Tag Archives: pacing

How to End Combat Encounters Before They Become a Grind

Every Dungeons & Dragons player experiences a battle that drags near the end, when the monsters have spent their best attacks and lack the numbers to threaten the PCs. As a dungeon master, I want to cut to the next scene, but thanks to focused fire, the remaining monsters stand near full health. Players won’t spend any resources on a fight that seems won, so they chip away with cantrips and basic attacks. The battle wears on.

After a battle’s outcome becomes obvious, the game can drag. I have had many chances to test ways to move on. Some of my schemes have worked better than others.

Endings to avoid

Avoid having monsters flee or surrender. Some argue that monsters would possess a sense of self preservation. That in the face of death, they would flee or surrender. I used to agree, but then I learned that bloodthirsty treasure hunters never show mercy.

Having monsters flee or surrender seems like a quick way to end a battle, but neither tactic saves time. PCs always pursue fleeing monsters, resulting in a chase. Only have monsters flee when you want a chase, or when the PCs simply cannot follow.

Surrender leads to an ugly interrogation scene followed by the dreary dispute over killing helpless captives. Finally, during the paladin’s bathroom break, the rogue murders the prisoners. (If you have never run these scenes, welcome first-time dungeon master!)

Sometimes, a surrender can lead to an interesting role-playing scene, or a real dilemma. Usually this requires foes who can (a) trade for their lives or (b) offer a good reason they should be freed. In these cases, a surrender can enrich a game by creating interesting choices. See Strong Moral Dilemmas in D&D and the Unwanted Kind that Keeps Appearing. Nonetheless, surrender never saves time.

With either a chase or a surrender, you spend 30 minutes to save 5.

I suspect that in the monster community, word has spread about murderous treasure hunters and their rogues and paladins. Better to fall in battle than to die on your knees or with a knife in your back.

Don’t call the fight. When a winner becomes obvious, some DMs recommend calling the fight. Just sweep the monsters off the map. This fix seems tempting, but players hate it.

As a DM, you know more about the monsters’ conditions than the players. You may see an obvious win, while the players still feel tension. To players, the fight remains undecided and they want to play to the end.

Even when everyone sees the inevitable, calling a fight jars the players out of their immersion in the game world. It leaves players feeling robbed of a victory they earned. “When a player rolls a successful attack, deals damage, and the bad guy dies, that’s something that THEY did. They own that moment,” writes Justin Alexander. “If you, as the GM, interrupt that process, and declare a fiat success, you take that moment away from them: They didn’t kill the monster; you did.”

“As DMs, we might get tired. We might get frustrated because the PCs dominated what otherwise would have been a tough fight,” Mike “Sly Flourish” Shea writes. “Don’t spread your disinterest to your players, revel in their excitement! Be fans of the PCs and come up with interesting ways to end the battle in a powerful in-story conclusion.”

In the worst time crunch, use narration to ease players out of the scene and give some sense of victory. Describe the characters’ final strikes—or invite the players to tell the tale.

Endings to use

Plan an out. The best combat encounters feature an objective different from kill all the monsters. Charactrers attempt to stop a ritual, defend a wall, close a dark portal, destroy an artifact, steal the brain in the jar, or accomplish some other task. Dave “The Game” Chalker calls this The Combat Out.

Often completing the objective returns undead foes to dust, turns summoned foes to mist, makes constructs inanimate, or causes the cultists to rout. Unlike most combat encounters, if the losing foes surrender or run, the players may skip the torture and chase scenes. After all, the victorious players have no information to gain. And if the heroes insist on bringing the fleeing cultists to justice, nobody minds if the DM summarizes that endgame.

Turn monsters into minions. You can bring a fight to a quick end by silently deciding that all the monsters stand at only 1 hit point. The next hit kills. I used to feel conflicted about this technique because it felt like a way for a DM to steer the game—I want the players’ actions and the dice to decide the characters‘ fate. But the characters have settled their fate and won. Rounding up their damage rolls to let them quickly finish monsters just gives the players a victory lap.

Let everyone roll at once. Near the end of a battle, typically only one type of monster remains—often just one creature at nearly full health. These survivors all act on the same initiative count, then all the players act. This situation permits my favorite way to close a battle: everyone roll at once. By now, the outcome has been decided, so no one would waste a spell slot. No player’s action requires my full attention. I announce the monsters’ armor class and invite everyone to roll their attacks and damage at once. If you need to move, just do it. I call out names in initiative order and tally damage. In the time usually spent on one turn, all the players act.

This post updates and improves on a version that appeared in 2016.

Getting Players Moving, Especially When No One Wants to Drive

If you game master enough roleplaying games, you will eventually land a session that keeps stalling because no one wants to drive—no one wants to speak for the group. For instance, if the party has to pick a restaurant, then everyone spends 10 minutes saying “I don’t care. What do you want?” We’ve all been there, just probably not while in a dungeon. Most often, such tentative groups form when strangers meet for a game, often at conventions. But any group can lag, and the techniques for nudging a party ahead can prove useful beyond a convention hall.

To be clear, not every lull in a game needs an intervention. If the group enjoys slowing to roleplay, let it flow. If a group starts planning for the challenge ahead, then sit back and relish it. These situations show a group immersed in the game world. Score a win for the dungeon master.

Sometimes folks in a group of strangers feel presumptuous speaking for the whole group. When everyone keeps hesitating to call shots for the group, many DMs smooth the way by asking for individual decisions. “Making a choice for your character seems less daunting than making one for the group. Low stakes choices can break the ice,” writes Louis Bamberger. “Recently I ran a group that was pretty quiet. Their characters were at a town carnival, so I asked them what game they would play and what food or drink they would order. After each person explained their choices, a snowball of enthusiasm grew with each person’s answer.” By the end of the session, a group of players new to roleplaying games felt eager for another go.

Die rolls, even inconsequential ones, make another good ice breaker. Teos “Alphastream” Abadia gives an example. “In a marketplace, have an arcane character make a bogus check to point out a vendor’s wares could be spell components, just to get them to talk. Data tends to help us make decisions, so skill checks, even granting minor information, tend to help move us to action.”

When I serve as DM for tentative group, I tend to make two adjustments.

First, I pose more choose-your-adventure-style choices.

This helps narrow a limitless range of options to a menu of sensible actions. At worst the table can vote. Often I nominate one player as caller-for-the-moment to make a decision. DM Tom Christy sometimes selects the most charismatic character—the natural leader. You can also nominate a leader based on circumstantial qualifications. Underground, let the dwarf choose the way. At a masquerade, the bard would lead.

Second, I may increase the amount of information I give before I ask the players what they want to do. This decreases the number of minor, often inconsequential, choices slowing the group.

With a typical group, when the players meet a character with clues to share, or when the players enter a new location, I withhold some easy discoveries. This gives players more to learn as they talk and investigate. This rewards action and leads to a more interactive game. So if the room has a mosaic, I’ll assume someone will take a closer look. If a wizard’s apprentice reveals that the archmage sought reagents, I’ll assume the party will ask for details. For most groups, this technique leads to a better game.

But if a tentative group needs to know that the archmage intends to make a golem, then the apprentice may become chatty. And I’ll just tell a hesitant group that the mosaic shows a priestess burying a scepter under a mountain with three peaks.

I don’t welcome such adjustments. They can feel like I’m dragging a particularly halting group to the finish, but no one wants a game that lags.

Phil Vecchione notes that groups become indecisive when they lack enough information to make a choice. He suggests bridging that information gap. Start by recapping what the players already know. Players feel confused more often than they ever admit—and more than we DMs care to admit. Share any useful information that the characters may know based on their in-game expertise. The characters live in the game world; the players just visit.

As an ultimate remedy, Phil suggests upping the urgency by adding new developments in the game world. So if the party continues to dither at the door, have something open it from the other side.

How to Run Better D&D Games By Doing Less

If you are a dungeon master, the easiest way to improve your game sessions might be to do less. Rather than doing all the tasks of running the game, delegate some to the players.

This lesson took me a long time to learn. I found Dungeons & Dragons in an era when gamers took the master part of dungeon master seriously. Some control freaks even thought dungeon masters should make all the players’ die rolls to better conceal ACs and other secrets. (See Would You Play With a Dungeon Master Who Kept Your Character Sheet and Hid Your PC’s Hit Points?) I never went so far, but I never considered imposing DM chores on the players. Besides, I felt happy to do the chores myself.

Years of running tables in 4-hour convention games made me change. Especially with D&D’s fourth edition, convention sessions threatened to push past the time allowed, robbing the players of a satisfying conclusion. Rather than let a session go long, I found ways to speed the game. I learned to delegate parts of the game to the players.

I've learned a lot about dungeon mastering in rooms like this at Origins

I’ve learned a lot about dungeon mastering in rooms like this one at Origins.

The benefits surprised me. Delegating did more than help end a session on time. It led to better games.

Typically, dungeon masters run all the non-player characters, describe the action, track initiative, set up maps and figures, make rulings, and so on and on. The players mostly wait for the DM’s attention. A DM’s pace tends to bottleneck the pace of a role-playing session.

Delegation reduces the bottleneck at the dungeon master. Games move faster, so everyone enjoys more time adventuring. Plus, when players gain more to do, they remain engaged in the game and have more fun.

What tasks can you delegate?

Tracking initiative. If you poll your players for initiative scores and keep track yourself, you should change your method. Unless you run games for young kids or new players, let the players manage most of the initiative. I drape initiative tents over my DM screen so that I can reference stats on the cards, but players fill the cards—even monster names—and put them in order. Typically, they call out turns. For more, see The Best Ways to Track Initiative in Dungeons & Dragons.

Referencing rules. Stopping a session to page through the rules robs the game of momentum. Ask your players to look things up. Usually, I just need to understand a spell and can resolve other actions until I get the details.

Drawing the battle map. If someone can draw the room while I grab miniatures, combat starts faster. Don’t bother describing every detail to sketch. Just ask someone to draw, say, a 40 by 60 room, then you can draw the doors and profane altars and other features.

Running allied non-player characters. Whenever an non-player character might take the side of the players in a fight, I always print an extra sheet with the character’s combat stats. My regular players lobby for the chance to run an NPC. If the ally doesn’t require bring much personality or motive, anyone can run it. If I need someone to show the NPCs’ fear of fire or hatred of magic, I pick the role players with character portraits on their table tents—the players who introduce their characters in funny voices.

Recapping the last session. When you continue a campaign, ask if anyone can recap the last session. This allows you another moment to prepare while giving you a sense of what the players considered interesting or important. Plus, you may uncover things you told the players that proved confusing or misleading.

Tallying experience points. Players keep track of the gold they win. Why not have a player keep track of experience points too? After each encounter, while you still have the monsters and encounter notes in view, give the experience values to a volunteer accountant.

Githyanki marked with numbered disks

Githyanki marked with numbered disks

Numbering monsters. I use numbered markers to distinguish the miniature figures on my battle map. Compared to players attacking “this” and “that” monster, the numbers avoid confusion and speed play. Tracking damage becomes easier. See Number Your Monsters to Stop Wasting Time Finding Them on the Battle Map. Usually, I hand one player a stack of numbered markers and let them tag the monsters.

Track damage dealt to foes. Damage dealt is not secret information for the DM. (Seeking a tactical advantage, my Dungeons & Dragons Championship teams kept track of damage.) Delegate damage tracking to that player who likes to deduce monster ACs and can total 8d6 fireball damage at a glance. When a monster takes damage, have the tracker report its total damage. If the total exceeds the monster’s hit points, describe the kill.

Or let the player describe their moment. Delegate. The game doesn’t just belong to the dungeon master. It belongs to everyone at the table. See Should a Dungeon Master Invite Players to Help Create the D&D World Beyond Their Characters?

Running Scenes and Summaries that Invite Choices and Reveal Characters

My last post explained how scenes and summaries allow game masters to speed past uneventful time in the game world and focus on the action. This post offers more advice on running scenes and doing summaries.

Running a scene

Before starting a scene, you need two essential ingredients: (1) characters with a goal and (2) an obstacle that stands in their way.

To start a scene, set the scene. Describe the time and place. Make the description vivid. Finish your description with the thing that will spur the players to action. In a classic Dungeons & Dragons game, the call to action comes from the monster in the room. Mention the monster last, because otherwise your players will plan their attack and ignore your description of the bas-relief, the incense, and the patter of dipping liquid.

A monster will launch some scenes into motion, but other triggers could be the duchess asking why the characters intruded on her battle council, birds crowding the rooftops to silently watch the players, or anything that invites players to act. A good call to action hardly needs the usual follow up question: “What do you want to do?” Nonetheless, characters might ignore the call. The party might see the gathering flocks as a threat, or the druid might want to have words, or perhaps they count the birds as an omen and move on.

The rules of most role-playing games dwell on the scenes, leaving little need for more explanation.

How to do a summary

A summary skips the uneventful parts of passing game time. It begins when the scene ends—when players look at the scene’s outcome and decide what to do next. Often, they choose a goal that carries them to their next scene.

During a scene, the players’ choices tend to focus on overcoming an immediate obstacle. But during a summary, the players’ choices tend to drive the adventure. If players pass too many summaries without a choice to make, your game may start feeling like a railroad.

In a summary, damage is healed, resources replenished, and so on. Players can describe as much of the activity as the game master.

“We go to the docks and find the captain of the Salt Mist, and then hire her to sail north to the City of Sails. Does anything happen along the way?”

“No. After 3 days at sea, you dock in Luskan on the Open Shore.”

If the passage of time presents new developments that might change the players’ plans, then mention the events and give players a chance to interrupt the tale and make new choices. Perhaps something happens on route. “On your second day at sea, you spot a thick column of smoke rising from inland, just beyond a hill.”

You might remind the players what makes their new options interesting. “As you talk about investigating, the captain seems too willing to put you ashore, and you suspect she may be eager to leave you behind.”

When a summary takes players someplace new, add enough description to give the flavor of the experience, and a sense of the passing time.

A summary can include colorful moments that inspire players to act in character. For example, if the party spots a live stag with an arrow in its flank, does the druid heal the beast, or does the ranger finish it and host a feast? Such moments usually lack the ingredients of a scene, but they offer hooks that let players reveal their characters.

Accelerating the pace

When a summary covers familiar ground, shorten the narrative. That first journey to the City of Splendors deserves some color. The third can pass in a sentence.

As players approach their ultimate goal and the climax of the adventure, they will lose patience for long summaries. When adventurers first reach Barovia, players may enjoy stately trips from town to town. But when the party stands ready to confront Strahd, cut directly to the gates of Ravenloft.

A cut eliminates all the narrative between scenes. The players might say, “We want to question the longshoreman to see if anyone saw the Salt Mist.”

“Okay, now you’re in the Siren’s Call as the place fills with thirsty roughnecks.”

Cuts rush past the flavor of the game world, and short circuit the players’ chances to make choices. Early in a campaign, avoid cutting between scenes.

Near the end of a long campaign, cuts grow more welcome. When few choices remain and when players feel eager for the story to reach a climax, cuts accelerate the pace.

Letting players take the narrative

In How to Say Yes Without Turning Your D&D Game Into a Joke, I talked about how the GM bears responsibility for the game’s challenge. Often, a GM must control the narrative so players face meaningful obstacles. But in a summary, no obstacles block the characters’ progress. This makes a summary the ideal time to let players tell their characters’ tales. For example, if the players spend 10 days waiting on town, ask each player for their character’s story of the downtime.

At the end of the adventure, when the characters return to the town they saved, let them tell of their hero’s welcome. Who celebrated with the fetching Sheriff? Or maybe keep that to yourself. This is a family table.

During a summary, when players take the narrative, characters gain chances to reveal their personalities. Plus, you get a break while they do the talking. That’s how you win at Dungeons & Dragons.

How to Use Scenes and Summaries to Focus on the Best Parts of a Role-Playing Adventure

This started as a post on pacing until I checked other game masters’ advice on pacing and discovered that nobody discussed the same topic. Some “pacing” advice helps GMs run at a brisk tempo. For that, see my posts on initiative, delegation, and how to end a battle. Some explained story beats, dramatic tension, and the three act structure. I’m not clever enough to finesse such narratives without my players noticing a loss of freedom.

So this post covers scenes and summaries.

Have you seen the image that explains Dungeons & Dragons as the game where a 3-hour walk takes 5 minutes, but a 5-minute battle takes 3 hours? That sentence tells the difference between scene and summary.

Game mastering advice rarely talks about scene and summary because game masters tend to manage the two by feel. Mostly, feel works okay, but often not. Although scenes feature the game’s excitement, dull role-playing sessions start when a GM tries to make a scene from time that should pass in summary. On the other hand, a bad summary makes player feel rushed and railroaded.

Scene

In a role-playing game, scenes focus attention on the times when players fight a battle, talk to an non-player character, or search a chest for secret compartments. In a role-playing game session, scenes show all the action. During scenes, players make every decision for their characters. In combat scenes, game time expands so players can focus on small decisions and use the game rules to determine outcomes.

Summary

A summary skips the uneventful parts of passing game time. Summary speeds past the times when players travel a safe road, search a library, or collect a reward from a patron.

A good summary leaves players with a sense of passing events and with chances to pause and make decisions. During a summary, characters heal damage, tally and replenish resources, weigh their options, and make the choices that lead to the next scene.

When to run a scene

To start, a scene needs two ingredients: characters with a goal and an obstacle that stands in their way.

Goals

The classic D&D scene starts with the goal of treasure and the obstacle of a dragon. Sometimes, monsters attack and the party goal becomes to survive. (In those cases, especially, think about the monsters’ goal. See Create better encounters by considering what your monsters want.) The most interesting encounters often feature a goal different from kill all the monsters.

A goal needs enough stakes to merit a scene. If the party goes to the fletcher for arrows, the chance to save a few silver hardly calls for a negotiation scene.

Typically, role-playing scenes combine a goal of gaining help or information, with the obstacle of an uncooperative non-player character.

When characters lack a goal and a GM launches a role-playing scene anyway, players wind up wondering they are supposed to do. See A priest, a warlock, and a dwarf walk into a bar and…nothing happens.

Obstacles

The obstacle in a role playing scene comes from any NPC reluctant to help anyone who asks. For help creating the obstacles needed for compelling role-playing scenes, see 22 Reasons why a non-player character won’t cooperate.

A true obstacle must bring a chance of failure. If players face a locked wooden door, but they have unlimited time and an axe, the door fails as an obstacle. On the other hand, if the crash of an axe into boards could bring monsters, players face a dilemma and the scene has an obstacle.

Exploration

When players explore, they have a goal—perhaps only find the treasure—but they may face unknown obstacles. The unseen hazards make the players’ choices important and make the exploration work as a scene. If a scene continues for too long with unknown obstacles, players may lose interest. Add a reminder of nearby peril. Perhaps strange sounds echo through the stones, or a chill passes the corridor.

In exploration, when no obstacles lurk nearby, the game master can rely on summary. “You look through all the rooms in the cellar and find a polished, black ring among the rubbish.”

Exposition

Sometimes game masters start a role-playing scene without a goal or obstacle because they want exposition. At the start of an adventure, players tolerate such scenes. The implied goal becomes, learn our goal. Scenarios often add a minor obstacle by introducing a patron who needs the right questions to provide extra help and information. However, such weak scenes typically work better in summary.

I used to make the mistake of trying to conclude adventures with a scene where characters meet their patron to collect payment and tie any loose ends. I learned that as a scene, denouements never hold attention. While players tally their loot, just summarize the medal ceremony.

Exception: Scenes that work as a reward

When a game master announces treasure, players tend to pay careful attention to their reward. Likewise, role-playing scenes that reward players with information can hold attention even when the scene lacks an obstacle. These scenes feature players with questions and a colorful NPC ready with answers. Crucially, these scenes still feature a goal. Players must want the information enough to have fought for it and won. Don’t dump unwanted backstory and call it a scene. See How to reveal backstory in a role-playing game session.

When to do a summary

Whenever an game session lacks the ingredients for a scene, a goal and an obstacle, you can rely on summary. If you feel unsure about switching to a summary, ask the players. “Do you want to do anything special, or should we move forward?”

During a summary, as game time speeds along, players can feel like they lose some control over their character. Among other things, my next post will explain how to do a summary without making players feel like passengers on a railroad.

Next: Running Scenes and Summaries that Invite Choices and Reveal Characters

Delegate to run better role-playing game sessions by doing less

If you are a game master, the easiest way to improve your game sessions might be to do less. Rather than doing all the tasks of running the game, delegate some to the players.

This lesson took me a long time to learn. I found Dungeons & Dragons in an era when gamers took the master part of dungeon master seriously. Some control freaks even thought game masters should make all the players’ die rolls to better conceal ACs and other secrets. (Hint: Don’t do that.) I never went so far, but I never considered imposing DM chores on the players. Besides, I felt happy to do the chores myself.

Years of running tables in 4-hour convention games made me change. Especially with D&D’s fourth edition, convention sessions threatened to push past the time allowed, robbing the players of a satisfying conclusion. Rather than let a session go long, I found ways to speed the game. I learned to delegate parts of the game to the players.

I've learned a lot about game mastering in rooms like this at Origins

I’ve learned a lot about game mastering in rooms like this one at Origins.

The benefits surprised me. Delegating did more than help end a session on time. It led to better games.

Typically, game masters run all the non-player characters, describe the action, track initiative, set up maps and figures, make rulings, and so on and on. The players mostly wait for the GM’s attention. A GM’s pace tends to bottleneck the pace of a role-playing session.

Delegation reduces the bottleneck at the game master. Games move faster, so everyone enjoys more time adventuring. Plus, when players gain more to do, they remain engaged in the game and have more fun.

What tasks can you delegate?

Tracking initiative. If you poll your players for initiative scores and keep track yourself, you should change your method. Unless you run games for young kids or new players, let the players manage most of the initiative. I drape initiative tents over my DM screen so that I can reference stats on the cards, but players fill the cards—even monster names—and put them in order. Typically, they call out turns. For more, see “Everything I know about tracking initiative.”

Referencing rules. Stopping a session to page through the rules robs the game of momentum. Ask your players to look things up. Usually, I just need to understand a spell and can resolve other actions until I get the details.

Drawing the battle map. If someone can draw the room while I grab miniatures, combat starts faster. Don’t bother describing every detail to sketch. Just ask someone to draw, say, a 40 by 60 room, then you can draw the doors and profane altars and other features as you describe them.

Running allied non-player characters. Whenever an NPC might take the side of the players in a fight, I always print an extra sheet with the NPC’s combat stats. My regular players lobby for the chance to run an NPC. If the ally doesn’t require bring much personality or motive, anyone can run it. If I need someone to show the NPCs’ fear of fire or hatred of magic, I pick the role players with character portraits on their table tents—the players who introduce their characters in funny voices.

Recapping the last session. When you continue a campaign, ask if anyone can recap the last session. This allows you another moment to prepare while giving you a sense of what the players considered interesting or important. Plus, you may uncover things you told the players that proved confusing or misleading.

Tracking conditions. Fourth edition Dungeons & Dragons loyalists can benefit from letting one player mark figures suffering from conditions such as bloodied, dazed and so on. If the player consistently remembers when conditions lift, then they keep better track than I ever could.

Tallying experience points. I haven’t recruited a player to keep track of experience rewards yet, but I should have started last night. After each encounter, while you still have the monsters and encounter notes in view, give the experience values to a volunteer accountant.

Track damage dealt to foes. Damage dealt is not secret information for the GM. (Seeking a tactical advantage, my Dungeons & Dragons Championship teams kept track of damage, yet that data never vaulted us into first place.) Delegate damage tracking to that player who likes to deduce monster ACs and can total 8d6 fireball damage at a glance. This player can keep track in plain sight: in dry erase on a white board or the edge of the battle map. If that proves impractical, then when a monster takes damage, have the tracker report its total damage. If the total exceeds the monster’s hit points, describe the kill.

Or let the player describe the kill. Delegate. The game doesn’t just belong to the game master. It belongs to everyone at the table.