Improved Initiative

Posted on September 4, 2009 by


I finally had the chance to sit down and play some D&D this week, my first post-Gencon session.  We had a blast, and as my players are quickly  approaching the end of the heroic tier, events in my campaign are coming to a head.  A good time was had by all, even if all we were able to fit in the evening were two fights.

I took the opportunity to sample two more initiative and condition tracking methods that I hadn’t used before, both offering me simplicity and an ease of use at the table that make them both highly recommended.   I recently wrote an article highlighting an application called Initracker, an app I quickly fell in love with for its convenience and effortless initiative and condition tracking.  Today, I introduce two more  welcome additions to my growing arsenal of tools for the purpose of initiative.  So let’s look at both, one  an analog one, and the other a fully digital one.

Hanging Initiative Cards

This system, to my knowledge, was first created by Mike Shea over at the blog and Mike’s a D&D DM that I had the pleasure of playing with at Gencon, and he’s an all around good guy.  He came up with a system to track initiative where he hangs folded over note cards on the DM screen, letting players at the table see whose turn it is, and what conditions are affecting the character or monster.  Here’s a picture from Mike’s Flicker album:


As you can see, Mike has cards with his player’s names and a smaller card on top of that for the conditions.  Great method.   And so, along comes Toddster on twitter pimping his wares.  A fully formatted PDF containing cards of varying dimensions ready for you to print, fill out, and play.  Check out his flicker photo:


He put four pages on the pdf, with templates for different size cards and pre-written bloodied cards.  I was great, I wrote in the PC names, created cards for some of the conditions I knew my monsters would affect the PC’s with, and rolled inititiative.  On the reverse side of the cards (facing the DM) are spaces for the AC/Defenses of the combatants.  I found it useful to also write in passive perception scores.  Here’s a pic of my setup:


I found a great benefit with this system right off the bat:  It kept player’s hands off the board a bit more than usual… I’ll explain.  We normally track conditions using a modified version of the Alea Tools magnets:

The poor Rogue should be taken out of his misery.

The poor Rogue should be taken out of his misery.

This system has worked great for us, but made the game feel a little too board-centric.  The players were constantly having to click magnets on and off, apply a magnet here, take a magnet off there.  It’s a great system because everyone knows what’s affecting the mini, but it can quickly get too distracting for my tastes.  With the card system, all the players still see what’s affecting who, in what order everyone is acting, who’s on deck, and more importantly keeps their hands off the battlemat.  The players are instead more focused on my descriptions and less on whether or not a magnet has to be removed or not.

This card system has become my players favorite system, and I can see why.  I plan to Photoshop in the PC names as large as I can, and use this on occasion.  No doubt about it.  Here’s a link to the  PDF.

DM’s Tracker

For those of you DM’s that love using digital tools to assist your gaming (I include myself in that category), you’ll love this app.  DM’s Tracker is an app for the iphones and the ipod touch.  It is a great tool to have for those games where you really don’t feel like taking your laptop with you, or just feel like carrying a lighter load.  It also makes your footprint at the table a lot less crowded.  But even better than all that, it’s just a really cool app to have and it’s very easy to use.  Like Initracker, which I can’t help to make the unavoidable comparisons to,  DM’s Tracker requires that you enter the combatants ahead of time, then create your encounters into groups.  The developers have a video that explains the ins and outs of the app better than I can, so here it is:

Now, being a digital tool, I felt going in that DM’s Tracker was going to have to really impress me in comparison to Initracker.  And for the most part it did.  It is one neat little app.  There are a few things I wish it did differently, and I’ll highlight those here.  I’m writing this under the assumption that you watched the video I linked to, if not please do so.

So 4th ed. is a game where conditions and marks are a huge part of the combat dynamic.  Almost every monster will impose a condition on a player, be it blinded, immobilized, or whatever else.  It can be tricky to manage so many conditions, both for the players and the DM.  The one area (and it’s a small one) where I believe DM’s Tracker could use the upgrade is  keeping track of when the conditions end.  If you are using the app, then it’s still your responsibility to remember.  Yes, it’s a small complaint, I know, but having that info automatically given to you is a great asset, and I’m spoiled.

The other area is in the marks.  It would be great if through maybe the icon system, a marked character and the person doing the marking shared a like icon.  That way, by looking at both icons, you know who is marking who.  I don’t know, just a thought.  I have a big party with quite a few defenders, and I find myself asking quite a bit who’s marking who.

Other than those minor things, it’s a wonderful app.  It tracks combat and hit points beautifully.   I love the way you can quickly clone a monster you’ve created to add another like it to the combat.  Applying damage is a breeze, and it all fits in the palm of your hands.  I’m wondering though how much of the ipod’s processing power this thing is taking up, because I did experience some slow down here and there, but not enough to call it a problem.  I love the amount of help and documentation available for DM’s Tracker.  It has a built in help system that’s very useful when you need to quickly look up how something’s done.  This though, is to be expected, considering it is not a freeware initiative tracker like others out there, but rather a software you have to pay for.  In the interest of full disclosure, Kbarapps, the developers, sent me a download link to review DM’s Tracker.  It is available at the itunes store for $2.99, and here is a link to their website.

Ultimately, as a DM, you’re going to go with the system that makes you comfortable.  I’d be lying if I said I’ve still found it.   The more I try new methods out, the more I’m drawn to each and every one of them.  Right now my players like the card system.  I like both Initracker and DM’s Tracker, but I’m growing used to the idea of not having to pull out my laptop just to track initiative.  Having a system on my ipod is very convenient.  That’s why I think I’ll turn Improved Initiative into a mini series of posts here on NewbieDM, there’s still a few other digital trackers I need to try out, and I’ll give you my thoughts.

Posted in: 4e D&D, DM Tools, Gaming