The Quickening: Tips For Streamlining Combat

There can be only one!
Image Courtesy of Steve Olson and Corbis Images

Combat is the most time-consuming portion of many, many tabletop games. It can degenerate into a chaotic, messy duel of opposed rolls at a moment’s notice, easily leaving everyone at the table bored, spacey and frustrated. While there are a lot of groups that don’t have these particular problems,  introducing new players, new systems or a game comprised of nothing but  roles-not-rules thespians might find themselves struggling to get through a single combat in one session, let alone multiple encounters on the same game night. Luckily, there are a variety of tricks to speed combat along, and we’ll cover a few of them after the jump.

1. Fill out all of the Derived Values

It may seem like an obvious step, but in a large game with a bunch of new players, things can get overlooked pretty easily. Calculating Derived Values, such as To-hit or Soak Values, is sometimes glossed over entirely in some character generation sections, and often poorly covered in others. Take the time before game to sit down with your players and go over their sheets to make sure everything everything is filled out properly. This goes double for anyone playing a shapeshifter, as they frequently have multiple sheets to represent the abilities of their different forms. It’s amazing how much not having to stop and figure out the soak value of their gigantic hydra-weasel form in the middle of combat will speed things along. This step also applies to things like weapon and armor. People are usually pretty good about recording the damage their weapons deal, but sometimes things like ranges, special notes and ammo capacity can get overlooked.
2. Prepare Reference Sheets 
Setting up a cheat-sheat really helps both you and the player characters speed things along. A small, printed supplement with a basic mechanical summary of the combat rules as they relate to attacking, defending, cover and grappling will save many lost hours spent pouring through sourcebooks. Any spellcasters or the like should get their own separate sheet detailing how to use their powers.  Making sure you keep fairly detailed records on your NPCs  and their capabilities close at hand will save you time spent digging through the books of you draw a profound blank on how their horrible immolation powers work.
3. Make Sure You’re Having The Right Kind of Combat 
The motivations for a fight can be an important factor in how it is fought. Design encounters with the party dynamic and skillset in mind. Story-oriented players will get bored with an endless array of random, purposeless encounters and many power-gamers would rather invest the time in sandpaper-based body modification experiments than sit through yet another long social combat. If you’ve got a mixed group, like practically everyone does, you’ve got to keep the encounters varied and interesting or your players will stop paying attention and slow down combat even more.
4. Who’s On Deck?
One of the most helpful things you can do to speed up combat is call out the current player’s turn, followed by the turn of the character that will be up next, or “On Deck” as the phrase goes. It lets that person know to really start planning their next action, look up anything they need to look up and think up questions they can ask about their opponents or environment to help them execute an action. I’ve seen a “use it or lose it” approach where if I player can’t think of an action within a given time frame, they lose their action. I will almost always disagree with implementing this, since the pressure can easily cause mental blockage or anxiety that results in some of the players getting skipped over a lot. For example, if I implemented a “30 Second Rule” in any of my games, I’d be skipping the initiatives of about half of my party most of the time, and they would then be waiting for me in the parking lot with a few tire irons after game. It’s a much gentler solution to call out who is up next and help them through any questions they might have, and one that is much more likely to have better long-term results.
5. Assign Rule Buddies
Some people in the group will know the rules of the system better than others, and those people can help the other players immensely during combat. This is a good step to take because it helps free you up to better handle the NPC and Player actions.  A Rules Buddy can help by quietly answering any questions the on-deck player might have while you resolve the current action. As a general rule of thumb, the people who know the system better will also be much better at finding things in the rulebooks. I frequently ask the members of the group with more experience in the system to find things for both myself and the other players while I handle something else that’s  happening in the game.
6. Reduce The Tension 
Some people work well under fire, while others may find themselves unable to think clearly or act decisively under pressure. Maybe they’re stressed about combat itself, or perhaps their character has spent most of the last three fights admiring the slowly-spreading pool of their own blood oozing across the floorboards. Either way, stress can seriously impair cognitive function… and make the game pointless as a recreational activity in the process. Throwing in a sillier, less lethal combat or two can really help get everyone relaxed and back in the mindframe of actually having fun.
7. Teamwork Is Carnage 
Typically speaking, the people I play with usually fight as a group of individuals rather than as a team. Everyone typically makes their actions independently of eachother and employing a fairly minimal amount of coordination beforehand. A notable exception to this method of operation was when a member of the group decided to run a Post-Apocalyptic My Little Pony game. In keeping of the theme of the show, we decided to put a lot more effort into working together as a team… and the results were absolutely devastating. We blitzed through combats and inflicted an unprecedented amount of havoc and suffering upon our enemies. Working together towards the same objective, as opposed to each of us trying to enact our own individual goals and strategies, not only sped up combat immensely, but it allowed us to dish out a hell of a lot more damage.
8. Change The Game 
Picking the right system for your group is really important. Using the Heroes System to run a pack of drama nerds through a technically detailed, high-tactical shoot ’em up game probably isn’t going to be much fun for anyone… just like running a game that uses fluid, ephemeral trappings grounded in raw creativity and ritual enact its mechanics will drive a group of concrete-thinking powergamers up the wall in very short order. In either scenario, the combat is going to be very, very slow. The players will likely stumble through an arcane and seemingly arbitrary rule system, and the high stakes of combat will only serve to exacerbate that stress significantly.  If you seem to be having a lot of trouble with running combat, you might want to think about changing up the system you’re using, or even taking a break from the campaign you’re running to try something new for a while.
Alternatively, there’s the fact that some games are just poorly designed, especially in regards to combat between very experienced characters. I’m not going to name systems, but I’ve had plenty of unfortunate experiences with high-level combat consisting of nothing but epic, albeit entirely pointless, slap-fights that take hours to resolve and usually accomplish nothing except for gratuitous amounts of collateral damage.
In Closing 
There are plenty of ways to speed up your combat, and we’ve only focused on a few here. Helping your players learn what they need to know, providing reference sheets and putting more emphasis on teamwork will go a long way towards resolving your slow combat woes.

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