Articles & News >> Mastering Dungeons: Back to Pacing

Mastering Dungeons: Back to Pacing

This week we are back to looking at pacing at the table in D&D games. Just as a reminder, this pacing discussion is most relevant to games being run when time is an important factor, such as during conventions or at game stores when the game has to end at a certain time. This advice, however, even applies to home games when certain parts of the game—especially combat—are dragging on too long or not going smoothly.

Last time we looked at initiative, and we will move forward assuming that the DM at the table has control of initiative tracking and keeping players’ turns tracked reasonably well. What follows are some other problems that might mess with pacing.

The Square Counter

While this type of gamer problem was much worse with 3e and 4e D&D, it can still be a problem in games that eschew theater of the mind in favor of grid-based combat. Tactical movement, by definition, often forces players to move their miniature tactically. The Square Counter knows he needs to get from his current location to square Y, but he just needs to find the best way to get there. This often manifests itself in the Square Counter counting from 1 to 6 umpteen times, covering all 46,656 possible movement combinations. And that’s before you put creatures, hazards, or difficult terrain on the map…

The Solution: Ask the Square Counter where he wants to end his turn. When he tells you, just pick up his miniature and place it there. Most people will thank you by the end of the adventure.

The Over-Planner

Combat starts, initiative is rolled, and the first combatant is ready to act. And then the Over-Planner kicks in. She analyzes all possible strategies for victory, telling the rogue exactly where to stand, the barbarian where to charge to, and the wizard where to place the fireball. And, of course, she’s playing the druid who acts last in initiative. Then, after each player’s and monster’s turn in the round, the Over-Planner reevaluates the situation and relays new orders.

The Solution: Tactfully ask the Over-Planner to let the other players act for themselves. Limit each player’s out of turn tactical talk to 6 seconds. If it gets out of hand, make the players use their reactions for the round to coordinate tactics.

The Rewinder

The Rewinder takes his turn and misses his attack, the next player gets into the middle of her turn, and then the  Rewinder shouts out, “Aw man! I should have hit. I forgot about the bless spell!” So you allow the game to rewind and the Rewinder hits. A few turns later you hit the Rewinder’s character with your attack, and play continues. Three turns later the Rewinder yells out, “Hey, I forgot that I can use a reaction to raise my AC. That attack would have missed me.”

The Solution: After giving the Rewinder the benefit of the doubt once or twice, it is time to set a table rule. Once a player’s turn ends, there is only moving forward.

While I may sound hostile, I am not too proud to admit that in all of these instances, I have been that player one time or another. D&D is a complex game, and even the most veteran players can forget about simple things at important times in the game. We get caught up in the action. We lose ourselves in the story. So while these issues can and do come up, we must also remember to be patient, especially with newer players. Teaching is more important than pacing sometimes.

Some Tricks

  • Players only get one reaction per round. Give each player a token to represent a reaction. Have a player hand over the token when she uses a reaction. Give it back to her at the start of her turn. You can also use token to represent bonus actions.
  • Concentration is a new(ish) rule (but a very important one) in 5e that can easily get ignored. Use a table tent to denote a character that is concentrating on a spell or other effect. This allows everyone to quickly see when a concentration check is needed by a concentrating character.
  • Use Inspiration Points for other things. The rules say that Inspiration Points earned by players can be used to gain advantage on specific checks or rolls. Also allow the Rewinder to rewind or the Over-Planner to talk battle plans in the middle of a turn by giving up their Inspiration Point. It gives the players more leeway, but also gets the point across that the actions they are taking add to the time and therefore have a cost.
  • Pass out dice to represent bonuses. Spells like bless or abilities like Bardic Inspiration allow other players to roll extra dice on certain checks and rolls. Actually hand out those dice (e.g. a d4 for bless) to the players benefiting from these boons as a reminder to roll them when applicable. It saves time over constantly reminding them on their turns.

What other tricks do you suggest to keep the game flowing smoothly?

Shawn Merwin

Shawn Merwin

Shawn's professional design and editing work in the roleplaying game industry has spanned 20 years and over 4 million words of content. His Dungeons & Dragons work has ranged from 3rd to 5th edition, showing up in sourcebooks, adventures, articles, and Organized Play administration. He has been a driving force in several Organized Play programs, and has written material for Wizards of the Coast (Dungeon Delve, Assault on Nightwyrm Fortress, Halls of Undermountain), Pelgrane Press (Dracula Dossier), Modiphius Entertainment (Star Trek Adventures), Baldman Games (as Content Manager), Kobold Press (Creature Codex, Book of Lairs), and countless others. Find his adventures here:


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    Imaginaryfriend16 March 2015

    An extra archetype; The Perfectionist.
    The perfectionist knows that when their initiative comes there will be a perfect move to make. One action to rule them all and in darkness bind the entire encounter. Unfortunately there are so many options, and finding that one perfect move is very very hard. On their turn endless what-if scenarios are evaluated and rejected.
    Getting the perfectionist to commit to an action can be really hard as usually it means they will have to settle for yet another round and accept perfection has eluded them once more. ( I know I sounds a little sarcastic, but it has surely happened to me as a player too.. its an easy trap to trigger)

    Where in the editions that allow it you can put the perfectionist in delay if they are taking forever to decide, in 5e there is no such option. Harsh as it may sound, if it gets really bad you may have to resort to actually using a timer to force a decision.
    (All the while remembering to be patient and to make it into learning moments. Welcome to walking the razors edge blindfolded…:) )

    • Shawn Merwin
      Shawn Merwin17 March 2015

      That is a good one too, Krishna! I always try to use imperfect tactics as both a DM and player. It usually makes for a better story.

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