I’ve found myself getting a little frustrated with how long combat takes in D&D 5e, especially with larger groups.
When a fight that takes less than a minute in-game eats up an entire four hour session of play — in which each player has to sit, waiting for their turn to come around every 20 minutes or longer — I start to yearn for other, more rules-lite systems.
In many ways, I get why combat in D&D 5e takes so long. This is a game that wants the players to feel like heroes, so it gives them a lot of things to do on their turn.
People have actions, bonus action, reactions, and movement to figure out. Wizards have dozens of spells to sort through, fighters make multiple attacks per round, monks do… whatever it is they do. Wall running probably.
Now, I’ve been running 5e for a while now (I recently made the jump away in favor of B/X D&D from the 1980s, largely because combat doesn’t take so freaking long, and I’m about to jump to an even faster game called Into the Odd), and I’ve developed a real love of home brewing and house rules.
This sort of thing is one of the things that appeals about dungeon mastering. Sure you’re playing D&D, but D&D at your gaming table can mean something very different to D&D at anyone else’s gaming table.
This isn’t a video game. We get to make stuff up that works for us, and as long as you’re running a fair game that you and your players enjoy, it’s fine. Keep what you like, and fix what you don’t.
So, with that flagrant disregard for the rules in mind, let’s talk about ways to fix the thing I really don’t like about combat in D&D 5e: how freaking slow it is.
How To Speed up Combat in D&D 5e
Now, if you’ve come to this article looking for a single correct answer to speeding up your D&D combat encounters, this isn’t the article for you. I’m not suggesting one particular way that’s guaranteed to speed up your fights.
I just want to share a few things I’ve done that have worked for me to differing degrees.
Some of them contradict each other, and some are more drastic than others, which is why I’ve graded my ideas by severity, from minor tweaks to serious, fundamental game-altering stuff.
Let’s start small, shall we?
D&D feels the most real when the monsters both want to win and want to live.
I have very fond memories of the looks on my players’ faces when the goblins they were fighting surrendered and started begging for mercy.
One minute they were playing a video game with wave upon wave of disposable goons, and in the next they were holding swords to the throats of living, breathing, sentient beings.
They still killed all the goblins, but it was a cool moment anyway.
Morale is an optional rule that helps dungeon masters not only make monsters and NPCs feel like they’re living, breathing inhabitants of a real world, but they can also speed up combat considerably as well as giving players a new angle from which to approach combat than just pouring on the damage.
The morale rules can be found on page 273 of the Dungeon Master’s Guide.
“To determine whether a creature or group of creatures flees, make a DC 10 Wisdom saving throw for the creature or the group’s leader […] On a failed save, the affected creature or group flees by the most expeditious route.”
If the players are handily winning a fight, successfully take out the other side’s leader, confront a creature with its weakness (hitting a ghost with a magic weapon, a werewolf with silver, a troll with fire, etc.), or just do anything that feels like it would shake their enemies’ morale, you can roll a morale check.
You can even tweak the DC (or give advantage/disadvantage) depending on recent events.
A player character going down might give the monsters advantage on their next morale save, whereas the party fighter’s brutal crit decapitating the biggest enemy on the battlefield might impose disadvantage.
Morale rules also speed up combat significantly and can effectively get rid of the annoying “mopping up” portion of the fight where the battle continues for one, two, or even three more rounds as the players try to do enough damage to polish off their foes while their enemies have no real chance of winning.
If you want an even more extreme version of this rule, you can institute a tipping point. This is something I’ve found really useful in large combats.
When you write or prepare an encounter, assign a certain number of Tipping Points to different objectives. Common examples I’ve used include:
- Killing or capturing the enemy’s leader (25 pts)
- Killing or capturing an enemy lieutenant (10 pts)
- Killing or capturing an enemy (1 pt)
- Capturing an area (3 pts per round)
- Rally and inspire your allies (5 pts)
- Reinforce your allies’ position (3 pts)
- Destroying an enemy defensive position (10 pts)
You can tailor these examples to the encounter. Set a threshold number of points which, if reached, will turn the tide of battle and win the day.
The enemy are then crushed, flee, or surrender. The bigger and more epic the battle, the higher the point threshold.
I see a lot of stuff about visible initiative trackers and that sort of thing, but honestly, I think individual initiative is the biggest offender when it comes to why combat in D&D 5e feels so slow.
Individual initiative basically gives everyone but the player taking their turn permission to switch their brain off.
Side initiative is a simple solution that not only speeds up combat but encourages your players to be more present and involved. It might seem radical, but DMs do it all the time for monsters, so why not players?
Rolling for Initiative
Roll for the monsters’ initiative as normal. This is now the DC for a group initiative check.
Everyone rolls (NPCs and hirelings can be allowed to roll as well), and if more players beat the enemies’ initiative score than not, the PCs act first. Otherwise, the monsters act first.
On the PCs’ turn, everyone gets to act in whatever order they like, telling the DM that they’d like to act now.
I am a firm believer in this method as I think it makes combat feel more like a collaborative puzzle, aka not like combat.
It also means players don’t have big chunks of time where they feel like they’re allowed to switch off their brains.
Minions are a 4e rule championed by Matt Colville that takes a low-level monster and gives it a single hit point.
This means that a single blow from a PC is enough to take it out and that PCs can wade through hordes of enemies, cutting down their foes left and right, without the whole thing devolving into a boring numbers game.
The only thing more boring than fighting a bunch of low-hp enemies designed to grind you down while offering no real threat is hitting one and not immediately killing it.
The idea of a 10th-level fighter needing to spend more than a single attack taking down a CR 1/4 goblin just feels… wrong. It’s also incredibly time consuming.
Minion rules, on the other hand, are a great way to make your PCs feel powerful and combat feel faster.
Those minions can still deal some serious damage to the heroes and can still present a very real threat when deployed en masse, but your players won’t ever have to waste time hitting the same puny little kobold twice, and you as the DM won’t have to lose your mind tracking enemy hit points.
When firing an AoE spell like fireball into a group of minions, there are a few ways to handle the situation.
The first option is to use the simplified AoE rules from the Dungeon Master’s Guide (page 250), which use the following chart.
When minions are concerned, they don’t get to make a saving throw. The result is the number that are affected.
Another way (which adds a little unpredictability to targeting minions with AoE) is to just roll damage for the spell. The result is the number of creatures affected (within reason).
You can also let the minions make a collective save against the spell with half as many being affected on a successful save.
For example, a wizard casts Burning Hands into a group of minions. Burning hands deals 3d6 fire damage, and the player rolls a 10, meaning they would take out 10 of the minions.
However, the minions pass their dexterity saving throw and only five of them are killed.
When Minions Attack
When minions surround and attack PCs, consider using the mob combat rules from the Dungeon Master’s Guide (also from page 250), which use a table comparing the minimum d20 roll needed to hit a PC with the number of enemies needed to “guarantee” that hit.
It’s a little clunky, and it requires you to switch out of mob mode and back to individual attack rolls if the enemy forces dwindle too much.
For a slightly more elegant (at least, I think so) version of mass combat rules that treat enemy mobs as a single, cohesive unit, click here.
The short version (and the one I’d use to make minion attacks faster) is that you treat a large group of minions as a single entity that automatically deals damage to any enemies within its range.
Don’t Track Monster HP
Okay, now we’re going to get a little bit rowdy. I saw a really interesting video about a middle school kid running D&D who wasn’t tracking a red dragon’s hit points.
When asked how he knew whether or not the dragon was dead, he responded, “Simple. When the fight stops being fun, the dragon dies.”
I said we were going to get rowdy. Here’s my proposal: don’t bother tracking monster hit points. When it feels appropriate for a monster to die, it dies.
Granted, it’s a very different style and approach to play than people are used to, and I can already hear the cries of “but that’s cheating!”
And certainly, if you’re a DM who likes their players to win combats “fair and square,” then this isn’t going to be the approach for you.
But, if you see combat as a way to have meaningful conflict and drama within an ongoing story, why the hell wouldn’t you just let the dragon die when it feels right?
Don’t Roll Attacks
And now for my most radical advice of all, which actually comes from the game Into the Odd by Chris McDowall — a fast-paced, ultra rules-lite Victorian industrial-horror dungeon crawler that I’m hopelessly in love with.
The principle piece of design innovation in Into the Odd is that, instead of rolling to hit, you just roll damage.
Armor reduces damage taken, and everyone has a pool of hit protection that replenishes after a few minutes rest (damage is actually dealt to your Strength score).
The idea behind it is that no roll in combat is ever going to result in the unequivocal bummer that is rolling and missing.
Sure, 5e characters have other stuff they can do, but it’s way more fun to hit with an attack than to miss. Missing feels like you’ve wasted your turn.
Getting rid of to-hit rolls not only makes the game way more satisfying, but it’s also going to make it way, way faster. Oh, and it’s going to make it way more deadly.
Honestly, in 5e, a game where I haven’t killed a single player character in the last… five years, a bit more danger doesn’t sound like a bad thing.
Personally, I think that getting rid of the to-hit roll could save 5e for me.
Of course, we’d need to find a way to make armor still matter, but I think you could take a leaf out to Into the Odd’s book and have light, medium, heavy, and various types of magic armor reduce all incoming damage by a flat amount.
- Light Armor: -1 damage
- Medium Armor: -3 damage
- Heavy Armor: -5 damage
This would also make resistance and damage immunity a much bigger part of the game.
I would also make sure to combine this hack with something like morale rules or tipping points as any combat encounter that devolved into a war or attrition is going to be nasty.
You’ll probably also have to play around with the number of monsters and maybe even stop counting their HP altogether. Whatever works for you. Try it out. Go wild.
So those are my ideas for speeding up combat in D&D 5e. Use some, one, or all of them at once, and see how (after the initial confusion and carnage) they affect the speed of combat in your game.
Until next time, happy adventuring.
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I played my first tabletop RPG (Pathfinder 1e, specifically) in college. I rocked up late to the first session with an unread rulebook and a human bard called Nick Jugger. It was a rocky start but I had a blast and now, the better part of a decade later, I play, write, and write about tabletop RPGs (mostly 5e, but also PBtA, Forged in the Dark and OSR) games for a living, which is wild.