A Better Way to Handle Initiative in Your RPG

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Many tabletop roleplaying games use some sort of initiative system as part of their mechanics. I’ve played a lot of games with a lot of different initiative systems, but the vast majority of them are very similar—the player makes some kind of roll, maybe adds some modifiers, and winds up with an initiative number. The character with the highest number then goes first.

If your tabletop RPG of choice involves an initiative system that’s anything like this, then you might have run into situations resembling the following scenario:

The PCs have snuck into a green dragon’s lair. The dragon has detected them, but instead of immediately attacking, it opens a dialog with the PCs. It wants to make a deal. Its deal seems perfectly reasonable (at least to the dragon), and the players discuss it. Some of them want to take the deal, seeing that it will benefit them greatly. Others want to refuse the deal because they don’t trust the dragon; they want to kill the dragon as they’d originally come here to do.

As the player characters argue, one character, the barbarian, gets impatient. “Screw this,” the barbarian’s player says, “I attack the dragon!”.

“Roll initiative,” you say, inwardly cackling with glee.

The players begin rolling their dice, totaling bonuses, and shouting out their initiative numbers. You handle the process as quickly as you can, but it still takes a few minutes. During those few minutes, the players’ excitement changes to impatience, which changes to boredom.

By the time you have the initiatives for all the PCs, NPCs and monsters sorted, you realize you’ve lost all the momentum, all the tension, all the drama that you’d built up in the scene.

You proceed with the combat, but deep down, you’re dissatisfied. Things were going so well, you think, until I called for that damned initiative roll. During the time it took you to deal with the initiative roll, all the immediacy of the scene was lost. There has to be a better way, you tell yourself.

There is a better way, fellow GM, and I will share it with you today.

Now this problem with initiative is nothing new. It’s existed since the earliest days of D&D, and it’s existed in countless other RPGs as well. Various games have tried to address this problem by experimenting with various initiative systems, trying to find something that’s fast in play, but also has the desired level of nuance.

I have found an excellent solution to this problem, and it’s a fantastic solution for a few reasons:

  1. This system will work with any game that uses an initiative system that’s similar to that used by D&D and many other games. The intricacies of the given initiative system don’t matter—if it involves the characters comparing some score or number and ordering from greatest to least (or vice versa), this system will work.

  2. This system doesn’t involve any new mechanics or additional rolls. It won’t add any time to your game at the table. Most likely, it will save you time in the long run.

  3. It’s easy to use.

  4. It makes initiative much more enjoyable for everyone at the table, and will likely lead to you using initiative more often in your games.

  5. If you use the system as I describe, you may spend a few more minutes during prep for your game, but you will save much more time at the table than you spent in prep.

Check out Lex’s latest supplement for D&D.

Check out Lex’s latest supplement for D&D.

The nutshell idea of this system is instead of rolling initiative at the beginning of an encounter, we will roll initiative at the beginning of each game session and at the END of each encounter. That’s basically it, but I’ll show you how I use this system, step-by-step, so you can get the most out of it. I’m currently using this system for Dungeons & Dragons 5th edition, but again, you can use this with any game that has an initiative system that’s at all similar.

I’ll also share with you how I use index cards to track initiative in my games. It works seamlessly with my initiative system. You don’t have to use the index cards, but I highly recommend you try it. They work amazingly well in my games.

  1. Get a pack of index cards. I use 3”x5” cards, but you could also use 4”x6” cards. It doesn’t really matter. Use whatever you have. The important thing is that all the cards you use are the same size, so you can put them together in a deck. If you don’t have index cards, you can instead write the initiative order on a piece of paper, a wet-erase or dry-erase board, or something similar.

  2. Create an index card for each player character. The main purpose of this card is to keep track of the turn order (initiative), however you can put any other information on the card you want. I often include the PC’s passive perception and armor class on this card.

  3. You’ll also want an index card for each NPC that is traveling with the party (assuming those NPCs take part in combat; if they don’t, then they probably don’t need a card). I would put similar information on these cards, like passive perception, armor class and any other information about the NPC you might need easy access to during an encounter.

  4. You also want an index card for each monster/NPC for each encounter you’re planning for the game session. If you’re using groups of monsters, you can either have a card for each individual monster, or a single card for each group of monsters, depending if the monsters will act in groups, or if each monster will have its own initiative. For example, if the PCs are fighting a group of 6 goblins and 3 bugbears, you might roll initiative once for the entire group of goblins and again for the entire group of bugbears to save time.  

  5. Roll initiative for each monster (or group of monsters) you plan to use in the encounter. Write the initiative number on that monster’s (or group’s) card in pencil. Do this for every monster/NPC for every encounter for the session. Alternatively, if you don’t have a lot of prep time, you can just do this for this first encounter of the session. You can then make the cards for the second encounter sometime after the first encounter when you have a spare moment to do so.

  6. Put all the initiative cards for the monsters and NPCs for the first encounter in initiative order in a deck, with the highest initiative (i.e. monster/NPC that will go first) on top.

  7. At the beginning of the session, have the players roll initiative for their characters. Write each PC’s initiative number on their card in pencil, and put the card in the deck in initiative order. This can be a great thing to do as each player arrives to the game, so once everyone is present, you’re ready to go.

  8. You’re now ready to start the game. You have a deck of cards for the first encounter that has all the PCs, monsters and friendly and unfriendly NPCs in it, in initiative order.

  9. Now, when the encounter happens, you’re ready to go. You don’t have to stop the action to roll initiative and set up the turn order, because you’ve already done all that. The top card in the deck goes first. When that character finishes their turn, you put that card on the bottom of the deck and go to the next one. This keeps going until the encounter is over. If someone is added to the combat, you can just add their card to the deck in the appropriate initiative position.

  10. When the encounter is completed, have the players roll initiative again. Erase or scratch out the old initiative number from their card and write the new number. Put the cards in initiative order.

  11. As you have time, you can go ahead and roll initiative for monsters and NPCs for the next encounter, write them on cards, and add those to the initiative deck.

There is often some downtime at the end of an encounter while PCs heal one another, dole out loot, identify magic items, etc., so you can often get the initiative for the next encounter ready while all that is happening, and you don’t create any downtime at the table at all.

You may not always know what the first (or next) encounter will be, but you can still get the PCs and any party NPCs ready. As soon as you know what the encounter will be, you can start getting the adversaries’ initiative cards ready.

You can use these cards over and over. I use the PC initiative cards every week. This is why I put the initiative in pencil, so it’s easy to erase and reuse the card. If you’re using the cards a long time, you may want to put the character’s passive perception, armor class and other information in pencil as well, as these stats will change over time during a campaign.

You can reuse the monster initiative cards as well. I normally just put the monster’s type on the top of the card in pencil (e.g. Goblin) and write its initiative number in pencil. To reuse the card for a different monster, I just erase the monster type and write the new one. I scribble out or erase the old initiative number.

As a variant to this system, you can fold the cards in half and hang them over your GM screen. Then the players can see the cards as well, and that may help them remember the turn order and be ready when their turn comes. If you do it this way, think about what information you want on the part of the card the players can see versus the part of the card you can see (i.e. I would just put the character’s name on the player-facing side of the card, and put things like passive Perception, Armor Class, and initiative number on the GM-facing side of the card).

I’ve been using this system for awhile now, and I and my players really like it. We’ve found some real benefits to this system.

  1. You can get initiative order set up behind-the-scenes (behind the screen) while the players are chatting, roleplaying amongst themselves, etc. You're spending time ordering initiative both outside of the game and while the players are entertaining themselves, as opposed to taking up the players' time to do it. This greatly reduces downtime at the table. Nothing kills the momentum and drama of a game like downtime when the players are twiddling their thumbs, checking their phones, etc.

  2. When you want to begin an encounter or combat, you can go right into it. You don't have to pause the action to roll initiative, establish turn order, etc. This can often be a HUGE pause at the beginning of the encounter that completely diffuses any momentum or tension you've established

  3. When you do this right, you don't waste ANY table time dealing with initiative. To see how much more game time this means for your group, next time you run a game, track how much time you spend dealing with initiative in the session. You'll likely be shocked by how much time you're wasting with it.

The only real downside to this system that I've encountered is that you may forget to do it until you get used to it. However, if you do forget, you can always just do initiative as you’ve always done, so you're not really losing anything. Also, I've found that the players can be a huge help to you by reminding you to ask for initiative at the beginning of the session and after each encounter. With everyone at the table trying to remember, someone usually will.

Eventually, this will become a habit for your group, and you won't have a problem remembering to do it anymore. It will just be the way you do initiative.

This system will not only speed up combat in your game, but it will speed up any encounter or scene in which you use initiative. I will often use initiative in non-combat situations, like a social interaction. Sometimes everyone’s talking at once, everyone has something they want to do, and initiative can be a great tool in these situations. It’s a great way to make sure everyone gets a chance to do the thing they want to do. This can be especially useful if you have quieter, more reserved players and more extroverted and boisterous players in your group (and let’s face it, that probably describes a LOT of groups out there). If you’re not careful, the louder, more extroverted players can get all the spotlight in your game, while the quieter, more introverted, shy or polite players never get a chance to do what they want to do, because they never get a word in. In these situations, initiative is a great tool to keep track and make sure everyone gets equal opportunities to do what they want to do.

In the past, when I did initiative “the old way”, I would often avoid using initiative in situations that would have benefitted from it solely because I knew it would slow the game down and I’d lose my momentum. Now I don’t have to worry about that, and I find myself using initiative more and more in play, especially for non-combat situations.

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