Mastering Dungeons: #017 - Nonlinear Combat
Mastering Dungeons; on Combat timing


According to D&D lore, a round of combat takes approximately six seconds. In most groups, it typically goes like this;

DM: "You're attacked by four wolves. Roll for initiative. Ok, the Wizard goes first. What do you do?"

Wizard: "I magic missile the closest wolf."

DM: "Great. Roll for damage."

Wizard: "Twelve."

DM: "Awesome. It goes down dead. A wolf goes next. It lunges for the Cleric. *rolls d20* Seven, that's a miss. The next wolf lunges at the Wizard. *rolls d20* Fifteen, hits. The Wizard gets knocked prone, and takes... five damage. The Rogue goes next."

Rogue: "I shoot an arrow at the wolf attacking the Wizard. *rolls d20* Eleven plus two for my dexterity bonus."

DM "Another hit. Roll for damage."

Rogue: "Five."

DM: "The arrow pierces it in the shoulder. It howls but holds its position. The third wolf goes next. It charges the Warrior. *rolls d20* Sixteen, a miss. Its the Warrior's turn."

Warrior: "I swing my sword at the wolf that just attacked me. *rolls d20* Twelve plus three for Strength so fifteen."

DM:"You hit. Roll for damage."

Warrior: "Eight."

DM: "Nice. You cut it and it takes a step back. The Cleric is next."

Cleric: "I cast Cure Light Wounds on the Wizard. Six points."

DM: "He was down five so he back to full. The last wolf attacks. It goes after the Rogue. *rolls d20* Nineteen. It knocks the Rogue prone and he takes... four damage."


I'm not not fan of this linear style of action. Sure its easy to follow and keep track of, but it plays like everyone lines up and takes turns going one at a time. That's not the way combat should be. Melee should be frantic and chaotic and hectic. Everything is happening at once.

Have you ever seen dominoes fall in slow motion? There are several falling at the same time. Some are slightly more upright and some are slightly more tilted, but the point is that there are several in the process of falling at the same time. Combat should be like that.

In our combat example, the Cleric heals the Wizard, but really, the Wizard was casting magic missile and the wolf was attacking him at the same time as the Cleric's action. The Cleric wouldn't have cast Cure Light Wounds because the Wizard wasn't injured yet. 

So I propose a nonlinear "no initiative" combat system. When combat begins, I just go around the table asking players what they do, then describe what the enemies do, then make the appropriate attack rolls, and resolve the round;

DM: "You're attacked by four wolves. Wizard, what do you do?"

Wizard (1): "I magic missile the closest wolf (A)."

DM: "Great. Rogue what do you do?"

Rogue (2): "I shoot an arrow at the furthest wolf (B)."

DM: "OK. Warrior, you're up."

Warrior (3): "I swing my sword at the closest wolf (B)."

DM: "Nice. The Cleric is next."

Cleric (4): "I cast Bless on the Warrior."


See how the battle starts differently? 

I like to make animals attack randomly, so for four wolves with four possible targets I roll 4d4. For example; if I roll 2, 4, 1, 4, that means a wolf attacks the Rogue (2), two wolves attack the Cleric (4) and one wolf attacks the Wizard (1).

We do the Attack Rolls; 

the Wizard's magic missiles always hit, 

the Rogue gets 13 (rolls 11 plus 2 for his Dexterity bonus),

the Warrior got a 16 (rolls 12 plus 3 for his Strength bonus, plus 1 for the Cleric's Bless),

and the Cleric Blessed the Warrior.

And just like the first version, one wolf (A) lunges at the Wizard (1) with a 15, which is a hit,

One (B) lunges at the Cleric (4) with a 7, which is a miss,

Those two still apply in this version, BUT

in the first version, only three wolves got to attack because the magic missiles killed one straight away, AND instead of a wolf attacking the Warrior (3), one (C) attacks the Rogue (2) *rolls d20 for a 14, a miss,

and the fourth (D) attacks the Cleric (4) *rolls d20 for a 17, a hit.

So in this version, the Wizard still gets attacked once (A), the Cleric now gets attacked twice (B, D), the Rogue gets attacked once (C), and the Warrior doesn't get attacked at all. Here's how I describe it playing out;

DM: "The wolves announce their presence with snarls and growls, and the forest erupts in a flurry of bedlam. As a wolf (A) lunges, teeth snapping and spittle splashing, the Wizard launches a magical barrage and missiles of pure energy whip through the air. The wolf (A) slams into the Wizard, knocking him prone and dealing 5 damage. But the magic missiles arc through the air, curving around and returning to slam full-force into the beast. The wolf (A) takes twelve damage, and falls in a heap, dead atop the Wizard.

The Rogue fires an arrow at the furthest wolf (B) which is leaping at the Cleric as he blesses the Warrior. The arrow bites deep into the left shoulder dealing 5 five damage, and the Cleric is able to dodge, only to put himself in the path of another (D) which takes out the Cleric at the  knee and drops him to the ground, prone. The Cleric takes six damage.

The Warrior moves in to swing at the wolf (B) that missed the Cleric, his blade arcing around to slice deep into the creature. The wolf (B) takes 8 damage. It howls in pain but stands its ground.

Meanwhile, the other wolf (C) leapt at the Rogue. The Rogue, concentrating on shooting his bow is caught off guard, but still manages to roll to one side and avoid any damage, and the wolf lands at the feet of the Warrior..."


Round Two-


Can you see how this is very different than just lining up the combatants and having them take turns through the round? Obviously it seems harder to keep track of everything, but that's intentional. You don't want your PCs to have time to think. They can only react to what's happening to them directly. Combat should be frantic, confusing, and disorienting.

You can summarize what happened in Round One, and the PCs get to declare what they will do in Round Two. 

In this "no initiative" version, -both- the Wizard AND the Cleric are injured. Which will the Cleric heal, the Wizard's 5 or his own 6? There is still one dead wolf going into Round Two, but now 2 are engaging the Warrior (B, C) and the third (D) is chewing on the Cleric's knee.

By running each Round as a complete action, instead of in individual sequence, the PCs have to decide their actions independent of each other. They aren't able to wait to see who injures (or gets injured by) which adversary. They can only act based on what they ALL know at the start of the round.

Remember, I love comments, criticisms, suggestions, and even complaints about what I'm doing wrong!

Thanks! Good Journeys!