The game where a three hour walk takes five minutes and a five minute fight takes three hours. If you have played D&D by the books you know just how accurate this can really be. For some individuals this is absolutely a blast. Combat can be an engaging and entertaining part of the game. However it is only one portion of the game and for some of us, myself included, the way combat normally plays out is far too long.
This is not to say that combat is not entertaining. In fact it has some of the greatest moments I have experienced in games. There are times however that I wish more time would be spent exploring the world and interacting with the characters within the game.
Less is More
Simply put, use the least number of enemies as you can, with the least variation. The problem is that is contradicts what can make a combat exciting and challenging. What is interesting is that this is the same issue that video game developers also come up against. There is a series that I bring up a lot when it comes to combats because in my opinion it is elegantly designed: Dark Souls. I encourage you to play through the game or watch a playthrough and pay attention to each of the “encounters”.
Something interesting you might notice is that there are rarely more than three unique creature types during a fight and yet the game manages to create some truly challenging encounters. In this situation I do not include weapon loadouts to uniquely identify enemies. This is one way you can give variety to the enemy and still group them together. You don’t need a bunch of different types of creatures to create interesting encounters. The more you can combine into a single turn the quicker resolving their actions occur.
Include Multiple Resolutions
A similar concept is in game design, giving your players multiple exit points. A way to reduce the time of combat is to give several options for players to resolve the conflict that is not just a trading of blows. It is far too easy for a DM to forget that the creatures the players fight would consider themselves living beings and have some form of self preservation. Not every fight needs to result in a complete elimination. A group of bandits would be more interested in preserving their own life than fighting to the death.
For unintelligent creatures this will require some creativity. Many creatures will also be driven by self preservation or more primal desires. A pack of wolves would also retreat if the meal is too much for them to handle. Some creatures can be distracted with food, or tricked into going away. Sometimes your players will come up a creative solution. Feel free to reward them on occasion, especially if the idea is inspiring.
Variable Health and the Finishing Blow
If you are like me as a DM then you don’t reveal the statistics of the creatures that you use, and even if the players know the stats my players have been made aware that I change up the stats as I see fit. With this in mind there is no way for the players to know the exact statistics of the creature except through trial and error. Therefore stats that change over time are impossible for the players to determine. Health is the main stat that is in flux more than anything. With that in mind you actually have zero need to write down the actual health of a creature. This lets you on the fly determine if a fight has gone on too long or seems to have been too short. Some people may complain that this gives far too much power to the DM. This comes from playing with DM’s that see themselves as the enemy of the players.
A helpful way to determine the finishing blow is to pay attention to the character’s actions. There are some moments during a fight, especially in boss fights, where a player chooses to use a one time use feature, or a super powerful choice. It is these points in a fight in which the players are waiting in anticipation, hoping that their attack is the finishing blow. This is a great exit point that you can take. If you feel that the fight has gone on for long enough, then give your players the satisfaction of landing that epic finishing blow.
Decrease Health, Increase Damage
I know I just got done talking about not tracking health, but the amount of health a creature has is a way to track the amount of time that a combat will take. Resistances and immunities slow that time down and vulnerabilities speed up the time. Increasing armor also increases this time. By reducing the amount of health that a creature has you essentially speed up the combat, or, if you are going by variable health this essentially comes down to the number of rounds you want the combat to last. My ideal is roughly three rounds.
This creates another issue which is easy to fix. The problem becomes that the creature does not do enough damage during the combat in order to make it a threat. By increasing the creature’s damage output you increase the risk and challenge of the creature. This can be a bit of a challenge to implement properly if you are not well aware of what your players can handle or if you plan to throw a bunch of encounters at them in a row. This type of combat can be great if the players are given time between fights to recover.
Better Descriptions/Using a Map
One of the biggest roadblocks to player decisions is a lack of understanding of the current situation. Your goal as a DM is to convey the situation in the best and most accurate way of the information that your players have to work with. Word choice is paramount. Fewer words are better, but they need to be clear and descriptive. If you create a sprawling narrative and describe the history of every stone, your players are going to struggle to remember all the details. This isn’t to say your players are not intelligent, but you still want to decrease the cognitive load on them so they can make more accurate and informed decisions.
This is where maps come in. We gather a lot of our information from our senses, it is what we as creatures use to survive. Since we are so good at translating this information you will want to present as much of the information as you can using the senses we have available. Maps trigger our vision, and we can directly see where everything is in relation to “ourselves”. I do not use a grid during my games, however I will still employ maps so everyone has a layout of the area. Even if you cannot afford the fancy terrain or the time, getting a wet erase mat (like one of these) you can draw out a quick map of the area, throw some dice where the players and enemies are, and you have a quick and easy representational map to help your players.
I covered my variation on initiative, but this isn’t the only solution. Rolling for initiative and determine when each person goes can in fact slow down your combat. Making it so everyone is aware of who goes ensures that transitions between turns goes more smoothly since everyone is helping. Keeping players informed when their turn is will give them ample time to plan what they are going to do, reducing the time needed to think during their turn.
Another alternative to initiative is to have predetermined initiative rolls. For 5e this is as simple as assuming everyone rolls a 10 and adding their initiative modifier to the roll. Ties are determined the same, and any advantage one gets to initiative gives them a +5. This solidifies when each person goes and reduces the time getting into combat.
Roll Damage with the Attack
This is a simple time saving technique that DM’s and players can perform alike. During the sequence of play when a player or DM rolls an attack, roll the damage with it. It makes that period of time between saying when the attack hits or miss and when damage is calculated shorter. This is helpful if your fights take numerous turns and players/creatures have multiple attacks. It will not save a ton of time, but a little bit goes a long way.
This also works for spells that deal damage even if the target succeeds on the saving throw. As the player or DM is rolling the saving throw, roll the damage on the spell. This makes it so you can get an immediate response when the creature succeeds or fails. Even if the creature or player has an ability like Evasion (take no damage on a successful save, and half on a failed) it is better to have it and not need it.
In the end the only thing you can strive for is to cut down on unnecessary downtime (downtime caused by mechanics not downtime in the adventure) and reducing cognitive load on the players. For each group there may be a different challenge for you to overcome and not all of what I have suggested may work at your table. It is up to you as the DM to make the call and experiment to get the right balance.
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