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I'm DMing for a campaign where the player characters will sometimes face small squads of creatures, most recently six ground troops and two archers helping out. In this setting, these creatures dominate the land the PCs are in and have an organised military, hence squads of enemies.

Combat tends to go quite slowly, however. Eight enemies and three players means the players spend a lot of time waiting between their turns!

Without reducing the number of enemies in the encounter, how can I speed up combat when the players are fighting many enemies?

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It occurs to me I could, say, combine the two archers into an "archer unit" somehow, so that it's still canon that the players are fighting two enemies, but I can handle them as just one. I have no idea if something like this would work, or how it would work though! –  Jonathan Hobbs Sep 14 '12 at 4:18
    
You can usually "pipeline" situations like these. If the next 3 NPCs' turns won't actually have an effect on the next PC's turn at all, which is frequently the case, then you can tell that PC to go while you finish doing calculations. –  Eric B Nov 6 '13 at 20:16
    
I would hope that the system you're using has rules for this, if it's something that's supposed to happen frequently. –  okeefe Nov 6 '13 at 20:42

12 Answers 12

up vote 14 down vote accepted

I've had similar issues, and been experimenting. Here are some of my findings:

  • ALWAYS have strategies in mind. Your squad has two, maybe three pre-determined strategies and the ever-available "every man for himself" panicking. They engage with one strat, move to the other if the situation calls for it, and break ranks when appropriate. This keeps you active instead of trying to think of their actions each round. It's the middle of a battle, your soldiers don't have time to make the optimal choices; they'll stick to their training.

  • Surrender. Soldiers don't want to die. PCs can force a bloodied NPC to surrender with Intimidate, but a soldier who's just seen three of his buddies get fried by divine fire probably doesn't need to be explicitly told to give up. It's possible to cut fight time in half this way, though it still doesn't make the wait between turns any shorter each round.

  • Giving NPCs immediate actions and "start of PC's turn" effects instead of a lot to do on the NPC's own turn helps speed things up considerably.

  • The more NPCs I have, the simpler I make them. If I'm going to have more than three copies of a given NPC, I don't want that stat block to have more than three or four actions or things to keep track of.

  • In line with the above, minions. I use them very rarely because they encourage metagaming, but they remove damage calculation entirely which speeds up combat a lot. Conscripted soldiers are likely to drop and play dead the first time they're hit, so that's a justification for minions in your scenario. Give your minions an on-death effect like grab or difficult terrain; it makes minion-popping require more strategy than "bust out your AoEs."

  • Or you could cheat and make your non-minion NPCs deal set average damage without die rolls.

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For extremely large-scale combat, roll "buckets o' dice" ala simple miniatures combat rules; role a d6 for each combatant, a 5-6 is a hit, and hits kill one npc etc. Most GMs who get into large-scale battles involving player-led armies vs enemy hordes develop or borrow a special ruleset for those encounters, often based on handfuls of dice.

For anything smaller scale involving player characters, just streamline things and roll fast. Roll initiative once and stick to that order, and try to roll initiative only once for ALL the enemies (make an exception for a stronger enemy, a 'boss' or leader). This has the effect of letting players who rolled high go first, then the enemies respond, then the low rollers, so the players feel like their initiative rolls meant something, but it essentially ends up cycling with the players going, then the enemies.

If you are constantly fighting the same make-up of groups, the attack and damage rolls should be easy and fast. The players know what AC the enemies are, and you as GM should know what AC the players have, so simple combat should be extremely fast. If you are finding ALL combat moves at a snail's pace you need to re-examine how you resolve combat. I see anothe rposter saying that "Every time someone rolls a set of dice, it takes on average between 30 and 60 seconds to get a result"; this seems way too slow for simple combat attack rolls. In my games, players roll a d20 and we know within 2 seconds if it was a hit or miss, and a damage roll doesn't take much longer. Add in time to declare their attack etc. and everything happens within 15-30 seconds easily, unless the player agonizes about what action to take. Spells take longer, but common spells they have been using in combat before take under 30 seconds.

As for the GM-run NPCs, you just need to start rolling faster: roll damage at the same time as the to-hit roll if you really need to. As GM, don't waste time agonizing over tactics yourself; save that for important battles, not run-of-the-mill encounters. Make the enemies mostly predictable; they attack nearest player until they lose 50% of their forces, then they break morale and run away. Don't spend time on descriptions of actions beyond "this archer fires at character X and...misses", then immediately roll the next NPC's attack. If you lead by example the players will pick up the pace. Slow combat down for rare encounters, speed it up for everything else.

I see this issue cropping up with inexperienced GMs sometimes, or in a group that always focuses on "combat" as the game, v.s. role-playing and story. In the first case, more experience will eventually solve the issue; in the second, you need to design the campaigns so that there aren't "unimportant random encounters" etc.

I'm going to repeat the most important part: lead by example. If that doesn't work, stop resolving boring random encounters with dice, just tell the players that during their trip they fought off N number of enemy ambushes, and get them to where the important battles are. If your group are hung up on intricate combat resolution you need to make sure that every combat is worth the work.

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A concise summary of my approach to this situation (much of which is already listed in other comments):

  • Role Monster Initiatives ahead of time (pre-game) - Then add modifiers as needed during battle. This takes care of the issue of surprise, invisibility, terrain, etc.

  • Note the monster and turn order and stick with it during the rest of the battle - Use standard rules. Don't roll initiative every turn (some DMs implement this as house rules). Have the players roll initiative once at the beginning of battle and stick with that turn order. Then either:

    • combine these lists and stick with it

      Ex. Player 1, Creature Group 1, Creature Group 2, Player 2, Creature Group 3, Player 3

    • Have sides alternate. Proverbially flip a coin or base the decision on starting with general surprise (as appropriate)

      Ex. The DM determines the players are surprised by the creatures. The monsters attack first. Then the players all take their turns, starting the normal combat sequence.

  • Groups monsters into logical units and give them a single attack roll - Two goblin archers side-by-side are one unit; two goblin archers on opposite sides of the party are two separate units. When you select the targets for your unit, use the single attack roll number + bonuses/penalties to compare with character AC and decide who gets hit. For example, if your two goblin unit rolls a 15 + 5 bonus (20), then the character(s) each goblin is attacking gets hit ONLY if their AC is worse than 20.

    • Use pre-game attack roll charts - Huh? What? Before a game, roll monster attacks just like you do initiatives and put them in a cheat sheet. Make sure to get a variety of values (hits and misses) and add a few more than the actual number of monsters you have (so you can rotate through them). This way you can pre-calculate basic final numbers (roll + attack bonuses), then use small adjustments/modifiers on the fly with less math. Feel free to simulate rolling real attack numbers if you like (you may even want to occasionally sub out your pre-determined roll with your "fake" attack roll number to change the quality of the battle -- e.g. make it easier or slightly tougher).
  • Use buffed minions - One unfortunate part of 4e is that while minions are an amazing idea, at 1 HP or whatever, they die too quickly to add much more than visual flair in most cases. Make your own buffed minions with an HP value less than a regular monster of the same type but higher than 1 point (quartering HP is a good rule of thumb).

  • Have a cheat sheet of player stats/creature stats but esp. AC - This is critical to determining hits and misses quickly. If you have to ask for a base AC (or modified one in case players have been using abilities or suffering penalties), you're slowing combat down. Don't guess, but be quick.

  • If you are smart and use hidden monster stats (esp. HP), you may wish to fudge a death or two to get things rolling. This shouldn't be necessary using the above guidelines, but players should be rewarded for good rolls, even against a damage sponge.

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Do you normally reroll initiative every round in 4e? And your advice on surprise ignores 4e's actual surprise rules which are fairly explicit. I like your advice on the logical groups, though I'm not sure how that works when the PCs attack. Buffed minions here seem to at least mildly defeat the purpose of minions. If you're going to buff them I'd argue for HP chunks where you get the ceiling of the chunk (divide a monster's HP in half or quarters, you deal as many chunks as you reach). –  wax eagle Nov 8 '13 at 13:08
    
@waxeagle No I normally don't re-roll every round per the standard rules but I have encountered some (rare) DMs who do. In the surprise example, the normal combat turn is assumed to start with the players. PCs attack the logical units as individual creatures - grouping is for the creatures attack rolls only (they maintain seperate HP, etc.). Buffed minions do defeat the standard purpose of minions in some ways, but IMHO add nuance to combat difficulty in a way that works well. On the other hand, HP chunking work well as an alternative method. –  Anaksunaman Nov 14 '13 at 2:21

Every time someone rolls a set of dice, it takes on average between 30 and 60 seconds to get a result. So, the more dice rolling you do, the longer the combat will take.

As a side note, there are plenty of videos on the Internet of real life combat. Both sword fighting and gun battles can easily be found. Now, pick a few and try to run those as combat with your $system. How long did that take?

So, you can speed things up by doing a little statistics. A normal distribution can give you a good spread of numbers: Just adjust the variance for more or less edge effects. Once you have this, get a few samples from the distribution. Combine these numbers with the median (not the average) of the dice that the opposition rolls. Now, you have all your dice rolls results in about a minute.

Once you are going onwards on that path, it becomes easier and easier to just abstract the rules and just do what feels right. Suddenly, you are more a director in a movie than a chess player. You role play the combat instead of roll playing it -- bad pun intended.

Eventually, you can get rid of dice rolls completely and eventually get rid of the system entirely.

Note: Clearly this does not work if you like war game style combat systems.

Note on critical hits: The frequency of critical hits are over exaggerated in nearly all systems. Here's an exercise for the reader. Take a sample of MMA or Judo or boxing completions. Break said fights into "combat rounds" and statistics should tell you how many critical hits should have been scored according to $system. Then compare with how many critical hits were actually scored. But one can still account for critical: Given X samples from a distribution Y, what is the probability that number Z will come up? Now, you can model critical hits easily but I pity your party -- they will feel that pain! Statistics are great.

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But then there's never any accounting for black swans. The world doesn't fit into nice-and-neat bell curves.. I can see the value for arranging an RPG in this way so +1, but it even ruins things like critical hits as it stands so -1 from that. –  LitheOhm Sep 14 '12 at 9:00
    
Agreed that it's overexaggerated, but to assume the entire spread of things is Gaussian is fallacy. That's like saying people never get taller than 6'6" –  LitheOhm Sep 14 '12 at 20:22
    
@LitheOhm: First dice roll follow a Gaussian distribution provided the dice are not loaded. Second, you are free to chose your own distribution if you dislike Gaussian so much. Third, a Gaussian distribution does not have a cut off point, just diminishing probabilities so your example makes no sense. However, this is getting argumentative so I am coalescing comments into my answer and deleting them. –  Sardathrion Sep 17 '12 at 7:26
    
Could you add an example? "Do statistics" doesn't tell me how to shorten combat. Are you saying that if I have a 50% chance to do 1d8 damage (average 4.5) per attack, I should just cut out the middleman and do exactly 2.25 damage per round? Or should I have a deck of results written out (miss, hit at 4 damage, hit at 8 damage, miss) and draw a card from the deck? (Also, how is the mean different from the average?) –  Paul Marshall Nov 6 '13 at 19:54
    
@PaulMarshall: I did mean median, fat finger syndrome. –  Sardathrion Nov 7 '13 at 8:06

One extreme solution for speeding up mass combats is to completely ditch the you-go I-go turn-based system. Dump initiative rolls as well. Let the PCs and GM perform actions in real time with a few ground rules for regulating movement and attacks on a battle grid.

There are a number of ways this could be done. One option is a card-based system. Give each PC a deck of cards and ask them to write down a basic 1 round action on each card:

  • Move up to PC's movement allowance,
  • Make one attack on adjacent opponent,
  • Shoot missile weapon at foe in LOS,
  • Cast spell,
  • Special actions.

PCs then select x cards from the deck (where perhaps x = character level + 2 + Int and Dex modifiers) and shuffle the remaining cards.

Once combat begins, the players and GM are not restricted by turns or initiative order - they just play a card from their hand to move, attack, cast a spell, shoot a missile weapon, or whatever and then move their figure on the grid and point to the enemy figure being attacked. Players are free to draw more cards from their deck & discard as long as they don't exceed the hand limit.

When attacking a player resolves the attack as per the normal rules, for example in D&D they roll to hit & then roll damage. For combat systems using opposed rolls or where saving throws are required, the attacker could roll for both attacker & defender simultaneously. Armor class and hit points for all monsters should be visible to players to keep game play moving along. The DM will still have to keep track of lost hit points, or else players can use hp tokens.

For large battles where the GM is faced with commanding dozens of creatures, it might be fair to decrease card limits in the player's hands, or allow the GM to move/attack with multiple creatures by playing a single card.

Game play doesn't pause except when the GM needs to make a ruling.

A similar system might be devised using dice instead of cards - players roll a bunch of colored dice, blue = move, red = attack, green = cast spell, etc. to determine which actions they can perform.

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So if a player is a fast-talking speed-reader, they'll get in ten actions before the GM gets in three? I understand that roughly-simultaneous action will get things done faster, but how do you keep players and GM from taking multiple turns in a row? –  Paul Marshall Nov 6 '13 at 19:49
    
Well the short answer is you don't - everyone is moving and attacking and resolving their combats as fast as they can draw & play cards and roll dice. If Player A has his game on while Player B dithers, then Player A could indeed perform multiple actions while Player B is still deciding what to do. –  RobertF Nov 6 '13 at 20:06
    
I should clarify that the GM as well would be playing action cards to move and attack with monsters under his control. –  RobertF Nov 6 '13 at 20:12
    
However I'm not quite sure what Paul Marshall means by a fast-talking speed-reader. –  RobertF Nov 7 '13 at 17:07
    
I just mean a fast player; perhaps a melee-type character who just wants to hit one guy in the face fifteen times in a row, and deliberately plays as quickly as possible (by rolling attack & damage at the same time, precomputing all possible modifiers, changing the ratio of cards in their deck so they always have a lot of "hit things" cards, etc.). –  Paul Marshall Nov 7 '13 at 18:32

Two dice tricks I'll use in large groups are rolling multiple attacks at the same time (the red dice are "eyepatch", green dice are "limp", etc). Using this technique, I also roll both the to-hit and damage at the same time. The second trick I do is roll 1 to-hit and damage. I'll also roll 2 dice (luckily I have 4 players, so its a d4). On one d4, I count left to right and add +1 to the roll, whereas the second I -1. If they are the same? I reroll while handling the first attack and if one of the dice comes up with a 1, I just ignore it.

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It seems like you are using a system that emphasizes the skirmish and not the large scale, which can make timing exponentially different with each new member. With that in mind, I recommend breaking large combats into a series of smaller skirmishes and challenges. Quite frankly, unless the troops at these numbers are specifically scaled to be at the party's level, these fights should be relatively quick - one side sinks in their teeth to an advantage and shakes it like a rottweiler with a ragdoll. when they're just even enough, then the tides keep swaying back and forth and that can be the true cause for loss of time in some games.

I recommend the two sided method of combat: Side A acts, Side B acts ... Side [N] finally acts, and roll reach definitive group bonus at once. EG: "All Guards with +3 melee roll... Now all Guards with +4 melee..." So if they all roll at the same bonus, you can just kind of splash it together, and maybe use the "Armor method" where the AC is kind of a flat number, but reduction goes up so you can just randomly dole out hits without too much protest since their evasion is also a damage reducing factor.

For a more narrative gameplay, break the larger combats into smaller scenarios. Use the archers as a conditional modifier, (such as in D&D rolling a Reflex Save against 10+To Hit Mod or take damage, or in L5R making a Defense roll). Increase the damage by the number of archers and decrease by number of players left, but otherwise keep it static. Then remember that not every fight happens on a vast, broad plain with plenty of room. Give the players bottleneck spots so that only a few guards come through at once (which is usually the case in a castle setting anyway). So one or two of the players are holding the pass while the third is taking potshots at the archers.

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I have recently switched from using individual initiative to group initiative. Having all the players plan and execute their moves together has ensured that they aren't sitting on the sidelines watching the action happen. I know that not all RPG systems accommodate this well, so your mileage may vary.

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Here's how I keep combats very fast. Mind you, we play a very un-crunchy, variant of 3E.

  • Initiative. I've found that trying to maintain a list of who has initiative, who goes next, etc, slows things down dramatically. I just have one side go, and then the other. Left to right, around the table, old school style. The notion of ordered, individual initiative in games is unrealistic to begin with, and after the first round, rarely means anything anyways. In my campaign, I've actually abandoned initiative all together. I just let the players go first, unless they are being ambushed or are otherwise hesitating. Sometimes I switch the order in which players attack, starting at the other end of the table.

  • It helps to have a sheet with each of your player's info attached to your GM screen. This way you dont have to ask them their AC and other info each round.

  • Roll the dice. Roll the dice and only worry about mods if needed. Orc #1 just rolled a 3 when attacking a Paladin. He missed. Move on.

  • Books stay closed. We will literally only crack a rule book a couple of times a session. If the players dont know something about a spell, for example, I'll frequently make an on-the-fly ruling, and we move on. After combat they can look it up, and if its different from the ruling, we apply it to future uses.

If I have 4-5 players and 10 monsters, it will rarely take more than, say, two minutes per entire round, and actually feels like fast-paced combat. It also helps dramatically that the players will often move the NPC's for me ("hey, so-and-so is in range of that bugbear...")

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Forgive my noobieness - can you define un-crunchy in this context? –  corsiKa Sep 16 '12 at 1:34
    
We generally ignore large swaths of the rules in favor of a quick GM decision. Such as above, where I simply dont use initiative. –  GrandmasterB Sep 16 '12 at 4:42

I was inspired by the Feng Shui approach to this, where you always have huge numbers of low threat enemies ("mooks") attacking the players. In Feng Shui a common solution was to break mooks up into "wads" and just roll once for each wad but with a +1 to hit/damage for each additional mook in the group. (+1 is more of a boost in FS's +/-d6 system than it is in d20).

I needed to write a mass combat system for my pirate game because the players have whole groups of pirates with them and are often fighting other large-ish opposing forces. I don't like most "break out of the action into a wargame" approaches because they tend to minimize the PCs and also lack insight into who all got killed (they know all their pirates by name!). Hence my Quickie Mass Combat Rules, for Pathfinder but work for anything d20-compatible and in concept port to many other systems.

How it works is you break forces up into semi-homogeneous groups as desired, and for each additional member the group attacks as one but gets +1/2 to hit and +1 to damage (so a group of 5 pirates gets +5/+10 above their usual stats). They can attack other groups or even attack/be attacked by PCs. For each hp worth of damage done, someone dies and the group size gets smaller. I've used it a lot and it meets our needs for a) not a dissociated mechanic from the rest of the game b) decently realistic results and c) fast fast fast to use.

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I've had this issue before playing Shadowrun. A party of six runners tried, foolishly, to intimidate a gang of forty armed bikers.

I ended up splitting the bikers into squads that performed a single action. Each squad always moved together and fired at the same target. This essentially translated to pistols and shotguns becoming fully automatic weapons. My method to speed things up was:

  1. "Kyuzo, this squad shoots at you. What's your armour?"
  2. Quickly roll one attack per individual in the squad, counting hits.
  3. "Kyuzo, you were hit 6 times. What's your damage resistance?"
  4. Quickly roll damage for every hit, counting damage that exceeds the damage resistance.
  5. "Kyuzo, you take 18 damage."

By GM ruling, rather than red-misting the entire party, the heroes were left unconcious (1hp each) by the side of the road.

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I'll add, one reason this worked in this situation is I knew combat would be short with this much firepower. The gang was meant to be an intro, robbing the party of the McGuffin, not a combat encounter. –  Hand-E-Food Sep 14 '12 at 6:38

Roll your dice ahead of time and know when they hit or when they crit. You don't need to roll seventy times ahead of time, either, but just be sure to give randomness it's own fair chance. I tried this with a 3.5 game and it worked out quite well.

You might also check out the book Heroes of Battle. Even though it is 3.5, it details out precisely the issue you're having. I believe they include things like prerolling, but also making judgment calls much quicker when facing conditional modifiers. If I'm not mistaken it recommends a standard +2/-2 for most situations.

Ultimately though, it stems to just knowing what the enemies will do and when they will hit or miss. If you can streamline that, then 'your turn' (with the NPCs) becomes just narration instead of eight other actions.

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