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Faster Combats

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Joined: 13 Sep 2006
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PostPosted: Thu Jan 11, 2007 12:59 am    Post subject: Faster Combats Reply with quote

Here's an article on Faster Combat. Something that I'm trying really hard to get better as it drives me insane when things bog down. Part of the real downside to moving to 3.0 and then 3.5 was the loss of what I'm calling Game Mechanics Mastery. (GMM) The more I look at the 3.5 ruleset the more I like it.... but it's honestly not presented in the clearest terms in the books and they've had to constantly give updates/errata/and explanations like in the Rules of the Game articles on the web to just get their point across... But the ideas behind them are solid even if the explanation is weak. In the past, the game of DnD has been mostly learned by actually playing the game with someone knowledgeable enough to DM and then learning it bit by bit. This time we've all had to start from scratch so to speak and I've tried to send a message that the players are going to have to have invested the time to learn the ruleset as well. I still say that, but the further things went along the more I realized that I needed to step up and really get the GMM down better, so I asked Jared, who has a better GMM even now than I do, to step up to the DM screen and give it a go and hopefully that would get us all up to speed by having Jared walk us through it. I think that helped a lot. But I still realized I wanted to get things to go even faster... as I'm sure Jared can attest, there is a certain level of brain drain that happens when you are trying to DM... It's like when you see CPU usage on your computer maxxed out and the computer fan and HD are running so fast it sounds like a mini jet engine about to take off! So I guess what I am saying is that I am working on getting combats to go faster, I want you all to have fun and that means the more knowledgable you are about combat the faster and more fun things will be for everyone. That all being said. I've instituted the first 3 rules that you see posted under the heading Things... they be a changing. ( or something similar, it's late and I'm tired)

Here are some ideas another DM had and tried to implement. I will be looking at some of these and seeing what works for us. Comments are welcome.

Running Faster Combats
A Guest Article by Kurt "Telas" Schneider
I struggled for the last year with the pace of combats, and learned a lot from other GMs, my players, and personal experience. I hope what I learned will be of use to you. This article will be aimed at D&D 3.5, but many of the ideas are adaptable to other systems. I'll also assume you're using initiative cards, but almost everything here is applicable to laptop use or other methods of tracking initiative.
For what it's worth, I use a spreadsheet to track initiative and hit points (including PC HP). A Firefox window holds the Hypertext D20 SRD, and HTML sheets of monster stats, courtesy of YoYoDyne Software's Monster 3.5. One of the neat things about Monster 3.5 is that the end user can modify the stat block template. I never could get the hang of the d20 stat block, and prefer the "old school" table style template, especially when I need to quickly find a statistic.
[Johnn: you can get Telas's statblock template here.
YoYoDyne Software's Monster 3.5
Hypertext D20 SRD ]
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1. Communicate
If you're finding combats seem to drag on forever, the first thing you should do is talk it over with your group. They might not notice the drag as much. They might even prefer the slower pace. If faster combat does appeal to them, let them know you'll be working to speed things up, and that you might have some expectations of them. Talk about what is going to change for both the players and GM. Communication is a Good Thing.
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2. Time Yourself
It's a good idea to get an objective sense of how long combats are really taking. Ask the least busy or most experienced player to time your combat rounds, and note what's taking so long.
If the source of the lag is one player, take him aside before or after the game and work with him to speed things up. Possible solutions might be cheat sheets, rules tutorials, table seating (closer to the GM or an experienced player), better character sheet preparation, or a couple of one-on-one combat-heavy sessions.
If it's the GM, perhaps you should scale back the complexity of combat encounters until you get a better handle on things.
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3. Proper Preparation Prevents Poor Performance
Preparation is the key to faster combats. This is how TV chefs can throw together a full meal in 22 minutes: everything is ready and at their fingertips.
Know and be comfortable with the feats, abilities, and spells you'll be using in the session's encounters. If this means holding off on that new monster or spell you're dying to pull on the group, so be it. This also goes for environments. If you aren't comfortable with the rules for shallow and deep bogs, you might want to avoid a swamp fight. If this is the first time the characters have encountered a particular critter, have a good idea in advance what information you'll give out for successful Knowledge checks.
Keep pertinent information at your fingertips. Use a scratch pad or Post-It Notes for hit points and temporary effects. Use initiative cards with all of an NPC's information on it, like a miniature character sheet. (The Game Mechanics have a great set of initiative cards: http://www.thegamemechanics.com/products/initiativecards.asp ).
I pre-roll initiative for the critters, and usually make some notes on their cards (tactics, spells, reminders). Remember to make a blank "end of round" card where you can note the duration of spell effects, abilities, etc.
Remind the group about any environmental effects, like double movement costs for light undergrowth, and prepare index cards or placards to put on the table when they're in effect. Suggest that players do the same for their spells. I clip 3x5 cards with environmental effects to my screen, and there is much gnashing of teeth when I pull out the feared and hated "Narrow and Low" card.
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4. Manage Initiative Smartly
My group adopted a policy of rolling initiative at the beginning of the game and immediately after combat for the next encounter. This adds a sense of urgency to the beginning of combat, but it also helps the GM prepare the next combat during the more relaxed parts of the game by having the initiative cards sorted and ready.
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5. Draw Maps Quickly
Draw out the map quickly, explaining as you go. If you use multicolored pens, have a player draw a key as you draw the battlefield. Don't strive for a work of art; it's just a tool. If you get the chance, draw it in advance. (Take that, Johnny Cochran!)
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6. Limit Conversation
When combat starts, limit in-game conversation to six seconds per character per round. Speech might be a free action, but that doesn't mean a character can rattle off the unabridged Oxford English Dictionary in the time it takes him to move and swing a sword.
Introduce a time limit for the players and yourself. A minute or so at first, but make it shorter as your players get more efficient. The character has six seconds to decide and act; a player should not dally for much more than that (after all, he's got everyone else's turn to think about his actions). This is not to say that six seconds should be a hard and fast rule; make it a target. GM judgements, skill checks, descriptions, and clarifications all have to take place to get the player the right information, and shouldn't count against him. If the player hesitates and considers for too long, though, have his character delay his action. Trust me, you will not have many unintentional delays after the first one or two. This rule goes for the GM as well. You should know what the NPCs and critters will be doing before their turn comes up.
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7. Know Character Abilities
Don't be the reference book for the players, but know that Emrin the mage dishes out a 7d6 Fireball, with DC15 Reflex Save for half damage. This is also handy when planning encounters.
Use NPC initiative cards mentioned previously as mini character sheets for the PCs as well. On these, note their feats, skills, tricky spells, special magic items, complex equipment, and any other information you would find handy during combat. Use the front and back of the cards if needed. You want to save time looking up rules, anticipate PC actions for faster adjudication, and help prompt players who aren't sure of the rules. Feel free to note save DCs, page numbers, book references, mnemonics, and anything else that will help make combats fast.
After game sessions, check with the person who observed and timed combats to learn what new rules should be researched and documented by players or yourself for next session.
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8. Start With Simple Combat
Simplify combat when possible. At first, this might mean combat takes place on ground that is dry, clear, and level, and that all the orcs will go on the same initiative. As you get comfortable (and faster), try varied environments, individual initiatives, and advanced or obscure rules to continually improve your rules lore.
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9. Resolve The Action And Move On
Get descriptive if you like, but move on to the next character as soon as possible. I've found that a fast-paced "machine-gun" approach to combat is more enjoyable than a slow-paced game of tactical chess. Once you've mastered the techniques you need to speed things up, the players will follow your lead, and you'll find combat lasts a matter of minutes.
When a rules interpretation or question comes up, allow a minute or two of discussion if necessary, make a decision, and revisit it after the combat or after the session. If it's critically important, examine it in detail, but don't let the rules get in the way of the game.
Sometimes there are multiple rules possibilities in play. For example, you might be unsure if an unusual situation might be resolved with grappling, a trip attack, or an overrun, and it's a critical moment in combat you want done right. In this case, assign each rule for research to a separate player and divide and conquer. If possible, do no research yourself and just process incoming player reports as they find and read the rules in question. Assess quickly, make a decision, and re-visit between sessions for a final, thorough analysis so you're well-armed next time.
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10. Consider House Rules With Fast Combat In Mind
When you start thinking of making house rules or adopting rules from other sources, consider their effect on the pacing of combat. Will the rule simplify or complicate? Is it worth the complication? Does it make the game more fun? Does everyone in the group agree?
As you time and observe combats, certain circumstances might reveal themselves as repeat offenders. Different group and GMing styles mean no set of rules is perfect, and if the official rules can't help or clash for whatever reason, seek out house or 3rd party rules to fix this particular element of your game. Be sure to playtest and get feedback first though, before hinging PC lives on any new rules.
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11. Tips for Players
I've found being a GM makes me a better player. I'm prepared for the game and for my turn in combat. I have a better handle on what is and isn't possible for my character. And since I've been there, I tend to treat the GM with a bit more respect; I'm more willing to let the GM make a judgment call, even if I disagree with it. These are all things I would like to see from my players, so I should expect it of myself when I'm on their side of the screen.
Players should be as prepared as the GM. Character sheets should be complete, spells should be memorized, equipment should be purchased, and encumbrances calculated before the game starts. Players should know their characters' abilities and spells inside out, or should have that information readily accessible. They should at least be aware of each other's abilities, and be prepared to capitalize on them. Characters nearing a level bump should already know what they're going to add at that level.
You should know what your character is going to do when his round comes up, or should at least narrow it down if you need more information from the GM. You should be focused on the combat, not on the TV, the pets, or the latest Order of the Stick. When the in-game rules discussions do come up (and they will), try to be succinct, polite, and helpful.
* * *
Speedy combats result from timely and efficient management of game information. If you've prepared properly, you'll have the information at your fingertips. All you need do is make use of it.
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