Slow combats kill games. This hard truth frustrates you and I because, as GMs, we feel it’s our responsibility to facilitate fast, sleek and exciting sessions.
When combat grinds, you end up with fewer encounters in a session. Fewer encounters means less story told, less adventure and less fun.
Combat grind also saps your players’ energy. You put effort into bringing enthusiasm and excitement to the table. You employ techniques with pacing and encounter design to create even more focus and drama.
But then combat grind comes along and deflates the table like a farting balloon.
Slow combats kill games.
So what is a game master to do?
Table Rules To The Rescue
One of the biggest reasons your combats are slow is players. They dawdle. They’re indecisive. They don’t know the rules and need the same rule explained to them every time. They chatter and don’t pay attention. Some even pay more attention to their phones than the GM!
With Tony Medeiros of LeonineRoar.com, I have published the world’s first online course for game masters. It’s called Faster Combat and in 52 info-packed lessons we teach you step-by-step exactly how to cut your combat time in half.
And believe it or not, we show you how to also increase drama and roleplaying at the same time!
One of the lessons covers the 17 Table Rules for Speed, and that’s what I want to show you today. This post contains info directly from the course, with some additional commentary from me just for Campaign Mastery.
I’m going to cover 11 of the rules today. I’m hoping if you like this advice and use it to increase your combat speed, you’ll consider enrolling in the Faster Combat course for GMs.
What Are Table Rules?
Your game books cover the rules of play. They tell you how to resolve different actions. Even if you use a rules light system, your rules still provide a framework for figuring out who shot whom and whether hiding in a fridge during a nuclear blast was a success.
However, game systems rarely help you with the social aspects of play. Things like slow players or disrespectful players.
Social etiquette, respect and procedure greases the wheels of smooth GMing and great game sessions.
A table rule is a simple group agreement about how to handle problem situations that often arise during games.
There are no villains here – you all play to have fun. But the problem comes when people with different backgrounds, experiences and expectations impose their style onto others without checking first.
If I told you your dice was cocked and your natural 20 was disallowed, you’d be very mad at me, especially if the issue of cocked dice had never been discussed before.
Johnn: I’ve always GM’d that cocked dice don’t count.
Bob: Well, in my previous group we allowed them!
Sarah: WE always used to re-roll cocked dice, but only if it was really cocked.
Johnn: What do you mean by really cocked? Like, 15 degrees or more?
Sarah: Yeah, like that.
Johnn: Ok, let me get my protractor and get a measurement.
Bob: Screw this, my roll counts!!! @#@$#!
You can avoid these nasty situations and speed your combats up a lot with some simple table rules.
Below, I offer several examples of great table rules for speeding up your battles.
How Do You Create A Table Rule?
But first, let’s quickly discuss how you create and handle table rules.
Again, your game books probably say either the GM has final say, or that the rules are suggestions only and your group should change them as they see fit.
In neither case do you get any help on what to actually do about keeping everybody in the loop and happy with rule changes and additions.
So here is what you do.
Step 1: Make a list of table rules you want to implement that’ll speed up combat.
Step 2: Take 15 minutes at the start of next game session to talk over each rule.
Step 3: Go through each rule one by one and explain WHY you want this rule. The why is critical for player acceptance. If they understand the purpose of the rule and its benefits, they will comply much better during sessions.
The best way to explain why is to state the proposed rule and then add “because”. The word because is a clear and clean segue for you to explain your reasoning.
“Dice rolled on the floor do not count…because nobody can see what you rolled and it’s not fair to introduce that ambiguity. Plus, I want you to immediately roll a new dice and look for the dropped dice after your turn…because that will speed up the game, especially for those hard-to-find dice.”
Step 4: Have a brief discussion, consider amendments and change any rules accordingly.
Step 5: Next session, give all players a copy of the group’s new Table Rules For Speed. Be consistent and fair in their application.
Step 6: At the start of each session for the next few sessions, ask if there is any feedback on the table rules. Have a discussion, make amendments, distribute revised rules accordingly.
Step 6 should only be for two, three or four sessions until each rule has been tested, contested and rested. From then on, it will be smooth sailing.
Occasional hiccups will happen. In these cases, go back to the steps above, which are all about clear communication, group collaboration and fairness.
Ok, let’s dive into my suggestions for some Table Rules For Speed!
Top 17 Table Rules For Speed (Expanded)
Here are the very best table rules to help manage your game table and increase turn speed.
These table rules are designed for fairness and to help you run faster combats so you can chew through more exciting encounters every session.
Table Rule 1. Speak Up: Ask
Simply ask your players to take their turns faster.
Tell them things appear to be grinding to a crawl and the pace of combat needs to increase so there’s less waiting around the game table.
Tell your playgroup you’ll regularly ask players to pick up the pace throughout a given session or campaign.
This is the most important part of the table rule. You are getting player permission to call them out periodically when they drag the pace down. Without this table rule and their permission, you come off looking like a jerk.
But because this issue has been discussed, when you do ask a player to hurry up, the groundwork has already been laid that this type of GM callout is acceptable and is for the good of the whole group.
This table rule also communicates it’s not personal. All players will be subject to this callout, which makes any potential sting painless when it happens.
If you can, try a friendly approach. “Bob, I’m invoking Table Rule #1. Please finish up your turn quick here so I can move on to Frank.”
If you do this, soon you’ll be able to snap out, “Table Rule #1” and get a smile – and a faster player – instead of a stressed or hurt player.
It just becomes part of your group’s social standards, no harm or foul.
Table Rule 2. No Take Backs
Use the classic chess or board game piece rule: once you’ve declared an action or moved your miniature, there’s no taking it back.
Use this if your group has indecisive or highly tactical players.
Some players are tricky. They’ll announce an action and wait to see your reaction. If they think you’re about to lay down some smack, they’ll quickly recant and think some more.
You give away the consequences with your energy, facial expression and body language. You might even give yourself up with how you speak: “Awesome, well then, your foe….” Speak like that and a player realizes they’ve made a mistake and will do a take-back.
This table rule should include a GM protocol to help it along. You don’t need to discuss this, it’s just something you do. When a player declares their action, you confirm, then declare it final, then react.
How you word this is up to you, but one suggestion is:
Sarah: I charge forward, sword swinging above my head, giving my fierce battle cry!
Johnn: Haha, that’s a great description. So you charge forward? (? Your smooth confirmation, before reacting)
Johnn: (now you react ?) Great! To your horror, the floor drops beneath your feet. As you attempt to avoid the trap, you catch the glint of massive spiked cylinders churning below in a pool of vile blood and gore. [Make a Reflex save.]
Table Rule 3. Reroll Dice That Fall Off The Table
Flying dice cost time. And the odd thing is, good rolls on the floor tend to count, but bad rolls must be re-rolled because “my dice rolled off the table.”
Establish a clear rule on what to do when this happens and apply this table rule every time, regardless of what the dropped dice rolled.
One option is the player (or GM) must re-roll a new dice immediately. This saves the quest-for-dice delay, and it removes any temptation to ask for an appeal when the dropped dice result is spotted.
Another option is to not allow re-rolls for players with bad aim. Have those rolls count as a 1. That’ll quickly make everyone a lot more careful with their dice. This is especially good for players who are a little careless or who aren’t paying enough attention to the game.
You might also consider using a communal dice tray. A game box lid does just fine. All player dice must be rolled into the tray. Put the tray where you can easily see it.
Players should remove their dice from the tray once finished their turn so other player’s rolls do not accidentally touch another player’s dice and get “contaminated.” (You would not believe the dice arguments I’ve had with players, but as with any form of luck, superstition and habit sets in.)
A nice benefit of a tray is minimal cocked dice. No lie: a former group ruled a 15 degree angle or gap or more constituted a cocked dice. I brought a protractor to sessions. This only lasted a couple of sessions though, because it was so silly, but the protractor became a symbol.
Table Rule 4. No Cross Talk or Interruptions
Ask players to not interrupt or disrupt other players during their turns. It’s just the player and GM, focused on each other, working out that player’s turn.
I recommend you do not allow in-character talk with the active player, either.
Instead, for maximum turn efficiency, allow players to roleplay with each other when inactive as much as they like as long as they do not get too loud. This lets players plan and chat and entertain with each other without costing game time.
I know this breaks your game’s round length – how could so much conversation happen in those 6 or 10 or 30 seconds? – but it’s a nice compromise.
If you don’t like this, then consider allowing only in-character talk (no meta-gaming, please) with the active player. And just allow brief phrases, replies or an exchange of one sentence during the short period a combat turn represents.
The biggest time drag comes from indecisiveness. Some people cannot make snappy decisions. And if you allow other players to talk with the active player and introduce new ideas and choices, you just make indecisive players take even longer on their turns (which is stressful for the player too).
Not allowing cross-talk also prevents meta-gaming. Players cannot share info the active character would not know during his player’s turn. (It will happen out of turn anyway, but things always get “real” when the spotlight is on you, and minimizing meta-gaming this way helps roleplay and drama.)
The opposite of indecision is over-analysis. Does your group discuss and analyze every option on each character’s move? Holy cow, that’s a big peeve of mine and it takes up a lot of game time.
Finally, interruptions break concentration and steals the spotlight away from the active player. Not only does this slow combat down, but you rob characters of their shining moments.
You also rob roleplaying, because if you honour spotlight time and make it safe, players will roleplay PC actions and abilities more often.
Table Rule 5. Use Clear Language
Require that everyone declares targets, distances, hit rolls and damage totals clearly.
Make sure players point to miniatures or make sure every miniature is labeled so players and GMs can easily call them out throughout a combat.
Add up damage done to a target and say a single number out loud whenever possible.
The spirit of this rule is to avoid ambiguity. The time it takes to go back and forth cause combat turns to slog down.
Bob: I hit the lizardman for 10.
Johnn: Great, the lizardman….
Bob: No, wait! I do 8 with the sword, 2 for strength, 1 for the bless and 1 more for power attack. Ok, I do 12.
Johnn: You sure?
Johnn: Great, the lizardman reels back but takes the damage like a true warrior. He hisses and you think he’s actually laughing at you!
Bob: Wait, what? No. I hit the already-wounded guy. Does he die?
Johnn: Oh, sorry, I thought you were attacking the guy in front of you.
And on and on it can go. Plus, in the example above it blew my great combat description and my little GMing moment of flavour. Boo.
One solution is to confirm everything. But that’s tedious too.
Instead, if players can help you by being crystal clear on all the facts involved in their action, you don’t need to confirm, you avoid the lengthy back and forth and demoralizing errors, and combats go by much faster.
Note: you can help players help you by giving them your full attention. Do not reward players honoring Table Rule #5 with a request for them to repeat themselves because you were only half listening.
Table Rule 6. Snack After Combat
No snacking during turns.
Encourage everyone to eat meals before the session so players have their full attention on the session and combats, rather than their food.
Members of my group take turns supplying dinner at the start of sessions. That way we eat together and the meal is taken care of, plus we fit in some great social time and session readiness time.
If you allow snacks at the table (which most of us do) then ask players not to eat on their turn. This makes turns go a little faster, and it keeps the game area cleaner. It’s also easier to not talk with your mouth full. :)
Table Rule 7. Make Passive Checks
Don’t slow down combat with yet more rolls.
Use passive checks or just assume success for certain situations, especially at higher levels of play.
Many games already include automatic checks like this (i.e., “Take 10”).
Ask yourself whether chance of failure adds any value to a particular situation. Does it add drama, chance of a great story result or twist, or fun because of chance of failure.
If the roll would add little to gameplay, hand wave it instead for the sake of brevity.
Doing this actually enhances story and roleplaying because you can dive seamlessly into great narrative or description, adding flavor, without the stilted effect of dice rolls and result calculations.
You can also ask players to provide great descriptions for automatic checks.
Johnn: Frank, no need to roll your climb because it’s just a 3 foot leap. You succeed. Instead, describe what happens.
Frank: With clanking armor and jingling weapons, Krog gingerly steps over the lava stream. He grunts from the heat and almost trips as his visor accidently closes, but he makes it across and keeps running towards his foe!
Table Rule 8. Seating = Init
Once initiative is set, have everyone sit in initiative order as a visual aid to track initiative.
Then play proceeds clockwise around the table with less time wondering whose turn it is.
This works when initiative is fairly static. If you play a game where init changes each round, I could make a case for switching to average init, and not just to speed up combat, but to make combat more strategic as well.
For example, as mentioned in Module 3 of Faster Combat, “an average initiative result approach yields a consistency of more realistic and immersive role-based quickness through an entire campaign’s worth of combats. Monstrous insects tend to always act faster than slow-moving giants, for example.”
However, I know init is very much a GM and group style choice, so there is no one perfect solution. My Pathfinder group rolls once at the beginning of combat, and we use a lot of readied and delayed actions, so seating in init order would end up being musical chairs.
But think how easy initiative management would become if each player knew it was his turn once the guy on his right is done, or that his turn is coming up soon because Bob seated over there is taking his turn now.
Visual, intuitive and fast.
Table Rule 9. Stand Up
Ask everyone to stand during combat.
Standing increases energy and attention levels. And in the case of combat, it increases focus.
Another perk: it makes players a little uncomfortable and motivates them to finish combat faster.
Sitting for too long – especially without good breathing practices – makes you tired. Standing up gets the blood flowing again.
Standing for combat also subtly implies action.
Table Rule 10. No Dice Massaging
Ban dice massaging from your game table.
A second or two is okay, but approaching five+ seconds every time someone rolls dice is an annoying time waster.
Do you have a player who must fondle his dice before every roll? I had one. We got into arguments over it. The superstitious ritual just kept getting longer and more involved.
It got even worse when the player ran into a bad luck streak. Suddenly the massages turned into performance art. Great for festivals, bad for fast combats.
Here’s where you can help me. Dice massaging is creepy, but fancy dice rolling moves are cool! Do you know of any sites or videos that show you cool ways to roll dice (fast). I thought magic trick sites might have some interesting flourishes, but um, no dice. So the quest continues.
Table Rule 11. Announce End Of Turn
When your turn ends, announce it clearly and audibly.
A simple “Done,” works. A “Done, Dave is next,” is even better.
And the platinum version? “Done, Dave’s next and Andrea – you’re on deck.”
This table rule speeds up combat in two great ways.
First, it makes it crystal clear when the next player’s turn activates.
Ever had those moments where nobody knows whose turn it is and the game simmers for awhile? You are busy checking up something behind the screen, so you don’t catch that the next player is oblivious it’s their turn.
Crisp hand-offs improve round speed and leave no guesswork about who should be declaring their action right this moment. It also prevents players from spacing out.
Think of it like a baton race. The fastest team depends on excellent hand-offs.
The second reason this table rule is so effective? When a player announces his turn is done, that’s it.
Similar to no take-backs, if something was forgotten that was potentially beneficial, it’s lost: do it on your next turn.
You stave off arguments, time-consuming retcons and re-calculations.
You also prevent the next player’s turn getting interrupted halfway through, which is a bit rude and flusters some players. Plus, sometimes the interruption forces a player to rethink their turn and start all over again. Killer.
This table rule encourages everyone to pay attention on their turn and make good decisions fast.
Print out your Table Rules For Speed and put them on the back of your GM screen. Just like B.A.’s screen in Knights of the Dinner Table, the table rules are public and there for all to reference all the time.
If you do not use a screen, post your table rules up on the wall, or get them laminated and put them on the table each session.
Done right, the Table Rules For Speed you assemble become part of your group’s culture. The silent message they deliver each session includes respect for each other, and to speed gameplay up so everyone can enjoy more encounters and story every game night.
You all have more fun because the group’s table rules grease wheels that might otherwise get jammed up from bad practices, poor communication and a weak gaming spirit.
Go through the list of table rules above. Select the ones you think would benefit your group best.
Add new ones as you sit fit (and please share them with us – I’d like to hear what yours are).
Have a group discussion. And then begin your faster combats. Roll initiative!