How To Run Faster Combats
We’ve all been there, its Friday night and the table is getting sleepy at 11pm. You have this last encounter to go and they’ll finally finish the dungeon! But sadly, you know your table might be a bit slow and you may not get out of combat until 1am or even later! Obviously you can’t just yank out this last encounter and hold off until next week for the final encounter, that’s like stopping a movie’s final fight scene for a week or even more later! Sure, it could be classified as suspenseful, but in all the wrong ways.
Let’s talk about how we can actually start speeding up your combats so that they stop dragging on.
Once I found this method, I’ve never gone back to other initiative systems… and I’m flabbergasted when I see other DMs know about this method but prefer to use their same old, clunky systems.
I stole this idea from The Angry GM and the basics are this:
Take a piece of paper, I assume you have several pieces on you, and just imagine that the top region of the paper are for 25+ initiatives, the bottom region for 10 and less initiatives and the middle section are for the initiatives in between.
Going around the table, ask the player what their initiative is. Write down the number they gave you in the correct region of the paper and add the character’s name. Go on to the next person and repeat, keep doing this until you go around the table.
Add in your monster’s initiatives and names and you are done.
This skips the awkward pauses where you are asking if anyone has over 20 for the initiative, and then asking if its above 15, or above 10 and everyone shouting at you at once that they all got 13s!
After a few times of doing this, your players will start behaving themselves and give you their initiatives when you ask for it and it keeps the amount of information being yelled at you at a bare minimum. Give it a shot for a few encounters, and you’ll realize that notepads are a must whenever you run a game. Wherever your monster’s spot in the initiative is, you can start adding in the damage they’ve taken, what conditions are affecting them, if they are concentrating on a spell, and so much more.
Monster damage can be slow to roll, especially if it involves a bunch of dice and you have a lot of monsters on the field. The easiest way of dealing with their damage totals is to just do the average damage every time they hit. Now where do you find this average damage?
When reviewing the stat blocks on monsters, you see their attacks look something like this:
Slam. Melee Weapon Attack: +9 to hit, reach 5 ft., one target. Hit: 12 (2d6 + 5) bludgeoning damage.
Right after it says “Hit:” there is a number, in this case it is “12” followed by the dice and modifier for their damage rolls. Ignore the damage rolls and just give out the average damage to your players. This is expressly useful if they are just low level monsters that are used to bulk up your BBEG and they aren’t dealing high levels of damage.
This is also a useful number to give out when playing against level 1 characters. Not only do you ensure that you don’t roll max damage and one shot the party’s wizard on the first attack, but also helps the player’s figure out how much more damage they can take before they need to get out of dodge.
Now, before we go on to the next one I will say that you shouldn’t use the average damage for your main BBEGs. This will help separate them from the rest of the mooks, and nothing is more satisfying than rolling 8d6 for a well placed fireball!
Mass Combat (Excess Damage)
Let’s say you have 100 skeletons attacking the party all at once and you are dreading watching your barbarian have to make an attack roll for each skeleton. The Dungeon Master’s Guide has you covered with a variant rule on how to deal with mobs of enemies and damage.
When your barbarian let’s out their battle cry and deals 28 damage to a skeleton, they obviously kill it in one hit and all they needed was 13 damage to do that. So you take the remaining damage (15) they did to that skeleton, and carry it over to another skeleton. As each skeleton has 13 Hit Points, that means that they kill a second skeleton as well and you take the remaining damage that the barbarian did, now only 2 points left and you get rid of it. The third skeleton’s Hit Points are more than the 2 leftover from the barbarian.
Now you may think, well shouldn’t that third skeleton take 2 damage? And to that, I say NO! That is going to slow you down if you start tracking 2 points of damage to that skeleton or 1 point of damage to that skeleton.
Another thing you can do is when you horde is submitted to a Area of Effect spell, like a Fireball spell, roll the save once for the entire affected group. If the monsters are especially good at that particular saving throw, roll with advantage, if they are particularly bad at it, give them disadvantage on that saving throw. It’s an easy way to quickly account for the group as a hold and keeps combat focused on the party, not if mook #1 saved or not.
Mass Combat (Describe the Action)
Maybe your party sees a horde of skeletons and you don’t feel like rolling initiative and rolling individual attacks and the like. You already know your party will easily kill off the skeletons, but you still want your table to feel like the badasses they are.
This is the perfect time to have them describe what they want to do, and then you narrate the party’s huge success against the skeletons. Make sure you highlight the special abilities of the party, the barbarian crushing skeleton’s with their bare hands, the wizard sending out scorching explosions and the rogue jumping off the barbarian’s shoulders and plunging a knife into the skeleton’s faceholes.
And if you are stuck as to what to describe, throw it back to the table. Give them situations where a skeleton is lunging at them or a horde of them surge forth with undead power, and have the group describe how they destroy it and forget about the dice! They’ll just slow down the badasses at the table!
Sometimes monsters just don’t die quick enough. You guys already know you are going to win, why delay the inevitable? When reviewing your monsters, make a note of their health, typically it appears like:
Hit Points 13 (2d8 + 4)
The “13” that is before the dice equation just means on average a skeleton will have 13 Hit Points, but you have all the knowledge you need to make the skeleton weaker. By taking the minimum health a skeleton would have 6 (2 + 4), you can quickly get your combat moving through monsters and keep your players engaged in the fight. If there is less health for you to track, you can easily jump to the next player and get them in on the action.
Minimum Health for mob monsters is just a great way to keep your players feeling like big damn heroes and when they finally face a monster with more than minimum health, they’ll know to take that monster serious.
When you are running combat, it can be a big pain to keep going back to your dice and rolling initiative, to-hits, damage, and more at your party. A way to lessen the amount of time you have to handle your dice is to go ahead and pre-roll the initiative of your monsters, you can even go in and pre-fill out the initiative tracker… then you only have to add in the table’s initiative!
Initiative is all fine and dandy to roll while at the table, but you got a ton of monsters and your players are going to start losing focus on the game if you are busy rolling a bunch of d20s and adding names to a list. By pre-adding initiatives, you can go ahead and get straight to the action!
Now, the above are things I do regularly, but I have so many other things that you can do to help speed up combat:
Restrict Phone Usage: Phones can quickly suck away the player’s attention during combat, and keeps them from paying attention to the combat. By putting in a policy of no phones, you can ensure that everyone’s attention is on the game.
Spell Cards: Spell cards are great to have at the table as it means you don’t need to be flipping through a book or playing on your phone to get to them. They are right there and can be quickly handed over to the DM if there is a question about rules.
Describe Combat As You Go: One way to keep your players on their feet is when it is their turn in combat, describe one thing that is happening on the battlefield that is directly related to them. Say things like: An orc is charging you down, what do you do? or Bob the Valiant delivered a vicious wound to the orc, sending it reeling towards you, what do you do? This gives the players something direct to work off of instead of just a vague idea. This can help them come to a decision, especially if they are normally indecisive about their action or aren’t paying attention to the game.
Give Heads Up: Sometimes players can get distracted reading through their spells or counting squares on the board. When you switch to another player during combat, announce who is coming up next. By doing this step, you can make sure people are thinking of their actions ahead of time and are prepared to do something on their turn.
Count From 10: If a player is indecisive, a gentle push might not be enough for them to figure out what they are doing next. By counting down from 10 to 1, you can force a decision from them. My general rule is, if your turn takes more than a minute and you haven’t decided on anything your character takes the Dodge action. I’ve only had to do that once, and I’ve not had a problem after that. It is not something you can just pull onto your players though, make sure you talk to everyone before hand and that they understand how it will work. Don’t be mean to your players just because they have a lot of options to choose from.
Keeping It Going
After all this, I hope you remember that combat should be fun for everyone at the table and trying new things can take some adjustment. New players are rarely ever going to make quick combat decisions, and being aware of them and their classes can help you, help them.
I hope I’ve given you a few ideas on how you can get combat going by faster, and I’m sure you have your own methods! Let me know how you keep combat moving quickly!
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