Initiative, Healing, and Fairness in Old School D&D

Microlite75 2.0 CoverI received a complaint about group initiative in my games and in old school style games in general, I suppose. The complaint when like this: when you roll initiative every round it’s possible the monsters will get two rounds of attacks in a row before the PCs can take a turn. This is unfair because it means the PCs cannot heal before the monsters get to attack again.

I blinked several times as I read this comment as it was the first time I can ever remember hearing something like this. In combat healing in old school games has always been very rare in my experience. TSR-era healing spells require the cleric to touch the person to be healed in most cases. Healing magic that works at a distance is rare. In games I’ve ran and played in, clerics healed between combats unless a party member was obvious about to die or something rather than both give up an attack (perhaps more than one if they have to move to the victim to touch them). Healing potions could be taken in combat, but they were always costly and requiring one not to be in melee combat to grab, open, and take safely.

I can see why some would object to rolling initiative every round as it does mean that sometimes one’s enemies will get two back-to-back sets of attacks. Of course, it also means that sometimes the PCs will get two back-to-back sets of attacks before their opponents can respond. Real life combat is seldom neat and orderly and rolling initiative every round helps prevent it from being too orderly in the game.

I’m curious about in combat healing in other old school D&D (or D&D-like) games, however. I’d like to hear how often clerics or other healers cure people in the middle of combat in your games.

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6 Responses

  1. I am a longtime Old School DM, and I have rarely seen healing magic used during actual combat. The clerics are usually too busy fighting. I have sometimes seen clerics pause during combat to cast spells like bless or protection from evil, but very rarely cure spells.

  2. Ripper X says:

    That is some crazy whining there! "I don't like to lose initiative", well who does? I let my players handle the healing, it isn't my job, but I have noticed that if the players believe that they are going to get into some serious trouble, they will have the fighters up front, while the cleric hangs back to just keep the front healthy, but they've got to protect him when he's doing his touch spell.

  3. I've frankly never been clear on why initiative is necessary or desirable at all. It just makes running combats confusing.

  4. Dixie Yinzer says:

    I had never thought of this aspect of old school play, but now that you think of it, I recall that healing during battle was rare in the old days. When I played AD&D 1st edition, we used a rule we picked up from Judges Guild that allowed us to bind wounds if we needed to, which gave us back 1d4 hit points from a round of treatment. It was battlefield first aid. I don't recall players complaining then about the lack of availability of magical healing. You know, I started with group initiative until I noticed in AD&D 1st edition that high Dexterity gave bonuses to reaction, or initiative. I started implementing that. Even today, while I might give players individual initiative, I group monster initiative rolls together by type, etc. So, if I have 8 hobgoblins, a 3rd level rogue, and a 5th level wizard, all my hobgoblins roll a single initiative check, the rogue rolls a separate check, and the wizard another check. It is way too messy to run combat when all 8 hobgoblins have to make check. You know, in the old days, players never whined about fairness, but I hear a lot of player whining about what's fair, suspecting that their GMs are trying to screw them than I ever did 20-30 years ago. I get accusations of GMs being bad GMs because things didn't go the players' way, and players threatening to quit games. It never happened in the old days. Is it a matter of players' entitlement or what?

  5. Yes. This is one of the clearest differences I’ve noticed between old school games (both BITD and when playing old school games today) versus some of the newer games. And in any case, healing in the middle of combat, except in extreme circumstances, strikes me as really weird.

    As a complaint against initiative, though, it makes no sense. Not liking that one side can act twice in a row, sure…but there’s nothing about in-combat healing over other actions that makes it significantly worse.

    I have no beef with cyclical initiative, rolling each round, or no initiative. I can see having a preference, but I’m not convinced any one is superior.

    Now, I do find group initiative better than individual initiative. I find it encourages the group to work together more, and it minimizes the need for hold or delay actions when the situation dictates an order that is different from individual initiative order. Yet even there I can see that the milage may vary between groups.

  6. JB says:

    This is so ridiculous (both the complaint and the reason) that I find it difficult to think of anything constructive/positive to say. The person making it must be a 4E player (where combat healing is an element of tactical game play in an edition where everything is geared towards fights).

    Even in 3E, most acts of healing would provoke acts of opportunity, negating any advantage provided by individual initiative. Clerics (etc.) that might perform an act of healing in my old AD&D games was usually making a sacrifice to do so…when being bested by opponents it was always smarter to retreat and regroup rather than worry about getting a cure spell in the beginning of a fight.

    Any person who really carries this as a gripe would br extremely uncomfortable in my B/X games.