Synopsis Of The Problem

In Johnn’s last blog post, “My Group’s Time Thief Revealed,” he described his discovery that the chief drag on the pace of his combat was the GM, despite his expectations to the contrary. While he did not track the components of his activity, he was able to dismiss a couple of factors out of hand – it wasn’t initiative tracking, and it wasn’t looking up rules. It wasn’t the initial combat set-up, either – that’s an overhead that would be incurred anyway, sometimes taking longer and sometimes not.

As he became aware of the trend, he started paying attention to the clock app he was using to analyze the time expenditure while GMing in an effort to identify what he was doing that was taking so long.

I’ll quote his findings directly:

…it was a combo of lack of preparation and lack of knowledge of the game rules. Boo.

The demons had a number of spell and supernatural ability options. I did not research these before the game. So I caught myself hitting d20pfsrd.com and researching my options before deciding each demon’s actions.

Further, I had no familiarity with the swarm rules. Those critters have a lot of specific rules pertaining to them, so I looked those up several times during the combat.

Another factor, but a minor one, was not knowing what mini belonged to each PC. That caused me to hesitate several times. I’d figure out a demon’s action, then realize I had mistaken a mini for another PC, and go back to the drawing board.

That’s three separate issues, but Johnn’s post doesn’t include any solutions, and neither do most of the comments, as I pointed out in response to the article – though a number of commentators said “I have the same problem”. There were a couple of other minor problems and potential problems revealed by the analysis, but Johnn included plans to deal with those in his blog post, so those don’t count.

This brings me to the purpose of this blog post: to suggest one or more solutions that I employ to get around these problems in my games.

The Assumptions

Several of the comments on the Blog suggested things that Johnn could do to prevent these problems in the form of game prep. I’m going to assume that, for whatever reason, no game prep has taken place.

I’m further going to assume that the goal is to reduce the overall time required to complete the combat – which went for 6 rounds. If one minute invested in additional set-up saves half a minute or more per round once the battle actually commences, it’s a valid solution to the problem.

Without a more specific breakdown of the time delays associated with each of the problems Johnn listed, it’s hard to offer a relative weighting. My own experience is that a short battle (3 rounds or less) emphasizes the Rules Knowledge problem (#2) while longer battles emphasize the Enemy Abilities problem (#1). That’s because the GM is learning as he goes, so any delays caused by the Rules Knowledge problem tend to be amortized (spread over) all the combat rounds involved.

In other words, the first couple of rounds contain a disproportionate share of any Rules Knowledge problems; as the GM comes to grips with how the subsystem concerned works, he needs to consult the reference material less frequently, and the delay that results is comparatively smaller as a result.

Ability problems, on the other hand, tend to recur more frequently from round to round, and are slower to decline. So the larger the combat, both in terms of number of participants and number of rounds, the greater the proportion of the overall time loss that can be attributed to this cause – and hence the greater the scope for time savings in the long run.

Spell and Supernatural Abilities

That makes this the problem in greatest need of a solution. It’s also the problem that – in my experience – occurs most frequently.

Whenever an encounter occurs, I spend a minute or so glancing over the abilities of the creature in question. I mentally categorize each ability into one of four types:

  • Defensive Abilities
  • Offensive Abilities
  • Tactical Abilities
  • Other Abilities

I don’t read the entries describing these in detail, just skim over them as quickly as I can.

As I do so, I am looking for the answers to a set of five specific questions:

  • What is the creature’s basic vulnerability? Some creatures are especially vulnerable to magic, some to good, some to evil, some to ranged combat, some to melee, some to fire… the list goes on. This question is a guide to the creature’s nature, but more importantly, to its tactics: if threatened with this type of attack, the creature will either make the wielder a priority target or will seek to avoid battle with that individual. Early in the battle, the first reaction will be more common, later in the battle it will be the second. I’ll spend 10-20 seconds deciding this.
  • What is the creature’s preferred attack mode? Some creatures will prefer to attack from a distance, others have touch attacks, some swallow, and so on. Again, this is a guide to behavior – once the creature’s preferred attack method is known, all the other attack methods it has at it’s disposal become ‘exceptional cases’ to be called apon only under appropriate circumstances. Again, I’ll spend 10-20 seconds deciding this – perhaps longer in the case of something with a lot of abilities, like a spellcaster or a Beholder or a Demon/Devil.
  • For each other attack mode, what circumstance would make the creature want to use it? I don’t try and remember the details of each ability, I simply decide when they will use it. If those circumstances don’t come up, I never have to look at the ability in detail. Once again, the focus is not on “what can this creature do” but “how will it behave?”. I’ll spend about 5 seconds on each. With a ‘typical’ creature, that comes to 10-30 seconds.
  • How can the creature best manage its tactical situation? This question sounds a little waffley, but that’s because it covers a lot of ground. It relates to how the creature moves, and whether or not it has certain feats, and so on. Will the creature hit-and-run, foregoing multiple attacks and enduring attacks of opportunity? Will it attempt to attack from a distance? Will it focus on a single foe, or engage multiple enemies at once? Is it faster-moving than any of the PCs? Are any of the PCs faster than it? With the earlier analysis complete, this step is usually fairly quick – another 10-20 seconds.
  • Finally, What’s its objective/motivation/psychology? With intelligent creatures, this actually tends to be the first question I attempt to answer, before I even skim the ability descriptions; with non-sentient creatures, or especially stupid ones, it’s the last question. Either way, this question attempts to sum up all the other ones in a single statement. I’ll spend 20-30 seconds determining this answer.

That’s a total of between 60 and 120 seconds in most cases, and it yields two distinct advantages: It focuses my attention on the abilities that the creature is most likely to use (largely ignoring the rest), and it makes it much quicker and easier to select a reaction to any developments on the battlefield. Both save time each and every round in the battle – so much so that I can often reach decisions on behalf of the creatures more quickly than the players can do so concerning their PCs.

The only time that this solution doesn’t work very well is when there are many different types of creatures in a single encounter. Even in an extreme case, though, it is still helpful – just not as much as it would otherwise be.

Swarm Rules Familiarity

This problem – and its kindred – are more difficult to solve, simply because while there are a number of solutions, there are no one-size-fits-all answers.

Enlightened Players

One of the key questions is how much the GM is willing to let the players know in advance of the combat beginning. There will be times when an enemy’s nature must be concealed, and times when he can be more open. In Johnn’s case, he might or might not have been willing to let the players know in advance that he needed the Swarm rules.

When secrecy is not an issue, get your rules expert – every table has one, it sometimes seems – to summarize the relevant rules for you. Get another player to locate the relevant rules for you. Johnn himself said: “Players are responsible for the rules – I almost never look them up.” When you can, put that expertise to work for you.

Ignorant Players

If it is necessary that you conceal the rules issue from the players, the problem becomes much harder to solve. When this happens to me, I guesstimate how much damage the PCs are likely to do, and roughly divide the total hit points of the encountered creatures by that amount to get some idea of how many rounds the battle is likely to take. I halve that to determine how many minutes I’m justified in expending on skimming the relevant rules. I try to reserve about 1/3 of this amount for use during the battle.

My objective here isn’t to know the rules backwards and forwards; it’s to know the rules enough to comprehend and choose amongst the options made available by the rules subsystem in question. The secondary objective is to know anything that is an “all the time modifier” to the standard rules, such “take no critical hits”.

During the battle

Each time the rules subsystem comes into effect, I jot down a summary of the relevant rule, unless its already on the list from an earlier round. “Many creatures treated as one larger creature – HD, HP INIT, Spd, AC” would be the first notation I would make concerning a Swarm, for example. “Half Damage from slashing and piercing weapons” and “Automatically do damage, no attack roll needed” are others. Until someone actually fired a spell at the swarm, I would completely ignore any rules regarding spell effects or immunities. [these rules excerpts were taken from the Pathfinder SRD "Swarm" creature subtype.] The more compactly I can summarize these, the better – they are a mnemonic device, not a complete summary.

The governing principle is “need to know” – as in, “What do I need to know right now?” If I don’t Need To Know It, I don’t want to know it. When I find that I do need to know it, it goes onto my behavior summary, so that I don’t need to go searching for it again.

After the battle

One of the techniques that I recommended in the still-ongoing “Rules Mastery” series was to keep a logbook, indexed, in which you summarize any rules information that you’ve had to refer to in the course of the day’s play – again, the objective is not to have to do it a second time. As soon as the battle is concluded, I would spend a couple of seconds transferring the rough notes gathered During The Battle (above) into the Logbook while the rules in question are still clear.

While this represents a small delay to play at the time, this delay is actually an investment in speedier combat the next time around.

One Creature

One final note while I’m somewhere close to the subject: I commented in the section on “Spell and Supernatural Abilities” that the solution posed there would not work as effectively when the combatants were of many different varieties. One way of overcoming that problem – at least in those cases where sentience and experience/expertise permits cooperative tactics – is to treat the group of enemy creatures as one big creature with multiple attacks, multiple hit point reservoirs, and so on. Instead of assessing the tactical options of individual creatures, this perspective enables the GM to use the groups’ overall objective to restrict the tactical variables for the individuals.

Identifying Minis

The final problem Johnn reports is that of correctly identifying who a mini represented, with time being lost redoing tactics because he thought he was dealing with one PC and it was, in fact, another.

This is described as a minor problem, and so it deserves a minor – i.e. quick and easy – solution. It just so happens that I have one.

I don’t use Johnn’s Initiative system, I write a list of all combat participants and their init totals, then rewrite the list into init order. In large or confusing battles, I sometimes have trouble remembering which mini is which character – the exact same problem that Johnn had. After a couple of errors of the same variety that Johnn describes, I started to list the minis next to the names. There is usually a one-word characteristic that is unique to each mini that’s in use, or perhaps two, and that’s all that’s needed.

Examples that I might very well use are “Luke Skywalker”, “Blue Robe”, “Curved Sword”, “Yellow Beard”, or “Dr Strange”. So long as it’s unique to the mini in question, it’s a good enough to identify the Mini.

So the solution is either for Johnn to make a list of which mini represents which character, or to write that 1-2 word description on the card with the initiative of the character. The first is probably less work and leaves the whole list accessible whenever it’s needed, so that’s what I would do.

Once such a list is compiled, it won’t change for the rest of the day’s play, and may remain valid over many game sessions.

It’s as simple as that – a list which shows “Player Name – Character Name – Mini Description” for each PC and NPC. Some people might also choose to include “Class” and “Level” but these change more frequently, and hence need more frequent updates.

The Ultimate Answer?

None of these will solve Johnn’s problems completely, and none of them will offer even a partial solution 100% of the time – but they should cut the administrative problems he encountered by one half, perhaps as much as 2/3. Instead of a total of 34 minutes 14 seconds (including 5 minutes overhead for set-up), it should be easy to reduce that total to 19½ minutes or less – a saving of almost 15 minutes – by employing these techniques. With a total time for the battle of 77 minutes 17 seconds, that would become about 62 minutes. If the circumstances are right, it might even be possible to cut another 5 minutes off the total.

But wait, there’s more! The better the GM understands what the NPCs/monsters are doing/capable of doing, the more quickly he can adjudicate player actions. The amount of time saved here is unknowable – it might even be zero, but with more time expended on producing a quality game experience by re-tasking the saved time. Either way, it’s a sure bet that this will also be an improvement in the game play. And that makes these techniques a win-win for both players and GM.

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