D&D 5eGreyhawkReviews

UA: Greyhawk Initiative Breakdown

Several weeks ago in Twitter, Mearls explained a variant initiative system that he had been playing round with, and today in Unearthed Arcana, he has explained it in full so that people will stop arguing about a piecemeal presentation of it. Just to get this out of the way, I disliked it in its initial presentation, but assumed there were some safeguards in the system that I didn’t know about. It turns out that there’s one safeguard I didn’t know about, but otherwise it’s what he originally presented. I do not recommend this for anyone, unless what you like on your turn is the frustration of invalid actions. Um, spoiler for the rest of this article, I guess.

The Core of the Idea

At the start of each round, characters decide what they’re going to do, declare it, and roll the initiative dice appropriate to the action. Actions proceed from lowest roll to highest. The d4 goes to missile fire, followed by movement, swapping gear, and miscellaneous actions with a d6, followed by melee attacks at d8, and finally spellcasting at d10. If you’re doing more than one of these, such as moving and attacking, add them together. If you also do something as a bonus action, add that die in too. Resolve all of your actions together once your number finally comes around.

So that’s the first problem I want to dig into. Classes vary hugely in the complexity of their action economy, to say nothing of subclasses. After their first round, barbarians mostly stop using their bonus actions, and ideally don’t even have to move all that much (unless they’ve picked up that first Eagle Totem feature, which is super good but radically changes their gameplay). Missile weapon characters – though not bow rogues, who need to be Hiding fairly often – do great with this. Two-weapon-fighting types, paladins who cast their various smite spells, clerics who cast a bonus action spell and a cantrip, monks who should always be using their bonus actions… these characters take it on the chin with this system, and will usually go very late in a round.

The sales pitch for this whole idea comes out and says that it adds complexity with the intention of creating more drama in each round. I think that really under-sells the amount of complexity it adds, while all of the drama I can see in the examples is “will someone else’s action invalidate my whole plan?” or “did I take on an unnecessary initiative penalty?” Let’s see what some of those complications are.


Who Lives in the Details?

The devil himself, of course. Or possibly an arcanaloth. Anyway, spell durations are the first big issue, since “until the end of your next turn” is hugely variable if you’re rerolling initiative every round. This system constrains that variability by changing “until the end of your next turn” to “until the end of the next round.” That’s functionally a backstop to give you a standardized expectation. Oh, but “until the start of your next turn” becomes “until the start of the next round,” which is a huge difference and nerf to any relevant effects. “Until the start of your next turn” is a way to make sure that all of your allies have a chance to capitalize on it, even if you don’t; this takes that promise away completely.

Surprise works a little differently: you add +10 to your initiative result, and carry the “surprised” condition until the end of the round, but it seems that you do act in the opening round.

Dexterity doesn’t modify initiative in this system, except that high Dex wins ties in initiative, and a number of other initiative-modifying features have special handling to plug into this system. The bard’s Jack of All Trades feature no longer adds half their proficiency bonus to Dex checks for initiative, but reduces your die size for any action by one step. Advantage or disadvantage to initiative applies only to the largest die in your initiative pool.

For some reason, the system decides that ranged attacks are simple or fast, while everything else is complicated or slow. Considering slings, firearms, and heavy crossbows are all ranged attacks, I have a real hard time seeing this – after all, if we’re trying to simulate things, shouldn’t we simulate reloading? What I’m trying to say is, missile weapons getting to be fast doesn’t make sense to me overall. This presumes a particular starting state for a character in a round that is strangely different from the starting state of a melee attacker. Do you start the round ready to do the very last step of the attack, or do you start the round just beginning your windup and aiming? I’m emphatically not a serious simulationist, but given the likelihood of no enemy in range to attack, splitting melee and missile attacks into two separate options blocks off one avenue toward making sure you can do something.

The Ready action, and readied actions, are not part of this system, but Delay comes back in. If you want to give away the benefit of a good initiative roll, the system lets you, and you can treat “someone else is juuust about to act” as a trigger for you to act instead. Used properly, this is… super annoying, please use this only sparingly.

If you can’t act because you’re incapacitated at the start of the round, any effects that resolve at the end of your turn (such as saving throws to purge conditions, or death saves) resolve at the end of the round instead. This is a net benefit to the side with more healing, giving the cleric just a touch more time to save your butt.

There’s also special handling for situations where one creature chooses another creature’s actions, as with dominate effects.

Groups of monsters of the same type that are doing the same thing use the same initiative, which helps a tiny bit. As events unfold and their actions differentiate more in response to player actions, well, complexity expands.

Obviously – so obviously that I mention it only for completeness – this system adds another decision-making and die-rolling step to combat, and any time it saves in decision-making later on, it expends (and then some, I expect) on the players planning and making their decisions for the round.


The Takeaway

Any initiative system that requires two and a half pages of text to explain, and to cover problematic use cases, is pretty overcomplicated. See also the egregious case of AD&D 1e initiative rules, broken down into gruesome detail here. Mearls cops to the fact that it’s way more complicated than a lot of groups need, both in the document and in the Dungeon Life video. Listening to Mearls talk about the system and how he’s thinking about design in the 5e space is fairly compelling – and revealing.

Mearls talks about this system testing well with his home group and at GaryCon, including a staggeringly large group of 16 players. His verbal explanation of how it works when he uses it differs from what’s in the document, though. He talks about announcing the first monster initiative, asking who goes before that, and letting everyone under that number resolve actions collectively. That’s… not well supported in the text, and creates a lot more maneuvering room to make sure players don’t get stuck with no available action.

The examples in the document display a lot of the system’s rougher edges, even lampshading them, and I appreciate Mearls not pretending those issues won’t come up. The main problems are that:

  • Some classes always have a more expensive action economy than others.
  • You’ll often add a d6 to your pool for the privilege of moving, and turn out not to need it.
  • When you don’t add a d6 to your pool for the privilege of moving, you will absolutely need it. Since you also didn’t plan ahead to swap your weapon, you’re just SOL.
  • (What they don’t mention: disarming effects are super-powerful because you probably didn’t add a d6 for the Swap Weapons or Scramble Around Picking Up Your Weapon.)

For me, it’s the third of these that is the total dealbreaker and why I would never run this system or play in a game that used it. The tension of wondering if my action will just be invalidated by someone else’s action before I can act, and I can’t change my plan to fit… yeah, no thanks. There are plenty of ineffective rounds already in D&D – attacks miss, targets pass their saving throws against cantrips, whatever. A system where I’m fairly likely to get an Action Invalid – Try Again Later response bothers me enough that I can’t see past it to what anyone likes about this system.

Mearls does say one thing about the system’s less-intended effects that I find interesting, at least. He describes players making and executing a plan rather than operating as individuals; that’s a wash to me, because that means I need to be ready to cut off one player quarterbacking one or more others, without the consent of the latter. (With consent, it’s basically fine. Without, it’s ugly social pressure from someone with self-asserted tactical or system mastery.) That’s not the intriguing part.

He says that this makes each round into a discrete microfiction. Instead of rounds working as a flowing cycle, there’s a full stop that gives players a chance to huddle. Because they talk, they make more connected plans. New stakes get more clearly established, as the end of the round acts as a snapshot. His example is the drama of a monster critting the wizard, the wizard being in dire need of help… and the monster acting again before anyone can do anything about it, because it rolled well on initiative, they rolled poorly (and probably had to move to do anything useful), and boom, dead wizard. (Did you notice a sign on this sarcophagus that said “Dead Wizard Storage”?) This is dramatic, sure, but I’m not sure the drama of the wizard’s allies never having a chance to react is great for things like player agency. The more of the system that he touts, the more his examples rest on inducing players to roll more initiative dice or waste actions to make sure someone acts quickly.

At least he isn’t planning on pushing this into the core of the system. He’s talking about a lot of future UA articles being essentially similar blocks of variant rules or subsystems, rather than new content bundles – so more like the 3.5 UA rather than the 1e UA. I’m great with seeing Unearthed Arcana function as a hacker’s workshop, even if not everything is quite my deal.

Now, I also spent a bunch of time talking about initiative recently, over in Harbinger of Doom. My variant approaches are a hard march in the opposite direction from what Mearls is offering here. If you agree with my take on Greyhawk Initiative, maybe you’ll find something more to your liking in my blog.

One last thing – since I first came to D&D during 2e, I’m deeply amused to see my old friends and interlocutors, Rath, Rupert, and Delsenora, in text once again. Hey, y’all, it’s been a long, long time. Glad to see you’re still trying to kill that fucking troll.

  • Manos Ti

    Although the initial idea behind this is really nice, the way it is translated into rules is not that good. Too complicated, plus the game was initially structured over the original initiative system.

  • Ricardo Almeida

    Yeah, I’m with you. Unnecessarily complicated, convoluted and seems (to me) to bring combat to a crawl. Hard pass.

  • Colin McLaughlin

    No thank you.

  • Craig Cormier

    I agree that the problems pointed out are totally valid issues that need to be addressed, but I wouldn’t write off this approach to initiative entirely. Your biggest issue, invalidated actions, can be solved by adding the option to roll additional dice on your turn to switch or add to your action pool. That would add another step, but it would only be complexity added to one player (in my head I imagine that the players would be tracking their own initiative counts, with the DM just calling out the current initiative step).

    So if the fighter’s target unexpectedly steps away he can add 1d6 to his initiative to add a move action and follow, or move at a new target.

    Granted that this article is a review, not a brainstorming or design article. I just think this system has a lot of potential.

    • Unexpected Dave

      If I were to use this system, I would house-rule an option where you can also take any action that uses an equal or lower die than the one you rolled.

      For example, let’s say I’m playing an Eldritch Knight. I plan on moving toward a solitary wizard (who is 20 ft. away) and making a melee attack, so I roll a d6 and a d8 for initiative. Before I act, the wizard casts an ice spell which reduces my movement from 30 to 15. Under Mearls’ rules as written, I would be unable to attack at all this round, as nothing was in melee range. But if I were allowed to use my movement die to swap my sword for a bow (d6) and use my melee attack die to make a ranged attack (d4), I could still do something.

      This allows for the initiative system to account for some actions taking longer to prepare than others, without leaving you high and dry all the time.

    • Shane

      I was thinking the exact same thing as I read this article.

    • crimfan

      That could be really annoying for some groups, certainly one I play with where the players aren’t that on top of where they are in the turn.

      An alternate cure for the “lose a turn” problem would be to provide for some kind of menu of switch out actions that are useful if not amazing. Thus there are consequences for your plan not coming through but you’re not totally busted for it. For instance, allowing a character to use a throwing weapon, move (but not take an attack), drink a potion, second wind (yes this is a fighter thing, but activating a hit die could be a more broadly accessible thing), or activate a cantrip. If nothing else, it would encourage people to carry some throwing daggers!

  • Unexpected Dave

    I’d give it a try at the table before dismissing it completely, but it definitely looks like something that would just aggravate my players without really making the game more fun. I like the added chaos that the system would bring, but I know that most of my players would be frustrated by having to change their plans on the fly, and especially by losing their action entirely.

    I like that it forces players to have some idea of what they’re doing before the round starts, but I’m not convinced that the system would necessarily guarantee the kind of collaborative action-planning that seems to go on at Mearls’ table.

    A recurring problem at my table is that one player takes a really long time to select her actions. This system has players choosing twice as often (a general idea when they roll initiative, a specific decision when they act) which seems like it would really slow things down over the course of an adventure.

    All in all, the system seems like the quintessential house rule: something that works well and is tuned for one particular group, but would need more fine-tuning to achieve the desired effect from any other group.

  • Shane

    “A system where I’m fairly likely to get an Action Invalid – Try Again Later response bothers me enough that I can’t see past it to what anyone likes about this system.”

    Here’s the thing: there’s a subtle disconnect between the game world’s verisimilitude and the game’s actual playability. Everyone is, I think, aware of this on some level, even if they’re not conscious of it.
    The disconnect manifests in the form of the game world’s verisimilitude resting on a premise of symmetry between the PCs and the NPCs, whereas actually playing the game manifests in an asymmetric consideration for the PCs (well, actually the players) and not the NPCs.

    What this means is that (for a lot of players) there’s a necessity for the game rules to create a world wherein the PCs aren’t necessarily better than anyone else, at least in a way that can’t be explained by an in-world explanation (e.g. you were born and raised to be extremely healthy, maybe you’re a tad luckier than other people, you’re a voracious reader, you have an unusual gift for magic, etc.). Moreover, this comparison tends to be heightened in terms of adversarial confrontations. While you might have different abilities than others, due to considerations of class and level (for example), the overall tactics and strategies employed should work just as well against the PCs as against the NPCs if there’s no reason for them not to. In other words, if cutting off someone’s actions in combat before they can take those actions is a great strategy for winning, then it stands to reason that NPCs will leverage that as much as they can.

    The problem is that, from a game-play perspective, while the PCs are likely to have no problem utilizing such a tactic against the NPCs they fight, they’ll find it boring and frustrating when it’s used against them. This is typically seen as a problem because the NPCs aren’t people, whereas the PCs are the extensions of the players. As such, PCs will make use of effective tactics that lock down enemies, deny them their actions, etc. but loathe it when they’re subject to those same tactics. The asymmetry is being applied under the idea that the game is about fun, not fairness, and it’s not fun for the players if they can’t do anything after waiting to take their turn.

    This particular disconnect has been a longstanding point of division in the gaming community, as some players prefer that the former be emphasized, whereas others prefer the latter; this typically manifests as Old School (in-game verisimilitude) vs. New School (don’t deny the players’ agency). There’s a reason why Mearls calls this “Greyhawk” initiative, and said it played so well at GaryCon.

    • That’s all true, though Mearls hasn’t mentioned any cases of players capitalizing on this. He also doesn’t touch on the fact that few monsters use bonus actions, while many PC classes rely on them heavily – tending to position PCs later in the round than monsters, as with Rupert in the example. I guess what I’m saying is: you’re right, monsters and PCs fight differently, and this system intersects poorly with that fact, in my view.

    • crimfan

      His players haven’t capitalized on it….

    • crimfan

      I very much agree with regards to lose a turn abilities against PCs. A little “lose a turn” for players goes a long way. A bit here and there to really threaten the PCs is fine, but man there’s nothing to piss a player off like having their PC stun-locked for the majority of a combat after they’ve flown 1000 miles for a once every six months game with the college pals. (OK that player was me but I’ve seen a similar reaction from others.)

      Because the action economy really matters for some PCs and less so for others, this is a massive issue with the “Greyhawk Initiative.”

  • This wouldn’t be such an immediate write-off to my Sunday group (for at least a one session trial of it) if we weren’t using Roll20 for our games. It’s already pulling teeth to get tactical coordination with everyone talking over each other, and the very *prospect* of losing an entire round because of circumstances would be tantamount to asking my group to go back to using THAC0 and adding save-or-die poisons back into the mix.

    I am flummoxed in how Mearls’ game group enjoys it, but hey, some people juggle geese.

  • I have no issues with initiative, especially playing on Roll20 with the tracker. So many other places I would tweak.

    With kids, I’ve just gone around the table and then monsters go last. Just like a board game, you can even start with youngest.

  • Drow

    I still think I’d want to try to play under this system, even if there’s no way in hell I’d want to run it; it’d be a nightmare to coordinate among the players, and I’d be even more tempted than usual to DM-fudge to avoid situations like the wizard reactionless insta-death scenario. It’s got a strangely video game feel to it, kind of like setup-fire-and-forget tactical game ala Deadlock or Dominions (mostly non-RPG, but it does also make me think of the distinction between Phased and Continuous combat in Wizardry 8 and its variable initiative). I’m not so sure how many more actions would necessarily be invalidated than under the regular init system, since I thought that “can decide to move/swap items when its your turn” option was standard (though then, why would anyone decide to move at the start?), and I don’t necessarily see anything wrong with the ranged attacks being faster (you’re presumably not dealing with adjacent distractions like in melee, and crossbows are already limited to one attack/round by the Loading property).

    In fact, the system actually addresses something that’s bugged me about initiative from a verisimilitude perspective for a while: how does everyone react so fast? Not even talking reaction actions, just normal, bonus, and movement. Since every turn exists as a discrete packet of time, it doesn’t matter if you’ve engaged one enemy that’s suddenly no longer relevant; if your teammate blasts them away right before your turn, doesn’t matter, since time doesn’t start for you until your turn. There’s no suddenness to the situation, no need for you to regroup, adjust your thinking, etc., just pick up and move all the same. Sure, it’s possible, and there are literary examples of high-dexterity characters with legendary reflexes to react instantly to change (I keep thinking Gourry Gabriev, for some reason), but it’s part-and-parcel of any D&D character.

    Granted, there’s no way to simulate those characters under this system either (since Dex plays next-to-no part), I’m hardly looking for perfect verisimilitude anyway, and it looks like it takes extra houseruling work just to get rid of the potential headaches. So eh, just idle musing. Like hell am I going to try to make it work.

  • crimfan

    The more I think of it, the less I like it for many of the reasons you list out.

    I’m still running a heavily house-ruled 2E after all these years, and this is the system we ended up settling on, when we aren’t fighting the “wait, which system are we playing now?” with it.

    -Reroll every round.
    -Low is better.
    -Every round roll D10-Dex attack modifier, so someone with an 18 Dex rolls D10-2, etc. Some characters or creatures roll a D8 or D6, similarly modified by Dex. One character, a lawful neutral extraplanar, always gets a 5 and I occasionally mess with monster abilities to represent themes with their initiative die in other ways.
    -Ties are broken by Dex modifier.
    -Weapons do not have speed ordinarily (though the DM might impose one due to circumstance).
    -Spells take 1 initiative tick to cast per level (more or less, some vary), meaning you often need to plan for your big guns. Spells can be disrupted by damage so you can attack a caster while they’re casting. Most casters want to have a device as a backup as a consequence and non-casters often do things like step in the way to take a hit for a caster.
    -Half movement is part of your action. If you want to move twice that’s your action.
    -Extra attacks due to high level fighter-ness occur at the end of the round but extra attacks due to two weapon fighting, haste, etc., occur on your normal turn.
    -Readying and delaying work pretty similarly to 3.x. Readying lets you interrupt someone else’s action while delaying does not. If you delay across a round, you automatically roll a 1 on the next round’s initiative.

  • Jimmy Deuce

    It occurs to me a variant much like this was already in the DMG to begin with – it uses penalties to the traditional d20 roll instead of combinations of dice. I like that one rather better, not least because, if I recall correctly, it doesn’t place any restriction or penalty on moving in combination with your action, so you’re much less likely to just lose your declared action. It does have higher variance, in general, being always a single d20 with modifiers for everyone.

    • Mearls’s commentary on the system makes it abundantly clear that getting PCs to waste (or risk wasting) their actions in combat is a feature, not a bug. Which is, as it happens, the thing I object to most strongly.

  • Sporelord0179

    I think the one rule the system NEEDS is to be able to roll an extra die mid-round.

    The way I’d handle it is that the new die is rolled with disadvantage – that cannot be cancelled out by advantage. So if Rath the dorf fighter is left standing there with bugger all to do after his target ran away he can roll a d6 with disadvantage, add it to his initiative and act a little later. It sucks but way less than sitting around like a dummy doing nothing.

    I read the system and liked it (though wouldn’t) but your breakdown has revealed a lot wrong with it.

    Your point about having a quarterback bully other players into his plan isn’t really a flaw about the system – as someone who has both accidentally been that person and played with people like that I can say that they’ll be causing issues in other places as well.

    I also don’t think it’s really fair that “Some classes always have a more expensive action economy than others.” is a negative of the system. Those classes still have the advantage of doing more. I personally see it more as giving a buff to the simpler classes like barbarian and fighter that don’t really do a whole lot.

    I mean, I’ll never use this but that’s because I always end up playing with newbies anyway.

    One thing I think the system does have in it’s favour as well is that as your dex mod doesn’t (really) affect your initiative it goes a step towards ending the tyranny of the dexterity stat.

    • Insofar as it matters, Mearls has directly rejected the extra mid-round die. He argues that THAT is what slows down play. Given that action denial is an explicit feature of the system for him, he would presumably also oppose adding a new die because it eliminates that feature.

      Quarterbacking is a flaw in this system only insofar as the system sets aside a phase of play explicitly for coordination, and thus creates space for a QB player to dominate the conversation.

      Classes with a denser action economy are often doing more only in the sense that they require more moving parts to do the same amount as other classes do with fewer actions – unless you just want to argue that some classes are outright better than others, which would be a much bigger problem than this system. For example, two-weapon fighting is really, really not better than wielding a great weapon (it has an edge up until 5th level, and then falls behind and never recovers unless you are dripping with magic weapons), but is more expensive on the action economy. Should a two-weapon fighter be slower and less effective to act?

      Reducing the influence of Dex is fine by me, yes.

    • Tim Baker

      While Mearls might not like rolling additional dice with disadvantage mid-round, I think it’s a reasonable improvement. I spent a solid hour talking about this initiative system at a local RPG convention, yesterday — it’s definitely getting a lot of attention in my area’s circle of 5e DMs.