Number your monsters to stop wasting time finding them on the battle map

Many game masters boast an ability that I can’t match. I can’t stick to a character accent, but not that ability.

During combat encounters, many GM’s remember which monster corresponds to which damage total on a sheet of paper.

I can’t. In my games, I keep applying damage to the wrong totals until some goblin survives 50 points of damage. Players protest, and I invent a story about a goblin enchanted to never die, or about a legendary warrior cursed to live as a goblin. Good tales, but my players suspect the truth.

Now I use numbered markers to distinguish the miniature figures on my battle map. Alea Tools sells the disks and numbered stickers that I use. Unless you also buy adhesive, magnetic disks and stick them to the bottom of your figures, miniatures tend to slip off the Alea markers.

Elite DM Chuck Benscoter uses markers that cup miniatures’ bases. Too bad Dapper Devil no longer sells these markers.

I number miniatures to help bookkeeping, but two other benefits surprised me.

The numbers speed communication. In the typical fight, players keep referring to monsters as “this one” and “that one.” Then I look up from my notes and ask “which one?” and the pointing resumes. Repeat once per turn.

I train players to refer to monsters by number. “Number three” works much better than “this one.” I rarely even need to look up and find the creature on the board.

After someone damages a monster, number it. When my players hit something, I pass them a marker and say, “Make ‘that one’ number three.”

For area effects, numbers make bookkeeping faster. When the wizard casts the first fireball, I pass a numbered markers for each target. Without looking up from my damage tally, I roll saves. “Number 1 saves…2 fails…” and so on. If some targets already have numbers, then I ask the players to read the numbers of the figures in their area of effect. On my sheet, I make tick marks by the targets, roll saves, and total damage. I can do bookkeeping without looking up.

This method does require a new routine. The long habit of “this one” and “that one” takes a couple of encounters to break, but soon combat encounters run faster.

17 thoughts on “Number your monsters to stop wasting time finding them on the battle map

  1. Fuzzy

    Do these disks only fit the type of round-based D&D/Pathfinder minis that are out now? I’ve got a number of Reaper Bones miniatures that don’t have circular bases, but these things look like a big help; I used to put little colored dots on my cardstock pawns to tell groups of monsters apart.

  2. Jeff

    I think this is where Virtual Table Top software really shines. It’s very simple to store relevant info, like hp, in each instance of a particular monster token.

    Plus, they handle other things like Vision, fog of war, light sources, and are programmable, so you can let them calculate attack & damage results, saving throws, etc.

  3. alphastream

    I used to have the same problem. What I do (facilitated by my large miniatures collection) is to select a variety of minis (orc with axe, orc with sword, orc with drums, etc.). Then, when one gets hit, on the margin by the stat block I write some short code and the damage it took: “Axe -12.”

    That way, I can track which mini is doing what. If I have multiples (2 goblins that are the same mini), I separate them on the map, and do something like “goblin L – 5.” “goblin R -3” when I track their HPs. I’ve seen other DMs do something similar with really tiny round stickers, and they track the color or put a number on the base. What I like about my method is that I don’t need any actual mark (but you do need a bunch of minis).

    1. David Hartlage Post author

      Your method of using unique miniatures for each monster raises the visual appeal. I like that.


  4. Clancey

    For those who are unable to afford hundreds of miniatures, another solution is to buy inexpensive mosaic letter and/or number tiles at the craft stores. I have actually found wooden alphanumeric tiles, and if you have a scrabble set… I also use a very good, though IOS-only, DM app called Game Master 5th Edition which allows you to populate encounters with the monster type and will individually assign numbers/letters.

    Mosaic Letters:

    Mosaic Numbers:

  5. Jeff

    i’m surprised that no one else is speaking up for VTTs. They’re often free, (or at least my fav, Maptool, is free) and you can have unlimited free tokens, given that there’s an abundance of art available for use on the internet.

    1. Scott

      They are nice – but I’ve played in a few games with them and let me say they fall short. They are less immersive, and unless the DM knows the system super well, they are hard to use, they suffer from control issues too. We have one epic digital game table running Roll20 but only the DM can control the board, so you have to have him or a designated driver move the pieces it’s kind of a hassle.

  6. Dan

    I have a bunch of tokens from one of the 4th Edition boxed sets that came already numbered for exactly this reason. I have orcs, goblins, kobolds, skeletons, and other common monsters numbered up to 4, 6, or 8 so I know their numbers before they even take any damage.

  7. Banesblackhand

    I just use a small chunk of masking tape stuck to the base, where I write a number in marker. However, I also use different color markers for each number, in case players can’t read my handwriting. That way, they can either say “I hit 1” or “I hit Blue”. On my tracking sheet the monster is called 1 Blue. Sometimes instead of numbers I use letters, especially if I have an encounter with multiple groups of similar creatures.

  8. Goliath Bane

    Always numbered creatures, used twiddly-winks when not enough minis (they weren’t as cheap back in the 70’s as they are now) with numbers on – then numbered the minis so it doesn’t matter which minis I need to use or for what purpose.
    If you have the party with minis and a couple of NPCs you need to track them, the numbers are already there.
    Not a criticism, just an observation, I am surprised people have had this problem. But we all came to the hobby from different routes, and at different ages and not always joining an experienced group.

    I have taken away a couple of ideas from the comments and it is good to have options for this kind of thing.

  9. eric

    I have put numbers on the bases of most of my minis for easy identification.
    I used strips of number tape sold for cable identification. Easy as it gets, and everyone can read the numbers


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