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My party's encounters (D&D4e - 13th level) take on average 3-4 hours. We chit chat a lot and are pretty easily distracted, and it's not a huge deal because we're all having fun. But lately we've been discussing strategies to push through encounters a little faster.

Two ideas that came up were:

  • Assign each player a monster or two to keep track of (HP, conditions, initiative, etc)

  • Assign each player a task (all monster hp, all monster conditions, all monster initiatives, etc)

Does anyone have experience with either of these? Which is more effective in keeping people engaged when it isn't their turn?

What other tasks can a GM delegate to players that will keep everyone focused?

The reason I ask specifically for delegatable (that's a word now) tasks, rather than just ways to speed up combat, is that one of our biggest problems is player distraction. My goal is to get everyone more involved, not just simplify things for the GM.

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6 Answers

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I delegate rules questions. I still handle rules interpretations, but a large amount of rules questions can be handled by that one player who reads all the books for fun. As an added bonus, this also occupies your rules lawyer and gives him something to do.

I've seen initiative get delegated. In that particular case we had a white board for initiative and it was on display so all the players could see their turns come up. I don't think this offered any benefit over using index cards and calling out current player and next player. But it's another option.

Players track their own buffs and bonuses. If the bard uses a power to grant CA against a certain enemy, it's up to the bard to tell players to remember to take CA when they attack that enemy. I like this option because it gives players something to do when it isn't their turn and because it reminds support characters how useful they are. Letting the bard reinforce that the CA bonus was the difference between a hit and a miss makes the bard feel useful even if he didn't hit anything himself that round.

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Delegating rules look-ups has saved me quite a lot of time. Tom is my rules guy, and he has a copy of PHB (and now Compendium) with lots of flags for relevant sections. It's probably the best time-saver of all the delegation I've done. –  rjbs Apr 26 '11 at 21:30
    
We're now using a whiteboard for initiative tracking. It's helped a lot! We got through 2 combats in 1 session! We also have small magnetic colored pins to stick to each player's initiative token so that when it's your turn you are reminded of all conditions that are present on you. –  dpatchery Apr 28 '11 at 18:37
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Your suggestions both make sense and I have seen them work well at the table; our group breaks it down this way:

  1. One player tracks initiative and gives updates like: Character X is up, Character Y is on deck and Character Z is in the hole;
  2. One player tracks (i.e., adds or removes the magnetic disks beneath the miniature) all conditions, both player and monster; and
  3. One player (usually playing a leader-healer) tracks player hit points and healing surges (each player is still responsible for tracking his own) because it is nice for the leader to look at his or a chart and decide whether to heal or wait.

There are other various odd jobs like having a paper towel handy to erase zones and so forth on the map; this job doubles as bartender for any drink spills.

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This is only sort of delegating, but it is definitely a speed improvement (which I believe is the true intent of the question). Our group does what we call "Simultaneous Combat." This involves some rules changing, but the speed increase is worth it for us!

We do group initiative, which has its pros and cons, but it is necessary for the system to work. The team with the highest initiative goes first, and it cycles through teams from there (many ways to calculate the "highest initiative", but you can use the max for simplicity). If fast players feel slighted, you can give the fastest player a free "surprise round" move action or something.

Each team's turn goes something like this:

  1. Questions: if anyone needs to ask anything, do it now.
  2. Callouts: each person can say up to one sentence (ex. "Cover the flank!" or "Heal coming your way!"
  3. Actions: Go around the table and each player on the team announces what they are about to do ("I go attack that goblin!").
  4. Rolls: Everyone rolls attack and damage (or whatever). Go around the table and each player announces their rolls (something along the lines of "18 to hit for 6 damage").
  5. Results: The DM announces what happens. (At least in 3.5,) each round is supposed to be "6 seconds" in which everyone is acting at the same time, so if two people attack a creature, it doesn't die from one of their blows, they both kill it together.

Then any other summarizing is done.

The main improvement is that everyone does their math at once and that everyone is constantly involved. Before, everyone spent a lot more time chatting in between their turns (it could take a couple minutes to get around the circle and through the enemies). Some people had trouble refocusing ("uh... what happened since last turn?").

This took our combats down from 3 hours to about ~1.5, so it really worked for us. Let me know if you try it and how it works!

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That's an interesting approach, but it seems like it would be brutal on the DM. If you have 5 monsters and 5 players, the monsters will still all be calculated in serial... It might be interested to see how this works with a DM assistant that could do some of the attacking. Also, how do you work moving, does everyone move minis at once, or do you just do abstract short/mid/long range combat and forgo tactical (which would make this tough to implement in 4e) –  Bill K Apr 25 '11 at 4:31
    
P1: As you mention, the problem for the DM is "calculation." Ours uses a dice app that does most of the math for him, which minimizes the problem. –  user1637 Apr 25 '11 at 13:19
    
P2: (Note: We did this in 3.5, so there might be some changes you'd have to make.) Attacks of opportunity take place in between 3.Actions and 4.Rolls. If anyone is knocked unconscious/halted/etc, they don't move. Otherwise, moves are resolved and step 4(Rolls) takes place. I don't know if this method would work for everyone - there are some situations that you lose flexibility. In our case, we felt that the speed and fun outweighed the costs. –  user1637 Apr 25 '11 at 13:28
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Let me turn that around. What GM tasks cannot be delegated to players?

In the classic D&D GM role, the only tasks that must be held by the GM are hidden information: what is behind the door, what is in the next room, what does he have in his pocketses. An overtaxed GM could delegate anything else.

You'll find advice in the Dungeon Master Guide 2 that recommends delegating to players certain GM activities, including making up fictional content ("As you crest the field, you see... Bob, what do you see?").

Ask players to take notes for you. Have them look up rules. Look up monsters. Get them to play NPCs. Ask them to inject creativity into the world-building. If the group gets split up for some reason, let the unoccupied half play the monsters in combats. Really, there's very little that you can't delegate to the players.

Just make sure you're not regularly asking them to play their own opposition, or role-play with themselves. That's generally not fun for anyone.

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What tasks cannot be delegated is classic "how to delegate" advice. Determine the smallest set of things that you can't delegate without ceasing to perform your job/function/role/whatever. Then start to delegate everything else. Some stuff you'll take back because you do it better, or it's better if you do it. But that's ok, as now you know. –  Simon Withers Nov 3 '11 at 1:18
    
+1 for the rules piece - there's almost always one rules lawyer at the table (usually me), and why not have them working for you? :) –  Allen Gould Oct 7 '13 at 22:04
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Is there a particular reason that you're only considering actions that can be delegated to the players? Here's a few more techniques that don't do that exactly, but help speed up encounters:

  • After a round or two of combat, display an index card with the monster name, AC, REF, FORT,and WILL (not the powers, attacks, or traits).
  • Have players roll attacks and damage dice together in a single roll (combined with the monster info above, they can resolve the combat themselves.
  • Use over-the screen initiative markers to always make it clear who's up next.
  • Grant combat bonuses (+1 attk/dmg) to players who declare their action within 5 seconds of calling their name in the round. [Helps keep attention on the combat.]
  • Run two characters (with adjacent init) at a time.
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I'm open to all suggestions, but the idea was to both lighten the load on the GM and give the players something to do when it isn't their turn so we don't get distracted with side conversations. –  dpatchery Apr 21 '11 at 17:42
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+1: Even if not really pertinent to the question, I really loved the bonus for fast action declaration. Eviler DM might introduce a penalty if the action is not declared within a specified amount of time (most often is skipping the whole turn). –  Erik Burigo Apr 29 '11 at 8:49
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Not sure if you are already doing it, but a DM helper like Incombat can be a huge boon to the DM obviously its not a player assist but it can be helpful in tracking initiative and monster HP.

As far as what the players can do: appoint one player to look up rules, if there is minor rules dispute the DM can rule, if its major and can wait table it while the appointed player looks up the ruling. Another suggestion (and this is the one my group uses) is to have someone write down any rules questions that come up. The DM makes the decision, any disagreements are noted and researched next time.

Have one player enforce time limits. Our group used this for a few sessions when we felt bogged down. We used a 2 minute time allotment for PCs, the DM was not held to a timer. We attached hypothetical penalties to being late, but no one ever ran into them. The pressure of the timer is great for simulating having to be quick on your feet in the middle of battle. You will probably find that after a few session of the timer you are all thinking quicker and its not as big of a deal anymore.

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+1: Even if not really pertinent to the question, the presence of a timer naturally speeds up things. –  Erik Burigo Apr 29 '11 at 8:52
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