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Just DM'd my first ever non-online game. We had an absolute blast, 10/10 would play again, but keeping track of initiative in combat was terrible. I had chosen to just list their character names (and enemies) in order on a single index card but they couldn't see it easily and I kept forgetting who went next. Plus, I had to rewrite it for each new combat bit and it felt like it took too long.

I'm used to roll20's turn order feature where you can easily advance the order and have a nice highlight on who's supposed to go next. I like that it's visible to all players, and how easy it is to remove monsters when they die.

I'd like to find a way to simulate that feature at the table for easier combat. I want to limit the technology at the table, since I want to keep the focus on the roleplay and would rather they weren't all on computers.

Based on your personal experience playing, what (preferably low-tech) method of tracking turn order can be used to streamline the initiative process?

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    \$\begingroup\$ Reminder: Answers are here expected to be backed up by experience (your own or someone else's) describing how the particular solution has worked out in actual practice, per GSBS principles. Answers that do not cite experience are not acceptable and may be removed. We can come up with all kinds of "maybe try this" solutions from our seats, but RPG Stack Exchange is interested in collecting solutions that demonstrably work, and "here's how it worked out at my table" is an important differentiating factor. \$\endgroup\$ – doppelgreener Jan 16 '18 at 14:46

22 Answers 22

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Our group writes the names on pieces of colored paper, about half the size of 3x5 index cards. These are folded in half and the names of each combatant written twice upon the card, so that it forms a little tent, with the name readable from either side. When initiative is rolled, the cards are placed in order straddling atop the DM screen, shoved over to one side. As each person or monster takes their turn their card is slid across to the middle, and after that to the far end. At the end of the round, all cards are slid back.

With this system, everyone can see whose turn it is and who is next up.

If the DM is feeling fancy, he will use a different color for PCs vs NPCs.

This method could be adapted by using a long narrow piece of paper with all names written evenly across it and a marker such as a poker chip moved along it, but the card method is much more visual and easily adaptable on the fly. If more monsters show up in the middle of the fight, they can be inserted in initiative order.

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I recently saw an excellent post by Matthew Colville on Twitter and use a slightly modified version of this system. It consists of a dowel rod and clothes-pins with names written on both sides for the players and clothes-pins with colored stickers (Walmart link) for the baddies and NPCs. Everyone can see the order and it's very expandable for use with minis.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Our group uses the card method, but this is a very nice adaptation that makes all the prep time worth it. A small charm or key ring hanging off the current actor would make everything obvious to someone returning from the kitchen. \$\endgroup\$ – Rache Jan 15 '18 at 21:25
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My groups usually use a wet erase mat or a whiteboard as a battle mat (grid optional). We always write the names1 of the characters or monster identifiers in the initiative order on the mat itself. If the game allows for changing that order, we might leave more space or just erase and rewrite if it changes.

This method is highly amenable to changes, such as adding/removing groups as they join or retreat/die. It's also clearly visible to the group as a whole. Most of all, it allows the DM to foist off initiative tracking to some players, so he can spend time looking up monster stats or finding appropriate character models cough legos cough cough.

1 Or, in the game with an illiterate barbarian character, draw pictures. This comes highly recommended.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ +1 My group uses the same: a small whiteboard, with abbreviated names. It's also someone elses responsibility to keep track of, and the DM will usually say things like "BH rolled 15, G rolled 4 and O rolled 13", where those are typically abbreviated names of monsters (which is fun to guess what we're about to fight). The downside is it can provide meta information about unseen enemies. \$\endgroup\$ – Tas Jan 15 '18 at 4:29
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For my group, I went to the local office supply store and bought a long, narrow dry erase board (of the sort usually used for grocery lists), specifically one with the metal underlayer that makes it magnet-compatible.

I write out the initiative order on the board, then use the magnetic dot that came with it to indicate where the current turn is. You can add additional magnetics if you like -- I ended up getting some colored magnetic dots from Alea that I can write on in wet-erase, so I have a standard set of PC dots.

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For my group, I use folded index cards that sit on top of my DM's screen. The side of the card that faces out has the character name and player name (it's an Adventurer's league game, so it helps everyone at the table learn names quickly).

The side of the card facing the DM has the names, race, class, AC, spell DC (if spellcaster), Background name, Passive Perception, and any special senses if applicable. The cards stay on top of the screen between combats and are moved around as necessary. I have semi-generic "Monster" cards that I use for any NPCs.

I find that the additional information on the card is quite helpful at speeding up combat, as I do not need to ask for AC after every attack, nor the DC when making monster saving throws, I simply inform the player of the outcome, or the result in the case of players having a way of modifying a value after a result (such as the Shield spell).

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I like pre-rolling fights in a notebook. Try to plan out more fights than you actually need. Roll npcs out before you even meet up. Then as players show up have them roll up initiative. Then you can sort fights out (I loved when the PCs talk together, gave me time). Track HP next to each NPC. As they die cross them off.

It doesn't show the players the order but I prefer that. My players tend to plan a little too well when they see the full list.

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You can print cards for your PCs and the monsters you plan to include in the encounter. Then you sort the deck according to rolled initiative. Each turn you take the topmost card from the deck, make a turn and then put the cart in the bottom of the deck.

I didn't skip a turn using the system. It also successfully tracks effects (insert a card with an effect's description and number of rounds, decrease the number when the card is on top). Sorting the deck and rolling the initiative for monsters takes time. It can lead to long pauses before combat, especially when you roll the initiative per creature, and not per creature type. Determining the next turn is instantaneous, as it's just putting the topmost card to the bottom. I like the method because of its accuracy. You can mitigate pauses by preparing decks before session.

You can put monsters' and PCs' stats in the card for quick reference.

There are some videos from The Arcane Library here and here describing this method.

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We use the Pathfinder Combat Pad, Magnetic Initiative Tracker. Pretty cheap, use dry erase markers, and multiple colors to designate friendlies/enemies. Also, you can track rounds and actions easily.

enter image description here

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I've used Popcorn Initiative (a system created by the Angry GM) a few times and it's worked well for speeding the game up. It's fairly simple - everyone rolls as normal and the highest roller goes first. Once they're done they nominate someone who hasn't acted yet in the current round to go next. When you get to the last combatant in the round they can choose from anyone, including themselves.

Spells with a duration measured in rounds count down at the end of each round and expire at the end of the round after they reached zero, not when they reach zero. This means they last slightly longer but that benefits both sides of the combat.

There's a more thorough write up of this initiative system on the Angry GM's website.

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We've used whiteboards to track, writing down the character names and then the result (very similar to Roll20).

We've used Roll20, but on a shared TV screen (not a low tech option, but less tech than everyone having to look at their own screens).

We've called out initiative in a reverse auctioneer style: "Can anyone beat a 20? I've got a 22. Anybody beat a 22? Ok, 22 go first" and then roll down from there.

We've had people put their results (on percentile dice) next to their mini (or between the map and their character sheet).

We've divided people into categories of 1) Before the enemy 2) After the enemy. We don't really care who goes first between the party members and sometimes the DM just has all the enemies roll on one initiative check. Might have two groups of enemies, such as boss and minions. Then a charm/marker for the character/group gets put into their general order.

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If it's slowing down or complicating your game to the point it's annoying you and/or your players then consider not doing it that way.

An easy, and much quicker, alternative is to roll initiatives and then go clock-wise from whoever has the highest. Up to you if you roll individually for all the "enemy" combatants or have one roll for all of them. Arguably the fairest way though would be a single roll.

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The most useful tool I have ever bought as a GM is a very large sheet of clear Perspex. I place it over my table and use it like a whiteboard/battle mat. I can sketch maps, drawings of locations, and write pertinent information on it - including initiative. The value of the Perspex over a normal whiteboard or battle mat is that I can place layers underneath it that I can wipe clean, such as pre-prepped lists of NPCs and stats that I can then just go down the table and jot initiative rolls, then tick off HP as the fight goes on. It's also cheaper than a decent whiteboard - a local glass and UPVC glaziers made it for me (£15). It's cut into 4 tiles so I can transport it easily.

Alternatively, our group sometimes run a hybrid table and Roll20 session when not everyone is physically present. The GM puts their laptop's second monitor onto the TV and everyone can see the Roll20 session, including Turn Order. There is no reason you couldn't do this with everyone at the table, as well - if you want to hide the GM's view, have a player logged in and tasked with being in charge of the Roll20 screen.

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One of the DM's I've played with on multiple occasions used paper plates to keep track of initiative. They were numbered one to however many players we had that session. He would hand the plate with everyone's corresponding place in the initiative order to each of the players, and as they took their turns, they would hand the plates back to the DM. If combat lasted for another round, the plates were passed back out.

This method was simple and effective. The DM kept the plate(s) corresponding to NPC combatants, and each player, including the DM, held their plate up as to make sure there was no confusion among the group. The DM kept a notecard with each of the players names on it, so that he could write down each players number in the initiative count to make sure they got the right plate back for the occasions where combat lasted multiple rounds.

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This answer does not satisfy the requirement of being transparent to the players or obvious when a particular monster has been defeated. However, unlike many of the other methods of keeping track of initiative listed here, which require notecards, whiteboards, or other props, the method I use can be done with any size paper (though it does fit on a 3x5 notecard if you like using them, or on a whiteboard if you want it to be more visible).

First, draw an arrow in the shape of a circle. Start the arrow at the bottom of the piece of paper and go around clockwise. Then, go around the room clockwise and ask for everyone's initiative. Write their initiative just outside the circle, about where their player is actually sitting relative to you, and write their character's name just under that. Then, roll initiative for the monsters/other NPCs you are in command of and record their results at the bottom of the circle. If a player has a companion (such as a ranger) or is responsible for the actions of an NPC that acts on a separate turn, write their name and initiative to the left or right of that player's initiative. If you're having trouble remembering whose turn it currently is, you can put a die, magnet, or another token next to the character whose turn it currently is.

initiative tracker image

(apologies for the horrible mockup)

I find that listing the players in the order that they are sitting rather than their order in initiative helps me quickly figure out who's up next. In addition, putting the names of the characters underneath their initiative helps me commit those names to memory quicker, especially when I force myself to call out the character names when I tell the player it's their turn.

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As a DM, I've always got a piece of paper and a pencil in front of me. When combat starts, I write down each combatant (including enemies) by name, along with their initiative to the left of them and their current hp to the right.

As combat progresses, I record when each character has done their turn my making a tick mark next to their name on the left. So I can immediately see whose turn it is, and when a spell with a limited time is cast, I can record it there and immediately tell when it runs out.

As they take damage, I record their changing hp by crossing out the number and writing the new value next to it, so I always know everyone's current hp.

I've found this is the simplest way to keep track of things in combat.

e.g. my sheet halfway through a battle might look like this:

✓✓✓ 18 korana 12 9 8

✓C✓ 16 Jareth 7

✓✓✓ 13 goblin1 4 1

✓✓✓ 9 goblin2 3

_✓✓ 7 Bob 9 7

_✓✓ 3 goblinchief 7 4

Which tells me we're half way through round 3, Jareth summoned a creature last turn, it's Bob's go, and things are not looking good for the goblins...

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Physical - Notecard:

For this, don't just use 1 Notecard. Get a pack of Notecards and write the names of each creature/swarm involved in the combat on a different card. After you roll initiative, order the cards with whoever is moving first at the top, whoever is last at the bottom, and everyone else in their appropriate positions in between. (If any of the creatures have Legendary Actions, you can include the Legendary Actions as separate "LA: {Creature Name/Description}" cards.) Then, whenever you need to know whose turn it is, just look at the top card of the stack. When their turn ends, flip the top card face-down onto a "discard" stack. This will preserve the turn order for the next round. Once the round ends, flip the stack over and continue as normal. If a creature/swarm dies, remove their card from the stack. At the end of Combat, hand the players back their Character's Initiative cards for them to use during the next encounter. You can then store the cards you made for the enemies for future use, whether in that campaign or another. You can even allow players to personalize their notecards however they want so that it sticks out to them more when their turn appears.

Technological:

Now, I know you said you would prefer a physical method, but if you aren't outright opposed to using a technological method, this may not be a bad idea for you to look into: If you have access to Ren'Py or any other programming software (such as Unity), it's relatively simple to program a Combat Tracker. If you want to get creative with it, you can pre-program npcs and encounters on your Tracker so you don't have to add them during the game, and you can even set it up so that your Combat Tracker auto-rolls initiative. All you need, then, is a way of broadcasting your homemade combat tracker to the players, which can be done via streaming to YouTube, hosting your own little server they can connect to, and so on. Additionally, there are DM-ing apps out there you can download on your phone that include a combat tracker.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ FYI, putting the solution people were looking for first, then following it with something further out of scope, is a more functional formula. Also, I suggest using a # heading for the technological section (which I suggest ought to come second) rather than using a list & take the opportunity to do a paragraph break or two in the physical section. :) \$\endgroup\$ – doppelgreener Jan 16 '18 at 0:17
  • \$\begingroup\$ @doppelgreener That's actually a good idea. I should have thought the ordering through a little better. Thanks! EDIT: Fixed! I appreciate the critique! \$\endgroup\$ – Sora Tamashii Jan 17 '18 at 16:48
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Don't use the complicated D&D individual initiative.

I use a group initiative, the groups being the PCs and the NPCs. The group that initiates battle gets the initiative, if thats not clear roll the dexterity of the fastest PC Vs the fastest NPC.

The order of attack within the group is up the the players, or it is based on the quickest attack, dagger vs long sword, Magic missile vs fireball. Each person/creature of one group goes then each person/creature of the other group goes. You need to use your imagination that the sequence of events would not actually play out that way in a real battle ... but it makes getting through battle so much easier.

  • Problem: It makes battle too choppy .. one side goes, the other side goes. Yes this is problem, it's hard to make an exciting stand off when Player A attacks Creature 1 then player B C and D goes then finally Creature 1 gets to attack the player back (the reaction to players A attack that happened 3 turns ago).

  • Solution: Implement rebuttles. We still uses group initiative but as after player 1 attacks Creature A, creature A can attack player 1 as a rebuttle if its attack will ONLY effect Player 1, otherwise it would attack only after all PCs attacks.

Benefits:

  1. As we go through a turn each individual conflict in the battle is resolved in a series of attacks and counter attacks creating the important attack and immediate reaction to the attack as battle plays out.

  2. All the DM has to keep track of is who had their turn during a given round of battle, no initiative numbers are used.

  3. Players tend to work together better when the sequence of events isn't dictated by initiative numbers, group initiative compliments team collaboration.

Losing the Initiative

When a group initiates a battle they get the initiative, and if all is normal they keep that initiative. But if the group suffers a terrible blow through a critical miss or the other group knocks down your strongest player in one shot the DM could say it changed the course of the battle and the initiative switches to the other group. This is not a concrete rule, its completely up to the DM to decide if a specific "Event" is worthy of switching initiative to the other group. This way the group initiative itself could switch back and forth.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ It provide an alternative to tracking initiative for each pc or npc. \$\endgroup\$ – klm129 Jan 17 '18 at 22:30
  • \$\begingroup\$ OK, I see what you are getting at, please take the tour and visit the help center in any event, as you'll get a nice badge. I made a format edit to make your three bullet points stand out. . \$\endgroup\$ – KorvinStarmast Jan 18 '18 at 1:43
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I use a magnetic white board. It's about 8x10 inches. I've used permanent marker to divide it into horizontal sections of about 1 inch each. About 10 sections total.

Instead of writing on the board itself though, I went on amazon and bought a roll of magnetic tape. I then cut that tape into 1"x2" sections, enough for all the character names and several spares for NPCs/monsters.

I wrote the character names in wet erase (it lasts longer and needs less touchup). I also added their passive perceptions on their tags.

I use dry erase to add their initiative rolls. I use dry erase for the monster tags as well.

Once init is rolled and noted, I arrange the name tags in order top to bottom, characters and monsters. Start at the top, and work my way down in order. Once you have all the prep work noted above done, this is the part that takes the most time (maybe 20 seconds?).

The additional space on the white board is used to track monster HP and status (restrained, poisoned, etc) of the characters and monsters.

On the far right, I have 5 columns that allow me to track action economy (though I admittedly don't use it very often - only when one of the players turns out to want to do a million different things on their turn). A,B,R,I,M = Action, Bonus action, reaction, interact with an object, move

At the end of combat, I wipe the init scores and the names are there until the next combat. I have an easy reference for passive perception right in front of me.

For me this works well. I spend a bit of pre-game time as needed at the beginning to update names (I run an AL game at a store, so I may get new players weekly). Typically, I have the same group, and can go through a campaign (20-25 weeks?) without having to update names.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ Pro tip - dry erase markers work amazingly well to erase permanent marker. \$\endgroup\$ – Carey Sauerbrun Jan 19 '18 at 21:45
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Top Dog Games has stat trackers you hang on your DM screen that you place in initiative order and they also have your players' stats on them. The complete set also has all of the 5E monsters already filled out. You might find them helpful; I sure do.

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The DM writes it on a piece of paper, then looks at it after each player or NPC finished their action.

Also I have tried a system where we take two goes at each round, first the players state the objective that they want to achieve, trying to be less rulesy if none apply, then once I as DM know what people want to happen, we roll the dice as necessary. This way it's obvious that someone has forgotten to state their actions.

Other DM's in our group do the opposite, they do "make rolls" then they state the overall actions in the round in a more descriptive way, although this tends to be over voicechat.

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My suggestion would be to create an initiative token, large enough to add pegs with player names to signify player order and to pass to the active player.

This allows the current player to keep initiative flowing by passing the token to the next active player. This should function very similar to how your tech solution worked.

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I love the concept of pen & paper RPG. It really is great and fun but I'm also a fan of using tools to help an sometimes that means technology. Currently my group plays via the internet but even when everyone came to my place we still used technology to aid the game. I'm a strong believer in using tools. I like rolling dice, and we still do that using Table Top Simulator, but we don't roll everything. IE our DM uses a treasure creation tool that rolls generic treasure out for him. We have our various character sheets in google spreadsheets. Etc.

A spread sheet is an easy way to keep track of initiative. It is just like jotting it down on a paper just more flexible. Use your phone. There are litterally dozens of "initiative trackers" available for android and probably just as many for apple. Some come with health trackers etc.

Find a set of tools that work for you and don't be afraid of using a little technology to help.

With tools like Google docs you can even do things like have initiatives that are put on character's sheet shared to another spreadsheet the DM uses. There are some very clever things that you can do to speed the game up and lessen then pauses caused by things like "Hey who's on a 14 initiative?" or "Oh wait, my initiative is now a 5 because I delayed my attack last round" or other things like that.

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    \$\begingroup\$ I've downvoted this answer because it misses the topic. The question was about physically tracking the initiative order, but this answer suggests two digital methods. \$\endgroup\$ – Murch Jan 15 '18 at 18:31
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    \$\begingroup\$ Welcome to rpg.se! Please take a look at the tour, it's a useful introduction to the site. Stack Exchange is a Q&A site, not a traditional discussion forum, so answers need to focus on solutions to the problem being asked about. If you feel the need to challenge the frame of the question by offering digital solutions for a question about physical solutions, please refer to these guidelines: in particular, please edit your answer to explain how your experience with physical tools leads you to this conclusion. \$\endgroup\$ – BESW Jan 15 '18 at 20:47

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