Articles & News >> Mastering Dungeons: Taking Initiative on Pacing

Mastering Dungeons: Taking Initiative on Pacing

Last post looked at some of the immediate, at-the-table and on-the fly methods a DM could use to keep a quick pace while DMing. This time, I want to look at some pacing issues that crop up with more mechanical parts of D&D, particularly 5e.

As I mentioned in the last post, initiative is one of the most pivotal parts of the game when it comes to pacing (and all the other parts as well). I have seen DMs use a variety of methods to track initiative, and even use some house rules. For this discussion, I am going to set aside house rules and just stick to the 5e D&D rules as written.

The rules state that each character, and each group of monsters, makes a Dexterity check. These checks are recorded, and the highest number goes first, with others following in descending order. While this is pretty simple and easy to grasp, the methods for recording and displaying those numbers are diverse:

  • Index cards: This is the method that I use most. It allows me to change the order if necessary, turn a card sideways if someone readies an action (remember there is no “delay” in 5e D&D’s standard rules), and I can write on each card to keep track of hit points, effects, or other notes. I’ve found this to be the quickest way for me to move from rolling the initiative directly into combat.
    • One drawback of this method is that it does not provide the players with an easy-to-see visual representation of the order. To overcome that, I always make sure to announce whose turn it is, and then who the next two players or monsters are in the order. Another tactic I often employ is to keep my own initiative but also have the players keep initiative as well, so that I don’t skip anyone accidentally, and this gives them a more active awareness of the initiative order.
  • Table tents: After the order is rolled, table tents with numbers on them between 1 and the number of creatures in initiative are distributed. The table tent with the number 1 goes to the highest initiative roll, number 2 to the second, etc. This definitely allows all players to see the initiative order.
    • One drawback of this is when the order changes, or a person is added to the initiative order. The passing of the tents can take some time. (Adding 2a, 2b, etc. is an alternative, but sometimes these get forgotten.)
  • Screen hangers: An alternative to the table tent method is screen hangers. These are items (usually folded index cards) placed over the DM screen. The names of the PCs and monsters are written on each side of the folded card, so that the players can see the names on their side, and the DM can see them on the other. This has the advantage of letting everyone see the order, and the DM can write on the half of the card on her side of the screen. If initiative order changes, hangers can be easily moved.
    • The main drawback for this method is clear: people who do not like using a DM screen (like me) have nowhere to hang the cards.
  • Whiteboard/Magnetic tracker: Simply writing the initiative order on a whiteboard or other surface like a battlemat removes any fiddly cards or tents or hangers from the process. Some magnetic trackers allow you to write names (and initiative checks) on a small erasable magnetic strip and move it around a board, which is better if the initiative order changes.
    • The drawback here could be visibility, especially if you are writing the order on a flat surface that only you can see. And if the order changes, but you cannot move pieces around, you end up erasing and rewriting the initiative.

Regardless of the initiative system you use, many of the pacing issues during a combat or other turn-based play have to do with player awareness. Encouraging players to keep an eye on the action when it is not their turns can help pacing immensely. Even players who plan their turns ahead of time can find their plans “wrecked” by the actions of monsters or players before them.

Next post, I will look at other player-driven issues that slow down pacing, and I will give suggestions for how to minimize or remove them from the game. In the meantime, I would love to hear some of your thoughts on initiative, and particularly what tips you would give to new DMs about initiative-keeping and pacing a game.

Shawn Merwin

Shawn Merwin

Shawn's professional design and editing work in the roleplaying game industry has spanned 20 years and over 4 million words of content. His Dungeons & Dragons work has ranged from 3rd to 5th edition, showing up in sourcebooks, adventures, articles, and Organized Play administration. He has been a driving force in several Organized Play programs, and has written material for Wizards of the Coast (Dungeon Delve, Assault on Nightwyrm Fortress, Halls of Undermountain), Pelgrane Press (Dracula Dossier), Modiphius Entertainment (Star Trek Adventures), Baldman Games (as Content Manager), Kobold Press (Creature Codex, Book of Lairs), and countless others. Find his adventures here:


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    Adam Beattie09 March 2015

    Missing one of the more obvious – paper and pen. For con games I usually draw a triangle on a sheet of paper and put the initiative numbers on the triangle where the players are to my left and right (usually six players, so three on the left and three on the right) I put my monsters on the side of the triangle facing me using a one or two initial call out and their initiative number.

    It’s very quick and helpful when running a table of people I do not know because it helps me look up to the player who’s turn it is. I usually put their character name on the chart during the first round of initiative so I can call out to the character as I go – but that’s case by case (if it’s my 9th delve of the day, I’m likely to just point and go – the Elf Warrior is up – sorry end-of-day players).

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    Aaron09 March 2015

    I found I wanted something physical I could hand out to players to indicate their order in initiative so I started using playing cards. Ace goes first then 2 through 10. The cards are a visual cue to everyone of the order and reordering initiative is simply a matter of swapping cards between players. You can even use different suits to indicate two players who have the same initiative (hand both a 5 of different suits and let them figure out who goes first between them) I couple the cards with a quick assignment cadence where I call out, for D&D, ’20 or above’ then hand out cards to that first group starting with Ace, then ’15 and above’ and so forth. It has been adopted by another GM that played at my table since.

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    Imaginaryfriend09 March 2015

    In some cases handing the tracking of initiative over to the players completely can work really well to maintain pacing. It provides additional player investment in the pace of the combat and it frees up some focus on the DM side. I have found that this can be particularly helpful if you are running spellcasters or otherwise complicated monsters and/or terrain features. And that is about the only time I use this trick.

    Physical combat on a fairly plain surface is generally fairly easy to run for a DM and as Shawn commented earlier, not every action needs to be optimal. But when there is intricate stuff happening all around (erupting fountains of lava, high level spellcasters with combo’s that could make for a memorable experience, rain of arrows, etc. ) it can be really nice to have that extra bit of attention to spare for it.

    Lazy? No, I do not think it is. DM and players are in it together after all. But it does come with caveats. If all the players have complicated options then this may not work for a table. But it can often be worth a try in my experience.

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    Tashannoc16 March 2015

    I’ve started using the “sides” initiative from the DMG. The players and the DM each roll a D20 and whoever rolls higher goes first, in any order. You then switch back and forth throughout combat.

    I’ve houseruled it a little bit for balance: I didn’t like that one side would get to act completely before the other side went, so now the losing side gets one person to act first (I haven’t tried this in a solo fight yet – that would require modification).

    • Shawn Merwin
      Shawn Merwin17 March 2015

      I agree that one whole side of a combat going first is less than ideal, especially a higher levels when some seriously powerful attacks that affect most of the combatants can be leveled. I generally try not to let any monsters with powerful area-of-effect spell go back to back, because that can really knock a party out too easily.

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