Unearthed Arcana Our Group Tried Unearthed Arcana: Greyhawk Initiative


First Post
My Wednesday night group I DM for gave Greyhawk Initiative a try as they entered White Plume Mountain. I warned everyone ahead of time that I was interested in trying this, and initially everyone was on board. When we got to the table, I could tell there was a little pushback and the idea of not having the widest range of flexibility at all times was disconcerting at first. But everyone was a sport and agreed to try it at least once.

The way I handled it was I made a number of index cards labeled with numbers ranging from 1 to 8. At the beginning of each round I would count up from 1 until a player would raise their hand and indicate their place in the initiative and I would hand them a card. This seemed to work well and I wouldn't say we experienced a significant delay in the game.

Part of the reason for this, at least with my players who are habitual about being indecisive, is that the wide range of infinite options for what to do on a turn was reduced. Having to act within the range of choices made at the start of initiative seemed to help the players that generally take longer to make a commitment to their course of action.

It also seemed to make my players pay attention more. There is often a lot of individualistic thinking with my Wednesday group, which I think is natural to happen when initiative is fixed. It is common for players at this table to ask for a recap of what has happened since their last turn. I didn't experience this happen once while using this initiative system. The players themselves were communicating to one another about what was happening (rather than relying on me to give the description over again) and creating interesting scenarios of collaboration. This made me feel like the players were more engaged and adding something to the story and the action.

It created some dynamics that I do not think the players were even aware of. I had a situation where the warlock was standing stationary in the corner of a room, using eldritch blast in conjunction with his repelling blast cantrip, pushing a creature back 10 ft. with each strike. This resulted in the fighter missing out on a turn due to not rolling a d6 for movement. Simultaneously, it forced the enemy to start rolling a movement die in anticipation. In this one example, we have the fighter now learning (and caring about) his comrade's style so he could adapt to it in the future, and it put a hindrance on the enemy by forcing it to potentially be delayed in future rounds.

From the DM side, I think I would want some modifications on how enemy initiative is determined. The most I ever had to roll initiative for during this session was two, and I think that may have been my limit. My worry is that if I was handling any more than this that I would get lazy in determining the actions the monsters would take in combat for the sake of efficiency, resulting in a diminished challenge for the players. If monster initiative could be reduced to a single die per creature, this would be more feasible for me.

I would be interested to see how this system would heighten the drama of a fallen character. I see players metagame medicine checks and healing all the time due to knowing where an unconscious character is in the initiative. This system, I imagine, would add a little bit of suspense to the possibility of death.

My players had a lukewarm impression of it. They would like to try it again, but I can't say they were blown away by it. It bears mentioning that none of them have ever played anything besdies 5e, so they do not appreciate the nostalgia that this system is trying to evoke. I think the intention or rationale for the system is a little archaic for people who haven't experienced D&D Basic or other systems that use another initiative model that brings change each round. For example, one of the players was questioning why a ranged attack was assigned a d4 and a melee attack a d8. 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.

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.

I write about my experience with this system more here: http://www.twentysidestoeverystory.com/2017/07/greyhawk-initiative-in-action.html

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