Top 10 Reasons Why Your Combats Are Slow, Part 1 — RPT#535
From: Johnn Four and Tony Medeiros
You are not alone. All around the internet, game masters talk about how long D&D and Pathfinder combat takes.
In most cases, combat does not grind to a halt. If only such combats would end! Instead, they grind on and on and on….
However, the problems with long combats are not a secret. We know what they are. Here are the top 10 reasons why combats are so slow. See how many times you find your heading nodding:
10. Players Make Slow Decisions
“Come on already, it’s still your turn. What do you do?”
Players have slow turns because they make slow decisions.
The group sits impatiently while the wizard mulls over his spells or the fighter ponders his tactics.
The reason for slow decisions varies. Some players are tentative and uncertain. They lack confidence and every decision is painful.
Other players suffer analysis paralysis. Too many choices lead to indecision. Fireball or lightning bolt? Burn my once-a-day power or save it? Power attack or fight defensively?
And some players are perfectionists. They will not make a final decision unless they have considered every option. And if they think there is an option they have not thought of yet, look out – you are in for a long wait.
Your first step is to identify the players who delay combat because they make slow decisions.
Your next step is to observe why they are slow, and if you can’t figure it out, have a friendly chat with them.
Finally, once you know what the problem is, coach them to help improve their speed.
9. Players Do Not Know the Rules
The fastest combats involve rules-savvy players. Nothing beats a player who knows what he wants to do, knows how to do it, and gets it done with all the relevant rules in his head.
When you do not know the rules, you do not know your options. That’s the first big lost opportunity. Combats grind into toe-to-toe swing-hit-damage affairs because the player does not know any other way.
When you need to reference a rule, precious session time goes down the drain. The player needs to ask others, which sometimes triggers wasteful group discussions. Or the player needs to look the rule up, and we all know how long that can take.
At the least, players should become proficient with rules pertaining to their PCs without needing rules lookups. Bonus marks if players know all the combat rules.
You can minimize session cost by putting a time limit on rules issues and making the final call yourself quickly.
However, better is to teach your players to fish. Work with them on rules knowledge so, after a few combats, they master the rules they need.
Also, use props, aids and cheat sheets to speed up rules references. This will speed up play while players learn the rules, and helps settle arguments.
Be sure to make an updatable cheat sheet with group rulings and interpretations to forestall future arguments and rehashes.
The trap is leaving things at just a time limit + GM call. That fixes things once, for now. You want to help players memorize, internalize and master the rules to remove dispute time and GM intervention for the rest of the campaign.
8. Encounters Designed to Grind
All other techniques come to naught if the encounter itself conspires against you to create long, boring combats.
“Why the hell won’t he go down! I hit him again. Miss. Dammit.”
“Round 19. Ok guys, let’s see if we can put this away, it’s been a long fight. The monster lashes out with his nettled tail. He hits! Groan: just 4 wounds to you, Grothar. Your turn.”
The all-time cliché is a 10′ by 10′ room, foes on one side waiting for the door to break down. Guaranteed grind fest, right?
Nope. It could be, but even in this sparse situation you still have design options to make this an interesting combat that ends fast, on an exciting note.
First, tweak the monsters for lower defenses and higher damage so PCs can hit more and get hit more. Instant excitement and drama.
Second, choose foe hit points carefully, to suit the pace you want.
Some say cut health in half. I say, pick your desired combat length first, then figure out how many hit points you’ll need. Then come up with a great in-game reason for the hit point deviation to add juicy flavor.
Third, employ killer tactics. Have monsters go all-in! I give up free hacks and attacks of opportunity with glee because players love it, and foes who do get past are usually lining up for some big hit.
Last, add killer terrain. Fill the room with poison gas that the foes have become immune to. (Hey – that’s why the foes have the lower health adjustment you made above!)
It all comes together now. Odourless gas seeps from cracks in the floor and walls. PCs start to take damage each round.
Make the terrain interesting in such a way that it does not drag out combat, and preferably, puts a shorter leash on the grind.
Whether using a published adventure or your own, tweak encounters to match what kind of combat you want.
7. Combats Last Until 0 Hit Points
Fighting till one side dies makes combats endless.
Why are we fighting, anyway? There’s got to be a reason. Usually there is, but it gets lost or forgotten.
People are not designed to notice cause and effect if there is a delay in the middle. We are shortsighted, short term needy beings. It’s hardwired into our brains through millions of years of hard lessons.
So, we start each combat fresh and excited. We roll the dice with glee and unleash our powers. Half the hit points go fast. Then we start to grind.
Let’s invoke the Pareto principle. The last 20% of hit points take 80% of the combat.
Why are those last 20% so important? Is it a rite of passage? Stay awake through the boring part of combat for bragging rights of consciousness?
Call it early. Fudge foe health.
If energy has fled the tables, the foes should too. At the least, PCs will get some free hacks to end things early.
Create interesting mission-based objectives. Make combat about more than 0 hit points.
Finish combats in other ways. Retreat has already been mentioned. There are other ways for foes to end combat early. Use all your options as referee and storyteller.
6. GM Does Not Know the Rules
When the game master masters the rules, combats sing. Not only can you settle rules issues fast, but you run your side of the table with lightning speed.
Monster turns go fast because you know their abilities and how to resolve their actions fast.
Player turns go faster because you can help them resolve their actions with aplomb.
Combat gets interesting because you pull out great maneuvers, and looking up the rules does not get in the way of weaving colorful descriptions of the action.
I read rulebooks to get to sleep faster. D&D rules are so derivative. I feel when reading every new edition, I’m reading the old one, but with enough differences to become a GM trap. I used to gobble up every rulebook and read it cover to cover. Twice. Or more. Nowadays though, it’s painful. I lack the patience, time and interest.
R.S.V.P. That’s the formula presented me a long time ago to absorb and truly learn new information:
Reading. Well, I do not have much success in that, so I’m going to need the other three parts of the formula to compensate.
Study. One way to study the rules is to make a custom GM screen. Not only do you read the rules, but you transcribe them and get a great GM tool out of it.
Another way is to create group quizzes to help everybody learn the rules.
A third method of study is to keep a rules log. Note what rules give your group problems during sessions. After the game, dig into the books and get clear on the rules. Much easier taking this bite-sized approach than reading from cover to cover.
Verbalize. Talk about the rules or teach them. The quiz idea helps you learn by teaching the rules.
Going over the rules log between sessions with your group helps you talk and teach, as well.
Hop onto your favorite gaming forums and answer rules questions posted by others. This is an awesome way to teach, help and learn.
Practice. The best way to do this is to game! Game more often. Also, make sure problematic rules make appearances in sessions often until you have mastered them.
Stay tuned for next issue as we count down the five biggest reasons your combats are slow.
How to Cut Your Combat Time in Half
If you are interested in learning exactly how to speed up your combats, check out the Faster Combat online course for game masters.
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A Brief Word from Johnn
We Just Launched the World’s First Course for GMs
The Faster Combat course for GMs teaches you how to run amazing combats while cutting total combat time in half.
I created what I believe is the world’s first online GMing course with D&D blogger Tony Medeiros.
Aimed at D&D and Pathfinder GMs, the course is huge, with 52 lessons, delivered one per week in manageable chunks for busy people.
For years, I’ve been writing and publishing how-to tips and techniques for GMs in this newsletter, at various websites, and in books and magazines. I wanted to take it to a whole new level (pun intended but sorry for the cliché) by opening a school for game masters.
I study education at work, including active learning and multimodal learning techniques. And I wanted to bring this to our hobby to help teach you how to be a great game master.
The course includes weekly lessons, videos, mindmaps, worksheets and other elements for visual and activity-based learning. As learners, we need different kinds of stimulus, and lessons presented in different ways, so we can pick things up fast and apply them immediately at the game table.
What Makes an Elite Level GM?
Here’s something I have not told anyone before. I feel that, to GM at the elite level, you need to master two skills. Get these two skills nailed down, and you become a Hall of Fame GM.
The first skill is storytelling. You know how to take all the stuff that’s happening right now in the session and turn it into compelling content through story structures and techniques.
You also know how to pace and structure multiple game sessions together, using techniques like the Hollywood Formula, to guide powerful stories with your friends.
The second skill is design. Everything from NPCs and encounters to adventures and worlds.
But this also includes designing the next moment at the session. Elite GMs are present and focused in the moment, but they also have one foot a bit into the future, setting up the next cool situation.
These two skills are difficult to learn and master. That’s why they are the two central themes Tony and I have built the Faster Combat course around.
Yes, we teach efficient initiative, organization hacks to streamline game management, and preparation techniques that make running combat quick and easy.
But it’s deeper than that. You will become a designer and a storyteller, through the medium of combat. We teach you from the ground up things like how foe selection affects the whole combat, how to design the end of a combat and work backwards to initiative, and how to change the whole look and feel of combat so it plays less like a board game or math game, and more like the dramatic, nail-biting scenes they should be.
Finally, we teach you how to use combat as a storytelling device. RPGs are about story. But combat is so much fun and so interesting with all the character options, tactics and abilities built into the game! So you want the best of both, and that’s what you learn how to achieve.
How to Get 50% Off The Course
This has turned into a not-so-brief word, so I’ll move on.
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3 Minute Magic Items Contest Ends Dec 5, Last Chance to Enter
There’s one round of prize draws left: December 5.
And there’s still a great chance you can win.
To enter, follow this 3 Minute Magic Item template to create a magic item and then email your creation to [email protected]
- Awesome Name
Multiple entries are welcome, and give you more chances to win.
Thanks to Gator Games for sponsoring this contest! Gator Games Online
Prizes up for grabs:
Care of Gator Games (available to North Americans only due to shipping restrictions):
- Dungeon Master’s Guide 2 for D&D 4th Edition
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And these prizes are available to anyone in the world:
PDF of your choice from Kobold Quarterly
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So, take three minutes to enter right now.
Have a festive week full of GMing!
Reader Tip Request
What The Heck Is Ullamaliztli?
An RPT reader wrote in with this request:
“I would like to include a game of Ullamaliztli in my campaign. Got any tips for running sports matches?”
Do any GMs out there have sports in their games? Leagues, encounters, adventures, NPC athletes…. Got any tips?
(By the way, here’s the low-down on Ullamaliztli. I had to look it up! Ulama (game)
Game Master Tips & Tricks
Do you have a game mastering tip to share? Email [email protected] – thanks!
1. Tips for GMing Westerns
From: Brent K. Davis
The Western is my favorite type of game. I’m from the Texas Panhandle, so I grew up with these kinds of characters. The lifestyle where I grew up ain’t changed that much.
The first thing you’ve gotta do when running a Western is knowing your material. Are you going for historical accuracy? Pick a spot you can find a map of or lots of information on.
Making things up is okay too. As long as it seems plausible. The West was a varied place, with lots of mystery and action.
The biggest problem with a straight Western is you have very little in the way of “monsters”. I get around this by using major NPC development.
Make players HATE your villains. Make them love your victims or “normal folk”. Look at Johnn’s NPC book. Big help. Lots of realistic characters offset the lack of the fantastic.
Then, if you throw the fantastic in, it seems so much more real against your realistic backdrop. It’s jarring and strange, as it should be.
Most Western game systems have pretty deadly combat, or should. Make the players realize how deadly it is for their beloved characters. Give them opportunity to be heroic.
What I do is use an event timeline, as in, my NPCs are gonna do these things at this time. If the PCs don’t interfere, the villainous plot happens.
Find stuff your players hate in real life and have your villains do that. I shock my players. They want to kill my villains…or worse. I do my best to get the players emotionally involved. At that point, the characters naturally follow.
Go watch “Deadwood”. “Open Range” is good too. All the Spaghetti Western type stuff. Anything to get you that movie type story structure.
Start with conflict early, in medias res if possible. Throw in a huge setback at about the 75% mark. Make it look bad, then more conflict.
Westerns should move fast. Don’t spend a lot of time on investigation unless it builds suspense. Bogging down with dungeon type play, mapping, etc., will destroy a Western.
It’s all about the feel and flavor and pace. Try to keep the game from slowing down. Most people have seen a Western or two. It’s part of American cultural identity. It’s iconic. Use that to your advantage, and give your players a ride.
2. What Assassin’s Creed Can Teach You
From: Aki Halme[Comment from Johnn: this is from an email exchange Aki and I had recently about the video game, Assassin’s Creed. I thought you might find elements of Aki’s observations of potential value next time you GM an assassin.]
The game is very simple, though it joins it smoothly with a background story. The routine is:
- Get a name of a person to kill and the town where the person is
- Go to the town and find the assassins’ bureau there
- Report in
- Find a tall building and climb on top of it to scout the area
- Get a list of side missions (fight off a group of thugs harassing a civilian
- Do 3-6 info gathering missions (eavesdrop, pickpocket, interrogate, assassination, collect flags)
- Report to the bureau and get permission to do the assassination
- Eliminate the target
- Flee to the bureau for the third time
- Leave town
Assassin’s Creed 1 has you repeat that process ten times. It’s possible to advance along the roads, killing every guard and ending up fighting all the time.
However, the patient ones can sneak around almost all of the time, or use roofs, which don’t have the hassle of civilians and beggars. So, one can usually just run across roofs and leap across roads, getting fast from one place to the next.
The whole thing works because it joins the pieces together so well. Fights, sneaks, info gathering, street chases and running fights where the opposition keeps getting reinforcements.
Fleeing is a good idea, even though one is strong enough to take on 20 guards single-handedly and expect to win,
And at the end, a set-piece puzzle of how to kill someone who typically doesn’t stick around to get killed.
The level bosses are not much tougher than generic people, but they have other advantages.
For example, a person may be hard to find, but clues say he will be speaking to the masses at a party at a specific time. And indeed, he is there. But the moment there is trouble, he’ll turn tail and flee, trailing guards and intersections and locked doors.
I seldom see cinematic scenes like that, and it could be fun for a GM to design those.
Smart PCs might eliminate some sentries or scout places in advance. But do too much or the wrong thing and the target will change plans and it is all for nothing. Mission failed.
And there is the point that leaving corpses around raises the alert level, making sneaking harder and guards more numerous. In a GM’s game, they’d also be better prepared, better trained and better equipped. Enough of that and getting around gets difficult.
Another fun element is that the places are towns. For AC1: 12th century Jerusalem and a few other towns – the time of the crusades.
AC2 takes place in the northern Italy during renaissance where one gets to meet da Vinci and others. There are lots of people around and they work as semi-interactive scenery in a three-dimensional setting.
Or more like a world of two layers: streets and roof tops, each with challenges of its own. A GM could add one more, the underground.
This is what it looks like to play: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iEdkDOIe8YM
3. GM Real PCs, Not Combat Constructs
From: Matthew Ipock
As a player, I always found it hard to create a character in our gaming group because the other players created their characters with the thought in mind that they would be fighting monsters, sometimes of great power, and they would create their characters as such.
Not really uber-gaming, but I always created my character to actually be a character, and so its abilities were not always the best.
Its skills were not always the best for presented situations. I had a personality in mind. I had a background in mind. And in the end, during the game, I always found my character lagging behind in a lot of situations.
I still had fun, because I had a real character that I could role play, but as far as the game goes, I wasn’t much use in a lot of cases, and many times I came close to death a lot more easily than the other characters.
So something DMs want to do is encourage their players to create real characters, instead of characters with the “game” in mind. This helps create equality amongst the PCs, and it helps create more interesting protagonists for the group’s stories.
4. More Ways to Part PCs and Their Loot
From: Kamal Hassan
Tips for Ben on spending PC loot:
If the players are engaged with the setting, and feel emotional attachment to any characters, that gives an easy way to gift some of the loot away:
- Family members may encounter bad harvests and need to feed their peasants and pay their noble.
- Maybe a younger sibling is going to:
– Get drafted into the royal army, but can buy their way out
– Wants to study magic, and the tutor of choice or magic school is not cheap
– Is caught kissing someone that a noble’s son or daughter has a crush on, and wounded pride demands satisfaction …unless the price is right
- In real medieval times, kings took ‘loans’ from nobles all the time. Let the PCs know their favorite royal family is about to go bankrupt – they’ll go on adventures to serve the family; will they give up their cash (for a ‘loan’ of course) as well?
- A dowry. Maybe the daughter of someone close to the PCs is in love with a penniless noble’s son. She cannot marry because the NPC’s father can’t afford the dowry being demanded.
- Honors and titles are often bought. Would a PC like to be Sir George of the Golden Fields?
- How about endowing things for the home village? For instance, a school for all the kids (who often wouldn’t get schooling)? A magic fountain in the main street that never runs dry? A bell that rings if the village is threatened?
- The crown needs a special levy to support its troops. Every person must pay either in cash or in military service.