Wednesday, October 20, 2021

The Quick and the Dead

Still disagreeing, today Jake will attempt to convince me that we should play D&D using speed factors for weapons.

Has Jake gone mad? Find out... 


Hey Jake. So: you first, because i don't understand why speed factors are good.


Hi Zak.  Sure thing.  Using speed factor initiative – where everyone announces actions at the start of each round and the actions taken impact the order of combat – enhances a D&D campaign in a bunch of ways.

It provides a lot more verisimilitude than other initiative methods.  Quick characters with daggers are more likely to get a jab in before a lumbering great-axe wielder can swing her mighty weapon.  A Magic Missile spell will often fire before an enemy spell-caster can conjure a Gate.

Also, battles are made more chaotic.  Just like real-life battles, there's no set order to combat.  Furthermore, you can't hit a “pause button” on your turn to figure out what's the optimal move at that instant, much less have a conversation with allies to develop and execute a plan.

So why are those good things?  Several reasons:

1.  All other things being equal (e.g., complexity, speed at the table, etc.), rules that better reflect reality tend to enhance the game's immersion.

2.  Because most decision making is front-loaded at the start of each round, the pace of the action during each round really speeds up.  Taken as whole, speed factor initiative isn't quicker (or slower) than other methods, but there's fewer stops and starts in the action, which tends to keep players more engaged.

3.  It leads to more diversity of action.  Players get a choice to weigh that they otherwise wouldn't have: should they use the most powerful tool at their disposal, or is it better to use a less powerful tool that may let them act more quickly?  In a D&D game with cleaving or spill-over damage or a Great Weapon Master feat, this makes battle less monotonous and more tactical.

4.  Combat is more dangerous because what happens in battle is less predictable.  More danger tends to equate with more engagement.  Also, if your game looks at combat as a fail-state – a consequence of not being sneaky or clever or persuasive enough – more dangerous combat helps to reinforce that for the players.

5.  Equipment choices have more consequences and tend to be less homogeneous.  A sword & board fighter might not always choose a long sword over a short sword, or wear plate armor when less encumbering chain provides a better chance of getting a jump on opponents.

So, questions?  Thoughts?


These all seem like legitimate points to me, but the counterargument is that it's more numbers to explain to players, for them to keep track of, and to look up. And isn't speed factor different for every single armor class for any given weapon? (forgive me, I can't remember).


It is a thing that needs to be explained at the start of a campaign.  No question about that.  However, there's an easy way to avoid having to look things up (and thereby slowing things down) in combat.

Before a game, players figure their basic initiative modifier.  This is based on Dex and, if the speed factor system in play accounts for encumbrance, based on the load the character typically carries.  So that's pretty much normal, and the result is written in their “Basic Initiative Mod” box on their character sheet.

Then, where the weapons are listed on the character sheet, there's a new entry that goes before Range, Damage, etc.:  Speed.  Speed is the Basic Initiative Mod plus the modifier for that weapon.

At the start of each round, players announce what weapon they're using, roll the initiative die, and add the weapon's Speed.  That's it.  Adding that single number is one more step than it takes to do group initiative, but it's still very easy.  It's no more complex than an attack roll, or the standard 5e initiative roll for that matter.

Spells are equally easy.  The Speed for a spell is your Basic Initiative Modifier minus the spell's level.  These can also be prefigured on the character sheet.  Thus, a player chooses a spell of a particular level, rolls a die, and adds (or subtracts) a single number.

AD&D 1st edition has a gestalt initiative system.  It's mostly side-based but, on a tie roll, the order of actions is based on weapon speed factor.  But I think you're thinking of Weapon vs. AC adjustments.  Each weapon had a modifier for hitting each AC.

That's actually a very interesting system, as it helped fighters (and, to some extent, thieves) because the weapons they could use generally had better bonuses than the weapons usable by clerics and magic-users.  I think it was one of Gary's responses to the “linear fighter, quadratic wizard” problem.  However, it doesn't bear on initiative.

Anyhow, speed factor initiative can benefit from having a very slightly modified character sheet, but it's easy to keep track of and doesn't require looking up anything.


"It's no more complex than an attack roll, or the standard 5e initiative roll for that matter." Well it has one more number--and more than one if you have more weapons.


The formula is the same as with standard 5e initiative.  It's just that instead of applying a generic modifier to their initiative roll, players apply the modifier noted next to the weapon or spell that they're using.

It's definitely true that side-based initiative doesn't require anyone to apply any modifiers.  It's also true the standard 5e initiative doesn't require rolls each round.  So, in some sense, each of them are a bit simpler than speed factor initiative.

And you're also right that this system encourages characters to carry more than one weapon.  Those daggers that characters tend to get at the start of the game see a lot more use in a game with speed factor initiative.  When an accomplished warrior needs to take out a guard before he can cry out, a stiletto may well be a better choice than a battle axe.  That's almost never the case with any other initiative system.


I like that it encourages carrying more than one weapon, but it is more numbers like: each weapon has an initiative so if 5 pcs have 2 weapons each that's 10 initiative modifiers rather than 5.

So: more numbers right?

Sat 10:56 AM

Ok, well to be honest: you've got me convinced enough to try it.
I know that in DCC it's a LOT like D&D combat but there's just a few extra rolls with magic and mighty deeds, and, in my experience, that tiny difference ends up making combat take significantlly longer and take up more of each session.
Which is sometimes fun.
I wonder whether adding speed-factor will add significantly to combat time
Anything you want to add?

Two things:
If you try it, you may want to monkey around with the modifiers.  Personally, I've introduced a few complications, like reach weapons getting a +5 when combatants come together, then -5 thereafter.  If you'd like, I'd be happy to send you what I use.  But the main thing is, as you've eluded to, keeping the complexity level just high enough to get the benefits I discussed without slowing the game down.

Also, I've found that speed modifiers are a great widget to use in providing special weapons, armor, and spells, particularly in relatively low magic games.  For instance, you could have an extra heavy flail that takes more time to spin up but then generates enough impact to cause a point or two of shock damage to a target, even if the roll doesn't beat the target's AC.  Or a Magic Missile spell that requires the wizard to shout and roar, which makes it take longer to cast, but then allows their charisma mod to be added to the damage.  Stuff like that.

In Demon City, I have a blanket rule of "if your weapon is judged by the GM to be better in the situation than the enemy's weapon, you get a bonus"--which vagueness I think you can get away with in a horror game, because combat is rarer. In general I am pro- weapon-for-situation--i like when the Red Viper of Dorn stabs that dude in the hand because it takes to long to get a longsword out. So: i'm game to try. Thanks!

You bet!


Luca Lorenzon said...

Gosh! I just realized that 5th edition (which I played for a couple of years now) has no speed factor for weapons! :O
On the other hand, people who practice fencing or reenactment (or are just familiar with hand weapons) told me that the idea that a knife should be faster than a "heavy" weapon is bullshit, since speed and ease of use were paramount for medieval weapons - maces were hollow to be lighter, for example. Or so they told me.

TabelleCasuali said...

I believe that the more important the speed of the weapon is the range. Those armed with a spear should be able to attack before those with a dagger. And if it survives it should be able to make more attacks before the spear holder can respond (because the dagger is faster than the spear). I play like that. I got inspiration from Chainmail

p1r8z0r said...

As somebody who plays AD&D as btb as is humanly possible (meaning, with interpretation, because Gygax), I play with vs Armor adjustments and without speed factors. As Luca above has pointed out, length is a better value to figure out the things that speed is supposed to do.

Adamantyr said...

The biggest change to the game using speed factors is going to a "Declare your actions first" model. Rather than each player and monster going and resolving their actions one after the other, everything gets noted down and then resolved in one block.

In some ways, that's more like the war games that D&D originated from, and follows a simulation pattern. I like speed factors as a concept, but by removing random factors from initiative, you also make it a lot more tactical. And a lot more work on the DM to track everything, since opponents are also going to have to do the same determinations.

I can't recall the rules exactly, but I think natural weapons (slam, claw, bite, etc.) have a fixed speed factor?

maasenstodt said...

A few comments:

@ Luca: The 5e DMG includes a speed factor initiative system on page 270. It's not the same set of modifiers that I use, but it's functional.

Regarding weapon length vs. speed: There's no doubt in my mind that *both* are important. To illustrate the point, a character with a spear is *highly* likely to get the first attack against a short sword-wielding opponent. However, if the sword wielder gets inside of the spear's reach, the short sword *then* provides a major advantage. It is for that reason that I stipulate that reach weapons enjoy a +5 in the 1st round and a -5 in subsequent rounds.

@ p1r8z0r: You might check out Anthony Huso's blog on this - . Used in full, AD&D has a really neat initiative system that's like a hybrid of side based and speed factor initiative. Weapon speeds play a fun role in all of that.

I want to like weapon vs. armor type adjustments. However, while I've found that speed factor initiative provides more depth without slowing down the action, my experience with weapon vs. armor type adjustments is that they *do* slow things down. To me, that makes their use a tough sell.

maasenstodt said...

@ Adamantyr: When I referee using speed factor initiative, I tell the players in broad terms what the monsters are doing. Then we go around the table getting each PC's action.

When the dice are rolled, we just count down. After somebody's turn comes up and they've taken their actions, that player continues the count until someone else pipes in "I'm 14!" They act, then take over the count.

In exchange for giving the players the advantage of having a sense of what the monsters are doing before they announce their actions, monsters win ties.

I really don't consider speed factor initiative to be complicated. The main challenge comes from the fact that because nobody has to figure out what they're doing on their turn, the pace of action resolution is much quicker. That means that you have to stay sharp as a referee. However, the pace and uncertainty involved definitely makes combat more exciting, and benefits are well worth the cost.

Adamantyr said...

If you found a way to make it work, that's cool!

Funny enough, I intended to implement such a system in my CRPG initially. I ended up dropping it because the interface to do planned actions proved too complicated, and I realized it would make combats too tedious and long. Which most CRPGs have too many of when they are tactical in nature.

Simon Tsevelev said...

It does sound like it's worth testing. I do like it when the players learn to love their weapons.

Benjamin Cusack said...

Very good points I have not seen made, and so I learned a lot.
Thanks to both of you for bringing this to a public place so you could discuss it, and for making it available so people like me could learn about it.
I will read and evaluate and consider, and I am with Zak, you have convinced me that this at the very worst a framework that could work with the right numbers, and at its best, a extremely strong way to communicate the strategy and chaos of combat.
I agree with Zak that more vague things work for faster combat, and horror and storytelling.
But I think that cannot be be unsatisfying for people who want control and meaningful decisions during combat. It also means that people who do the same action, like shooting their crossbow, will run into significant issues, as will anybody that is a one-trick pony, provided the speed numbers are calculated, communicated, and planned properly.

maasenstodt said...

@ Benjamin: Thanks! Your point about this not working equally well for everyone is a good one, and it's something I've experienced first-hand.

At least at first, players who enjoy "controlling" the battlefield do chafe a bit. Also, players who like using "optimized builds" that game the default rules to gain an advantage using a particular action can be a bit disappointed when that action isn't always actually optimal.

I've never (knowingly) lost a player over using speed factor initiative, and I've gotten *far* more positive feedback about my games being more engaging and dangerous than most. So, on the whole, I'm obviously enthusiastic about it. As always, though, your mileage may vary.

Matrox Lusch said...

Old Judges Guild Ready Ref Sheets had a simple combat initiative system to account for weapon speeds (and length) when you needed something more exact about who goes first than groups trading blows based on party initiative. Plus the system adds in when magic and spells will occur in the initiative order. (Plus, it is unstated, but I expect the missile attack modifier is from range and not from close quarters, most of the older-style D&D rules would restrict missile fire from close quarters anyway.)

Add action modifiers below to d6 initiative score (or d8 for Barbarians and Rangers), add or subtract dexterity modifier (factor in any max Dex modifier from armor), then compare adjusted totals. HIGHEST TOTAL ACTS FIRST. If initiative priorities tie, compare actual dexterity.

+1 - Read Scroll
+2 - Spell (level 7-9)
+3 - Short Weapon (e.g. dagger, mace)
+4 - Medium Weapon (sword, battle axe) or Touch
+5 - Long Weapon (flail, morning star, spear, two-handed sword)
+6 - Very Long Weapon (lance)
+7 - Spell (level 4-6)
+8 - Extreme Weapon (pike)
+9 - Missile Fire
+10 - Spell (level 1-3)
+11 - Breath Weapon
+12 - Glance

The main thing I would question in this system is the high initiative bonus for breath weapon. Don't the dragons and gorgons and such have to take a deep breath first??? ( "Dragonslayer" clip, at 2:30 )

Matrox Lusch said...

Of course, weapon speed factor isn't simply about who attacks first. It is also about more attacks each round.

I have a longish blog post about AD&D 1st edition initiative here,
Gary Gygax's version as described in the DMG does involve getting into close quarters with short fast weapons versus long or heavy ones where the long or heavy weapon bearer doesn't have sufficient space or maneuver or retreat.

Savage Wombat said...

I remember playing with speed factors and initiative back in my college 1st edition days. It worked fine, especially if you're one of those DMs who think it's too easy for wizards to get their spells off nowadays.

I do think it created another strong bias towards fast weapons and high DEX characters, if only for the natural player desire to get to "their turn" as quickly as possible. It might be better balanced with other systems that provide more payoff for heavy weapons and armor.

maasenstodt said...

@ Matrox: That's a fascinating system that I haven't looked into before. I immediately pulled out my Ready Ref Sheets to read it over, but I couldn't find anything about adding dice to the those numbers. Where did you find that?

@ Wombat: 1st edition's weapon vs. AC modifiers definitely favor heavier weapons, as do the damage dice against large targets. If those are used, I think heavy weapons work fine. However, if speed factor is used without such balancing factors, things head in the direction of Holmes Basic, where daggers are the ultimate melee weapon.

Matrox Lusch said...

@maasenstodt ha, you are correct. We always played it that way. However... on the same page (17) in Ready Ref Sheets, the section Surprise In Encounters it is written when neither or both party and monster are surprised to determine initiative by die roll OR weapon priority.

I like the idea of throwing in the initiative die rolls because it gives weapon priority a little randomness. Our group basically ran AD&D weapon speed factors totally wrong for 20 years, super fun, but wrong nonetheless. (And through not really any fault of our own because Gygax included weapon speed factor without any explanation until the Dungeon Masters Guide came out a year later).

We basically would take the side with initiative and start counting out attacks, spells, and other actions each segment from there with the other side coming in at segment 5 or something like that. And then count out the whole battle segment by segment. I have read other versions where the other side would start at the segment of the higher d6 roll between combatants.