Thursday, July 13, 2017

Greyhawk Initiative in Action

Unearthed Arcana's Greyhawk Initiative

Game design and mechanics are integral to facilitating role-playing and storytelling. The way a system handles initiative is essential because it is what regulates action and explains the order of why certain characters act before others. Some systems like 5e and Pathfinder use the d20 modified by a dex bonus, some use a deck of cards (Savage Worlds), and OD&D has each side roll a d6 and take actions simultaneously as a team. The way an initiative system works has a huge impact on player interaction, team mentality and tactics as the DM narrates the action.

A new Unearthed Arcana article came out this week and introduced an alternative to the standard initiative system. With Original Dungeon & Dragons and 1st Edition, initiative would be rolled each round for both the players' side and the enemies. This gave the game some level of unpredictability as you may end up with the same side going twice in a row. The threat of an enemy getting two rounds of combat in were excruciating. It required a little bit more of a team mentality as well as opposed to the initiative system in current 5e and Pathfinder which seem to promote more individualistic thinking.

 Listen to Mike Mearls discuss testing his Greyhawk Initiative system at Gary Con IX

The key element of the system is that players need to elect ahead of time the type of actions they will perform on their turn. Instead of rolling a d20, players will roll dice based on the actions they choose. If you declare you will move and attack, you will roll a d6 for your movement and a d8 for the melee attack. Also important to note, the lowest number begins the turn; so you can see that rolling a ranged attack (d4) has a better chance of going first than someone electing to cast a spell (d10).

Group initiative from D&D Basic always saw all the players make their movements first, then everyone who was planning to make a ranged attack could do so, then anyone who wanted to cast a spell, and finally anyone who wanted to make a melee attack. The upside to this method was it required players to work as a team. If the party's ranged party members neglected to think about the positioning of the sword wielding fighter, they could eliminate that target and waste the efficiency of their action economy.

The Greyhawk Initiative system also eliminates the ready action and replaces it with the "delay" action. A player can elect to delay their turn until later in the round. This seems to allow some flexibility and the possibility of players working together to set up ideal circumstances. This is sure to please some players who give this system a try simply based on how many times players at Adventurer's League tables have attempted to delay their turn.

The variant rule of spell disruption is another concept that I am interested to see in play:

It isn't even as brutal as spell interruptions were in the past, where you would lose the spell you were preparing to cast and spend the slot. However, I think for consistency sake with the 5th edition rules it would be fair to allow the spellcaster to make a concentration check to see if they can maintain casting their spell. I can already envision a scenario where I am ducking behind the DM screen to evade a flying soda can being thrown by a raging wizard.

When I first read the Unearthed Arcana article about this alternative to the standard initiative system I admit I was dismissive. Rolling every round of combat for every participant sounds like a nightmare that would just result in slowing action down to a halt. However, the more I thought about it I began to wonder if it would be the antidote for something that often becomes a problem at my tables: players not paying attention to the actions of others. Dungeons & Dragons should be a team sport, and I have noticed that players are often asking for a recap of what happened during the round from the DM at the beginning of the turn, which also wastes a lot of time. Maybe it would be worth giving this new system a shot?

Roll for Initiative: White Plume Mountain

I DM a weekly game at Adventure Games & Hobby in Oshkosh, WI. We have been playing through the Tales of the Yawning Portal and we are just about to begin the re-release of the 1979 module White Plume Mountain. My read through of the adventure led me to think that it had fewer combats and more puzzles/traps, so it would be a good opportunity to test drive something new without it creating too much interference with the norm.

What would make you think that?

Dungeon Master Reactions

One positive I found with this system is that it did improve player engagement. Players seemed to pay more attention to what was happening on other peoples' turns and tactics since this was now of higher importance now that turn order was not pre-determined. At this point its difficult to know if this was a result of the system or simply the players being ultra focused to understand and learn something new. I didn't hear as much meta-game talk at the table tonight as I normally do, which is a relief because it is a huge pet peeve of mine.

I do not believe it slowed our game down in any significant way. The system seemed to help my indecisive players who often seemed overwhelmed by the options available in combat. Instead of trying to process everything that was happening and adjust on the fly, they were already locked into certain actions to take. The best they could hope to do is make the most of the choices they made at the top of the order.

Using this system did not alter the actions that my players made in any way, however it did set up a few more interesting scenarios. A warlock in the party was using his eldritch blast to try and keep an aquatic plant with the taste for blood away from the party using the repelling blast invocation. This worked better while as he was at the top of the order to keep it at bay, and forcing it to have to roll movement (d6) die on future turns and slowing them down. At one point, however, one of the creatures became pushed from the fighter who was getting ready to take it down with some melee attacks. With no target, the fighter simply had to delay their action and basically forfeited their turn. Growing pains.

At most, I had two creatures I was controlling while using this initiative system. For me, that felt like my limit. I'm not sure how I could handle more than that and utilize this system to manage enemies. I think with more than two I would feel compelled to have monsters use the simplest actions in order to quickly adjudicate initiative, which would possibly result in not challenging the players as often. I suppose a DM that has incredibly detailed and memorized knowledge of every opponent the players would face could pull this off easily, but for me I need to take a moment to consider how the creature will react in any given situation. Add upon that the layer of factoring in their dice and it would quickly become burdensome if there were eight different opponents on the field.

I'm still on the fence about the way dice are added for bonus actions. I think I would just rule that all bonus actions regardless if they are for casting a spell, to attack with an offhand weapon, or simply to rage should be a flat d6. This adds to the potential for a higher roll reflecting the additional activity on the turn without getting into the weeds of what the bonus action's die should be.

It succeeds in creating the feeling of the original Dungeons & Dragons game. Action is simultaneous and thus it creates a more dynamic scene than is custom in 5e. It creates unpredictability which increases drama. No one fell unconscious in combat during this adventure, but if a comrade fell wounded at 0hp I can only imagine how different this would feel versus when you can predict when the felled character will make their death saving throws.

**Side note: When I run my Curse of Strahd game this Friday, I will not use initiative at all. The reason being is that I am trying to run a low-mechanics game and focus more on out-of-combat role-playing. When you stop to think about it, you realize how impactful such a mechanic has on the type of experience you will have in the game.

Player Reactions

I could feel some push back immediately as I was explaining how I would arbitrate the system Mike Mearls put forth (as written). I wasn't going to make any alterations before using the system as he wrote it and intended it. We used it and the feeling I received from the players seemed lukewarm. It frankly is a system that is not intended for 5e, and people are often going to have mixed feelings about something new. What I heard underneath some of the comments at my table was that players did not enjoy the feeling of not being able to respond with the same flexibility that they could in the normal initiative system.

I think the intention or rationale for the system is a little archaic for people who haven't experienced some of the older systems. For example, one of the players was questioning why a ranged attack was assigned a d4 and a melee attack a d8. In D&D Basic, ranged went first which had the effect of creating choices that would impact the melee later. They are not rationales that intuitively have answers, they are motivated by game design. An argument could be made that if a system's design causes players to question its logic then it is not sound because it is preventing them from immersing themselves into the fiction of the game.

That being said, just about everyone agreed that it made combat more interesting. My players were more lively during the action scenes tonight than I had seen in a while. There seemed to be more of a story to the combat, at least from my perspective, than had occurred previously. The characters seemed to interact more with one another which helps to create some side stories and bonds that can add something special to a prolonged adventure/campaign.

Final Thought

The system is an interesting one in concept and has a lot of merit to it, but ultimately is it fun for the players? Does it promote tactical gameplay over suspension of disbelief and immersion? I would say after one playthrough using it I am not yet sure the answers to those questions. I guess I question whether it has staying power as a fun way to do initiative. It was entertaining for me to referee and it led to some eventful action. I will definitely use it again for the next session with this same group, but I don't think I will use this for anything less than my most experienced players. One of the reasons I enjoy 5e is the lack complexity, and this certainly complicates the initiative system until one gets the hang of it.


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