Speed Up Combat

Get in there

Combat can be one of the most time-consuming parts of your game, taking hours to resolve and eating up a large chunk of the session. The turn-based approach makes it so most players have little to do outside of their turn, which is both a blessing and a curse. It's a codified way to give everyone a chance to shine, but for everyone else it presents an opportunity for boredom and distraction. Plus it can be a little ridiculous to spend 2 hours on a combat which only amounted to 60 seconds passing in-game.

If you're feeling like your combats are getting bogged down and you're having players tune out, then try these tips to speed things up and get people engaged again. You can pick and choose a couple that you like, or use all of them. I'd suggest giving each one a trial of a couple sessions to see how well it works for you and your group.

Instead of rolling initiative for each monster individually, place them into groups and put them at the end of the initiative order. Then for each group, roll a d6 and move them up that number of spaces in the order. So if you roll a 3, they'd move up 3 positions in the initiative order. This can be especially helpful if you use little cards to visualize the order. If you categorize them somewhat by their initiative bonus, you can also add that to your d6 roll. To speed it up even further, you can have players keep their initiative order for each day or each session, so you only have to roll initiative once at the start. If you're using the Grid Map or Encounter Maker then those both have a roll initiative button to fully automate it.

Combat tips

Limit players to 2 seconds of speaking on their turn. If they go over this then it uses up their action and they can have 6 seconds instead. Some groups really enjoy having table talk and strategizing about their turns, but if combat length is a problem for you then this is going to be a major factor. This also helps to simulate the chaos and fog of war when fighting, since being unable to properly communicate with your allies is a major factor in reality.

You can take time sensitivity a step further by limiting players to at most 20 seconds on their turn. Use a timer and start it once you've told the player it's their turn. This can be a tough one to get everyone on board with, but look: a round in D&D is 6 seconds, even the fastest thinker with the best reaction time isn't going to be able to think more than 3 times faster than they can physically act. Hesitating and missing out on an opportunity to attack, or making the wrong choice in the heat of battle more accurately reflects what happens in a real combat. Characters in 5th edition are very over-tuned, even missing out on a few actions isn't likely to turn a win into a loss if you're designing your combats around the appropriate XP budget. That said, it might be a good idea to lower the difficulty of your first few combats after making the switch. You can gradually bring them back up once everyone has the hang of it. Once they DO get the hang of it, your combats become much more hectic and exciting, as players learn to do the first thing they think of instead of carefully deliberating on the best choice. This also brings your spellcasters back in par on turn length with your melee fighters, and if the party sorcerer or druid is struggling with the time limit, you may want to suggest a switch to a simpler caster like a warlock.

Load up on actions

Have players declare all their actions (move, action, bonus, interact) at the start of their turn before they start rolling and resolving them. This prevents multiple scans of their sheet and pauses after each action, and requires more tactical thinking to make good use of your actions without wasting them. This is something other tactical games (such as Warhammer) do, and it can add a fun tactical element to turns while also eliminating pauses between each action as the player needs to look over their options each time. For characters with multiple attacks there's a fun risk/reward in deciding whether to put all your attacks into the weakened opponent and potentially waste them, or splitting them between multiple targets and potentially being unable to finish the first one off.

Spend session 0 having everyone each make and cut out combat cards on a sheet of paper. Put in all their abilities with the action cost at the top. Limited abilities and spell cards should be discarded as they're used or their slots become unavailable. You can buy a deck of spell cards for your class, but you'll also want to make cards for all your other actions such as attacking, interacting, moving, potions, etc. Some players are better able to decide on a course of action when they have a hand full of cards in front of them, while some others may be overwhelmed, so it may not be a solution that works for everyone.

Crib Sheet

Use the Combat Cheat Sheet and give everyone their own copy. This can greatly cut down on time spent looking up rules, and much like the cards is a quick reference for everything available to you on your turn.

Eliminate initiative entirely and let players take their turns whenever they're ready to. This makes combat more like the rest of the session where players can chime in whenever and gives it a more organic feel. To help maintain balance you should organize your monsters in descending order of their initiative bonus, and have a monster take a turn in between each player turn just like how Legendary Actions work. This works better for groups that are already able to keep a good and fair flow while RPing, and may not work as well if you have players that tend to keep quiet during RP.

Even just trying these each out for a couple sessions can have a dramatic improvement on how your group approaches combat. Being forced to adapt to a new limitation on their time or trying out a new way of organizing turns can expose some bad habits your players may have had, and change the way they think when it's their turn. You may even come up with some new ideas while trying these ones out that works great for your group, getting everyone thinking about the problem in a proactive way is the first step to solving it.

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