For the inaugural post on this thread, and indeed this website, I thought I’d start by digging into something that I’ve been thinking about for a while: How combat runs in D&D 5th edition, and why it needs to run fast, on pain of causing some serious pacing problems. To start as we mean to go on, I’m going to approach the subject holistically. By this I mean following the repercussions of different play-styles as they ripple out and bounce around the rule system, creating some surprising results in places you wouldn’t expect. You might have noticed these effects harming your game, but might not have attributed them to this particular fault.
(I definitely don’t mean the “unorthodox medicine” sense of “holistic” – although make of my theories what you will.)
What we’ll see is that the pace at which the GM runs combat ends up affecting everything in the game, and that running it too slow can wind up putting you in a vicious feedback loop that – not to catastrophize – can decrease player enjoyment. I’ll break this up into a “Basic” section, of symptoms to look out for, and an “Advanced” section to really get into the nuts and bolts. If you’re not too interested in all of that, read the first section and then skip to the end, where I’ll suggest a number of quick fixes for your game. Otherwise, strap yourselves in spiderlings; this is going to be a deep dive into the rules and balance of combat, where I’ll aim to show you that “pacing problems” can’t simply be shrugged off when it comes to running D&D.
Basic: Symptoms of slow combat
It is a truth universally acknowledged that combat is clunky and troublesome to run, and slow to play. People I know who have sworn off 5e have done so for exactly this reason – the tension ramps up, the antagonists square off, initiative gets rolled… and everything jams up and grinds to a halt. The game itself is at its slowest when the action is at its fastest and most intense. This introduces a concept with a wonderfully pretentious name: “Ludonarrative Dissonance” (credit to the Angry GM for introducing me to this lovely concept). “Ludo-” here means “Game”, so LND just means that there’s friction between the fiction and the mechanics that are supposed to be representing it.
So far, so Basic D&D. In a moment we can go into why combat needs to run fast, and examine the strange knock-on effects that are incurred when it doesn’t. But before we can get into the abstract, hare-brained meat of the matter, it’ll help us if we can identify some of the things that you might not have thought of that can upset the rhythm of combat and bog it down. Here, then, are some symptoms for GMs to watch for that they might not otherwise think to; they won’t necessarily be the cause of the problems, and they aren’t necessarily problems in themselves, but they are red flags that your combat pace needs to step up a notch.
1: Players asking questions, especially basic questions and repeating questions others have already asked. This happens when the round takes too long to return to them, and players tune out. Asking these sorts of questions is a cue that they haven’t been paying attention, and is up there with dice towers and staring at phones as a symptom of player distraction. This isn’t the players’ fault; combat is complex and difficult to follow without engaging fully, and it’s hard to be that engaged for a long period of time when you’re not directly acting. Note that this is a feedback loop (the first of many): Asking basic questions makes your turn take longer, and makes it take longer to get to the other players, who will therefore zone out.
2: Players being reticent to try interesting tactics and approaches. When it takes the best part of an hour to cycle back to their turn, players will be nervous about wasting their chance to act. Pulling off an interesting move or play that isn’t specifically outlined in the rules carries the risk of a wasted action, which is one of the worst things that can happen to a player in combat – when combat takes too long, this risk is magnified, because it carries with it such a long period of inactivity, so watch out for players restricting themselves to super-basic attacks etc. It should be obvious that you don’t want your game to run like this; you want players to use imaginative tactics, or any tactics at all…
3: Players being reluctant or unable to strategize. When a fight drags, people lose focus in between their turns, as above. This means that they aren’t looking out for monsters’ moves and weaknesses, or planning what they and their teammates can do over the next few turns. Essentially, as with #1, each turn is presented as an entirely new situation, rather than a continuation of previous turns, so multi-turn plans become impossible.
4: Players taking their time. It might seem obvious that this would help give rise to long-running battles, but there are other facets to this phenomenon as well. First, it’s a sign that you as the GM are giving players too much leeway to mull over their decisions, and aren’t conveying the urgency of the situation (LND again). But this also represents the players staking a claim to some airtime; if you’ve waited 45 minutes for your turn, you want to savour it, rather than dispatch it quickly. This creates another loop.
5: Player indifference to being incapacitated. A fairly specific one this, but one that pushes LND to the extreme. If a character is reduced to 0Hp, and combat is clipping along at a fair pace, the tension among the group is usually raised considerably; the character is in immediate danger of death, and isn’t any use to the party until they are back on their feet. If that process will take upwards of two hours though, the danger doesn’t seem immediate, and the difference in activity from the player’s perspective appears negligible. Thus no-one will be falling over themselves to offer a healing spell, and you’ll get the bizarre situation where the player whose character is on the line will appear the least concerned; the burden of having to follow what was going on has been lifted.
Overall, then, the pattern of a combat that is running too slow will have players asking basic questions each turn to establish the situation, then mulling to get the most out of their turn being in the hotseat, before reverting to a basic “I guess I’ll just…”. Collaboration and imagination are out, as are stakes and tension, and distraction and boredom are in.
But that’s not all that turns on this – not by a long shot. Because combat involves so many discreet increments of time, it’s easy for these effects to snowball, which creates some pretty interesting epicycles. Further, because it’s such a huge part of the game, these phenomena have repercussions that spill over and affect the campaign as a whole.
Advanced: The vicious feedback loop
Let’s break out some maths. Say you have a reasonably average-sized D&D group of five people plus GM. Assume that each player takes five minutes to take their turn each round, and the GM does likewise. That doesn’t seem, by itself, like it’s too long to be reasonable, especially with asking and answering questions, mulling, changeover time etc. built in. But notice that that’s already 30 minutes per round. An average D&D combat takes four rounds to resolve, so that’s already two hours per combat. These numbers line up with experience.
That’s already a problem because of the things listed above. But this is where it starts to get really interesting. D&D classes are unequivocally built for combat. That is, they are built around once-per-day special abilities, all of which are designed and balanced for combat (we’ll get to the exceptions to this rule in an upcoming article). This means that getting the right number of combats into a day is important for balance. Too few, and PCs will go “supernova”, and simply obliterate any enemy put in front of them by using all of their most powerful moves in quick succession.
The entire mechanical framework of 5e is built around having the right number of combats of the right difficulty in a single “Adventuring Day”. But the Adventuring Day can create pacing problems if it is in tension with the structure of each session. “Pacing problems” sounds less serious than it is – in fact, these problems are potentially game-breaking. At a certain point, the various feedback loops outlined above will snowball enough that a tipping point will occur. This will probably happen around the moment where you decide to put off the climactic battle until next session because you only have an hour left, although gaming science has yet to pinpoint the exact moment. What happens at this tipping point is that the phenomena caused by running overlong fights go from being in-combat problems to whole-game-structure problems.
The Adventuring Day outlined in the rules recommends a minimum of six combats per AD (you heard right – DMG p84 specifically recommends six to eight medium to hard combat encounters). That number seems very high; four to six slightly harder encounters seems like more of an achievable goal. But notice what happens if we run even that total with the numbers for combat lengths we got above; even our conservative AD takes eight hours of play to get through just the combat. Assuming you want to get anything else done during your sessions, that you meet every week, and that you don’t run super-long marathon sessions, it’s going to take about four weeks of real time to get through a single, condensed Adventuring Day from start to finish.
The good GM with their finger on the pulse of the group is going to realise that that creates issues. Consider that your third level spellcaster, if they want to use their second level spells in the big fight at the end of the day, is going to have to hoard them for a full month of real time – that’s about twelve-or-so hours of play, six hours of which is going to be combat, when they’ll most want to use them. Most GMs will realise instinctively that that is not enjoyable for the player.
What that GM may be tempted to do, then, is to reduce the number of combats per AD, and up the difficulty of each. This is a common approach for GMs with this problem, and is the approach suggested in the DMG, although no numbers are quoted. With knowledge of the supernova phenomenon, we can be wary of going in for too few combats, but one might be tempted to try to solve the supernova problem by making the enemies even tougher still. This ties in with a motivation that borders both the fiction and the in- and inter-session pacing; since combats only roll around once a session, and since they are such gargantuan affairs, it feels as though every combat needs to be a blockbuster just to justify its cost in terms of time and attention. The multiple small, moderate combats built into the standard AD feel like a waste of time when they take so much time to dispatch, and when they’re really only the setup for something that’s literally weeks and dozens of hours of play time away.
But dropping the number of combats per AD and increasing their difficulty, either to make them sap more resources or just to justify their place in the game, exacerbates the problem still further. Consider the ways to raise a combat’s Challenge Rating: The GM can either include more enemies, or include tougher enemies. Either increasing the CR of the group of monsters as a whole by introducing more of them or by picking tougher monsters increases the number of monster hit points the players have to stab, bash, slice and immolate their way through to win the fight, making it take yet longer.
On top of this, both options decrease the effectiveness of individual attacks; having more monsters means that the players will have to deal with more targets, meaning more attacks will be needed. Increasing the CR of the individual monsters likewise reinforces the Hp bloc, but also means that monsters’ Armour Classes will jump up. Player Character attack bonuses are meant to synchronise with the ACs of monsters designed to be used at the players’ current level. Thus, if the total CR of the monsters is much higher than the party’s average level (roughly the equation used to work out an encounter’s balance), the monsters’ ACs will be high enough that the party will suffer a higher miss rate, so will do less damage each round, meaning – you guessed it – combat spools out even longer.
Note that the issue with everything that comes with bumping up the CR isn’t that encounters will get too deadly – PCs in 5e are extremely robust, and can bounce back from most things without too much trouble, especially if they’re allowed to drop a load of their daily resources all at once. The point is that so far we’ve only dealt with phenomena that prolong individual rounds; when the GM dials up the difficulty, and thereby the disparity between CR and PC level, the points just noted mean that this multiplies the number of rounds needed to end the combat. And each new round the combat runs on for is subject to all the various feedback loops and epicycles we flagged at the beginning.
So a mere problem with pacing, that started out as a nuisance, is now filling the majority of your gaming time with a game mode where most of the players aren’t paying attention most of the time. More than this, even the combats themselves aren’t particularly challenging. Because of the way the daily-rechargeables and the supernova phenomenon work, PCs are cut a lot more slack to make mistakes and suffer damage when they haven’t fought through several other fights previously that AD, meaning the incentive for players to engage is virtually non-existent.
What to do?
We’ve spent a long time delving into exactly why combat that runs long is a problem, and how it risks worsening and taking over your game if you don’t adjust your approach in the right way. But I’d be remiss if I didn’t share at least some tips on what a correct approach might look like. It’s easy to say “Just run combat faster”, but no-one would be pushed to the lengths we’ve discussed above if it was really just that easy. So here are a few ways to go about treating the problem.
1: Work on your patter. Keeping up the pressure on the players is essential. The point at which players start to relax into taking their time is the point at which everything slides. Push them if they mull. In extreme cases, set a precedent of bumping them down the initiative order, or even punishing them with missed turns if they take too long deciding what to do. The Angry GM has an excellent article on this, linked below.
2: Simplify initiative. Initiative doesn’t have to slow the game down, but simplifying it can be a quick way to inject some acceleration. Of the many DMs who have come up with simplified initiative systems, around 75% (very scientific guess) use some sort of side-initiative, where one side goes, then the other side goes. This means players always know, in theory, when their turn’s about to start. It’s a little swingier than the system given in the rules, but provided you’re reasonable as a GM and don’t damage dump on one PC in the first turn, it doesn’t have to go too skewy. I personally allow the player initiating combat to roll initiative for their side, unless the party is careless or surprised, in which case I choose. This allows and encourages the players to literally seize the initiative, reminding us all why it’s actually called that.
3: Play “Theatre of the Mind” combat. A lot of what takes up time at the table is gridding up combat. Getting out the battlemap puts the brakes on the game because it overloads players with choices and details. Run combat descriptively, without a battlemap, if at all possible. Save the maps for complex combats where exact positioning actually matters, like fun puzzle-combats and set-pieces.
4: Have monsters run away when they’re clearly beaten. This should be done in the interests of realism if nothing else; henchmen and predators aren’t going to stand their ground when they’re obviously outgunned and have nothing to gain if escape is a viable option. Having monsters flee or surrender removes the “mop-up” phase from the combat, allowing it to end on a high when the enemy’s morale is broken, and giving you back game time. It also demonstrates the viability of tactical options like focusing on a leader.
5: Play a different game. One of the things that gets me about 5e is that it’s marketed as a friendly, streamlined version of D&D, and the default beginner RPG. There’s a kernel of truth in there somewhere, but it certainly doesn’t live up to this ideal as well as some other games out there. If your combats feel like they’re dragging, consider whether your group’s preferences might be better served by a lighter ruleset, such as The Black Hack or Into the Odd, where combat is comprehensively, even brutally simplified.
There are other, less direct options out there. Sly Flourish, in another excellent article (linked below), recommends dropping the Hp of your monsters. This doesn’t necessarily directly solve the problem, as the characters won’t have their resources eaten up quite as much, as required by the Adventuring Day (option 4 above also carries this problem if applied too enthusiastically), but it’s a step in the right direction. In my own houserules for 5e, I drop all the numbers for Hp in an attempt to achieve a sort of balance with a touch of swingy unpredictability – more on this in a future article.
The other immediate indirect option is to prolong the adventuring day. That is, bump up the time needed for long rests and short rests, e.g.: to 12 hours for a short rest and 48 hours for a long one. This doesn’t affect the session-by-session breakdown, but it does address the dissonance that occurs between in-game and out-of-game time. Contrary to the appearance of having been nerfed, characters’ special abilities should now feel more heroic – a wizard’s more powerful spells or a barbarian’s rages are now significant events because they only happen infrequently, and require the characters to recuperate to regain the use of them. This helps to solve the initial problem of players having to hoard their abilities by making those abilities more momentous. If the GM takes care to complement the mechanical side by emphasizing in the fiction that the PCs are heroic individuals of above-average ability, and that the monsters they fight are likewise ferocious and supernatural (even when they are only a middling threat to the party), then the players will at least chafe less at having to hold off on using the big guns; it feels less irritating to have to hold onto a weekly ability that feels like a superpower for a few sessions than a daily ability that feels like it should be usable as a matter of course. You’ll still need to figure out a way to speed up your combat, but this should give you slightly more wiggle room with the players’ enjoyment.
As we’ve seen, overlong combat isn’t just a slight pacing issue to be ignored or ridden out. It is a pacing issue, but in a much meatier sense than that phrase implies, and doing nothing about it, or trying to solve it wrong, can cause your game to start to break down. Regardless of what you think of the more hare-brained ideas I’ve presented, there are multiple feedback loops and epicycles that get triggered when you let up the pace and let them get a hold. The only real way to regain control is to go back to the source and accelerate your combat. That’s why Rule #1 is: Run super-fast combat.
The Angry GM on managing combat
Sly Flourish on tweaking monster Hp
Dungeon Craft on (you guessed it) speeding up combat