Clean Up Your Initiative!


As everyone knows, epic battles are expected from a Dungeons & Dragons game now and then, whether that be a group of heroes defending a village from a dragon or coming face to face with a lich controlling an undead horde. However, epic battles can sometimes mean lots of enemies or npc’s to keep track of with an initiative order three miles long, and for new DMs that can be daunting. I know that I struggled with it when I first started out, trying to keep track of hp for eight different enemies whose mini’s all looked the same, all while remembering which of the pcs I inflicted with which conditions and trying not to let your players see that you definitely lost your place and are moving enemies out of turn. Below I outline some tips I have come across to help clean up your initiative and help you have a smoother, funner combat.


Roll Similar Enemies On The Same Initiative Count

This one is a very simple trick to help clean up any initiative order that has multiple enemy types. This allows you to have fewer initiative places to keep track of and allows you and your players a little wiggle room in case you do forget the enemies exact turn order, at least you know, all these guys take their turn right now. Is your party going to be attacked by a band of orcs as they travel through a mountain pass? Group all of your Orcs into one initiative, your Orogs into another, and have the War Chief that leads them on his own initiative. You will have an order that is easier to track and you will be able to speed up your combat just a little bit more, which is always a good thing.


Animals/Familiars/Pets? Have Them Act When Their Owner Does

Giving a pet to a player or party can be a fun way to set up some interesting role-play situations and even present challenges to a situation players may not have had to think about before. As your game goes on though, and your druid is able to create their own animals and your wizard gets a familiar, you can start to have a handful of things to keep track of. If you feel overwhelmed by the numbers, have them act on their owner’s turn. The majority of the time, if the animal is important enough to be in combat, the owner will be issuing it commands/instructions anyway. Not only does it help clean up your initiative order, but it also gives the controlling player an easier time coordinating with their animal buddies, as they are able to act simultaneously, instead of broken up over two turns.


Assign Enemies A Number Of Hits Instead Of HP

In a campaign setting large scale battles can be daunting. Hell, sometimes a battle with more than three enemies can seem daunting when you have a party of seven or eight different characters. Sometimes, though, you just need to convey that overwhelming feeling of being outnumbered. While just surrounding players with a bunch of minis on a map is an easy way to do so, it can also be an easy way to overwhelm the DM with work. Instead of keeping track of individual life totals, assign a number of successful attacks it takes to kill your enemies. Say your players are in a city under siege by an army of demons, as they find themselves surrounded by a horde of dretchs, manes, and quasits. Use the creature’s normal AC and assign 1 hit to the manes and quasits, and 2 hits to the dretchs. This way, instead of tracking HP, you only have to know that a manes or a quasit gets hit once before it dies and a dretch requires two hits to be killed. A lot less thinking for the DM should hopefully lead to a smoother combat.


Use An App/Digital Initiative Tracker

The popularity of tabletop gaming these days has led to the creation of a myriad of digital tools available for every style of ttrpg out there. That being said there are a number of different initiative tracking apps and tools out there whether you are on a tablet or a computer, or an android or an apple. These tools can handle a lot of the thinking for DM’s amidst combat and there are enough out there you can probably find one to match your DMing style. You can find ones as simple as lists that you can enter names into or you can find apps that not only allow you to track initiative, but everything else about your campaign as well. I use an app called Game Master 5 by Lion’s Den which I use for all of my campaign information but the initiative tracker alone is worth the download. You can set it to auto-roll dice for your enemies and your players, roll similar enemies in groups, and even keep track of which conditions anyone is affected by.


Tell Players When They Are On Deck

This one may seem simple, and it is, but it can easily be overlooked by a DM enthralled with the heat of combat and fresh player blood. Combat is exciting, but try to keep a level head and remember that we are also here to make this enjoyable for the players and one way to do that is to keep things moving. When you announce that it is a player’s turn, get in the habit of also announcing which player will be going after them. Most players are very easily distracted during combat if it is not engaging or isn’t moving quickly. Reminding a player their turn is coming up next can drastically reduce how much time they spend taking their turn by getting them to start thinking about it early. 


Make The Order Public Knowledge

Simple. Do it. I cannot stress enough that the single most important thing to moving along a combat sequence is to have your players be engaged and thinking about their turn before it is their turn. Along with reminding people they are on deck, as mentioned above, this one is huge. It gives you a solid reference for turn order and holds your players accountable. No more “Oh, I didn’t realize I was next, hold on, let me see what spells I have prepared”. Having a list everyone can see, should provide ample time for everyone to be able to think about their turn as the state of the combat changes, so they are ready to go right away when it is their turn.


I hope these few tips help you clean up your initiative order and have a smooth combat. Have a tip you think we should know? Make sure to leave it in the comments below. We are always looking for ways to help people have a better game!

About The Author

Justin Dixon
Justin Dixon
Dix has been playing D&D for over 7 years and has been a professional dungeon master for about 3 years. He has been a featured author in multiple releases from Grim Press including Creatures of the Underdark and soon The Goblins of Beetle Hollow from Crumbling Keep. He has worked with the acclaimed pop-up tavern Orcs! Orcs! Orcs! He is the producer for the Help Action podcast and played Amelia Whiteheart on the live play podcast The Swordcast Adventures.

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