Tobold's Blog
Friday, August 29, 2014
 
DM techniques for running D&D encounters faster

I talked this week about the dual role of the dungeon master (DM) in a game of Dungeons & Dragons or similar tabletop role-playing game: Prepare and improvise. In this post I'm going to talk exclusively about the preparation part. Advance warning, if you aren't planning to play a pen & paper role-playing game anytime soon, this post isn't going to be very interesting to you.

Me and my players love the tactical combat encounters of D&D 4th edition. We love having lots of options in each round of combat, and not just announcing basic attacks. And we love the tactical options that come from using figurines on a battlemap. For a combat to be tactical, it must last several rounds, so that the effect of tactics has more impact on the fight than lucky dice rolls. All that means that tactical combat takes a certain amount of time. But how much time it takes depends very much on DM preparation. If you hear from people who say it took them hours for a simple fight, you know that encounter was badly prepared. If you don't bring the tools to run tactical combat quickly, it is like digging a tunnel with a spoon. I recently watched Wizards of the Coast playing the first combat encounter of the 5th edition Starter Set on YouTube, and it took them 1 hour. I can play a 4E encounter of the same size in the same time, or faster, with the preparation I will list in this post.

So what is my secret weapon? Sorry, it isn't something fancy like a 3D printer. I am using a regular color laser printer. I prefer laser because the ink doesn't smudge when handling the paper, and the stuff I print for games gets handled a lot. And what I use a lot for the printed game material I use is thin cardboard, 210 g/m², which is thin enough to work with my printer, but thick enough to be a lot more resistant than regular paper.

The first tool for running encounters faster is printing all the powers and magic items the players have on little cards, the size of playing cards. I have to print those because I play in French, but at one point in time one could also buy power cards from WotC. What I also use is deck sleeves, the kind that players of Magic the Gathering or other trading card games use. So the at-will powers go into green sleeves, the encounter powers in red sleeves, and the daily powers in black sleeves, making it easier to find the power you need. I also have cards for action points and magic items, and each player gets a Deck Protector box with all the cards of his powers and stuff. The result is that nobody at my table needs to look up the details of his powers during combat, we basically never use the Player's Handbook during play unless there is a rules question we aren't sure about.

On the DM side I pack everything I need for one encounter into one clear sheet protector: Battlemap, monster stats, tokens, and initiative riders. I use Campaign Cartographer / Dungeon Designer software to print my battlemaps, unless I have a poster battlemap from a published adventure. For the characters of the players one of my players provided painted metal figurines. But for monsters I use 2-dimensional tokens. Some tokens I get from boxed adventures or the Monster Vault. But if I need my own I print them on 1" cardboard squares, which I stick on 1" square self-adhesive felt pads, the sort you can buy to stick under the legs of your chairs to not scratch your floor. Printed tokens have one advantage over figurines in that you can print numbers on them, which makes it easier to keep track of which orc got hit for how much damage or is suffering from which status effect. Speaking of which, I printed little rings on cardboard with status effects like ongoing damage and use them for both figurines and tokens on the battlemap. Finally I print 1" x 2" cardboard initiative riders, which I fold in half and place on the top of my DM screen, showing the order of initiative to both my players and me. By having the monster stats printed on paper I don't need to refer to pages of the Monster Manual or the printed adventure, and can also track health and status effects on that paper. With all that neatly packed together in one clear sheet protector, I can set up an encounter in a very short time without causing a huge pause in the narrative.

Outside encounters I use much less prepared material. I have Paizo Face Cards to represent my NPCs, because NPCs are more memorable if they have a face. I have the occasional handout, for example for quests, or to show images of a location. But most of the adventure information I have just stored in my brain, because things like NPC motivations and likely course of actions are just the basis for improvised role-playing, and not something you print and hand out.

All this preparation obviously takes some time. I don't mind, because while I prepare those encounters I can think about how to play them, which then helps me to run them better. Ultimately the goal is to make encounters interesting and memorable, and good preparation helps a lot there. You get a lot better immersion if your encounter isn't interrupted by organizational chaos or the DM having to look up stuff. Preparation not only cuts down the time spent on combat encounters, it also creates a smoother flow and better narrative.

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