This is part 5 of 6 of the series: Run Better Battles

How to Manage Combat Like a Motherf$&%ing Dolphin

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On Monday, I wrote a rant about how I’m tired of hearing dips$&%s GMs complain about the speed of combat because the speed of combat is in their hands. The thing is, a good two-thirds of my articles are written as a result of my getting tired of listening to GMs complain about stupid things. Or give bad advice about how to fix stupid things. Seriously? Do you want me to write an article on a specific topic? Go ahead and start complaining about a stupid thing and then send me a link. If I don’t hunt you down and slap you unconscious – just block you on social media channels – I’ll probably write an article about it. Of course, you could just submit a question to Ask Angry (it’s back, baby!), but man do I ever have a huge backlog of questions.

My point is, I have a lot of trouble listening to GMs getting worked up over stupid, nonsensical things. Trivialities. Non-issues. Like the recent article from Self-Proclaimed Lazy DM, Sly Flourish, explaining the logical arguments why NOT rolling for monster damage is better for your game. The thing is, I’m not even weighing in on the issue of whether it is or is not better for your game. I think actually wasting time on that little non-argument was a waste of virtual ink. Or pixels. Whatever blog entries waste. Because, the possible cost-benefit calculation for static or rolled damage is so close to even that it doesn’t matter. It’s ultimately going to come down to whether you, as a GM, like rolling more dice or not. There’s really no place for logical argument to enter into it. It’s a non-problem.

Speaking on non-problems, let’s talk about initiative. See, initiative is one of those things that drives me f$&%ing bonkers. Why? Because GMs have been making a big deal about it for years. F$&%ing YEARS! And every gaming blog and every advice-giving GM and every podcast eventually shares their brilliant method for “taking the pain out of initiative.” Use index cards. Use table tents. Ask a player to track it. Game Mastery is actually making ACTUAL F$&%ING MONEY selling a goddamned magnetic initiative tracking board. Holy mother of f$&%.

And newer GMs or players who are turning into GMs see this s$&% and think initiative is the most daunting f$&%ing thing they ever have to do. Never mind that there are literally five hundred pages of rules to the goddamned game you have to manage. Never mind the fact that you are responsible for forcing five anti-social dips$&%s to compromise enough that they can work together to accomplish a simple goal like “rescue the monster from the evil princess.” Never mind the fact that there is a constant stream of new material and new errata for every goddamned game AND a constant stream of new games out there to keep abreast of. Never mind the fact that a GM has to be an expert on an entire f$&%ing imaginary world, on game design, on story structure, and on group f$&%ing psychology. Never mind all of that. The real test of a GMs mettle, the true challenge, is how to keep track of a sequence of LESS THAN TEN TURNS that DOESN’T CHANGE FROM ROUND TO ROUND! Well holy s$&%. Stop the f$&%ing presses. We need to fix THAT pronto.

In point of fact, as much as I’ve complained about how most GMs treat initiative tracking like it’s trying to work out the recipe for the Philosopher’s Stone using only a Dan Brown novel written in the same mystery script as the Voynich Manuscript, I’ve avoided weighing on the topic because it seems like such a stupid thing to waste a blog entry on. See above. After all, my response to to all of the initiative arguments is “it’s just a list of f$&%ing numbers! Holy mother of f$&%! Write a list of f$&%ing numbers! On a piece of paper!”

Recently, someone – I won’t say who because he’s getting really damned clingy via social media and I need to put the kibosh on that before I have to take out a restraining order – recently, someone on social media suggested I write a joke article about initiative tracking where I explain in my usual, painstaking detail how to write a list of numbers. And, you know what? It actually seemed like a funny idea. And I was thinking of doing just that. But, two things stopped me.

First, I don’t do that s$&%. My blog isn’t a joke. I pride myself on not wasting people’s time. If I am going to ask you to read 5,000 words on a topic, they’d better be 5,000 useful words. Hell, even this overly long intro is going to transition into something much bigger than actually just how to track initiative. See, the thing is, the conventional wisdom among bloggers and social media dips$&%s is that the modern reader has no attention span. You can’t write more than 1,500 words or so before you lose your audience. And me, I break that rule CONSTANTLY. I use my blog wrong. I use Twitter wrong. I do it all wrong. And the only reason I can get away with that is by actually saying valuable, useful things. Also, because I’ve cultivated an intelligent, attentive audience that consists of the best of the best of the gaming crowd and now that Stockholm syndrome has set in, I can get away with anything.

But second, I recently wrote an article about how D&D is NOT too easy the way some people claim. And the backlash from that raised another point, that D&D combat can be too slow and that it takes too long. So, I railed against that. And there hasn’t been a backlash against that yet because it’s been out for less than a day as I write this. But there will be. There ALWAYS is.

But then I realized that there’s a real problem joining together the whole initiative and pacing issue in combat. In fact, the initiative tracking issue (and various proposed solutions) just lead to the pacing issue. Suddenly, I begin to suspect that the issue of how to track initiative isn’t about initiative at all. It’s about how to control a combat. How to run a battle.

Because, here’s the thing: like everything in D&D, there’s actually a process. And good GMs eventually stumble on the process. It varies a little from GM to GM, but the essential steps are always the same. And no one – NO ONE – has ever just spelled out the steps. It’s kind of like how I spelled out the steps of “how to figure out what happens when a player says ‘this is the thing my character does’” No one had ever just explained it.

So, this article is about how to track initiative using a simple list of numbers. BUT, it’s also about how to actually pace and control a combat. And, by the end, you’ll see why overly complicated initiative solutions don’t actually solve any real problems. They just mask them. And why delegating initiative is pretty much the worst thing you can do for combat.

You Are In Control

Let’s start with the idea of delegating initiative and why you absolutely should never, EVER delegate initiative to a player.

The thing is, you – as the GM – have absolute control over the pace of combat. Combat is supposed to be exciting, fast-paced, and tense. And it relies on momentum to keep the tension high. And, like everything in the game, you – the GM – have to maintain the proper pace. You have to be in control.

Initiative tracking is not just about whose turn it is. See, initiative – as the controller of the turn and round order – literally sets the foundation for the pace of the entire combat. And you can’t put that tool in a player’s’ hands. Now, you might think that I’m overstating the case. As long as you can rely on the player to announce whose turn it is, initiative tracking doesn’t have to break the flow. But, by the end of this article, you will understand that the initiative doesn’t just determine whose turn it is. It also helps narrate the combat. And narration is the tool by which you maintain the pace. Let me explain.

Why Dolphins are Great GMs

Let’s talk about the actual pace and flow of combat. Let’s talk about how combat actually plays out on a moment by moment basis.

First, the combat begins with scene-setting narration, just like any scene. The GM describes the situation and gives the players the information they need to make their first set of decisions in the combat round. That’s the opening narration.

Next, the combat actually starts to play out. And it plays out in turns and rounds. Each turn – each turn taking by a PC, that is – follows a simple process.

  1. The GM Transitions Into the Players’ Turn
  2. The Player Asks a Question or Declares an Action
  3. The Action is Resolved
  4. The GM Describes and Applies the Results
  5. The GM Transitions Out of the Players’ Turn

Now, the funny thing about this is that steps 1 and 5 are not even often thought of as steps. And that is why initiative isn’t thought of as part of the narrative. Because, here’s how it plays out at a typical table.

GM: Alice, your turn.
Alice: I’ll run up and attack the goblin with my mace. 15.
GM: You hit the goblin. Roll for damage.
Alice: 6 bludgeoning damage.
GM: Great. You hit for six damage. Bob, your turn.

Here’s how it usually plays out at my table.

GM: Alice, four goblins are charging the party. What do you do?”
Alice: I’ll run up and hit the goblin with my mace. 15.
GM: Damage?
Alice: 6 bludgeoning damage.
GM: You charge the goblin and smash it with your mace, bringing it to a stop. It’s allies are hesitating. Bob, you’ve got an opening…

It’s a very slight difference. And the difference is entirely in the transitions. It’s a little rule I call begin and end with narration. There’s nothing inherently narrative about calling out whose turn it is. Here’s the deal. The flow of combat is like a dolphin. I s$&% you not. Ever watch dolphins swimming along the surface? They tend to follow a wave pattern. They jump out of water in an arc and then plunge down under the surface. Then they swim back up toward the surface, jump out again, then then plunge down under the water.

That wave pattern demonstrates the interplay between narrative and mechanics in a well-run combat. See, dolphins need to breathe air. They can’t stay underwater forever. And if they are trying to cover a lot of distance quickly, they need to breathe a lot. Just like how when you run, you breathe more quickly. So, they leap up out of the water, take a breathe, and then plunge down under the water to swim. Jump, breathe, plunge, swim. The swimming maintains the forward momentum, the breathing keeps them from – you know – dying.

Mechanics in D&D are like breathing. You have to keep doing them or there is no game. But They don’t keep the game actually moving forward. That’s the narrative. The narrative is what drives the momentum of the game forward. And that is why every turn in combat begins and ends with narrative. That’s where the game plunges down under the water to keep the speed and momentum. And then we break out of that to resolve the mechanics and take a breath of air. Then, splash, back down into the water.

Those transitions are important on a fundamental level. They keep combat exciting and interesting. In fact, they are more important than huge amounts of description. In fact, in fact, they are more important to the pace and flow and narrative of combat than convincing your players to describe their actions in excruciating detail. Seriously. I know I’m once again going against the conventional wisdom, but if you want the game to feel like it’s telling an exciting story, description is less important than pacing and narrative flow. People’s imaginations will fill in the description. They will. I swear they will. But only if you pace it properly.

Now, transitions – as you’ve learned – are an important part of narration. And between every turn in combat, there’s a transition. You have to move the spotlight from one character to the next. And if you do that in a wholly mechanical way, you lose the flow. You don’t get that nice Ecco the Dolphin effect.

And that means you need the initiative tracking in front of you and easily referenced so that you can weave that list of numbers into something remotely interesting narratively. And remember that after every transition, because we’ve covered this, you also need a bit of scene setting. Even if it’s just a single goddamned sentence. In fact, that’s all it should be. At the start of every turn in combat, you should say a few words (and NO MORE) about what’s going on in the scene right now, specifically to the person whose turn it is. Even if all you do is remind the player of what just happened.

And when you get good at this, the transitions out of one turn and into another meld together. The resolution of one action sets the scene for the next. Alice meeting the goblin’s charge head on and causing a momentary hesitation creates the opening for Bob to act. That’s both resolution for Alice and scene-setting for Bob. Now Bob can act. And when Bob moves forward to fight alongside Alice, the missed attack with his great axe sets up the flow into the goblin’s turn.

GM: The goblin leaps aside, dodging your axe. He tries to dart past you to close with Dave. You get an opportunity attack. Roll it.
Bob: 11.
GM: The goblin dodges that too and dashes forward, lunging at Dave with his shortsword. Dave, what’s your AC?
Dave: 13.
GM: Ouch. He stabs you in the side for 6 piercing damage, sending you stumbling backwards while the other two goblins draw to a stop and face Alice and Bob head on. Alice, the goblin recovers his breath from your blow and thrusts his shortsword. A crit! You take 12 damage.
Alice: Damn it! I’m really hurt!
GM: The other goblin closes with Bob as he’s trying to stop the one getting past him. But… Bob sees him coming and dodges the blow. That’s a miss.
Bob: Phew.
GM: The goblins range themselves in front of Alice and Bob while a third goblin is ready to strike another blow at Dave. Carol, they seem to be ignoring you. What do you?

See how this works? Can you see the dolphin leaping up into mechanics and down into the narrative. See how there’s a cadence? A flow? And it isn’t overly descriptive either. Which is good, because it’s fast. Read it out loud. Seriously. Right now, read it out loud. How does it sound? It’s fast and exciting. Right?

And the only thing going on there is an awareness of transitions and scene setting.

How to Actually Make a List of Numbers

A few years ago, I went to a con and had some sort of mental breakdown wherein I decided to actually be a player at a game. I don’t know what the f$&% I was thinking. But whatever. And that’s when I discovered that, not only do some people overcomplicate initiative to the point of stupidity, some people even overcomplicate keeping a list of numbers. What happened was this.

The GM asked us to roll initiative. We all did. Then he took out a piece of paper. And he started asking “does anyone have over 30?” And then he asked “does anyone have over 20” and two people raised their hands. And they each gave their score. And he listened to both and then wrote them both down. And then he asked if anyone had over 15. And there was a person and also a monster. So he made some more notes. And he kept going on like this until he had all the initiatives recorded. It was weird. And it wasn’t exactly a speedy process. And it required more cognitive load from the GM than initiative really should. One combat, we had three people and one monster in the same narrow range of initiative and, holy f$&%, you’d have thought his brain actually short circuited. Because he has to ask about three numbers, add one more, put them all in sequence, decide how to resolve ties, and so on.

Now, this is how initiative works at my table.

Me: Roll initiative.
[Clatter of dice]
Me: Alice?
Alice: 14
Me [quick note]: Bob?
Bob: 8
Me [quick note]: Carol?
Carol: 22!
Me [quick note]: Cool. Dave?
Dave: … 7.
Me [quick note]: Ouch. That sucks.
Me [rolls dice, adds three monsters, done]

It is an extremely quick pass around the table with no extraneous questions and no extra wasted time. Because, remember, when we’re writing down initiative, we’re out of the water. We’re in the mechanics. The game is stopped. Get that s$&% done.

How do I perform this magical feat of pure genius? By not being a dumba$&.

Start with a piece of paper, right? Imagine the top of paper is like 30 or 40 or whatever. And the bottom of the piece of paper is 0. Don’t actually number the paper. That’s dumb. You don’t need to do that.


Now, you ask each player (and, by the way, I use character names) their initiative. If the number is high, it goes near the top. If it’s low, it goes near the bottom. Write the number and the first letter of their name down. Use two letters if you don’t use the rule that each character’s name must start with a different first letter (I s$&% you not, that is an actual rule in my game for precisely the reason that I only need ONE letter for each character). For example, Alice got a 14. She’s a little above the middle.


Bob got 8. He’s below the middle. Carol got a 22, she’s pretty high up there. Dave got a 7, he’s right below Bob. But you always leave a space until you add your monsters. So that you can squeeze monsters in there.


Then, you roll for your monsters and add them to the list. You can abbreviate them however you want. And then you can just go down the f$%&ing list. The point is, though, you didn’t waste a lot of time with “who got a number between 25 and 30? Both of you? Okay, who rolled higher?”


It’s easy. And with practice, you can do it really quickly.

And THEN, you can add on the monster hit points. For example, my sniper has 16 HP. The ogre has 48 HP. And there are two skirmishers with 12 HP each. Now, I have their max HP right there.


And THEN, I can track the monster HP RIGHT ON THE INITIATIVE SHEET. And, for that matter, you can add other notes too. Like, if someone is poisoned for three rounds, you can write a quick note next to them. You can scribble the hell all over this thing.


As for tracking HP, do it as quickly as possible. Tick marks work well at low levels when the damage is small. Or you can write and cross out numbers and count up. Whatever is the most comfortable. But remember: SPEED.

In THAT way, the Initiative Tracker isn’t just an initiative tracker. It’s the dashboard for the entire combat. It gives you all of the info you need to narrate and pace the combat. Who’s up? How hurt is that ogre? How long until Alice’s curse wears off? Whatever.

When the next fight breaks out, you draw a line and track the next fight on the same page.


And the next one after that. You can fit three or four fights across one sheet of scratch paper.


Now, this is pretty simple, right? And it does everything you need. Now do you see why I find utterly baffling that people make such a giant f%$&ing deal over how to track initiative? I’ve literally been doing it like this for over 25 years! I figured this out when I was f$&%ing TWELVE! And nothing – NOTHING – has ever paced a game better. Not index cards. Not table tents. Not the f$&%ing magnetic f$%&ing Pathfinder f$&%ing Initiative Tracker. Yeah, I really did buy one. You want it? Let me know. I’ll mail it to you. Because it’s basically just an expensive, magnetic, less versatile version of the piece of f$&%ing looseleaf I’ve been using forever.

But, fine, okay, so that’s how to track initiative. And, like I said, that’s central to pacing the combat. But how do you keep a combat moving once the idiot players get involved.

Urgency and Exigency: The Twin Terrors of Game Pacing

Let’s talk about two words: urgency and exigency. These are the two things that create the pace and tension of combat. And these are also the things that keep the players moving forward.

Urgency refers to a situation that requires immediate attention. When there is a dire weevil chewing on your face, that is urgency. When the cleric is bleeding to death, that is urgency. When the goblins have surged past you and are threatening to stab the hell out of the wizard and the rogue, that is urgency. Urgency are things that have to be handled.

Exigency is similar but different. Exigency refers to an opportunity that will disappear if you don’t take it immediately. I could use game examples, but the real world provides the best example. You know those “one day sales” or “this weekend only sales events” that stores always have? That is exigency. The idea is, if you don’t take advantage of the sale, you’re going to lose out.

A player’s turn in combat needs to have both urgency (there’s an emergency that needs to be dealt with) and exigency (if you don’t take action right now, you will lose your opportunity). That’s what makes combat scary and that’s what keeps it running forward. And you, as a GM, need to create those two sensations.

Creating Urgency

As a GM, it’s your job to bring the combat to life. To make it feel like an emergency, like a life or death situation. And it’s actually really easy NOT TO. If you’re using miniatures and a map, you tend to let those handle the description. And THAT – more than any other factor and I don’t care what other dips$%&s say about game systems – THAT is what makes D&D feel like a chess game instead of a life-or-death struggle. And the trick to urgency is entirely in narration.

Now, again, you’re going to get a lot of dips$&%s telling you how important it is to describe actions and use all sorts of prose to bring combat actions to life. None of that s$&% matters. Like I said above, what really matters is the scene-setting and the transitions.

At the start of each round of combat, you should be setting the scene. I don’t mean you have to re-describe the entire battlefield. I just mean you need to recap what’s currently going on. And it doesn’t have to be lengthy. In fact, it can be short. It can be matter-of-fact. What it does is emphasize the problems all around the PCs.

“Alice is battling the massive ogre in melee, both are looking pretty hurt. One goblin sniper remains, and it’s raining arrows on Bob who is stuck in battle with the goblin skirmisher. Another goblin is standing over Carol as she lays critically injured and dying. Dave, you’re still hiding behind the tree.”

That short statement about what’s going on resets the scene and points out the emergencies.

Then, at the start of every player’s turn, you need to point out where they are and what emergency is happening right now, either to them, or right near them. Try to guess what emergency the character would see as the most important. It actually doesn’t matter if you guess wrong. That urgency is still enough to kickstart the player brain.

“Alice, you’re up! The ogre is raising his massive maul, readying for another swing. He’s hurt, but still going. What do you do?”

“Bob, you’ve got a goblin dancing around your attacks and that sniper won’t leave you alone. What do you do?”

“Carol, you’re dying. Roll your death save.”

“Dave, you’re behind the tree and safe. But Bob is taking shots from that archer and Carol is dying. What do you do?”

Those simple prompts alone keep the pace of the combat flowing and help kickstart the player’s brain by getting them thinking about the situation in terms of urgency instead of mechanics. And you should never, ever NOT do that.

Also, this practice of creating urgency is what keeps the players focused. Some folks argue that letting the players see the initiative somehow helps them better prepare for their turn. But it doesn’t, really. A sense of urgency keeping them focused on the battle does more for helping them stay ready than all your table tents and initiative cards ever will.

Creating Exigency

Exigency is hard for a GM who isn’t me. Why? Because I’m naturally inclined to be an a$&hole and I don’t care about the feelings of my players. Or, more specifically, I understand that, in a life-or-death battle, the proper feeling for a player is near-panic. Players should feel panicked and rushed in combat because the characters are panicked and rushed in combat. But most GMs don’t go that route.

Most GMs are quite happy to let their players take all the time in the world to decide on things or to converse amongst themselves about the best course of action. That’s all f$&%ing bulls%&$. And if you can’t handle riding your players hard in combat, you can’t be a good GM. I don’t care what else you do well. If you can’t maintain a narrative pace, you can’t run a game.

And there’s only one way to create exigency. When it is a player’s’ turn, they need to begin speaking immediately. And if not, you need to prompt them.

Now, I realize that, thanks to my tone, it may come across to some dips$&%s that I’m encouraging you to be a complete a$&hat. And I am not. If you want to, I will support you. I am totally fine with the drill sergeant approach to GMing. BUT, that is not what you have to do to create exigency.

But you do have to make it clear that players need to make quick decisions or lose something. In the past, if a player took too long to decide, I put them on delay. In D&D 5E, that option doesn’t exist anymore. So I assume they take the Parry action. I actually call it “losing the turn to indecision.”

“What do you do? You need to decide or you’ll lose the turn to indecision.”

But, here’s the thing, it’ll almost never come to that. Or else, it’ll come to that ONCE. Precisely once. Because once the players realize you’re not dicking around and you WILL take their turn if they don’t, they won’t ever let that happen. A lost turn is literally the worst thing that can happen to a player except for an actual dead PC.

How much time do you allow your players? Well, it depends on how experienced they are. I generally cut new players SOME slack, but my baseline is zero seconds. I allow my players zero seconds to start talking at the start of their turn. After I say “what do you do,” I give them zero seconds to start talking to me. None. Not one second.

The players have been watching the battle go by for several turns before it comes back to them. If they’ve been attentive, they’ve been formulating and discarding plans the whole time. If they haven’t been attentive, they’re s$&% out of luck. Now, I’ve heard people argue that some players find combat boring and lose interest. But boredom is a luxury. You can only get bored if you have time to get bored. And if the combat is frantic and you’re literally going to get your character killed if you’re not attentive, you don’t get bored. You get tense. If your players are bored with combats, you’re letting them have that luxury. Don’t.

Now, exigency and urgency work together. The scene setting thing at the start of every turn where you point out an emergency the PC could deal with right away, it jumpstarts the player’s brain. That way, when you lay into the exigency, they have a starting point. The little bit of narration – that scene setting – is vital to prompting the player. And that’s why just riding the players about not taking too long doesn’t work. You need both. It creates the right pace and frame of mind and actually helps the player focus and reach a good decision quickly.

The Adjustment Period

If you haven’t used urgency and exigency before in your game, it’s going to be a rough adjustment for players. But the trick is to just start doing it and not let up. It’ll only take them about one or two combats at most to catch on to the new world order. They will get better and better at handling it (just like you get better and better at running it). They will make decisions more quickly, they will be more attentive, and they will make better overall decisions. But it IS a gradual process. It takes one to three sessions for everyone to fall into that groove.

And it’s also important that you follow the rest of the advice. You need to be like a frantic drill sergeant dolphin. You need to get into the zone. Set the scene, transition to the first player, set the scene, poll the player, resolve the action, apply and describe the results, transition away from the player to the next player, set the scene, poll the player, resolve the action, apply and describe the results, and so on and so on. But once you get it down, it’ll make things go very smoothly. And it’ll become second nature to you and your players.

Avoiding the Speedbumps

Now, the absolute worst thing that can happen to a panicked drill sergeant dolphin as it races through the ocean, soaring into the air with the majesty of a gray slimy eagle, and plunging into into the water like a bottle-nosed bullet, is that it hits a speedbump. Maybe it is swimming through a school zone or something. I don’t know. The point is, a speedbump can literally kill a racing dolphin. So, to wrap up this article, let’s talk about two speedbumps specific to D&D and Pathfinder so that they maybe won’t kill the dolphin of your game.

Assume the Best of the Characters

One of the biggest slowdowns in D&D and Pathfinder is the act of counting squares. And, the thing is, it’s totally f$&%ing unnecessary. I mean, D&D 5E did away with the worst of it. But it still happens. Here’s what I mean.

When a character moves, the player (and the DM) often think that the actual path is important. That is to say, you have to show every square through which the PC moves. And there’s a couple of mechanically good reasons to do it. First is to make sure that the character’s movement doesn’t exceed their speed. Fair enough. Second is to make sure the character doesn’t blunder into an opportunity attack. Third is to make sure the character doesn’t blunder into a trap.

But, hold on a second. Let’s rethink this bulls$&%. After all, we have the game marked out in squares, right? So it should be pretty easy to eyeball how far a character can move unless the character takes a complicated path through difficult terrain or something. And that actually doesn’t happen that often. Usually, PCs move pretty directly.

What really f$&%s things up is when GMs force a player to show the exact path in the hopes they can ‘spring’ something on the player. Like “oops, you went into the WRONG SQUARE and now I get to make opportunity attacks. Hahaha!” At which point, the player will take back the move and try to find a better path. That’s how it ALWAYS plays out.

So, skip that s$&%. If there is a safe path between the starting space and the destination, assume the character takes it. Let the player declare “I want to move there,” and if you – the GM – can perceive a safe path, it just happens. Simple as that.

Simply put, assume that a character is smart enough to take the most direct safe path available. And only in situations where it is literally impossible to take a safe, direct path in the speed allowed, do you need to start nitpicking over squares. And, in those situations, don’t nitpick over squares. Provide simple choices.

“You can get there if you take an opportunity attack from the ogre OR you can avoid the ogre and get there with a double move.”


And once your players KNOW you will do this s$&% and come to trust you, they will stop nitpicking over squares.

The same goes for lines of sight. Learn to eyeball them and make them easy. Done and done.

Only You Can Open a Rulebook And It’s Your Call

The other major source of slowdown is looking up rules. It can be anything from how a spell works to a particular ability to the specific rules of jumping over a chasm. Every time you crack open a rulebook, you might as well just go out and shoot a dolphin in the head.

Here’s the deal. Players don’t look up rules. They should get to know the rules of their characters and spells and whatever or have whatever references they need on hand at the table. And if they don’t know the rules, they should defer to the GM. The GM will either know the rules or make a judgment call or decide that it’s worth looking up a rule. That’s the GM’s call. If I catch a player with their head buried in a rulebook instead of talking to me, I generally take the rulebook away.

Because, let’s remember something: the rules are a tool by which the GAME MASTER determines the outcome of actions. Players don’t use the rules. Players project themselves into the minds of their characters, visualize the situation, and make the decision they think their character would make. The rules belong to the GM. And if a player isn’t clear on a rule, the player can ask the GM. And the GM will make a determination.

This, again, is one of those things that a lot of people argue with me about. Because they have decided their games should suck. And, that’s fine. If you want your game to suck, by all means, make it suck. But If you get into the habit – as a GM – of taking sovereignty over the rules, knowing the rules well, and making fair rulings when you don’t, you’ll gain the trust of the players and your game will run smoothly.

Now, some people – some GMs – like to make allowances for spellcasters, because there are so many spells with so many complex rules. And, again, I can’t stop you. But, in my view, if you want to a play spellcaster, you’d better know your stuff or you’d better be ready to trust me. Either way is fine. But those are the only two options. And if neither are to your liking, you can be a fighter.

Of course, I also went out and bought the 5E spell cards for precisely that reason. So, that’s also an option.

But look, even if you’re not willing to go the distance on the whole rulebook thing or if you are obsessed with square counting, fine. It’s your game. But that other stuff – tracking initiative, transitioning, scene-setting, urgency, and exigency? You want a smooth, exciting, fast-paced combat experience? That’s the way to do it. Try it. Try it for three sessions. And if you aren’t fully satisfied – you probably f$&%ed up my instructions somehow. Because my instructions are perfect.

74 thoughts on “How to Manage Combat Like a Motherf$&%ing Dolphin

  1. Hi Angry,
    I have been reading your articles for a month , plus older ones and i wanted to tell you how awsome you are.
    I love you way of writing and how well all is presented, I hate how nowadays articles are all reduced to “TOP 10 THINGS ABOUT THINGS” or “BEST 5 WHATEVER”, only to see that each point is on a diferent webpage and that every point is not longer than 8 words + image.

    Or worse the preview of the article is the article minus one frase.

    After my rant i want to thank you for helping improve my games even if i am a complete stranger, article like yours is what the world needs.

    About the spreadsheet, do people really overcomplicate things for turns so much? you basically are doing something that is simply comon logic ( call me stupid i don’t even bother to order the list, for the rest i use it like that xD)


  2. Really good point on the spellcaster. What annoys me the most in my group is when a player playing a wizard says he casts a spell, and then proceeds to take out the spell description and read the whole thing out loud.The players SHOULD know and understand the things their character can do. Every DM should require the players to read through all the features their class has at least once.

    By reading your articles I understand that I allow way too much at my table. As a DM, I control the table – now I understand that thanks to AngryDM.

    • I agree I hate it when a player declares an action with some obscure hybrid prestige class, and when I a question about mechanics, they reply ” I don’t know”
      Read your shit.
      Did you pick that class because the name looked cool?

  3. Thank you. This is awesome.

    I think it’s just what I needed. And since we’re playing D&D for the first time this weekend (we usually play other systems), this seems like a perfect time to start fresh and right old wrongs.

    My players are totally going to freak out and quit, but I love it anyway!

    Given my circumstances, is there anything I should do to prepare them for it? Like take it easy for the first session because nobody is used to D&D? Or give them a warning of some sort?

    • If you’re going to introduce new rules or table norms, use them right away and consistently, but you can have the fights easier (without actually narrating it any less dramatically) and mind what he said about not being to sound like a drill instructor. “Not sure what to do? Okay, that’s cool, you’ve got a round to think about it with your guard raised, but we’ve got to see what Alice is doing about the Drake that just changed her.”

    • I like the suggestion that Randy makes here. It allows for an opportunity for teaching/learning to take place on how a player should expect the combat to run.

      If placing the player “on guard” or forcing a parry to occur isn’t to your liking, other consequences of “missing” a turn might be implemented.

      Maybe you inform them that they “hesitated” and you immediately move to the next character in the initiative order, and then go back to the hesitating player and if they’re ready for action, allow it – but if they’re still not ready then force a parry. Maybe even throw in some type of save that they have to get in order to recover their turn after the “hesitation”.

      Or, perhaps a player “hesitation” gives a single (or maybe all) engaged enemy to take an opportunity attack, or if they are not engaged by any enemies, a similar un-engaged enemy at range takes an opportunity attack.

      Perhaps make a “hesitation” force the next action(s) performed by the player to be at disadvantage.

      Anyway, I really enjoyed the useful information presented in this article. Thanks Angry.

      • Losing your action is enough of a penalty for hesitance. Giving additional penalties is just needless dickery. And, for that matter, gives another thing to keep track of, which you usually want to minimize.

  4. So… basically Dungeon World then? 😛

    Seriously, good article, but I am somewhat disappointed by the section on exigency. That really shouldn’t be necessary, as you yourself basically imply, and I was hoping for a section on how to set up cool opportunities to make things happen in combat beyond “do something or lose your turn.”

    • The whole exigency bit can be handled Dungeon World style. You’re in combat, you’re faced with two choices that you can only act on right now, which do you choose.

    • Actually, no. Only one tiny part of what I said was like Dungeon World. And the reason the rest is not Dungeon World is because DW is a very different game from D&D. If I wanted to play DW, I’d play DW.

      As for how to set up cool opportunities, THAT has nothing to do with pacing combat. THAT has to do with how you are designing encounters in the first place. And I’ve already written extensively about that. The point of the “do something or lose your turn” is not to give players a choice, it’s to never have to take anyone’s turn. Setting up a “cool decision” as part of exigency is just going to exacerbate the problem. That’s not what exigency and narration are for.

      And saying “wow, that shouldn’t be necessary” is a dumb thing to say. GMs need to maintain the pace of the game. Pacing is an important narrative tool. More important than most narrative tools. It has to be done. And players will take as much time as you give them. GMs and players have different goals when it comes to managing combat.

    • I’m going to foolishly speak for him and say yes, he meant “Dodge”. It’s the only logical conclusion because it’s the defensive action that all players have access to regardless of level/feats.

  5. I do the initiative tracking and hp thing a lot like you do. I make columns off to the side for all the monsters HP, but whatever it’s basically the same thing. Had a GM running that wasn’t writing initiative down and was trying to keep track of easy combats in his head. So of coarse turns got missed and people didn’t get to act, and one guy acted twice. Me and another player told him in combat his biggest job is to just write that shit down. It isn’t hard and it is what take sup all of my paper.

    We both broke out our notebooks and showed him how nearly every page was just lists of names with numbers by them and monsters crossed out when they died. Things were moving to slow and we just needed him to write this shit down so we can keep combat moving. I think he still thinks he can just track some of that stuff in his head but it’s much much easier to just write a bunch of names in order with numbers by them. Sometimes 4 groups get a 13 and I only have enough space between the 15 guy and the 10 guy for 2 but I manage to squeeze them in somehow.

  6. Hey Angry,

    You briefly touched on “convincing players to describe their actions” and I was curious about more details on that. While I enjoy the approach of “you describe what your PC does and I’ll decide what rolls/rules apply,” I find that players are often not great at this and/or want to engage with the mechanics (especially if they thonk they’re doing something extra clever). And for the game I’m a player in, the DM *always* has players describe the details when they kill an enemy, under the heading of “it’s your kill, you get to describe it.” This almost always slows the game down (because the player isn’t prepared, isn’t particularly interested in or skilled at the descriptive aspect) and often causes issues because what the player says happens doesn’t accord with the overall narration and annoys the DM or other players.

    What do you think is the proper way to balance description on both sides of the screen? Should flamboyant players be asked/allowed to narrate for their PCs, or do DMs need to take a firmer stance?

    • I’m not Angry, but I’ve played with the worst GM ever (literal psychopath, literally literal psychopath), and also had a tiny amount of experience on the matter. While each group is different, and some players would appreciate the opportunity to narrate their actions, you’re the GM. Your job is to make the world come alive and create a story, and if the players are narrating kills the narration you could be adding to kills is lost. I’m running an Avatar campaign and the “kill” (knockouts or takedowns) narration is the most important part of the combat narration thus far, with things like roof tiles being thrown as implements and people being kicked into shopfronts. You should be using that opportunity to fill out the experience.

    • I’d refer back to the pieces talking about types of fun, and why you shouldn’t expect players to be DMs. I’ve toyed with having my players describe kills, but they’re not super comfortable with it on average, so I didn’t keep that as a requirement. Giving players ownership of parts of the setting sounds like a great idea if you’re a DM and enjoy having ownership of the setting, but in your case (and likely many others) you’re “rewarding” players with unwanted work, which is a failure to entertain. The reason this problem is still around is because it is very difficult to really understand that people have different ways of enjoying the game.

      As for engaging directly with mechanics, I find that perfectly sensible mid-combat where there are lots of specific rules to cover it. The decisions you make and how you can make them are clearly spelled out so that you don’t need to confirm every last detail with the DM; the approach of “I do X” answered with “That means you’ll need to roll Y” works for skills but you don’t want the DM determining what attacks you roll or spells you cast based on a theatrical description. For general skill resolution, I also don’t overly mind players wanting to use a specific skill as long as they lead with “I want to use my Arcana to help out here, but I’m drawing a blank on how” rather than “I rolled a 23, do I win?”. I’m soft, though.

  7. Sweet, I’ve been doing something right. I’ve always added the narration to the start and end of turns, even when I was playing, the actions never felt “real” if I didn’t and if the GM ever said “No, you did X” (with X usually being just the game mechanic word for word) I found it really killed my immersion. Now that I’m GM’ing I’ve started doing it for everybodies characters, and I was right, a guy who’d never played an RPG in his life and who made a joke character called Buck Tungsten, found himself getting invested and immersed in the combat.

    It works, gonna start bringing in the urgency and exigency stuff at the next session.

    Oh, and Angry, I’d really appreciate more articles on those subjects that people never bother to actually explain. It’s always bothered me in both RPG’s and in life, that so many things are just assumed and never taught. From how to handle turn order to how to brush your teeth (most people are doing it completely wrong), not properly teaching things is a plague. Stat blocks is one I’ve always had trouble with, you touched on it in this article, writing HP on the sheet next to initiative, that kind of #$%^ is invaluable, it’s what I’m looking for when I google stat block tips, and instead I get pages of b#$%#@$%.

  8. Great stuff Angry! I was a little astounded to learn that initiative tracking is an ongoing and difficult issue for people, but we learn somthing new everyday! Either way the stuff about in combat transitions between actions is brilliant, and I simply love your approach to player hesitation during actions! I have one player who never seems to pay attention to what the rest of his party is doing, and oh boy it’s going to be an eye opener when he loses initiative (I’m running Rules Cyclopedia) because he just had to talk about his favorite show in the middle of a life or death situation! I’ve been struggling to balance my combat encounters between a player who loves combat and players who don’t so much, and I now feel like it’s my fault for not taking controll! Well no more! Thanks for all your work making the gaming community a better place!

  9. Brilliant article. Thanks, Angry.Lots of good advice here.

    When you finish NOT making that RPG you aren’t working on, will you ever create a book with all this DM knowledge in one place? Something we can purchase?

    • I’ve been using iBooks Author to create my own copy of Angry’s indispensable advise. It’s currently over 500 pages! He really should tidy these posts up and put the content out in a few different e-books, $9.99 a pop. 🙂

    • I have all of them in PDF, then I printed them out to a binder. I have it categorized by Combat, Monster Building, Adventure Building, and of course “How to run a F$&%ing Game.” It was too good not to use.

      • I have some of the articles saved as PDFs, but I’m lazy and would just like to have it all in one document. Guess a tabbed binder is the way to go though.

  10. This is some fantastic guidance on keeping a combat flowing, but I’m wondering how you’d apply it to a system that has a somewhat different approach to initiative. I’m running a FFG Star Wars game, and the initiative system there basically creates a series of ‘slots’ for PC and NPC action. That is, when you come to a PC initiative slot the players as a whole decide who should take their action at that point. In practice, this decision doesn’t slow combat much (generally someone steps forward pretty quickly to claim the initiative slot and there is rarely dissent), but it does mean that I don’t know which player I’m transitioning the action to. Any advice for keeping the narrative moving under those circumstances?

  11. In your non-existent RPG, would you keep D&D-style initiative? I’ve heard of a few other types of initiative; someone above mentions an FFG game that has slot-based initiative, Shadowrun’s initiative affects how often people go as well as in what order, and Dungeon World (and I think all Apocalypse World games but I haven’t played any others) doesn’t even have initiative beyond the GM telling people when they have actions available.

  12. A speed bump not mentioned is players asking questions when their turn is up. For example, Dave behind the tree is probably going to ask for ranges of monsters and proximity to other players when deciding what spell to use (assuming Dave is a caster). How does one get over that very common speed bump?

      • I think that falls under the process of “GM describes the scene, play does an action OR asks a question.” I would allow them to ask a question, give them a second to process the answer, than start pressuring them.

  13. Ho. Lee. S@$#%. Just when I think I have it all figured out, you come and improve my game even more. Thanks, Angry.

  14. Great article, Angry. I will be adopting your advanced, cutting-edge “Legal Pad” method for initiative and battle tracking.

    I have been trying to tighten up my game for some time now. My first idea was to try group initiative, but it seems that turning initiative over to the players without a specific person selected makes things worse rather than better – too much speed sacrificed for flexibility.

  15. Great article, really glad this came out before my game tomorrow where I will probably be DMing the first combat of a new campaign. We play online so hopefully adding in exigency will stop people from alt-tabbing when it isn’t their turn…

  16. “…and now that Stockholm syndrome has set in, I can get away with anything.”

    I’ve been reading for almost a year. I chuckle and grin while reading through these articles. They make my day and make my games better.

    But that was the first line that broke me. I made the connection, realized the truth of it, and barked out a laugh loud enough to upset the office. Well played sir.

  17. Not reading the other comments, just diving in with my thoughts.

    1. Great article, I found myself giggling when you showed how to write numbers on a piece of paper.

    2. Good points on narrative, I am trying to get better at that with the campaign I run.

    3. I hate squares and hexes, it is probably my single biggest peeve about newer RPG’s. We never counted out squares when I started playing, we just described what we did, and let the GM decide if it was possible. Plus it encourages 2 dimensional thinking. That is why I have begun pulling out and using more of my Warhammer terrain for my role playing group.

    4. I like the point about:”tell me what you are doing, what no answer? Fine, you parry/defend/jerk off for a turn” approach. I am trying to teach that. There is nothing I hate more than the players who take forever to decide what they are doing, like every move is a Grandmaster Chess game (another reason I hate square maps.)

    • But how do you accurately run combat without a map? Things like distance and vision become very.. biased IMO. If my group encounters 5 goblins, where do you put distances? How far away are the players from the goblins? How can a player decide where a goblin is hiding? How do you check for cover, because you basically decide as a GM if another player or tree is in between, whether on a grid the player would obviously move his token so that he has a clear shot.

      To me not using a grid and tokens makes combat feel unfair towards the players, as the GM decides everything.

  18. I really enjoy the majority of articles you write, & sharing your thoughts. However..

    “I pride myself on not wasting people’s time. If I am going to ask you to read 5,000 words on a topic, they’d better be 5,000 useful words.”

    …made me laugh. After reading enough articles & getting your cadence, I’ve developed the intuition to know when a paragraph I’ve started reading is just the ‘angry dm’ schtick, & doesn’t contain much food for thought. So I just skip to the next paragraph. It cuts my reading time a little. Sometime I’m skipping multiple paragraphs in a row.

    I think a better scheme, in general, might be to keep your angry dm ranting at the beginning, and just cut it out as you get into the meat of the article, and get into a ‘concise mode’ part of the way thru. I regularly think to myself after reading an article that you could cut 500-1,000 words out, and still retain the angry DM argument you presented.

    That being said, I read your articles all the time, so you’re definitely doing a lot more right than wrong. Keep up the good work!

    • That is how I read it, too. Great content, just have to scan paste the branded fluff to get to the solid gold nuggets.

  19. Pingback: The goal is to think in 3 dimensions #DnD #RPG | FreeRangeGeek's Adventures

  20. I like this.

    I’ve been reading your posts for a while. Often enough I will recognize the advice you drop. I tell myself “I am doing something like that, yes.”

    But this time, I read and think to what I’m doing with my game and recognize that I’ve been wrong. And that’s an excellent feeling. So many suggestions and ideas end up in the basket of things I have heard and read before, and I hav certainly read your profanity before. And time-limits, and get-the-book-off-the-table, and health tracking. These things are not new to me; and your reinforcing of it makes me feel like a good DM.

    But exigency and urgency is new to me, at least as far as you’ve presented. I have players that occasionally let their minds wander, and now I never need to ask them to stop again. I’ve been doing my combat wrong and now I can go back to being a good DM, at least until you tell me I’m not anymore with another insightful article.

    Until that happens, please keep it up.

  21. Dolphins don’t jump out of the water to breathe. Their blow holes have specifically evolved so that they only momentarily have to break the surface of the water to take an entire lung full.

    There have been many reason postulated as to why they jump, speed, economy, communication etc but I don’t think any real research has been done around the real reason for the sort of high speed swim jump swim cycle you’re referring to.

    Good article BTW.

    • So… technically, there is no science that says I am wrong, is there. Because, that’s what I’m hearing. I’m hearing “The Angry GM, in addition to teaching us how to run great combats also figured out a dolphin behavior that no one else has been able to work out.”

  22. Thanks for writing this! I’ve been reading all of your articles for a few months, and this is the one that pushed me over the edge and made me want to say thank you. I’ve been trying to figure out how to speed up combat for about two years, and I keep striking out, and no wonder! I had been fiddling with the mechanics. The problem was never with the mechanics; the problem was that I expected the mechanics to do the work of creating narrative urgency, but that’s not the mechanics’ job; the mechanics are just there to keep me honest while *I* create the narrative urgency by, you know, narrating.

    I like your examples of how to narrate urgency, and I’m going to try to apply that mindset to other game design problems — sometimes the answer to a problem isn’t a new mechanic or a new piece of chrome; instead it’s a new set of social norms or expectations that softly push the game where it’s meant to go.

  23. Thanks for this thought-provoking article.

    After a bit of pondering, this is how I’m planning to deploy your method in my home game of Tunnels & Trolls, a game which uses pooled combat rolls and which has no built-in initiative system.

    Each character (PC & NPC) and monster in a combat will roll 1d6 for initiative, sorting combatants into 6 x 1 second intervals. The action will flow from interval 6 down to interval 1. The GM will introduce the combat round, then pick a PC, NPC or Monster from the highest interval to act first. Combatants that don’t take specific actions (spells, called shots, etc) will use the default action of pooled melee combat. All specific actions within one interval are assumed to occur simultaneously, and prior to all actions within lower intervals. Pooled combat is evaluated in the usual way in interval 0, after all specific actions have been completed. The GM then transitions to the next round.

    • Why not go the hippy route and do away with codified initiative? Who/whatever declared action goes first. When it would normally be time for the next person in the order either have the person who just went nominate the next person to go or narrate a situation and ask who will respond to it. Once everyone has gone the next round starts.

      If you are doing a good job with your urgency, then the players should be quick to keep it moving along (rolled init is a good way to keep things moving if your players won’t decide who goes quickly). By eliminating a roll you don’t strictly need you are breaking narrative to insert mechanics less. It might make it easier to weave what mechanics you do have together without it seeming cumbersome.

      • Well, leaving aside the issue of ceding control of pacing to the players, I want to be able to intersperse monster actions with player actions in an impartial way. In RAW T&T combat, the result of a round of combat isn’t determined until all players have had their turn. This does seem to reduce the sense of urgency and I think it may be one reason why D&D players generally don’t enjoy T&T combat — there’s less of a sense of individual accomplishment.

        I’m hopeful that evaluating player and monster actions in stages rather than all at once, and therefore allowing players to react to events within the round, will encourage the use of called shots and other non-standard (in T&T) combat tactics, which in turn should help me in giving each PC their moment in the spotlight.

        As a bonus, this method also allows me to discard the rather clumsy mechanic I’m currently using to adjudicate surprise.

        • Angry has a good article he wrote about cutting off monster parts ala the hydra that might be useful for you. It’s written with a D&D style game in mind, but the general ideas can usually be ported into your system of choice. I hope your changes pan out for you and deliver that dynamic feel we all try to capture in our action scenes.

  24. Brilliant, as always. I would really like more urgency in my game, but I think the main problem with this kind of “exigency” is me, as GM: I’m afraid it’s very difficult to provide with my NPCs the same responsiveness required to players. I mean, players always use the same characters and know their options very well, while GMs have to know every day a different kind of NPC, with different skills, feats, and abilities. This problem is very clear with BBEG, who have a lot of options: it’s almost impossible for an average GM to keep track of the actions of 4+ PCs, build a strategy for the BBEG, keep the flow of initiative, narrate and recall rules for players without slowing down during their turn. Do you put yourself, as GM, under the Zero seconds rule?

    • interesting point. This would probably be covered in your prep. Learn your monsters and abbreviate their stat blocks so that you can quickly refresh your memory. And actually the process of abbreviating stats is a good way to drill the capabilities into your brain 🙂 But it’s certainly not easy.

      This is what has always kind of bugged me about random encounters. You really have to spec them out ahead of time and then use a dice roll to determine which prepped encounter you run. (You of course don’t have to design the environment of the encounter). It’s really hard to run a monster you’re getting familiar with at the table. Another nice thing about pre-prepping random encounters is that it also gives you an opportunity to introduce the encounter. Are the monsters on patrol? Resting when you stumble upon them? Stuff like that.

    • You might find its useful for you to have a co-GM or have your players pitch in. Tactical minded players typically love to play the monsters. Print out separate stat blocks you can give out to them and let the players take some of that burden off of you. This is even better if the party is split, someone is unconscious, etc. it gives you a way to keep the players who would normally be sitting around doing nothing engaged.

    • One thing that I am doing in my current campaign (5e levels 1-7) is that I have decided on five separate types of monsters: smoke elementals, skeletons, drakes, dinosaurs, and mind flayers. since the monster list is limited, I’m able to remember about what their various abilities are just by knowing the type. To help with this, the mind flayers always have the same spells, the drakes are all color-coded, and every smoke elemental has the same approximate ability list.

      Technically, this gives players an advantage, because upon seeing a mind flayer for the third time, they know exactly what spells to watch out for, and how to tactically approach the combats. This is a good thing. Rewarding paying attention and smart play is part of what makes RPGs fun.

      As far as the BBEG goes, I highly recommend building your own. Making a monster/NPC from the ground up is an excellent way to know what tools are in their box. Another thing I do when making a BBEG is making sure it has precisely FOUR main modes of attack: generally, a “basic” damaging effect, a status inducer, an AOE attack, and the gimmick. That way, I have a general idea of how he approaches each situation.

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  26. About tracking initiative.

    On the “Obligatory About Page” you state you are well familiar with D&D. I guess this include 3.5 (I only have experience with this one.) In this particular version there are “special initiative actions” (, namely Delay and Ready. By using any of these, a PC or NPC can change her place in the initiative order. This actually happens pretty frequently. If you put a static order on a piece of paper, guess what happens after a few uses of those actions… your order goes to the bin. That is why the PF Initiative Trackers is so awesome.

  27. One tip for speeding up the narrative-shattering initiative rolls, is to do all of them at the start of the session, before you get into the game. Have each player give you half a dozen initiative rolls (more if your session has more encounters that may require initiative) and write them down in whatever order you want. You could even create several of those Angry-like lists and have them ready for each combat. This allows you to make the transition into combat seamless, avoiding the “whoosh.”

    One trick, if you have those metagamers at your table, is to not always ask for the exact number of rolls as you have potential combat situations. You could ask for the same number every session regardless of how much combat you will have, or vary the number randomly. Just add enough variation so they don’t start saving resources because there are still X number of fights left. Players can save resources all they want, just not for this reason.

    Now I didn’t come up with this brilliant idea myself. If I remember correctly, I saw that in one of Dawnforgecast “Be a better GM” videos. Or maybe I read it into one of Angry’s articles. Regardless, it’s worked great for my games.

  28. Great article.

    I prefer to use cards folded in half on my DM screen for initiative. On the player facing side, it just has the player’s (or monster’s) name. On my side it has their Name, AC, and passive perception.

    Player’s roll initiative, and I just plunk down their card in order left-to-right.
    Here’s why I like it-
    I don’t spend any time writing anything down.
    I can see the turn order visually in my field of view while i’m looking across the table at my players, no shuffling of papers or a side table for my notepad.
    I can see the AC of my Critters and the Players and know instantly if an attack hits or misses. No messy, “Bob, what’s your AC?” delays. I just describe the results. Same deal for perception for hiding rogues.
    It can create tension with the players, when I add a new card into the order. A wild Snorlack appears!

    Just a personal preference. Great article as always, keep up the good work.

  29. … I thought you were kidding/exaggerating when you said people actually called out the range for answers (having tracked initiative and combat similar enough to how you do since I decided to start my tabletop rpg life as a DM) until I started playing as a player (I actually really like being the dimwit for a change, I have a personal goal of making the DM facepalm at least once a session [resorting to wilful stupidity is cheating and doesn’t count]) and the DM did this. I asked him where the heck such a weird idea came from and he pointed to his role model DM, the dude from Critical Role. I proceeded to try to watch the series…

    Thanks to your article, I now better understand why that show bores me so much despite wanting to like it due to the nice voices. Which is pretty useless knowledge but hey.

  30. Angry,

    Thanks for the article, I ran my session last night with your system. Combat was much faster, and more importantly, it reflected the chaos and confusion of battle. No time to think, no time to confer during the battle, just make the same call your character probably would with only a second or two to choose.

    It was great! My favorite moment was when the cleric announced he was going to cast a spell and another player tried to open a discussion regarding whether that was the best choice. I shut it down and forced the first player to decide then and there whether to go ahead or not.

    The characters adapted almost immediately, and we were able to zip through two large battles in a short 2.5 hour session, with plenty of other activity. Thanks for the practical advice.

  31. this is amazing.

    I played 4e this summer with a GM who made us move the literal squares and gave players way to much time to think about what they’re doing… it took LITERAL HOURS to run 7 players through one single encounter. It was SO boring…

    I’ve also played Advanced 2e with a very seasoned DM who runs pretty much the entire game out of his head. (including tracking initiative.) Combat is exciting, fast paced and certainly gets the life/death feel. He’s my inspiration for my own games.

    I just started DMing 5e. I devised a similar initiative system, though I use a Dry Erase board (save the trees!). I did have paper tags for all the players ordered around my board the same way they sit around the table, and then made notes next to them. However, I’m stealing this vertical scale for combat! that’s awesome and a perfect K.I.S.S. (Keep It Simple Stupid) strategy.

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  33. How do you handle a Surprise round?

    Do you roll initiatives first,or do you play out the Surprise round first then roll initiatives? I play out the surprise round, then roll initiative, since the surprise round tends to set the tone for the scene.

  34. Hey Angry,

    What do you do when players get into stacking up multiple actions in a turn, say, bonus actions and the like? Do you do the full dolphin-cycle for each action, or maybe mechanic-out all the multiple actions in the middle? Does it even matter?

  35. I’m half being an ass and half serious. You say putting the initiative into the players hands is bad, but you also have the “popcorn initiative” system. Have you decided that popcorn initiative actually isn’t a good idea, or is there something I’m not understanding about it.

    • I said putting TRACKING initiative into the hands of the players is bad because as the GM, you need to control the pace of combat and use it for transitions. But popcorn initiative doesn’t take the control over the pace away from the GM. As a GM you still need to prompt the players “are you done, okay, who’s next” and “Steve, you’re up, the goblin is reeling from the blow, what do you want to do.” The GM is still in control of the pace of Popcorn Initiative.

      That said, yes, it IS a fuzzy line. Popcorn Initiative is cool for the reasons I said it was. And, because of the way it works, it changes the entire combat pacing dynamic. The players have to ACTIVELY drive the initiative. But, if you’re not using a special initiative system, for the love of f$&%, don’t ask players to drive it. Because in traditional initiative, the one player tracking the initiative is a PASSIVE record keeper. And that passive record keeping is what kills the pace.

      So, yeah, you missed that bit.

  36. “I pride myself on not wasting people’s time.”
    he said, after writing nearly 800 words of a 1200-word rant about how he’s not going to talk about tracking initiative.

    Irony level 1000.

      • [Actual comment deleted for unnecessary a$&holery. However, I will summarize the two points that the a$&hole made, but chose to surround with being an a$&hole: (1) Piece of paper does not take into account Delay, Ready, and other options that modify initiative (2) magnetic initiative tracker board does not kill trees like paper does – The Angry GM]

  37. Hey Angry. Just wanted to say that every time I read one of your articles, I always feel like I’ve got something great to take away from it. Keep on being cool, and thanks for helping us be better DMs!

  38. Great article, I needed to read that as I have the problems that this post confronts and details how to correct.

    I am looking forward to enhancing combat encounters especially, but I can see how the same rules could exist for tense social encounters… Like badguys hostage or kidnapping situation where great choices in a limited amount of time matters!

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  40. I’m going to start my first try at DM soon and your articles have been really usefull in a lot of points, still have to read all of them (it takes some time xD).

    I really like how you go in dept in all your topics and how “angry” you are, it’s fun to read.

    I just wish you had an youtube video of just 1 of your sessions, would like to see all this theory in practice ^^.

    • ok, i saw a lot of playthoughs on your youtube channel and didn’t notice your: Extra life video xD, so forget my last comment.

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