Escape or Initiative

In my previous necrology post about Satyavati, Hedgehobbit brought up a rule from The Underworld & Wilderness Adventures regarding when it was appropriate to call for an initiative roll. The situation involved a PC approaching something carefully that they knew to be dangerous, presumably ready to turn and flee at any moment. Under what circumstances is it appropriate for a threat to engage a PC in combat? Hedgehobbit suggested that the rule was if within 20 feet, roll initiative, otherwise compare movement rates to see if the PC can outrun the monster.

The actual text (from page 20 of TU&WA) is:

There is no chance for avoiding if the monster has surprised the adventurers and is within 20 feet, unless the monster itself has been surprised. If the adventurers choose to flee, the monster will continue to pursue in a straight line as long as there is not more than 90 feet between the two.

Distance will open or close dependent upon the relative speeds of the two parties, men according to their encumbrance and monsters according to the speed given on the Monster Table in Volume II. In order to move faster characters may elect to discard items such as treasure, weapons, shields, etc. in order to lighten encumbrance. 

Though initiative is not mentioned explicitly (in fact, as far as I know, initiative is not mentioned at all in the 3 LBBs), Hedgehobbit notes that “no chance for avoiding” does seem to imply that combat rules, whatever they are, become active if those requirements (surprise, within 20 feet) are satisfied. Now, in Satyavati’s case, no surprise dice were rolled (though I suppose that a perfectly still statue suddenly moving could maaaaaaybe be considered surprising) so strictly speaking this rule would not be relevant.

The rule “distance will open or close” is difficult to manage without a grid or doing extra math. I actually prefer Hedgehobbit’s version as originally stated. If a PC is within 20′ of something, the combat rules are potentially in effect. If farther than 20′ away, the pursuit rules are used (movement rates are compared directly).

This would have resulted in the outcome produced by the session, is easy to remember, allows players to reason about risk without introducing certainty, and seems intuitively reasonable.

The 20′ threat range could also potentially be derived from monster movement rates (movement divided by 4, round down maybe) so that faster monsters would be more able to force combat. It might also be reasonable to factor reach into the equation, so that an ogre (with a movement of 9) would have a 30′ threat range (9 / 4 = 2.25 + 10′ for reach = 3.25, round down to 30′ effective threat range). This also makes ranged attacks and missile weapons more dangerous, which is as it should be.

14 thoughts on “Escape or Initiative

  1. Roger the GS

    I resolve most “surprise” situations through logic rather than dice anyway. Usually, the only uncertain element is how alert a being encountered in the dungeon will be at any given moment; the party can be assumed to be straining their awareness when they’re not resting, but vulnerable to an intentionally concealed ambush they don’t spot.

    1. Brendan


      Sometime the situation demands surprise or awareness. But most of the time, I prefer to still allow some degree of chance. Even a well planned ambush can be given away by a carelessly snapped twig (I just adjust the probabilities). This also helps keep me surprised by the outcome as well, which I enjoy.

      For me, I assume that the standard 2 in 6 chance of surprise represents that kind of straining awareness in an unfamiliar environment (assuming things make sense situationally, of course).

  2. Butch

    Now, in Satyavati’s case, no surprise dice were rolled (though I suppose that a perfectly still statue suddenly moving could maaaaaaybe be considered surprising)…

    Normally yes, but he had just seen these statues animate before, correct?

    1. Brendan


      Correct. And there was no check for surprise, we went straight to initiative. Had he won initiative, he would have been able to retreat. If he had lost initiative and the statues had missed, he would have been able to retreat on his turn. If he had lost initiative and the statues had hit but not reduced him to zero HP, he would have been able to retreat on his turn.

  3. Gus L

    Sure everyone’s worried about Satyavati’s death – but what of poor Donkeyteeth, spitted like a pig on the spears of a pack of charging cave savages – without even a chance to respond… and all because of that dastardly old man who only seems to roll 30’s and 1’s. Donkeyteeth, AC 7, HP 2 RIP. His dreams of sacrificing stolen gold drenched in the blood of it’s owner to the Rat Goddess on the night of the new moon never to be realized!

    Seriously though I continue my opposition to over analyzing these sorts of deaths – LBB combat is brutal, everyone hits all the time, and many blows are lethal. Satvayati was an outlier in that he was trying to do the right thing, but so was poor teeth, hiding in the back of the party plinking arrows.

    A hard rule about these sort of things only encourages whinging and a lack of the proper Vancian (Cudgel comes to mind) shrug at character death. If the GM is trusted to be fair, this things need to be ad hoc – does 20′ work with all creatures, or all situations. The combat is so abstract that random determinations and GM fait seem the best way to resolve these things.

    1. LS

      The Order of Gavin demands a full investigation into the death of Donkey Teeth.

      While I agree that LBB combat is is brutal, I would disagree that these posts are an exercise in over-analysis. I don’t think anybody in the group thus far has been upset about a character death, but it’s still a big deal. Even if it is common.

      Doing a post-mortem analysis is a good way to ensure you’re running your game fairly.

    2. Brendan


      Personally the combat deaths seem less ambiguous to me. What I’m really interested in is the interplay between clues and danger, especially for deadly traps (ambushes and such fit also).

      I think you’re probably right about an appreciation of ad hoc rulings. Any other direction lies the danger of looking for a “comprehensive” system, something that I think is never really possible and only adds layers of technical language. That makes a game less approachable and slower at the table.

      I think these necrologies are useful though, even for direct combat, because they help me evaluate how I design challenges.

    3. Gus L

      I like the necrologies – I am just distrustful of a 20′ zone of danger idea.

      It seems inorganic, like in stealth first person shooter games where the baddies have a radius of action.

      Sure as a general rule “20′ you can run” seems ok – but codification is risky. What about floor conditions? Leapy beasts like dogs and bullywugs?

      Also drunk posting and I really wanted to type “but what of poor donkeyteeth!”. A death I feel was totally cool btw.

    4. Brendan

      By the way, I’m almost done with the “servant of the elder gods” class. Oh well. Maybe another character will get a chance to use it.

      Re: 20 feet, yeah that would just be a guideline (subject to movement rate, reach, situation, etc). More like something to indicate to the referee when to allow immediate escape rather than a law that players would have recourse to, if that makes sense.

    5. Gus L

      Totally maked sense – I personally think ilder editions of d&d are at their weakest when they get simulationist/wargamey and demand fiddly math. Movement rules are where this happens most. I try to avoid them.

      As to servants of the elder gods – still gonna need one…I hope

  4. -C


    This is the most important blog post this week. (Not entertaining non-sense about pathetic things)

    I think the issue here is one of perception of the players. If I am in a brightly (wal-mart) lit room, and am approaching two statues that I know and am planning for them to activate, then I should be able to flee.

    A dimly (torch-lit) chamber of 1500 square feet (larger then most lower-middle class houses!) with statues flanking me as I’m attempting to explore?

    The general ‘old-school’ consensus every time I’ve seen a document talk about noise, pre-1985 was that monsters, especially constructs, undead, and oozes were completely silent.

    Would I have called for an initiative roll? Yes. It’s not surprise (he knows the statues are coming alive possibly) it’s a test to determine if he has the initiative. Literally. Does he see them move so he can flee, or do they move up and engage him before he has an opportunity to.

    The abstract nature of the situation clouds our ability to see clearly, but there are many explanations for why he might have lost initiative as there are people willing to think about it.

    Also @ Gus: I don’t enjoy the posts as a player trying to get an edge or as a morbid DM reveling in death. I’m interested in how to present interesting choices with risk to players in such a way that the game remains a challege.

    1. -C

      I mean, seriously. My goal when the player dies during the exploration phase is for him to say “How could I have been so stupid?!” taking completely responsibility for his bad decisions.

      Making sure you are DMing from the correct stance is key to insuring that happens.

    2. Gus L

      -C: I know Brendan isn’t a killer GM – it’s one of the things that keeps a core group of Pahvelorn players coming back for high lethality lbb. Gad we seem to lose folks every delve.

      Players like this as well but a huge part of the campaign is that there’s major modding going on. In this case I personally distrust hard rule on initiative /fleeing. Initiative is very susceptible to meta game arguments as both really abstract and super important. Complicating it with bonuses and rules is dangerous – at some point it’s rules are “cause GM says so” and that’s ok.

  5. Hedgehobbit

    In Chainmail (pg 25), melee is resolved whenever miniatures approach within 3″ (30 ft) of each other. In OD&D, this appears to be reduced to 20 ft and Holmes mentions the melee range as 10 ft. With newer editions, the melee range is usually 5 ft, or one square over.

    I’ve heard that miniatures weren’t used before 1976 (as they weren’t available at the time). Without miniatures, having an abstract “melee zone” is the best way to handle the situation as you don’t really know the exact location of individual characters. As the game moved more towards miniatures battles, you see a switch from 10′ squares to 5′ squares as well as a corresponding increase in the number of tactical rules (tumbling, AoOs, etc) along with the rise of individual initiative. If you treat combat as a mob of PCs vs a mob of monsters, moving the figures one at a time makes no sense.

    As for initiative, In Chainmail it is kinda sorta resolved with a 1d6 roll. But this initiative only determines movement order (with the winner deciding to move first or second) whereas the order of strikes in melee combat are decided by a different set of criteria (charger wins unless defender has longer weapon or is higher). Plus, there is an option of using written orders instead of a die roll with orders being resolved simultaneous. This method is similar in function to the “statement of intent” resolution system.

    I contend that the original rules were written with the assumption that the DM would use the “statement of intent” system of resolution and the DM would adjudicate movement of the PCs and monsters by comparing their intentions and coming to a logical conclusion (so, in effect, initiative has no bearing on movement). It also appears that gamers in California used a more tactical initiative driven system which is why you see house rules showing up there (CalTech’s Warlock and the Perrin Conventions).

    I don’t think one way is better than the other, I’m just trying to explain the lack of initiative and tactical movement rules in early TSR games (forex OD&D, EPT, Metamorphous Alpa).


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