Why Rolling For Combat Initiative Is Pointless And Wrong

A little while ago I was reading yet another long discussion about just how to create yet another new, playable, accurate combat initiative system for D&D. It's something I've thought about off and on pretty much forever.

Then I had a blinding epiphany that left me stunned and gasping for breath so that I had to go and have a bit of a lie down.

In an abstract game combat system, where a round of combat represents an exchange of blows, parries, and offensive and defensive maneuvre, there is absolutely no point in wasting time and dice rolls on determining who goes first. All that matters is determining how much damage a combatant can dish out over the course of that round.

That's already dealt with in the hit+damage dicing system. Roll to see if you manage to do any damage at all, and if you do manage to damage your oponent over the course of the combat round, roll to see how much damage you achieve. Fighters with multiple "blows" simply have a greater damage potential within the combat round's time-frame.

Even six or ten seconds in combat is a long time.

The surprise roll, now that's still useful in an abstract combat system — being able to do damage without taking any in return is basically what combat tactics are all about. I'd definitely retain the concept of a surprise round; in fact it would become even more important if initiative were removed from the equation.

Where an initiative determination system is valuable is in a system where one combat round equals one blow (or grapple, or throw, or whatever). Then it actually becomes important who goes first and who has to react. Otherwise — it's a waste of time.

NOTE: It has been pointed out to me that the initiative roll has a valuable dramatic impact on D&D combat — that's a valid point, and I concede it. It's probably worth retaining for that reason alone. I still think it's structurally pointless though .


  1. The original Chainmail rules used initiative in 1 minute combat rounds, but if you got the first blow in, and killed your opponent, you avoided taking a wound yourself.

    Thus getting the first attack was critical to survival!

  2. That would be the function of the surprise roll, to see if you can get in that first unanswered blow.

  3. Initiative matters. I've been a LARP/re-creation fighter for about 25 years now and the force with the initiative, vigor and drive wins the fight an awful lot of the time. Getting the first blow in isn't always a matter of surprise it's a matter of tactics and skill. Military study and tactics hold this up also, sustaining momentum and forcing the other side to a role of reacting to your actions gives your force the advantage as you have initiative.

    Defensive points work because they provide cover and break the attackers momentum.

  4. It sounds like you might like Tunnels & Trolls a lot.

    Good game.