Last Updated: April 8, 2022
One of the oldest criticisms of DnD is that combat takes a lot of game time. Despite combat frequently lasting less than 30 seconds of in-game time, combat can sometimes take hours, especially for powerful, complex enemies like legendary creatures and spellcasters.
As a Dungeon Master, you might reasonably ask yourself “How can I run faster combat?” The idea may seem daunting, but a few very simple changes in how you run encounters can make a massive difference in how long combat takes both round-to-round and overall.
Many guides in this vein will encourage you to make combat faster by taking away from it. Make it less difficult. Make it less complicated. Make the terrain less complex. In short: take away the fun and the challenge, rush through things, and be done with it. If you’re going to do that, why run the encounter at all? We’re not going that here. You’re going to run your combat with all the bells and whistles that you want. Just faster.
While there is a lot that you as the Dungeon Master can do to create faster combat, remember that DnD is inherently a collaborative experience, and your players are just as responsible for making combat fast as you are, so while this article is considered a Dungeon Master Resource, consider asking your players to read it too so that they can do their part.
Table of Contents
- Running Faster Combat
- Ending Faster Combat
Unless you’re running a totally improvisational game, you’re likely planning most encounters ahead of time. A little bit of additional preparation time can do a lot to create faster combat.
Decide Tactics Ahead of Time
Knowing what your monsters are going to do beforehand removes analysis paralysis. Just as your players should know how to play their characters in combat, you should know how the enemies in an encounter are going to behave. Tragically, the Monster Manual doesn’t include pre-written tactics for monsters, so you’ll need to look elsewhere. If you don’t already know how you want enemies to behave, I strongly recommend The Monsters Know What they’re doing, both the blog and the book (affiliate link).
When defining tactics for an encounter, consider the creatures’ objectives, how the creatures will attack, when and how they’ll retreat (if at all), when they’ll surrender (if at all), and how they’ll handle unconscious player characters. And write it down. Planning is great, but if you can’t remember your plan when combat starts you’re not helping yourself to succeed.
Know Your Players’ Stats
Write down each player’s AC and Passive Perception. Even if those numbers fluctuate due to spells, knowing those two basic stats means that you frequently don’t need to ask mid-combat.
If you roll below their base AC, you already know that you’ve missed. If you meet or exceed their base AC, you’re probably hit unless the players can counter it somehow (usually Reaction spells like Shield), so you can declare “A 17 hits Joe the Wizard” and the player may or may not get to interrupt you and justifiably feel like a clever hero.
Passive Perception is less crucial in most encounters, but in encounters with enemies who are hiding (a staple tactic for goblins, shadows, and many other enemies), the players’ Passive Perception defends them against poorly-rolled Stealth check. You as the DM can quickly scan your party’s Passive Perception scores, and inform observant players that they’ve spotted an enemy without going around the whole table repeatedly asking.
If you picked enemies ahead of time, you already know the enemies’ Dexterity modifiers, and the likelihood of something changing their initiative rolls is essentially non-existent. With those two facts in place, you an pre-roll initiative for every enemy in every encounter. That alone shaves several minutes off of every encounter you run because you don’t need to roll a d20, reference the creature’s stat block, record their result, and repeat for every enemy in the encounter.
I recommend still allowing players to roll their own initiative at the start of combat because that’s actually somewhat exciting for the players, and they’re more likely to do something odd like cast Guidance to get a bonus to initiative.
Running Faster Combat
Bring Your Own Dice
Every player should bring enough dice to cover everything that their character is capable of doing in combat without the need to reroll dice. Rerolling any number of dice at least doubles the amount of time it takes to resolve a single dice roll. If you need to pass dice around the table to make sure that everyone has enough, that adds more time to every single turn.
Bring your own dice. If you need more dice for big rolls, you can buy dice (affiliate link) by the pound. At the bare minimum, two full 7-piece sets will cover the vast majority of dice rolls, and if they’re in different colors you can use the d20s for advantage/disadvantage and roll them at the same time.
If you don’t want to haul a bushel of dice to the table, download a dice roller app on your mobile device and break it out when you’re standard set of 7 polyhedrals isn’t enough.
Contain Your Dice
The fighter’s turn begins. They choose to attack a nearby enemy. They roll their d20, and oh look it’s off the table. Everyone look under your seats. Where has the d20 gone? No idea. Oh look it’s under the furniture. Let’s all stop what we’re doing while the fighter fishes their die out from under the table. Good, roll it again. Okay, seriously, why is it off the table again?
If you play in person, some version of those events has likely happened to you. Dropping a die off the table causes the game to screech to a half, and on top of breaking any semblance of a mood, it eats a bunch of time while players look for their fancy math rocks.
Get a dice tray or a dice tower or just roll into a box of some kind.
Encourage Decisive Action
Encourage your players to decide and act quickly. This may take some time to build a good habit, but planning their turn in advance and deciding what they want to do quickly will keep turns short, which will then keep combat short.
If you need to encourage players, Inspiration is a great reward for consistently acting quickly.
Many people advocate setting a time limit on turns to address the same pain point, and make characters take the Dodge action if the player can’t decide. While this can work for some people, for others it causes a lot of anxiety, which can cause people to panic, freeze, and take longer as a result. Personally I prefer the “carrot” approach of rewarding decisive action to the “stick” approach of punishing slow action.
Let Enemies Waste Turns
In an encounter with numerous enemies, not every enemy will be able to contribute something meaningful every turn. Sometimes they’ll spend a turn to Hide, to heal themselves with Cure Wounds, to move to a better fighting position, to change weapons or equip a shield, or otherwise do something that isn’t directly harmful to the party.
Sometimes that’s just taking the Dash action to get close enough to do something useful or Disengage to get away from the party’s melee characters. Not every turn is going to be hyper-optimized to murder your players unless the creature in question is exceptionally intelligent.
Limit Table Talk
This recommendation is a little bit “soft”, and you’ll need to decide how to apply it based on your knowledge of your own group. At many tables, it’s common for players to have length discussions about what each character will do on that character’s turn. Turn starts, debate starts, debate eventually ends, the turn is taken, repeat for the next player. These lengthy discussions can make combat take a very long time, and while they may result in the players faring better in combat, it comes at a huge time cost.
I don’t consider table talk to be bad, and I’m perfectly happy to let me players discuss tactics and make decisions collaboratively during combat. The DM gets to make decisions for all of the enemies, so enemies think collectively at the speed of thought, while players are reduced to the comparably glacial medium of verbal discussion, so it’s totally fair to allow them to discuss how each player should spend their turn, especially when combat isn’t going well for the party.
Once your players know the game and know how their characters work in combat, try to limit these discussions. For relatively new players you might allow the acting player to ask other players questions if they need help, and you might ask other players not to speak unless they’re specifically asked for help. For experienced players, you might have a blanket restriction on out-of-character discussion during combat. Characters can shout a few words at each other over the din of combat, but they’re not doing debate at length about moment-to-moment tactics.
Again: you need to know your table and apply this based on your knowledge of the groups needs and capabilities. Also, if a lot of your table’s fun is chatter mid-combat, don’t feel compelled to throw that away in the name of faster combat. This is a game first and foremost, and having fun is the objective.
Group Identical Monsters
Rather than rolling initiative for all 20 goblins in an encounter, break them into manageable groups which will move and act at the same time, often cooperating to attack the same players (see Mob Attacks, below). This reduces the time cost to pivot your focus to a new creature. If a single group gets especially small, consider breaking up that group and distribute its members to other groups of the same creature.
Minimize Rolling Dice
Every time you roll a die, add modifiers, calculate the total, and compare it to your target number, it’s going to take roughly a minute. If you’re controlling multiple monsters or your monsters have multiattack, that’s going to add up quickly.
The simplest fix is to roll attack dice and damage dice at the same time. If the attack hits, you already have damage rolled and don’t need to fumble for dice again. If you’re using multiple low-CR enemies, just use the average damage listed in their stat blocks for the attack. Save rolling damage dice for bigger threats.
You can also have the players roll for attacks against themselves. They can do their own math for their AC and how much damage they take while you move on to the next creature in initiative, allowing you to parallelize the slow math. This also has the added benefit of offering comfort to players who are rolling poorly. If they’re rolling poorly, so is everything that’s attacking them. This does take some practice and critical thinking because sometimes the outcome of one attack might determine what happens next, so use your best judgement.
Mobs of low-CR enemies can quickly cause combat to come to a screeching halt as you roll a mountain d20s and total the results. WotC was smart enough to know that this would be a problem, so they wrote a section on handling them in the Dungeon Master’s Guide appropriately titled “Handling Mobs“.
Key among the advice offered in that section is the Mob Attacks table. Rather than having a dozen goblins each roll a d20 and determine if they’ve hit or miss, you can use a simple formula and the table to determine how many times the target is hit on average. This dramatically reduces the time you’ll spend managing those creatures’ attacks.
However, this method can run into some difficulties with options like Defensive Duelist and the spell Shield. I recommend applying the AC bonus from those features like any other AC bonus for the purposes of the mob attack, which should then adjust the number of hits accordingly.
For example: a player has an AC of 20 and is attacked by 5 stick-wielding murdergolems with +5 to their attack rolls. They need to roll a 15 to hit, so they need 4 murdergolems to get one hit, and the 5th golem is ignored. The player chooses to use Defensive Duelist, adding their Proficiency Bonus to their AC for the mob attack.
If their PB is +3, the golems now need 5 attackers to score 1 hit, so the player’s Defensive Duelist has no effect. If the player’s PB is +4, the golems now need 6 attackers to score 1 hit, so they miss. The player gets to feel like a clever hero for applying their feat so effectively, and you have rolled exactly 0 dice in this whole example.
Reveal Enemies’ AC
Players are often very smart, and after two or three attacks against the same enemy your players will know that creatures’ AC, or at least have it narrowed down to a narrow range. Strongly consider just telling players the creatures’ AC. The characters are trained for battle, and just as you as a human being can look at a muscly person and say “they can lift heavy things”, characters can look at an enemy in full plate and say “they are difficult to poke with a stick”. Save everyone the math. No one should blindly attacking the closest enemy and pretending not to know what AC is. It doesn’t add anything to the game.
If you’re worried that the players are going to abuse this knowledge, let me offer some comfort on the subject. Yes, they’re absolutely going to do that. If a creature’s AC is high, they might use spells like Bless to boost their attacks.
If a creature’s AC is low, they’re going to use things like Great Weapon Master or they might forgo things like Reckless Attack. Let them do that. They’re going to do that even if you don’t tell them enemies’ AC, though it might take them one or two attacks to figure out the numbers. As a DM, you should do the same thing. Wild enemies will opt for prey that looks frail compared to other options. Enemies should often attack players with lower AC when the option presents itself.
Track Initiative Publicly
Everyone should know where they are in the initiative order and whose turn it is. Representing this visually goes a long way.
If you’re playing digitally, roll20 and other virtual tabletops have initiative trackers which do this for you. Just remember to click the button to advance the initiative order every turn so no one loses track of where you are in the order.
If you’re playing in-person, come up with a way to visually indicate initiative. Attaching things to a DM screen is popular choice. I’ve seen clothes pins with names written on them used to great effect, and if you want something fancy, Stat Trackers (affiliate link) can solve multiple problems for you by giving you a quick reference for stats and visually representing initiative order to your players.
Ending Faster Combat
Kill Enemies Quickly
If a monster is down to a tiny fraction of its hit points, just declare it dead. The default hit points are an average within a range provided as a suggestion so that you don’t feel compelled to roll hit points for every zombie the players run into. It’s okay for an enemy to be behind the bell curve of hit points for creatures of that type, and having a player defeated by an enemy at 2 hit points feels awful or everyone. How frequently you apply this is up to you, of course, and if you want a specific enemy to last a little longer it’s also fine to give them above-average hit points.
Most creatures won’t fight to the death, but many DMs assume that every intelligent creature is perfectly happy to die in combat any time a player character walks into the room. This is not only unrealistic, it also adds a long period of “cleanup” at the end of a fight where the players won’t waste expendable resources because they’ve clearly already won, so everyone is just making attacks and casting cantrips and waiting for the enemies to run out of hit points.
Don’t let that happen. It’s not fun for anyone, and it takes forever.
To reiterate the point from Decide Tactics Ahead of Time (above), decide when enemies will retreat and how. Having enemies run away or surrender can eliminate an entire round of combat without significantly changing the course of your game. The players won, they still get all the experience and treasure, and maybe some unnamed bandits run away and live to regret the life choices which brought them into contact with a bunch of highly-trained murder-hobos.
If that’s not an option (zombies are too dumb to run away), see Kill Enemies Quickly, above.
Taken as a whole, the advice above should produce considerably faster combat without taking away any of the fun. Doing some things ahead of time, speeding up repeated operations, and eliminating unnecessary and tedious steps, you can buy yourself a lot of time to enjoy the fun parts of the game.
Adopting all of this advice at once is daunting. Don’t feel like you need to boil the ocean. Adding even one of the above suggestions can give you faster combat, and you can always experiment with more when you’re ready.