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Friday, November 23, 2018

Moldvay Musings XI: Initiative

In a recent game, the PCs had a wilderness encounter with a nest of four giant scorpions. Fortunately for the characters, they were mounted and were able to turn things into a running battle where they literally ran the monsters  in circles as they peppered them with arrows. The monsters could catch up with the PCs each round, but not also attack.

By the end,the fight had become a simple matter of tedious attrition. After the session, I thought about it and how it might have been handled differently. Not to punish the players for using tactics, but to keep it more exciting. (Though honestly, they should have just run away). I chided myself a little for not applying circumstantial modifiers for things like terrain slowing them or giving cover from missile fire to the monsters (they were in a relatively dense forest). They main thing I found though was something in the rules as written that I have always been aware of, but seem to have difficulty remembering for reasons uncertain: In BX, initiative is supposed to be re-rolled every round.

At some point in our group’s history with various editions and systems, we’ve fallen out of that habit and simply rolled for initiative at the start of an encounter. We use individual initiative as opposed to group, so at first I was thinking it was just a good way to reduce excess die rolling, but it turns out that rolling every round matters more than I first realized.

For example, in the above circumstances the kiting players wouldn’t have been able to rely on going first each round (they’d rolled well) to evade the monsters again & again. One low initiative and the scorpions would do their thing. This ties into the rules for Defensive Movement, i.e. Fighting Withdrawal and Retreat (B24). To use these types of movement, one must declare intent to do so before rolling the round’s initiative. This increases the risks, but does keep things fresher. Keep in mind the rule applies to monsters as well as PCs.

The other circumstance where an action is “pre-declared” in BX is spell casting. This one always catches me out because the rule is listed in Cook, not Moldvay. A character wishing to cast a spell that round must A) say so, and B) declare which spell before the initiative order is rolled. Again, upping the tension in the fight. I usually haven’t applied this rule in the past because I felt like it weakened already fragile spellcasters, but I am considering reintroducing it.

For a more detailed discussion on some of these and other mechanics, I highly recommend reading the “An Interpretation of Basic D&D” post over at the Basic Dungeons and Dragons blog.


  1. From your own Giant Scorpion post:
    "The best tactics against them is probably to keep your distance, pepper them with arrows, and hit them with spells if you can. " :D

    1. "Not to punish the players for using tactics, but to keep it more exciting." :)

  2. Unless I have misread, in moldvay individual initiative is also rolled every round.

    1. You are correct. It's just that I have applied that rule in the past inconsistently.