Technology Gamehackery: The Initiative Initiative




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    Gamehackery: The Initiative Initiative

    One of my gadget-strewn quests over years of gaming has been finding a good way to track initiative. I've seen a lot of methods -- and everyone loves what they're doing (or doesn't obsess about it), but I've got my favorites.

    What We Need

    Initiative is important for DMs, who need to keep things running in an orderly way.

    Taking control of initiative is critical to good tactical play. Players that manage initiative well have a huge tactical advantage -- one DMs often have and take for granted. If your game isn't particularly tactical, it may not matter as much to you, but our group loves tactical combat, and being able to take control of initiative is a big part of that.

    It's also important for DMs and players who would like to speed up play -- it's much more difficult to plan your next turn if you don't know when your turn is going to come up -- so keeping players aware of their place in the initiative order is a big part of trying to play faster.

    So; we need a system that is accessible and transparent to players, easy to change as players and DMs tweak their place in the initiative order, and so on.

    Writing it Down

    Lots of folks do this -- write it on the corner of the battle mat, or on a notepad. Maybe you just write down numbers or write the orderů whatever. This is the most basic way to handle it, and for the sake of not hurting anyone's feelings we'll discard it because it's not using anything remotely gadgety. I mean, really. Get some toys, people. It's a game. it's supposed to be fun, and toys make it fun.

    Index Cards

    Back in 3.0 and 3.5 days, I loved index cards for initiative. In most cases I copied out the monster stat block onto index cards and could run the entire encounter from my initiative stack. Everything I needed was right there.

    Index cards make it easy to manage things like changes in initiative -- just reorder cards. When a player wants to delay, give them their card, they can hand it back to you when they want to come back in, and so on. You can write conditions on the cards, etc. Very handy.

    Cards break down, a bit, when it comes to trying to share information with players. Unless you're in the habit of announcing who's on deck, there's no way for the players to keep an eye on when their turn comes up, and it's very difficult for them to visualize how they can bend initiative to their benefit.

    Combat Pads

    These Gamemastery gadgets are pretty cool -- a magnetic dry erase board with movable magnetic name widgets -- its flexible and movable and very popular.

    I like the idea, but they have a lot of the same problems index cards have -- because it's in the DM's hands, it's hard for the players to see it and make plans. Also, my fat fingers and gnawed fingernails are not the best implements for prying the magnetic nameplates up and moving them around -- the process of adjusting initiative is always just a little time consuming.

    Software & Apps

    There's no lack of options out there -- iPhone and iPad apps, android apps too, as well as Mac and PC software that will manage initiative for you. If you're curious, check out DM Minion, or DM's Tracker.

    We started with Excel, just creating a list with names and numbers and sorting by the initiative roll. Once you start doing that, you can play around with tricks like repeating the name information in other cells in another part of the sheet, and spreading the sheet out onto a second monitor so it's visible to the players, too. There are problems, though -- it's a kludge, and takes a lot of work to get set up. And then there are the mistakes -- accidentally deleting characters, copy and paste errors, all kinds of problems. If excel didn't have an "undo" function, it could have been really impossible.

    For a long time I was a big fan of one called Turn Watcher, which is very good. Turnwatcher is a PC program that managed initiative for you and included a lot of extra information -- defenses, current hit points, conditions, and so on. Eventually they added support for a second, player-facing monitor which was a huge improvement. Now players could see the initiative order, make plans ahead of time, which was one of the critical ideas I wanted to have.

    There are other apps out there that do similar things -- Turnwatcher was the most robust one I found, but there's a tool associated with PCgen that handles initiative, as well as a host of apps for iPads and iPhones that make decent initiative and condition trackers.

    My frustration with all of these tools winds up being at the point at which I need to manage the information. If I'm using turn watcher to track initiative and hit points and conditions, that means that each time a target is hit, or healed, or subject to a condition, I need to make a change in the program -- a few clicks of the mouse, a few keys, shouldn't take too long.

    It should have been fast, but it sure felt slow. To record a change in hit points I can make a couple of strokes with a pen or I can do a mouse click to select the victim, type in the damage, hit returnů the pen still feels faster to me. It probably has everything to do with the mental work required to go from playing an analog game, switching to using a digital device, then going back to the analog game - it feels like a long path to go when all we're trying to do is make it possible for Dingo the Stalwart to delay until after Scooter the Wise takes his turn and casts' Bull's Strength.

    Initiative Tents/Hangers

    So, when we pack up to to go conventions, we don't take our computers and external monitors and most of the electronics. A DM friend of mine -- the one who first mastered the Excel spreadsheet initiative tracker in our group -- started using little folded bits of card stock (cut down from index cards), about 1" wide and about 2" long, folded in the middle so you end up with a little tent with 1"x1" sides.

    We use different color card stock for players and monsters. One side of the card stock has the PC or NPC name, written large enough to be visible across the table. The other side (which faces the DM) has the name again, the initiative bonus, and the initiative total.

    There are variations on this out there already -- people using a DM screen can hang folded cards over the top of the screen and get the same effect. I often use the tents to track conditions, too. And I've seen people who add other key details to the cards (key skills or defenses, etc). I'll use Post-It Flags to quickly attach a marker to a tent that indicates a condition -- and if I need to I can write something on the flag to indicate what it is or when it expires. Others use a variety tokens set in front of or behind the tent to indicate conditions. (Gale Force Nine makes a great line of tokens that work well for this)

    In the end, this method is so fast and effective we're using it at home, in place of all the higher tech solutions we've tried in the past.
    • It's fast for getting player initiative (distribute cards, they roll and write their new number on the card and pass it back)
    • player can see where they are in the initiative order at all times
    • it's very fast and easy to manipulate the initiative order (delay, held action, etc).


    And, as an added feature, it compartmentalizes the task in a nice, neat way that can be handed off to a player to manage. It's a little unnerving at first, but from time to time, when I have a large, complex encounter, I'll ask a player to manage the initiative so I can focus on more important things.

    So, what do you think? Do you have a better solution? Are my criteria out of line?
    Attached Thumbnails Attached Thumbnails tent-front.png   test-back.png  

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