Article Header Image
The Fine Art of Table Management
Save My Game
by Stephen Radney-MacFarland

Wow, is my mailbox full! In case you're new to the column or you missed it last month, I ended the column with a reader's question about how to speed up play around the Dungeons & Dragons game table, and a call out to all of you to share some of your great ideas on the subject. An overwhelming number of you stepped up to the plate and sent me a pile of great ideas.

It is very important to consider and try out a variety of ideas on how to speed up your game. You would think there is one, sure-fire answer, but there isn't. Dungeons & Dragons players tend to be extremely individualistic (myself included). There's just something about the game that attracts stubborn and creative types. While we're all keen on escaping into the world of D&D for a few hours each week, we rarely agree on the particulars of how that escape should be conducted. Heck, sometimes we're lucky if we can agree on the toppings for the session's pizza delivery!

Need proof? Next time you play, look around your table. How many different kinds of character sheets do you see? If your group is like many, each player has some different iteration of the D&D character sheet. One has the most current sheet from the D&D website, one has an Excel spreadsheet downloaded from this fan site or the other, and at least one has the character scribbled, often seemingly in some strange code, on one or two sheets of paper, sometimes crumpled and nacho-stained. The diversity of character sheets is just a symptom of the not-so-rugged individualism that marks most -- if not all -- D&D gamers. And many gamers swear whatever system they use is the best.

So how do you manage a group that is filled with people who always have a better way of doing things? With care, and through trial and error.

The first rule of successfully using a table management tool for D&D is to realize that no single tool is a golden ticket -- even if you might want it to be. For instance, I was surprised by the amount of email I received on the subject of initiative cards. Many of you had not tried this method of tracking initiative order and a good many of you were keen on trying it out in your very next game. And while I particularly like that style of initiative tracking and have been using it successfully for years, I know for darn sure some will try it and discard it, or improve upon it based on the play style and the needs of the group they run. That's the chief reasons that I made a call out for interesting table management ideas. The more ideas you know that are out there, the more likely you'll find the particular one that sings to you and works well with the needs of your group.

Readers' Ideas

While I received more emails and ideas on the subject of table management than I can print in one, two, or even more columns, I picked out some of the ones I thought were the most helpful and inventive. Enjoy!

More on Initiative
I was really surprised to find out how many people use clothespins, wooden pegs, or similar instruments to keep track of initiative. The first two letters feature this kind of method.

My group uses wasknijpers (known as clothespins in the U.S.) labeled with the players' names and monster1, monster2, and so on to track initiative. I arrange them in order, clipping them to the top of the DM's screen, putting one higher in case of delay or ready actions. Everyone can see the order, and it takes little effort to insert someone on a different position after delay or ready. The system is also very portable.
-- Johan from the Netherlands

We have boards that can stand up on which are marked the different initiative numbers (say 1 to 30). Each player has a wooden clothes peg with his or her name on it and they each place it on the board at the appropriate initiative score. One of the players has responsibility for keeping track of initiatives. Players delaying their initiative are given their pegs to hold until they want to join in again.
-- Trebonius (playing since D&D came in a white box!)

We don't roll for initiative during the game. Yep, I know it's crazy, but I have my players roll twenty or so initiative checks every few sessions. Between combats, while the players are roleplaying, searching, looting, taking a break, or whatever, I put my initiative cards in order using those pre-rolls. We've always found rolling initiative during the game to be an instant verisimilitude killer and this really speeds things up while not taking the players out of the scene.
-- Rob the Roll Manager

Similar to your cards for initiative, both groups that I am in use numbered cards. However, these cards are folded so that they stand up and the number is on both sides so that, when they are stood up in front of a player, everyone at the table can see what a person's initiative is.
-- (Please, take a number) David

The Fine Art of Shutting Up
Quite a few of you had some methods for keeping players on task while teaching them the fine art of speaking during their turn without being mean or overly authoritarian about it. Here are a couple of my favorites.

No talking except on your initiative. Players who break this rule are warned and then get (small) experience penalties -- typically their story award is reduced. Interestingly players tend to silence interrupters as much as the DM does, usually with a remark like "You play your character and I will play mine."
-- Trebonius the Elder

A very large group can cause major slowdowns, especially when there is a tendency for the players who are waiting for their turn to chat rather than research their next move. My solution? A timer. I have my timer set to countdown for 1 minute. This is how much time a player has to announce his action, then rolling can be done as I move on to the next player. I also have to allow myself the same restrictions to keep things fair and moving.
-- TJ the Timelord

The More Tangibles the Better!
A great number of you sent emails imparting the virtues of using Dungeon Tiles, other battle grid methods, and miniatures and tokens. I know that may make some of the more narrative players cringe (and some of the more militant of you may even vomit a little in your mouth at the idea), but there is nothing like the use of physical aids to get your point across in D&D. Here're some other uses of props, tools, and tokenlike objects that can help speed up game play.

One technique that I have found invaluable during mid- to high-level games is for each player to have a small bag of 'item cards' that represent the magic items and equipment their characters possess. I have them write their names on the bags, and toss them back into our miniatures box at the end of each session. Whenever characters exchange items, they physically hand over the card, or turn it in to sell it. This method removes the questions over who has which item.
-- Mike, keeper of the bags of holding

I have a special sheet of each of their spells (much like a "spell book"), which describes in detail each spell description and its saves. I also print all written handouts to give the players so they don't have to write things down -- this includes important statements by NPCs.
-- Tom, Lord Master of the Handout

One thing that has also sped combat up dramatically when faced with several of the same enemy is numbered bases. These are actually backgammon pieces that I painted numbers on the sides of. I put numbers on four sides so that all players can see them, and then I stack enemy figures on top of them. That way, the players can say, "I attack orc number 4," instead of, "I attack the orc over near the wall, no the other wall... not that guy, the one behind him."
-- By the numbers Draven

Thanks and Next Month

Again, thanks to all of you who took the time to send me your fantastic table management ideas. It's extremely rewarding when you can write an advice column that teaches you a few new tricks to try out in the process.

I must admit, though, that I purposefully avoided one important part of table management during this month's column, and that's the problem of keeping track of all the conditions and modifiers that scurry about like fiendish dire stray cats during a D&D game session. It's not that I didn't get any email on the subject -- I got a lot, but I have to admit that most of it was looking for help rather than putting forward solutions. So, next month, let's talk about modifiers, conditions, and the various ways you can keep them straight in the game. Oh, and just for fun, I'll sprinkle in some 4th Edition examples, so I can help you get ready for running that game before the first events are unleashed at Dungeons & Dragons Experience, this February 28 to March 2 in Arlington, VA.

About the Author

Born on a stormy Christmas day, in our nation’s capital, during the Nixon administration, the stars were definitely wrong when Stephen Radney-MacFarland came screaming into the world. Spending most of his impressionable years as a vagabond and ne’re-do-well, Stephen eventually settled in the Northwest to waste his life on roleplaying games.

Once that RPGA guy, Stephen is now a developer in RPG R&D where he doesn’t create the traps… he just makes them deadlier. He also teaches a class on roleplaying design for the Art Institute of Seattle, molding the minds of young and upcoming designers. Be afraid. Be very afraid.