I love combat in Dungeons & Dragons, but it can be a real slog if it consumes your entire session. End of arc boss battles are one thing, but it shouldn't take three hours to fight a henchman, even if you have a large number of players. I had this exact situation happen to me recently, so I came up with a few tricks to speed things up — and they worked! As someone who struggles with anxiety and depression — a combo that is less than ideal for a journalist or a game master juggling seven different players in a six-hour Dungeons & Dragons game — I know it’s tough to get your players in gear and encourage them to speed things up, but if I can do it, so can you.
In this week’s column of Tabletop tips from an anxious GM (all of which can be found on our DND tips hub), I’ll be answering “How do I speed up combat in DND?” That is actually a question I asked myself a few weeks ago, and now I have an answer.
Of course, there's only so much that you can do as a GM to speed things up. Therefore, not only do you need to set up some new ground rules, but cooperation is imperative from your players. Let me explain.
Communicate with your fellow GM and party members to better move things along. Reveal Initiative and AC so players aren’t surprised or asking unnecessary questions that waste more time. Move on from players rolling a ton of dice! Let them tell you the totals in the middle of combat — you’ll be surprised how many turns you can get through while they roll. Auto-roll for your monsters! Don’t waste time rolling a ton of dice: that’s not your job right now. Just move things along with averages or auto-rollers. Finally, add a timer! You don’t have to skip a player’s turn, but showing them a timer can put the heat on, and I’ve found that it encourages players to speed things along.
Using these strategies I’ve shortened my combat sessions from two to three hours to a tight one hour per big encounter.
How to speed up DND combat — an in-depth look
Communicate! I will scream this until the end of freaking time — you need to communicate with your GM and fellow players! Talk about why the combat is sluggish and think of ways you can improve that based on personal habits amongst yourselves. There's only so much I can advise until we get into niche player habits, so if you see something, say something (politely).
Reveal Initiative. This is super important to speeding things up. Yes, it can be fun to surprise players when the monsters are going, but ultimately, that can unnecessarily waste time. Show the players the initiative order so that they know where they are in the list and can plan accordingly. This'll ensure that the player is more prepared when it gets to them. And you won't have to hear "Oh, it's my turn?!"
Reveal AC. Some GMs might not like to hear this, but your monster's armor class (AC) shouldn't be some glorious secret to hold on to. If you have a party full of classes that roll to hit, you will thank me when you've skipped 27 "Does that hit?" questions. This is a huge time saver during a player's turn. If your monster has an ability to increase its AC, just tell your players to say the numbers as they roll, so you can react accordingly in the moment.
Move on from big rollers. If a player has all but finished their turn except for calculating damage, and they're not about to slay the monster, move on to the next person in initiative. Trust me, this saves so much time when you have a Rogue that rolls 10d6 or a Fighter that attacks six times with action surge. Whether they're slow at calculating damage, or there's just too many dice, let them tell you the number once they're finished. I've gotten through at least three players in initiative before I received damage totals on previous turns.
Auto-roll for Monsters. I get it. We love rolling dice, but you don’t want to get caught up in rolling tons of them as a GM. It’s your job to speed things along. So, if you’re using something like D&D Beyond, auto-roll the attacks and damage for your Monsters. If you don’t have anything like that, just use average damage numbers. It’s way more efficient and it’ll keep the combat tight.
Add a timer. Give your players a visible timer (I use one minute and 30 seconds), but don't be a jerk about it. I will never skip a player's turn, but I implement the timer to encourage them to speed up, and so that they see how much time has passed. This'll let your players be more cognizant of how much time they spend on their turns, and it may even speed you up as well.
I hope this helps new players and GMs out there who are just jumping into TTRPGs. If you liked this column and want to see it continue, you can send me your own questions concerning mechanical, narrative, or social issues in the tabletop gaming space. You can email me at firstname.lastname@example.org or find me on Twitter.