Rolling for Initiative: A few different methods and how to use them in game.

Everyone has a favourite method for rolling initiative and controlling the flow of combat. It doesn’t really matter what rule set you’re using, when things kick off and blades are drawn, or slugs are belching from barrels, then it’s important to know who is going first, or is it?

There is nothing that focus’s players attention, and cuts through the narrative chatter more than those seven little words.. “Right, Lets have an Initiative Roll then!” Over the years I have heard arguments for narrative combat, for very mechanical combat and all sorts of mixtures in between.

I have sat and listened to both players and GM’s alike describe a manoeuvre that would take about 20 minutes to complete, but they want to do it in a 10 second round. So let’s start this little series of articles about combat and how to make it run a little smoothly during your games, with different ways of handling initiative and how to present it to the players.

I am assuming that most of you that read this blog, already play in some sort of Roleplaying game, either as a GM or as a player, or are at the very least thinking about getting involved, so feel free to shoot me an email if you have different methods of dealing with initiative or have any tips or tricks to make it easier.

Generating Initiative

Let’s start with some methods for how Initiative is decide, or not rolled as the case may be.


Most systems have a way of rolling initiative which rewards the fast or combat trained characters, those that you think would have quicker reaction times, than their compatriots.

I find the easiest way to handle this type of roll is to get everyone to roll at the same time and then go round the table from left to right asking each player to tell you what their total initiative score is, then spend a few moments writing them down and organising them.

Playing Cards

Some systems use Playing cards for initiative, like Deadlands, but they are a good way of generating random numbers without rolling dice. Aces High or low, it’s easy to determine the order of action by who is holding the next highest card, and if the same card is drawn you can determine it by order of suit.


Lots of board games use tokens, organised face down, mixed up and then drawn randomly from either a bag or from the table top. This can also be a way set turn order or initiative value.

It can also be a really good way to randomly generate a number of to solve ties during a gaming session.

Organising Initiative

There are loads of different ways of doing this, and I’ll just list a few here.

Game Accessory

There are a few game accessories out there that are produced by some mighty fine company’s out there like Paizo, or Gale Force Nine. Personally I use the Paizo Gamesmastery Combat pad, as it has funky little magnets, and a wipe clean note section that I can scribble all sorts of things on.

The magnets let me organise the initiative order, and the fact that they are all dry wipe magnets allows me to move people around the initiative order if they are delayed, or knocked unconscious.

Note Pads

The staple of any roleplayers stationary cupboard. The preferred method for most GM’s that I know.

Write the name of the player and or character down write the number down next to the player, then re-write the list to show the order.

Post-it Notes

Similar thing to the note pad but these little sticky square monkeys can be re arranged without too much of an issue. They can be stuck to surfaces like the front of a GM screen or to the table in the area in front of the GM, so that everyone can see what is going on.

Index Cards

These are useful for more than just Initiative. They are generally big enough to get combat statistics on as well, like wounds, armour values and other important numbers like perception scores or saving throw modifiers.

I know a GM that has index cards written out like mini character sheets, and then laminates them. He then writes on them using wet erase markers, so that he can change the info when the characters level up.

More importantly though he has a space on it to record the initiative value in the top right hand corner of the card, and puts them in order so that he can see all the relevant information during the combat round. More on this style of GM note taking in another article soon.

Well that’s all i have for today, so please feel free as always to leave your comments either below or on th efacebook page, and ill have another article ready for you soon!

Andy @ DMB

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Andy has been involved in the gaming industry for a long time. He has played in or run almost every type of roleplaying game imaginable, he has worked for Games Workshop as a store manager and has written several articles and adventures for various games company’s and websites. He lived in the USA for some time exploring the gaming scene out there and seeing how the Americans do things bigger and better than most……

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