Rules and Advice
Game Mastering
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July 27, 2007, 2:51 pm

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Running Tactical Scenes at Lightning Speeds with Many Players


Action sequences in movies are fast, furious, and over all to fast.  They are exciting moments that most gamers are looking forward to.  Yet combat in most games is slow, ponderous, and takes up much game time. Gamers tend to blame the game systems. It is not the System, it is the group.

How to run a tactical situation quickly, especially with a large group.

Action sequences in movies are fast, furious, and over all to fast.  They are the moments that most gamers are looking forward to.  They inspire much of what we gamers do in combat. Yet combat in most games is slow, ponderous, and takes up much game time. Gamers tend to blame the game systems. Yet, I have seen complex systems (Rolemaster and Champions) being played with great speed and effect, and simple games (BESM) where combats with four people took as much time as the combat with Rolemaster took with 12 players.   While certain game systems are slower/ faster than others, it is the Troupe, the GM and Players, who really determine how fast or slow it all goes. 

Combat can be resolved quickly as long as everyone involved wants it to be quick.  If you actually timed how long people spent on certain things in combat, you would find that most of the time is taken up by the players, not the GM.  Start training your players early.


Make sure that they know the game mechanics that apply to their character.  Quiz them.  It sounds lame, but many people don’t really know all the mechanics on how to run their character.  Once you get them thinking about it, and bring them up to speed, you can get more out of them.

While they don’t need to know the rules as well as the GM, they do need to be familiar enough with the rules to be functional.

GM Organization

As a GM you need to be organized. You need to have all the characters combat numbers at your finger tips and you need to have all the bad guy’s numbers at your fingertip.

I personally make a magik board with an action chart appropriate for the game.  I do this for the heros and villians. I mark off damage on the board as well, so I know how much has been applied to who.  

A magic board is mini whiteboard, a quick and easy tool that any GM can use. All that is required is to put a thin piece of cardboard, backed in white paper, inside a plastic page protector. By using water based markers (overhead markers), you can draw on this magik board, and erase it with water. (Some people have had success with dry erase markers.) You can put a segment/ action chart in the back, and mark off when people go, and never have to make a new action chart again. The magic board has thousands of uses. It is a useful tool that I highly recommend.

I also require my players to give me updated copies of their character sheets. I keep those in my campaign binder for quick reference.  That way I do not have to slow down the game to ask for information about the character.  Notes: In case a character claims they bought someting or have X-number, the copy in your book is the one you go by.  That keeps the players constantly making you copies. 

To player better and faster, have a GM binder that holds notes, characters, and other things that relate to the campaign.  This binder should be tabbed in section and layed out so you can access info you need.  I sometimes photocopy important sections of the rules that I frequently use and put them in the front of said binder. 

Figure out how you want to set up your GM space for your own comfort and ease of access (to information).  Once your figure it out, always set up your stuff that way.  You will know exactly where everything is. 

Oh. If you are a magik player, use your spiral lifepoint counter to keep track of the current initiative. 

Tell them what you are doing

At the begining of the campaign and at the begining of the game, set down some ground rules for yourself and your players.

Tell them you will be running combat as fast as you humanly can… then go faster. If players realized that you are working really hard to make this go quickly, they will work with you.

State that you are not going to repeat yourself. That specifically includes descriptions and initiative counts. Players need to pay attention or they need to make perception rolls (and possibly half moves) to look around for that information.  (Exceptions can be made for reasonable distractions or being absent for some reason).  If they miss something, they have to retrieve it later. 

Tell them to declare or pass. If on their initiative a player, who has had 15 minutes to figure out his next action, does not want to declare an action immediately… skip them until later in the count.  

Since you have a track of everyone’s initiative, call them by name, rather than let them listen for a number, fumble for their number, then respond.

You can opt to use a chess timeclock or an 2 minute egg timer. At the begining of a persons initiative (dex count), hit the timer.  They have 2 minutes to determine what they are going to do, and start the game mechanics to do it (die rolls, motion, etc).  When your players get used to the time clock, you can declare the entire turn must be over by the ding.  Note: after a while, you can toss the clock away. Players internalize the time limit and keep playing at that speed. 

Side conversations are forbidden at a volume over a whisper. This is a must in larger games, that are usually held in places that are too small.

Have players help other players with game mechanics and information. This relates to the whisper rule. If a player looks confused, stop, point at another player and tell them to help the confused one. Then move on. Put your rules lawyers to go use. (The same thing goes if they are confused in a roleplaying session… put a roleplay artist in to help them). 

Kill all distractions, that means the magic games (which can be put on hold), TV, CDs, and computers, must be in a neutral position and can not distract anyone. The exception to this is character sheets on computers. But if the computer is being used for none game things, then the player has to go to hard copy.  Breaking this rule gives you bad karma or fewer experience points for the run.

Be Consistant

Keep using the same rules and structure for your combats.  Once the players get used to it, it will become second nature to them.

I might also suggest that you use the same format for resolving all combat actions.  The one I use for example is:

1) "Character’s name"  Howitzer?
2) "Player’s Response" "Yo"
3) "What are you doing?" 
4) "I am xxxxxxx"  This should include dialog and the fun comic like description of what they are doing.  Description first, game mechanics second.
"Rearing back I smash the ground, "ROOOOWWWRRRR". To generate a shockwave effect. 18 dice.

The player usually rattles off the required number (11+cv) or what ever is appropriate, but sometimes I ask them for the required numbers.

5) Move things on the tactical board, if needed.

6) Roll dice.  We roll all the dice required, so roll the damage dice at the same time as the attack. You may not need the damage dice, but that is one less time you have to pick up and roll your dice.

7) Tabulate and apply the results. Move characters again if required.

8)GM Describes the character’s final panel with the results. "Howitzer double smashes the floor sending a shockwave, things fall over, rubble is created, and the ninjas all jump and flip out of the way, except for this one in back who rolled badly."

You need to make sure that description is included. If not, the game degerates down into a simple number fest and you might as well be playing Squad Leader. You have to do it maintain the Genre feel.

Take a breath. Do the next one.

Extra Advice

Determine the basic strategy for all of your antagonists before the game starts. What will be their combat objectives and their regular tactics. Note it down on their sheet or card.  If the antagonists are part of a horde, lay down a basic strategy for the Horde. 

Cue card: Set up notes for yourself about good bits of description, game mechanics to use, and dialog to be presented.  If you do it ahead of time, you can just whip it out when appropriate, remind yourself what to do, and do it.

(Players should have cue cards too)

Players should have "standing orders" things they do every combat or every time things get wild.  These should be listed on a sheet.  If they figure out wha they want to do before hand, the players will play faster. 

There you have it. MoonHunter’s advice on how to make combats run quickly and effectively.

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Comments ( 15 )
Commenters gain extra XP from Author votes.

November 26, 2005, 10:57
Combat only goes as fast at the players want it. So for all your efforts, if the PCs want to kill a few hours doing a minor combat, because they are having fun talking, hanging out, eating, they are going to do it.

Gaming troupes are like horses. Most of the time it goes where you want, but when it wants to go somewhere else... you are along for the ride.

The moral of that story?

Make sure everyone is on the same page about how fast the combat will run. Make sure everyone in the game agrees about going quickly and efficiently. Educate the people who need educating. And if you have to, get a "shot clock". Then go to town. Or dungeon. Or temple. or oh heck anywhere you want to have a tactical scene.
November 26, 2005, 10:59
Excellent advice, MoonHunter! Nothing much here I would disagree with, but a bugbear that afflicted my games for years was keeping the initiative order: The summoned critter or the delayed action inevitably got missed and led to wasted time on questions and rework.

The method of tracking initiative that works for me is to put the ID of each combat participant on a separate card (business card, 3x5 or whatever) - only the ID, and one card for every combatant. I add cards for familiars, animals, spell effects and other things that must occur on a particular initiative count - again just the minimal name. All the other info stays on the 'magic board'* as described. I find that the initiative itself is too dynamic to track with a number on the board: It inevitably leads to missing things, as described above. Just put the cards in the right order, run them in order, and then when somebody delays or waits, etc, move their card to the appropriate place in the deck. Include a card for "End of Turn", to do a quick reprise of the overall action so PC's can ready their next actions, while the GM handles common end-of-turn bookkeeping. It works well for me.

As a separate hint, the ID mentioned above is something specific to each game, but I do like to use miniatures or counters on a scale battle-board to help make physical relationships clearer. My miniatures are all permanantly labeled with a short letter/number code on the base, and that is the ID used for all the NPCs, monsters, etc. Typically I create cards with the matching codes in advance. For the planned set scenes, I can pencil in the NPC name or monster type as well, and reuse the cards for multiple encounters. This greatly reduces the setup time of an encounter, and keeps subsequent "which goblin was that" confusion to an absolute minimum.

And finally, buy lots of dice of various colors so every player rolls every contingency in one roll. Apropos for the system, e.g.:
Black d20 is base To-Hit
Red d20 is Crit Hit/Fumble die
Black dX is base damage
2 red dX are crit damage
2 green d6 are sneak attack damage, &c.
Always roll all those dice at once for that weapon, and report only the final results after all necessary calculations. Have each player list it all in detail for each type of attack on their character sheet and refuse to accept missed die rolls: "You forgot the Flame Tongue damage die? Too bad, better add it by next round!" One evening of practice will have all the players up to speed and it becomes completely natural. Dice are (relatively) cheap, and saving a few minutes of "Oh, I may have a crit... Yep, that means I need to roll a ..." on nearly every encounter is worth the $20. (Think how much you've spent on all those books you no longer use...)

Thanks again for a great thread! Hope this was useful addition.

* I like the magic board mechanism described better than what I currently use, and will gratefully steal it - Thanks!
November 26, 2005, 10:59
Thanks alot this is very helpful and something I have troubler with.
November 26, 2005, 11:00

Good job, yet again Moonhunter. Your advice is always worth reading. I was speaking with Ancient Gamer about you and you are old school, a literal Dictionary of Gaming.

One thing I have done in the past and am now building up again for my system is a binder. Like you said.

I have a binder that is sectioned off with NPC's, Villian's, Creatures, etc. Each page is individual with as much information as needed about a specific person to include a picture. If not drawn by me, then that is where my Google Foo comes in handy.

This binder, while not having much information regarding the game itself, is for information on encounters. Who and what the players encounter. I also have a section in the binder for magic items that the player do or do not know about with complete details.

It helps in a pinch to have everything for me in this binder so I'm not shuffling through loose papers to look for information on an NPC or a villian. Its all quick reference and like I said, ther are pictures for better results for detailing the person to the group.

My 2 cents.
Voted KendraHeart
December 15, 2005, 0:58
Having played in a game with 28 people in it, and recognizing this play style, I played with someone who had read this article. It worked. It was not as much fun as it could of been, but we got things done. That lead to more fun, so it was all good.
April 26, 2006, 16:41
This is one of those pieces that I really like. I wish I could figure out a process this efficient for pbp players.
August 23, 2006, 17:32
Does the use of computers ensure speed?

Several members of my group, who are all computer programmers, thinks that using a computer will speed up the combat process. They have thrown some effort at it and, to date, have come up short.

Why is this? Because there is still too much in the way of data entry and data confirmation in the combat equasions. The various databased and calculator related programs have done little to improve our combat efficiency. In comparison, the processes outlined in this article has made tons of differences. So unless you are using a game system that requires massively complex formulas, it is not going to be helpful.
July 27, 2007, 14:51
Updated: Updated for the blockquote
August 23, 2007, 15:00
I agree with the computer comment. As a newbie I thought it would be easier to use a laptop for everything but it was just too slow.

For GM notes (I hyper link my notes to the various online or self made NPC sheets.) I generate the notes in a doc writer so may as well leave it on the pc. It is quicker to word search for obscure things. But I tell ya flippin pages in a hard copy also has its advantages.

Magic board is brill!! I have two and have always used them, gald to see my idea matches others :) In fact ill go one better. I purchased a few magnetic whiteboards. Like the tabbed initiative cards I have little mag id tags I can move easy on the board.I tick each one as it gets its turn, If someone is not ready I dont rearrange I just dont tick. at the end I check to see all are ticked then wipe and start again.

I did keep all this in excell once including damage and a die roller but to be honest it slowed things down filling in all the boxes. I admit the die roller was text input ie 2d6+2 a push button type might be quicker but you still have to add offsets anyway. Im playing with kids so math isnt great but its also one of the reasons we play.. to help their math. So die roll has been the best.

To check their sums I use a python terminal for math processing. or calculators in windows. I may have 6 calc windows up. One for each players HP and the NPC's HP. Very simple for them to roll damage, tell me and I just enter it "-6" on the appropriate calc. I find keeping my brain away from calculating the math allows me to focus on the narration and having a "calculator" stops any arguments. The calcs have a history too so its easy to see what happend, when.

But everything else is on the mag/white board.
I have some laminated sheets to with various quick ref and combat stuff on it.

Minatures are simply 30mm printed and laminated images of characters. (I actually use the image rather than an ID number, brains match images far quicker than letters/numbers) I have built up a decent collection of NPC's and I have some blank laminated ones just in case, that I can write on with a whiteboard marker. The miniature (stand up image) matches the initiative tags on my mag board.

At first I did use these boards in vertical mode, like a GM screen but found it was a lot easier and faster to use as a normal notepad. My quick ref sheets are the screen now.
August 23, 2007, 17:45
I tend to use cardboard heroes or marker squares just like you described for any game that requires tactical markers. I find them easier to use and easier to store, but the real reasons are that I can't paint figures to save my existance and lead/ pewter/ plastic is heavy in bulk.
Voted valadaar
August 23, 2007, 15:23
Why no/little votes? This one is awesome.
Voted axlerowes
October 14, 2010, 17:06

Solid Advice, this is generally how I prefer to run combat, with diagram of possible outcomes and NPC choices based on the likely PC choices.  Of course in the best games they always surprise you don't they...

Voted Ramhir
January 25, 2011, 12:56

Another good sub, MoonHunter. We are always trying to speed up the combat, which takes a long time compared to the roleplaying parts. Some of this we're already using, others are new ideas. Thanks.

July 17, 2011, 16:04

I have to disagree that computers slow things down. I am not sure what your programmers are doing wrong, but there are a whole host of tools that help. 

While many of us like rolling actual dice, if you roll 18d6 adding all of them up is a pain. A die roller does that for you. 

RPtools has everything from a virtual map to an intitiative tracker. Tools like that and google docs allow people to share information and sheets. The online SRDs for things like Pathfinder and 3.5 and bookmarked / text PDFs allow us to find and sort out rules quickly (though I agree that sometimes you just need a physical copy).

Having played a Malconvoker (summoning specialist) with over 9 summons on the board at a time I created a spreadsheet in my free time. I had only to input the AC of what was being hit, and it would give me a damage output. Refresh, and it would run the turn of the next summon. If your 'programmers' can't do something like that, well...

Lastly as much as I hate to be a software fangirl, I love Fantasy Grounds. From a DM perspective it is simply amazing. I could wax poetic about it for quite a while, so I'll leave it at that. 

July 17, 2011, 20:14
The article was written over 6 years ago. Technology works better now,

Champions players can casually count 12d6 at a glance (as we roll that every attack, 16d6 is an above average roll), but still a good die rolling program can be handy. Of course, dice pooling makes that interesting.

No game I play works with RPtool. So while applicable to the D20 crowd, tough for the rest of us. (though it has been two years since I have been in the program).

I still find my computer users spending more time futzing with the files or programs than actually using the for the game.

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