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Recently I was GMing a D&D 5e party with my friends online, and for the most part we were having a good time, but in a recent session we hit a rather large speed bump. I had an easy encounter setup for them so that they could roll through the story arc fairly quickly. To my surprise the group spent almost an hour of play time to try and think of ways to trick this enemy group with illusions. One person in particular seemed to think that they had to think their way out of the box instead of handling the encounter in front of them. Let's call him Tom (not his real name). Tom is a fighter and likes to be a strategist of a sort. He wants to out-maneuver the enemies 9 times out of 10 instead of actually fighting things.

It's a valid play style. But this encounter was set up with an easy difficulty because we've had a lot of deadly difficulty encounters before that and have since wanted quicker combat. The enemies in question were some fishmen and their high priest who had captured the captain of the ship they purchased passage on in order to reach a new town. I had thought the fear of the captain being harmed would propel them to take quick action which is why the combat was set to an easier difficulty. I wanted them to feel like combat would be quick since they had just gained levels and were using some new spells.

Tom wanted the bard to cast a spell Tom knew about because it had been used before (Phantasmal Force) in order to trick their high priest into making a pseudo-god. The bard (Let's call him Frank) refused because Frank was skeptical of the plan. So then a very long winded discussion between the Fighter(Tom), the Monk, and the Bard took place. Eventually Tom and the Monk started their own conversation about the plan leaving the rest of the party just standing around.

(They could have this lengthy conversation because combat hadn't started yet and the enemy wasn't aware of them: the party at the time were being stealthed by the Shadow Monk's ability. They had used Shadow Arts to cast Pass Without a Trace.)

Eventually Frank decided to take matters into his own hands and casted Hypnotic Pattern on the enemy group. This caused infighting among the players because the Fighter and the Monk wanted to come up with a super-clever plan that was way over the top and unnecessary to the encounter. The Bard was tired of being ignored by the two players who were the only ones having fun devising a stratagem. The Cleric and Druid were basically checking their phones in the meantime while they had nothing to do during this whole hour.

So to my question:

What could I have done differently to make this encounter more enjoyable for everyone instead of an hour of discussion / infighting?

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Can you explain how the Shadow Monk was stealthing the party? It's not obvious from looking at its abilities in the PHB what ability you mean, and it could be relevant to answers. – SevenSidedDie Jan 29 at 19:22
    
@SevenSidedDie I believe they were using their ability Shadow Arts to cast Pass Without Trace – QuestionMarcs Jan 30 at 1:12
    
Really! Huh, checking it now, I see that spell does way more than I'm used to it doing from previous editions. I noticed it in the Shadow Monk's ability but didn't even consider it might have been the source of the stealthing. – SevenSidedDie Jan 30 at 1:18
    
The added +10 to any stealth based checks really covers a lot of ground. – QuestionMarcs Jan 30 at 1:20
up vote 26 down vote accepted

First off, these things sometimes happen. If this is a one-off occurrence, I wouldn't be too concerned: people sometimes get it into their heads that they need to do something "weird" for no good reason. I was playing in an In Nomine game as an angel who could possess people/animals; I somehow decided that I needed a monkey, and we spent about as long planning a zoo heist (that never happened).

So, one-off: don't worry too much.

If this is a more common event, or if it looks like it might be (Tom sounds like he might encourage this kind of "weird strategy" thinking), there are a couple of things that have been helpful in my games:

  1. talk to the "problem" player(s): remind them nicely (and privately) that there are other players who need to be included in the action and the planning. yes, this is the default answer to anything with the problem-players or problem-gm tags; it's the default answer for a reason.

  2. remind the players that time is passing in-game. In this particular example, while Tom and Frank were discussing what to do with the interlopers, the captain could be struggling against his bonds, the captors could be rummaging around the cargo hold, a sailor could be whimpering behind a crate. As the planning session goes on, the captors might get more violent, roughing up a sailor who gets in their way. D&D does encourage some "free action" tactics talk among the players, but time does flow.

  3. if they still don't get the hint, a brigand could actually accost the PCs: demanding money, ordering them around, etc.. Roll for initiative! And, remember that the brigands are totally getting a surprise round (are those still a thing in 5E? Sorry, my experience is almost all 3.5/PF). I'd encourage relaxing some of the rules about how long talking-type resolutions take (or, at least, suspend initiative if someone rolls well enough to warrant a brief cease-fire), but there comes a point where conflict is inevitable (this is a good thing: the whole point of RPGs is resolving conflict) and the PCs can't just talk amongst themselves any longer.

  4. alternatively, poll the players to see if they want to continue with strategy or move into action. Tom and Frank can talk about tactics all they want, but if the cleric steps in to stop the pirates from harming their ship's captain, Tom and Frank will have to respond. This can backfire! Tom and Frank can be angered by the cleric acting "before they're ready"; therefore, I encourage mixing this in with #2: "Tom and Frank are whispering about what to do; Cleric: you see the brigands roughing up the sailor; Druid: they're dumping something unpleasant from the hold into the bay. What do you do?"

I'd personally be hesitant to actually use one, but I've seen suggestions to use a small hourglass (a 30-60 second timer) to let the players discuss how to respond to a new situation before in-game time resumes. The in-universe logic being that the PCs have been traveling together for long enough that they can quickly communicate how to respond to violence with a subtle gesture, where the players need to actually talk.

You'll have to be a little careful to not step on Tom's fun in planning intricate strategy, but that's relatively easy: make sure that there are plenty of encounters where the PCs know what's coming far enough ahead that they can talk for a few minutes in-game before the enemies know they're there.

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The use of time passing ingame is absolutely key here. Design your encounters so the situation can't afford to be argued over for hours and the players will soon get the message. The important thing is to be transparent though and give plenty of warnings that things are getting worse as time goes on – Wibbs Jan 28 at 16:26
    
I absolutely loved the part about the passage of in game time. Very helpful. I take place in a session with 6 other people. Yes, that's right...there's 7 of us.... the discussion period can sometimes get out of hand...... This can go a long way to solving that. – Airatome Jan 28 at 22:22
    
If the players persist in over negotiating then have something bad happen like the captain be killed during their negotiations. It will send a message that the enemy are not at the PCs beck and call. If the players react badly assure them you are not taking a second for second clock but spending hours negotiating leaves ample time for the enemy to do as they please. – rom016 Jan 29 at 14:57

Players taking a long time to figure out what to do is a depressingly common problem. It happens a lot when facing simple fights, because the players are pretty sure you have a nasty surprise waiting for them.

The thing is, you're the Game Master. That means that you're responsible not just for running the game world and its denizens, but the game itself. If things are not going as you want them to, change things to make interesting stuff happen. Don't be overly constrained by the original setup. You wanted a quick fight to move the plot along.

My usual tactic is to force the situation. Have the fishmen start torturing prisoners, or moving out to find more, towards the group. Force the players out of planning and into doing.

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I can see several issues with this situation:

  1. One of the most common problem: different expectations. For game and for fun.
  2. Players involvement.
  3. Abundance of time.

First. Expectations of fun. You may have heard that a DM should talk with players and know what kind of fun they expect. When this problem occurs many will suggest using Same page tool. This is a very useful tool and it helps with understanding what kind of game will be played. But apart from general expectations I want to put emphasize on a different point of view considering combat fun.

All thoughts are from this great article.

There are 2 types of combat.

  • Combat as Sport:

People who want Combat as Sport want fun fights between two (at least roughly) evenly matched sides. They hate “ganking” in which one side has such an enormous advantage (because of superior numbers, levels, strategic surprise, etc.) that the fight itself is a fait accompli. They value combat tactics that could be used to overcome the enemy and fair rules adhered to by both sides rather than looking for loopholes in the rules.

  • Combat as War

They like combat in which in a lot of fights, you know who was going to win before the fight even starts and a lot of the fun comes in from using strategy and logistics to ensure that the playing field is heavily unbalanced in your favor. The greatest coup for these players isn’t to win a fair fight but to make sure that the fight never happens (the classic example would be inserting a spy or turning a traitor within the enemy’s administration and crippling their infrastructure so they can’t field a fleet) or is a complete turkey shoot.

These are two extremes. Of course in real life, some games can mix these types and some players can enjoy either styles.

You should think about it: maybe your Fighter and Monk want Combat as War gameplay. That may not be very rough, but they will enjoy outsmarting enemies, rather than overcome them in a fair fight. And because of that, such a simple encounter was used to get this kind of fun: having the players totally dominating enemies by preparation and cunning strategies.

Second. Player involvement. This is an issue you have if the Druid and Cleric preferred phones over the game. They decided to leave the situation to other players judgement. This is not good for the game. And it's up to you to enforce player's engagement. Ask them to put away their phones and any other distracting things during session. But also don't forget to manage the spotlight: stop the most active players for a minute and remind them that there are other group members who may have something to say.

Third. Time abundance. In the end I think the main reason this encounter wasn't fun: because there was no hurry. You said it yourself:

I had thought the fear of the captain being harmed would propel them to take quick action which is why the combat was set to an easier difficulty.

And instead they used all the time they had to make a plan. And they had plenty. You should remind them that discussing also takes time and when they waste time something might just happen. And you had already prepared a tool for yourself: hostage captain.

What you could've done:

After several minute discussing the plan.

DM: Perception check!

Players rolls. Party succeeds.

DM: You have noticed that one of the villains moved to the captain. Look like he is up to no good.

Players: Oh, no! We have to act!

Whoops! Time is up! Use whatever plan you managed to come up with and save the poor captain... well or just leave him to suffer. It's players call after all.

Resource limitations add dynamics and tension to the game. Time is one of the most precious resources and you can manage it freely at a global scale (7 days until doom ritual will be finished) or local scale ("hey, that fisherman is going to break captain's fingers just for fun! We gotta to save as many fingers as possible!").

So, to wrap up:

  1. Consider what kind of combat players want to have: fair head to head fight, or cunning plans in order to win the fight before it starts.
  2. Engage your players into the game. Manage the spotlight.
  3. You can manage many resources in the game. Use it to stimulate players to act.
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+1 Good answer. Regarding the Abundance of Timer issue, IMO when it comes to exciting and tense combat encounters the key is to throw out the initiative and turn-taking & just start announcing actions/moving miniatures on the grid and rolling dice. – RobertF Jan 28 at 19:29

So many answers and nobody mentions the obvious meta- game solution:

Guys, you're overthinking this. The situation is X, you've talked your plan to death. What do you do?

You are the game master and, yes you can agonise over immersion and in-game solutions or you can remember that you are actually playing a game and it's OK to push the players as well as the characters.

Of course you can just force the issue:

Times up, roll initiative.

... and move to turn based play. As a way of keeping this moving, give each person a reasonable time (10-20 seconds) to state their action or they default to Dodge as their character is paralysed by indecision for this 6 second round.

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Situations like this I like to solve in one of two ways, well three if you count the one I do not like.

  1. Make the situation more urgent

    They obviously need the captain alive and able to run his ship. So anything that threatens his safety should help prompt them to actions. The captors could be preparing to hang the captain and the characters see them fastening the noose. they could be torturing him, they would hear screams from the place where the captain is being held "No! No! not my hand i can't even sail with out that." They could send someone to fetch the constables so he would be imprissoned in a place where it is much much harder to get him out, you only have about 20 rounds before they arrive.

    Clear reference to the amount of time left before the window of opportunity dissapares helps.

  2. Make something blow up

    This is a good option when things are moving slowly. I do not necessary mean for there to be an explosion, but have something happen that they are forced to react to. There is a pickpocket running of with Franks +1 dagger, a woman is getting beat up next door and the paladin has to go save her.

  3. Use the rules

    I do not like this solution but it works. Frank, Tom please roll contested persuasion. You won Frank, what did you just convince Tom to go along with? Ok lets do it.

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Sometimes my players get involved in planning and discussion and they seem to be having fun. As long as everyone is having fun I'm happy to let it go on.

If it looks like people are getting irritated, or like they're tuning out the conversation because they don't think it's productive, what I do is I directly step in and ask for a vote.

I go around the table once and ask each player, in one sentence, to tell me what they think the party should do. Then I go around the table one more time and ask each player to vote for one option. (DM gets to break ties.) Once we have a winning option I tell them that's what the party does.

I don't think this would work for every group. Some groups are explicitly interested in intra-party infighting, forming player coalitions, PvP combat et cetera. I don't want that in my game, and I've found this is a good way to get rid of it.

This doesn't happen very often -- maybe one in ten sessions.

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Using time limits IRL can be a solution, but that brings the issue of the disparity between how quick/clever the character is, and how quick the player is. A potential remedy is to limit a player's time based on their character's INT or some other stats.

For example, Bob, playing Smashy the Ork, gets 5 minutes to decide. Susan, playing Brainlord the Wizard, gets 10 minutes.

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Discussions make noise. Something might hear that noise. That something might decide to take advantage your distraction.

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Normally yes, but from the question: “They could have this lengthy conversation because combat hadn't started yet and the enemy wasn't aware of them: the party at the time were being stealthed by the Shadow Monk's ability.” – SevenSidedDie Jan 29 at 19:09
    
@SevenSidedDie The enemy didn't know--that doesn't mean something else didn't wander by. – Loren Pechtel Jan 29 at 19:13
    
Hm; looking at the PHB, I'm actually not sure what that part of the question is hinting at, so I'm now unsure whether something else could or couldn't detect them. I've asked for clarification. – SevenSidedDie Jan 29 at 19:23
    
@SevenSidedDie It would take some pretty strong magic to keep something walking down the corridor and through the party from noticing them. – Loren Pechtel Jan 29 at 20:37
    
Turns out it was Pass Without Trace. You could use its description of effects as part of the justification for this answer. (i.e., all it does is give a bonus to stealth checks, a loud argument isn't attempting to be stealthy, etc.) – SevenSidedDie Jan 30 at 1:20

Maybe you could limit the number of words they could say per turn? That is how the games I play in/DM work in combat...

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We don't really look for untested thoughts here, answering from real expertise is better - see the SO blog post "Good Subjective, Bad Subjective." – mxyzplk Jan 28 at 21:26
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Can you give some more details on how well this works, and how your groups deal with any downsides? – TuggyNE Jan 28 at 21:35

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