Is there anything more painful than having to sit through a stilted, stop-and-start combat encounter where every turn takes at least five minutes? Combat encounters should be exciting — and fast-paced! — to be satisfying. Here are our 7 tips to speed up combat in 5E!
Make 5E Combat Faster
If you ask ten different people what portion of 5E is combat vs non-combat, you will get ten different answers.
While some parties resolve conflicts by non-violent means, others are more inclined to slash and burn their way through obstacles. Different styles of play lend themselves to the balance of combat and non-combat encounters varying dramatically by group and campaign. When you look at most of the rules and mechanics in published content, however, it’s clear that a large part of 5E is focused on combat and how to accomplish things during a fight.
When so much of a game is focused on combat, it stands to reason that we want combat to be fun. We play Dungeons & Dragons so we can lop off monster heads with giant swords and set fire to things with our minds! Nothing kills the buzz of being an all-mighty wizard like trying to puzzle through whose turn it is to roll like the all-too-mortal nerd you actually are.
Luckily there are a few simple ways to prevent combat from dragging. So let’s dive into our 7 tips to speed up combat in 5e!
1. Preparation — Being Ready Speeds Things Up
The first step to faster combat is the one thing we all try desperately to find ways around: preparation. Every minute you spend preparing for combat in D&D is 10 minutes you save while running the game.
Before your game begins be sure that you have the map(s) ready, the monster stats organized, and take some time to consider the monster abilities and behaviors. How do they work and what do they do in the first rounds of combat? Knowing the enemy is important not only for defeating them, but for giving your players something engaging to go up against. If you haven’t done so already, take a minute to read the monster descriptions in the text you’re taking the stats from, make a few notes for yourself on behaviors and how the monsters may interact with the environment for tactical reasons. Consider the map you’ve chosen and think about how the monsters can utilize cover, high ground, and terrain to present your players with an adequate challenge.
Having all of these things organized and planned in advance will speed up combat in 5e games considerably and makes fights feel more exciting as the monsters feel more natural and prepared for action.
Don’t worry, you’re not the only one who should be prepared! Your players ought to be prepared for combat too.
Many players seem to think that preparation is the DM’s job alone and that all they have to do is show up with their character sheets and their dice to play. While those things are indeed important, they should be the absolute minimum requirement for a seat at the gaming table.
No one is expecting players to know all of the rules, but it’s not unreasonable to expect a player to know what their options for combat are and how to plan out using movement, actions, bonus actions, and reactions. A player should know their character’s abilities, especially if those abilities provide bonuses to things like initiative or saving throws in combat. Of course, allow some leeway for new players, but for veterans who know and understand the rules of the game, there’s no excuse for not knowing what their characters do.
Finally, just as the DM needs to have maps and markers ready to go, players should have the correct dice, minis or tokens, and pens or pencils (I cannot stress this enough for in-person games!) so that they’re ready to play their part in making combat run smoothly.
2. The Best Initiative System
The quickest way to muck up the flow of combat is to lose track of whose turn it is.
There are a variety of options available on the market for keeping track of which player or monster is due to take its turn, and we have tried virtually all of them. If you’re an online DM who uses VTT programs such as Foundry VTT or Roll20, then a lot of the work is done for you. If, however, you run an in-person game or, gods help you, a blended game, then the prospect of getting combat started to begin with can be a logistical nightmare.
We have found that there are two methods that produce reliable, efficient results and speed up combat in 5e from the very beginning.
Pen & Paper
The oldest of old-school methods continues to prove one of the most reliable ways to keep track of initiative: with a piece of lined paper and a pen or pencil. It sounds simple — and it is — but the trick here is to streamline the process. Don’t call out for initiative ranges, and don’t try to listen to everyone shouting initiative at once while trying to jot down the monsters’ initiative. If you roll something like a 10 or a 15, that goes in the middle of the sheet. 20-25 goes near the top, and so on. There’s nothing revolutionary about this method, but if performed in an efficient and organized manner, it is still the fastest and most straightforward way to track initiative.
If you’re someone who runs games in person but makes heavy use of technology at the table to save space (like me), we recommend the Game Master 5th Edition app by Lion’s Den (available on the Apple App Store and Google Play Store for free). It takes some time to set up (that pesky preparation striking again!) but once you’ve input the player characters setting up combat takes literal seconds. The combat app has the added benefit of tracking not only initiative (which you can roll in the app or input manually based on player rolls) but also tracking damage. You can also see at a glance the AC of each of your players and various monster resistances or abilities. The only downside is having to remember to advance each round, but it’s a simple tap on the screen, and you’re on the way again.
3. Give Warning — Make Players Aware They're Up Next
Once combat has started, something essential to making combat run fast is to always keep the players aware of when their turn is coming up.
Just after you say, “Alright, Valraen the Mage, it’s your turn,” you’re also going to say, “and Murgloch the Slayer, you’re up next.”
When Murgloch’s turn comes around, the player may not know exactly what she’s going to do on her turn, but she’s at least thinking about it – looking up that spell she’s going to use, or considering which monster she should attack.
The added bonus to giving a warning is that your player will be making her decisions on another player’s turn, so everyone is not sitting there waiting for her to decide. Once you get your players into the habit of thinking about their turns before it’s time to take them, combat practically runs itself as you go!
4. Limit Decision-Making — Keep Combat Moving Forward
This next rule may sound harsh, but it’s a necessary one: don’t give the players time to think. (At least not on their own turn.)
If you followed Tip #3 (see above), the players should already know what they want to do when their turn comes up and should be able to tell you immediately. If they can’t, perhaps it’s because something just happened that changed their plans. This can understandably trip folks up, but you should give the player, at most, 20-30 seconds to choose an alternative course of action. If they can’t decide, you can make a suggestion, such as “you could just attack” or “well, there’s that fireball spell you like so much.”
If they still can’t decide, then the recommendation we have is to declare the character takes a Dodge action. If that doesn’t get your player to make a decision, their character takes the Dodge action that turn and you move on. Your player might not love this solution, but at least their turn isn’t a complete waste — and the flow of combat didn’t grind to a halt just because of one person’s indecision.
The best thing about this solution? A player only has to see their turn become a Dodge action once or twice before they start preparing better for their turn, either by making back-up plans in preparation or by making them more comfortable with snappier decision-making. This method may seem severe, but give it a shot and watch how you speed up combat in 5e games in no time.
5. Be Efficient — Reduce Dice Rolls & Rule References
Making players get in the habit of being prepared to take their turn is half the battle — the other half is training them how to expedite the turn so that it doesn’t take forever.
The preparations we made earlier are key here: the wizard player should know what spells they can cast and have them already ready on a screen or sheet, and the fighter player should know their battle maneuvers and how they function.
In addition, there are a few other things we can do to speed up combat in 5e. Here’s the quick list:
- Roll attack and damage together. It simply saves time. Of course, if someone can give themselves advantage after the fact, they reroll damage as well.
- If a combatant casts a fireball or uses a Breath Weapon that requires other combatants to make saving throws, they should already be rolling damage while those combatants are making their saving throws.
- Ban or modify spells that create multiple additional combatants, such as animate objects. Use the new Summoning spells from Tasha’s Cauldron of Everything instead. Also, try not to use too many combatants if you can – why use 15 bandits if 3 veterans will do?
- If you have four goblins or flying spoons or whatever hitting the same target, roll one attack for all four and just quadruple their damage on a hit. This is especially efficient if you have creatures like the ½ CR scout, which makes multiple attacks on its turn. Instead of rolling two attacks for each of your dozen scouts, lump each scout’s attacks together.
And that brings us neatly to the next point:
6. Make Math Easier
I come from an era when trying to convince people to play D&D meant trying to convince them using graph paper and rulers outside school hours was fun. Fifth Edition has come a long way in simplifying the math that goes into how the game is played, but there are still ways to make things even easier.
For DM’s you can simplify your life considerably by using average damage, which is included on each monster’s statblock next to every related attack. You see the highlighted text that says “Hit” in this screenshot below?
That’s the average damage for a bite attack or claw attack from this monster. As long as the creature doesn’t roll a critical hit, you can use this number whenever the monster makes a successful attack. This saves you a roll and some math, and can really cut down on the length of your turns. You can always decide that for big stuff — like a dragon’s breath weapon — you can roll the damage for dramatic effect, but for smaller stuff, save yourself the headache and use the average.
For players you can likewise simplify the damage dealt by player characters by using averages as well. Before you run screaming at the idea of trying to calculate average damage, know that it can be incredibly easy.
All you have to do is round the damage up to the nearest 5 (or nearest 10 at higher levels).
And so on and so forth.
If math is not your strong suit, rounding off damage like this can really streamline the numbers and simplify your life without affecting the game’s balance in any meaningful way.
7. Act Now, Think Later — Embrace Making Quick Calls
The last tip we have to speed up combat in 5E is a little controversial but can be a real time-saver: make a snap decision and think about it later.
“But wait,” I hear you saying, “That sounds like terrible advice!”
Normally you’d be correct. In most instances in life it pays to think first and act second, but when it comes to running combat in D&D or any other fast-paced action game, taking the time to think things through thoroughly can be a detriment to the flow of the game. Instead of flipping through the books to try and figure out whether or not a creature or character would be protected from a fireball if it’s submerged in water, make a snap decision! Say that in this instance, the creature has advantage on its saving throw and takes half damage — and tell your players you’ll look up the exact rule later. If it’s to their advantage, they’ll never complain and you get to keep the game moving instead of spending 10 minutes trying to figure out the correct answer.
If later you realize that your ruling was off — and in this case, it was, because it seems that according to the rules, a submerged character would have fire resistance and wouldn’t get an advantage on their saving throw — that’s okay! Tell your players that you were mistaken at the start of the next session, and hopefully, you’ll remember the ruling for the next time it happens. In the end, making snap decisions might not get you the correct answers, but so long as they’re fair decisions that keep the game moving and fun, that’s all that really matters!
This brings us to the end of our tips for how to speed up combat in 5E! There are undoubtedly more ways to manage combat, many of which we go over on our YouTube Channel if you’re interested in more tips and tricks for running games.
I did also want to mention that another thing necessary to be able to implement these kinds of changes is being able to talk to your players. Communication is key to making sure everyone is on the same page in terms of expectations for how the game is going to run at your table. There is no one universal fit in terms of rules and tips, but you should be able to adapt anything from this list to help you better manage time during combat in 5E.
At the end of the day, the real takeaway is that both you and your players should be prepared, engaged, and willing to act to keep combat moving. You don’t have to rush players through the game, but maintaining a sense of urgency helps with keeping the fight exciting and making your game one that players want to keep playing.
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