Saturday, December 18, 2010

The 800 Pound Bugbear of Inish

In comments of my most recent session report JJ of MORE&BIGGER LOOT! asks "The 800 lb bugbear in the room: how are you handling initiative?"  JJ asks this because the Holmes edit of D&D has an idiosyncratic initiative system not seen before or afterward in pretty much any game.  Here's Holmes inish as I understand it:

  • Actions are in order of Dexterity
  • EXCEPT when any 2 Dex scores are within 2 points of each other, then roll d6
  • The DM is supposed to roll 3d6 to determine the Dex scores for all monsters
We tried to implement something close to this, but not quite exactly the rules as written.  What I did was roll 3d6 once for the entire group of monsters.  Everybody with three or more points of Dex above the badguys all acted immediately.  Then the baddies and everyone within +2 to -2 of their Dex rolled d6 to break the quasi-tie, everyone beating the monsters d6 going as a group, everyone with the same roll acting simultaneous with them, everyone lower going after that.  Finally, everyone with 3 points of Dex less than the baddies acted.

Everybody rolling the d6 every round proved to be a bigger pain in the ass than I expected, so it was eventually proposed by one of my players that we roll once at the beginning of the fight and cycle through the same order every round.  The went a lot smoother.  Still not as braindead easy as my usual reliance on d6 group initiative, but better.

The fact that the system considers an 11 Dex and a 13 Dex effectively a tie is interesting to me.  From it you could easily extrapolate a general stat vs. stat subsystem.  Say two characters are playing chess.  We'll call that an Int vs. Int test.  If one of the players has 3 more points of Int than the other then there's no real contest.  If they are within 2 points of each other, they basically have equal chances of prevailing as determined by the d6 roll-off.  You could similarly compare Con scores to determine who holds their breath longer or use Str vs. Str for an arm-wrestling contest.

Extrapolating one step further, let's look at a petpeeve I have about dungeon doors.  Hurgolf the Mighty (Str 14) fails to open the door to room 23.  Should Fimbar the Puny (Str 7) really have a chance of opening the door?  I'm not so sure.  Maybe only someone with a Str of at least 12 should have a chance to open that same door.


  1. A clever extrapolation.

  2. I don't understand the point of that "within 2 points" bit. Why not have scores tie on, you know, a tie? Why the extra wiggle room? Is there any reason given?

  3. Indeed. But why is initiative such a major issue for so many people? You have a Dex score. Higher Dex = Faster. Two people have the same Dex, flip a coin or roll a D6 with higher score going first. Weee!

  4. Also, as Kelvingreen says, in case of a time, its a tie. Simultaneous action.

    See, that is all the books should have had on initiative. One paragraph tops.

  5. Well, my point was more that if you've got an elf with an 11 dexterity and an orc with an 11 dexterity, then that's a tie, and you can resolve that how you like, whether it be simultaneous action, or a die roll, or whatever.

    What I don't understand is why, under these rules, an elf with a dexterity of 11 and an orc with a dexterity of 9 are also considered tied. I don't see the point of it, and it seems to add this floating nugget of complexity that doesn't add anything.

  6. I don't quite understand the reasoning either, kelvin. The book doesn't spend any time explaining itself on this point. But I kinda like the larger range of ambiguity.

  7. It's not a big deal, I suppose I just prefer the ambiguity to arise through other mechanics than this weird floaty maths thing.

  8. I started with Holmes for a few months before switching over to AD&D. For many years I continued to include Dexterity in monster stat blocks, and eventually forgot why I had it in there since I never used it! It wasn't until the last year or so I realized why and dropped. I have a few other Holmesisms floating about in my games to this day...

  9. I'm pretty sure we tended to use a collective DEX score back in the day too. I honestly didn't remember that the two range is considered a tie. Also pretty sure we didn't use that particular rule.

    Nice interpretation of these rules btw.

  10. Fimbar the Puny should always have a shot at opening the door Hurgolf the Mighty didn't open. Just like a stuck jar lid you struggle with only to have your wife open it on her first try. Hurgolf just "loosened" it for Fimbar :)

    Also, while I appreciate the idea of streamlining attribute contests they way you suggest, Jeff, I hate the idea of having someone always win a contest. You get no David & Goliath that way. And if its one of the PCs who is outclassed to the point of autofailure, well, my players at least wouldn't stand for such a thing :)

  11. I like your unit solution. I have always used the old school monsters attack bonus/HD number to solve the Holmes Dec conundrum.
    If a monster had 1 HD that would be +1 to 10 or 11 Dex and so forth capped to 5(I think) just like monster attack bonuses.
    Perhaps not too exacting but easy to reference and sort of models the monsters relative bad assery.

  12. Can I suggest what I think is a really simple workable initiative system? At the start of combat have the players make a Dex check. Everyone who succeeds attacks before the monsters. Everyone who loses attacks after. Within those two groups attacks occur in descending Dex order. If it is necessary to determine individual order for monsters use descending order of current hit points.

  13. Anonymous12:25 PM

    I remember someone suggesting that a monster's Dex could simply be equal to it's movement score (faster monsters are more dexterous). I kind of liked that.

  14. I find that the players tend to work together better with group inish than with individual inish. Is that just my group or have others seen that too?

    Jared’s idea is interesting. Something like that could be an in-between system. PCs who make the Dex check act as a group, the monsters act, and then the PCs who failed the check act as a group. I’m going to have to think about that some more.

    On feats of strength, I tend to set a threshold for them rather than calling for a check. e.g. This door requires 15 points of Strength to force open. If multiple PCs are able to work together at it, then they sum up their Strength scores. (So, the threshold might be greater than 18, in which case coöperation becomes necessary.)

  15. Or you could set a minimum ability score for a door, in this case say the door needs a min 12 ability score, then make the strength check.

    For example, if the guy with the 14 Str opens it, he used his strength. Or as above, if the 14 Str guy failed, he just couldn't muscle it open, but the guy with the 7 Str *and* a 14 Wis, KNEW that he could open it, and did. It was all in his self confidence.

    The other ability scores would be Dex- sees how to finesse it open, Con- is able to apply the proper pressure long enough to open the door, Int- knows how to best apply his strength, Cha- Talks themselves into being able to open the door.

    You could even allow retries a number of times equal to the # of ability scores over the min required.