Nearly every RPG uses an initiative system for combat, and handling this aspect of combat is a fundamental skill for all GMs.
Here are a few simple tricks you can use to make the most of your game’s initiative mechanic.
Make the Turn Order Public
When combat starts, jot down everyone’s initiative, including the PCs, NPCs and adversaries. There’s no reason to hide this information from your players (especially not after the first round, when everyone has acted once), so take advantage of that.
If you have access to a whiteboard (hand-held or wall-mounted), write down the turn order where everyone can see it.
If you’re using initiative cards, or if you don’t have a place to write down scores where the whole group can see them, tell your players who’s on deck (i.e., going next). “It’s Janice’s turn, and Phillip is on deck.”
Address Turn Length
If one or more of your players tend to take a long time deciding what to do when it’s your turn, that can slow down combat for everyone. At the same time, even a player who plans her turn ahead of time might have to do some rethinking when it rolls around, as things can change fast in combat. Balancing those two considerations can be tricky.
Make taking turns efficiently part of your group’s social contract, so that everyone will be on the same page.
Give your slower turn-takers a bit of extra help. You can do this yourself, have one of your more combat-savvy players offer some coaching or make it a group effort, and get everyone involved.
Think about setting a time limit for choosing combat actions. It should be brief but not too brief, perhaps on the order of 30 seconds. Players who don’t decide what to do before the time limit is up lose their turn, or take a default action (defending themselves, holding their turn until later, etc.).
Note that a player’s whole turn doesn’t have to fit into the time limit — just the decision-making part. (This approach will also ramp up the tension level around the table, so consider taking a short break after every battle.)
Break Up Larger Groups
If you’re running a lot of adversaries, you don’t want to give each one of them their own initiative score. Doing so is time-consuming, and the payoff is relatively small.
Roll once for all the baddies, and leave it at that. This can reduce tactical options, and if there are a lot of adversaries it can allow them to swarm the PCs.
Break your monsters down into sub-groups. Roll once for all the skeletons, once for the evil necromancer himself and once for all of his henchmen. This balances the twin concerns of keeping things moving and making turn order important to the outcome of the battle.
Get Help from Sidelined Players
If you have a player who isn’t involved in the battle (or whose PC is taken down partway through it), ask them to give you a hand. This will speed up combat and help keep that player from getting bored.
Decide who’s getting attacked, and have the player who isn’t involved help you with die rolls. This avoids placing that player in the position of having to go after the other PCs, which not everyone enjoys.
If your group is up for it, hand over control of several foes to a player who’s willing to help. Let them control everything those monsters do during combat, from deciding who to attack to rolling for damage.
What other tricks do you use to make this aspect of RPG combat go more smoothly?