Keeping Combat Moving and Players Engaged

Recently in the ThreadRaiders TableTop RPG Classroom Discord channel, the question came up asking for methods to deal with players who tend to wait until their turn in combat to plan out their strategy, movement, and action for their turn. The overall issue focuses on dealing with out of character delays during combat which tend to pull players out of the immersion and intensity of the moment/encounter.

One of the first suggestions shared by Festive Jordan focused on using a physical “turn timer”, such as an egg timer or 1 minute sand timer, and then took it a step further by offering an in-character/in-game method reasoning for use of the timer.

“'For the legends say that too much time spent in the cavern will cause a person to lose their mind. Why, I once knew an adventurer that was in there only 5 minutes before starting to hear things. She came out  a changed woman.”

This is a great example of coupling an out-of-character tool to enhance in-character immersion and engagement. By limiting the time player’s have to think during their turn, it enforces the idea that turns should be quick, and that combat has a natural cadence and flow in, and out of, character. Jordan also noted this method can reduce the amount of table talk, which also can speed up combat fairly significantly.

Another experienced DM, TK, suggested adding in out-of-character timed in-character elements.
“My party last week almost lost their only tank because of quicksand. Their first reaction create or destroy water. I gave them 2 minutes to figure out how to save him in real time, because 140 lbs of armor 30ft cube of water in a 15 foot deep hole that's 2 feet wide, he gonna die.”

What this particular suggestion does is help enforce the concept of urgency in combat, and also in terms of character interactions. Two minutes is a very short time for everybody in a party to yell at each other, all the while one poor PC is sinking deeper and deeper. The next time combat comes up for this party, I suspect the players will be far more aware to be quick with their turns and consistently plan for the unexpected and the unknown.

The point was also raised by Psychotic Monk in the Discord channel about having players roll both attack and damage dice simultaneously in an effort to expedite combat turns even more.

“I for one try to always remember to roll my hit rolls along with my damage rolls at the same time. It saves some time and I have tried to group my dice, even different colors for difference modifiers.. since i am playing a fighter/Brute (UA experimental class).”

Lastly, try to remember as a DM it is your responsibility to set clear expectations about how you expect and desire combat to flow. Just as you can’t read player’s minds, they can’t read yours. If you share your expectations, you’re much more likely to have players try to meet them.
What methods do you use to keep your combat flow moving, and your players engaged during combat? Join the ThreadRaiders Discord today and jump into the TTRPG Classroom channel to share and discuss your methods, or send us a tweet @ThreadRaiders on Twitter.

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--Sean Ringrose