The Best Ways to Track Initiative in Dungeons & Dragons

In my last post on tracking initiative, I surveyed every tracking technique I knew, from apps to combat pads. Five years later, I feel ready for a stronger statement:

If you don’t use card stock tents to track initiative, you are doing it wrong.

Sure, you can still run a fun game, but with initiative tents, your game will become a bit better.

Initiative tents enable two tracking methods that both work well. If you track initiative wrong, you can choose which improvement suits you best. One technique puts names on the cards, the other uses numbers.

To use numbers, create a set of tents numbered from 1 up. When initiative starts, the players compare numbers and take the card the matches their place in the order. The highest takes 1, second highest 2, and so on. The DM takes cards for the monsters’ place in the order. Everyone sets the numbers at their spot at the table so everyone can see their place.

Initiative tents

To use names, each player puts their character name on a card. When initiative starts, the players roll and write their scores on their card. Someone collects the cards, and lines them up in initiative order where everyone can see. I let a player sort the cards before I drape them in order atop my DM screen.

These tracking methods boast two advantages: They make the initiative order visible to everyone, and they let the dungeon master delegate tracking to the players.

When players can see the tents and initiate order, they can see when their turn is coming and plan their actions. This speeds play. Plus, the visible initiative invites players to remind less-attentive people of their turns. It prevents DMs from accidentally skipping someone’s turn.

Numbered tents do a better job of keeping players aware of their place in the order, because everyone collaborates to establish the order and everyone displays a numbered tent.

Delegating DM chores to the players leads to better games. Typically, game masters run all the non-player characters, describe the action, track initiative, set up maps and figures, make rulings, and so on and on. The players mostly wait for the DM’s attention. A DM’s pace tends to bottleneck the pace of a role-playing session.

Delegation reduces the bottleneck created by the game master. Games move faster, so everyone enjoys more time adventuring. Plus, when players gain tasks to do, they remain engaged in the game and have more fun.

Unless you run games for young kids or new players, let the players manage most of the initiative.

Named tents do a better job of delegating initiative, because the DM can ignore the entire process of establishing the order.

Tracking with numbers

Dungeon master and D&D freelance author Teos Abadia champions tracking with numbers. You can read more about this method in his blog.

To make numbered tents, fold index cards and use a marker to write numbers on either side. Twelve cards should be enough for every player and type of monster. White cards work fine, but colored ones offer more visibility at the table. You can reuse numbered tents.

Tracking with names

For a minimal initiative tent, use index cards. Cutting a card lengthwise yields two tents suitable for draping across a DM’s screen. Cut from top to bottom for three, smaller tents suitable for standing on the table. I like using colored index cards and giving each player a unique color, so they can identify the color from across the table. All my monsters get white stock. Before a game session, pass out the cards and have players write a name on each side. When initiative starts, everyone rolls and writes their score on their card.

I prepare the monsters’ tents in advance. This lets me write the monster names and either pre-roll their initiatives or just use static initiatives that set all the monsters at 10 plus their dexterity bonus. Static initiatives rely on the players’ rolls for a random element. Skipping the monsters’ rolls saves time, but tends to cluster the monsters’ turns.

Many DMs who drape initiative tents on their DM screen use something to mark the current place in the turn order. A binder clip on the active character’s tent works well enough.

Although tents with just names and scores work well, I add extra information to my tents. With the tents draped across my DM’s screen, I gain a quick reference. For instance, I have players write their characters’ armor class and passive perception scores on their tents.

Some DMs who use initiative tents just give players blank tents, show a sample, and ask everyone to follow the example. But I’ve created formatted tents with spaces to write in. Download my formatted tents here.

My monster tents show armor class, the three most common saving throws, and include spaces for attacks and other information. On the player-facing side of the monster tents, I added a big box for armor class. Sometimes, when a fight went long enough for the characters to figure armor classes, I used to mark the ACs where everyone could see. This sped turns a bit.

Now, I save the monster tents so I can reuse them. This discourages me from writing ACs where players can see. Also, this encourages static initiatives. I can write an initiative score of 10 plus dexterity modifier and reuse it in every fight.

Some of my tents have initiative scores I rolled a year or more ago. Is it wrong if I reuse a year-old roll? Have you ever wondered why my shambling mounds always prove quick to act while my bugbears never get a drop on anyone? I should probably cross out those rolls.

My player tents include spaces for AC and passive perception, plus space for up to 8 separate initiative scores. As an extra time saver, I have players pre-roll initiative. During the a game session, I never slow for initiative. When an encounter starts, I hand all the tents to a player for sorting, and then I drape the folds on my screen.

Some eager helpers won’t wait for initiative. At the end of every encounter, they re-order the tents. I never have to call for initiative. While this skips a dramatic moment, it also blends the line between combat and the rest of the game. I suspect that’s better. What do you think?

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17 Responses to The Best Ways to Track Initiative in Dungeons & Dragons

  1. Ilbranteloth says:

    Anything that blurs the line between combat and the rest of the narrative is a step in the right direction in my book.

    But I disagree with your blanket statement. We’ve been running with no initiative for years now, and it is by far the simplest, least intrusive, and fastest approach we’ve found. Combat flows naturally from the narrative, and naturally throughout the combat. This has worked in public and home sessions, and the public sessions were up to 13 players.

    If you must use the initiative system, such as AL, this approach is among the best. But even better is to skip it altogether and just let things unfold naturally.

  2. This is the way I have been doing initiative tracking and it works well for me. I also use pre-rolled initiative and have one player roll a d8 to determine the value used. I saw a DM using it at a convention and stole the idea from him. I guess good ideas get around. Also, I do not know how many times this saved me from skipping over a player.

  3. alphastream says:

    I have to give all praise to Paul Lauper Ellison, an amazing gamer and friend I first met during the days of Living Greyhawk 3.5 organized play. Paul came up with the idea of numbered tents (and made his first ones) for special Living Greyhawk events like Battle Interactives, where time was a big factor for success. We could shave off many minutes of the DM pausing to figure out who went when by using his tents.

    During the first round, Paul would simply start placing numbers as the DM called out someone’s turn. I do the same as a player. I must say that by the end of the adventure/event, 99% of DMs have stopped tracking initiative on their end and are letting us do it, because it is so much better. Every player knows when their turn comes up, no one gets skipped, and we know when monsters go (typically, we place a number in front of the DM for each group of monsters, so a DM might go on both 4 and 9). It really is a brilliant system. These days, you see the system used all around Adventurers League, and it is all thanks to Paul!

  4. Three paragraphs in and your card system was giving me the heebie jeebies. I’ve wrestled with the simplest, least invasive way to handle initiative for years, and about a year ago I found the best method ever (for me), hands down: I literally have a tiny “table” image on my blank scrap paper. I write in each person’s initiative in the slot that matches, on the table image, where they are sitting around the actual table. For GM monster groups I list them below the “table line” where the GM sits from lowest to highest.

    For me….this “virtual representation of the physical table solved all of my problems. Don’t ask me why, it made the entire process lighting quick and smooth because I suddenly had a “picture” of initiative order that mirrored meatspace.

    Keep in mind, I play with long time regulars; we have known everyone for years, decades even, in some cases. I have character names memorized. For me its always been the numbers and sequence that cause issues. All other details are handled player-facing. Doing this “snapshot” of the numbers matching seating worked for what I needed. YMMV wildly, I am sure.

  5. Michael Zhang says:

    I use the “notecards on DM screen” method and it works really well for me. For monsters, I use average monster initiative, but I space them out so they’re less likely to be clumped up. Having player and monster initiatives alternating more often leads to more dynamic combats where different sides have opportunities to respond to each other (rather than the massive swings that team initiative brings about). How I do this takes a bit of explaining:

    At the start of an encounter, I mentally sort monsters into 1-4 initiative groups (usually by monster type, but I also split large groups of the same monster into smaller chunks). If there’s only one initiative group (usually just for solo monsters), that group goes on 10.5 + Dex mod. I use fractions because it’s the true average, and it prevents initiative ties. If there are two groups, the first group goes on 15.5 + Dex mod and the second group goes on 5.5 + Dex mod. For three groups, it’s 17.5/10.5/3.5. And for four groups, it’s 19.5/13.5/7.5/1.5. This ensures that monsters are always evenly distributed across the initiative spectrum, and randomness comes purely from player rolls.

    The numbers look like they’re hard to remember, but I don’t have to memorize them. I keep a set of half-size notecard tents that I use for all my monsters. The first one is labeled “NPC 1” and includes the initiatives of group 1 for every battle size (“1: 10.5+m, 2: 15.5+m, 3: 17.5+m, 4: 19.5+m”). “NPC 2” includes the initiatives for group 2 for battles of size 2, 3, and 4. And so on. I also keep a tent for lair actions, and one for NPC allies.

    Ever since I started averaging initiative this way two years ago, I’ve never wanted to go back. This method also makes it really easy to sort player initiatives. Every combat, I space out the NPC tents that I need onto my DM screen, then I ask each player for their initiative. The NPC tents provide anchor points that I can use when sorting the player cards, e.g. if Bob gets a 15, I toss his card between NPC 1 at 17.5 and NPC2 at 10.5. Initiative is always done and over with very quickly this way.

  6. David Bowlin says:

    I’m not sure how combat without initiative is handled. Can you please explain this? I haven’t ever seen this done. I’m curious about this method. Thank you.

    • Dan says:

      One of the simplest alternatives is just going round-robin.

    • Matt says:

      I use side initiative. The players can go in any order they want. The round doesn’t end until everyone has acted. Sometimes, the players are working quick and all go and deal a ton of hurt. Other times, they’re dragging their feet so my orcs get some lucky blows in.

      It takes no time to establish initiative order, all of the players have to be paying attention because combat goes when they’re ready, and I can occasionally describe a player’s miss into part of a monster’s counterattack, which has been very rewarding.

    • Matt says:

      Google “narrative initiative”

    • David Bowlin says:

      Thank you all for the comments. I appreciate the clarification and advice.

  7. alphastream says:

    Another type of initiative worth knowing about is “popcorn initiative.” It can be seen best in some (but not all) games using the Gumshoe system. The way it works is the DM determines who should start. For example, if the rogue was investigating something and opens a passage to where orcs are lounging around, the rogue might be chosen to go first. If the sorceress is negotiating with bandits and the bandits decide they prefer combat, the bandits might go first.

    Once the first character or monster has gone, the player (or DM) controlling that person then decides who goes first. The bandits might chose the bandit captain. This process continues until everyone has had a turn. The entity going last gets to decide who goes first in the next roud.

    An advantage of this system is that it encourages paying attention, because at any point someone can choose you to go next. Another advantage is that it tends to make narrative and tactical sense. The cleric picks the rogue to go next so she can disarm the trap. A disadvantage is that everyone needs to remember who has gone first. Since we are talking about tools, it’s worth mentioning that there are various cards and other solutions out there, such as two-sided cards that say whether you have or have not taken a turn. Games like Timewatch suggest a large plastic dinosaur that you hand from one person to another as they take turns. It’s a funny way to pass the initiative around.

    This also has a tactical effect that is interesting. If players all choose to go in a row, that’s very strong for the PCs, but then the bad guys go… and can choose to go first the next round. That can be a lot of ouch as every monster goes twice (at the end of the round, at the start of the round).

    I don’t recommend this as a staple in D&D, but it can be useful for some scenes and I encourage DMs to experiment with it. It is also a possible tool for narrative initiative instead of going around the table. You don’t have to make a big deal of explaining it as DM. Choose a player, then ask them to decide who goes first. When players are new to this, you might have any foes or threats go at a moment you the DM chooses.

  8. Simon Newman says:

    I use 11+DEX for the monsters. This is the target number the PCs must roll to win init. Mostly I don’t really care what order the PC go in otherwise, so each round has 3 phases:

    PCs who won
    Monsters
    PCs who lost

    “Start of turn” effects like Death Saves happen at start of phase. End of turn effects happen at end of phase.

  9. Jon Mattison says:

    Regarding Initiative rolls… d20 + Dex Mod seems like a terrible way to do it. If I’ve spent a lot of character creation and character advancement resources on getting a +4 Dex; how often will anyone else at the table roll a higher d20 and add their +0, +1, etc and suddenly have the drop on my invested High Dex character?

    Wouldn’t it make sense to all roll a d4 and add your Dex modifier? Then high Dex characters will actually get a mechanical benefit from their Dex bonus.

    • Jon Mattison says:

      That said, on topic, I’ve played in a game where the GM used the tent cards I put together for him. Over the top of his GM screen. My design closely resembled the ones above with name/player/passive rolls.

      • Andreas says:

        I’m intrigued to try out the tent card system (with numbers, not necessarily names on them), but wondering how to manage monsters that reveal themselves during the course of the first round, that are initially hidden f.e. Me or the players would have to sort the tents anew in that case which would be a little unnerving.
        Just spent years writing the PC and NPC names on a top down list for initiative and laying it on the table for every one to see, but it’s still me having to manage that and I still every now and then skip over players or Monsters, so I’d like to change that..

        • alphastream says:

          I still assign them a number. Because most encounters have a few types of creatures (a bugbear, three orcs), and cards are used for each group of monsters, the players are used to seeing the DM have several numbers at the start of combat. They don’t know if a number belongs to one of the orcs (maybe one of them is a spellcaster) or something else, until the initiative passes (and even then, they may not notice).

          It can also be fun to announce it. “And on number 5… nothing happens!” It creates mystery and excitement at the table, as they wonder what will happen. If you use initiative numbers for things like traps and events (on every number 4, the volcano causes the ground to shake and all creatures make a Dex save to avoid falling), the players won’t always assume it’s a hidden monster. It really works well overall.

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