Ah, combat. Nothing gives the players the same excuse to roll dice with such gusto and make use of every trick they spent hours putting together on their character sheets. Since nothing spells danger quite like the charging ogre wielding a great axe, combat represents the tension high-point during a convention slot. However, running combat also represents the biggest challenge for a DM during an adventure; there are powers to track, hit points to record and change constantly, conditions to monitor, dice to roll, and, perhaps most importantly, initiatives to track.
There are as many ways to track initiative as there are DMs, and any successful system accomplishes the following goals:
- allows the DM to keep track of who is doing what when
- keeps the players informed about who is next so they can prepare actions ahead of time
- frees the DM to focus on using challenging monster tactics and providing colorful descriptions
- provide a method of tracking on-going damage and effects
- be as easy to use as possible
Some methods I have seen used with great regularity are index cards (with each player and monster type having their own card), white boards, table tents (similar to fast food order tents), and the Paizo Combat Tracker . During this past Gamex Convention in Los Angeles, I implemented a super low-tech system which I found easy to use and which exceeded all of my expectations: notebook paper - with or without lines.
First thing to do once your table is mustered is to take a 1/2 sheet of paper and note who is sitting where; get character names, classes, races, visible armor and weapons/implements, passive insights, passive perceptions, and anything else you might want. This seating chart will help you refer to the PCs by name, know which PCs might detect a sneak or a trap, and generally put everything you might need at your fingertips. Collecting this information during character introductions also avoids spending extra session time preparing.
Next comes the combat tracking itself. Each combat will need 1/2 of a sheet of paper. Leave enough room on the left-hand side to record initiatives; ask for them in bands (i.e. anyone have an initiative above 20? Alright, 15-20? Above a 10? etc.) and record them in decreasing order. Be sure to leave a bit of extra room so you can note changes from delays and readied actions. Use the rest of the paper to track monster hit points, conditions, tokens/miniatures, etc. That way, you don't have to shuffle cards, everything is in one place, and all you need is the module page of statistics and this tracking sheet and combat is off and running. There is an example below of my combat tracking mid-fight so you can see for yourself how it works.
If you want a low-key and easy to use system, this is tough to beat. More importantly, it's something you can try our very cheaply and, if you don't like it, can leave behind with no waste or left-over stuff you might never use.
What do you use to track initiative and why does that work for you? I want to see what other ideas are out there.