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.
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?