The faster your combats are, generally, the better your game sessions will be: You can get in more fights and more role-playing while simultaneously ramping up the thrill factor and immersiveness of your game. A fast combat is an urgent combat.
It’s well-known that 5th edition D&D has deliberately aimed at speeding up combat after learning from the tedious slogs of 4th edition. But there are some cool game systems out there that deliberately try to speed up combat. The BRUTAL role-playing game is one such. (Its name is well-earned.) If even 5th edition isn’t fast enough for you, you can learn some strategies by poking around in other systems and then adopting d20-friendly house rule tweaks. Below are some examples.
Prevent drift. Keep everyone focused throughout the combat.
A lot of the drag in a combat encounter comes from people vanishing from the table, tuning out, checking email, and the like. Turn-based actions tend to encourage such drift — if it’s not your turn, it’s easy to lapse into “waiting” and to then do the sorts of things that come with waiting, like reading a magazine and listening to elevator music. (Okay, perhaps not so much the latter.)
The best tips and game rules for dealing with this tend to incentivize staying at the table, paying close attention. This is one of the attractions, for instance, to popcorn initiative. Popcorn initiative isn’t logical; it’s not realistic. But it speeds things up because you don’t know when your turn will be. The idea is that Initiative only determines who moves first in a round. Then that person passes initiative to anyone who hasn’t yet gone that turn. Each person, in his or her own turn, passes initiative to someone else. (At some point, a person on one side has to pass it to an opponent.) When you don’t know when your turn will be and your teammates are using popcorn initiative to try to set up combos or tag-team strategies, you have more incentive to stay glued to the battlemat.
As an alternative (or complement) to popcorn, the aforementioned BRUTAL system has a strict countdown. The DM starts counting down from 12. Because defense is actively rolled (you have to defend yourself instead of relying on something passive like AC), you’re going to get brained if you aren’t at the table when someone attacks you. (Characters die in BRUTAL. A lot.) If you don’t pay attention, you can lose your chance to go.
Wallace, Andy, and I have played a lot with active defense in our own home-brew Crossroads game system, and we know how much it can incentivize sticking at the table. The sense of urgency becomes palpable. (BRUTAL has players divvy up combat dice between attack and defense, with adjustments each round. We had pools of combat points, with players dividing them up among attack and defense dynamically. But the principle is much the same.)
You shouldn’t be able to dodge a mace as well from the kitchen as you can from the table.
Ah, you say. But D&D doesn’t use active defense, so I can’t do much with that insight.
Ah, we say right back. But the new edition has given you a great toolkit, and in it, a great tool: the Advantage/Disadvantage system.
Result: You could house rule that an “unattended” or autopiloted PC grants advantage to all attackers.
By itself, that rule isn’t bad. But DMs should be aware that combats will now be tougher for players. The NPCs won’t be hurt by that rule, so it’s a net gain for the bad guys. One way you might offset this is to reward the party after each round that was completed without anyone being absentee. Maybe they get to move a PC up to the top of the Initiative order and that person enjoys Advantage on his or her next attack. (That would be my own offset.)
This is one of BRUTAL’s best policies, and it’s easily imported into any game. The idea here is that you can lose a lot of time second-guessing, rethinking, and reviewing previous moves, but that mistakes aren’t that big a deal. Instead of trying to get everything perfect, just keep going no matter what. Expect mistakes at the table and keep going.
The chief disadvantage to this no-look-back policy is that I have known gamers who like to make “errors” that are always self-favoring. (I’ve known a DM or two who do the same, which is much more egregious.) But you can beef up the consequences of errors without increasing the time spent on them. For instance, rule that anyone caught making a favorable error in calculation has “stumbled.” A stumbled character gets Disadvantage on the next check he or she makes. Don’t slow down to try to catch errors. Just enforce the penalty whenever you catch an error on the fly.
Reduce the number of times dice are rolled.
One venerable suggestion for speeding up a fight (going back a few editions) is to have players roll damage and attack dice simultaneously. The damage is applied if the attack hits. The chief problem with this approach is that, often, tables which start out with it quickly revert to old habits. Another old-school suggestion is to skip damage dice altogether and simply go with average results for all damage “rolls.” The chief drawback to this approach is that it feels less dynamic to players, who often want a chance to get the most out of their attacks.
I like the idea of combining these two approaches: When you make an attack, you have a choice of either
1) rolling damage with the attack or
2) taking the average.
That is, for each attack turn, you get one set of rolls. If you want to roll damage, roll it when you roll the attack. Otherwise, have the averages precalculated on your character sheet and use those. If you have sneak attacks or other features that can boost damage, have the average totals for those also recorded on your sheet.
“Keystone combats” cost time. Consider something like the Backlash approach.
Missing is a natural part of combat. Misses are cool (particularly when they happen to someone else!). A combat in which everyone automatically does damage would be a drag.
However, if the two sides are rolling terribly that night, a combat can drag on because everyone is missing all the time. (I call this phenomenon “Keystone combat.”)
In a previous column on house rules for “evil dice,” I suggested some strategies for handling this sort of thing, but I think I’ve come up with a better one. It’s partly inspired by BRUTAL’s counter-attack rule and partly inspired by 4th edition D&D’s attack moves that permitted damage on a miss. But this option flips things around: If you miss your adversary badly enough, you can get hurt. Let’s call this system Backlash.
Here’s how Backlash works.
Numbers to calculate ahead of time (saving time during play).
- Miss threshold: Each PC and NPC subtracts 10 from his or her AC. This number is the character’s miss threshold. Example: Haldomo is a fighter. If his AC is 17, his miss threshold is 7.
- Backlash damage: For each PC and NPC, look up the character’s melee weapon damage on the chart below and extract the Base Backlash damage. To this, add the appropriate ability score modifier (STR or DEX modifier, normally). That’s the character’s Backlash damage. Example: If Haldomo’s STR is 16 and he wields his long-sword with two hands, he would have Backlash of 7.
|Normal Weapon Damage||Base Backlash Damage|
|1d8 (or 2d4)||3|
|1d12 (or 2d6)||5|
How to use the numbers in combat.
Backlash doesn’t apply to ranged or spell attacks. It only applies to melee attacks.
If an attacker’s modified melee attack roll lands below the defender’s Miss Threshold, the defender can use his or her Reaction to inflict Backlash damage against the attacker, as a kind of riposte.
Example: A kobold attacks Haldomo (our example fighter above), rolling a 2 on a d20. The kobold adds 4 to this, arriving at 6 — which is one point under the Haldomo’s Miss Threshold. Haldomo uses his Reaction to inflict 7 points of damage to the kobold, killing it for its impudence.
If that damage seems too high, keep in mind that it’s a kobold. Many monsters will never trigger a Backlash because their attack modifiers are too high. Also, a dragon might suddenly become much more formidable under such a system, smacking down PCs gutsy enough to attack with melee weapons even though that’s not their strong suit. (The party wizard, for instance, might not want to attack a balor hand-to-hand.) If the damage still seems too high, either a) convert the Base Backlash damage to 1 point for every type of weapon or b) eliminate the ability modifier.
Be ready to end encounters while there are still hit points on the table.
Most combat encounters go on much longer than they technically need to because too many DMs use hit points as a benchmark for determining when the encounter has ended. In a good game, an encounter ends when there isn’t any reason for it to continue, and there are several ways to reach that point that don’t involve a slog to that very last hit point. Rather than recap all of them, I’m just going to recommend someone else’s article. I cannot improve on it. Read the Angry DM’s article titled “Four Things You’ve Never Heard of that Make Encounters Not Suck.” I wish I’d read it when I was 13 and running AD&D games. It would have saved me a great deal of trouble.
Two final suggestions about house ruling in general.
- It’s a bad idea to introduce more than one new house rule per session. Each one has ripple effects, often subtle. Take some time to get a feel for each new rule before adding another to the mix.
- Having once imposed house rules, I now also prefer a more democratic approach, and other referees may want to try it as well: Each new rule gets a trial period, after which the gaming group votes bicamerally. The referees/DMs (some groups have more than one, trading off) vote as one group; the players vote as another. If a majority or consensus on each side likes the rule, then it passes. If, however, the players don’t like it because it’s too brutal or the DMs don’t like it because it’s too Monty Haul, then suspend the house rule and try another one. †