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.