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I run an open-ended 4th Edition D&D group, for middle and high school players. One of our players struggles with math, from adding skill/attack modifiers to calculating damage and subtracting HP. This person's turns slow down combat so much that I've had start another player's turn during this person's turn. This leads, often enough, to distracting problems with turn order or just the split mind I get when helping two players at once.

This player is quite experienced (he's been with the club since the beginning), so I don't think that the newness of the game is the problem. How can I make the math easier?

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    \$\begingroup\$ Give him a calculator? (He says half jokingly) \$\endgroup\$ – Purple Monkey May 6 '15 at 13:21
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    \$\begingroup\$ Wait what? You're giving kids a reason to care about math and you see this is as a problem to be removed? If this person is enjoying the game, than it could serve as a motivator to improve their math skills. \$\endgroup\$ – Barret May 6 '15 at 14:09
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    \$\begingroup\$ @DrewS Remember that there are impediments that people can't help. (Compare with dyslexia.) \$\endgroup\$ – SevenSidedDie May 6 '15 at 14:46
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    \$\begingroup\$ @SevenSidedDie I understand that and I don't mean to be insensitive to anyone's disability, but the kind of math D&D requires is the kind of math that functioning in our society requires. I wouldn't suggest someone with dyslexia never try to read anything. But perhaps a carefully considered answer is more appropriate here than a hasty comment. My apologies. \$\endgroup\$ – Barret May 6 '15 at 15:14
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    \$\begingroup\$ @DrewS I believe the term is dyscalculia. Anyway, the endless number shuffling in DnD always struck me as exactly the sort of math you'd want to oursource to a machine. \$\endgroup\$ – Superbest May 6 '15 at 21:03
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Make sure all the skills and saves are pre-filled on his sheet

When I play, I don't always fill in what my total modifier is for each type of roll on my character sheet, and just keep track of what I'm trained in, and look up the appropriate ability modifier on the fly each time. For most people this is fine, but for someone who struggles, make sure he has this all correctly filled in ahead of time, with all appropriate training bonuses and ability modifiers added together. If something changes, like a magic item increasing an ability score/modifier, make sure it gets updated appropriately.

Help him make a chart for his attack bonus and other common d20 rolls

For something like an attack bonus, help him make up a chart showing what his total will be for each possible d20 roll. So if he has +4 Str (assuming a strength-based attack) and is a level 6 character (so half his level, rounded down, gives +3), the table would look like:

1   + 7 = 8
2   + 7 = 9

...

19  + 7 = 26
20  + 7 = 27

You might want to make additional tables, on different colors of paper perhaps, for other common d20 + modifiers rolls (a hide check for a rogue, will save, etc.) For someone with neat handwriting, this can fit in 2 columns on a standard 3x5 index card, and they come in multicolored packs.

Sometimes you can just tell him what the raw d20 roll needs to be

Another thing you can do once the party has deduced the AC of the monster being attacked, is just say, "ok you know he has an AC of 14, so with your +7 bonus, you need to roll 7 or more to hit," and then he doesn't even have to use the chart for that monster at all anymore. Similarly if you're asking for Wisdom vs. Will roll for a Will of 15, you can say, "you have +2 on that, so you have to roll 13 or above to succeed."

Use visual aids to help with fairly simple attack damage and other simple powers

So with the same +4 Str he will have +4 on damage. Get a poker chip or something and write on it "short sword damage" around the edge, and +4 in the middle. Then he rolls the appropriate die "next to" the appropriate poker chip, and has that as a visual reminder of what he is adding. It may be faster and easier for him to do the math if he doesn't have to hold the +4 in memory, or keep looking back to his sheet for it. Make one for each of his attacks. Some might prefer 4 dots or pips (as on a standard d6) to the number 4, to either improve visualization or to provide something to tap while "counting up". You can also do this (or custom cards) for other powers that will have a constant (but user-specific) modifier to add to the roll. The token or card could also have an indicator of what di(c)e to roll to help keep track of everything in one place.

Have a friend sitting next to him to help with some of the harder computations

If he's tossing fireballs, you'll probably want to have someone help him add that up. It could be you as the GM, but I'd probably try to arrange for it to be a friend. Ideally the friend would show him how to naturally try to group the rolled dice into 10s, and then "count up" once the shortcuts run out.

Likewise, subtracting sustained damage from hit points can slow a lot of people down. I'd have a friend help with that. (If the goal were to teach the math, I'd have him have poker chips in 10 and 1 denominations to represent his HP, and have him move aside required number of HP each time, trading in as required, but that's going to take longer and prevent the game from moving along.)

Consider a dice-rolling app

If you have the technology at the table, and he doesn't mind, using a dice-rolling app will allow all the dice to be automatically tallied for him, along with adding in any appropriate modifiers. In the case where lots of damage dice are being rolled, this may be worthwhile. Most players will find this less fun that rolling a handful of dice, so be sure to ask if having less stress to do the adding up makes it worth it for him.

Have patience and model patience for the rest of the group

Don't skip ahead. Respect his process, and make sure he gets help when he wants/needs it but is allowed to work some things out for himself as well. Wait until he's finished, with or without help as appropriate, before moving forward.

Have everyone do some of this so he doesn't feel too singled out.

So for example, have everyone make a poker chip for each of their attack types. Make sure everyone has their skills and saves pre-filled for simplicity and speed, etc.

Even at our table where we can all handle the basic math, someone sitting next to the person might chime in with the total (or difference) if they seem to be taking a while with it. It might be nice to develop a culture at your table where people chime in to help other people, though with teenagers, it might be hard for that to seem helpful and not "know-it-all" or show-offish. You can probably gauge your group best in that regard.

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Have Patience

The most important thing is to have patience. If you rush them it only makes it more difficult for them. There are other things to keep in mind, though:

Let him finish

If he doesn't have the chance to finish on his own he'll never improve. This is assuming that he wants to improve, but if he's sticking with the game and enjoys the story and the teamwork, then I'm sure he would want to improve. Good practice requires the complete follow-through.

Give Feedback

If you can do the math in your head and he's struggling, let him finish, but have the answer in your head and let him know immediately if he got it right or wrong.

Be Encouraging, and Stay Positive

If he got something wrong, encourage him and let him know that he can do it. If he got it right, congratulate him. As you notice that he's become quicker or more accurate, let him know that he's improving.

Scratch Paper

Give the player some extra scratch paper so that he can write out the numbers and see the math as he's working it out. Different people are good at different things, and there is no requirement for him to be good at doing math in his head. Personally, my mental math is all about using patterns as shortcuts, and seeing the numbers might help him see those patterns for himself.

Teamwork

Designate someone to help him, someone who can do the above things. Seat them next to each other at the table, and maybe even have the helper next in the initiative order. If the player who's turn is next is involved then there's a lot less pressure to skip and move on.

Do the Math Ahead of Time

Do as much of the math ahead of time as possible, such as calculating the To-Hit for all of the powers, the base damage bonus, etc. so that there are only two numbers to add: Dice and Modifier. A lot of these numbers only change upon leveling up, so you might make sure that he has more help when that time comes.

Change Character Sheets

Many players are uncertain about the math because they're uncertain about the numbers used in that math, and a DnD character sheet has lots of numbers. Getting him a different character sheet could help him find what he's looking for more easily, or even just writing everything out on notebook paper to eliminate the details that are unnecessary to his character or not needed in combat.

Dice Grouping

There are specific ways to help add dice easier if he's having trouble summing up larger dice throws. With large amounts of d6 you can create piles that each add up to 10; with smaller amounts you can add up pairs at a time, then sum those pairs. Help him find a method that works well for him.

Empower him as a Player

Part of the point of a fantasy RPG is to allow the players to feel empowered, to give them influence over their story and their world, even if it's only fiction. By helping him with his math skills and allowing him to develop, you're helping him find power as a person.

If you move on instead of allowing him to finish you're likely to make him frustrated, and both impede the calculations he's doing now and make the doing of the math a negative experience. There are other things that the other players can be doing while the one player works out the math, from preparing for their turn to grabbing a drink to checking rules to shopping for feats and powers for their next level.

Fantasy RPGs are a social experience, and in real life we all have to deal with people of different experience and proficiency. Learning to work with and help someone who is a little slow is good for everyone.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ +1 for "dice grouping", that's probably the best technique you can use about "mathing" dice rolls \$\endgroup\$ – IEatBagels Oct 20 '15 at 17:10
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As the DM, you should be helping players keep track of their character stats anyway, so rather than pushing past this player's turn, take the time to help them with the math personally. This will be easier if you re-arrange the seating order so that this player sits next to you.

If for some reason you can't do this yourself, you can ask another player to help them during their turn.

DnD is collaborative, and players and the DM should be helping each other enjoy the game anyway - math just happens to be one way you can help this player directly.

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    \$\begingroup\$ It may make things a touch awkward if someone has a math helper. This might be overlooked somewhat if other people at the table are also helping to "run the game" besides controlling characters. In some of my groups, certain NPCs were delegated to players, or one player tracked all initiative, one player tracked how much damage had been done to each opponent. These also keep people engaged, and offload work from the DM \$\endgroup\$ – Mooing Duck May 6 '15 at 16:25
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    \$\begingroup\$ @MooingDuck That seems like it would be overkill, and that it would result in slowing the game down further. This is one person who needs help with the math aspect of the game - it shouldn't require a drastic change to the playstyle outside of giving that player some help. \$\endgroup\$ – Zibbobz May 6 '15 at 16:34
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Visualization

I remember when I was young, I would solve addition and subtraction by pretending it to be money. Somehow imagining a monetary exchange happening, made the numbers more approachable to me.

For me, mental visualization was enough, but you can take it a step further and provide physical tokens representing the numbers in game. You can use coins with appropriate numbers written on, or differently colored or shaped tokens representing different values or different types (blue for Base Attack Bonus, red for Strength Modifier, lump them together to visualize the total; green for bonuses, red for penalties).

Pre-calculate most of the crunch

Another problem that might be occurring isn't so much adding or subtracting the numbers that is the problem, it's the amount of mutations that makes it complex for this player. It might be a good idea to group commonly used bonuses together, or pre-calculate them.

For example, the way Armor Class is pre-calculated. Imagine that every time the GM wants to hit a player, they'd have to look at their character sheets and find the armor bonus, shield bonus, dex, etc, add 10 and then figure out if they got hit or not. They (and you as GM most likely also) pre-calculated the AC total and wrote that on their sheet. You might be able to do this for more things, to reduce the amount of number mutations.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ I have a player who's good at math but never knows what adds up to her damage or to hit roll. Pre-calculate might be your solution - if the problem is the same. \$\endgroup\$ – Zachiel May 6 '15 at 18:15
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I have had this problem myself with some systems, especially at higher levels. This can be compounded as a DM when trying to juggle stats, bonuses, and spell effects for an entire horde of enemies. I am fairly confident in my mathematical skills, but sometimes doing calculations can throw me off, especially on the fly.

One thing that I have found that helps is to use counters. I have two colors of counters that I will use, blue and green. Blue means +1 and green means -1. This makes it much simpler for me to figure bonuses/penalties on the spot. When I am DM'ing, I use index cards with monster statistic blocks, so I will place the counters on the card directly.

Another thing that I have done as a player, before I used counters was to annotate directly on the play surface (typically a battle mat). This would allow me to quickly tally bonuses that were not on my sheet. Doing this on the play surface often served to remind other players to use all bonuses for spell effects, and it made it easier for someone to spot check me.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ Green means -1? Isn't that confusing? \$\endgroup\$ – Mast May 7 '15 at 18:11
  • \$\begingroup\$ @Mast It wouldn't be when there are only two colours and you know that one is − and one is +. \$\endgroup\$ – SevenSidedDie May 7 '15 at 22:33
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    \$\begingroup\$ When I started doing this, I had two colors, blue and green, so I decided that blue = bonus and green = poison. \$\endgroup\$ – Finni McFinger May 8 '15 at 2:55
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Play a game with less math

Although this isn't something I recommend myself, being that this kind of math also is useful outside of the game (for example, quickly verifying and dividing up a restaurant bill), there are several role playing games that aren't as math-heavy.

For example, there are diceless RPGs that have less influence of math. Of note is Frankenstein Atomic Frontier, which uses a system with cards instead of dice. You draw cards based on your bonuses, and if you draw a face card, you succeed. It's much easier to just draw 3 cards and see if there's a face in them than it is to calculate 5d8+3.

Play a class with less math

Depending on what source material you're using, there might be a class that has less math involved, likely through rolling less dice. I'm not familiar enough with DnD 4e to suggest any though.

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