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Our DM started to master for us about two years ago, using published materials. We played Lost Mine of Phandelver, then Waterdeep: Dragon Heist and now Dungeon of the Mad Mage. All of this is good.

Now, the problem: he needs a lot of time to resolve what is happening. There are multiple factors contributing to this, I'll focus on two of them

  1. Desire to play by the book. He tries to keep to rules as written and within that optimize. He is counting squares of movement that happens off-screen in combat situations, takes a lot of time to measure exact distances and movement. Using a battlemap on Roll20 has made any combat a tactical mini-game. (To be fair, the players also protest if he gives the monsters more leeway on things like movement, while watching ours like a hawk, certainly pushing him to try and adhere to the rules).

  2. Desire to optimize tactics. As a player he is a min-maxer, and as a DM he approaches running the monsters the same way. He tries to optimally use their abilities and the environment for tactics to make our life challenging. looking up monster abilities and "The Monsters Know What They are Doing". This is especially the case if the monsters have many abilities or spells at their disposal. (He also has a hard time keeping apart what HE knows vs what the monsters know, typically he tries to have them take the objectively most effective action, which multiplies the factors he has to keep in mind).

Between all these, it is quite common for us to sit around for minutes on end while he is leafing through stuff.

We mostly play online on Roll20, and being just a single click away from all the other seductions of entertainment to bridge the boring lulls in the action is testing at least my self-discipline every session. One of the other players, who has a physically taxing day job, has fallen asleep during play repeatedly.

I used to DM for our group for years before he agreed to DM, as I really wanted to play as a player. He puts a lot of effort into preparing, and he is a close friend, so I want any help I can extend to him to be as encouraging and positive as possible and I don't want to patronize him.

I've talked with him about how it is challenging for us to wait for things to continue, but this unfortunately has not helped him solve this. So instead of just bringing this up again, I want something to suggest that we could try out.

I think he needs concrete things he can do to help him. I find it easy to improvise as a DM to keep things going, while he aims to stick to the written adventure, so I don't have a lot of useful practical help for him on what he can do, other than reading the module beforehand and marking it up.

Can anyone help with concrete DM procedures, methods or tricks they use to be able to keep the game flowing, while sticking closely to published material? (We are playing D&D 5e, but I think answered do not need to limit themselves to 5e).

How can he run combat with monsters faster and more efficiently without spitballing when it comes to rules adherence?

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    \$\begingroup\$ You've noted that you've already spoken to them about this and that they haven't taken the advice. And that you are worried about telling him how to run the game. I'm confused as to how getting more things to tell him what to do is going to be helpful here \$\endgroup\$
    – NautArch
    Mar 24 at 14:00
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    \$\begingroup\$ Let us continue this discussion in chat. \$\endgroup\$
    – NautArch
    Mar 24 at 14:01
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    \$\begingroup\$ Related: How can I speed up combat? \$\endgroup\$ Mar 25 at 15:17

5 Answers 5

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Learn to spitball.

Your friend must focus on execution.

Before the game is the time for the DM to look things up, to strategize, to plan, to prepare. Once the game is underway, prep time is past.

During the game, the DM must execute. The DM must run the game.

Your friend must decide which is more important:

  • move the game quickly, keep the players engaged
  • make perfect decisions

No matter the skill or tools, one of these has to be given priority.

As long as your friend prioritizes perfect decisions over game pacing, nothing will change.

If your friend prioritizes game pacing over perfect decisions, the rest will come naturally.

It is that easy, and it is that hard. Your friend is no doubt smart and perceptive, and sees that players are not engaged in the game. The players are not engaged because he the DM is not prioritizing engaging them. To engage them, he must make decisions and keep the game going. Until he decides to do that, nothing will change.

No set of DMing tips, and the Internet is full of them, will help until your friend prioritizes gameplay over perfect decisions.

Once your friend decides to focus on game execution, then he will no doubt discover many techniques and tools that will help.

Your friend may find it helpful to take simple notes during the game. Examples might include things to look up later or things to do better next time.

Your friend may also find it helpful to remember that the DM can change their mind. "Last week I said when you drop an item, it stays invisible. After further thought, I've changed my mind, when you drop the item, it becomes visible."

I use a notekeeping program, a text editor, a link saver, all kept handy during play. The exact tools don't matter. Once you decide to focus on game play over perfect decisions, tools and techniques will come and go.

You, as a friend, will need to decide how to discuss this with your good friend. I am assuming you are comfortable just straight out discussing it with him, since you've posted about it on a popular web site that you've said you guys consult during the game. (If not, you might want to rethink even posting the question....) Just say it. Something like, "Dude, I'll back your play whatever it is, but really, when you go into research mode, everyone else is bored. You gotta change your priorities."

You, as a player, may find that it is helpful for you to mention a few things that went well during the session (the roses or stars from this answer). It can be anything, the way someone handled a social interaction, or a monster you liked. It must be sincere, not just well-meaning.

Also, you asked, "what can we do?" You're going to struggle to get the players to act in concert without the DM feeling ganged up on, but you can say, at an appropriate time, "hey DM, we want to let you know how much we appreciate you being the DM, and just so you know, we're happy if you just make decisions and move on, cause it's a lot more fun if the game moves quickly."

Think Only of the Cutting Edge

Miamoto Musashi is said to have advised those wishing to excel in the Way of the Sword to think only of the cutting edge.

You must prepare, he said, you must focus on footwork, on stance, on strength, on how you carry your blade. But in battle you must focus only on the cutting edge.

So too as DMs we must focus only on the cutting edge.

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    \$\begingroup\$ "Your fiend must focus on execution." Whoa, let's not disparage the DM too much...unless you're giving guidance on how to run a Cambion on combat? \$\endgroup\$ Mar 25 at 20:34
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    \$\begingroup\$ Yeah, I should have specified what kind of fiend. Some of them are real rules lawyers.... \$\endgroup\$
    – Jack
    Mar 25 at 20:40
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Jack's answer covers the root of the problem. I want to answer the more direct question: what can players do to help the DM?

  1. Take side things off the DM's plate. All the accessory stuff can be handled by players. A player can handle scheduling, taking session notes (so the DM only needs small supplementary notes), even things like rolling on weather tables or looking up item and spell descriptions. The less extra stuff the DM has to handle the more concentration they can devote to what they need to be doing.

  2. You can change the way you play as a group. My group has been trying group initiative checks which speeds up combat, it does change the flow of play but also makes it easier for players to try out of the box thinking because players can let other players go first, of course monsters can do this too. This may be faster or slower depending on how many different enemies are on the board. I as the DM also started using damage averages whenever there is more than one monsters but that is a DM not player option.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ Have you tried doing this at a table with the DM who is acting like this? How did the DM react? Were they okay with this? \$\endgroup\$
    – NautArch
    Mar 26 at 16:54
  • \$\begingroup\$ I was that DM and I learned to be flexible, to prioritize play over rules, which was not easy, but I was lucky and had players who helped take some of the burden and accepted mediocre play while I learned. \$\endgroup\$
    – John
    Mar 26 at 22:42
  • \$\begingroup\$ If you could that into this, and go into more of the details I think that would be a great perspective for OP's DM to read. Getting into how this actually worked and worked out, with both the good and the bad, would turn this into a great answer. Tell your story!! \$\endgroup\$
    – NautArch
    Mar 27 at 0:13
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Challenge your DM to predefine monster tactics

Going with your request to keep suggestions close to published materials: It is not uncommon for published encounters to suggest a set of rules for tactics used by monsters in a specific encounter. You can see free examples of this in many of DnDBeyond's free Encounters of the Week, e.g. the "Aquatic Ambush" encounter.

When your DM creates the encounter, challenge them to think ahead and write down how this monster will make efficient use of its abilities, in the form of 3-5 concise "if-then" rules. These tactics do not need to use all the actions/spells the monster has to offer. The Hogboglin Devastator statblock has 13 spells available, but maybe this Hobgoblin Devastator prefers the use of 3 or 4 of these spells and has built a tactic around them (e.g. one for if enemies come into melee range, one for if enemies are far, one for if enemies are bunched up so they can be hit with an AoE attack).

Have your DM then parse these simple prepared tactics in combat. They don't need to be 100% complete, as many unexpected situations can arise, but in my experience they can speed up about 90% of the situations.

I have personally used this method as a DM to help me speed up combat. I know the analysis paralysis when there are a million options and you need to find the optimal one. This method allowed me to shift some of the decision making to before the session, made it a fun challenge to come up with good tactics, and even helped me make encounters more creative since I am more likely to come up with a fun way to use the monster's abilities beforehand than in the heat of combat (and two encounters with monsters of the same statblock may have different tactics!). Plus, if the players can see through the tactics it can be a lot of fun for them. "Guys, let's not all stand in a row again - that's when the Marid uses the water jet!"

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  • \$\begingroup\$ You as DM asking players for this is quite different than players asking a DM. If it was the latter, can you talk a bit about that experience? \$\endgroup\$
    – NautArch
    Mar 28 at 15:49
  • \$\begingroup\$ OP asked for suggestions for their DM so I recommended a solution for their DM that worked when I was in the same shoes as their DM. Granted, I treated the question as if OP was a proxy for the DM that is struggling, because I feel the question is at least partly worded that way. I grant you I do not have experience with suggesting the suggestion. \$\endgroup\$
    – RHS
    Mar 28 at 16:16
  • \$\begingroup\$ Given the akwardness of going to a DM and suggesting ways they change, having that would be an improvement. \$\endgroup\$
    – NautArch
    Mar 28 at 16:19
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    \$\begingroup\$ Improvement, yes, but if you are suggesting it's a requirement for a good answer to this question, I'm just going to have to disagree. \$\endgroup\$
    – RHS
    Mar 28 at 16:28
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    \$\begingroup\$ I'm familiar. I explained why I find my answer at least partially supported. \$\endgroup\$
    – RHS
    Mar 28 at 16:45
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You can be patient and understanding as players

The first thing that I noticed when reading this question is that it's from a single player at the table and not the DM or an entire-table issue. That makes this exceptionally hard to understand the problem, or it's solutions, because we're getting a view of the problem from only a single player at the table. We're most importantly not getting an understanding of the actual problem the DM is having - just a problem as seen and reasons assumed by a player.

You also very much need to remind yourself that this is a new DM. They are learning the ropes and this is going to take time. Wanting to help them is noble, but if you've already talked to them without much response, going to them with random suggestions from strangers on the internet doesn't appear to be a useful tack to take.

Group consensus

Before you go looking to change how your DM operates, I would first make sure with the rest of the table that this is a real issue for everyone. You had said the DM was spending 'minutes' figuring out their turn. At literal value, "minutes" isn't really a big problem, especially for someone whose role it is to run the entire encounter and make sure all players are having fun.

If this is an issue for everyone, this time can be spent drilling down to understand what would make things better for the people at the table.

Talking to the DM

You also already said you spoke with the DM about this. Bringing it up again, but this time with stuff, may not go as you expect. In my experience, going back to the well with more after being rejected doesn't usually create a change.

What does make the change is making sure this is a problem for everyone, making sure everyone understand what their issue is and what would make them happier, and then talking with the DM about how everyone is feeling and how they feel.

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Some GMs may not be open minded about this but it has worked well for me. I was DMing for almost a year before I got comfortable enough to ask my players for feedback. Now discussion and critique end every gaming session. I relish this time now. Every person at the table has the right to critique every other person. It took several tries to get the players to actually come out with things they felt I was getting wrong.

Once they finally started coming out with it, I found that the other players responses were extremely helpful. One rule had to be made because this can get colorful and boisterous. respect is not required but common curtesy is a must.

My players have totally opened my eyes to how as a DM it is easy to get caught up in moving the players back to the story line and lose sight of the prime objective...have fun as a group. I also see that they relish telling each other how well they played and offering ideas to each other. I like to use this time to challenge their methods, such as why does the bard rush into battle? Same question for the rogue.

From this critique time we have developed an informal way of challenging each other in game without delaying the game. Any time one person at the table asks, "amateur night?" I pause just long enough to hear the other players response.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ Welcome to RPG.SE! You might want to take the tour if you haven't already, and check out the help center for more guidance. \$\endgroup\$
    – Jack
    Apr 9 at 19:13
  • \$\begingroup\$ I did some clean-up on your answer, mostly fairly trivial edits, but I also inserted paragraph breaks. If that changes your meaning please feel free to revert. \$\endgroup\$
    – Jack
    Apr 9 at 19:16
  • \$\begingroup\$ While I find this to be generally excellent feedback, utilizing a lot of personal experience, I am unclear on how it answers the original question. Are you recommending that the titular DM start having feedback time after each session? \$\endgroup\$
    – ValhallaGH
    Apr 9 at 19:25
  • \$\begingroup\$ Yes, if they are open to it. It does work well in our game. \$\endgroup\$
    – goddlesss
    Apr 9 at 19:28

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