So this isn’t a problem I’ve ever had to handle as a GM, but it’s one that comes up regularly and I’m sick of retyping my answers. I’m also a programmer, so I find the optimization of repeated tasks to be interesting.
At any rate, here are some tips for speeding up a game with too many players. I expect to add to this post as I find more solutions.
Oh and if anyone is wondering, most of these ideas come from a game I played in back in high school. It took place at FLGS and averaged 15 people per session. This usually meant 30 minute breaks between rounds of combat. I’m posting some ideas I saw used there and other ideas that I’ve read about that would have applied.
1. Time Limits
This is the most obvious answer to the problem of the game taking too long. GM gets a timer and if players don’t finish their action by the time it’s done, they lose the rest of their turn.
The problem with this answer was that most players had no trouble sticking to the time limit. We started out at a minute to get used to the timers and worked our way down to 30 or 40 seconds. I was playing a ranger at the time and I’m not sure my turns ever took more than 10 seconds. Full attack or move and attack. As long as I was ready to take my turn before it began, I could resolve my actions quickly. Which brings us to…
2. Call out who is on deck
In the ideal game everyone is paying attention all the time. I’ve encountered such a game maybe twice in my ~15 years of gaming. People get bored. They chat with their friends or they check up on rules. iPhones are the worst. I don’t mind players who don’t pay attention when they don’t have to, but the game slows down if everyone has to reread the board when their turn starts. “Where’s my mini again?” This problem is exacerbated in a big game. More stuff happens between turns, so those actions you thought would be good at the end of your turn no longer apply. There’s more time between turns, so players have more incentive to goof off. And there are more people to distract each other.
Basically, you want your players to be thinking and planning while they’re not rolling.
The answer to this is solved when calling initiative. When you tell a player it’s his turn, get the next player’s attention and tell him he’s on deck. While the first player takes his turn, the second player has time to look at the board and evaluate threats, dig his character sheet out from under the stack of splat books, and gather up enough dice for his big attack. When you call his initiative, he’ll have an action ready.
Calling out who is on deck is the best method I’ve seen so far for speeding up combat. I even use it in smaller games.
As mentioned in #2, players should gather dice before their turn starts. This is especially true of the d6 hungry characters like fireballers and sneak attackers.
While we’re on the topic, dice should be rolled all at once when possible. If you have a power that lets you roll 2d20 and choose the best one, there’s no reason to roll d20, mention your power, and reroll. That just slows things down for everyone. Attacks and damage can be rolled together, although if you have multiple attacks you may have to designate different colors of dice for different attacks. Use this as an excuse to buy more dice. Gamers love more dice.
4. Reward quick thinking
This also goes back to #2. I haven’t tried this one yet, but I really like it. Give a +1 bonus to any action declared and rolled immediately after initiative is called. This’ll give players incentive to prepare ahead of their turns. The person who suggested this also said that the extra +1 is balanced out by the fact that players will make flawed decisions when forced to rush like this.
5. Sort your players
Again, I haven’t seen this one in practice, but I’ve heard good things. Players have an easier time knowing their turn is coming if you sort them according to initiative. There are two ways to do this and I’m not in love with either option.
You can roll initiative and make them seat themselves in order of initiative. Due to seating preferences and piles of books I’m worried that the re-seating will end up taking too much extra time to really pay off.
The other option is to start with the highest initiative and go clockwise. My concern here is that players will game initiative. Maybe direction should be determined by a die roll? I’m also not super fond of the idea of all NPCs going at the same time.
Both options don’t work out so well when your group likes delaying or otherwise re-ordering initiative.
6. Pre-roll your own initiative.
Title says it all. Since I’ve been printing up my combat sheets I’ve been rolling initiative for them ahead of time. I also write out HP columns in advance. Work done now saves time later. It also gives you a little bit of time to prepare tactics if you know which NPCs are going first and if any will have turns near each other.
7. Appoint a rules lawyer.
Rules lawyers can be annoying, but not when you use them to your own advantage!
Questions come up in games. The issue we had with the egg timer was that people would start their turns and have questions for the GM. Some of them are legit. “What check to I make to swing off the chandelier and land on the enemy mage?” No rulebook is going to tell you the answer to that. It’s something only the GM can come up with. However there are many questions that are answered in the rules. How grapple works. When do conjurations work in an antimagic field. Does my spell bypass spell resistance. That sort of thing. There is no reason at all for those questions to go to the GM. They should go to the rules lawyer who can give an answer or open up a book. Most of the time the problem isn’t so much interpreting the rules as it is knowing which section of which book to look in.
A designated rules lawyer can answer the easy questions for you. This means you won’t get interrupted during someone else’s turn. You won’t have players open their turn with a book and a question. And best of all, the rules lawyer will be too busy helping newbies to question you and your methods during each turn. It’s a win/win/win!