Less Painful Combat: Combat Trackers, Part 1

Posted in EpicTable Blog on December 27, 2007 at 11:49 pm

image of combat tracking cards superimposed on knights fightingRecently, I’ve been working on the combat tracking mechanisms for EpicTable, and I’ve been through something of a personal renaissance with respect to combat tracking in my own weekly face-to-face game. I’ve had the opportunity to think about and experiment with a few different mechanisms for tracking initiative in particular. (That’s “who goes first” for you non-d20 folk.)

The Pain of Combat

Back in D&D’s 1st and 2nd edition days, I remember having players sit in order of their characters’ dexterity or using weapon speed factors (remember those?) or some other, probably less reasonable option. D&D 3rd edition brought with it the concept of initiative, so the mechanism for determining who got to act when was nailed down. Sometime shortly thereafter, The Game Mechanics introduced the notion of initiative cards—index cards with some combat basics, one for each combatant, which you put in initiative order and flipped through during the combat. I used initiative cards happily for years, though more and more, I came to use them just to track initiative order. It was too painful to get to the card for any combatant other than the current attacker,

“Okay, you’re attacking the ogre, and his AC was…[flip, flip, flip]…15, so that’s a hit…okay 8 damage…[scribble]…oh, that was really 9 points of damage? [flip, flip, flip]….”

So, finding that I was spending too much time flipping and hunting—or worse, flipping and dropping—I eventually stopped using the combat stats on the initiative cards and ended up with a stack of almost bare initiative cards (sometimes just an index card with a monster’s name scrawled on it). Combat stats were relegated to separate pad. That worked well enough, and that’s where I was for awhile.

“Just Enough” is Sometimes Worth a Lot

Now, if you’re at that same point, and you haven’t tried the GameMastery Combat Pad (from Open Mind Games and distributed through Paizo), you might consider picking one up or borrowing one for a couple sessions.

On the surface, it’s only kind of neat, not all that compelling. After all, it’s not much more than a magnetic version of initiative cards. “It doesn’t even have a combat stats section”, I scoffed (though gently, because it’s a very pretty thing), forgetting for a moment that I don’t actually use the combat stats on my initiative cards anymore. Nevertheless, I picked one up, because like lots of the GameMastery stuff, it was surprisingly affordable, and hey, I’m developing a virtual tabletop—this is research.

After having used the Combat Pad through several of my weekly D&D sessions, I can honestly say I’ll never go back to initiative cards. It’s not that the Combat Pad is life changing. It hasn’t fundamentally changed the way I run an encounter, but it’s just enough better than initiative cards that I’ve become attached to it, and it’s inexpensive enough that I can afford to be attached to it. How is it better? It provides just a few things, but does it simply and effectively:

  • an erasable surface for freeform notes–tracking combatant hit points, spell effects, etc.
  • erasable magnetic labels on which you can write combatant names. Its rather clever design allows you to represent quite a bit of information spatially. You arrange the combatants’ magnetic labels in initiative order, and you can bump them to the right to indicate a readied action or a delayed action.
  • a magnetic arrow you can use to keep track of which round you’re on. Write the name of a spell effect and draw an arrow to the round that it expires, and you’ve got a fairly functional spell duration tracker.
  • You also get a magnetic arrow labeled, “Turn”. I presume that’s used to indicate whose turn it is. The only time I can envision using that is if I had to stop a combat partway through the round.


As it turns out, that’s enough to be worthwhile. It’s better than initiative cards because you have everything there in front of you—round counter, combatants in initiative order, readying, delaying, along with your hastily scrawled notes on hit points, spell effects, etc. This is especially nice on those unfortunate occasions when you have to break an encounter across sessions. None of this is earth-shattering, but it’s just enough to make running combats just a little smoother, and “just enough” is really worthwhile when we’re talking about something as core to the GM’s experience as running combat.

(Un)Sticking Point

The only criticism I have for the Combat Pad is that the strength of the magnets isn’t sufficient to prevent the pieces from falling off occasionally. More than once, my wife or one of my players has handed me that damnable, enigmatic “Turn” arrow after retrieving it from the floor. Without a doubt, I wouldn’t have a “Turn” arrow to trouble my mind if not for their (increasingly suspect) vigilance. As it happens, the Combat Pad fits perfectly in a gallon Ziplock bag. This limits my potential for losing pieces to in-game use. The Ziplock also helps keep your notes from being wiped off accidentally between sessions.

Other Combat Trackers

I had every intention of talking about other combat tracking techniques—particularly those implemented by the various virtual tabletops (VTs) on the market. However, this has run a little long, so I’ll save the discussion of combat trackers for virtual tabletops for an upcoming post.

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