Tracking Initiative in Roleplaying Games

Nearly every tabletop RPG in existence has some manner of determining initiative, whether during combat (most often) or even during non-combat encounters, such as interaction or exploration. It provides a useful, fair order of operations that allows every player a chance to act.

Determining and tracking initiative are big subjects; here’s several options and ideas to make it all easy and fast so you can get to the action and push aside the bookkeeping!

Dragon Attacks U - Roll for initiative PLZ

DMs have screens to shield them from the thrown dice when they do this kinda stuff.

Methods of Determining Initiative

Many games rely on “individual initiative,” which means that each player rolls a die or does something to determine where in the order of actions they take their character’s turn. This has several advantages:

  • Initiative can be modified by individual PC characteristics, such as high Dexterity or Speed bonuses, or various class features.
  • The flow of actions — whose turn it is — is clear and well-defined.
  • The GM has multiple points at which he can “insert” enemy initiative order, allowing him to split up enemies by their relative type or speed (Zombies act slowly, for instance, while an Assassin might act quickly).

Some games use “group initiative,” which separates the Player Characters from their enemies. It’s essentially “good guys vs. bad guys,” and while it can create some confusion or chaos (which aren’t necessarily bad in and of themselves), it too has several advantages:

  • Unless the GM is strict about in-character dialog during combat, group initiative is a perfect way to get players to plan strategy with one another, and over time helps them to determine the strengths and weaknesses of the other characters in their group.
  • Determining initiative order, while it may create some discussion, is mechanically much faster to roll, and therefore doesn’t eat into “action time.”
  • Tracking initiative (see below) is much easier to memorize, or write down (if there are multiple groups in the initiative, for instance).

One thing thing that stands out as a problem for some groups — especially for individual initiative, but also in group initiative when featuring a three-way (or more) battle — is tracking initiative.

Tracking Initiative

When you throw computers, smartphones, spreadsheets, beads, post-it notes, and more into the mix, tracking initiative can be a mini-game in itself. The key then, is figuring out what works best for you and your group.

Often, GMs — especially some “old school ones,” but by no means is this limited to them — handle initiative behind the screen, as it gives them the feeling of control over the order of battle, and allows them to keep the “speed” of certain enemies secret. Unfortunately, this methodology requires significant bookkeeping on the part of the GM, and also causes the players to be out of the loop on their sequence in the initiative order, which can generate confusion, or simply distraction.

Figuring Out Your Methodology

Step one is to determine who keeps track of initiative, whether it be the GM or one of the players. Giving this responsibility to a player keeps them focused on the game even outside of their turn, which can be a boon for certain types of players who might otherwise be distracted, or who might selfishly await their turn but not really pay attention to the actions of the other PCs. It offloads some of the bookkeeping, freeing the GM up to only worry about rolling to determine the enemy initiative score(s), and focus on tactics rather than writing notes.

Step two is determine how to then track that initiative order sequence, and that’s where several possible methods come up, described below. While it’s often to figure out what’s best, remember that “best” is completely subjective.

Some groups will want a very visual method of keeping track of initiative, while others want something simple and cheap. Experiment, keeping in mind that you should stick to one method for 2-3 sessions (or at the very least 2-3 encounters) in order to make sure you’ve ironed out the kinks and really experienced a particular method, before moving on to a new one.

Pen & Paper

  1. Sheet of Paper: This is perhaps the simplest. One sheet of loose paper, write everything down in pen or pencil, go.
  2. Pre-printed Grid: A pre-printed grid (graph paper) or spreadsheet could work well, giving you a more “orderly” sheet upon which to write the information. Great if you need designated space for writing down conditions, hit point tracking along with the initiative, and so on.

Index Cards

You’ll see these pop up in several of the other methods listed below, as well. Basically, you can either do a single index card per encounter — which gives you the benefit of having encounter-specific notes in one easily referenced space — or you can do an index card per PC and Monster/monster type, allowing you to shuffle them into order (or to randomize the order), and “tap” the cards (turning them sideways), like in Magic: the Gathering, to denote delayed actions or the like.

Another method is to have index cards with a number on them, from 1 all the way up through 10 or more, and simply hand them out based on the initiative position of the character. So, the highest rolling player gets the #1 index card, the second gets the #2, and so on. The DM may get more than one, depending on how he or she groups the monsters. This method has a side benefit, in that you can forego rolling initiative again in later rounds or battles, and instead simply swap the index cards to everyone’s left, or some other method, thereby ensuring characters with low initiative bonuses might still end up with the #1 card at least a few times.

White Board

  1. Dry- or Wet-Erase Board: These are great because erasing is generally much “smoother” and less messy, allowing you to quickly rearrange the character order, and add further notes (like Hit Point tracking) as you go.
  2. Magnetic White Board: Though they require more stuff — magnets, mainly — you can generally find these setups for very cheap.
  3. Paizo makes the GameMastery Combat Pad (or Pathfinder Combat Pad, or Paizo Combat Pad), and you could also find magnetic dry erase boards at stores like Big Lots for very cheap. I’ve combined the two, buying the Combat Pad’s magnet refresh pack (really cheap on Amazon!) and a cheap magnetic dry erase board from Big Lots.
Paizo Combat Pad

Who doesn’t love doodads and gewgaws?

Props for the GM Screen

  1. Folded Index Cards: You could use index cards, and fold them, writing the character name on both “flaps” and certain other info (Armor Class or other defensive info) on the other. By resting them over your GM Screen in the order of initiative, you now have a method that is visible to all players as well as the GM, and it’s as simple as moving the cards into a new order as things change. It might cover up some info on your screen, though, depending on how big the cards are.
  2. Clothes Pins: One idea (of many) that’s similar to the above, but won’t overlap too much info on the GM Screen itself, is to use clothes pins or something similar with the character/monster name written on them, or colored paper clips, perhaps. Once again, the information is visible to everyone, and takes only a couple seconds to move the order around.

Corkboard & Push-pins

If you have a corkboard handy, as opposed to a dry erase board — or even better, one of those whiteboard/corkboard combination doohickeys — you could use colored push-pins (thumbtacks), or post it notes combined with push-pins, to visually track initiative in a way that’s visible to everyone at the table.

Yardstick

Yet another visual setup is having a yardstick or meter-stick (if you’re not into U.S. standards, which is fine, and more sensible), and using post-it notes stuck to it or the like to track initiative. It’s obvious from the get-go which side is the “beginning” of the round, and it feels almost like a timer, which is useful in games where sequencing can be complicated (AD&D with weapon speeds and casting times “always on”) or has mechanical impact (13th Age’s escalation die is but one example).

Timers may be important to a specific encounter (the volcano erupts on the 4th round!) or to a certain mode of play (Skill Challenges in 4th Edition D&D), and therefore, having a measuring tool handy could have plenty of non-combat utility as well.

Group Initiative, Round-Robin-style

Though not necessarily just for Group Initiative mechanics, round-robin works pretty well, especially if people are seated in a specific order, by character trait scores, perhaps, or for some other reason. It works simply by choosing where to start — at the GM, or perhaps alternating between the player on the GM’s right or left — and working your way clockwise or counter-clockwise around the table. Seating being obvious, tracking initiative order becomes a cinch every encounter.

Electronics

There’s a million and one “combat tracker” programs nowadays — combatmanager.com is one — and if you’ve got a Smartphone or Laptop handy, this can be a fast way to handle things.

Usually, there’s some type of preparation to inputting the information before it spits out an order that you can go with, but many can randomize things or allow you to drag-and-drop characters to new positions on the fly.

Deck of Playing Cards

Over at The Alexandrian — a great resource on RPGs in general, D&D type games in specific — there’s a whole methodology that relies on a standard deck of playing cards. It can be as simple as dealing cards and acting in order based on the value of the card, to adding multiple “draws” for high character trait scores, to a mini-game of assembling poker hands to determine order.

Using a deck of cards can be pretty complicated every time initiative is rolled, but for some games, that’s not too often, and for others, the added layer of chance or strategy can bring a welcome level of abstraction, but with colorful detail that might help solidify the “feel” of a particular game (Deadlands springs to mind).

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neuronphaser is an editor, eCommerce consultant, web producer, and analyst living in sunny Hollywood, CA. He's been playing tabletop RPGs of all kinds since 1985.

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