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Speeding Up Combat – “Shoot, Communicate, Move On Out!”

Faster than a Tectonic Plate

Do your combats seem to take forever to resolve? Do you hesitate to begin an encounter in the last hour and a half of a session? When a combat is taking place, are your players’ eyes glazed over, or are they looking around for something less boring?

Good news: We can rebuild your combats. We can make them better… faster… stronger.

Save Time

I find that faster combats are more visceral and exciting. They feel less like complicated chess and more like you’d expect a real fight. My players pay attention when the pace picks up, and they end up pushing each other to speed things along. We get more gaming in, and the gaming is far more intense and enjoyable.

(Note: This was originally written for Johnn Four’s excellent RoleplayingTips.com [1], and focused on D&D combat. It’s been heavily updated, but still carries a fair amount of D&D baggage.)

Before making drastic changes, the very first thing you should do is talk it over with your group. Your players may not notice the drag, or they may prefer a slower pace. But if a faster pace of combat appeals to your group, let them know that you’ll be speeding things up, and they’ll be expected to help out. Talk about the changes you’re going to make. Communication is a Good Thing.

It’s also a good idea to get an objective sense of how long combats are really taking. Ask someone to time your combat rounds, and note what’s taking so long. If it’s one player, take him aside before or after the game and talk to him. If the slowness is due to the GM (not entirely unlikely), scale back the complexity and work on improving your own skills until you get a better handle on things.

Proper Prior Preparation Prevents Piss-Poor Performance

The most important things the GM can do to speed combat are in the preparation for the game. Ever wonder how TV chefs can throw together a full meal in 22 minutes? It’s easy – everything is ready and at their fingertips.

I always try to save at least an hour before the game to prep the expected encounters. Review the rules, critters, and spells you’ll be using. Prepare whatever physical aids you need, from index cards to props to maps.

Have the pertinent information at your fingertips. I GM off a laptop, and when I’m running D&D, I have a Firefox session running with tabs open to d20srd.org [2], and I use YoYoDyne’s Monster 3.5 [3] to create HTML pages for each of the critters that the party may encounter. (Monster 3.5 is great in that you can customize the output format, and then edit the page to customize the critter.) I used to use a spreadsheet to manage initiative and hit points, but I found myself interacting with the computer instead of interacting with the players.

If you don’t use a laptop, find a system that works for you. Index cards are handy for tracking initiative, and some of them are like a miniature character sheet. The Game Mechanics [4] have a good set. I always pre-roll initiative for the critters, and usually make some notes on their cards for tactics, spells, reminders, etc. Stack the cards in initiative order, and by encounter. Small Post-It notes make handy reminders for the duration of spell effects, abilities, etc. I use scratch paper for tracking hit points; shuffling through the cards every time someone takes damage can take too long.

To remind everyone of any area-wide effects due to environment, spells, etc, prepare additional index cards or table tents. Suggest that players do the same for their spells. I clip 3×5 cards with environmental effects to my screen or lay them on the table.

At the Table

My group adopted a policy of rolling initiative well before combat, usually at the beginning of the game, and again immediately after encounters. The initiative cards are already sorted and ready, and we can jump right into combat when it’s time. This really adds to the fun for me.

If you use a battlemap, draw it quickly, explaining as you go. If you use multicolored pens, have a player draw a key as you draw the battlefield. Don’t strive for a work of art; it’s just a simple tool. If you can draw maps in advance, I recommend it.

When combat starts, limit in-game conversation to the length of a combat round; in D&D, this is six seconds per character per round. Speech may be a free action in many games, but that doesn’t mean entire conversations can take place in the time it takes him to move thirty feet and swing a sword.

This one’s potentially controversial, so play it by ear. Start to limit the ‘decision time’ limit for the players and for yourself. Make it a minute or so at first, then shorter as your players get used to it. I like to think that a character has six seconds to decide and act, so a player should not dally for much more than that (after all, she’s got everyone else’s turn to think about her actions). This is not to say that this should be a hard-and-fast rule; but it is something to aim for. GM judgments, skill checks, descriptions, clarifications and such have to take place to get the player the right information, and shouldn’t count against her. But if the player hesitates and considers for too long, have her character delay her action. Trust me, you will not have many unintentional delays after the first one or two. This goes for the GM as well; know what the NPCs and critters will be doing well before their turn comes up.

Until you get a system working, try to keep things simple. At first, this might mean that the battleground is always dry, clear, and level, and the NPCs tend to go on the same initiative. As you get comfortable (and faster), mix it up.

Finally, resolve the action and move on. Get as descriptive as you like, but move on to the next character as soon as possible. I find that a fast-paced “machine-gun” approach to combat is more enjoyable and exciting than a slow-paced game of tactical chess. (Your mileage may vary.) Once you hit a groove, and things start to speed up, the players will follow your lead, and you’ll find that combats last a matter of minutes.

Handling Speed Bumps:

When a rules question comes up, make a decision and move on. There is no reason at all why you can’t change a ruling after the combat. (How many times in real life have you gotten an unexpected result, only to never have it happen that way again?) If the players want discussion, limit it to a minute or so. If it’s a critically important matter, such as the death of a character, take the time to look it up or discuss in detail, but try to keep the rules discussions from getting in the way of the game.

Before making or adopting House Rules, consider their effect on the pace of combat. Will this new rule simplify or complicate things? If so, is it worth the complication? Does it make the game more fun? Does everyone in the group agree? If so, go for it.

For the Players:

If you’ve GMed before, you probably have a great deal of respect for what it means to be ‘behind the screen’, and do a good job of facilitating the game. But here’s some generic advice anyway:

12 Comments (Open | Close)

12 Comments To "Speeding Up Combat – “Shoot, Communicate, Move On Out!”"

#1 Comment By suudo On May 19, 2008 @ 4:11 am

During combat, I like to stand up and use a raised/enthusiastic voice. And I try to make my combats more interesting than, “He stabs you. You stab him. He stabs you. You kill him.” – so I really get into it.

Descriptions of the environment and what’s happening really help when the descriptions are concise and plucked of filler.

I’m not sure how possible the former is in 3.5, but as I use a fairly rules-lite system for most of my gaming, it tends to work out decently enough.

#2 Comment By darkliquid On May 19, 2008 @ 4:46 am

Some of the players in games I’m in have learning difficulties and find it really hard to keep track of everything needed during combat (what buffs and debuffs they have, what spells they have available and what kind of actions they can take in given situations, etc) while the rest of the players really want to push forwards with combat. We mostly don’t mind but sometime things get a little trying. It’s not uncommon in games I’ve played for a single round to take upwards of 10-15 minutes and for the simplest of combats to take entire sessions.

A lot of the things in this post are really helpful, especially the ideas about cards/notes/etc. Any ideas on things that can be done to help players that find it inherently hard to go through combat quickly? This is mostly for D&D3.5, I’ve not had any experience with these players in other systems.

#3 Comment By Kurt “Telas” Schneider On May 19, 2008 @ 6:25 am

D&D 3.5 can get really complicated.

I use [5] to manage complex characters. It’s free, it handles over 90% of WotC’s material (and some from other publishers), and it lets you select which ‘buff spells/abilities’ are active at any given time. If you’ve ever run a high-level Barbarian with six buff spells, ten magic items, and Greater Rage, you’ll appreciate this.

Downside: It’s a huge Excel spreadsheet, and is a bit more stable with more recent versions of Excel.

Caveat: I am on the dev. team, although it’s mainly as a cheerleader.

If the computer route is not an option, have them make up index cards with their current modifiers. Something like “Attack +10/+5, Damage 1d10+12, AC 19 (flat-footed 17, touch 12)”, and then modify it or make a new card when something changes. Another alternative is to keep one card with only the current modifiers running on it. The key is to find a consistent system, and it will become automatic.

Another alternative is to let another player assist them. This can be done smoothly enough that it doesn’t scream, “Joey can’t do math!”

#4 Comment By Walt Ciechanowski On May 19, 2008 @ 7:01 am

Great post! Here are some things I do:

1. For 3.5 games, I usually have my spell casters print out spell cards or at least have a sheet with all of the pertinent information. Not only does it save flip time, but you can use them to track spell use. Combat action cards are also useful.

2. I always print a couple copies of must-used or hard-to-remember rules and keep them on the table. This especially works well for games with drama/action/hero/etc. points, so that players can see what these points can be used for.

3. Call out modifiers before the roll. This gets players in the routine of memorizing their bonuses.

4. I bought the initiative tracker and wire spell area effect props from Gamemastery. These have proved invaluable.

#5 Comment By Troy E. Taylor On May 19, 2008 @ 7:04 am

That last part should be branded on an index card and handed out to players at every game. Excellent advice to keep things moving.
Fast-paced combat is more fun — and generates more excitement at the table anyway.

#6 Comment By darkliquid On May 19, 2008 @ 8:41 am

Thanks for the tips. I think the definite angle is to keep selling the idea of using cards for modifier tracking. I might see about getting some slips for cards that have a transparent washable front, that way they can keep base stats on a card in the slip and write the current modifiers on the front for easy tracking.

#7 Comment By Grogtard On May 19, 2008 @ 3:51 pm

Great tips! Thanks.
Here’s what I do when the rules questions come up. Make something up on the spot and offer it the player. Basically, they can take my quickie house rule or take the time to look it up. At first, they would looks things up but I kept consistently giving them a rule that is slightly in their favor. They’ve stopped looking up stuff in the middle of combat.
Another thing I’ve recently done is rules cheat sheets as player hand outs.
I would love to hear folks tactics for dealing with the inattentive players.

#8 Comment By Sektor On May 20, 2008 @ 4:22 am

I find the ‘decide quickly or delay your action’ tip for the players very useful! Seems simple enough to think of, but it never occurred to me!

I also ask them to limit any conversations during a combat round to what their characters actually have time for. I take it even further, by warning them that I will use that information to the monsters’ advantage (at least, if they can speak the same language as the PCs do; that also gives them a useful reason to spend skill points in new languages, or the Bluff skill or telepathic spells and powers to convey secret messages).

Thanks for the great tip!

#9 Comment By Lee Hanna On May 20, 2008 @ 10:54 am

I found some printed cards that have summaries of conditions like Fatigued, Shaken, and the like. Hand them out as necessary.
For myself, keeping a scratch sheet handy for each character is good, thus one can track conditions, hps remaining, spells and their durations, and anything else. When the battle’s over, turn it over or rip it up.
I wish someone could find something for the player that won’t pay attention, though. The session that is taken up by a single fight is getting old.
In our highest level campaign, I sit next to the DM where I can watch the Initiative Tracker, and either one of us can call out who’s up and who’s on deck. Most of our group will plan ahead and be ready to roll when their turn comes up.
We use either vinyl battlemats or a very large pad of 1″ square graph paper, so the DM can draw maps before the game session. The paper is for when the DM suspects we will come back to the area, and won’t have to re-draw anything.

#10 Comment By age On May 23, 2008 @ 2:01 am

Great article TELAS. Someone once said “A quick game is a good game” – and in the Pen & Paper realm, this definitely applies to Combat. Keep it Lean, and keep em Keen.

#11 Comment By Fnor On May 23, 2008 @ 7:34 am

A few things that I do in my game:

1. PDAs. While I have the SRD on my laptop, my PDA is invaluable. It’s windows mobile, so I have Quickling set up with all the encounters for that session. I put in initiative, it sorts and gives me a checkbox so I can just go down the list. There’s a text box I use that I can make a note of status effects, which I remind the player of when I call their name. Another PDA has D&Dce installed, which gives the spellcasters a dropdown list of spells in alphabetical order, leading to their SRD information. Unfortunately, I have no idea where I got these programs, but with the impending release of 4E, I’m sure we’ll be getting something new.

2. In-game conversation. Just don’t allow it. “You can use a free action to say a few words, or a full action to say a sentence or two short sentences, but you can’t have a conversation in one round” is my rule. The party is going to have to choose between talking or fighting, and if they try to have it both ways, it’ll just drag everyone down.

3. Buffs. I had a big helping of this as the player of a Halfling Barbarian/Frenzied Berserker/Champion of Gwyharrf (ugh, sic). Most sheets give way more empty boxes than you need, especially with weapons. I just made a separate weapon entry for Gwith and her greatsword, one for regular, enraged and enraged/frenzied. Under modifiers I put in parenthesis what that attack would be with common buffs (haste, bull’s strength), so all I had to do was look at my rage status, then look at what buffs were active, and find the appropriate entry I made in that weapon block. I find that much more flexible and convenient than a spreadsheet.

4. Double-Dip. We’re playing Dragonlance right now. Goldmoon’s turn is really “Goldmoon and whoever is next’s” turn. Goldmoon will not end the combat by healing, so I have her roll healing while the next person takes their action. Similarly, if two characters are attacking different NPCs, early in combat (when they won’t kill either of them) I will just have the two players roll simultaneously. There’s no harm of screwing up a subsequent player’s action, and you just cut the time for those rounds in half.

#12 Comment By supergnome On May 23, 2008 @ 8:53 am

Kind of an opposite take towards the same goal…

With things getting more and more complex in my 3.x game, I resorted to trying a laptop out for tracking all manner of things. It was noted in the article the author would sometimes pay more attention to the laptop than the players, and that happened in a big way for me. I’ve tried just about every piece of software out there for gaming management, and that’s no exaggeration (demos, purchased full versions, freeware, web/stand-alone, homebrew xls, etc…) and nothing every actually improved gameplay. Many people have had great success with laptops at the table, but make sure it’s actually working. It can seem to make some things easier, but it might actually be slowing you down. It can also kind of depersonalize the experience and using tactile cards/sheets and the like might work better for actual table time. I’ve taken to using software for pre-game prep, but all physical media for notes\background\encounters\etc.

To each their own, but I thought I’d mention it.