Back in October we partnered with Fear the Boot to run a charity auction benefiting the March of Dimes and raised $200. One of the things that the winner of this auction, Gnome Stew reader JavaDragon, won was the opportunity to write the first-ever guest article on the Stew — this one.
JavaDragon did a killer job, and turned out exactly the sort of article the Stew is known for: system-neutral GMing advice you can put to use today. We’re proud to be able to publish it here.
Without further ado, I’m going to turn this over to JavaDragon. –Martin
Don’t Waste My Time: Tips for Keeping Your Games Moving
Do you regularly play sessions with a lot of breaks in play or players/GMs taking too long with their action, causing players to start losing attention and interest? My gaming groups have had these problems and they definitely have affected the enjoyment of those sessions for one or more of the people at the table.
I am going to highlight some of the most common issues and how we have worked to overcome them. This usually involved a person filling a particular role and/or using a tool for the job.
Before I get into these issues, let me preface them by saying that my group plays Dungeons and Dragons and Pathfinder primarily. So some of these issues may or may not apply to your game depending on what system you are using in your gaming group.
Oh, It’s My Turn?
Fight scenes that seem to drag
Do you find your players asking whose turn it is every couple of actions or not realizing it is their turn and they take forever trying to see what has happened since their last turn? Enter the Ring Master.
The player filling this role is in charge of keeping track whose turn it is and who is up on deck. This will help to keep the action moving, as they should be ensuring that the next player is thinking about their action BEFORE it is their turn. There are many ways to track turn order: pen and paper, initiative cards, spreadsheet, etc. There is not one best way to do this as it all depends on your group and the game system you are using. My group chose to go with the GameMastery Combat Pad. The combat pad allows our Ring Master to track not only turn order, but also round number and spell/effect durations.
Another issue we faced during battles is “slow” dice rolling. Normally when attacking in battle you have to roll multiple dice. Whether due to multiple attacks or having separate attack and damage rolls, I cannot express enough how much rolling all of your dice at once can speed up the fight.
There is no need to roll your attack roll first and then, if you hit, to roll your damage roll. It just wastes more time as you figure out which dice you need to roll for damage and then roll them. This issue compounds when you have multiple attacks. Just roll the attack and damage dice together.
If you have enough dice, roll multiple attacks all at once too and just designate different colored dice for each attack. This will dramatically cut down on turn time in battle and will shorten the time between a player’s turns. The benefit here is that your players are engaged more often with less downtime so they are less likely to drift away on you.
The last issue we have seen when entering battles is the time wasted when a player, on their turn, is trying to remember which enemy was already attacked or damaged. How many times during a single battle do you recap which creatures are damaged only to have the players ask for the recap again come their turn because they were not paying attention? Enter the Token Master.
We have taken a lesson from D&D 4th Edition and have taken it a tad bit further. We use the magnetic status markers from Alea Tools. The difference from 4th Edition is that we do not just mark the minis when they are bloodied, but also when they are simply damaged. If they are healed to full, we remove the damaged token as well. Tokens are also assigned to the minis for each effect that is on them. Now the players can just look at the battle map, and the stacks of markers, in order to get this information without needing a recap.
So, We Are in the Woods, Right?
Recalling previous sessions
How often does your game have to stop while you sit there trying to figure out what happened in a previous session or the sequence of events in the game? Enter the Scribe.
Assign someone each game or session to take notes during the sessions. This ensures that the events are all logged so that there are no discussions or arguments on what happened and when. Another option here is to award player characters for keeping a journal of the character’s exploits. This way you have multiple points of reference.
To accomplish this, one of my gaming groups decided to use the journal tab in Hero Lab. Each player tracks their own journal for their character. This way if a player misses a session, they can just get the journal entries from another player to see what they missed. This allows us to track game time and real time for when events happened. We also track all loot and experience earned for each encounter. This eliminates the need for the GM, or a player, to question where an item came from or why a player is leveling.
How Does This Work Again?
Looking up rules
How much of your game time is spent digging through books, online sites, or PDFs looking up rules for the game? Enter the Rules Master.
I did not think that was such an issue until, in a recent session, our GM said, “I wish one of us was a rules lawyer.” Yeah, after I heard this phrase I cringed as well. After talking about it, though, we did not want someone fighting over the rules, but rather someone that we could turn to when stuck to tell us what the rule is or at least where to find the rule. This is why we call them the Rules Master and not a Rules Lawyer. Ideally everyone playing the game should be a rules master, at least for rules concerning their character’s race/class, but the more you can get the less time you will spend outside of your game.
You see, my one gaming group just started playing Pathfinder about a year ago. Since we came from D&D 3.5, and since we had heard that Pathfinder is considered to be 3.75, we did not spend a lot of time reading the rules and just started playing. That was a mistake and could I go back in time, I would have read the core rulebook start to finish BEFORE we started playing. By not reading and understanding the rules early, we still spend a lot of game time looking up rules. That or we go by what the rules were in D&D 3.5 only to find out things had completely changed in Pathfinder and now the character that we thought should have died actually should have lived.
Too many breaks
Do you have scheduled bathroom or smoke breaks during your game? There is no player role for this one. If possible, I would recommend against “taking five” as a group. This completely stops the flow of the game and requires a lot of time wrangling everyone up to start playing again.
Most games do not involve all characters in every scene unless you are in the middle of a dungeon crawl. Instead, just let the players take these breaks when it is not their scene/turn. This will help to prevent having the play come to a complete stop. If you are in the middle of a dungeon crawl or exploration where all players are needed all the time, then taking five will have to be done unless the player is comfortable with the rest of the group playing their character while they are gone.
When is a good time to sneak away and take your break? Ideally, during a scene where your character is not present. This could happen if the party splits up for a while and the focus is on the other group, or when there is a private scene that does not include your character. If this situation does not arise during the session, then taking a break during a combat would be the next ideal time. The reason for this is that you can ask the rest of the party to play your character while you are gone, provided that you give them guidelines for what your character would do.
So, your break is done and you return to the table. What is the best way to catch up when you return to the table? Well if your break was during a combat, then the answer is simple. If you employ the Ring Master and the Token Master as mentioned above, then just looking at the game mat will be enough as the tokens and the combat pad should tell you everything.
What if your break was not during a battle? If you employ the Scribe, then just take a peek at the notes. If there is no Scribe, just have one of the other players fill you in when both of you have a chance and are not part of the current scene. The only time that you want to interrupt the game to update the returning player is if the information is immediately pertinent.
Well this is all that I have for now. I am sure there are many other ways to keep the action going during the session, but these are the most common issues that my gaming groups have seen.
Very nice job, JavaDragon. Congrats on being the first ever guest article! Excellent advice for nearly any game table.
JavaDragon, I just wanted to say thank you again for making such an awesome charitable bid, and for writing such an excellent article.
I’ve never tried your approach to breaks (we usually take ours as a group), nor having a Rules Master, and I’m curious to see how those might shake out. We used to have someone in our group who was the de facto Rules Master, but formalizing probably would have sped things up.
I find it interesting that GMs would indulge (I think that’s the correct word) their players by recapping damage on enemy targets in anything but a vague description. But if that is a trademark of your game, then your use of the damage markers sounds like solid solution. Thanks for sharing.
My group’s problem is that we have five players, and only two of us are trying to fill all these roles. The GM’s wife(also our worst “table talker”) is in charge of initiative and tokens, but keeping track of how long those tokens last falls to me and my little dry-erase sheet. I also keep track of monster damage, defenses and all of the weird effects we don’t have tokens for, as well as being the Rules Master and the Scribe.
I’m going to suggest splitting these roles up a bit to my GM; hopefully that will help keep everyone focused on the game. I’m also going to suggest we try taking five; our biggest game-slower is out-of-character chit-chat and I think if we designate a time for it it might not be such an issue. Thanks for the advice and inspiration, JavaDragon!
Nice job, JavaDragon!
My $0.02 on keeping track of spell casting/duration time (and other similar things) is to use a die. Put 1 up at the beginning and rotate it each round.
Great job, JavaDragon!
The Ring Master sounds a lot like the Caller from ye olden days (I think it was a legacy from wargaming). Since my early gaming groups usually numbered less than four people I never quite understood the need for one, but now that I’m older and wiser I can certainly see how a Ring Master would speed up tactical RPGs with larger groups.
As for breaks, remember that the GM is a human being and when she gets up to use the bathroom the group is “taking 5” by default. Ditto if she decides to chow down on dinner (it’s hard to keep the game going with a mouthful of chicken and broccoli).
Also, in my experience I’ve had players get up when they felt they weren’t needed, only for the game to come to a screeching halt because they suddenly were needed. More often or not it’s a question of time consumption. Someone getting up to make a quick bathroom run, answer a quick text message, or getting another drink usually isn’t an issue; someone taking a newspaper into the bathroom or making a “quick phone call” that lasts 15 minutes is.
So I split the difference here. We take dinner breaks but players take other breaks when convenient. My players are courteous enough to warn me if they plan to spend more than a minute or two away from the table.
Great article! I wish the GM for my last game had read this. Wasting time was a big issue there and that was part of what led to it’s downfall.
@Troy E. Taylor –
Well it is not that we regularly recap the total damage done. It was just inevitable that the player to act next would ask “Which creatures have been damaged?” and then the next player, on their turn, asks the same thing. That or you give the description for how badly the creature is injured and they have to ask again a minute later. It just takes out that repetition and interruptions since now they can say, “Oh it has a purple token, so that creature has taken damage. It must look lightly damaged since there is no red token to mark it as bloodied”.
Good article, thanks! The best solution we have found for initiative tracking has been a small dry erase board ($5 at Wal-Mart) that everyone can see. The DM relates the order to a “scribe”, who puts the initiative on the board, and moves names around as needed. Since we can all see the board, we all keep each other aware of who is up next.
In my current games, we award bonus experience points/loot to players that run these roles each session.
You will not always have to use rewards for all of your games. Sometimes the players just want to make the most of their time because the group does not always have a chance to get together regularly. So their motivation is to ensure that when they get together to play, that they actually play.
You will just have to gauge your group and what will motivate them the most.
Well the Ring Master is not in charge of tracking each and every spell. They are just in charge of tracking what round number is it. It is still up to the spell caster to know how long their spells will last. The benefit of this is that the caster can just write down something like, “Daze round 7”, and they just know that on round 7 the spell is no longer in effect. This way they do not have to remember to update the die/paper every round.
We tried using the small dry erase board in the beginning, but moved to the combat pad since it was easier to just move the magnetic pieces around instead of erasing and rewriting all the time. My group holds actions a lot and to keep moving the names around and reworking the order was just more work for us than we wanted.
As I said though, there are several ways to handle each part that I talked about. I only highlighted what we used just to show an example. If the dry erase board works for your gaming group, I say got for it!
In most of my groups, I am the Rules Master. When I’m DMing, that doesn’t help, though. We’ve sometimes used the Ring master, as well.
I just had the idea last night of awarding a bennie or xp to a player who can answer their own rules question.
I found rolling dice in bunches helps a ton. In D&D I found I could simplify spell failure rolls not just by rolling it the same time I rolled for damage, but also by doing the d100 as a d20. 15% spell failure? 1-3 on d20. I’ve carried this over to my wargaming too.
As a DM I’ve picked up a few little tricks to speed up combat.
1) There aren’t ten mobs in the fight. There’s two groups of three, and a group of four. The groups have the same iniative, same stats, same hp, and generally act the same way. If there’s anything that affects just one (like a player’s debuffs) then it’s up to the players to distinguish and remember if it’s guard A,B, or C that’s been debuffed. Major villians or bosses still get their own actions.
2) Prerolling large numbers of dice. I’ve usually got sixty dice rolls I made for each die while killing time at work. When I need them I just check them off their card in order.
3) Rules Lawyering: Make your case briefly, if it makes sense at the time I’ll go with it and adjust in the future. If I’m not convinced then we’ll play it my way for now. I also live by the favourable +2/unfavourable -2 rule meaning I’ll fudge the stats by that much depending on whether you’re trying something easy or difficult.
4) Mooks vs Mooks gets described briefly. I mean, the story is about the heroes. If they’ve got underlings or allies involved in combat then they deal with their own opponents and finish roughly the same time as the players. Of course it would be more realistic if you matched results by the power of the NPC. Their skilled ally will dispatch his foes, the squire will be outclassed and need help from the PCs to finish the fight. The allied NPCs have their own mess to deal with and the heroes remain the focus of the scene.
I take this farther and have less NPC stats to make before sessions. An ally NPC’s stats will look something like: “Bob. Expert Swordsman”
Outside of combat I try to keep the players involved by flipping around which players are active. Sure one player may be talking with someone important, but the other players are probably doing something at the same time. Sure, that’s not speeding up the game, but it is reducing waiting times.
My gaming group is currently trying a bit of carrot and stick approach to keep combat moving along fast. If a player completes their turn quickly (for us this is about a minute), the timekeeper/ringmaster awards them a ‘good karma’ token. A player can accumulate these tokens and use a single token at any point during the session to gain a bonus to their character’s next action (attack, skill check, saving throw etc) equal to half their level.
Similarly, if a player takes what seems to be a very long time (a few minutes) to complete their turn, they are awarded a ‘bad karma’ token. In this case the GM can put the bad karma token into play at any point and it has an equivalent penalty on the character’s next action.
We allow for reasonable exceptions to these rules (slow down by the GM, looking up a rule, you don’t get a token if all you did was move, etc) and find that it works really well, because everyone is sufficiently motivated to keep the game running quickly. The point is not to penalise tactical thinking but just to keep everyone’s head in the game. In practice we’ve handed out plenty of good karma tokens and almost no bad karma tokens, and our combats are much faster than they used to be.
Our groups are easily distracted; formalizing these roles might make keep everyone engaged and keep things on track. There’s little more annoying than unnecessary delays!
I used to use a dry-erase board for keeping track of initiative order and rounds, etc. The dry-erase board was magnetic and I purchased a small pack of business card magnets, cut them a bit smaller, then placed some white cardstock paper on the sticky side and laminated them with some do-it-yourself sticky backed lamination sheets. Then I can use a dry-erase marker to write each PC/NPCs name on them as well as their initiative and move them around on the dry-erase board as needed.
The board also came with a couple of small round magnets, one of which has an exclamation point on it which I move down to whoevers action it is. Across the top of the board I taped a long strip of paper with numbers 1 thru 15 on it and another small magnet with an arrow on it sits below and is moved to keep track of rounds. Then I found a small table-top easel to sit the dry-erase board on. It used to sit on a t.v. tray next to me so the whole group could see it and everyone would know who’s turn it was and what round we were in. There was also plenty of space leftover to write environmental effects so everyone could remember if there were darkness penalties, etc. I almost went with the gamemastery pad, but decided I liked the dry-erase board setup better because then the whole group could see it.
I don’t use that anymore, but it was a nice setup. Now I use my laptop hooked up to a widescreen t.v. and a simple spreadsheet. This has the added benefit of being useful for presenting pictures, maps, handouts, etc.
@JavaDragon – Oh, I like that system better!