Role-Playing games are a time-consuming affair. My sessions are full of people looking to hit the ground running and be out the door quickly (since we all work/have papers to write). That being said, a short night for us is two hours. Some folks like marathon sessions that can last a whole night (Given the chance, I would love to have a day-long session). Regardless of your preferred length (hurr hurr hurr), nothing is worse than waiting around while the DM figures out what is going on, or while a player has to look up rules when it’s their turn. As the DM, it’s your responsibility to ensure the game runs at optimal capacity. I’ve encountered two major pitfalls in session flow: finding direction to encounters, and combat itself.
Finding direction to encounters
Direction in RPGs can be dicey (no pun intended), as there is a balance to strike. Players want the game to move forward; however, you never want to railroad them out the door. It can be easy: Qubert Quest-Giver asks them to kill the Orc King to the south, thank you very much, let’s go. But too much direct information can reduce a player’s autonomy, which takes a toll on the excitement of the game. It can cause players to stop thinking outside the box, and then D&D becomes a series of dice rolled without interaction or freedom. But let off the information and direction too much, and you have some rather confused PCs who have no idea what’s going on. Your job is to find the balance that points your group in the right direction at their pace. This is (I believe) the most difficult part of any adventure planning. It’s not quantifiable, it differs from group to group (even from player to player), and it’s hard to feel out how much push is too much until it happens. Although there is no one-size-fits-all answer, my best solution involves giving the players a solid direction from their employer, but then provide extra information along the way. As trite as it may have become, I am a big fan of what I call the “Bioware Twist”.
About 80% (citation needed) of all Bioware Quests seem to follow a formula: the Quest-Giver directs them to an objective. Along the way, a second party informs them of a dilemma, be it ethical, financial, spiritual, grammatical, etc… It is then up to players how they wish to continue the mission. In video-games, the decision tends to be binary; complete the quest as intended, or act on the new information. But in a role-playing game, I am surprised and delighted at the number of alternative options players create. I do my best to indulge these “Choice C” decisions whenever possible. Just don’t worry about giving them every tiny detail upfront; most players will ask for more if they’re thinking of a tricky solution. In these cases, don’t be afraid to give some on-the-fly answers—if you didn’t have it planned out, does it matter that much in the end? If you provide a conflicting answer that offers catastrophic trouble down the road, there is no shame in apologizing and retconning what is necessary (but only as a very drastic, no other choice option).
So you have them at the encounter. What now? Roll initiative and sludge through 30-minutes of slaying three orc scouts? Hopefully not. Here are a few tips for improving combat flow.
1) Initiative cards
I am a visual person, and I like seeing what’s going on. One way I do that is to write out player’s names on index cards folded in half, ‘hamburger-style’ (on the short end). Then I do the same for the enemies in the encounter. Once initiative is decided, I place the cards with names facing out in turn order. I place a paperclip (brightly colored if possible) on whoever’s turn it is. This way, players can see who is going, and when they will get to move. This can help players be ready once their turn rolls around.
2) Group up similar enemies
When an encounter involves pairs (or even triplets) of the same monster, I will often times roll a single initiative modifier for them, then have them move at the same time. It also helps because I can roll attack dice for each one, all at once. If you want to get technical (as far as D&D rulesets go), then you can have them roll initiative separately, then have them each use the wait action until the lowest initiative enemy takes their turn.
3) Be ready as soon as your turn rolls around
This burden lies with the players. While you can’t take turns for them, there are two things I like to encourage at the table to keep it moving. First, I limit tactics-talk that can happen. While talking is technically a free action, realistically, they don’t have time to sit down and plan out entire encounters, football style. I don’t like being too mean about this rule (I like my players coordinating), but I’m not afraid to break it out if they talk excessively, or if tension could rise with less talking allowed. The second thing I like to do is encourage fast turns via a small bonus. If players can move and roll dice within 10-15 seconds of me letting them know it’s their turn, I give them a +2 circumstance bonus (generally to hit). If they take no action that requires rolling, then I give them an extra 5 ft. of movement. I find that this properly incentivizes players to be ready to go; they see it as a free bonus for nothing, but I see it as a bonus that speeds gameplay immensely.
4) Know Thyself
It’s not just for Plato… Players need to be very familiar with their combat abilities. It’s not enough for the DM to know your character for you in this situation; having to explain every possible ability your player can use for each actions takes more time in the long-run. If you aren’t intimately familiar with your character, and need to reference rules, that’s not a problem—just make sure you do most of your looking when it’s not your turn!
Despite all that I’ve said here, if your players are having a good time taking their time, there is nothing wrong with a slow and laid-back session. It never hurts to be able to speed up combat, but work with your players if they’re looking to grill the town for more info. RPGs are not meant to be hurried by any means; but we certainly like playing as much as possible.