March 30, 2011

Speeding Up Combat

Speed Up CombatFrom Len Henderson

One of the most enjoyable parts of roleplaying for many gamers is combat. However, especially in large groups, players can wait for a considerable amount of time between turns. This sort of wait leads to boredom and cross chatter, annoying the GM and the player whose turn it is.

Here are things I do to speed up combat.

Create Character Ability Cards

In my group, any ability or spell players might use should have an index card representing it. On the card are things the GM needs to know, such as range, casting time, requisite save, duration, and effect.

If a player says “I cast X,” he grabs the card and tells me what I want to know about X, rather than searching through the books to find it.

You should only need cards for those spells or abilities you actually use in combat, but I have players who have all their PCs’ spells and abilities on cards.

Create Rules Cards

I have a small box next to me with combat cards in it. Each card details a particular action that can occur in combat with the relevant rules for it. If one of my players says, “I attempt to trip the monster,” I can pull out the Trip card and the rules for tripping are detailed thereon. This saves having to pull out the book and finding the rule.

Create Foe Summary Cards

I write down on a card the combat statistics and special abilities of monsters or NPCs I know I’ll be using in the next game, especially if I’ll be using several different monsters in the same encounter.

This leads to less flicking through the monster manuals for statistics. If the monster or NPC uses spells or special abilities, I’ll do up a separate card for that as well.

Magnetic Strips

Each player has a magnetic strip with their character’s name written on it. When initiative is resolved, I then put the strips on a metal backing board, in initiative order.

If initiative changes during combat, it is a simple matter to switch the strips around. I do the same with monster initiative.

Sandbox Delaying Players

I only give my players a short amount of time to complete their actions. If they are obviously delaying or are unsure of what they want to do, then I say, “Your character is delaying.” I then move their initiative strip to the side and do the next player’s turn.

When a delayed PC is ready, I move their initiative strip back into the order at the current point in initiative, and the player can take their turn.

PCs should be ready to take their action on their turn. There is plenty of time to plan whilst the other players are having their turn.

Enforce In-Character Talking

Cutting down on cross chatter is a big thing in my games. If you want to chat to the person next to you about how little Suzy is the apple of your eye, she’d better be a character in my game, otherwise go elsewhere to do so.

Cross chatter destroys the atmosphere the GM is trying to create, and it distracts other players, which slows the game.

Reinforce With Body Language

I have found that the body language shown by the GM is mirrored by the players.

I generally lean forward, speak a little more softly but with more intensity, and increase the tempo of my speech. The players notice this and do the same.

Looking in books for rules, or any activity that breaks eye contact with the players, slows combat.

Beginning GMs will spend ten minutes perusing a monster manual for a particular rule or ability. This breaks the mood and lowers the tempo. It is better to make things up on the fly. If you we are wrong, so be it. Look the rule up and remember it for the next game.


Something along the lines of ‘rules cards’ I highly recommend are Weem’s 4e condition cards. They’re power card-sized with all the rules text and impact for each D&D 4e condition, with a simple, matching visual icon on each. Very helpful to put in front of players or the DM as they happen.

You can find Weem’s condition cards here:


I agree wholeheartedly that it is better to make something up on the fly than to spend 10 minutes pouring through the monster manual for a particular stat. Even if it turns out being wrong later on, what matters is that you have a good session… who cares if you gave the dragon less armor class than he really deserved, or if you gave him an extra damage dice on accident? what matters is that the gameplay flows and that there are not major holdups.

I also think that the idea of timing character decisions during their turn is a good one. When their turn comes up, they have one minute to make up their mind, or be delayed in the initiative lineup. then, if they still don’t make up their mind the second time, they firfiet their turn that round. I know that this seems harsh, but things are funner for everyone when everyone pays closer attention to what is happening, and that will happen when you time movements.

Also, when a decision needs to be made that comes completely out of nowhere (you know how THOSE can pop up… the ones you have never encountered before, and have NO idea where to find the answer in the rulebook?) I always just use common sense, think of a rational way to figure out an outcome (usually a specific DC role), and have confidence in my decision. when you make a completely on the fly decision like this, it is extremely important to have faith in yourself as a GM, and to stand by your decison. If your players ask why, explain to them why, and show them that you believe in it yourself… this will usually end the debate with a simple “ok” instead of an argument. A gm that seems unsure will be sure to make his players unsure too, and that is a bad mentality to convey… you are in control, so you should definitely SEEM like you know what you are doing… even if you don’t, and at least every GM encounters new ground now and then, so being calm and decisive is key :)

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