump the "surprises on" condition. 

For example, a monster comes along that surprises on a 1-3. The characters have someone among them who is only surprised on a 1-2 on a d8. The 1-2 on the d8 would trump the 1-3 surprise. Under normal conditions, however, the 1-3 surprise would trump the regular 1-2 surprise. 

A segment is noted here parenthetically as six seconds of time. Thus, our time keeping underground is cleverly divided into tens, while still remaining on a 60-minute cycle. Each segment is six seconds. Ten segments are a round (60 seconds/1 minute). Ten rounds form a turn, or ten minutes. 

During a surprise segment, a character can perform any action they could take in a single round. In this case, making an attack does, in fact, mean you make a swing of the sword. The surprise basically results in one or more openings for your character's assault. What's worse, surprise is really brutal in AD&D, as if, for example, a party surprises a group of orcs and gets a six on their surprise die while the orcs roll a one, the party may now attack five times before the orcs "wake up."

The exception to this is spellcasting, which is fixed in duration and not dependent upon openings in combat. Thus, only spells with a casting time equal or less than the surprise segments allotted can be cast during the surprise round. Otherwise, the spell can be started, but won't go off until after regular initiative is begun.

My only issue with surprise as it stands is the use of the d6. The options are too limited and too easily mitigated by dexterity bonuses, particularly if a ranger is present in the party. It wouldn't be difficult to maintain similar probabilities using a higher die. Instead of a d6, for example, roll a d12 for surprise, with a 1-4 indicating surprised conditions. A ranger's ability reduces this to 1-2. Of course, the rarity of surprise occurring may have been exactly the intent, but if this is the case, why not just get rid of it altogether?

Next we have a blurb that is mostly advice for the DM to keep in mind when determining factors that may contribute to surprise. Things such as eating, sleeping, pooping (though he calls it "Waste elimination"), distraction, morale, and environment. No real game mechanics are given, just solid DM reminders.

Following Surprise, we are given a brief set of guidelines for determining Distance of random encounters. Basically, we're given a distance of d6+4" (50-100 feet indoors, 50-100 yards outdoors) and then a list of potential modifying factors at the DM's discretion. General extra details that are useful to have if the situation arises, but which I expect won't be used very often, as most DMs will know the distance between parties at the start of an encounter and if they don't many will just wing it.

Let's face it--we all know what Initiative is and how it works. The differences here are that in AD&D it's rolled on a d6 (though I always used a d10; I like a larger range of possibilities), the fact that initiative is rolled by group rather than individual, and the way multiple attacks are handled vs. attack routines. An attack routine is your typical claw/claw/bite; creatures with a routine roll all attacks in the routine at the same time. Multiple attacks are a specialized fighter with 3/2 attacks. In this case the second attack, when allowed, comes at the tail end of the round.

If both the winning and losing parties have creatures with multiple attacks (for the sake of argument, two specialized fighters both with an extra attack) the winner goes first and third, the loser second and last.

Damage is inflicted in initiative order as attacks are resolved; the winner first, the loser second. In the case of a tie, all damage is resolved, meaning all parties both take and receive damage. No tie-breaker re-rolls.

Weapon speed does not factor into initiative in first edition, due to the lengthy one-minute melee round. Its effect will be discussed later.

In my own games, I simplify things using an amalgamation of all three editions: Initiative is rolled by each character and monster on a d10, then modified by weapon speed and dexterity bonus.


  1. I believe that when I originally wrote this, I had surprise wrong, though that may be in another any case, I was roundly put in my place on the RPGNet forums as to my error; the OSRIC rules have an excellent breakdown of exactly how Surprise works.

    1. I have updated the post to reflect a greater understanding of how surprise is supposed to work.


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