I'm looking for ways to speed up the combat in my D&D 3.5 game. It seems that turns - both player and non-player - simply take too long. I have thought about giving everyone a 30 second timer, but I'm afraid that might inhibit their ability to come up with strategy and tactics.
A few general ideas, we've tried.
Structure some encounters such that the end condition of the encounter isn't the death of one side. NPCs can flee or the objective could be something besides killing each other.
Rolling attack, damage, and miss chance (if any) can also help a little.
Make sure that those who use the special combat maneuvers know the rules for those maneuvers before they try them, so you don't have to stop the game to look them up.
Make sure that spellcasters know what the spell they are casting does before they cast it, so they don't have to spend time looking it up.
And maybe the encounter just needs to be that long; maybe the encounter just needs to be spiced up so that noone notices that the fight took the whole 4 hour session.
Some of these have been mentioned, but here's my list:
Make someone else in charging of tracking the initiative order. Each turn, have them call out whose turn it is, but also who's "on deck" so that the next person can get ready. The GM's assistant can also help move monsters, as someone mentioned.
Make players roll ahead of time
This is key. Don't let the player fumble through looking up a bunch of bonuses on his sheet and adding them together, while everyone stares at him. Have him make all of his attack rolls, and damage rolls, at the same time and preferably have them figured out before his turn.
Time limit on turns
This goes with #2. The player should already have figured out what to do by the time their turn comes up, and started making rolls. At the start, announce that there'll be a time limit (say, 30 seconds) for players to start taking some action. Tell them it's combat time, they have seconds to decide. Be nice and pause to answer questions if they are unclear about something, but be firm if they are taking too long. Give them a countdown, and skip their turn if you have to. They'll speed up, next time.
Battle sheet and initiative order
Have the initiatives, HP, and AC of all characters and monsters written down in one clear, concise format. Order them by initiative. If you have an initiative board, that lets you shuffle tokens around when the players roll initiative to order them, that's ideal. A whiteboard also works. I love index cards, since they can keep all character and monster combat stats together, and are very easy to reorder.
Use a visual representation
Chessex makes great, printed, wet-erase battlemats, and I'm sure you can find others. At the very least, use a visual diagram of some kind, with markers that can easily be moved. This keeps everyone on the same page, and avoids arguments about which character or what terrain feature is where. Obviously, miniatures terrain works, too; decide on a scale, and have tape measures available (welcome to the wargaming room!)
Know the rules
Be familiar with the system. Use a GM screen with printed charts, if one is available, for reference, or make your own by printing out the charts and fixing them to something that stands up easily. If you don't know, or there's an argument, make an arbitrary ruling, to keep things moving, and look it up after game for future reference.
I highly recommend creating a custom spell sheet which has columns for all of a spell's basic stats, a brief description (like the one-line listing at the beginning of the Spells chapter; be sure to include damage dice, etc.), how many preparations of that spell you have per day, and how many scrolls of it you're carrying.
Here's a couple of tricks that have worked for me as a player.
1) Figure out what your modifiers for each attack and damage roll are ahead of time and write them down. That way, you know exactly what to have to add to each roll without having to calculate it every time. It seems like common sense, but I've played with a LOT of players who don't do this. Record this somewhere you aren't going to lose it, like your character sheet.
Be sure to include magical abilities, like Flaming or Holy. You might end up with something like "Flaming Longbow +2: +13/+8/+3 to-hit, Damage: 1d8+4 plus 1d6 fire."
1a) When you get buffed, re-figure your attack and damage rolls with the buffs on a separate sheet of paper. This is especially useful when you are getting multiple buffs at higher levels.
1b) If someone is using Power Attack, have them calculate their attacks AND damage when using common Power Attack amount. This is especially important if they are using Power Attack with a Two-Handed weapon, because of the x1.5 modifier. Common amounts of power attack might be 2 points (useful for flanking), 5 points (when fighting something with low AC) or Maximum Power Attack.
2) Rolling attack and damage dice together works at lower levels, but at higher levels you can drop the damage dice and just roll all the attacks at once. Assign each modifier to a specific color/design of die so you can match up the roll and it's modifier more quickly. For example, if I have a full attack of +20/+15/+10/+5, I'd specify that the +20 is always my lucky blue die, the +15 is the green die, the +10 is the orange die and so on.
3) If you know you are just planning on full attacking, make your rolls during another player's turn. Record the to-hit and damage rolls on scratch paper. Then when it's your turn, you can easily run down the list. "Okay, my first roll was 25, does that hit? Okay, then I did 14 damage. Does an 18 hit?"
As a DM, I found that recopying the monsters stat blocks in a truncated format helped saved me time looking them up. While doing that, I'd make notes about any spell-like abilities that I thought they might use. Recording the duration, range, damage, save type and save DC helped me use their abilities more quickly.
One of the best ways to speed up combat and/or keep the game flowing is to limit the amount of time players waste during their turns.
Time spent rolling dice is fine. Time spent thinking, digging through spell lists or inventories, or looking up rules is not. Encourage players to think during other players' turns- unless a player goes immediately after the monsters and something unexpected happens, they should have their turns more or less planned out when their turn starts.
You could just encourage the time limit or, depending on your players, enforce a rule along the lines of "When your turn starts, you have 20 seconds to begin doing something or you delay your turn".
When dealing with multiple attacks, roll them all at once with different coloured dice, assigning one colour to each attack before the roll. Add up the attacks, then roll damage from all of them at once (unless there is a reason to roll damage for one attack separately such as DR or crits).
I've found that aides can help with that quite a bit. Prepare a cheat sheet or cue cards with some common combat rules written out. But the thing that helps the most is not to bother worrying about the rules exactly. If people want to swing on the chandelier and drop down on an enemy, make them perform a jump check and an attack roll. Sure, there may actually be rules for it, but it's better to keep the pace going.
Make sure your players know initiative order. When I am running combat I tell them 2-3 ahead, and if there are two PCs next to each other in initiative order I will let them go at the same time, especially if they are working on separate targets.
When it's my turn to move all the baddies, I'll enroll a knowledgeable player to help me work through them as fast as I can.
I think 30 seconds is more than fair. If people are paying attention during other folks' turns, it shouldn't take a lot of additional time to pull out an action. And I don't allow a lot of "table talk" and strategizing during combat - you do what you do, and if you want to spend actions discussing at length with your allies that's fine.
Rolling to-hit and damage at the same time helps. As does planning out NPC combat actions somewhat ahead of time, and printing out spell effects and whatnot so you're not book-flipping.
Also, you can just wing things. It depends where the time is going. Is it really going to people 'deciding what to do?' Or conducting the mechanics of it? Or is it spent looking up stuff? If the latter, I just swag it. Someone starts looking up "does dispel magic affect a supernatural creature ability on Tuesday.." and I just say "It works!" If someone's relying on some complex rules combo then they'll have it ready and looked up ahead of time for me.
Is the problem that combat takes too long per player, or that they take too long organizing strategies. If the latter requires communication, give them a certain amount of time for communication before an action must take place. If it's that the player is trying to choose between ability x, y, and z, then give them a little more time. There's nothing more frustrating than wading through my abilities trying to figure out which one I was thinking of and having someone be pushy.
At the same time, this is one of the major problems with 3.5 in general.
Don't be afraid to impose a time limit on the players' decisions. Be soft at first, but ramp up enforcement. Your players might chaffe at first, but they will get used to it. A player has plenty of time between turns to come up with an action. The trouble is that most players will get bogged down trying to find the absolute best tactic, which is unneccessary, especially because there usually isn't an absolute best. Remember the words of General Patton: "a good plan violently executed right now is far better than a perfect plan executed next week."
In my games, I expect a player to start talking the moment their turn comes up - either to declare an action or to ask a question and then declare an action. They get used to it and everyone appreciates the increased speed.
Increase the time to a minute or minute 30. I've had DM's do that to our group ... strategy and tactics are all well and good if you have the time, but if you want a realistic combat (or as close as it gets) you don't really have a lot of time to think and plan.
If the timer runs out you can always say "so-and-so is stunned into inaction by the rampaging battle around him." and move to the next player.
I have a similar idea to Scott Vercuski, the combat turn is supposed to be 6s long (in DD3.5) so the players shouldn't have too much time to think about what they are going to do as their character also wouldn't have much time.
This might end up with your battles getting a bit less planned, a bit more messy, and the players suffering a bit. However, maybe some easier enemies for a while, and when the players get used to some quick thinking in battle, the "heat of the moment" mistakes might add to the realism.
You can use a dice app to do all calculations and rolls so theres less overhead in that sense. Depending on your device there are a variety of useful ones, though it might cause some disconnect for the players.
My suggestion would be to consider looking at 13th age where battles typically last about 6 rounds max or Dungeon world in which the numbers are lower and even "fails" are useful. If not to swap to them system wise they may provide some alternative ideas for you to use in your campaign.
I like the 30 second timer per round idea to motivate players, or even 20 or 10 seconds to really get the game moving. As an extreme solution: keep the timer going! Once the time limit is up, the DM immediately resets it and continues game play.
How about ditching the initiative and turn order rules? Waiting to complete your turn is a huge time sink. Why not let everyone resolve their actions simultaneously? If all the players know how far their PCs can move per round, what spells they can cast, their foe's armor class and their weapon's range and/or damage rating, then why not let everyone + the DM go at it?
More complicated actions may require a game pause to resolve, in these cases the player should announce what they're attempting to do (ride the chandelier over to the window, climb the wall, etc.) before the time is up.
Pretty much all of the other answers to this question have great advice on ways to speed up various aspects of combat—most tend to be ways to speed up the actual facilitation of the game system itself.
These things will all help. But in my experience, the very most important one, the one thing that when lacking, takes up more time than any other, is player preparedness. When it's their turn, each player should be able to quickly say what it is their character is doing, and know what they need to do in order for their character to do so.
If a player needs to look up the rules of their attack, the effects of their spell, their various bonuses, or whether or not they've used up all their uses of a spell, ability, or item... all of these are huge time-sinks, and they are all avoidable with a little bit of pre-game prep.
I have often found in the past that players rarely do much work preparing for sessions, outside of perhaps leveling up their characters or picking up snacks. I can understand this, no one wants to feel like they have homework to do for a game they play. But if the DM is putting in the hard work to prep the session, plan traps, puzzles, dungeons, encounters, NPCs, etc, it seems rather unfair for players to use everyone's shared time during the session to do what I feel they ought to have done on their own time.
So, have a discussion with the players, and ask them to try and come up with a "cheat sheet" for their characters by next session: a shortlist of their most-used abilities, their bonuses for attacks or spells, a one-line description of the effects (something they can reference to easily recall the relevant details; something that makes sense to them, not necessarily the stock "flavor" one-liner).
If the players can't or won't put in the effort to do so, you can spend the beginning of the session having everyone do this. Though maybe disappointing they didn't care to try, this may actually be better—the information would surely be fresh in everyone's mind.
Putting a time limit on a turn seems harsh to me. I prefer to rule that if a player doesn't have an action in mind when it comes to their turn, they count as "holding", and we move on to the next player, then back to the first player. If they're still not ready, they hold again, until they act last in the round. If the player still can't decide, then they make a basic attack against the nearest enemy.
It's still an incentive to be ready, but doesn't necessarily rush a player into making a bad choice. If anything, it gives them more time to figure out what to do, at the risk of losing an action.
Some kind of initiative display really helps too. If everyone can see at a glance when they're due to move, then they tend to plan ahead. We use a wipe-clean initiative tracker, which I think is a D&D4 accessory, and some dry board markers, but we've also had success with simply writing the initiative order on the battlemat.
This can work with any system that mechanically supports it, but make sure everyone has the capacity to deal lots of damage, and to hit well. In 3.5 this would mean making sure the enemies have magic weapons, or other damage dealing magic items, but not much in the way of armour or protective items, and that naturally the player characters would get ahold of this. It doesn't require any changes in play style by the players, as all that happens is hit points get chopped down way faster than usual, so a monster that's supposed to last 5 rounds goes down in 2 or 3 instead. In AD&D, this could include save or die poisons that are readily available, particularly the type that take 1 minute to take effect (so you can bring in neutralise poison or slow poison on the PC side). The counterpart to this is make sure there aren't any stat draining effects. Level drain might be a big deal, but if you have an enemy with strength drain it actually drags combat out significantly. Enemies that frustrate the PCs but don't deal much damage also drag combat out significantly.
This is absolutely a problem with 3.5 in general. I recommend replacing the combat mechanic with a very simple system like Swords & Wizardry or D&D 2e. That is: every attack is just a single d20 roll, add your opponent's armor class and any to-hit bonuses, and if you reach the target number (20) it's a hit; or use THAC0. Any "more fancy" combat maneuvers should be described by the player with you (the ref) improvising the results (e.g. "OK if you want to jump on the monster's back, that's -2 on your attack roll and double damage if you hit").
Another tip: roll initiative for the whole party, not for each player. Players attack in order of Dexterity.
Understand from the get-go that different players derive entertainment from different aspects of the game. Some people like a very fast & loose game, others enjoy getting into the crunchiest of rules details. I have seen groups where it takes quite literally the better part of an hour for a single round of combat because that’s the way they like to game. In our group, we can have several such combats within the span of a single hour. So when you speed up combat, you have to keep the nature of the group's gaming style in mind.
First off, if you have players who aren't very good at math in their head or don't have their stats organized to make it easier for them to calculate their rolls, have them make a combat stats sheet and keep it up to date. They should rarely ever have to add or subtract more than a single value from their roll if they do that.
The way I improved the speed of combats in 3.5 the most is to get rid of individual initiatives, and the concept of initiative in general for most combats. When a combat ensues - unless it’s a surprise situation or the players have been dallying - I just have the players go first. And we go around the table, left to right. Or right to left. I switch it up. This removes the entire overhead involved with keeping track of individual initiatives. If someone wants to 'hold action', they simply get skipped, and then we go back to them at the end of the players' round. The speed up isn't necessarily entirely on the players’ side of things when doing this. This also makes it easier to 'batch' roll for their opponents. During surprise situations, I'll have the PC with the highest initiative bonus make the initiative roll for the group. Doing this sounds drastic, and again won't be of much interest if the group likes crunchy, but I have not found it to impact the combats in any negative way.
Another area to master is what is called 'Rulings, not Rules'. Rather than putting the combat on pause while someone looks up an obscure rule, the GM makes a ruling on the spot and things move on. We can talk about making sure the players know the rules, and of course that’s a good idea. But most will not have every last detail memorized. This smoothes things over and lets the game move on. If there are still questions, after the combat you look things up so everyone knows it for the next time around.
The multiple attacks in D&D are a major time concern at higher levels. Instead, I considered increasing the dice of damage from the weapon at certain BaB intervals.
A longsword does 1d8 but then 2d8 later and I made weapon specialization add an extra die of damage as well.
Generally, this means the effects of strength and weapon enhancements on the overal damage are lessened, but the player only makes one attack role at their highest value.
Abillities such as cleave and whirlwind attack are much more useful as well.
The only problems are when you start dealing with natural weapons really and certainly two-weapon fighting benefits in an extreme manner by this too.
I've tried simplifying the initiative system by telling them: "Okay, the monsters just took their turn, so each of you gets one turn before they go again. Whoever's ready can go in any order." This didn't work: my players didn't like it, they thought it was too confusing. If you got it to work for your players it could speed up the player turns a lot, by letting them move as they're ready. One option for simplifying might by to hand out index cards saying "YOU GET A TURN", and let them hand the cards back when they take their turn.
When a player is taking too long and I'm getting bored waiting, I sometimes tell them: "Okay, I'm going to put you on delay and let the next player move, then I'll come back to you." That sometimes works, but more often results in a "nono, I'm ready, here's what I'm doing", which also accomplishes my goal.
Not many people have talked about improving monster turn speed. I try to only run one or two types of monsters in any encounter. I find that helps a lot.
A combination of having players know what they're going to do on their turn and what their spells and abilities do beforehand (so they don't waste time looking up whether Fly is rnd/lvl vs minute/lvl) as well as hand-waving away tedious parts of combat (there are 6 goblins and who have lost their shamans and their attacks can't pierce the fighter's DR so a "you handily slay the remaining foes") is a good way to speed up combat.
On that last point, with time and experience, eventually you'll learn when the players have already won the encounter but are just going through the motions. In such cases, it's nice as a DM to describe the players eviscerating their opponents and skipping to the aftermath, though some players enjoy the feeling of being untouchable gods on the battlefield despite the time it takes.
I've toyed around with the idea of a timer or chess clock, but I've found that it's not even 100% necessary; as a DM you can usually intuit when a player is taking too long on their turn and say "sorry, you lose your turn, please be better prepared for the next one". They will rarely do it again (though they might hate you a little).
This is my pet peeve with D&D - combat takes too long with too many fiddly modifiers.
While the above recommendations are good, in my opinion the root cause of the problem is that D&D combat is basically a tactical war game rule set grafted onto a role playing game. This is fine for a lot of players and works great in many situations.
However, if you want combat to be more of an adrenaline rush where players have to think on their feet vs. a tactical war game, I would recommend streamlining/deconstructing the combat rules themselves. One possibility is to completely simplify combat - no turns, no initiative rolls, attacks of opportunity, etc. Allow the DM and players to make all actions in real time once the encounter begins.
Of course, in practice this may be difficult - you'll have to find a clever way of regulating actions to avoid players, for example, moving their PCs a hundred feet and making 10 attacks on 10 Orcs in 5 seconds.
One option (inspired by the "Escape: The Curse of the Temple" board game) is make combat a "dice-based" system. Players and DM roll a die (or even a bucket of dice) to determine how far PCs and monsters move (if you're using a battle grid) or the success of an attack or spell. The action of rolling dice and examining the results works to keep everything happening at once while making combat more exciting.
Or make combat a card-based system - give players a deck of playing cards and ask them to write down combat actions plus maybe feats on each card (move, melee attack, ranged attack, cast spell, special actions, etc.). They can pick some of the cards for their initial hand of action cards, but have to draw the rest from their shuffled deck during gameplay. Players play a card to perform an action then draw a new card from their deck (not to exceed the hand limit). A powerful foe like a dragon or beholder would have quite a few action cards to juggle given their multiple attack abilities.
Something like that - well, the devil's in the details but you get the gist.