Running Faster Combats

From Kurt “Telas” Schneider

Roleplaying Tips Newsletter #0303

A Brief Word From Johnn

Speeding Up Combat

Some of the tips in this week’s issue appeared in shorter form in #300.

Telas had a few more great tips and ideas to add, and since the topic is important, I’m pleased to present this week’s guest article. Sometimes, a bit of practical advice is all that’s required to fix a problematic game element. Hopefully, you’ll find a tip or two of use. If you have some practical, fast combat tips to share, feel free to send ’em on in.

A Bit Late This Week

Issue #303 is a bit late as I just returned from a trip to Vancouver Island. Sorry for the delay.

Altered Carbon A Great Book

While on my trip, I read a great sci-fi/cyperpunk book by U.K. author Richard Morgan, called Altered Carbon. It’s a Philip Marlow style detective story set in a dark 26th century where science has figured out how to save people to hard drives. This book has a ton of ideas for GMs of the genre, and I highly recommend it. Note to parents: I’d give the book a mature rating.


Johnn Four
[email protected]

Running Faster Combats

I struggled for the last year with the pace of combats, and learned a lot from other GMs, my players, and personal experience. I hope what I learned will be of use to you. This article will be aimed at D&D 3.5, but many of the ideas are adaptable to other systems. I’ll also assume you’re using initiative cards, but almost everything here is applicable to laptop use or other methods of tracking initiative.

For what it’s worth, I use a spreadsheet to track initiative and hit points (including PC HP). A Firefox window holds the Hypertext D20 SRD, and HTML sheets of monster stats, courtesy of YoYoDyne Software’s Monster 3.5. One of the neat things about Monster 3.5 is that the end user can modify the stat block template. I never could get the hang of the d20 stat block, and prefer the “old school” table style template, especially when I need to quickly find a statistic.

[Johnn: you can get Telas’s statblock template here: Telas New Template Text, YoYoDyne Software’s Monster 3.5, Hypertext D20 SRD]


If you’re finding combats seem to drag on forever, the first thing you should do is talk it over with your group. They might not notice the drag as much. They might even prefer the slower pace. If faster combat does appeal to them, let them know you’ll be working to speed things up, and that you might have some expectations of them. Talk about what is going to change for both the players and GM. Communication is a Good Thing.

Time Yourself

It’s a good idea to get an objective sense of how long combats are really taking. Ask the least busy or most experienced player to time your combat rounds, and note what’s taking so long.

If the source of the lag is one player, take him aside before or after the game and work with him to speed things up. Possible solutions might be cheat sheets, rules tutorials, table seating (closer to the GM or an experienced player), better character sheet preparation, or a couple of one-on-one combat-heavy sessions.

If it’s the GM, perhaps you should scale back the complexity of combat encounters until you get a better handle on things.

Proper Preparation Prevents Poor Performance

Preparation is the key to faster combats. This is how TV chefs can throw together a full meal in 22 minutes: everything is ready and at their fingertips.

Know and be comfortable with the feats, abilities, and spells you’ll be using in the session’s encounters. If this means holding off on that new monster or spell you’re dying to pull on the group, so be it. This also goes for environments. If you aren’t comfortable with the rules for shallow and deep bogs, you might want to avoid a swamp fight. If this is the first time the characters have encountered a particular critter, have a good idea in advance what information you’ll give out for successful Knowledge checks.

Keep pertinent information at your fingertips. Use a scratch pad or Post-It Notes for hit points and temporary effects. Use initiative cards with all of an NPC’s information on it, like a miniature character sheet. (The Game Mechanics have a great set of initiative cards: ).

I pre-roll initiative for the critters, and usually make some notes on their cards (tactics, spells, reminders). Remember to make a blank “end of round” card where you can note the duration of spell effects, abilities, etc.

Remind the group about any environmental effects, like double movement costs for light undergrowth, and prepare index cards or placards to put on the table when they’re in effect. Suggest that players do the same for their spells. I clip 3×5 cards with environmental effects to my screen, and there is much gnashing of teeth when I pull out the feared and hated “Narrow and Low” card.

Manage Initiative Smartly

My group adopted a policy of rolling initiative at the beginning of the game and immediately after combat for the next encounter. This adds a sense of urgency to the beginning of combat, but it also helps the GM prepare the next combat during the more relaxed parts of the game by having the initiative cards sorted and ready.

Draw Maps Quickly

Draw out the map 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 tool. If you get the chance, draw it in advance. (Take that, Johnny Cochran!)

Limit Conversation

When combat starts, limit in-game conversation to six seconds per character per round. Speech might be a free action, but that doesn’t mean a character can rattle off the unabridged Oxford English Dictionary in the time it takes him to move and swing a sword.

Introduce a time limit for the players and yourself. A minute or so at first, but make it shorter as your players get more efficient. The character has six seconds to decide and act; a player should not dally for much more than that (after all, he’s got everyone else’s turn to think about his actions). This is not to say that six seconds should be a hard and fast rule; make it a target. GM judgements, skill checks, descriptions, and clarifications all have to take place to get the player the right information, and shouldn’t count against him. If the player hesitates and considers for too long, though, have his character delay his action. Trust me, you will not have many unintentional delays after the first one or two. This rule goes for the GM as well. You should know what the NPCs and critters will be doing before their turn comes up.

Know Character Abilities

Don’t be the reference book for the players, but know that Emrin the mage dishes out a 7d6 Fireball, with DC15 Reflex Save for half damage. This is also handy when planning encounters.

Use NPC initiative cards mentioned previously as mini character sheets for the PCs as well. On these, note their feats, skills, tricky spells, special magic items, complex equipment, and any other information you would find handy during combat. Use the front and back of the cards if needed. You want to save time looking up rules, anticipate PC actions for faster adjudication, and help prompt players who aren’t sure of the rules. Feel free to note save DCs, page numbers, book references, mnemonics, and anything else that will help make combats fast.

After game sessions, check with the person who observed and timed combats to learn what new rules should be researched and documented by players or yourself for next session.

Start With Simple Combat

Simplify combat when possible. At first, this might mean combat takes place on ground that is dry, clear, and level, and that all the orcs will go on the same initiative. As you get comfortable (and faster), try varied environments, individual initiatives, and advanced or obscure rules to continually improve your rules lore.

Resolve The Action And Move On

Get descriptive if you like, but move on to the next character as soon as possible. I’ve found that a fast paced “machine-gun” approach to combat is more enjoyable than a slow-paced game of tactical chess. Once you’ve mastered the techniques you need to speed things up, the players will follow your lead, and you’ll find combat lasts a matter of minutes.

When a rules interpretation or question comes up, allow a minute or two of discussion if necessary, make a decision, and revisit it after the combat or after the session. If it’s critically important, examine it in detail, but don’t let the rules get in the way of the game.

Sometimes there are multiple rules possibilities in play. For example, you might be unsure if an unusual situation might be resolved with grappling, a trip attack, or an overrun, and it’s a critical moment in combat you want done right. In this case, assign each rule for research to a separate player and divide and conquer. If possible, do no research yourself and just process incoming player reports as they find and read the rules in question. Assess quickly, make a decision, and re-visit between sessions for a final, thorough analysis so your well-armed next time.

Consider House Rules With Fast Combat In Mind

When you start thinking of making house rules or adopting rules from other sources, consider their effect on the pacing of combat. Will the rule simplify or complicate? Is it worth the complication? Does it make the game more fun? Does everyone in the group agree?

As you time and observe combats, certain circumstances might reveal themselves as repeat offenders. Different group and GMing styles mean no set of rules is perfect, and if the official rules can’t help or clash for whatever reason, seek out house or 3rd party rules to fix this particular element of your game. Be sure to playtest and get feedback first though, before hinging PC lives on any new rules.

Tips for Players

I’ve found being a GM makes me a better player. I’m prepared for the game and for my turn in combat. I have a better handle on what is and isn’t possible for my character. And since I’ve been there, I tend to treat the GM with a bit more respect; I’m more willing to let the GM make a judgment call, even if I disagree with it. These are all things I would like to see from my players, so I should expect it of myself when I’m on their side of the screen.

Players should be as prepared as the GM. Character sheets should be complete, spells should be memorized, equipment should be purchased, and encumbrances calculated before the game starts. Players should know their characters’ abilities and spells inside out, or should have that information readily accessible. They should at least be aware of each other’s abilities, and be prepared to capitalize on them. Characters nearing a level bump should already know what they’re going to add at that level.

You should know what your character is going to do when his round comes up, or should at least narrow it down if you need more information from the GM. You should be focused on the combat, not on the TV, the pets, or the latest Order of the Stick. When the in-game rules discussions do come up (and they will), try to be succinct, polite, and helpful.

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Speedy combats result from timely and efficient management of game information. If you’ve prepared properly, you’ll have the information at your fingertips. All you need do is make use of it.

Tips From Roleplaying Tips Game Masters

Have a roleplaying tip you’d like to share? E-mail it to [email protected] – thanks!

Create Repercussions For Killing Certain Creatures

From Paul Mercurio

My group likes a mix of hack-and-slash and intrigue. To give them both fair balance, I’ve created social repercussions for killing certain creatures.

We all know killing the city guard is trouble, but how about killing kobolds? In my campaign, the party is based in a city that was supposedly founded by a dragon, so residents discourage people killing the local kobolds because of their relation with the city founder.

Add a twist, if possible. Do the creatures know they’re revered or protected? Do they abuse that knowledge? What about a tribe of goblins who were valuable allies centuries ago?

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Roll Dice Or Say Yes

From Tommi Brander

Save time and increase the fun by learning to quickly say yes or let the dice decide.

  • The party is in a cavern. There is a pool of unidentified liquid there. Someone asks if there are any small rocks around. You, as GM, should first think if it is plausible. It is. Next, how easy is it to find rocks in the cave? Pretty easy. So, say yes. There are small rocks around.
  • The party is in a town. A PC asks if there are any beggars nearby. Possible? Yes. How likely? Somewhat. So, if the PCs are in a hurry, ask them to roll something. Perception skill/attribute, city wise, something. Success, and there are beggars nearby.
  • The party is in a forest. A PC asks if there are any dragons around. Possible? Yes. But very unlikely. Instead of saying no, you ask, why would there be a dragon there? If there’s no reason, then let the dice decide, and if the answer turns up no, you’ve got a good reason for that worked out already.

Do this consistently. The PCs try to bribe guards? Let it succeed or roll the dice.

When you roll the dice, do not fudge. If you have some plot twist ready, no rolling. Better yet, do not have mandatory plot twists. Fudging is saying no, essentially, but without the courtesy to tell the player.

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Once Upon A Time Game For Plot Generation

From Avlor

I was digging through my game shelves and came across the card game “Once Upon a Time” hiding in the back corner. I know, I’m hopelessly addicted to RPGs when my first thought wasn’t, “Oh I miss that game!”  It was, “Gads – a source for plots!”

Take one or two of each type of card. For example:

Aspect: Happy, Cursed
Item: Boat, Crown
Event: Rescue, Journey
Place: Ruin, Home
Character: Stepmother, Old woman

Possible history (the ending cards – I drew): “But no matter how hard they searched they were never able to find it again.”

Now mix and match… What did I get from those cards, just off the top of my head?

  • A cursed crown was lost in old ruins.
  • Legend has it that a group of adventurers went after it, “But no matter how hard they searched they were never able to find it again.” (Will the current group go after it?)
  • They have to take a journey on a boat, which one of the character’s stepmothers says is foolishness. Her motivation? She knows it will get the adventurer’s goat? Or she truly loves him as a son? Perhaps she knew the original adventurers?

Hope y’all can find good uses for old games too!

[Johnn: here’s info about the Once Upon a Time game in case you want to ask your local game store: ]

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Floors, Doors, Walls, And Time Traps

From Carey Martin

The Floorboard Trick

Loosen the floorboard at both ends, and support it in the middle (like a see-saw). Put something unpleasant on the far end. When the character steps on the near end, his weight will push one end down, and the other end up.

Works best if the fulcrum is nearer the character “going down” end. You get a nice, high arc, a rapid rate of ascent, and an unpredictable landing area.

The Floor Coating Trick

If you don’t want to damage your nice hardwood floors, how about a good wax job? Get it polished enough, and you can have a whole party roll just like they skidded out on an ice floe! It’s especially fun to add a foe that doesn’t need to walk.

The Unfinished Floor Trick

On the other hand, if your dungeon has your standard-issue, plain stone floors, why waste precious mortar on all of them? Leave one unfinished, with all those nice, smooth, rounded cobblestones just lying in place. This creates the medieval equivalent of a shallow ball pit – especially effective when a party’s running through.

More Fun With Floors

The Nijo Castle, built 1600, includes “nightingale floors.” These were floors made of cypress, purposely designed to squeak when stepped on. Even a ninja would make noise like a flock of nightingales (thus the name). No dramatic effects for the party, except that everyone with ears in the dungeon now knows exactly where they are.

Time-Release Triggers

Just because your dungeon doesn’t have a mage (or a demolitions expert), that doesn’t mean you can’t set things to go off later. Candles burning down work great, as do pails placed under dripping water. What happens when the candle burns down, or the pail fills up, I leave to you.

The Patron “Saint” of Doors

The title is because I adapted this from an old Leslie Charteris “Simon Templar” story. There are two sliding doors in a room on the same wall. Sliding one aside to open it will slide iron bars through the other. The only way to open the second door is to close the first one.

Ivy Covered Walls

Substitute poison ivy for harmless vines over climbing surfaces to give the party a burning and itching surprise.

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30 Random Psi Skills

From Laura B., Chicago

I am a player in a group that was established back in 1984, when we were in high school playing Star Frontiers. We have created our own Science Fiction RPG that has caused us to come up with several random result tables. I have included our PSI Skill table we use for creating a character.

We use a Logic Score, and our scores are based on a 2d10 roll. Higher the better. PSI skills are rare in our universe, so it is difficult to get them. Since PSI skills are not learned but part of the character, we do not allow the characters to choose their skill; they roll a D30 for it.

PSI Skills

These are available one time only to a character upon character generation. These skills are randomly assigned using a 30 sided dice. For each point at 96 and above in a Logic score, you can get one roll. 96 = 1 roll, 100 = 5 rolls. Skills do not replicate. To advance these skills, it takes double the experience points as usual to advance.

  1. Shield: Shields mind from outside attack.
  2. Analysis 1: Pick up object and determine its use.
  3. Analysis 2: Pick up object and “see” into the last 6 hours of its existence.
  4. Beam Attack: Targets brain. <5 meters = 40pts; 6- 15m=30pts; 16-30m=20pts; 30-40m = 10pts; >40m is ineffective.
  5. Fear: Causes unreasonable fear in target; target flees area and must make logic throw to calm self, takes 2 rounds to become productive again.
  6. Projection: Gathers images from one or more minds in immediate surrounding characters/NPC and projects dream-like image into another mind.
  7. Channeling: Channels energy around character, creating a force field. Can be dissipated. Can be used only twice a day.
  8. Confusion: Projects extreme confusion into target. Target must make logic roll, and takes 2 rounds to clear mind and become productive again.
  9. Far Sight: Able to see what is ahead up to 40 meters in familiar surroundings and 20m in unfamiliar surroundings.
  10. Far Audio: Hears what is up ahead; same stats as above.
  11. Cryokinesis: Ability to slow molecules to freezing. Takes two rounds of intense concentration.
  12. Density: Changes personal density, up or down, can become either 1/4 of normal body weight, or 3/4 more than normal weight.
  13. Disruption: Explodes inanimate objects, amount determined by skill level.
  14. Empathy: Pick up or project feelings into minds of individual or groups.
  15. File: Creates perfect recall of all info seen and heard for up to 10 rounds. Able to maintain 10 files, then oldest is overwritten no matter what it is.
  16. Healing: Mentally heal self or others, similar to medic skill; requires no equipment, and can do psychic surgery in upper levels.
  17. Pyrokinesis: Speeds up molecules to combustion. Takes 2 rounds of intense concentration.
  18. Static: Emits white noise interfering with all communications devices. Radius is 1/2 of LOG in meters.
  19. Telepathy: Speak into mind, individually or as group.
  20. Trance: Places self into trance, slowing or speeding metabolism. Slowing will simulate death to fool everything but the most advanced medical computers. Speeding will accelerate healing, speed meds, or feign fever or heart attack.
  21. Night Vision: Ability to see in complete darkness.
  22. Psychic Impression: Ability to see what has happened in area, 1 hour per skill level.
  23. Harden: Hardens skin to be able to take 3/4 damage; skin maintains normal feel and appearance.
  24. Levitation: Ability to levitate and hold for 10 rounds, or jump forward 1 story per skill level.
  25. Future Sight: Sees what will happen, like a movie without sound. 1 round per skill level.
  26. Hyper Speed: Ability to accelerate self-up to 3 times normal speed for 2 rounds per skill level.
  27. Self Holo: Ability to create holographic shield around self, extends 1/2 meter from body.
  28. Internal Nav: Ability to create perfect internal map of location, including all turns made, and referenced by two points, one on land, one in space.
  29. Invisibility: Ability to make self-invisible, 5 rounds per skill level.
  30. Autolinguistics: Automatically pick up language once heard. Amount of time diminishes by skill level. i.e. Level 1 takes 9 rounds, level 9 takes 1 round.
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An Easy Method For Tracking Arrows

From Edge

I like to track food, arrows, ammo, and other supplies, but we all know this can be tedious, messy, and easily forgotten. Here’s something I’ve started doing for arrows: I got hold of some thin dowel sticks and cut them into lots of short bits a bit shorter than a pencil. I made about 120 of these and handed them out to represent the characters’ arrows. Whenever they’re used they get tossed into a cup.

This is also handy for special ammo since you can colour them to show different types. You could also use other items, such as drinking straws. This has, of course, led to the tradition of throwing ammo at the target as attacks are rolled, but it’s good fun (until someone loses an eye).

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An XP-less Roleplaying Alternative

From Jenette Downing

The following house rules were made for the Palladium Fantasy 2nd Edition RPG after an evening spent trying to brainstorm a viable alternative to the xp system. With a little effort, the following rules could be adapted to other RPGs as well.

Increasing Skills

Every time a character uses a skill to perform a task of moderate or higher difficulty, or assists in the performing of said task (simple ones are just easy routine work), players place a small x next to the skill. The x equals 1/10th  (rounding all fractions to the nearest whole) of the skill. After the adventure, a player rolls 1d4 (+IQ bonus) and adds the result to the skill, finally erasing the x marks and starting over.

Increasing Hit Points

After a physically demanding adventure I tell the players to add an x next to their hit points box, and sometimes next to a physical attribute that has been used regularly. Once the number of x’s reaches 1/10th of maximum hit points, they roll 1D6 and add the result to their maximum hit points (or one point to the physical attribute). They then erase the marks and start again.

Improving Spells

A simple way to award new spells without xp is to turn spell studies into a daily activity for spellcasters. The player makes a decipher magic roll at the end of every day of study, adding an x next to a chosen spell every time a successful roll is made. Once the x marks equal twice the level of the spell, the character has learned the spell. Higher level spells should impose a penalty to the roll for lower-level casters.


If a character wants to improve skill x, has the time and money, and can find a tutor, every 5-10 full days spent training/practicing increases the skill by 1d4 + IQ bonus.

Physical attributes are increased by one in this manner, and every 5-10 days in arcane study might equal one more powerful spell, or perhaps a couple lower level spells. A new skill could be learned starting at 10+2d6% (great for picking up an extra skill you just didn’t think of). Combat proficiency increases to the next level of expertise in said field.

To avoid abuse of this system, training should be expensive, and suitable trainers should be hard to find. This training also takes a great deal of time, and players are often more interested in building a reputation and destroying foes than in downtime.

In testing, this system resulted in lots of player cooperation and ingenuity, as well as enthusiasm from all players to attempt different tasks. It may not be for everyone, but it is a fresh approach and encourages focus on the story versus the numbers game of the xp system. These suggestions are just ideas to improve your gaming experience. There’s no perfect method to rewarding xp, save one: the way your gaming group finds the most fun and enjoyable.