Mythic Fantasy and the Days of High Adventure

Among the many different branches of fantasy, one of the more obscure ones that is rarely seen in the wild is Mythic Fantasy. I believe it’s actually more a hypothetical idea than an actual concept anyone is working with in practice. I’ve seen it come up a few times in Fantasy-RPG books for gamemasters, as one of several suggested options for what different forms of styles a fantasy campaign could possibly take. The general idea seems to be fantasy that takes its main inspirations from Iron Age myths of the Greeks, Celts, and Germanic peoples, which tell tales of gods and superhuman heroes. And that’s usually about the full extend of detail for how this kind of fantasy would work. The only concrete suggestions I’ve seen is generally “I don’t know, I guess you use some medusas and minotaurs, or something”. But I say no, that’s not how you make a mythic fantasy campaign. That’s just reenacting Greek myths as an RPG. When we are talking about how we can give a fantasy RPGs like D&D different tones and flavors to make it more similar to other styles of fantastic stories, the goal is to put the default material into a new context. Stories of ancient myth are one thing, but I think when we use the term Mythic Fantasy, we should apply it to something else. Mythic is the adjective that describes that thing. Fantasy is the noun that is the thing.

I’ve been thinking about this these past few days, and I’ve come to a couple of conclusions to how you can create original fantasy material, in a newly envisioned world, and present it in a way that evokes a similar overall feel without just directly copying existing material.

The Monster

This is a big one, and I believe, the most critical of all the points I am going to make here. Modern fantasy in general, and fantasy RPGs in particular, seem to have lost touch with The Monster and forgotten it’s central role it plays in many of the oldest tales that survive to this day. Not all stories need monsters, just as not all fantasy needs to evoke the style of ancient myths. But we just don’t see The Monster anymore. RPGs in particular are full of “monsters”, but these tend to be swarms of critters that appear as the heroes come around the corner, and after a short action scene, are immediately forgotten one’s the turn around the next. Monsters are there to be fought, because fantasy is supposed to have monsters that are fought, but they generally don’t really have any impact on the greater story.  The story plays out between human(oid) characters. And I believe this even mostly holds true in D&D, with its big tomes of high level monsters. Yes, you might occasionally have fought a beholder or aboleth. But how often was that creature the main villain of the adventure that the entire story revolved around? What interactions did the PCs have with that big monster before they opened a door and found themselves immediately attacked? These monsters may make big and memorable fights, but from what I’ve seen over the past decades now, they are almost always just window dressing for a story that would work just as well without any monsters in it at all.

This is very much not the case with the monsters of ancient myths. There may be both perception bias by me and survivor bias by the ravages of time, but most if not all of these tales are about one monster. Medusa, the Bull of Minos, the cyclops Polyphemus, Cerberus, Fenris, Grendel, Humbaba, Ravana. They all have a name. They all are known to the people living near them and greatly feared. They have a history. They are not just some random creatures that live by themselves deep in the wilderness, minding their own business. The heroes who fight these monsters are not simply showing of their strength and power, they are performing a great service for the community. Yet somehow, we don’t really see that in modern fantasy. I think having these unique great monsters, that are an active thread to society and that ordinary people can not deal with are a central element of what makes a story feel mythic and really need to be included when trying to make a world that feels like Mythic Fantasy.

The Courts of the High Kings

Mythic tales as a whole seem to have a much bigger focus on specifics than the general, compared to what is overwhelmingly seen in games. Take any setting book for a fantasy RPG and look at the description of cities. If there is any useful information at all, it tends to be general stuff about the overall feel and appearance of the city, for when a group of mercenary adventurers is coming through on their way to new adventures. Cities often are central to mythic stories as well, but usually they are not described at all. When mythic heroes come to a city, they really are coming to a king’s court. That’s really the only part of the city that matters. Perseus comes to Knossos, to meet with King Minos. The city of Knossos is irrelevant to the story. All that is important is the palace of king Minos. Beowulf travels to Heorot, the court of King Hrothgar. We would assume that the king’s hall is inside a small city or town, but it is of no importance of the story. The name of the king’s court is not.

As a broad generalization, mythic tales like to give specific names to all the important characters and places. Myths will often take care to mention the homes and lineages of even secondary characters. It is possible, and perhaps even likely, that the original audiences of these stories would have been able to glean a great amount of context from these pieces of information. The home and lineage of different characters could inform deeper meanings in the things these characters say or the things they do, that are now lost to us. But even so, I still think that we would recognize such thing as being characteristic of ancient myths. And this is something that shouldn’t be too difficult to emulate in a game. When introducing new characters that are to some degree relevant to the story, don’t just tell the players their names and outer appearance, but also have them be introduced as “the son of X, brother to the king of Y”. It does not have to actually mean anything, but it still creates an impression that these things would be greatly meaningful to the people within the world of the story. Present NPCs as important leaders and emissaries, and have other NPCs treat them and speak of them as people who have influence and power, or at very powerful and influential friends. The world of myths is in many ways a very small one, in which everyone knows everyone and everything is connected.

The heroes should be Heroes

In common usage, the term hero is often used to simply mean protagonist. Or simply any person who did something risky out of kindness. But that’s not the original meaning of the term. A mythical hero is a person who stands above all others and exist in a different category than everyone else. And furthermore, they perform great deeds that bring a significant and permanent benefit to society as a whole. Unsurprisingly, many ancient heroes are said to be demigods who are descended from divine beings. A hero almost has to be superhuman by definition. Heroes are the people who go down in history, and they don’t even have to be good guys.

If you want to have a game that feels like stories of myth, the protagonists have to be heroes. And in any kind of roleplaying game, the players have to play the protagonists. There are many awful examples of published adventures where this is not the case and the PCs are merely spectators watching the real heroes do cool stuff and save the day, which has been emulated by countless numbers of GMs. But that’s objectively bad gamemastering and adventure design. The medium of roleplaying games demands that the players play the protagonists of the story. The game is the story of the PCs. In mythic stories the protagonists have to be heroes, and in roleplaying games the PCs have to be the protagonists. This means that in a Mythic Fantasy campaign, the PCs have to be heroes. And what makes or makes not a hero are not their deeds, but the perception of their deeds. A hero is who the people regard as a hero.

One major aspect of realizing this in a game is in the way that NPCs talk to the PCs and behave towards them. Heroic PCs should be treated as being exceptional people who stand tall above the common men of women. Heroes mingle among the highest ranking people of society, and they will gain the personal attention of kings and queens when they arrive in a new city, who will treat them with the same honor and respect as foreign dignitaries. Even when the PCs are from simple backgrounds with no titles and few possessions to their name, their deeds elevate them to being part of the elite.

To make this really work and feel believable in an actual campaign, PCs need to exceed the prowess and skills of ordinary warriors pretty early in the campaign. Having PCs start at a higher level or with larger numbers of character points is one option. But I am personally much more in favor of instead having ordinary NPCs all be of the most basic type. The default soldier and brigand are usually good enough for all common soldiers and brigands throughout the entire campaign. When the PCs reach 5th level, there is no need to have them encounter ultra-elite soldiers and brigands. If they can just steamroll over any ordinary warriors they encounter then let them. They are heroes. They are supposed to be superhuman. Equally important is that this makes it more believable that the ordinary soldiers are not capable of dealing with the monsters that threaten their cities and people. In some fantasy setting, many adventure ideas are frequently shot down with the simple reason of “why doesn’t any of the powerful NPCs or the giant armies take care of the problem?”. The answer to that is simple. There are no powerful NPCs. There are no armies that could be wasted to die at the feet of an ancient horror.

Swords of Legend

As with monsters and NPCs, another way to make a game feel more mythic is to apply the same principle of specificity to magic items. In mythic tales, there are no +1 swords or mass produced amulets that are found in some random hole in the ground. Every magic item is unique. Often they have a name, and almost always they have a history. They don’t just lie around to be found by the first person who stumbles upon them. They are either pried from the dead hands of slain main antagonists who used them for their evil purposes, or given as gifts from influential people as rewards for outstanding deeds performed by the heroes. Or alternatively, the heroes go to on a quest to retrieve the items from their ancient resting place, overcoming many hardships and foes along the way.

But even with this in mind, that doesn’t mean that you can’t have any magic items that are discovered unexpectedly in forgotten ruins. A great example of this is early on the movie Conan the Barbarian. Conan has been released from slavery by his master and is being chased by wolves, and trying to climb to safety on top of some rocks, falls into the well hidden entrance of an ancient tomb where he discovers his new sword. Since the movie has barely any dialog, neither the scene nor the sword gets any mention later in the film. But as the story have it, it was supposed to be a highly special and remarkable sword, a relic from the great and powerful realm of Atlantis that has long faded into myth. And in that scene where Conan discovers it in the tomb, this really comes across. He does not just find a sword lying around. He discovers an opulent tomb, with an ancient warrior king in his armor, sitting on a great stone throne, covered in dust and spiderwebs, the sword in his skeletal hand.

We do not know the name of the sword, or the name of the king. And we do not know any of their stories. But the way in which the sword is found makes it clear that this is not just some random sword from the shelf, that you can sell to a village blacksmith in bundles of ten. This is a unique artifact with a great history, even though the tales have been forgotten. And it still might just be a sword +1.

Illustrations by Justin Sweet, showing scenes from various Kull stories by Robert Howard.

What should Sword & Sorcery campaigns feel like?

There was a discussion on Dragonsfoot about how to bring a feeling of Sword & Sorcery to oldschool D&D. Like most of these discussion, the focus was on deciding which races and classes should be available for player characters, how to handle healing and magic items, and things like that. But I think that’s starting the whole topic at too late a point. Before you can make choices on how to evoke the spirit of Sword & Sorcery through game rules, you first need to establish for yourself what kind of atmosphere and emotions you want to evoke in the first place.

I think at the most fundamental level, long before going into any specific elements, they key aspect that makes Sword & Sorcery a thing is that it is not a rational form of fantasy, but an emotional. The plots in Sword & Sorcery are almost always very simple and basic. I can’t really think of any story that has intricate plans, unexpected turns, and surprising reveals about hidden motives or betrayals. It’s not a genre of conspiracy plots and whodunits. Hero’s can be very clever, but their plans are remarkable in their simplicity rather than their complexity. Their strengths lie in improvisation combined with determination, and generally work only because of their outstanding martial skills. Plans help to shift the odds in their favor, but at the end it has to come down to a contest of force against force.

Sword & Sorcery can have considerable depth, but it’s not a cerebral experience. It is very much emotional. When we see philosophy make an appearance, it’s overwhelmingly existentialist. A philosophy that deals with giving meaning to a life after realizing that logic is hollow and empty and reason can not give you any joy. And that being said, Sword & Sorcery is fun! It doesn’t have to be humorous. It’s often grim and full of pain, but I think it’s almost always meant to be thrilling and exhilarating. Elric and Kane can be very brooding and morose, but that’s not why we like them. We like them because they inevitable will be overtaken by fury and then kick everyone’s ass, and it will be glorious.

But as a whole, I wouldn’t say Sword & Sorcery is dark. It’s no darker than The Lord of the Rings or A Song of Ice and Fire. That’s not really a distinguishing feature. People also often say that it is more grounded and down to earth, and I can’t really see where that idea is coming from? I think most important of all, Sword & Sorcery is always larger than life. It doesn’t dial up things to the maximum of what would still be sensible, but possibly always goes a little bit beyond. At least I can’t think of anything that I would unambiguously call Sword & Sorcery that is reserved and has both feet firmly on the ground. What Sword & Sorcery certainly is is somewhat grimy and gritty. It is never noble or idealistic, and goes to great lengths to be the opposite of pastoral and quaint. It can be majestic, but never pristine. There is always some degree of both savagery and decadence, and going back the point about being focused on the emotional aspects of fantasy, it is “sensual” in the wider sense of the term. It is bold and has little sense of shame. At times this can shift into sleaze, but I think even then, good Sword & Sorcery is always sincere. I can’t think of any work of Sword & Sorcery that is somewhat ironic or tongue in cheek, and doesn’t take itself serious. Sometimes it does get silly, but even at those times, you always get the impression that the creators think this is awesome and the greatest <expletive deleted> ever. In many later works, which is were you find much of the cheesier examples, there is a clear sense of self-awareness of how silly some of the elements are. But we’re supposed to lough with them, not at them. Even at its dumbest, Sword & Sorcery has no doubt that it’s still cool and awesome. Sword & Sorcery never apologizes for anything. Some of it might be silly or immature, but there is a sense of full acceptance that the creators love what they love. They don’t couch things with irony to defend and shield themselves against accusations of having bad taste.

Now what does all of this mean for GMs running a campaign?

Be bold. Make it larger than life. Don’t be afraid of cliches. Go for pathos and portray the NPCs with passion.
Challenge the players’ courage rather than their analytical skills. When in doubt, err in the players’ favor. If an idea sounds somewhat implausible but cool, be lenient with odds to succeed. Encourage the player to stumble forward and make mistakes they will have to live with, rather than shutting down their ideas and tell them to go back thinking of something else until they come up with something that satisfies you.

Going into fantastical and dangerous places is super fun. But to evoke the spirit of Sword & Sorcery, I think dungeons should be relatively small and light on puzzles. Have fewer encounters, but make them more unique, elaborate, and filled with excitement. In the fiction, you often come across great ruined cities, but the heroes still only have two or three encounters in a small handful of distinct areas. Going slowly and meticulously through a huge area, drawing precise maps and cataloging your findings does not really evoke the emotions that are central to Sword & Sorcery. Sword & Sorcery stories tend to be short because they are incredibly dense. Lots of things are happening, and most of these things are remarkable. There is little place for the mundane and routine.

“I have known many gods. He who denies them is as blind as he who trusts them too deeply. I seek not beyond death. It may be the blackness averred by the Nemedian skeptics, or Crom’s realm of ice and cloud, or the snowy plains and vaulted halls of the Nordheimer’s Valhalla. I know not, nor do I care. Let me live deep while I live; let me know the rich juices of red meat and stinging wine on my palate, the hot embrace of white arms, the mad exultation of battle when the blue blades flame and crimson, and I am content. Let teachers and priests and philosophers brood over questions of reality and illusion. I know this: if life is illusion, then I am no less an illusion, and being thus, the illusion is real to me. I live, I burn with life, I love, I slay, and am content.”

– Robert Howard, Queen of the Black Coast

Can’t see the forest for the trees

Given how many fantasy worlds are dominated by uninhabited wilderness, and how much the generic image of fantasy is based around forests, it’s pretty surprising to see how little ink has actually been spilled on this aspect of fantasy worlds. If you look around the internet for information about forests in RPGs, there’s basically nothing. All that I could find is how to draw forests on a map. There’s a bit more stuff on the topic of wilderness in RPGs, but most of it comes down to “how do I make overland travel less boring?” There seems to be almost nothing in regards to exploring forests as a setting in itself. About how the environment can be a driving force in the narrative of the campaign and how it can communicate tone and themes. Forest is just there, as an amorphous blank space.

So much potential for adventures? Don’t you feel inspired yet?

Interestingly, it seems that deserts have been explored much more over the decades, both in RPGs and fantastic literature. Deserts pose a clear immediate danger, in the lack of water and shelter from the sun. It’s also immediately obvious that you can’t just have a full campaign set in nothing but sand dunes. You also need rocky deserts, barren hills and mountains, and various oases, and you can occasionally break things up a little with a big sandstorm. For forests, we don’t really have such palette of different shades. On maps, you might get “light forest” and “heavy forest”, or possibly “forest” and “jungle” as two different shades of green, but at the end of the day, forests end up being big green blobs on the map, with about as much variation as the ocean surface.

In Veins of the Earth, a book about entire campaigns set in caves, there is an appendix about “Twelve Kinds of Dark”. Darkness is always a simple absence of light. In the physical reality, all darkness is exactly the same thing. But narratively, and in the context of tone and atmosphere, darkness and shadows can have a wide range of different feels. The darkness of a basement in a ruined house is very different than the darkness in the corners of a jarl’s hall, that is illuminated only by a single fire as the skald is telling his tales of old heroes to his audience.

At the end of the day, every forest is an area covered in trees. But really, not all forests are the same. Far from it. Different forests have different visibility based on the density of tree trunks and the undergrowth. They have different amounts of light based on the canopies. Some forests have almost perfectly flat floors while others grow on extremely rugged and rocky terrain. Some forests seem almost bone dry for long parts of the year while others are flooded or a soggy mud everywhere you step. Forests can be home to large numbers of animals, while others seem almost empty. And some can be full of fruits while others are nothing but pines. And this hasn’t even touched on the subject of introducing specific tones and atmosphere.

With Planet Kaendor, I always had this idea of making it a forest world. But in practice most content I work on deal with coastal cities, while the tree covered interior remains that damned big green blob without distinguishing features. Four of my favorite evocative settings are Barsoom, Dark Sun, Dune, and Morrowind. All of which are essentially desert settings. But you can’t just take these places, cover them entirely in trees, and call it a day. In all of them, the deserts are an active character in the world. To make a setting a forest world, there first needs to be a deeper exploration of what a forest can actually be as an environment and how it can shape stories.

More on that hopefully soon.

More More Maps

I think this might finally be enough maps for now. I really am quite happy with how this one turned out. A few places still need names, and I’ll have to draw in the rivers by hand in Krita (that‘s what Inkarnate decides to exclude from the free version?!) But otherwise this is a really nice map that I’d be happy to hand out to players.

To get this coastlines, I did a composite of several satellite images. Most of it is based on the coastline of California and British Columbia, with pieces of the Sea of Okhosk, Papua, and the Solomon Islands thrown in. I find the end result to look quite convincing.

Another thing I noticed is how much the size of map icons and writing on the map affects the perception of scale. Using pretty small icons and letters, I think it looks much more like a good portion of a continent than just a single county when I had them considerably larger.

More Map Magnificence

Two years ago I made a pretty decent looking map for Kaendor in Krita and GIMP. I was actually quite surprised that it was that long ago, as I had been used to my maps constantly changing and being revised. But the overall layout and the important settlements really have not changed at all since then. Which I take to be a sign that the setting has settled into a stable state that I am more or less happy with, even in the long term. I still have not finished naming everything, but I think I’ll be getting there over this year.

Today, I made a new version of that old map, in one afternoon trying out Inkarnate for the first time. This still could use some more polish, but I really quite like how it looks overall.

I still think this actually looks too clean and pristine as a handout for a Bronze Age Sword & Sorcery setting, though. I might end up tracing the final map in Krita to give it a more scribbled and grimy look.

How large does a setting have to be?

This is North-West-Cental Europe. It it an area exactly 1,000 miles from North to South, and 1,000 miles from East to West.

Think of what comes to your mind when you hear “The Middle Ages”. Unless you have a specific, personal interest in medieval Spain, Ireland, or Russia, almost everything that you think of will have been within this area, with the one notable exception of the Crusades. Even the vast majority of all Viking stuff.

Historians generally place the Middle Ages in roughly the time from 500 to 1,500 CE, which happens to coincide with the disappearance of the Roman Empire in Western Europe, and the discovery of America and the Reformation. So it all also falls into a span of 1,000 years.

A thousand miles and a thousand years. That’s the Middle Ages as a setting for popular fiction and reference frame for Fantasy. Compared to many popular fantasy settings, that’s tiny. But there’s so much stuff in this little box. More space than you could ever possibly need to tell your stories. It certainly won’t hurt if you can give names to the distant lands that lie beyond the edges of the map, where merchants get the most exotic of their goods. But to characters dealing with their own lives inside of this box, they don’t need to be anything more than that. Things are of course different for campaigns about traveling to far away exotic lands, which certainly have their place in fantasy. But those really are the exception, not the rule.

Worldbuilding Scale References

Starting on a new map for Planet Kaendor, I made a quick comparison of how big a 2,000 by 2,000 miles area would actually be compared to Europe. Since it was really easy to do, I did the same thing for North America and East Asia as well, and might as well share them with the world.

All maps use the same 100×100, 500×500, 1,000×1,000 and 2,000×2,000 miles squares.

Moldvay Basic and Cook Expert – 40 years and still going strong

It’s already two months late, but everyone else seems to have missed it too. The first printings of the Basic and Expert rules by Tom Moldvay and David Cook were done all the way back in January 1981.

And what a game they made!

After I started playing D&D when 3rd edition came out, I went for many years before I ever even heard of something that was occasionally mumbled about in the background called B/X or BECMI. And it completely stayed under my radar until six years ago when I took my first actual look at it, having it filed away as “that D&D light version where elf is a class”.

From the way that I remember it, the oldschool revival seemed to have started very much as an AD&D thing (though Basic Fantasy was actually the first retroclone) and that was a game I had tried getting into but bounced off very hard. But in the later years, when the return to older games morphed more into a forward evolution of those old concepts, B/X really seems to have established itself as the primary focus and reference point for oldschool roleplaying. Hard to say how things will be in another 40 years, but I am quite confident that this game will be staying with us for a long time to come.

Balancing of Treasures in B/X

Since I first discovered the actual Basic/Expert game almost exactly six years ago, I’ve taken out the Basic rules a couple of times for relatively short games, but never really got into any of the Expert material. I also did not make much use of the wandering monsters and morale mechanics and mostly ran it pretty “modern conventional”. And I certainly did not use the random treasure tables. When I started work on my next campaign, I made the choice to try to really understand all the rules as they are written and follow the procedures as they are presented by Moldvay and Cook, to see how that plays out before I start making significant changes. It’s a game that is meant to be highly flexible and customizable, but it’s generally a bad idea to start making modifications to something before you understand what the default setup does.

A line of thinking that I encountered in the wild over the years of listening to the words of the elders, is that the tables for wandering monsters and generating randomized treasures are the main reference for how you set up dungeons with appropriate challenges and corresponding amounts of rewards. I’ve seen discussions about how some magic items are more valuable in Basic or AD&D because of the greatly different chances of them appearing in treasure hoards, and how this is indicative of the original assumptions how the games would be played and why some classes have different advantages with the rarity of those items in mind. I’ve long had my doubts about that and suspecting that that very little actual thought went into the creation of these tables and the resulting chances for certain encounters and rewards. And when you look at how the tables are constructed, this really seems very likely. On the wandering monsters tables, there are 20 entries, each with the same 1 in 20 chance. On the same table, you have 1 HD creatures appearing in numbers of 1-8, and 2 HD creatures in numbers of 2-12. This is not adjusted to be roughly equal in challenge on average. The magic item tables in Basic are just alphabetical lists numbered from 1 up, all with the same chances. The Expert tables are a bit more elaborate using a d100, but in the end all potions have either a 3% or 4% chance. I think these were all just eyeballed without any thought to intended play or adjustments for balance.

But I still was quite surprised when I scoured the texts again, and discovered what exactly Moldvay wrote on these topics.

Treasures are determined randomly or chosen by the DM. The DM should always determine the contents of a large treasure hoard before play in order to determine how best to hide and protect the treasure from theft, and if magic items are present.

 

The DM may choose treasures instead of rolling for them randomly, or may choose a result if rolls give too much or too little treasure. The choices should be made carefully, since most of the experience the characters will get will be from treasure (usually 3/4 or more). It will often be easier for the DM to decide how much experience to give out (considering the size and levels of experience in the party) and place the treasures to give this result.

The method advocated here is to start with the total amount of XP that characters will be able to make in the dungeon or dungeon level as a choice by the GM and work backwards from there. One quarter of that amount should be in the form of enemy encounters, and the remaining three quarters in the form of treasures. Or to get the same effect, just populate the dungeon with whatever monsters you want to use, then calculate the XP for defeating all of them, and multiply that result by 3 to get the appropriate value of the treasures you should distribute among the creature lairs. The treasure tables seem more to be intended to be used when you don’t really have an idea for what treasure you might want to put in the dungeon and to give you some suggestions. But since the tables don’t know how many of the creature lairs will be of creatures that have treasure hoards or not, this can’t get you that rough 3 to 1 ratio for XP except by pure accident.

For my setting, I have a lot of custom creatures (though most of them are plain reskins), and I had been thinking about how I would assign treasure types to all of them. But I don’t think I really should bother with that. I don’t believe the treasure tables and treasure types have much logic behind them I could figure out and apply to my own creatures. It’s always only been eyeballed to look good enough.

Another small detail that I noticed is that something that I considered a new house rule of mine is actually tucked away in the text already.

Treasure is normally found in the lairs of monsters, but may be paid to a character by a high level NPC for performing a mission or job.

The basic formula of “you’re treasure hunters, so go hunt treasure for the sake of hunting treasure” never really worked for me as a basis for compelling adventures. I thought that carrying a rescued prisoner back to town for a 500 gp reward is mechanically the same as carrying a big gem from the dungeon that is worth 500 gp, so players could get the same amount of XP for this. Turns out this was already suggested 40 years ago.

Group Initiative and Spell Declaration

While I am a very big fan of Basic Fantasy, one of the things in which I believe it needlessly departs too much from B/X is the move away from the original group initiative. Which perhaps might have been a decision based on uncertainty about what you could get away with with the OGL and old TSR content back in the day when the first retroclones made their appearance.

Group initiative is a system that I really love. One of the main reasons is that I have always struggled with asking and recording every player’s initiative count and sorting them into the correct descending order, while at the same time everyone was chattering excitedly about the combat that has just brought out. On paper, this step seems like a trivial mental task, but it’s one of the situations where my ADD overwhelms my brain and I mentally freeze up. It’s stressful and it takes long, which only makes the players chatter more among each other, creating more distraction and more stress, which makes everything even worse. Group initiative neatly avoids this entire problem by reducing it all to me and one player rolling a d6 and the higher number goes first.

The other nice thing, which is even more significant, is how group initiative speeds up play. If you used the common “each player takes a turn in order” system, you’ll have seen countless times how this plays out: One player takes five minutes to decide what he wants to do with his turn. The other players get bored and find other distractions to keep themselves occupied while they wait. When the player finally makes his turn, the next player is totally surprised that it is his turn now. He has no idea what happened during the last three players turns and now has to spend five minutes taking up the completely new situation of the fight and then start pondering his options. Repeat for the next hour until the four goblins are dead. That does not happen with group initiative.

The Basic Combat Sequence
  • 1: The party and the enemies roll 1d6 for initiative.
  • 2: The side with the higher initiative takes their turns.
    • 2a: Morale checks are made if needed.
    • 2b: All characters do their movements.
    • 2c: Characters who want to make a ranged attack do it now.
    • 2d: Characters who want to cast a spell do it now.
    • 2e: Characters who want to make a melee attack do it now.
  • 3: The side with the lower initiative takes their turns.
    • 3a: Morale checks are made if needed.
    • 3b: All characters do their movements.
    • 3c: Characters who want to make a ranged attack do it now.
    • 3d: Characters who want to cast a spell do it now.
    • 3e: Characters who want to make a melee attack do it now.

In this system, all players have “their turn” at the same time. The moment when the most significant decision for the round has to be made is 2b/3b All characters do their movement. If and how you want to move really depends mostly on what you plan to do after that. But unlike with sequential initiative, all players have to think about their choice at the same time. Whichever player comes to a decision first performs the movement first. While this happens, the other players still have a bit of time to think about their own choice. The whole thing only takes as long as the slowest player needs to think. Not as long as the thinking time of all players combined. The actual execution of ranged attacks, spells, and melee attacks is really quite fast and uncomplicated in comparison.

There is however, one major hitch with this whole setup, on which Moldvay Basic, Cook Expert, BECMI, and Rules Cyclopedia are all in disagreement. Which is the handling of casting spells:

In Moldvay Basic, things are simple and just as I described them above.

However, Cook Expert, which is an addendum to Moldvay Basic and expands and adds to it. “The caster must inform the DM that a spell is being cast and which spell will be cast before the initiative dice are rolled. If the caster loses the initiative and takes damage or fails a saving throw, the spell is interrupted and lost.” Thankfully, the explanation here is very clear on how it is supposed to work. But I do not like it. It negates the neat feature that all players think about their actions at the same time, and instead you have everyone at the table wait on that one wizard player to decide if he wants to cast a spell before initiative is being rolled for that round. It also makes our poor vulnerable d4 HD wizard a target for all enemy combatants and introduces a considerable chance that the spell will be lost with no effect. Given how few spells the poor guy has to begin with, that is just sad.

Things get only messier with later editions, though. In BECMI, the combat sequence is printed in both the Players Manual (twice) and the Dungeon Masters Rulebook, but they are numbered differently. The Players Manual begins with Step A: Roll for initiative. The Dungeon Masters Rulebook begins with Step 1: Intentions: The DM asks each player what the character intends to do in the coming round, followed by Step 2: Roll for initiative. Bad, bad editor! As far as I am able to tell, the topic of the players declaring their intentions is never brought up anywhere in the actual text of either book, so there is no explanation of how it affects anything. My guess would be that the idea of declaring stuff before rolling initiative was thrown out during development, but that one line in the combat sequence in the DM’s book was not properly deleted before printing.

The Rules Cyclopedia doesn’t mention declaring any intentions anywhere. But it does still mention how spellcasting can be interrupted if the caster is being injured.

The only version that actually does what it seems to want to do it Cook Expert. But as I said, I really don’t like that procedure. So here, finally, is what I consider the best way to do it:

  • If a character has moved during the movement phase, he can not cast spells during the spellcasting phase. (“spells cannot be cast while performing any other action such as walking or fighting.” Moldvay Basic.)
  • If a character got hit or failed a saving throw during the enemy phase of the round, he can not cast spells during the party phase of that same round. (Assuming the enemies rolled higher initiative than the party.)
  • If the party and the enemies roll the same initiative number and the movement, ranged, spell, and melee phases of both sides happen simultaneously, and the character gets hit by a ranged attack, he can not cast spells during the spellcasting phase. Both PC and enemy spells all go off at the same time.

In this take on the rules, spellcasters can never be interrupted and lose a spell that they already started to cast. Which is fine with me. Not being able to cast a spell when there’s a perfect opportunity is already annoying enough, given how few spells wizards have and how it makes waiting for exactly the right moment a big part of its efficiency.