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by Mike on 19 April 2021
Though not nearly as big a problem as it was in previous editions, some DMs still find combat in the fifth edition of D&D takes too long for their or their players' liking. Today I'll offer a few tips to speed up combat. Not all tips work well for all groups, so choose those that work well for your and your group.
Many times DMs keep track of initiative but don't show it to the players. Instead, make sure you share whatever initiative system you use so the players know what the order is and who is on deck. You can even put a player in charge of taking initiative instead of doing it yourself. Easy initiative cards are a great way to go.
For shorter skirmishes, skip having each character roll initiative individually and go around the table instead. Have one player roll for the group with no modifiers versus the monster with no modifiers. Or, instead, let the circumstances decide whether monsters or characters go first and then go around the table. Alternate which direction you go so no one ends up last all the time.
The Monster Manual lists average damage for every monster in the book as the default. Though only about one in ten surveyed DMs use static monster damage, it's an easy way to speed up combat, particularly when using a lot of monsters. Give it a try, at least for less important monsters.
More than half of surveyed DMs use a 5-foot-per-square gridded battle map and miniatures or tokens for combat. This can be a lot of fun for big crunchy battles with lots of different monsters and interesting terrain. For quick skirmishes, try running combat in the theater of the mind or use a quick abstract battle map. Most battles don't need to be big knock down, drag out slug fests. Keep theater of the mind combat in your toolbox and use it for battles where positioning isn't nearly as important. It will speed up a lot of your battles.
Speed up combat by using fewer monsters and using monsters of the same type. It's much easier to run a fight against four ogres than it is to run a fight with two ogres, six goblins, and a hobgoblin war mage. Instead of trying to differentiate monsters with mechanics, differentiate monsters with your in-world descriptions. Describe the unique weapon each ogre wields or their own particular appearance, style, or mannerisms. Make battles unique by describing in-world differences instead of worrying about mechanics.
Simpler combat areas make for faster battles. The temptation to make every battleground interesting is strong, but sometimes a room without a lot of obstacles or a narrow hallway is all you need. Not every fight needs to be a tactical chess match. Sometimes you just surround an ogre and beat it into the ground.
Not every battle needs to be a perfectly balanced hard fight for the characters. Throw lots of low challenge monsters at the characters and let them have fun destroying them with powerful spells and attacks. Use the cleave rules from the Dungeon Master's Guide so melee attackers can cleave through opponents like Conan the Barbarian. Easy fights are a great way to have some fun and not take up a lot of time. Of course, consider running these easier fights off the grid to save some time.
It's not always possible to select the number of players in your game but, if you can, four players are generally ideal. With four players you get lots of synergy between characters but each character gets a good deal of screen time. This also makes battles much easier to manage than those with five or more players. Fewer players means fewer monsters so everything gets easier.
It's fun to run battles with dozens to hundreds of monsters and yet seems completely paralyzing to do so. Instead of running each monster independently use the Sly Flourish horde guidelines to run lots of monsters easily. Here they are for easy reference:
Instead of carefully choosing targets, roll to determine the character a monster attacks. If a lot of monsters are attacking at once spread it around to the whole group unless a character is specifically trying to stop it. It's a quick way to determine how the battle goes and requires zero thought from the DM.
Once the characters have attacked the monster a few times, reveal the AC of the monster so players can figure out if they hit or miss without having to consult you. You can even write it down and show it to them so they can reference it during the fight.
Never feel like you have to run a fight using the averages for damage and hit points. To increase the threat but speed up the fight, you can decrease the hit points of the monsters and increase their damage. Now they're going down fast but are super scary when they hit.
Hit points, damage, the number of attacks, and the number of monsters are all dials you can turn to keep the pace of a battle fast and exciting. Turn those dials during a fight for the fun of the game.
Use alternative goals in combat other than the full-scale slaughter of one side or another. Give the characters goals that don't require them to kill every monster they see. These goals may be quick and dangerous, keeping the fun high but the length of the battle shorter. See Dave Chalker's article on the Combat Out for more.
Though we seek to strip things down as much as possible to keep combat fast, never lose the story. Start and end with the story. Describe what's happening in the world, not the mechanics at the table. It can be tempting to throw away all the flowery descriptions but it's those descriptions that make D&D a fantasy instead of simply a tactical wargame. Revel in the fiction and keep the mechanics fast so you and your friends can enjoy awesome battles against terrible foes.
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