Combat at my table (5 players plus me, the GM) takes a long time. Even only moderately-complex combats usually take about an hour. I find myself wanting to end the session early if the group is about to get into a fight and there's only 30-45 minutes left. Having to plan around these big chunks of time is often quite frustrating, as I find myself unable to fit in all of the other stuff I want to do in the session. Worse, there's at least one player in my group who simply doesn't enjoy combat very much, and these long fight times mean that usually about half the session is not that interesting to him.

I'm not exactly sure what takes so long - I believe a combination of factors. When I've played in/run larger groups than 5 I've noticed a feedback loop of:

{longer between each player's turn} -> {players less engaged} -> {players pay less attention to the situation/planning their turn} -> {players' turns take longer} -> {longer between each player's turn}.

I suspect this is what's happening but to a less extreme degree than when there were 8 (!) of us.

Other factors:

  • One of the spellcasters is not all that familiar with his spells (relatively new player, introduced to a high-level campaign) - but combat was still slow before he joined the campaign.
  • Players discussing their actions with each other - I'm not certain how frequently this actually happens now that I try to remember, but it's at least some of the time.

So I want to speed up combat. What techniques could I use?

Techniques I already use:

  • I try to always give a heads-up to the next player down the initiative order as the current player's turn starts
  • In large combats, treat groups of weaker creatures as mobs ("ok, all 4 of them attack Bob" and roll attacks and damage together)
  • Encouraging players to make a decision if they are taking a long time to decide what to do
  • I produce cards for all the PC's active abilities and spells, to make it easier to look up what they can do

I am thinking already about:

  • Introducing a time limit on players declaring their actions during their turn. If you suggest a time limit, please include how long your experiences suggest it should be.
  • Incentivising players acting immediately
  • Physically sorting players by initiative order at the start of combat

To be clear, I think the problem is the length of a round, not the average number of rounds in the combats. It is usually resolved after 3-4, which I believe is normal. I build many of the combats with goals other than "kill the other side", and those that start with that goal usually end with a different objective (e.g. "flee, survive, and warn my allies"). I also subscribe heavily to the philosophy of "when the dramatic question is answered, end the scene". Once it's clear the group has achieved the objective, the combat ends (or shifts to another objective, usually "stop the enemies escaping").


8 Answers 8


Tools to add to your DM kit to keep combat moving

I suggest that you add three DM techniques to what you are already working with:

I try to always give a heads-up to the next player down the initiative order as the current player's turn starts

While that's nice of you to do that, and you can keep doing it (no need to stop), the players need to take responsibilities for their own actions and their own attentiveness. You have an entire opposed battle to run, they have one character.

  • Tool Number One: Increase Player Initiative Awareness

    Enhance the visual representation of initiative so that it's right in front of them with their name on it. See this answer for a number of awesome techniques to keep initiative accessible. These tools help.
    The passive initiative Quadratic Wizard suggested I've seen work at the table, but it depends on what skills and feats your PCs have, and if they are content to always be in the same turn order.

    You can have the players change seats with each initiative roll, so that you always go clockwise, or counter clockwise around the table to call on them, but how that is received is very table dependent. I have only seen this done successfully once; the other times players rolled their eyes and crack jokes about playing musical chairs or D&D.

In large combats, treat groups of weaker creatures as mobs ("Ok, all 4 of them attack Bob" and roll attacks and damage together)

While that can lead to bursty damage that may create other problems at low levels, there's no harm in doing this. This will help to speed up combat.

Encouraging players to make a decision if they are taking a long time to decide what to do.

You are smart to do this, but I'd take it a step further: don't encourage, require a decision. At some point, you tell the player to

  • "Make a decision; you have 151 seconds or you take the Dodge action and it's the next player's turn."

    I'll elaborate on this further down. This is the single most effective way I've seen to both speed up combat and increase the sense of urgency and danger.

I produce cards for all the PC's active abilities and spells, to make it easier to look up what they can do

That's awesome of you as DM to do that. Tools like this help to avoid delays. You can call on your players to create a handy reference tool for their character. (Player motivation on that varies greatly) Aside: I got a few of the 5e spell card packs from {that online river merchant} and they are very handy, particularly for new players.

Two More Tools that should help speed up combat.

  • Tool Number Two: Enforce a time limit, but allow two2 questions before a decision.

    • What's the point of the questions? The players need to make informed decisions, and you are their source of in-world information beyond the characters' declaring actions of telling each other what their are doing/have done. "How far is that ogre" or "Can I see the priest over there?" or "Do I see any other creatures next to that beholder?" are the kinds of information that the player needs to decide what to do on their turn. So too is a question like "Do you need help with that roper or not?" to an adjacent player.

    Applying this tool requires a new "session zero" before your next play session. The information that you are passing to your players is as follows:

    • You have to pay attention to combat; it comes at you fast and furious. A lot can happen in six seconds.
    • When it's your turn, be ready to tell me what you are doing. You get to ask two questions{2} before declaring an action. You can ask me, or another player, either of the questions.
    • If you don't make a decision within a brief time1 (10 sec, 15 sec, 30 sec) after the questions are answered, you take the Dodge action and it is the next player's turn.
    • There is no reason to ever miss your turn. If you pay attention to what's going on, and already have in mind an idea of what you are going to do, most of the time you won't have questions and when you do they will fit into the situation, and the decisions you are already thinking about making.

      I've seen this work in 5e as a player. I've used it as a DM in multiple editions. I learned it as a player from other DM's. When the DM began to count down "5, 4, 3, 2, 1..." decisions got made. Some great ones, some awful ones, and some memorable ones. (You threw the burning hay bale where?)
  • Tool Number Three: enlist the aid of a player to track things.

    Whenever we have done this, I've seen it speed up combat, particularly as groups got bigger. The trick to this is in asking a motivated player to help track things. Track initiative; track HP; call out the roll's result. Picking the player to do this is probably the hard part, as some players do not want to do this and they should not be forced to.

  • Tool Number Four (optional) that maybe helps: dice cups.

    Quadratic Wizard suggested rolling ahead of time, but this is slightly different than that - I've done this once successfully with new players who were junior high aged. (Different edition, same funny shaped dice).
    The use of dice cups I had learned playing drinking games / bar games with dice in the Navy.

    • The dice a player rolls are always in the cup. As you suggest, warn the player that their turn is next.
    • Player shakes up the dice in the cup vigorously, with one hand covering the opening.
    • The player then more or less slams the cup down on the table leaving the dice still covered by the cup.
    • The player then declares what they are doing, where, and to whom.

      This allows for quite a bit of description. (In this particular group it encouraged the narrative elements of role play).
    • The player then lifts the dice cup. The DM reads the dice, and then narrates the result.
  • Since I didn't use this in the current edition, this tool may or may not fit your table. In our case, it (1) helped to keep play moving, and (2) got the players to narrate what they are doing before we saw the dice results. Worth a try, but I can't guarantee it will work with your group.

1 Set the time limit to 15, 20, 30 seconds, or whatever (it helps to get player buy in on the time limit). Then stick to it.

2 You can allow 3 questions, or 1 question, but 2 is the number I've seen fit this best.


1. Use the morale system

Not all creatures fight to the death. The optional morale system (Dungeon Master's Guide p.273) has opponents roll a DC 10 Wisdom save whenever surprised, reduced to half hit points, unable to harm the PCs at all, their leader is reduced to zero hit points, or half their allies are killed (see DMG p.273 for the exact rules on this).

A creature who fails his save flees. If they cannot flee, they surrender. Morale was a bigger deal in earlier editions of D&D, where powerful or mindless creatures might be fearless, but weak enemies often fled. It comes from D&D 's wargaming roots, but it's useful to wrap up the combat when it's clear to both sides that the PCs are going to win.

2. Use more weaker creatures

Don't necessarily use one big challenge rating appropriate creature with a lot of hit points. Lots of small, weak creatures, even if below the party's standard challenge rating, will go down quickly.

3. Roll ahead of turn

Have players roll attack and damage ahead of their turn. When it comes to their turn, if they rolled low and certainly missed, they can simply say "I missed" and move on. If they hit, they can immediately state the damage value.

4. Use average damage for monsters

Have monsters use the average damage value. This saves you having to roll and add, which take time.

5. Hurry your players

There's a system I don't like where players are literally given six seconds (the traditional length of a combat round in D&D) to take their turn, but I find this too harsh. However, you do want to encourage players to hurry. Consider how gameshow hosts pressure indecisive contestants to give an answer because everyone's aware that they're on the clock.

This is an important one, because, as you mentioned, there's a certain threshold where if players' turns take too long, the other players become distracted. Once you speed up by a certain amount, the group will stay in formation.

Something I've tried that you want to avoid is forcing players to do their weakest at-will attack as punishment for not deciding their action quickly enough. This is something people used in 4th edition and it typically had the result of dulling the party's damage output, which only caused combat to take longer.

6. Reconsider miniatures

Consider using miniatures if you don't, or consider not using miniatures if you do.

For some groups, miniatures make it easier to see at a glance what the combat situation is, and keep the players focused. This might benefit your group if players frequently stop to ask questions about where someone is relative to someone else. You might use paper printed minis stood on bases (a digital gametable works well in online play also) and simply write the creature's damage score on the mini so everyone can see the damage value.

For some groups, miniatures just slow the game down as tactical positioning just adds another layer of decisionmaking. If this is your group's problem, try playing without miniatures instead and see if that works for you.

7. Use passive initiative

An optional rule in the Dungeon Master's Guide involves taking 10 + Initiative modifier rather than rolling 1d20 + Initiative modifier. This saves a small amount of time at the beginning of combat and helps ensure everyone always knows the initiative order within the party, so no players are surprised when their turn comes up.

8. Take the DM's turns more quickly

As DM, make sure your save as much time on your own turn as possible. Roll multiple monster attacks at the same time, learn your monster stats and rules and spell descriptions ahead of time, make temporary rulings on the spot to save looking things up in books, and hurry in general.

9. Know your players

Between sessions, learn all the rules for things your players use: their spells, class abilities, options the next time they level up, and so on. While these things are the player's responsibility to know, learning them as DM saves you having to ask when a player inevitably forgets how a spell works.

10. Pay careful attention to what takes the most time

Only you and your group know for certain how they play. Take careful analysis of what exactly causes your group to take longer than necessary. Do you have one particularly slow player? Do your players spend a lot of time rolling or adding dice? Only you can get to the source of the "slow".

Conversely, watch online D&D streams and compare their gameplay to your own. Time their combat rounds, the GM's response times, each player's turn, and so on. What does your group waste time on that the streamers don't? If other groups get along fine whle being faster at certain game elements, this suggests there's room in those places for your group to catch up.

11. Offer one-shot ways to deal more damage

A solution used in 4th edition which may work here is to create environmental effects and terrain features which the player characters can use to deal more damage than their basic melee or ranged attack. These reward players for their ingenuity and willingness to take risks, provide interesting variation, and importantly increase damage output which ends the combat faster.

Examples include deep pits you can push opponents into, traps or defensive features you can force the opponents into, tables full of alchemical components you can flip onto an enemy,

12. Lower the enemies' AC

Use enemies with a lower armor class, or reduce their armor class by a point or two. This reduces the number of times your players miss, which increases their rate of damage output, which ends the combat faster.

13. Have monsters take risks

If your monsters are halfway dead and haven't fled (perhaps they pass their morale check), perhaps they are reckless or brave, and will take unnecessary risks, which will cause them to take more damage and end the combat faster.

Examples include pushing past player characters hoping to get a flanking position (provoking opportunity attacks), leaping from high places (injuring themselves in the process), throwing away their heavy shield to fight two-handed (switch to a two-handed weapon like a longspear, use a one-handed weapon two-handed for better damage, draw a dagger to two-weapon fight, etc), or a caster switching from safe ranged spells to melee spells.

14. Post the creatures' stats openly

Track everyone's initiative, and the creatures' hit points, status effects and AC, on a whiteboard. I've used a fridge magnet to track initiative.

This has several benefits: Players are always aware of the initiative order. Players never have to ask "which enemy is most badly damaged?", "Does 15 hit?" or "Which of the bugbears is on fire?"

You can even outsource the whiteboard to one of the players, freeing you to think about monster actions or tactics or other things.

15. Offer Advantage and Inspiration frequently

Give the players more ways to gain Advantage (terrain, situational bonuses, optional flanking rules, Inspiration, etc). This not only rewards ingenuity and makes combat more interesting, it makes PCs miss less often, and so combats end sooner.

  • 13
    \$\begingroup\$ Rolling ahead of turn opens up a lot of metagaming, say, if you know you got a crit or rolled enough to hit a weaker creature but not the big guy. And it can create problems if you have them pick the creature beforehand, and then it dies or flees, and problem one resumes. \$\endgroup\$ Jun 20, 2018 at 13:25

There are two main reasons for slow combat:

  1. Overly analytical players.
  2. Lots of book-keeping.

The first one you can try solve by creating more urgent pressure on player taking too long by setting a (internal) time limit and just skipping their turn. This seems drastic, but you can soften it by narrating it – "The orc sees that you are frozen, unable to decide, and he takes the opportunity." Since this will teach them very effectively about certain time constraints, you shouldn't need to repeat this (and you shouldn't repeat it too much). The obvious downside is that it might seem to discourage strategical thinking at the table, so you should use this carefully.

This is simmilar to or maybe an implementation of Angry GM's Murky Mirror concept (strong language, good read), which might also help you.

The second one is actually multiple things:

  • The players might not be fully familiar with their characters/abilities. This may be solved with time and maybe some tools like little index cards for each useful thing the character has and can do explaining its usage.
  • It takes long to keep track of all the numbers, initiative, monster HP, turns of every goddarn goblin and such. This can be avoided by some little tricks. Matt Colville suggest for example letting the players keep track of damage, rolling all of the dice (attack + dmg) at once and also maybe designating a player to handle some of the less important monsters instead of the DM (interesting concept, might not be for every table).
  • They players do not pay attention or bicker instead of playing. I'm afraid I can't help with that, but I'm sure there have been some suggestions on handling problematic players. Certain parts of the Murky Mirror concept might help here.
  • \$\begingroup\$ Some of the information contained (not all of it) in this post requires additional references. Please edit to add citations to reliable sources that support the assertions made here or offer examples about your expertise and how it has worked out at your table. \$\endgroup\$
    – Akixkisu
    Jun 5, 2019 at 9:22

DM'ing for a group of 6 players atm and having faster combats than I had with my last table of 4 players, I have noticed some things that make (a lot) of difference. From your description, I'm understanding that they are taking too much time to decide; i.e., it's not a problem of not understanding what is happening. This answer assumes the players are able to track initiative and are aware of "what NPC is the more damaged", since you didn't mention these problems in the question.

Players only talk during their own turn - and only brief comments

This is literally stated in Other Activity on Your Turn

You can communicate however you are able, through brief utterances and gestures, as you take your turn.

Tactics (should be) are handled before the combat. Players discussing their actions with each other is, for me, the thing that takes most time in combat.

Players should be familiar with their features, modifier, etc.

I wouldn't have thrown a new player into a high-level campaign, but you did, so, ask that new player to carefully read their features and get more familiar with the character. This also will be solved with enough time, but if you feel it's urgent, that person simply has to "study" their character, so they don't take too much time to decide what they want to do and don't need to be constantly reading their sheets and trying to remember their modifiers and what that spell does.

Enforcing time limits

Some players in my group already have enough anxiety problems, so, in my case, I simply can't use it (and currently don't need to) - they will feel extremely uncomfortable. Talk to your players before enforcing a time limit. Losing your turn is a huge punishment and might have the opposite effect - making the players feel even less engaged in that combat. Some students see a low grade as "Welp, I need to study more", others see it as "I give up this class" - and you don't want the second.

Talk to them

Ask them to pay more attention. Make them notice how they are creating a snowball effect where they are taking longer and longer and making everything more boring. You can't do everything on your own - most of the time spent in a combat is up to the players; they are more responsible for the combat pace than you are, to be fair.

If it is taking too long, end it

Sometimes, the combat is taking too long simply because it is - either the rolls are bad and nobody is doing damage, or players are already tired and not being able to decide quickly, or whatever. As soon as the outcome of the combat is pretty clear (usually when the players have some overwhelming advantage over the enemy side), end it. Enemies surrender, flee, or start crying and beg for forgiveness. You mention you are making them flee and creating chase scenes - this is simply more combat, though, with the exception that one side is not attacking. Fast forward it to either "the enemy was able to flee" or not.

If the allies from "Warn my allies" decide to come and start a new combat, that's essentially the same combat with reinforcements, which makes the combat even longer. Players didn't have time to concentrate again. Their mental exhaustion is still high. They need a drastic change in what they are doing - usually back to roleplay.


Descriptive enthusiasm

As the GM, you stand with the responsibility of making the game and combat immersive, so the tools you can use are pretty much your imagination. How does the combat play out in your head? Share this to the group, and face them with what their characters are experiencing.

One player falls unconscious, and its the next PC's turn?: "You see Jenny fall to the ground, blood gushing out from her arrow wound.. There are already so much blood! But.. you are so far away from her! What do you do?

By painting this picture, you tell the players what their characters are actually sensing in the heat of battle. Usually, this can help players in making a character based decision rather than a strategic one. (Remember the same applies for the bandits you are controlling!!!)

If the PC next in initiative order is secretly in love with Jenny, they would maybe rush to her aid, or immediately start rushing towards the archer that shot her, provoking several attacks of opportunity. - Instead of thinking:

"Which enemy seem's to be closer to death? Maybe I should use combat maneuvers..."

Combat Objectives

Another VERY important factors to include in combat is objectives. If a combat is: Two groups fight to the death.. This is maybe fun while the players are still learning to play their characters. It however quickly becomes a chore for both the players (Think of leveling up in Diablo) and the GM.

If you create objectives for the characters, this could aid in making combat more fun, remove the issue of speeding up combat, and keep all players invested:

To generate a combat objective, think first and foremost:

Why would they risk their lives fighting this band of savage orcs?

  • ..they.. terrorize the forests, and must be stopped?? Not good enough!
  • They are overrunning the village, and try to reach the town hall (with all the refuges) before the characters - Now we are talking!!

Don't transform combat into a simple way of gaining XP - Make it challenge the morale and visions of each player characters - Give them a reason to risk death (or not for neutral and evil PC's), and a reason to actually murder someone!

Also, do remember that combat objectives could also revolve around a player character.


At a early level, while the party is travelling in the woods/along a road with a nearby forest, a bear ambushes the party. The bear grabs a PC (fudge numbers to success for grappling) that is lagging a few meters behind the rest of the party, during its surprise round. At the first round, it drags the PC into the woods. The other players are of course surprised, and much to the bears regret, they don't flee (hopefully) and chases the bear down.


If you do your part for making combat more immersive, you would not need to speed things up, and you do your best to give the players an opportunity to have fun. If a player still remains unfocused, e.g. looking at their phone, ask them to put it away, and make regular breaks (5 mins per ~hour).

Final remarks

There are lot of useful tips on how to speed combat up. If you still have issues with player decision, make some clear rulings. e.g.

If PC's are asking the others what to do, begin a countdown, if they on the other hand asks for mechanics - let them find out or make a GM decision for ruling this specific instant, and find out the real rules later.

  • \$\begingroup\$ In hindsight, it seems that I have been skimming the Question a bit to much - My section about combat objectives, does not help the question directly, I will keep it posted though, as it could help others \$\endgroup\$ Jun 22, 2018 at 6:03

This is a game system breaker, but It will reduce the time per round alot.

  • First, change player AC from a set amount to varied amount. To do this, a player takes their AC and minus 10 from it to become the AC modifier. Then you would use a D20 roll to add to the AC modifier. \ Monsters will change their attacks from varied to static. To do this just add 10 to their attack bonus.

This way it will keep the focus on the players and keep the players focused. But will have a compounding effect. see below.

  • Second, Group all monsters to the same initiative. (possibly one for normal monsters and one for the Boss/lair/trap). This way you take your GM turn once/twice instead of all the time.

Once again the focus goes to the players. And this will also add to the compounding effect. Keep reading!

  • Third, Decide at the end of the monster's turn who the monster will attack on its next turn. Allow some but not much in the way of wiggle room based on the players choices.

This gives a minor effect to reduce time if used alone, but it is needed to perform the next step.

  • Fourth, take the Player attack roll and the Player AC roll and combine it into one Combat Roll. This Combat Roll is used for the last weapon attack, the last direct attack spells, and for the AC of the player. Any monster who is designated to target that player does so while using the Combat Roll.

This makes the number of dice rolled effectively cut in half. Smaller affect with a solo monsters, but huge affect with bigger groups of monsters.


Use Group Initative

The main thing that slows down combat is players not having paid attention to what was going on and being surprised when their turn comes up and they first need to get themselves an overview of the current situation and then start thinking about their options for their turn.

Because this regularly happens to most or all players in a group, rounds take so long that the other players get bored and distract themselves with other things, so you get a self-reinforcing cycle.

Having all players act on the same turn largely removes this problem. Players will go in the order in which they announce the action they want to take. Players who are still thinking about what they want to do this round can do so while other players are taking their turns. When all players have taken their turns, then all the enemies are taking their turns. Because all players know that after the monsters have completed their turns, they will have to make a decision about what they want to do on their next turn, there is a much higher incentive to keep attention during the enemy turns.

All players are paying much more attention to the turns of both other players and the enemies, which as a result leads to combat playing out significantly faster.

  • 1
    \$\begingroup\$ Hello, while these may are helpful tips I can not deduce where your expertise comes from - which is a requirement for this kind of answers on subjective answers, please add your source of expertise and describe how you or someone that you know has tried these tips and whether or not they have worked out. \$\endgroup\$
    – Akixkisu
    Jun 5, 2019 at 12:25

Giving a heads up to the next player definitely helps. Also try these:

  • When it's obvious the PC's are going to win, you could make the monster(s) surrender or flee.

  • Lower the AC of the monster(s) by 1 or 2.

  • Make all of the monsters use one initiative roll instead of one per monster.

  • I wouldn't do this one, but you could enforce a time limit.

  • 2
    \$\begingroup\$ Have you tried any of these recommendations in your own games? How have they worked, in your experience? \$\endgroup\$
    – V2Blast
    Jun 5, 2019 at 23:29
  • \$\begingroup\$ @V2Blast I have made the monster(s) surrender close to the end of battle, and i've made all of the monsters use the same initiave roll. \$\endgroup\$
    – SkyPaul
    Jun 6, 2019 at 10:27
  • \$\begingroup\$ You should elaborate on your experiences and use them to support your answer, explaining how they have sped up combat in your experience. \$\endgroup\$
    – V2Blast
    Jun 6, 2019 at 20:47
  • \$\begingroup\$ All the monsters? You lump the Ork General together with his Bodyguard and his 3 line soldiers and the 8 goblins they force into battle? \$\endgroup\$
    – Trish
    Jun 12, 2019 at 11:10

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