A group I play with via IRC seems to have a serious problem keeping combat interesting: the medium inherently slows things down, descriptions of attacks and defenses don’t have the same excitement value without people shouting and playing up the events of the fight, and then people tend to just state their mechanical actions, out-of-character, and everyone else loses interest. That leads to a vicious cycle where people aren’t paying attention, so they have to be poked to get their attention, then they have to learn what’s going on, and their turn takes that much longer, so everyone else is that much less inclined to pay attention.

The usual suggestions for keeping turn-time down and everyone engaged don’t seem to work as well online. Part of the reason we play online is because we can’t completely devote the time; distractions are a part of our real lives. As such, it’s hard to implement strictly-limited turn times. And since there’s no visual aspects to the game, it’s harder to catch up at a glance.

Making sure everyone describes events in-character definitely helps, and I’s already recommended that my DM remind everyone to do that more often, but I’m not sure it will be enough.

Outside of combat, we do pretty well; dialogue keeps people more involved and we don’t have to “wait” if someone is quiet most of the time. But we don’t want to give up combat in our games; we enjoy playing heroes and villains who triumph against armed adversity. And it’s not necessarily speed that is a problem; I wouldn’t mind how long combat takes if that time were being spent describing it as awesome, instead of catching up and waiting for responses.

Does anyone have any ideas that can help mitigate some of the inherent problems with this medium?

Finally, I’ll note that while I’ve marked this system agnostic, I’m not really interested in alternate system recommendations: we have an ongoing Dungeons and Dragons 3.5 campaign that we neither want to give up nor want to rewrite in a different system. I don’t need 3.5-specific advice, but “play XYZ instead!” won’t help me either. Feel free to mention it if you feel it improves your answer, but I won’t be accepting an answer that doesn’t help with the game we’re currently running.

In the same vein, our game is going to stay text-chat-based; we won’t be using a virtual tabletop and we won’t be using Skype or other form of VOIP. These are due primarily to technical problems for some of my fellow players, as I understand things.

  • \$\begingroup\$ My answer for running a combat for a large group may help, as it's about optimising/speeding up combat: Run a game for a larger group? Answer \$\endgroup\$
    – Rob
    Commented Aug 23, 2013 at 8:43

2 Answers 2


One thing that helps me as a DM in my very large, easily distracted group is to implement an "on-deck" call. So I'll say, "John, your turn. Jane, you're up next", and make sure I get an acknowledgement that Jane heard me. Even if Jane hadn't been paying attention until now, it gives her all of John's turn to get caught up on what's been happening (which on IRC she can do by asking someone else in an aside, or reading back through the chat logs if they're detailed enough). Depending on how big your group is, and how short their attention spans, you can add on a second on-deck: "John, your turn. Jane, you're up next, then Jake after." Once you get this started each combat, the first on-deck person can also be responsible for getting the attention of the second on-deck person when the turns change.

I noticed you said that "it's hard to catch up at a glance", but if you're playing via text, can't players just skim back through the log to see what happened? If not, perhaps the GM or another player who isn't distracted can post summaries of the action at set intervals, something short like "Belkar charged across the field and stabbed the orc. Roy got hit by the shaman and is dazed." This would help cut down the time needed for players to catch up, especially if you can offset the summaries visually so it only takes a few seconds for an on-deck player to read back through the logs. You could also tie it into your player-engagement initiatives by asking each player to post the summary of their action, in appropriate descriptive language, at the end of their turn: "Belkar charged screaming across the field and drove his blades into the orc's chest."

Also, if you have an easy way to display it (perhaps in a sidebar), a simple list of players' turn order can be a huge help. Like the on-deck system, it allows distracted players to glance at the list, see that they're about to be called, and begin to prepare (or lets them see that they're not up for a while and have time to do something else).

  • \$\begingroup\$ on-deck calls are not so useful when they're written and the player just happens to be browsing on a different tab. When playing by chat you have a computer in front of you, which is distracting, and it's easy to convince yourself you can do other things and get back to the game to check if your turn approaches... and then forget to do that. Happens to me sometimes. \$\endgroup\$
    – Zachiel
    Commented Aug 24, 2013 at 0:25
  • \$\begingroup\$ @Zachiel That's true, but if your players are too distracted to at least occasionally check the chat channel, then there's not a whole lot you can do. But an on-deck call allows someone to wander past, see that they were called on deck, and at least have a few seconds' warning to jump back on instead of what the OP describes as "they have to be poked". \$\endgroup\$
    – thatgirldm
    Commented Aug 24, 2013 at 3:24

Well, in the end you have to either torque down and agree on rules to make it go faster/more in character or deal with it being slow and not in character.

The best rules you could enforce as a group are:

  1. You have to declare your combat action in XX amount of time or you lose your turn. You had a "distraction?" Well, it's not like you can't play with us anymore, but you lose your turn, it's not the end of the world. If you want to be real nice you could count them as "delaying" and let them interject if they return before the round's over, if that doesn't disrupt your initiative counting sufficiently. You already mention that this is "hard" to implement, but it's that or waiting for a Gaussian time distribution for each person to take their turn, which has all the negative effects you are experiencing. If they miss a couple turns, it doesn't affect the game much, it's just like they missed their attack or bungled their spell an extra time or two. If they miss too many, it starts to impact the effectiveness and safety of the group - and then you get peer pressure on them to shape up. "Hey man we're getting owned here, please start paying more attention!"

  2. You have to declare your combat action in character or the GM tells you "you fail." "Your 'twenty-sided die' bounces off the orc, he seems not to care. Then he guts you with an axe." To be more halfhearted about this, you could assess penalties instead of outright failure. "Lame, -4." The game Feng Shui does this, giving explicit coolness bonuses/lameness penalties. More narratively, the GM could give those who narrate heavily some kind of "break" or special effects. "14 to hit the orc!" "you miss." "I hew down at the orc with Braclagh, my family's greatsword, its pitted iron faces gleaming! 14." "You miss but Braclagh rips through the orc's inferior shield, breaking it." Or if that was a hit, "You hit, and besides ripping a gash in his torso for 14 points of damage he's off balance for the next round."

Then what you do is designate specific break times and out-of-character discussion times. When I ran a long campaign that was 100% in character at the table, we'd do 50 minutes of gaming and then 10 minute break. That's when you check on the kid/wife/get a drink/take a dump, not while playing. If you don't have breaks then people have to do it sometime and they try to do it most often in combat when it's not their turn. A break allows everyone to proactively take care of things in sync instead of on an interrupt basis while others are waiting on them.

Similarly, in character is draining, you can state when IC talk starts and ends, easy to do with a big

"**************** IC START **********************"

in IRC, and this helps people go to buckle down mode and then make sure and do "IC END" so that people can babble about whatever else has been lurking in their psyches without derailing the game.

  • \$\begingroup\$ What about if instead of losing the turn, you repeat turn, when appliable? e.g.: you attack the same foe you were fighting the previous turn, or cast the same spell or one similar. \$\endgroup\$
    – Flamma
    Commented Aug 23, 2013 at 8:43
  • 1
    \$\begingroup\$ @Flamma: philosophically better but mechanically worse, in that the group then has to implement a 'player-turn' that nobody knows or cares much about. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Aug 23, 2013 at 10:18
  • \$\begingroup\$ Further point: a player who misses his combat turn due to realworld influences is (unintentionally) roleplaying an easily distracted or absent-minded character. Just like in real life, this is occasionally amusing or endearing, mostly mildly annoying, and sometimes fatal to the character or those around him. (OK, the last not so often in real life, fortunately for me.) \$\endgroup\$ Commented Aug 23, 2013 at 21:15
  • \$\begingroup\$ Both main points given in this answer are a quick way to lose a group. The 'best rules' are the worst possible things you can do, esp since doing the latter point of advice with any quality precludes the former. \$\endgroup\$
    – Tritium21
    Commented Oct 19, 2014 at 12:33
  • \$\begingroup\$ That's a great opinion, but not what's happened in real games when I've done it. \$\endgroup\$
    – mxyzplk
    Commented Oct 19, 2014 at 13:39

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