Back in October we partnered with Fear the Boot  to run a charity auction benefiting the March of Dimes  and raised $200. One of the things that the winner of this auction, Gnome Stew reader JavaDragon, won was the opportunity to write the first-ever guest article on the Stew — this one.
JavaDragon did a killer job, and turned out exactly the sort of article the Stew is known for: system-neutral GMing advice you can put to use today. We’re proud to be able to publish it here.
Without further ado, I’m going to turn this over to JavaDragon. –Martin
Don’t Waste My Time: Tips for Keeping Your Games Moving
Do you regularly play sessions with a lot of breaks in play or players/GMs taking too long with their action, causing players to start losing attention and interest? My gaming groups have had these problems and they definitely have affected the enjoyment of those sessions for one or more of the people at the table.
I am going to highlight some of the most common issues and how we have worked to overcome them. This usually involved a person filling a particular role and/or using a tool for the job.
Before I get into these issues, let me preface them by saying that my group plays Dungeons and Dragons and Pathfinder primarily. So some of these issues may or may not apply to your game depending on what system you are using in your gaming group.
Oh, It’s My Turn?
Fight scenes that seem to drag
Do you find your players asking whose turn it is every couple of actions or not realizing it is their turn and they take forever trying to see what has happened since their last turn? Enter the Ring Master.
The player filling this role is in charge of keeping track whose turn it is and who is up on deck. This will help to keep the action moving, as they should be ensuring that the next player is thinking about their action BEFORE it is their turn. There are many ways to track turn order: pen and paper, initiative cards, spreadsheet, etc. There is not one best way to do this as it all depends on your group and the game system you are using. My group chose to go with the GameMastery Combat Pad. The combat pad allows our Ring Master to track not only turn order, but also round number and spell/effect durations.
Another issue we faced during battles is “slow” dice rolling. Normally when attacking in battle you have to roll multiple dice. Whether due to multiple attacks or having separate attack and damage rolls, I cannot express enough how much rolling all of your dice at once can speed up the fight.
There is no need to roll your attack roll first and then, if you hit, to roll your damage roll. It just wastes more time as you figure out which dice you need to roll for damage and then roll them. This issue compounds when you have multiple attacks. Just roll the attack and damage dice together.
If you have enough dice, roll multiple attacks all at once too and just designate different colored dice for each attack. This will dramatically cut down on turn time in battle and will shorten the time between a player’s turns. The benefit here is that your players are engaged more often with less downtime so they are less likely to drift away on you.
The last issue we have seen when entering battles is the time wasted when a player, on their turn, is trying to remember which enemy was already attacked or damaged. How many times during a single battle do you recap which creatures are damaged only to have the players ask for the recap again come their turn because they were not paying attention? Enter the Token Master.
We have taken a lesson from D&D 4th Edition and have taken it a tad bit further. We use the magnetic status markers from Alea Tools. The difference from 4th Edition is that we do not just mark the minis when they are bloodied, but also when they are simply damaged. If they are healed to full, we remove the damaged token as well. Tokens are also assigned to the minis for each effect that is on them. Now the players can just look at the battle map, and the stacks of markers, in order to get this information without needing a recap.
So, We Are in the Woods, Right?
Recalling previous sessions
How often does your game have to stop while you sit there trying to figure out what happened in a previous session or the sequence of events in the game? Enter the Scribe.
Assign someone each game or session to take notes during the sessions. This ensures that the events are all logged so that there are no discussions or arguments on what happened and when. Another option here is to award player characters for keeping a journal of the character’s exploits. This way you have multiple points of reference.
To accomplish this, one of my gaming groups decided to use the journal tab in Hero Lab. Each player tracks their own journal for their character. This way if a player misses a session, they can just get the journal entries from another player to see what they missed. This allows us to track game time and real time for when events happened. We also track all loot and experience earned for each encounter. This eliminates the need for the GM, or a player, to question where an item came from or why a player is leveling.
How Does This Work Again?
Looking up rules
How much of your game time is spent digging through books, online sites, or PDFs looking up rules for the game? Enter the Rules Master.
I did not think that was such an issue until, in a recent session, our GM said, “I wish one of us was a rules lawyer.” Yeah, after I heard this phrase I cringed as well. After talking about it, though, we did not want someone fighting over the rules, but rather someone that we could turn to when stuck to tell us what the rule is or at least where to find the rule. This is why we call them the Rules Master and not a Rules Lawyer. Ideally everyone playing the game should be a rules master, at least for rules concerning their character’s race/class, but the more you can get the less time you will spend outside of your game.
You see, my one gaming group just started playing Pathfinder about a year ago. Since we came from D&D 3.5, and since we had heard that Pathfinder is considered to be 3.75, we did not spend a lot of time reading the rules and just started playing. That was a mistake and could I go back in time, I would have read the core rulebook start to finish BEFORE we started playing. By not reading and understanding the rules early, we still spend a lot of game time looking up rules. That or we go by what the rules were in D&D 3.5 only to find out things had completely changed in Pathfinder and now the character that we thought should have died actually should have lived.
Too many breaks
Do you have scheduled bathroom or smoke breaks during your game? There is no player role for this one. If possible, I would recommend against “taking five” as a group. This completely stops the flow of the game and requires a lot of time wrangling everyone up to start playing again.
Most games do not involve all characters in every scene unless you are in the middle of a dungeon crawl. Instead, just let the players take these breaks when it is not their scene/turn. This will help to prevent having the play come to a complete stop. If you are in the middle of a dungeon crawl or exploration where all players are needed all the time, then taking five will have to be done unless the player is comfortable with the rest of the group playing their character while they are gone.
When is a good time to sneak away and take your break? Ideally, during a scene where your character is not present. This could happen if the party splits up for a while and the focus is on the other group, or when there is a private scene that does not include your character. If this situation does not arise during the session, then taking a break during a combat would be the next ideal time. The reason for this is that you can ask the rest of the party to play your character while you are gone, provided that you give them guidelines for what your character would do.
So, your break is done and you return to the table. What is the best way to catch up when you return to the table? Well if your break was during a combat, then the answer is simple. If you employ the Ring Master and the Token Master as mentioned above, then just looking at the game mat will be enough as the tokens and the combat pad should tell you everything.
What if your break was not during a battle? If you employ the Scribe, then just take a peek at the notes. If there is no Scribe, just have one of the other players fill you in when both of you have a chance and are not part of the current scene. The only time that you want to interrupt the game to update the returning player is if the information is immediately pertinent.
Well this is all that I have for now. I am sure there are many other ways to keep the action going during the session, but these are the most common issues that my gaming groups have seen.