3 Ways to Make D&D 5e Combat Faster
So today, I want to discuss three ways that I’ve found to make D&D 5e combat a faster experience. Consider this: the night’s going great. Your players are actually engaged, teasing out clues, putting together the pieces of the puzzle, and guessing wildly about how the adventure is likely to end. They’re probably coming up with stuff that sounds a lot more exciting than what you’ve got planned –stay tuned for that article. But there’s a snag. As they’re decoding the mysterious letter, or fiddling with the puzzle box, or as they finally get that door opened they run into a wandering monster and it’s initiative.
Suddenly, the game where people are talking and the narrative is happening is over, and we’re rolling dice to see who gets to move first and liberally apply magic and muscle in glorious hopes of making the other guy drop before they do. For a lot of people, this is the juice of the game. Moving pieces on the battle map and picking which cool ability to use next can be awesome and exciting! Honestly, if it wasn’t, the game wouldn’t hang together. Too much of the book is dedicated to combat rules for that system to hold no appeal to anyone.
But sometimes, combat is perfunctory. Not everything is a ground-breaking, world-shaking battle with a swelling orchestral score. Sometimes, it’s just the three guards dicing in the entry-hall and diplomacy isn’t looking like it’s going to work. That’s still initiative, still a narrative beat, still a resource drain, and still a battle that has to be fought. So how can we push the speed-up button on D&D combat so that these incidental encounters don’t take up an hour at the table while we run down goblins to the dulcet tones of “Yakkety Sax?”
I’ve got some thoughts.
1. Side Initiative
Initiative is a balanced system that adds a lot of granularity to the time-scape of the slugfest that is D&D 5e’s combat system. Roll your dice, get your number, act on your number. Pretty simple. The slowdown here basically boils down to the whole, “wait, who’s turn is it?” People’s attention will wander as the Wizard looks up his spell, or the DM adjudicates cover for the bugbear, or whatever. Then, as turns end and the on-deck player is caught in the headlights, there’s a minute of “okay, wait, what just happened?”
This can be limited with a visible initiative tracker and good table communication and etiquette, but it won’t completely vanish. This is because the granular initiative is designed to give everyone a small window to plan, act, and pass the spotlight. People’s plans change in the last ten seconds of the last person’s turn and they’ve got to readjust. It happens.
The bottom line here, is that everyone taking a discrete turn with planning (cross-planning, often enough) and execution can drag. So in short, a simple encounter with a handful of goblins becomes a big production that ends up taking the better part of an hour. Sure, it’s mostly because the Ranger’s attention was wandering during the repartee with the shaman, but whatever.
What do you do?
Side initiative hearkens back to a simpler time when PCs were PCs and Elf was a character class. Roll initiative as a group, using your group’s lowest initiative value. Do the same for your monsters. If you like math, I suppose you can take an average of the PCs or monsters and use that. Personally, that’s work and I don’t have time for that. We’re doing this fast.
Now, armed with these numbers, turn to either the PCs or your own devious DM brain and ask what that side is doing. Adjudicate those actions. Everyone rolls simultaneously, to include damage for their attack or spell should it be necessary. Then, apportion the damage and describe the results. Then, move to the next side and do it again. Simple.
What you get are these elaborate flowing descriptions of epic combat that makes both sides look much more like a well-coordinated team. Congratulations, you’ve just made your “trash” combats into a quick and heroic scuffle worthy of Peter Jackson cinematography.
2. The Monster Wrangler
Sometimes, combats slow to a crawl as the DM pores over creature stat-blocks, looking for the optimal attack to lay the biggest smackdown on the largest number of players. This is a natural DM impulse. Combats are supposed to be thrilling, costly, and tactical. That’s why we do them. Where the wheels start to come off is when this is done with every beastie in a massive battle.
Unlike Player Characters, we don’t have the luxury of determining the actions of a single character. We’ve got this big cast to administrate. We can’t always remember all of the cool abilities and nitnoid rules for each of our creatures. That means we’ve got to look it up. What is good for a big bad is not necessarily good for a lieutenant with a bruiser, a caster, and a minion or fifty. When you’ve got that many pieces to move, things start to break down.
Now, a good DM won’t bite off too much. He’ll keep it to a couple different types of creatures, keep the Monstrous Manual handy for reference, maybe keep a monster card with the relevant stats and stuff near to hand. It won’t take too much time as he looks up the DC for the breath weapon, and then flips over to see which of his critters have Pack Tactics. It will still take time, though.
This is where I take a page from Dwight D. Eisenhower: “Leadership is the art of getting someone else to do something you want done because he wants to do it“. Delegate, my DM-ly friends. Appoint one of your PCs as wranglers of the minions, let them roll those dice, and let them cackle when they land a critical hit on their buddy. That frees you up to weigh the pros and cons of lightning bolt and fireball.
This has a sneaky side-benefit as well. Not only are you getting a little of the workload off of your plate, but you’re empowering a PC to see how it feels to be on the other side of the screen. That’s right. You’re grooming a new DM while also speeding up combat. How cool is that?
If you’re running a lot of monsters, feel free to portion out monsters among the entirety of the party. You’d be surprised the amount of fun that comes of rolling that crazy amount of dice. I’m not sure what it is about rolling that many dice. People just can’t help but enjoy it. That’s why Shadowrun works. When it works.
3. The Shot-Clock
If you’ve tried the above and combat is still crawling by as people agonize over their moves with the diligent attention of armchair generals, I’ve got one last piece of advice. It is not kind. You will have players who hate it. I certainly did.
The Shot-Clock is pretty much exactly what it sounds like. You can have an hourglass (a small one–minute glass, maybe), an egg timer, a countdown on your phone, whatever. Just put it in front of the DM screen, let them see it. If you don’t see an overall speeding up of play, your players are not as easily spooked as mine.
If they’re still dragging like a gnome in plate slogging through difficult terrain, then go ahead and follow through on the threat. Set the timer for 30 seconds, and if they can’t decide on their move in that time, they take the total defense action. Simple as that. “What are you doing?” wait the requisite 30 seconds while they hem and haw, and then: “Paralyzed by indecision, you focus on drawing up your guard and thinking your next move through. Next up is…”
They’re going to call foul, but they will start paying attention. They’ll start proactively considering their options. In time, you won’t need the shot-clock anymore. The omnipresent threat of it reappearing will reinforce the habits. Sure, you look a little tyrannical, but the combats won’t drag, and that’s not nothing.
There it is, DMs one and all, three ways to speed up the pace of combat in D&D 5e. If the combat is dragging, and incidental skirmishes are eating all of your play time, try them out and see how they work for you.