The Need for Speed: The Advantages of Fast-Paced Play in Your Favorite RPG
The best kind of compliment you can get is one that you hear by way of a third party. Our FLGS owner from the Wyvern’s Tale advised a player from my Asheville Comic Expo D&D 5th Edition Demo of the beginner’s box came in and said, “Scott runs the fastest game of D&D I’ve ever seen!” Granted, that might not always be a compliment, but I’ll take what I can get.
A few years ago, however, the Skyland gang was at SCARAB and got to play the Pathfinder Society Special Blood Under Absalom. It was an 8 hour game they were going to squeeze into 4 hours (which we finished in 6), at least that’s what I heard and that’s what it felt like. It was the fastest game of D&D I ever played, and it was EXHILARATING. When your turn came around, you had damn well be ready to take your action with dice in hand, and as soon as your turn was over, you’d better figure out what you were doing next. Players who couldn’t keep up with that pace got passed over until they could, and a few turns were missed as people ‘assessed the situation’. I’ve never before seen such frenetic action, but have aspired to bring that to many games since.
Too many times have I played D&D/Pathfinder/whatever and it goes something like this:
GM: Your character is bull-rushed into the water by the troll. Make a Fortitude save.
Player 1: (rolls) Does a 6 save? I have the Iron Constitution feat, does that apply?
Player 2: Yes, it does.
Player 3: No that’s just for poison.
GM: (flips pages for 5 minutes) No, it doesn’t in this case. Make an upside down underwater grapple check to break the hold.
Player 1: How do I do that?
GM: (flips pages for 12 minutes) uh… Roll a strength check
Player 1: (Looks up from smartphone) What were we doing?
TO HELL WITH THAT. THIS IS AWFUL. That sort of game play is just the sort of thing that kills off fans of RPG gaming.
Now, I should point out that I’m walking dangerously close to being a hypocrite here. I enjoy the technical aspects of the game when they create interesting nuance to game play. When the rules can be applied in a way that makes the game more interesting, I enjoy seeing them unfold. However, many times this is not the case. It’s rules-mongering for its own sake. It slows play, makes everyone lose interest and a feel for the action, and creates migraines.
Instead of that, we should strive as GM’s and as gamers alike is for a fast paced game that reflects that action of the scene and keeps the dynamic tempo of the action consistent with the game itself. The faster the action, the less likely the players are to get distracted, the more you’ll get accomplished, and the more fun everyone will have.
Fast play can be tough. Some games are just too rooted in the tactical to be hastened to a point where you might call them ‘fast’ but here are a few tips to make things jump:
1) KNOW YOUR RULES: Even complex rules usually come down to a dice roll or two under the best of circumstances. If you know a creature uses energy drain and grapple attacks, print out the flowchart or rule you need and be ready to apply it. SRD links or bookmarks on various apps or programs can make this incredibly easy.
2) HAVE YOUR RULES TEAM ON STANDBY: I have been fortunate to play most of my life with great rules guys. If someone asks a question that isn’t known, one presents his belief while the other looks it up. Meanwhile, the GM does what he can while that conclusion is reached or quickly makes a judgment call and moves on. Complete indecision is resolved with tip #3.
3) THE TALISMAN RULE: The old Talisman Board Game used to have a fantastic rule when you couldn’t figure out what the answer to a rules question was:
Phrase your rules question for a yes or no answer.
You can always default to this, figuring out things on the backend if need be. Usually, these rules calls aren’t life or death situations. If they turn out to be, maybe make it one of the few exceptions to the fast play rule and do the research, or better yet, let the GM err on the side of Player success. Who is going to be upset that the player prevailed? If it’s the GM, then you are definitely doing it wrong.
4) ROLL TOGETHER: Players and GM’s alike are superstitious and don’t like to do this, but both player and GM should always be rolling their damage dice with their to hit dice whenever possible. It seems like it wouldn’t save much time, but frankly, you’d be amazed how much time it seems to save, if only because it guarantees that those dice are out and in hand with the first toss, instead of having to fish around for a few extra d4’s because your magic missile just got an extra die because of that last level. Multiple attacks can be resolved together with sets of colored dice, but colors need to be consistent. Don’t forget to throw in dice for miss-chance, hit location, or whatever other special modifier you need to account for.
5) PLAYER READINESS: This encompasses several things. When I was younger, I used to make a player with a casting class look up the spell description and have it ready every time they cast a spell, or deemed them to be ‘fumbling with spell components’ until it was ready and they came ‘off delay’. (I am so old, it was actually just added to the casting time for the spell; grognards you know what I’m talking about). Frankly, I wish I still did this, even though it guarantees I’m remembered as a complete bastard.
A faster game should push players to do this more anyway, and apps like ufisk and Lone Wolf’s Hero Lab can allow you to look up or print out spell descriptions, respectively, with great ease. I prefer paper to electronics, as a smart phone or tablet can easily become a quick check of an email which turns into watching a five minute video of a cat playing the piano. Nothing bugs me more than trying to move the action along or having a good RP moment, only to find out that the player involved or that was close to the action was mentally checked out for something unrelated to the game. Paper doesn’t do that.
In the end, a player should know how their abilities work as much as a GM should. Losing a turn or a forced delay allows a GM to keep the action flowing, often without major player detriment, and nudges lazy players into line at the same time.
6) SHAME POINT!: Players who can’t seem to get their act together (playing on phone, don’t have dice ready, don’t know how their abilities function, etc) are deserving of retribution for ruining everyone’s good time. Dungeon Bastard uses Shame Points in his World’s Worst Dungeon Crawl (which is amazing and plays fast and is incredibly fun) and even with no actual penalty for a shame point, it’s enough of a poke to get people on task. Technically, if you roll under the number of shame points you have, you have to leave the game (I keep a broken office chair about 20 feet from the table in the unventilated garage for just such an occasion. They can shout their actions into the room if need be….)
We also enjoy use of the “Eshleman Hat’ as a shaming device for someone who takes too long of a turn (relating to a friend who once took a turn that lasted one hour… I shit you not).
These things are fun, but also bring attention to a player’s lollygagging in a playful and generally inoffensive way. Another tool for your toolbox.
7) JUST ROLL THE DAMN DICE!: I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen someone fret about a rule that might arise before they have determined whether or not the action succeeded. Get your players to throw those dice as soon as the action has been declared (and you do the same). Half the time, you’re going to see that the tough rules call was irrelevant because the attack didn’t connect in the first place.
8) HAVE AN INITIATIVE MONKEY: Sometimes running the combat can be tough while also tracking initiative. If you have someone you can rely on (and that’s a big if) have them keep the pace going. When they call out initiative, have them also call out the next player “On Deck” which will help to focus the player coming up. Having a good initiative monkey is key, as a bad one will actually hurt you more than doing it yourself. Another alternative is to use a board that everyone can see, or clothespins on your game screen with each player’s or characters name written on it, along with monster pins of a different color. Names actually work better here, because people always respond to their name, whereas character names get ignored sometimes. This is doubly true at conventions.
9) LIMIT RETCONS: Players will worry you to death and stop the continuous flow of action by saying, “oh, I wanted to move here after I attacked” etc. etc. A good house rule is that any action can continue to be modified or changed until someone rolls a die. Then, an irreversible determination of luck has occurred and all actions are locked in. Apply this to yourself as well, if possible. Sometimes, as a GM, you’ll have a lot more to keep track of, and so it is (mildly) forgivable.
10) KEEP UP THE RHYTHM: As GM, all these other things are useless unless you can keep the action flying fast and furious. You need to push to make each turn seem dynamic, and that includes non-combat rounds if at all possible. Have a way to move around your table if not in initiative. If someone takes an action, jump on that, but then move to the next person, tell them what they’re seeing and ask them what they do in response to that. Even if it’s nothing, ask them if they have a sword/blaster/torch out, where they are positioned, or maybe even make them roll a die and when they give you the number, laugh manically and move on to the next person. Keep them reacting to what you’re doing.
11) ERR BOLDLY: Key to this whole process is making sure your players are not watching you read. Nothing is more action chilling than watching someone read a book. Do your best with the guidelines listed above, but as Winston Churchill said, “If you’re going to err, err boldly.” Try to err on the side of the players, and they will love you for it. But keep the action moving, toss the dice, and get the action back into the player’s hands.
Fast play isn’t always what the doctor ordered for every game, but most games benefit from the application of dynamic action. Others that don’t (Vampire, Call of Cthulhu, etc) will still have their moments where you’ll want to apply these techniques, and even then you’ll want to bring intensity of a different sort to those games. But that’s another article for another time.