Drive Through Desire - A Discussion of Greyhawk Initiative
This article may appear less than timely. It was originally to be posted on another site, but will feature here instead.
Dungeons and Dragons play is predicated on the idea that we, as players, want to inhabit our characters. 5th Edition is elegantly designed to facilitate players making decisions that they find compelling, and then supporting those decisions through game mechanics. All of this is why I disagree that Greyhawk Initiative belongs in D&D at all.
Why, during combat, do rogue players choose to take actions that we would expect rogue characters to take? Because well-designed rules reward players for actions aligned with the fiction of the game. A majority of a rogue’s damage comes from sneak attack, generated by attacking from a hidden position, or flanking. Thus a rogue player chooses to attack from the shadows, or to fight a distracted enemy. They choose to act unarguably “roguish”. It’s the same reason wizards cast spells and fighters use martial weapons: The mechanics drive players toward acting as their character.
But some rules don’t have fictional analogues. Initiative is a mechanical abstraction to facilitate table play, it doesn’t exist in the story. Nobody took turns in Helm’s Deep. The trap, which defines Greyhawk Initiative, is that placing focus on fiction-less abstractions puts into conflict the mechanical player desires, and the fictional character desires.
Imagine we’re playing the Starter Set Wizard. My fictional desire is to attack with my cantrips, because I’m an evocation wizard, but I can also use light crossbows. With barely +1 to-hit or damage between the two, I can act as my character would without mechanical disincentive. However, if we add Greyhawk Initiative, we see that in choosing to cast spells, I roll d10 for initiative, opposed to d4 for my crossbow. Suddenly, if my evocation wizard wants to maximise her effectiveness, she just...doesn’t casts cantrips. The wizard player is punished for thinking like a wizard.
It's also important to recognise that, in order to avoid this conflict in other areas, Mike Mearls has flattened the balance curve of D&D 5e. Fighters get 2 attacks at the same level that wizards’ cantrips increase damage, which is the same level that warlocks get another eldritch blast. Wizards of the Coast want you to ask "who would my character be?" rather than asking "which class is the most overpowered?". This Unearthed Arcana violates that design.
When designing or implementing subsystems, we must be cognisant of where the mechanical incentives lay, and if they align with fictional actions we want characters to take. Players will gravitate toward more mechanically effective decisions, not because they’re yucky power gamers, but because character effectiveness defines a D&D character’s impact on the story. Asking a player to decide between being an effective part of the game, and playing their character (besides being contrary to 5e design principles) is not a compelling choice. I disagree with Mearls that asking that question betters our games, regardless of any addition of “complexity [...] and drama to combat".