I’ve gotten back into the D&D game with 5th edition (as many of us have), and running games at conventions, for home groups, and at events like meetups and social groups has given me a diversity of D&D 5e game types. I’ve always found that there is one thing in common with D&D combats between all these different types of games – combats still often drag. Especially at higher levels, there is something of a grind to taking down multiple enemies or big enemies with lots of HP. Sometimes you want to emphasize the drawn out nature of a tough and grueling combat through a dungeon, but sometimes you want to slide through the combats a bit quicker and move on with the narratives, or you want to pack more combat into the game so that the players feel a sense of progression and can move between the scenes rather than spend 2 hours on one combat. If you’re a purist that only wants to run things by RAW rather than RAI, skip over the rest of this because these tweaks are more about improving the experience rather than the pure mechanical game aspect. With that said, here are the 3 biggest things I do to make sure D&D combats move quickly and have a lot more action in them.
Three / Fourths HP For Enemies, Especially Tanks – Knock Down The Grind
I’ve often found the thing that slows down most D&D combats is that some enemies are just tanks compared to the players’ ability to deal consistent damage. That one roll that failed on a great spell, the lack of good damage rolls consistently… any small stroke of bad luck can turn the tide in a, let’s say tedious way. Dropping the standard HP of most enemies (but especially tank enemies with a lot of HP) can change this paradigm and speed up combats in a very satisfying way. If the players are rolling well or using really well thought out tactics, it makes their successes feel even better. They get to end a combat quicker because they were smart or successful. Three / Fourths HP has been my sweet spot, but for some really tanky enemies I might drop it to 60%. IF I find that the combat is just OVER within a few minutes because I was overzealous, I can always tweak it back up to normal. I’m much more about letting the players get the win though.
Increase Enemy Damage – But Not At Early Levels
The other problem I’ve had with some D&D combats, especially in shorter convention games, is that after a certain level many of the PCs feel untouchable. I can’t get them to feel threatened, even when I’m running the Tarrasque. (I’m looking at you barbarians…) Sometimes this is because I have to play the NPCs logically. E.G. they wouldn’t geek the mage first because she did a great job of disguising herself as a fighter, or the clay golem was ordered to destroy the bard who was shouting insults and he’s running away fast. When I want to speed things up, I edge up enemy damage just enough that it feels legitimate. Usually I rough judge this to about 150%. If the creature does 6 damage per hit, now it does 9, etc.
I moved into this paradigm once I started using Kobold Press’s Tome of Beasts and a nasty (but fun) little creature called a Fext. It has a ranged ray attack that does a chunk of damage at will. That one aspect really put my players on edge and they felt a lot more sense of threat and action. I was actually able to take down a fighter or two and force the healers to engage and get those fighters back up and running. Combined with lower HP on the Fext, the fight suddenly became a quicker but more action oriented experience. I’ll use this rule often, BUT NEVER WHILE THE PCS ARE AT LOWER LEVELS. Low level PCs are squishy and you don’t need to do much to make them feel threatened. As they go up in level, getting that feeling into the game is hard and it sometimes drops into the tedious grind.
Make Sure PCs Have and USE their Healing
Now I’m not actually out to kill the PCs, I want them to feel like their actions matter and that there is a sense of threat, but I want them to get back up after they fall. So, I always make sure the players have access to healing and that they USE it. I’ll often provide some magic item to the cleric to use as a last chance healing item. Some staff of cure wounds or some extra potions so that when people fall they can be brought back. One of my favorite items to provide is the Healing Shillelagh. It is basically heal at will for 1d6, or damage at will for 1d4. Roll a d20. 1-10 and the magic fails to activate and it deals 1d4 damage. 11-20 and it heals 1d6 points of damage. It’s a fun little gimmick that players feel will often resolve in their favor.Â Another fun option I’ve used is the Caduceus of Cautious Curing. It’s a small stone that can be placed on a person and anything with cure wounds can cast it as a ritual, up to 3 times per day. It forces healing out of combat, regenerates a little bit of HP and often adds some extra boosts during short rests.
Fun and shenanigans aside, any kind of boost to their healing ability, even if it takes a ritual to perform, lets them know they’ll get some recovery once they are out of immediate danger. This assurance that they can recover after a vicious fight will make players feel more confident in taking risks and being less cautious during combats. That speeds up the combats immensely and prevents a lot of analysis paralysis.
Wrapping It Up
So, my three changes are:
- Tweak 1 – Drop enemies to 3/4 their HP to start the fight, especially tanks.
- Tweak 2 – Increase NPC damage to provide threat and speed up desire to eliminate the enemies, but never at lower levels.
- Tweak 3 – Make sure the PCs have off-combat healing options that they can cheaply use.
These three tweaks have helped me incredibly while I’m running games. Players seem to like the combats and push through them a lot quicker. They get more of a sense of satisfaction when they down an enemy, especially when it is dealing out the damage.Â Since they’re bleeding a bit more they feel like the combat had more meaning and was less one-sided, even if it was against normally “weaker” enemies. 10 Goblins with at will high damage attacks suddenly becomes a threat (using tweak 2) even if they are being waded through with ease. The mage is more likely to use the fireball to remove the mass threat rather than hold off. These sorts of tweaks aren’t for everyone, but try them out in a game and see how it runs. What are your tweaks to combat and action scenes for crunchy games like D&D?
Most of the combat time at my table isn’t the combat actions themselves, it’s players figuring out what to do (especially spellcasters).
Thus, I let the players take their turns whenever they’re ready. Initiative determines when monsters attack, so instead of an initiative order like “Player A, Player B, Monster A, Player C, Monster B”, it would be “Player x2, Monster A, Player, Monster B”. Optionally, you can give a bonus round to players who roll higher than the monsters, so high initiative still means going first.
This keeps everyone more focused on the combat instead of zoning out until it’s their turn. Players that need more time to think GET more time to think, and they start thinking at the beginning of the round instead of the beginning of their turn. For more advanced players that already play quickly and think ahead, it lets them jump in when a teammate creates an opening and set up strategic combos with each other without needing inflexible readied actions that might fizzle if the situation changes. There’s more engagement and teamwork and it feels more dynamic and direct.
Every player so far has preferred this variant.
D&D isn’t my default system, but next time I run it I’m going to try taking a page out of Powered by the Apocalypse and try having monsters only act a player fails a roll or check. Attacking powerful foes becomes more dangerous, combat’s streamlined since the only “nothing happens” rolls are when a monster misses, and battles get much less predictable and routine. This also lessens the disconnect between combats and the rest of the game. It’s easier to have small incidental combats, integrate combat with roleplaying and exploration, or have a conflict where only some of the characters are fighting.
I assume I’d need to make tweaks after playtesting and I’d need to experiment with monster AC to get it flowing right, but there are enough potential benefits that it’s worth a try.
Or stop using HP altogether. Have the mobs die when it works best for drama, fun, and story.
That works fine for some games, but when it’s for D&D or something where players expect a crunchy experience, then the rules kind of hold the narrative framework together. People expect the world to work in certain ways. I like that kind of play for narrative games, but I think you have to have a lot of buyin from the start.
I’m always open to considering ways to speed up combats in D&D because, yeah, they can really drag. That said, I don’t like the idea of de-powering opponents to speed up combat. It lowers the challenge and sense of challenge in the game.
I think the biggest slowdown in combat comes from players fumbling around figuring out their next actions. Fortunately there are things we GMs can do to help players prep better. For example:
— I lean on players to have clean, lucid character sheets. If I ask someone before combat, “How many HP do you have?” and it takes them more than 1.5 seconds to answer, their character sheet is broken. It’s crazy when I watch people floundering through multiple pages of printouts just to answer something that should be front-and-center at all times.
— I coach players to think in terms of what their most common combat “plays” are. For melee types this is more obvious, but even spellcasters can have a few standard plays buff spells, offensive spells, and if/when drawing a weapon makes sense.
— I coach players to start thinking about their “play” before it’s their turn. One of my cleric players is really good about this. After his previous action he’ll start planning his next, which might be something like “Plan A: cast a damaging spell on the main opponent, unless Plan B: the opponent has shown a dangerous attack form which I can cast a defensive spell to protect 1 or more people from, unless Plan C: someone is very badly wounded in which case I heal them.” Yeah, sometimes something totally unexpected happens and Plans A-B-C all go out the window, but 75% of the time he’s on point and ready with his action immediately.
BTW, all of the above applies to GMs as well as players! As a GM I devote some of my prep time to mapping out what the opponents will do in combat. They’ve got favorite “plays”, too. And when I create pregen characters I put the suggested plays right on the sheet so players can pick them up & be effective in combat quickly.
One really simple way to get players thinking early is to announce both the current player and the next player in the rotation at the beginning of each turn.
I do something even better than that. I’ve had each of the players create initiative cards– 3×5″ cards that could be as simple as a blank index card with a name written on it in marker, or as complex as elaborate artwork and fonts and layout worked up in Photoshop and printed. (One of my players painted her character’s name on a card.) I make cards for the monsters, too. When we roll initiative we put the cards in order and set them on a small stand atop the table. As each player completes a turn we flip their card to the back of the pack. We all know who’s next, who’s next after that, etc.
At what level do you think it’s appropriate to start increasing monster damage?
I usually do it around level 4 or so, and depending on the party. All mages and I do it lightly. All fighters and I go a bit more. My litmus test is when most players have around 30 to 40 HP.