How Long Does Forever Take? A GM Pit Trap To Avoid
Roleplaying Tips Newsletter #0866
That’s how it might feel waiting for the player on your left to finally wrap up their turn. “Whew. Whose initiative is it now?”
Andrew from The Two Simple Psychs podcast said one GM he spoke with had 15-minute player turns on average. With four PCs, plus the GM’s turn, it means you are waiting for an hour to go again!
An hour between turns? Holy cow.
Ok, try this next session. Time each player’s turn. Including yours.
Then run over the numbers after the game.
When people do this at the start of Faster Combat, they are often surprised who the biggest culprit is.
When I timed my Riddleport campaign, we were averaging 7 minutes per turn. With 6 players + GM, that’s about 40 minutes waiting for your turn.
Man, that sucks. Players come to play. Not to watch and wait.
Worse, what if your turn amounts to a swing and a miss? All that waiting and the quality of your gameplay is a quick roll and some damage?
You have two options. Makes turns faster or make each player’s turn longer.
Longer turns grant more spotlight time to cure swing-and-miss. But they send you into a downward spiral of even bigger gaps between gameplay for each person.
However, you don’t want turns so fast they become mechanical and you impinge on spotlight time.
One great workaround is Adventure Missions.
Imagine your players strategizing over how to infiltrate the guild and discover who the spy is. All players are engaged simultaneously this way.
Some group discussions can be endless, though.
So make group chat time also real-time in the game. If the players debate for twenty minutes, that’s twenty minutes gone for the PCs.
This is awesome gameplay because most players, if not all, get involved. No one is waiting forty-two minutes to participate.
Sprinkle in character sheet gameplay during the debate. Don’t interrupt the flow. Just tap a player and ask aside for the skill check or knowledge test.
Diminish rules talk and ask players to speak in-character.
The beauty of Adventure Missions is they do not grind gameplay down to the last hit point or encounter.
Adventure Missions Make Encounters Discretionary
You and your players must get a bit more strategic in what encounters trigger. They might use stealth or try overwhelming force.
But do not feel compelled to ensure every encounter must be hit.
The Five Room Dungeon format works great here. Turn your 5RD into a Core Story surrounded by Optional Encounters.
Players don’t know your Core Story, so they’ll consume some of the Optional Encounters just from exploration and fog-of-war choices.
The Optional Encounters give the party “hot or cold” feedback on whether they are succeeding in their mission or if it’s going awry.
Likewise, combats sometimes might be toe-to-toe grindfests. Try to design them with major repercussions if they last longer than three rounds. Stage Boss and Villain fights excepted.
Perhaps there is a security layer in the story, which makes players want to be undetected, so they’ll lean towards both efficient fights and detecting Optional Encounters with greater accuracy.
Foes should also react to being scared, wounded, outgunned, or outclassed. If mooks, let them die fast. That’ll increase pacing for sure.
Other suggestions laid out in Faster Combat to speed up fights include monster design, Turn Efficiency, and Hazard Depletions.
You can also interweave Adventure Missions as laid out in my recent Musings about Short Adventures. You might sometimes have two or three concurrent Adventure Missions. And results of Adventure Missions offer hooks into new Short Adventures.
Add exciting urgency to your game now because real-time chats expose the party to Optional Encounters, security, and other Hazards.
Circling back to shaving off time between player participation moments….
The party needs to make contact with someone in The Guild to get valuable information that will progress another Adventure Mission.
Huddled outside the village at dusk, the players debate for nine hushed minutes.
Ranger wants terrain answers. Fast rolls reveal new facts about the situation to help the party plan or reach consensus sooner.
Wizard and Cleric fire off utility spells and you co-narrate your way through the developments those cause.
Rogue scouts. You also roll quick skill tests and narrate through the developments.
All these checks happen while the players discuss their plans.
9 minutes Total Time:
Total Time Players: 9 shared minutes
Total Time GM: 3 minutes
Note the GM has six minutes to herself. These are unallocated because the players just need you for answers and rolls.
Use this free time to tweak your Adventure Mission to the current meta-game and in-game situation. Log details or prep the Room #1 Entrance encounter.
Alternatively, if it looks like the party is going to bumble things from the get-go, resist intervening. Instead, think about possible fun circumstances that could result from partial failure. Then game those out instead when the time comes so players feel a bit of success and you aren’t saying No.
Let players learn from their mistakes by allowing them to make mistakes.
So, as the infiltration stumbles forward with close calls, fast thinking, and false leads, the party gets into battle.
This is an important fight, as it’s the buffer between the PCs and the Room #4 Climactic Encounter.
You manage to get turns down to three minutes each. And the three-round Designed Fight ended up taking two very satisfying rounds:
45 minutes Combat Total Time:
Total Time Player 1: 6 minutes
Total Time Player 2: 6 minutes
Total Time Player 3: 5 minutes
Total Time Player 4: 7 minutes
Total Time Player 5: 6 minutes
Total Time GM: 15 minutes
Look at the GM’s time!
That was one of the greatest insights I received while co-writing Faster Combat. I as GM was the player at the game table with the longest turns.
One thing that shaved a lot of my time off turns was getting help from my players. For example, asking a player to manage initiative for me saved me time and freed up my brain cycles for other encounter setup tasks.
Another example, we use the grid for fights because we love getting tactical. I purchased knitting row counters on Amazon to track foe health. A player chips in to manage updating the row counters. We count up with damage done so players don’t learn foes’ total hit points at the start of the encounter.
There are many ways you can speed up your turns without becoming a robot. You actually reduce cognitive load with certain techniques, and I happily pour that freed-up energy into more details and NPC roleplay.
Ok, Room #4 Climax. A big battle. Let’s say it takes 94 minutes. But time between player turns was still good at around 6 minutes. You encourage players to talk out the battle in-character so between-turn time is spent roleplaying.
(Tip: allow clever players success in creating a secret way of communicating with each other in fights. You’ll be rewarded with much more roleplay. Have foes also communicate in code to give players one of the best types of puzzles you can drop into your game.)
Room #5 Reward opens up two new hooks. The defeated guild leader had maps and a journal in a lockbox. Two new Adventure Missions and Short Adventures await.
And time is running out so plan fast dear heroes!
There’s a lot going on in this Musing. The first thing to think about is how long must your players wait between turns. While 6 minutes per turn might seem ok, that’s minimum half-hour periods of idleness in most groups!
Measure with a clock to get actual data, as your perception might get skewed with the busyness of gameplay.
If you use Campaign Logger, a cool trick is to keep a Combat Log. Create a separate Campaign Log and use it just for fights. Each time a player begins their turn, create a Log Entry. Campaign Logger automatically timestamps each new Log Entry. So you get automated tracking of turn lengths you can review after the session.
If you are enrolled in Faster Combat, understand sleek fights result from good design that happens well before initiative is rolled.
Once you have a real idea of turn length, use adventure building and combat design techniques to get turn length shorter.
Meaningful turns + frequent turns = awesome game sessions.