Speeding Up Combat

Combat can take a long time in tabletop RPG games, this may be a good or a bad thing depending on where you come down on the matter. But in most cases I think its safe to say that you don’t want combat to drag, you want to keep it action packed, flowing and exciting.

Here are a few ideas that I’ve come across at tribality:


  • Players
    • Help the game master by dividing duties like initiative tracking, campaign log, break timing, etc
    • Pay attention to what everyone else is doing
    • Write things down, take notes, Bring a calculator
    • Limit 30 seconds for a player to decide & explain what their character will do
    • Spellcasters should know what the spell they are casting does before they cast it, so they don’t have to spend time looking it up
    • Roll attack and damage dice together
    • Don’t interrupt other players on their turn
  • Game Master
    • Structure some encounters such that the end condition of the encounter isn’t the death of one side. NPCs can flee, or the objective could be something besides killing each other
    • Use a visual chart so players can see when their turn is coming up
    • Roll attack and damage dice together
    • The Game Master should also be prepared

Here’s a novel idea I came across which might be fun for some:

Have the party find a magical hourglass that when they touch it evaporates into thin air.
Then put a prop hourglass on the table, one of the little ones that takes 1 minute total. And have X player tokens, where X is the number of players.
Then add this rule.

Your turn starts when someone places the hourglass in front of you. Once you finish your combat turn you turn over the hourglass, placing it in front of the next person in the initiative. If you do this before all the sand runs out you gain 1 Sandpoint.
Once everyone has 1 Sandpoint every character in the party gets +1 to all d20 rolls for that combat. If anyone doesn’t have a Sandpoint or someone loses their Sandpoint everyone loses their +1 Sand Bonus to all d20 rolls.
You lose your Sandpoint when you fail to complete your turn before the sand reaches the bottom of the hour glass.

If everyone’s combat turn takes less than 60 seconds… your combats will speed up. It will cut out the out of character chats and create some quite real combat tension. It will lead to quick and sometimes wrong decisions…which is fun and realistic… adding extra danger…

And some further ideas from myself and various sources online:

  • Player decision cannot go “to committee.” Each player is responsible for only their own PC’s behavior, meaning that there shouldn’t be a big group discussion for every player character.
  • If player can’t complete their actions in a given time from the start of their turn (30 seconds / 1 minute) they miss their turn. The character is simply taken back, stunned, to busy evading attack, or indecisive in combat, fumbles their magic in panic, etc. whatever fits in the description that round and doesn’t get to go again until their turn next round.
  • Requiring a player to state their actions immediately or forfeit their turn when their turn happens helps a lot, but is a bit draconian in tone.
  • Having the spell cards and requiring the player hand you the correct one for the spell when casting can speed things up a lot.
  • Blanket doubling of the damage (on both sides) without increasing HP really speeds things up.
  • GM taking too long to run monsters’ turns – consider using average damage instead of rolled, write up reference cards for monster abilities/spells before the session to minimize book-flipping, use smaller groups of stronger monsters.
  • If a player is indecisive, encourage them to develop an “AI script” between game sessions. The script can give them one or two “default” actions that they’ll take unless they can see a clear reason to do something different. They should also specify at least two conditional actions like “if there’s a cluster of at least 3 enemies I can hit with fireball, I’ll cast that.” Other than that “I cast ray of frost on whoever the Fighter is targeting” is a fine way to contribute until a specific situation arises.
  • Run Theater of the Mind, rather than using miniatures and a grid. Players who have a grid are more likely to want to nit-pick “optimal” moves, which are seldom much better than the obvious plays.
  • If you use minis, dropping the grid and going to ruler based movement can speed things up a bit, too. A flexible ruler helps.
  • Keep your player’s focused, having each prepare their action in advance. The really does speed up the game, and the faster the combat rounds, the more focused players tend to be. You might suggest the players have crib notes of things they frequently reference (like spells).
  • Use fewer monsters. No matter how optimally you prepare yourself, the more monsters you have, the more time you take. The more time you take, the less time players are acting. The sole exception to this would be the Mobs optional rule from the DMG, which allows you to quickly just deal damage to players (assuming the number of hits by swarms).
  • Have a player be the initiative tracker, noting who is active and who is next (“on deck”). A good system we’ve used is a deck of cards, with players being Hearts, allies being Diamonds, and enemies as Spades. The deck is built, then the initiative tracker calls things out. This keeps that player engaged, and keeps things from slowing down (also takes away one more thing the DM needs to do). Ideally that player should be playing the simplest character, so they don’t have to look up a lot of things.
  • Banning looking in a book during combat. If any of the players don’t know what their character’s features do, I’ll just make a ruling on the spot. If the ruling later turned out to be wrong, that’s OK, we’ll fix it next session.
  • Don’t sweat the small stuff.Don’t worry about exact position, or range or any such nonsense.
    If a monster isn’t important in the scene, then a hit is as good as a kill.
    Don’t worry about book keeping.
    Don’t worry about mop up, just bring a scene to a close.
    Make players keep attention and have their actions decided at the start of their turn.
  • Are the “victory conditions” of these combats “reduce all the monsters to 0 hp” and not other things (for example: distract the dragon long enough to steal the [thing], keep the ogres at bay while the [npc(s)] escape, or get past [monster] without [bad thing it wants to do to the PCs] happening)? If yes, then speeding up combat is as simple as having these kind of victory conditions, or deciding that once it is clear that the NPC forces the party faces are not going to turn things around and defeat the PCs (according to whatever the NPC force considers its victory condition to be, such as a hungry monster wanting to eat them) the NPC force will flee or surrender as appropriate because they’d rather not die if that is at all possible.
  • Fast narration, cut down on descriptions of the attacks and hits. This will decrease flavor of the combat and may not be desirable but in some cases it might be worth doing to speed things up.

An interesting article which can help with speeding things up.

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