Take Some Initiative

Tabletop Tuesday

One of the key phrases in my D&D games is, “Roll for initiative!”

For the unfamiliar, that’s a sign that combat is about to start. Initiative is the way the players and storyteller figure out who is going first.

Depending on the game system you use and the way you run your table, combat can really slow things down. You wouldn’t think so… everything is supposed to be fast-paced like a Hong Kong movie fight scene (with slow-motion doves flying in the background).

But oftentimes, the slow motion is around the table.

This can’t get confusing at all.

“Uh… where’d that one guy go? I was going to shoot him with an arrow.”“Dude, the fighter pushed him out the window on his turn.”

“Oh, ok, who’s the closest enemy to me?”

“Look at the map.”

“Cool, (looks over character sheet for a minute, humming and stroking chin) I guess I’ll just use the same power I always use.”

“Ok, your attack hits, the orc is bloodied. Next up, the cleric.”

“Huh what?”

“You’re up.”

“Oh right. Um… let me see here… does anyone need healing? Anyone? …Guess not? So… uh… I’m going to… let me think.”

How do you solve this?

Ideally, let’s wave our hands and make all DMs/Storytellers able to craft the most compelling and exciting encounters that absolutely rivet the players’ attentions to the table.

Ok, that didn’t work. Maybe you’re lucky and you have one of those exceptional DMs. (Thank him or her if you do.)

But the rest of us don’t. So what next?

1. Try a timer.

Get an hourglass timer that runs for 30 seconds or one minute. Set a digital timer. Use something that will make it clear when the player has run out of time to make a decision. If you as the player cannot figure out even one thing for your character to do, then call it “effective role-playing” and your character gets to stand there in confusion. Again, it depends on the system you play, but in my current D&D games, a turn is supposed to be six seconds.

I can imagine standing and wondering what to do, stunned by the chaos of combat, for six seconds. The explanation is believable, and the suck factor of skipping your turn will force a bit more forethought and attention on what’s happening in game.

2. Try default actions.

One argument is that your characters are battle-hardened heroes, capable of daring feats and snap decisions. They wouldn’t freeze in fear. Your player, on the other hand, might be a tired mom, or a guy who just got off a long day of work, or (bad news) slightly severely hung over from a night of partying, or (worse news) showing up already under the influence. So treat the characters different than you treat the frazzled player.

Set up default actions for combat. Characters probably have some basic attack for fighting up close or at range. If the ranger player gets flustered, his character shoots an arrow at the nearest enemy. Done. If the fighter isn’t sure what move he wants to use, he attacks the closest enemy. The magician shoots off a basic spell. Unless healing is limited, the healer restores some health to the character with the lowest hit points. Or the healer clobbers an enemy with a mace.

The same goes for role-playing. If you’re sitting there for a minute while your player tries to figure out how to use a favorite but irrelevant skill (“Can I use Diplomacy to jump across the chasm?”) or if they just can’t figure out what to use, then they support the next player in the turn order. They can roll and  on a 15 or higher they earn a bonus for the next player’s use of a skill. If this becomes a problem, you take away the bonus and their default action becomes twiddling thumbs.

3. Training practice.

Maybe your players are unfamiliar with their characters and how things should work. The rulebook and the mechanics of combat (or even role-playing) can be a maze to the new player. Perhaps you can take some one-on-one time with the players who need some additional explanation. You can show them some examples of how their powers work, or what might be useful in which situations. Talk them through a basic encounter. Help them understand some of the player basics like focusing fire on one target until it’s down, or whatever special features might be unique to their character’s class.

Don’t just complain about players. Make better players.

4. Visual aids.

You know you want one
No excuses. You’re up next, and you can see it plain as day.

Some products like the initiative tracking board might help players keep up with what’s going on. If people know when their turn is coming up, the hope is that they will get away from the distraction and get back to the game. A turn tracker like the picture gives everyone a clear idea of who’s up next. Ideally, the player can then have a plan in mind and go into their turn ready to move the combat along.5. Ban distractions.

Cell phones and computers can be fun tools for gaming. There are dice apps, and soft copy character sheets with databases and equations that automatically update. Wizards of the Coast has the D&D Character Builder that lets you manage your character online (with a subscription fee). There are ways to use computers to play virtual tabletops (check out Roll20 for example), and some DMs like me find that a laptop screen is the best DM screen ever.

The trouble is that electronics can also be a powerful monster in their own right. Make a Will save to not click alt-Tab and check Facebook or browse YouTube for hilarious videos.

Rocks fall. You lose Wi-Fi access.

6. Give monsters short-term goals.

Often combat becomes a numbers fest where each side fights to bring the other side to zero health. How realistic is that? Do our militaries engage each other in fights intended simply to bring the other side to complete destruction? Generally, both sides in the conflict have an objective to work toward. I’m going to do more with this point in another post, so I’ll stop here. But I hope you can see that a fast objective might keep attention on what’s happening and how to stop the bad guys. It’s certainly better than rolling single-digit attacks for five turns while the big boss monster flails about with a handful of hit points left, waiting for the inevitable deathblow.

7. Cut some useless rolling.

If your group is comfortable with it, cut down on the useless rolls. Does the burly fighter REALLY need to roll a check to smash through the door, or can we say he does it with a wave of the hand? Is that cheating? If you think he absolutely must roll and add bonuses and check against the difficulty of the door… and we must discuss or think about whether it is hardwood reinforced with steel or simply a shoddy construct of wood beams… and if you are fine with the idea that based on the roll of a die, the spindly wizard can walk up and kick the door down with a roll of 18 while the big fighter might batter himself against it uselessly if he rolls badly. Sure, then it’s cheating. But we can save time by simply moving on to the rolls and the actions that advance the story.

So there you have it.

Seven options you can adapt to what suits your group, in order to make the slow parts of the game pick up some speed. Take some initiative and give these a shot, then let me know if they work for you.

For those of you who regularly play, what am I forgetting? What works for your group?


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