How to Take Care Of Initiative

Roleplaying Tips Newsletter #0630

A Brief Word From Johnn

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Get some gaming done this week!


How to Take Care Of Initiative

Long ago I put a Tips Request out for the various initiative systems and hacks you use. There was a tremendous response – thanks to everyone who wrote in!

Here are the compiled entries. I tried to edit to reduce as much repetition as possible, but sometimes it’s good to hear the same approach in a different GM’s words.

My hope is you’ll find some ideas below to make your initiative easier and faster.

Johnn’s Init System

I use a Google Spreadsheet. Init scores go in a column. Players yell out their rolls, I type them in, and then I just sort by column with a click.

Here’s the file I used for Riddleport. It’s messy, as I left it as-is after the final session:

I like this method if I have a laptop at the table. I have the major PC stats at hand, and can track combat conditions and make notes as desired.

Often, though, I’ll just use index cards. PCs get white cards, allies blue, enemies pink.

I can also write PC stats and notes on their cards.

When it’s initiative time, players roll and yell out their scores, and I file the cards in order. Then I roll for the bad guys, add their cards, and sort.

I also write damage and conditions on the bad guy’s cards.

There’s a Start of Round card too. It lets me know when a new round starts, in case I’m getting carried away with things. 🙂 I also make quick rules notes on this card for reference.

If a character delays his action, I turn his card sideways in the pile.

A Few Clever Props And House Rules

The Bathyscaphist

In a Vampire: The Masquerade game, where some characters had supernatural powers that gave them multiple actions per turn, we used red glass ‘pebbles’ with a symbol representing our character (usually by Clan) on a wooden track converted from an old incense-stick holder. We could see at a glance whose turn it was and how many actions each person had.

In a 7th Sea campaign, where a character’s Panache determines how many times they act, we used sword-shaped letter openers or toy swords from action figures stuck in a fleshy lump of modeling clay in the middle of the table, and players would stab one into the clay each time they acted until they had run out. (“Take that, you jack-a-napes!”) Very cathartic!

For a Cyberpunk game, to keep combat moving fast, the Referee kept a 30 second hourglass in front of her. If you hadn’t worked out what you were doing by the time it ran out, you missed your turn.

One campaign had a system of letting the slowest character describe their action first, and then the next-slowest character could either interrupt them or do their own action. And so it went until the fastest person got to see what everyone was doing and choose to interrupt them. It actually slowed the game down a fair bit, but once all the actions were determined we could describe the whole scene in one series of interconnected and inter-reacting actions.

For an Exalted game, we kept a d10 next to our sheets with the number of Ticks until we acted showing uppermost. Each unit of time that passed the GM would just say “Tick!” and we’d all have to keep track ourselves, because if we weren’t paying attention we’d go slower. Combat sounded ominous, with a metronome-like Tick Tick Tick counting away the seconds.

In a short Horror game, using a variant of an indie system, we used a Jenga block tower. If you wanted to act, you had to take a block out of the tower. You could do as many actions as you liked, but each one after the first required an additional block, and another block if you were acting out of turn. If the tower fell, things went BAD. And the tower wasn’t rebuilt between rounds, either. Better to be cautious and huddle in a corner covering your head…

A standard rule in an old game was that if you had to ask what Initiative the round was up to, you acted last. If you asked twice in one round, you lost your action. Kept players very attentive!

In my Nobilis campaign, initiative goes in order of highest to lowest Aspect, every time. However, going first is not necessarily the best idea as those who come after you can rewrite the world to negate your action if they choose. Some combats start with a huge Miracle, and then devolve into various people countering that Miracle, and countering others’ counters and so on. Sounds boring, but in play a group of Near-Gods all desperately trying to go last can be quite creative!

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Lego Initiative

From Noah Portance

I’ve always included Lego in my games, as I have a huge collection of parts and figures already, and my continuing addiction to the brick uses up money I would otherwise spend on miniatures and other “traditional” supplies.

(Though it should be noted, using Lego mini-figures in place of miniatures allows easy customization and changes over time, something that’s a lot harder with traditional miniatures. And Lego mini-figs cost substantially less per character and are more reusable than most traditional miniatures.)

The simple colored Lego bricks and plates found in the standard basic brick bucket can be stacked to make a quick, at-a-glance initiative chart. Pick a color for each character or group. Roll for initiative. Stack the bricks into the proper order. Once a character takes their turn, pop off the top brick and stick it on the bottom. It’s as simple as that!

As an added bonus, you can use spare bricks to keep track of health and other stats (as the Lego Heroica sets do), or even for maps and scenery.

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Metal Clips With PC Pics

From Perry Rogers

I bought large metal clips from a local office supply store and glued pictures of my players’ characters to them. At the start of each combat, I arrange the clips in initiative order across the top of my GM screen.

If someone changes their place in the order, or a new creature joins, I rearrange the clips.

The clips are spring steel, so I made a magnetic turn indicator that I move from one character to the next as the turn progresses. I mark conditions on the monsters and NPCs using Litkos base markers on the map, because there are often several to be tracked simultaneously. I mark any conditions affecting the PCs using folded slips of paper on the clips atop my screen.

In the photos below, it is currently the monster leader’s turn. His troops’ initiative clip (color coordinated with the leader’s clip) is at the end of the turn. Init Perry Rogers-01

View from the player’s side of the screen: Init Perry Rogers-02

The dwarf has two ongoing effects: Stunned and -2 to Attack rolls: Init Perry Rogers-03

The turn indicator and a player’s clip. Note the magnet on the turn indicator. The magnet does a great job holding the marker in place atop the screen: Init Perry Rogers-04

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Roll Once Each Session

From Michael Facciolo

I’m always looking for ways to minimize rolls. One of the ways my group does this is with initiative. At the start of each session, they roll for initiative and keep that same roll throughout the session. I also pre-roll initiative for all the monsters they face.

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Use A Dry Erase Board And Magnets

From Kevin McIntyre

I use a dry erase board with small magnetic name tags I can rearrange each initiative.

Add some permanent lines using a permanent marker or thin black tape and my chart is always ready. I just pop the magnets off each initiative call and adjust accordingly.

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Rising Tension System

From Mark

I use my own “Rising Tension” initiative system.

Combat order is from least successful to most successful (my system has levels of success, but you can use “to hit” or damage in d20 type systems).

This order is altered for held actions and common sense (i.e., one PC is throwing up a grappling hook and the other is climbing the rope, obviously the climb comes after the throw).

The other exception is everyone gets to act each round, regardless. So if a foe or a PC would be taken out before their turn, then they get bumped up the order so they still get to act.

Practically, this is fast because everyone acts “at once”, so no-one has to wait for each action to be resolved before deciding what to do. The faster or more impulsive players get to say what they want to do, and roll, giving the slower or more thoughtful players time to think about what they are doing, without affecting when their characters act.

Dramatically, this ensures each round of combat starts out badly for the PCs, but then naturally rises to a dramatic climax at the end of each round. It also prevents the “anti-climactic kill” where one PC lands a powerful blow, only to have the foe then get taken out by a much weaker blow from another PC.

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1-20 Board

From Scott Tolle

I have a board I made with 1 to 20 written on it. Players tell me their initiative number, and I slot them accordingly, so I see all in a single glance. When the new round comes I can simply move players and monster as needed.

I am working on a metal GM screen so I can go to magnetic business cards with players’ names. Just having trouble right now with the printing of the table.

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Use Cards

From Matt Swanson

We were playing 4th Edition D&D, so I had players give me their Attribute Cards (with their defenses, names, initiative bonuses and other relevant stats pre-printed on it) and arrayed them on the board based on initiative level. I used index cards cut in half for the monsters.

Cards were displayed next to me in a space where all the players could see it. This allowed me an easy way to not only keep track of turn order, but have all the important stats for each PC available at a glance. It worked great!

Another tip, although less relevant for most players, sort of grew organically in our group. We play on a huge magnetic whiteboard (about 30″ x 60 “) that I placed on my coffee table. There’s about a 6” margin all the way around for player cards, drinks and things like that, and the players started writing down their hit points, defenses, healing surges and other stats on the board right in front of them as a good quick-reference. Since it was dry-erase, it eliminated all the damage to the character sheets that results when players have to write and erase hit point totals, healing surge totals and things like that.

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Adversary Chart & Player Chart

From Bruce Paris

My initiative system involves a clipboard, 2 printed pages, a pencil, and an eraser.

The Adversary Chart is slipped into the clipboard first, then the Player Chart is folded over and slipped in on top of the Adversary Chart (to match). Then away you go.

I prepare my Adversary Charts in advance. I also have charts for 3.5 D&D, Basic Roleplaying, and Star Wars.

You are welcome to give out my 4E charts as downloads if you wish. They are free for anyone to use:

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One Second Rounds

From Christopher R. Dow

One of Hackmaster’s (and Aces & Eights’) greatest strengths is the “Count Up” system of combat rounds. Basically, each count is a second of game time. This has a couple interesting implications.

First, the count can get high for large combats. Second, it’s easy to estimate how much game time any activity would take, because seconds are easy to estimate.

Because of this, I just use an excel spreadsheet. Each row is a count. When someone gives me their next count up number, I just find the row that matches and make notes.

I also use a free counter app, which lets me just hit the space bar to advance the count. Doing this allows me to easily keep track of everything happening and what happens in each count. If it’s a spell effect, and it lasts for 30 seconds, I scroll to row 30 and note that the effect ends. By the time combat gets down there, my notes will be waiting for me.

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Magnetic Whiteboard

From Glenn Davis

A magnetic whiteboard is great for drawing things out to help supplement a description or clarify things for players, since they can’t always see what’s in the GM’s mind. You can get white magnets that can take dry-erase markers. I’ve found this works better than clothespins because:

  • You can move the magnets around easily when characters change their position in the initiative order.
  • My magnets are dry-erase, so there’s no need to get more if characters change, because you can write new names as needed.
  • You can also write on the whiteboard or magnetic strips. Add notes such as on which turn a multi-round effect will expire on a character (poison, status effects, “held”), when “surprise” wears off, or that a character is casting a spell that takes one or more rounds.

I often write the DC for these effects next to PCs affected, as well as ACs next to my monsters, so players will be quicker to do the math when their turn shows up.

I have a custom set of rules where how long the combat has lasted is important, so I also keep track of the number of rounds that have expired on the whiteboard. This is also useful when players race against the clock.

I like to assign a timekeeper who is not the GM to keep my whiteboard list of characters organized. They announce who’s up, who’s on deck, and who’s in the hole. I like that person to sit across from me so I can see when my NPCs are up.

You can overlay a grid on the board to show character heights while your usual game mat shows their x and y coordinates. This is useful for aquatic or aerial combat.

I make cut-to-scale magnetic templates for spell, breath, splash, and other area effects, and have them attached to the whiteboard for quick access.

The biggest recommendation I have after you’ve purchased a whiteboard is always check your “dry erase” markers in the corner of the whiteboard by drawing a little and then erasing, because not all “dry erase” markers erase that well, and you don’t want to ruin your whiteboard.

If you don’t use dry erase magnets, you use card stock and clothespins. Just glue magnets to the clothespins.

Before I used my whiteboard I used slips of paper or card stock that were placed in initiative order in the corner of my gaming table. I used pieces from another game, like Risk, that were color-coded to the minis.

For example, I would make Alan a mostly red miniature and then use a red token and glue it to a piece of card stock with Alan’s name on it. Then I would use a mostly green miniature for Brenda and use a green piece glued to a piece of card stock with Brenda’s name on it, and so on.

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Split Into Teams

From Chris Carpenter

I split initiative into different teams:

  • PCs
  • Enemies
  • Friendly NPCs

Whoever has the higher initiative within the group goes first. And whoever has highest initiative goes first. Sounds complicated, but keeps it simple for me.

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Gamemastery Combat Pad

From Gabriel Martin

Currently I use a Gamemastery Combat Pad.

I’ve tried making something like it with varying degrees of success. This one does what I need.

Before the board, I used a pencil and grid system. I’d write the table down and mark things off with O’s and X’s. I’d write the name of the PC down with their initiative number next to the name in one column. The rounds would go into other columns. Then, I’d mark off who went and who didn’t , add notes, mark how many rounds things were affected, yadda yadda.

The main advantage with this system is I could go back and review the actual combat. Can’t do that with the dry erase concepts.

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Post-Its, Group Init

From Matthew Vincent

For public games: I write each PC’s name, AC, and initiative roll on a Post-It note, then place them in front of me in initiative order. This allows me remember PC names and to arrange the initiative order first thing as players sit down. Plus, I keep small sized Post-It notes on hand for tracking monster HP.

For home games: I have all the monsters act on the same initiative. Player initiative determines who goes before the monsters on the first round, but after the monsters act the players can generally go in any order they wish (thanks to delaying and such). This speeds combat since it allows you to move on to the next player whenever someone is not ready.

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From Bill Carson

My group plays with one of those vinyl gaming mats. We simply write initiative order down on the side on the mat for all to see.

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A Few Techniques

From Scott Hudson

Here are a few initiative techniques I’ve used in my games.

  • Using the regular roll for initiative, I’ll write PC and monster inits on a note card. I group all my enemies into one initiative. Sometimes the classic methods just work great.
  • Putting everyone on a board and placing it on our table for quick access.
  • Having everyone roll and whoever had the highest roll gets to choose a clockwise or counter clockwise initiative movement.
  • Having my players tell me what their marching order is, and I’ll keep that as initiative and place monsters somewhere in the middle wherever it balances nicely. This gave the party a challenge in figuring out what was more important, combat readiness or trap awareness.
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Go Clockwise

From Phil Nicholls

I know that I mentioned this system at, but I thought I would also send it in for your readers. This does not have the utility of the clothespin tip, but there is a certain simplicity to it that may help some GMs.

I play a rules-light game, and one of my players came up with an excellent method for determining initiative for the group. All players roll for initiative as normal. If the GM takes a turn for the monsters/NPCs, then she should roll too.

Whoever rolls best goes first. Initiative then proceeds clockwise around the table. This simple method requires no bookkeeping, and everyone always knows when they are up next.

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Business Cards

From Sam Thompson

I use old business cards for initiative. I also track monster hit points and status effects on the cards.

If there’s a boss fight coming up, I’ll also prepare a card with the monster’s important combat status, particularly the effects I know I’ll forget in the heat of the moment, like Spell Reduction and Resistances.

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Initiative Order Cards

From Rodney Sloan

My initiative tip doesn’t come from me, rather Chris Perkins UK Adventure: Part 1 it’s something I’ve seen Chris Perkins use when he GMs. He gets his players to roll initiative and then the turn order begins with that player and goes clockwise around the table. I think this is a neat little abstraction that makes it easier on the GM while still giving the character with the highest initiative an in-game bonus.

For a friend’s game we use initiative order cards. One player keeps track of the cards, which are written on with dry-erase markers. That player also records the initials for a monster and their HP. The initials obscure the names of monsters. For instance, OP might be Orc Pyromancer or Ogre Pigmy-mancer, whatever. It means we players are kept guessing about the hidden monster until they enter the fight.

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Deal Out Init Cards

From Will Scott

I will cheat and recommend using the Savage Worlds initiative system. Every round, you deal each participant a card, and then go from highest to lowest. It sounds like it would be clunky and time-consuming, but it is actually fast and easy!

I think I like it because of the clear visuals (you can see each card, and players turn in their cards when they are done their turns) and because it’s a fast way to review initiative at the top of each round. Players pay more attention to initiative when there is a chance the enemies will go first!

In other systems, I like to have the PCs go all at once, and the enemies go all at once. This way, the players can go in any order they want amongst themselves for better teamwork. Plus, there’s no initiative order to remember.

[Comment from Johnn: I like this system. Neat, simple, visual, fast. For systems that reward character attributes with better initiative, maybe you could deal those players extra cards, and they take the best one? Or maybe X times per combat they can swap cards with any combatant?]
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Skip Slow Players

From Erik Freeman

I always make a big deal of initiative to focus player attention. I let my players know the game is real time. Unless someone specifically states they wish to pause the game to ask a question or make a rule check, it’s all real time.

I will weave the situation, gauge any player actions such as declaring spot or listen checks or any sensory or buffing magic. Let the elf with max ranks in Listen have their moment. Scan their faces for a quick 2-3 seconds, let the anticipation build. Than with force and gusto declare, “Initiative!” Usually with a fist in the air. Almost to the point where, for the players, it is a sub game to get your initiative declared first.

I write the initiative rolls clearly and in order on the battle mat, including the bad guys. It’s fun to occasionally mix it up by adding two or three different classes of bad guys to shuffle up the initiative, something like:

22 Conan the Barbarian (Barbarians can get Improved Initiative) x x P, str* x

21 Ogre Magi — inv x SS** x

18 Ming the Mage – x fly*** x

16 Gray Mouse the Rogue

12 Orcs —

10 Erica the Cleric

* potion of strength
** invisibility / stone skin
*** fly spell

I discovered putting a notable dash next to the bad guys helped players break things down. Using different colors for the good and bad guys also helps.

Once recorded, I’d point a pencil directly at Conan, state “You’re first” followed by a point to Ming, “After Conan then the Ogre, you’re next.” This builds anticipation and let’s Ming know he needs to start thinking about what to do. I keep this up throughout the fight.

This pre-turn anticipation keeps the game flowing. Everyone can clearly see the initiative pattern, so they start to self-prep.

Should someone wish to delay their action, draw an arrow from their original spot in the chain to where they want to be.

Players with high initiatives are used to going first and another sub-game can be the bumbling mage beating the fleet footed rogue. “The orc bandits appear from their hidden perch catching the Gray Mouse completely off guard. Ming, your keen eye spots their movement first with Conan readying his weapon in front of you.” Who doesn’t like improved initiative?

Also, as you move through the cycle, make a hash mark next to each player. This makes sure you don’t skip anybody. It also allows you to make specific hash marks to tick off spell durations. Experiment with your notations.

Initiative does not always have to be combat related. If things start to get confusing or multiple players are trying to do things at the same time, call for initiative.

While there is some grumbling, in combat I quickly break the bad habit of some players waiting until it is their turn to start thinking about what they want to do. Again, real time. I make clear that during the heat of combat, you have to act.

Ultimately, it adds to the excitement when a player is fumbling, unsure of themselves. I would say, “Orcs are surging around you, several lie dead on the ground, blood covers the floor. What are you going to do?” I give them a few seconds. If they pause, I prompt them again. “You see the Mouse crouching down ready to pounce, several orcs are moving to flank you, what do you do?” If a few more seconds tick by, I move on. “In the violent confusion, you find yourself unable to focus. Mouse, your turn. Then the orcs and Erica.”

A good player will suck it up. A bad player may complain. In the end, making it clear the player is responsible for knowing what they can do makes combat so much more fun and fast for everyone. Next initiative cycle around, I guarantee Ming will be ready with a plan of action.

Strongly encourage or enforce no talking during combat unless it is your initiative. Most every group has that one veteran who wants to “help” other players run their characters. Allowing this will create bad patterns and crush game flow. I feel if a new player is going to join, make them read the players handbook before joining. Review the basics with them before beginning. Learning on the fly will hurt everyone else’s play and encourage the veteran player to “help”.

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Roll Pre-Sorted Lists

From Laura

I ask players to roll 4d20 and give me the numbers in any order. This gives me four initiatives which I number from 1 to 4. I do the same with Spot, Listen, Scry and other secret rolls that might come in useful for the session. I do not tell the players what they’re rolling for, just that they get to choose the order of the d20 rolls and I’m setting up certain die rolls ahead of time.

If I need a Spot or Listen roll, I just roll d4, consult the list and see who makes the check. Another d4 chooses the initiative list. I roll initiative for the monsters, slot them in and skip those who don’t get an action in the surprise round. If the monsters go early, it surprises the players as well as the characters.

Pros: Saves time in multi-combat, multi-secret rolls game sessions; keeps things mysterious; most players like to roll their own dice for everything.

Cons: Takes time on the front end; DM needs to have updated info on everyone’s characters to incorporate the bonuses.

The time on the front end can be alleviated by getting the numbers when each player arrives. You can assemble as many pre-sorted lists as you want. I like to run with four of each.

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Pre-Roll Each Game Day

From Daniel Gent

I like to keep game play going, and my players agreed => pre-roll.

At the beginning of the game, everyone rolls and adds their initiative modifier and it goes on a page in order of highest initiative. As encounters happen, instead of rolling, I just use an average of 7 + monster’s initiative modifier.

We do this once every game day or game week, depending on the adventure. Usually you don’t have to roll for initiative more than twice per gaming session.

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Here Are A Few Methods

From Gavin Steele

Tracking initiative can be a pain at times, especially if you re-roll each round as I always do. Over the years I’ve tried or considered the following, with varying degrees of success….


A useful addition to any initiative tracking system is to start at the fastest and count towards the slowest, allowing each player to act when you call out their number. Using this system the players can keep track of their own initiatives and save you the trouble.

Pen and Paper

I often keep a notepad next to me which I use ONLY for initiative. The PCs’ names are listed and I write in their roll at the start of each round, crossing each one out after they act so I can tell where we are. NPCs and Monsters are written in at the bottom of the page.

When running games in my own games room, I will often forego the notepad in favour of the edge of my battlemat, which I wipe clean between fights.

Laminated Sheets

I drew up a monster damage tracker sheet that I laminated to make it re-usable. I included boxes for several rounds of initiative rolls so I could track the monsters. I cross out each number after that monster has acted. When using this technique I allow players to manage their own initiative rolls.


Have the players leave a die showing their initiative roll on the table in front of them. With small enough dice and an uncluttered battlefield, these can even be placed next to the appropriate character figure on the table. For small fights, place a number of small D6s with the turn order (1 for 1st, 2 for 2nd…) next to the figures and remove them once each PC has acted.

Alternatively, use a different coloured die for each PC and line them up in order next to you after they are rolled. If you keep the same colour for the same PC from session to session you will soon get the hang of this. Use a single oversized die as a current initiative tracker when counting up or down.


Use a set of counters numbered from one up. Give each player the counter for their initiative order number. Then count through the order.

You could pull counters randomly from a bag if you need random turn orders.

After each PC acts, the player returns their counter for redistribution next round.

Characters “holding” an action for later use can flip the counter on the table in front of them to indicate their status.

Many games allow multiple actions at the same time, but I have found combat runs more dramatically if characters alternate actions to some degree. Just halving the initiative value for each subsequent action does the job nicely. If your first action comes on 12 then your second is on 6, your third on 3, etc.

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He Who Speaks First….

From David Maloney

We’ve been playing Outlive Outdead, a cinematic zombie RPG.

Initiative is simple: whoever speaks first goes first.

Zombies aren’t exactly nimble enemies, so they always go after the human PCs.

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Corkboard Strip

From Gillian Wiseman

I use a narrow corkboard strip. I found a plastic holder that takes a 1/2″ wide strip of cork, which I replace every year or two when it gets worn. I write initiative numbers on the side of the plastic holder, from 0 to 30.

To track initiative, I mark the head of a thumbtack with initials or numbers for each villain and PC. PCs are white. Allies are yellow, animal companions are blue. NPCs of unknown reliability are often green. Enemies are red, purple, and gold.

Black sharpie is fairly permanent on the plastic tacks, and I can usually fit one or two letters on the top. I tend to group “like” monsters together, so if I had a group of six skeletons, two zombies, and a mad cleric as the foes, I’d have three tacks for them, and one tack each for the PCs.

I keep my strip on my side of the table, and just call out whose turn it is.

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Roll At end Of Current encounter For The Next One

From Liam Kane

One of my tricks for initiative is for everyone to roll at the end of the current encounter for the next one. This keeps us away from the scuffle of setting the order and slowing everything down before combat can start.

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Use A Magnetic Board

From Charlie Giannone

Remembering who goes when was always an issue in my sessions until one day someone brought a magnet board. I had magnetic letters and since then it has increased the flow of the game because everyone can see who goes when.

We also placed a round counter on the bottom to indicate the round as well as letting us place markers to remind us when effects will end.

Then we added our character pictures to the magnets by taping a printout to a magnet.

You can see in this crappy photo (which was the best out of several crappy photos) all the magnet tiles. We use the left side as the initiative order and the blurry white strip at the bottom is the round counter.

Init Charlie Giannone-01

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Combat Manager App

From Traxz

I have a large group of up to eleven people. I use the Combat Manager app.

You enter the players. Then your creatures. The apps rolls for you and takes into account init mods.

It takes rolling init out of the players’ hands but makes surprise rounds more interesting and speeds up the game. Especially 4E.

It also helps you avoid around-the-table init delays for large groups.

Faster Combat
FC Guide Cover

Thanks to everyone who sent in their method for doing initiative. And out of all these ideas, hopefully you found one or two to help you manage your combats better.

If you struggle a bit with making combats fast and exciting, why not check out my GM’s Guide to Faster Combats?

It’s a huge 5 Module course on how to go from foe design to session planning to advanced combat mastery.

Get more info here » Faster Combat

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GM Organization Software

From John Fredericks

Johnn, in your “Loopy” article, you mentioned buckets, and that you use a computer one?

What software is working best for you in this approach? Right now, I use just a REALLY long Word document, though things can get a little lost from time to time. However, it has the advantage of being easy to format tables, etc. The downside – it is not easily searchable.

I do use Evernote for my daily schedule, and have some stuff in there. As you said, the trouble is when things get all over the place.

Any thoughts would be great.

Johnn: I use Word often as well for information. As you mention, it gets unwieldy when long.

Regardless of GM software I’m into, I use my 5 Buckets system. I describe what this system is and how to create your own in this free, short course:

Take The Pain Out Of GM Organization

For software, I like apps that let me open multiple windows or docs at once, with easy navigation between them. Just like a GM screen is a tapestry of info you don’t want hidden or layered, my GMing software needs to give me access to multiple bits of info at once.

The best thing I’ve seen for this is TiddlyWiki. You can open any of your notes and arrange them on the “canvas.” There’s search, nested menus so you can rollup groups of information to keep things tidy, tags for many-to-one type notes, and more. And it’s free:

Tiddly Wiki

I prefer apps where I can “save” multiple states. If I have stuff arranged just how I like it, I want to get back to that “view” again easily.

OneNote has the canvas and saved view experience, and it’s pretty good. You build pages with child pages for grouping. You can group pages into sections, and sections into notebooks. And each page is live a canvas, where you can create and arrange notes how you like. It also has a great “wikiword” feature where just typing the name of another page automatically links the text up – very handy for automated cross-referencing.


I also like apps that let me brainstorm and grab text and media from the internet for reference and inspiration.

I use Evernote plus the browser capture add-on. Works great. I just click Capture, and the highlighted stuff from a website gets saved to my Campaign Notebook. Tagging is easy. So you can brainstorm all you want and create a million notes, and Tags will keep them categorized and piled neatly.

I also recently discovered the note merge feature. Highlight several notes and right-click and Merge to combo all the notes into a single note, or to create a new Table of Contents note that links to each one you’ve selected. Very cool.


But my favourite app of them all, still, is MyInfo. Take that course I linked to above to see why I like it so much. In the videos, I demo the exact features that make it a power GMing tool. However, MyInfo is a commercial app, unlike the tools above which are free. Still, the software is still getting love from the developer and new features keep rolling out.

Other notables I haven’t played much with and can’t speak to include:

  • Obsidian Portal => A public wiki with spoilers feature to hide info from players
  • Inspiration Pad Pro => NBOS has been making fantastic GMing software for years
  • RealmWorks => Hero Lab works great, and I’m hearing good things about RW
  • Roll20 => A virtual tabletop that allows you to build and save adventures if desired
  • Scabard Campaign Manager => A newer, web-based tool