4 Easy Ways to Amp Up Your Combat (GM Tip #4)

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Everyone who’s played RPGs (players and GMs alike) has been there: your characters are in the midst of what’s supposed to be a nail-biting melee—the climax of the adventure—but, for the players, it’s a dull routine of rolling dice and crunching numbers, interrupted only by debating strategy or flipping through rulebooks, until the last enemy falls over or retreats.

It’s a paradox. As far as the story is concerned, combat, by definition, is exciting—the characters are thrown into a life-or-death scenario and must rely on their strength and wits to survive. But the act of playing out the combat all too often fails to capture the tension in the story. As the stakes of the narrative rise, the time needed for calculating each action increases. A single swing of a sword could spell doom, so the story must be slowed down. In D&D, one round of combat represents six seconds of the characters’ lives, but it can easily eat up half an hour of the players’ lives if you’re not careful.

So here are four simple ways to make combat more exciting and fast-paced. I’ve tested them in my own games, and my players agree that our sessions are more fun because of them. Best of all, any GM can start using these right away, with little effort.
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#1. Timed Turns

One of the quickest ways to slow a good game down is for the players to take too long to make up their damned minds. This is such a common problem that we have a catchy name for it: analysis paralysis.

So how do you stop the players from over-analyzing their actions? Simple: give them a deadline! I find a small sand timer (about 1 minute) works well, but an egg timer or smartphone app, or even a countdown should work in a pinch.

This is not just a technique for combat—you can use it whenever the characters have a limited time to act but the players start debating what to do. For example, I recently ran an adventure in which Thokk, the party’s half-orc barbarian, came across the camp of an orc tribe that had enslaved him as a child. Of course the party wanted to deliberate the most strategic plan of attack, so I placed my sand timer on the table and said, “When this runs out, Thokk loses his patience and charges into battle.” And before you complain that I was taking freedom away from the players, Thokk’s player agreed wholeheartedly with a grin.

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#2. Roll ‘Em in Plain Sight

You might think that rolling behind a GM screen would be an effective way to keep tension high. After all, when a monster hits one of the PCs for 27 damage, they don’t know if the monster got lucky or if it’s just warming up. I argue, however, that hiding rolls takes away from the tension.

I used to play with a GM screen, but a year or so ago I decided to see how it felt without it, and I’ve never looked back. When you roll in front of your players, they share the thrill of watching the dice tumble on the table and spell their fate. It’s both empowering and frightening for them… empowering because the GM becomes just another player at the table, bound by the same rules they are; frightening because they know you’re not pulling any punches—if a monster rolls a 20 and kills someone in the party, them’s the breaks.

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#3. Initiative Cards

In D&D (and most other RPGs I’m aware of), the GM and players make “initiative” rolls when combat starts to see who gets to go first. GMs typically handle this in one of two ways. The first is to roll for each individual combatant, record their rolls from highest to lowest, and proceed in that order. The GM may even require a fresh set of initiative rolls at the start of each new round. To save time, many GMs use a simpler method: make one roll for the good guys and another roll for the bad guys. When it’s the good guys’ turn, each player acts, usually in the order they’re sitting around the table. On the bad guys’ turn, the GM has each enemy act, in whatever order makes the most sense at the time. GMs using the second method typically make only one initiative roll at the beginning of the combat, and each side alternates turns from there.

Both methods have their flaws. The first method eats up a lot of time because it requires so many rolls and quite a bit of accounting. An organized GM can get through the process relatively quickly, but personally I find it immediately grinds the tension of the game to a halt when I have to make upwards of a dozen rolls right off the bat and write down each one. It also gives the game a kind of “classroom” feel, as the GM reads names off the list, telling each player when it’s their turn.

The second method saves time but lacks balance and variety. If the players go first, the combat might be over before the enemies get a chance to fire a shot, and vice versa. Moreover, on the bad guys’ turn, the players must wait for the GM to finish resolving each enemy’s action, and the GM gets no break in between deciding what each enemy does. This often turns into a headache for the GM and a snore for the players.

The way I solve this requires a deviation from the rules of the game, but I find the sacrifice is well worth it. At the start of each round of combat, take a red playing card for each PC and a black card for each NPC, and shuffle. Draw cards one at a time to decide who acts next. If the card is red, any player who has not yet acted may do so (they can decide amongst themselves who should go). If the card is black, the GM acts with any NPC that hasn’t had a turn. When all the cards are drawn, remove a card for each character no longer in the combat, shuffle the remaining ones, and start a new round.

There are four advantages to this system. First of all, it adds an element of tension to the game, as it keeps the players guessing about who goes next. Second, it breaks up player and GM actions so that neither side spends too long waiting for the other. Third, it gives the players the freedom to strategically decide which of their characters should act first. Lastly, it saves a significant amount of time. No rolls, no lists; just shuffle and draw.

One downside of this system is that it makes initiative completely random. In D&D, characters get bonuses or penalties to their initiative roll based on dexterity. Most other RPGs have a similar mechanic. The initiative card system ignores that, effectively stripping speedy characters of one of their advantages. That said, my players love this system and have never once complained that they’re being “cheated” by it. Besides, if you really feel the need, I’m sure you can come up with something similar to my initiative card system that still gives speedy characters the upper hand.

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#4. Keep the Pressure On

All too often, combat becomes a matter of simply trading hits until one side falls over or retreats. It could be many rounds until one side is ready to give in, and with nothing to shake things up, each round becomes basically a repeat of the last.

So how do you stop that from happening? Next time you’re planning a combat scene for your adventure, work in some kind of pressure that will force the players to get through it as quickly as possible. Actually, like the sand timer, this is a good method for making any part of the game more exciting, not just combat. It works especially well for a scene that might otherwise drag on indefinitely, such as trying to solve a puzzle or persuade an NPC to help.

My personal favorite is the ever-popular horde of encroaching skeletons. A simple encounter becomes a nightmare when you’ve got an invincible force closing in fast behind you. The PCs can fend off the skeletons for a while, but not for long—they’ll have to overcome the challenge in front of them (be it a battle, a puzzle, whatever) without wasting time. Other forms of pressure I’ve used include: erupting volcano, enchanted tree being cut down, and steam engine about to blow.

Be imaginative, be devious, and most importantly, let the players in on the stakes. Even if their characters wouldn’t have access to this information, it helps to tell the players not just that something bad is on its way, but what it is and how long they have until it arrives.

Fixed Rest (GM Tip #2)

Tired of dealing with rest in D&D? (See what I did there?) Then read on…

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In 5th Edition D&D, players decide how many hit dice they wish to expend after a “Short Rest” (one hour of downtime). A character could take a Short Rest and spend, for example, 1 hit die, and then take another Short Rest and spend 4 hit dice. This makes resting a matter of strategically managing resources, which some players may enjoy. However, as The Angry GM points out in “Hitting the Rest Button,” this makes absolutely no sense if you think of the player’s choices as representing the character’s. In order to obtain the benefit of rolling more hit dice, characters don’t actually have to rest longer, eat more food, or tend to their injuries more closely. The player arbitrarily decides how much their character will heal after each rest, which is deducted from their daily allowance, as if the character could somehow control how quickly their own wounds heal through sheer willpower.

You may argue that the mechanic represents the varied rate at which wounds heal and puts the variation in the control of the player rather than leaving it up to random chance. Even though the player is in control, it doesn’t necessarily mean the character is controlling anything. But, like The Angry GM, I prefer my games to be more immersive than that. By asking the players how much their characters heal, you shatter the illusion that they are their characters. What’s more, I find that the resting mechanic as presented in 5E tends to slow the game down, with little payback. When players are asked to manage their hit dice, more often than not it feels like a chore instead of a strategic deliberation. Especially to people just getting started with D&D (as many of my players are), it’s just one more thing to keep track of on an already crowded character sheet.

That’s why I’ve opted for a fixed rest mechanic in my games. By “fixed,” I don’t mean that I’ve repaired a broken system (though I like to think so). I mean that the rate at which each character heals is set—it’s not up to the players to decide.

My solution is a little different from the ideas The Angry GM came up with:

After a Short Rest, the player rolls half of their hit dice (rounded up) and adds their Constitution modifier to each roll. For example, a Level 8 Fighter with 14 Con rolls 1d10+2 four times. These hit dice are not “spent”—the character may take multiple Short Rests per day, rolling 4 HD each time, but not without seeing some action between each resting period. Also, at a certain point (GM’s discretion, but usually after two Short Rests), the character must take a Long Rest before they can benefit from further Short Rests. In other words, a character heals roughly half of their HP after taking a Short Rest, which they can do around twice per day, but not twice in a row.

This system is roughly equivalent to the 5E resting system (assuming the PCs take about two Short Rests before settling down for a Long Rest), but it’s faster, easier, and more immersive.

After a Long Rest, a player is fully healed, as per standard 5E rules.

If you’re looking for a grittier system, cut the allotted hit dice in half (1/4 HD for a Short Rest and 1/2 HD for a Long Rest). Under those rules, our Level 8 Fighter would roll only 2 HD after a Short Rest and 4 HD after a Long Rest.