Posted on : 06-02-2011 | By : Brian | In : Advice, D&D, Guest Posts, Marcelo Dior
Marcelo Dior graces us with his prose again, and it’s a good one this time! Today he talks about speeding up combat; specifically, he discusses whether or not it’s really necessary. He’s really thought this one through and backed it up with his own games, and he includes some really solid advice, too. I agree with pretty much every point he makes in this article; give it a read!
There’s a lot of house rules out there trying to speed up combat, to better integrate players at the table, to make the experience more interesting, agile, funnier, etc. But— do you need them?
The penny dropped for me when I listened to the January 30 episode of The Tome Show, «Expert DM Seminar», recorded at D&D Experience 2011. At that seminar, Chris Perkins and Greg Bilsland bounced ideas off the small audience about their house rules. A lot of nice stuff came out from there, and I already knew some of those tricks. But, most of it… I found out I don’t need.
It has become an Internet obsession, the need for speeding up combat; texts and tweets about cutting down the time spent on Combat Encounters appear in every D&D blog and from every Twitter user who runs D&D games. It is perfectly justifiable and very important for a lot of DMs and players out there. But is it for everybody? Is it for you?
I’ve found out that, for me, it’s not. I’ve been running a regular D&D game for six people since last Summer, and combat is pretty agile and dynamic. Of course it takes longer than one hour – it’s six people after all – but I hadn’t realized that combat was dynamic enough, and for months I went on cramming all kinds of house rules, trying to cut seconds and minutes from combat.
Wanna know what happened? Combat was, on the contrary, taking longer because of all those house rules. None of them were necessary to my game, but I was so enthralled by the concept/obsession of speeding up combat that’s raging through the Internet that I convinced myself I had the same problem. It’s sorta like those medicine ads: you think you need to take them because you see them on TV every day.
This is going to sound redundant, but Combat Encounters need speeding up if they need speeding up. Each combat at your table takes two hours, but everybody’s having a ball and no one cares? So don’t change a thing. The combat takes less than 45 minutes, but you’re not having fun and your players are feeling that the combat is dragging? Go ahead and crank it up! You shouldn’t set your game by a time-limit determined by some random blog or tweet. If it incidentally fits your game, fine. If it doesn’t, just as well. My own measure is not in minutes, but in rounds: three or less, the combat was too easy; more than six, the combat’s dragging its feet and should end quickly.
I’ve realized the most time-consuming element on my table was me, the DM. My players aren’t doing anything wrong, I am – and I registered that after listening to said podcast. So I decided the only changes to speed up combats at my table would be:
- Initiative and condition markers are to be administrated by the players. There’re six of them and only one of me, and I already have a lot of stuff to take care of.
- I’m making monster defense scores visible when a PC hits its number, or close. I already state “bullseye!” or “you missed by one!” anyway, so I’m turning it into a mechanic: I’ll use the tent-style monster stat card suggested by Sly Flourish, only with the defenses covered by pieces of post-it. When someone hits it (precisely or close) I’ll ask them to lift the post-it off of that defense. It’s a compromise between letting the players know monsters defenses from the get-go or never revealing them. It’s going to give me a little bit me more work the day before, but I think it’ll save a lot of time not having to check and say if the attacks hit or not.
And here are the lessons I learned from almost three years of playing D&D which I’m turning into guide-lines from now on:
- I seldom use Minions. With my present group, 95% of them are dead at the end of the first round anyway – it just make me lose time positioning all those minis on the map. Exception: a very tough monster, like a boss’s Lieutenant, and his platoon of Minions. I love that configuration, usually putting a different mini amongst them; my players always think that guy is some Sergeant (not just a regular Minion with a different skin).
- Do not use more than four distinct monster stats; ideally, only two or three. The number of enemies must come from the quantity of each monster, not variety. More than that number of stats on hand, I get lost and spend an unnecessary amount of time sorting out my monsters, halting the combat when it comes to my turn (and the DM turn comes a lot).
- Do not have more than one monster with a great variety of attacks. I found out that most monsters won’t last enough time to use all their cool powers, so just one complex monster is sufficient. The others should have no more than one attack and – perhaps – a one-use-only power.
Here’s my lesson, dear reader: you should only speed up the combat, or change any characteristic of your game, if it needs to be changed. If there’s a problem with, say, the way feats are handled on your game, change it. If not, leave it alone and be happy.
In spite of everything I wrote here, you should listen to the seminar I mentioned at the beginning. You might find some good, interesting tips worth being tried out.