It was very quickly established that many people are unhappy with this month’s Unearthed Arcana article which introduces Greyhawk Initiative as a possible alternative to normal initiative for you to use in your game. And I agree with those people; if you’re just here for my overall score, I’ll save you an article: it gets a thumbs down.
That said, it will be good for some people, and I have already talked with some who fully plan on using it in their game. To that I say, good for you and more power to you. There are plenty of reasons to not use rules, but just because you’re in the minority of people liking them is not a reason not to implement them, nor should anyone tell you not to.
However, I’m going to run through these new rules and the main arguments against them that I’ve seen, and I’m also going to break down the real issue with Greyhawk Initiative and offer two very simple alternatives.
Rules & Arguments
I’m not going to try and condense what took Wizards of the Coast 5 pages to explain, so instead I’ll grab each part and talk about the problems it presents.
At the get go, they summarize the changes, which include measuring spell durations and effects in rounds rather until end of a specific creature’s turn, initiative changing each round, initiative going from low to high, and the rolling of different dice for initiatives than a d20.
With a variable initiative, the change to make spells last a certain number of rounds makes sense; in theory the wizard can cast a protective spell until the end of their next turn at the end of a round, only to go first in the next round, rendering the spell useless. No actual issues here with this change.
I actually don’t have an issue with variable initiative either; I also play a retroclone of older D&D called Basic Fantasy RPG that uses variable initiative that is rerolled every round, and I think it adds a nice change; however, as I’ll detail later, it is done in a way that doesn’t mess with the game itself. That said, there is a common problem that I hear with new and old players alike: combat moves too slowly. This initiative will only exacerbate that problem as people struggle to remember the rules, and then figuring out the turn order each round.
Initiative Low to High:
Again, there isn’t actually a problem with counting up if that’s how a system works. Plenty of games, particularly d% games, have you rolling under a target number rather than above it, and this in and of itself isn’t an issue. So that only leaves one area left…
Different Initiative Dice:
I want to say, using a non-d20 isn’t a problem for initiative. The aforementioned Basic Fantasy uses a d6 for initiative, for example. In the Greyhawk Initiative system, what die (or dice) you roll depends on what you are doing. Shooting a bow? Only a d4. Casting a spell? That’ll be a d10. Moving? Add on a d6! Ok that’s fine and good… until you realize you have to decide what you’re doing ahead of the round.
Now, logically speaking, this makes sense. A round is 6 seconds, but by the way D&D works you’d think each round was 6 seconds per character, since you can have a chain reaction of people reacting to another’s 6 second turn… all within the same supposed 6 seconds.
But, D&D isn’t designed logically in this way, nor has it been in my experience with any edition. They are saying that this will add a bit of realism to the game and will cause your players to become more tactical. But how realistic is it for your players to stop every 6 seconds, take a time out, discuss an in depth strategy, and then resume? It’s not. When I run my own games, I try to limit my players to talking in character on their turn (or quick replies on others’ turns). This is a heat of the moment battle, and you can only say and discuss so much when an orc is charging at you with a greataxe. Whatever realism you get from wasting a player turn (I’ll get to that) is lost by the start and stop motion of the gameplay and treating the game like it’s a wargame more than a roleplaying game.
This brings me to my final point: No one wants to waste a turn. I don’t know about you, but I don’t sit down to play any medium of game just to watch other people. I will sit around and watch others play when I want to, but when I show up to play, I want to do just that. The problem with having to choose your actions ahead of time, is that you can end up wasting your entire turn, and kind of just stand there doing nothing. For example, if you’re fighting off two orcs in melee, and only choose to attack, you’re not moving or changing. But if the wizard goes before you and catches them in a fireball and kill them? You’re standing there dumbstruck for 6 seconds because you didn’t want to roll a d6, even if there is something else you could be doing. To me personally, it’s not worth the “realism” to pre-decide, and then be able to react to something like that.
As a final aside, you also add a die for a bonus action. That is literally awful and makes no sense, because the point of a bonus action is that it is supposed to be quick enough to happen in the same 6 seconds of a regular action. And it doesn’t explicitly cover (though please correct me if I happened to miss it) what you do in situations where a Fighter might make 3 attacks as part of an action- is that 3 dice or 1 die? If it’s 1, that only reinforces a bonus action being rolled for as inconsistent with the rules.
The Real Issue
Even more than everything above, there’s a bigger issue here, and one that is contrary to all roleplaying games, old school or new, D&D or otherwise: it kills creativity. This initiative system over time teaches you to play it safe when choosing your action. ALWAYS move, just in case. ALWAYS do a bonus action that is a different type than what you have planned, just in case. Maybe don’t try that really risky maneuver because hey, it has a higher chance of being knocked as obsolete before you get to roll dice.
I don’t know about you, but I’ve seen my players’ faces light up with an A-ha! moment due to something that happened right before their turn that became an awesome idea and then an awesome sequence of events right then and there. That’s not worth squashing in favor of a complex initiative system, especially one that will slow things down.
Alternatives & Conclusion
So, with all that said, you might be thinking “Okay, Greyhawk Initiative isn’t for me, but I like the idea of some of what it’s trying to do. What now?” Well, I have two simple alternatives that play off the existing initiative that you can use standalone or together. Neither of these are new concepts; in fact both are simple and discussed quite a bit when the idea of initiative comes up.
First, you can easily just reroll initiative every round, and much like Greyhawk, allow players to delay and insert themselves where they see fit. And depending on how you track, you can do what many game masters do and ask for initiative ranges. For example “Anyone above a 20? No? Ok, 15 to 20. Ok, so Sarah got a 17, then Joe a 16.” And then once they act, you call the next group, run through them, and so on. It saves paper and needing to track it extensively if you don’t want to keep writing it down.
Second, you can roll normally, and then start with the lowest roll. The trick here is players who rolled higher can interrupt and insert themselves after a lower initiative player has declared what they’re doing. Anyone familiar with a game like Magic: the Gathering should understand that this basically becomes a “stack”, with the highest initiative player going first in cases like this and working down, or choosing when to go. This can be combined with rerolling every round to keep one player from interrupting all the run, and basically gives you the essence of the Greyhawk Initiative without that much more work than basic initiative does.
At the end of the day, Greyhawk Initiative is a swing and a miss for me. I’ve seen a mix of reactions from “this seems okay” all the way to “I WAITED A MONTH FOR THIS?!” And although the latter seems like an overreaction, I wouldn’t say it’s unexpected. Wizards has been knocking it out of the park with the last few Unearthed Arcana articles, and also these players are giving their feedback on it (albeit in not the correct fashion, it would seem). I think Wizards would be wise to take this feedback not on just the materials they put out, but on what types of materials their players want. And everyone who plays should remember that Wizards doesn’t even have to do this at all, and we should be thankful for anything they put out, even if we don’t enjoy it, because it means they care and are trying. You don’t always score a critical hit, but that doesn’t mean you berate a player when they miss with an attack.
As a final note, I would have preferred, and would now love, to see something called The Greyhawk Initiative, wherein they overhaul more aspects 5e to be old school in a more holistic fashion. This initiative is entirely out of place in the play style presented in 5e, but if the system was given a makeover to represent that old school feel on a whole, it could fit in quite nicely.
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