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Problem

There is a player in my current group who takes a long time to take their turns. A painfully long time!

Typical exchange

Me: Okay John*, it's now your turn to act. The serpent is coiled around your friend, squeezing life from her, but they're on the other side of the pit. What do you do?
John: Alright (pauses and stares into space for maybe 90 seconds).
Me: You're up, John.
John: Can I use my (power which can do an assortment of minor effects, such as prestidigitation (D&D) or hedge magic (Numenera) ) to levitate over the pit.
Me: Although you can use that to hover a small object, levitate is a more powerful ability so that won't cut it.**
John: (Settles into another long think) I shoot the snake with my bow. (Waits for confirmation before rolling a dice)
Me: Cool, go for it.
Jane(who is trapped by the serpent): Eeep!!
John: (Rolls) I hit!
Me: The arrow finds home and both the serpent and Jane are grievously injured.
John: Oh, I wouldn't have done that if I'd known.

Outcome

This kind of drawn out turn gets old quickly. Other players have mentioned it as a major PITA. I have talked to the player, but nothing ever comes from it (He says 'Sure, I understand', but takes long turns regardless).

Questions

Should I introduce stalling (where after a period of time the player misses his turn as his character panics and freezes)?

And if so, do I need a prop, such as an egg timer, to keep track of how long a player has?

Should all players use the timer so John doesn't feel picked on?

Or is there a better approach to dealing with slow players?



* A generic name, not the actual name of my player. I find it better to use player name instead of character name until players are very familiar with their character name and respond quickly to it.
**I hate being the jerk who says 'No'.

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Related: Speeding Up Combat –  BESW Mar 19 at 12:04
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I think the GS/BS should probably be getting enforced strongly here: speak from experience and back up your answers. Experience tells you how well a technique works and whether it will work. If you haven't tried it, your solution might just suck. –  Jonathan Hobbs Mar 20 at 3:13
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Agreed - questions not coming from experience per Good Subjective, Bad Subjective are bad answers and should be downvoted and/or flagged for deletion. Here on RPG.SE we don't want your opinion, we want your expertise. –  mxyzplk Mar 20 at 11:42
    
Related: How do I help a player who struggles with a tactics-focused character? - may be a relevant issue –  Jonathan Hobbs Mar 21 at 11:17
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@link64 the letters PIT stand for "pain in the". –  Ryan Reich Mar 23 at 19:50

8 Answers 8

up vote 26 down vote accepted

As Marshall said, you need to find out why John takes so long to choose an action. There are several possible reasons, and each calls for slightly different handling.

1. John is nervous, shy, or otherwise has trouble speaking unless prompted.
In this case, the best thing you can do is to have a set of verbal prompts to help him convey his actions quickly. For example, "John, it's your turn. Do you attack, or cast a spell?" Then when he answers, follow up with, "Okay, do you attack this monster, or that one?" This narrows down his possibilities and makes it easier for him to respond.

I will sometimes do this with my novice players, when a combat is complicated and they aren't sure what they should be doing.

2. John is trying to figure out, and choose from, a long list of possible actions and consequences.
In this case, something like an egg timer would help - and yes, you should use it for all players, so that John doesn't feel singled out. I started doing this to handle a couple of my tactically-minded players. The whole group had a discussion about how in game, the characters have to make decisions very quickly. They can't sit there and say to each other, "Well, if you move here and use this ability, then I can go over there and attack that monster, and Jane can take down this guy...".

So all my players have exactly one minute to begin taking their actions. I don't limit them to having to finish their turn in one minute, just because D&D 4e turns can necessitate taking longer than that, but if your system is simpler, then imposing a total time may work better than a start time.

3. John hasn't been paying attention to the game until now, and needs time to catch up on the action.
This is most obvious if John is fiddling on a cell phone, laptop, or other distracting task when it's not his turn. An egg timer used by the group would also help here, but the root cause is that John is distracted, and you need to remove the distraction.

In that case, you can explain that electronic devices are not allowed at the table (I've had to do this, and my players have been very understanding). Or, if your group uses digital character sheets or other material, speak with John privately and tell him that he needs to stop playing games/texting/whatever at the game table, and that if the behavior continues, you will assume that he has better things to be doing than your game, and ask him not to come back (this is very harsh, but if he's too busy doing other things to really participate in the game, then it may be for the best).

If John is really just absent-minded/easily distracted, your group is chatty, or something else that you can't control is making it hard for him to follow the game, you can also try an on-deck system. Call out the name of the person whose turn it is, and the name of the person whose turn it is after, e.g., "Jane, your turn. John, you're on deck." That way, he has a little extra time to begin planning his turn.

TL;DR: Find out why John is taking so long to finish his turns. Tailor your response to the root cause, by prompting him with options, limiting his thinking time using a group-wide egg timer, and/or removing distractions and using an on-deck initiative system.

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I like that "on deck" suggestion. I'm going to start using it. –  Greenstone Walker Mar 20 at 3:31
    
I missed case 3, the distracted and chatty. I agree the "on deck" warning may be very useful in this cases. –  Marshall Mar 20 at 5:17
    
+1 for the on-deck suggestion. Thanks for the answer! –  Conor Pender Mar 20 at 10:38
    
@Conor Pender: Glad to help! If you feel like one of these answers solved your problem, please mark that answer as accepted so that other users know what worked for you! :) –  thatgirldm Mar 21 at 3:26

If it is an issue for you and the other players, you certainly can introduce a mechanic to force the players to play on a certain time constraint. He is impersonating a character under pressure, it might be positive for role-play to feel the pressure himself.

When players take too long to act, or I feel they are stalling, I usually give them in-game clues that if they take too long things will keep happening while they are discussing it, as to make them decide.

Since we are in combat and a turn usually takes around 6s, it is reasonable to assume that a player has to decide in an equivalent short period of time what to do.

If we are conducting an introductory group, questions about how mechanics work usually are discounted from the time to think though, since there are several goals at bay, like teaching and demonstrating the game.

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Welcome to the site! Please take a look at the tour and the help; they're a useful introduction to the site. And once you have 20+ rep, feel free to join the chat! It's an interesting answer, but time limits can backfire with less experienced players, who need time work through their options. Some players need advice more than pressure. –  Tridus Mar 19 at 13:09
    
What kind of equivalent short period would you suggest? –  Jonathan Hobbs Mar 20 at 4:50

Don't let him think so long

The suggestions to figure out why he is taking so long are absolutely great; there might be some underlying problem (my money is on analysis paralysis, possibly combined with distracedness). But personally I'm also of the opinion that you simply shouldn't let him take that much time. If he doesn't do anything, his character doesn't do anything this turn. I don't think you need a timer for that; just say, whenever someone is just quiet on his own turn, say: "You're in combat, things are moving fast. There's no time for a thorough analysis; something needs to be done now." Maybe ask what he's thinking about, what he wants to accomplish, point out a few pressing issues. But he needs to make a call now, or his character will stand around panicking or confused or otherwise unable to act. If the system allows delayed actions (like D&D 3.5), allow him a delayed action so he can jump in as soon as he's made up his mind.

Yes, this is harsh, but it also gives him a strong incentive to step up. And more importantly, slowing down an often already cumbersome process like combat, can hurt everybody's enjoyment of the game. Sometimes making mistakes fast is more fun than slowly analysing the perfect choice. And the quicker he acts, the quicker he gets feedback, and the faster he gains personal experience that will help him make better choices in the future. It doesn't have to be perfect right now, but try to improve.

If he's a new or slowly learning player, help him out a bit with some suggestions of possible actions. Allow other players to help him out. If he's wondering about some special rule, look it up together. You're here to have fun together, and he's part of that, but in the end, it's also his responsibility to move combat along. And if he doesn't, the GM has to.

Analyse the actual problem

Of course there's a reason why he's so slow. My bet is on analysis paralysis (trying to analyse all possible options and their consequences, and getting stuck keeping track of all the possibilities), to which the answer is: don't let him do that.

Maybe he needs to do his homework and analyse his character's abilities and useful combat options outside the game, so once in the game, he knows what he can do. And it is possible that nothing you can do really fits the situation. (I've got a Pathfinder wizard who sometimes has 5 spells he needs to cast right away, and sometimes there's just nothing useful he can contribute. It happens.) Sometimes doing something small and useless makes a lot of sense from the character's perspective.

Maybe the situation really is that complex and it requires some thorough analysis. Let him do it out loud, so others can remember details for him or help him along. "I could cast this spell, but I'm not sure it'll do anything against this creature. Should I shoot with my bow instead? Is there a chance I'll hit the character the monster is strangling?"

Let him play a simple character. Saying "I hit it with my axe," every round is not terribly inspiring, but if he has trouble dealing with more complex options, giving him less options to choose from can help.

If he's simply not planning ahead, not thinking about his next action in other players' turns, and surprised when it's his turn, explain that he should start thinking about his next action the moment his turn ends. Admittedly paying attention to what others are doing is also valuable, and planning his own action might distract from that, but his own responsibility is primarily to decide his own character's actions. If he has trouble with that, he should focus on that first. If he's paying attention to what others are doing, fine, as long as he does it with an eye on what he is going to contribute to that with his next action. Wasting time on stuff unrelated to his next action is unacceptable. Let someone else get the drinks, pet the cat, and handle all the other chores that come up during the game. He needs to focus on his next action.

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Since you're touching on this it might be worthwhile adding: analysis paralysis could be helped by putting something in front of him with his options. He stares off into space; he might be better off with something to stare at. –  Jonathan Hobbs Mar 21 at 11:10

I'd try to learn what makes him take that long.

Is he introverted or not enough self confident? If so, I wouldn't bet pressing on him will do any better. I'd encourage him to speak out what alternatives he might be considering and help him make a decision.

But, if you know he's just considering the billion possible outcomes, I'd first try something like saying "it's squeezing her more and more as you think..." and if he still takes too much time, make him loose his turn. Of course, to be fair, same rule must apply for all, so you may feel more confident using the hourglass.

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Have you done this, and what effect has it had on peoples' behaviour? –  Jonathan Hobbs Mar 20 at 12:39

My brother has a very similar issue, and in trying to get him involved in games, we've had to come up with strategies to help him respond faster. While I will try to keep this system agnostic, some of these will work better in certain systems, or rely on certain features of systems. Take what will work for your table. Note: My brother's main reason for such slow responses is a sense of anxiety- about half general social anxiety, and about half fear of screwing up.

First, we find it helps to have a list of actions he can take. He loves D&D 4th edition because most turns, he can pick a power and a target and just roll dice. It's even better when he plays a defined role in the party (like striker) since he can get pretty far with "Pick the biggest attack, aim at the biggest target, fire!" (Actually, having a party discussion of tactics can help- If he knows what he should be focused on (hurting the big guy, or blasting groups of minions, or placing aspects to back everyone else up) he may be able to come up with how to do that faster.) Yeah, he's not taking advantage of the subtle tactics or complexities of the system, but he's having fun and he can do those simple choices quickly. In more open ended games, we (and by we, I mean me and him, sometimes with the DM) make a list of moves that are usually good ideas. Ask your player if he'd like a small list of things he can do, maybe with a character that reinforces that. (D&D 3.5 fighters come to mind.) When playing FATE, we made power cards that he can pick from. (Got the idea for that from an answer on this site actually.)

Second, we find he's much more relaxed when there's a default action in place. If he stalls to long, I assume he defaults to this. In FATE, it's a maneuver for a relatively easy "Encouragement" aspect. D&D, it might be "Cast Cure *Wounds on most injured ally." Oddly, when we introduced this, we wound up needing it less; For him, the problem is often that he feels under pressure. Since there is less pressure, it's easier for him to answer.

If you can, get someone else in the party (or yourself, if you're a player) to regularly make entertaining but wrong moves. As the wizard, when a monster gets up in your face, freak out amusingly and start whacking it with your staff. See just how much trouble you can get into on a Carouse. Pull the pin on a stun grenade and drop into the midst of the Telestrian security forces, only to get caught in the blast radius yourself. While I find these mishaps amusing for their own sake, it can really take the pressure off someone worried about making a mistake to know that it still won't be worse than the party tank charging into battle butt naked because he got interrupted during a bath.

Lastly, whenever possible I run his character 'rules blind'. That is, he tells me what he wants his character to do in the story, and I (or the DM) figure out the numbers behind it. The important thing here for him is I (or the DM) edit out 'wrong' answers. This greatly relieves the above fear of goofing up, and takes half the load off his plate. If this player does not have system mastery, this tends to make them feel more accomplished- Their character more often succeeds at what they're trying to do.

With such a player, I would strongly advise against putting any additional time pressure on him- especially a visible and public kind like a ticking clock. Badgering them (yes, I know you need to keep the game going, but to him it may feel like badgering) to make a choice now is only going to exacerbate the problem. If the initiative system allows, let him hold his turn and think about it, or flip quickly to another character and back. Depending on the player/party, instigating little bits of in character banter may help or hinder- Sometimes it's distracting, other times the other players (in character) can request help with whatever they're doing. Aid Another or Teamwork are perfectly valid things to do.

TL;DR: Make a list of good actions, pick one as the default, make it clear a fun but wrong answer now is better than a right answer in five minutes, handle the rules for them as much as you can, and don't put more pressure on someone already not answering fast enough.

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From your description, it sounds like John is a new player since he doesn't know the possible consequences of his actions. If so, in addition to the above suggestions, I would speak to him outside of the game to see if you can help him. Maybe give him a tutorial about the game and possible consequences of actions (e.g., firing into melee or attacking a grappled opponent may cause damage to a PC).

Additionally, there are some games and character types easier to play than others. John may want to play a magic wielding character, but doesn't know his spells or effects. Also, some gaming systems are more complex than others. It might be better to start a game using a easier game, than one that is very complex.

Finally, you may wish to let another player assist him in making his decisions. You may rotate this job during your game depending on initiative to allow the player going 2 spots before/after John to help him so that they have sufficient time to think of their own PC's actions or have someone outside of the game help him.

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I once had a similar issue, and I used an egg timer. It had the desired effect, and I was able to disguise it. I don't think the problem player even had a clue that s/he was the reason for the timer being inmplementd.

I presented it to the players as a tool to make combat more realistic. Since each round was 6 seconds long in the system we were using, I colored the timer as a way to make combat happen at a pace that was closer to what the characters were experiencing.

I gave each player 30 seconds to declare her/his action. If the timer went off and the player had not begun declaring, her/his character lost the initiative for the round. To add to this, I encouraged tactical table-talk to help players prepare for their turns.

Once I fully explained the rules surrounding the timer, I let the players vote for its implementation. There was only one vote against, and surprisingly, it was not the problem player.

The player that voted against made a valid point. Sometimes more rules can make a game less fun for some players. I totally understand this perspective. In fact, this mechanic just may not work with some groups.

I think the key to the success of my timer implementation was associating it with the "reality" of the game and giving the players the ability to choose if it was used or not.

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How I've always handled it:

New player--you help them out.

Experienced player--when it's their turn I expect an action or else a request for clarification of the situation. After answering a clarification I'll give them a little time to think.

If they don't say what they're going to do in a few seconds they're delaying (including the change to the initiative order), I go on to the next person and I'll check back after dealing with that person's turn. Again, act or delay.

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