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Slow Combat

I’ve been watching a lot of YouTube D&D lately and here’s a little guide to get slow combats just like they have on TV!

It is very important to roll initiative for every fight. Doing so signals to your players that the time for diplomacy or stealth is over and it’s time to fight.

The optional “initiative score” rules in the DMG, or the “home turf goes first” rules from The One Ring, or light based initiative from VotE, or the classic side-based initiative from B/X, or the “just roll higher than the monsters” rule from Black Hack shall not be used. Neither shall initiative cards. Everyone needs to roll separately and add a separate score.

To spend maximal time on this, instead of having a blank list numbered -5 to 30 and just write people in on the line that belongs to the number they say, you need to run it action style. Go down the numbers from top to bottom. 20 to 25, 15 to 19, make it its own fun minigame! Just finding out the initiative order this way takes as much time as a whole fight.

Extra fun is asking people their dexterity scores if there is a tie.

For the actual fighting, keep AC a closely guarded secret. Instead of the normal and quick “I stab with my dagger [roll, roll], 5 piercing” we need to have

— “I stab, does 15 hit?”
— “15 hits!”
— “Hold on, let me roll damage…”
— “OK, I’ll wait. After all, the more time combat takes, the less I have to prep. And everyone else is really excited about you rolling those dice. So excited that they’re on their phones reading chat and need to be told they’re on deck to actually get to play”
— “Two damage!”
— “Piercing? So that’s reduced to one.”
— “Ok for my bonus action… can I reach the stairs?”
— “Let me see… 5, 10, 15, 20, 25, 30, 35, what’s your speed again?”
— “30”
— “No, you can’t.”
— “Heck it, I’ll just attack again. Does 16 hit?”

Both PC and monster AC need to be kept secret to ensure this happens for every single swing in the game.

Also use detailed minis and tiles that you need to lay out and color coded templates for every condition and area effect. The map is the territory.

But keep speeds on character sheets in feet instead of squares. And do not use templates like a ruler, a string, or a radius circle to see how far a character could move. Always count it out.

Never roll damage along with the attack.

And every player’s turn is completely sacredly atomic and indivisible. Everything else need to stop as we are waiting for them to count up their damage or for the DM to count up the monster’s damage on them. Heaven forbid Bob does his turn before waiting for Alice to count up that sneak damage. If the goal is slow combat, every turn needs to be taken separately.

Minions from 4e is a great idea. It’s even more fun to roll up every attack and damage fully on them even though it’s completely unnecessary since they all have one HP. And do not use the mob attacks table from 5e DMG to quickly resolve attacks from them. Twenty minions? Prepare for hearing me ask “does 23 hit?” twenty times.

Turn order is absolutely necessary. That way players know it’s time for them to be on their phones or talking about other things because they’re not really playing the game right now.

So with all that said, I hope you are on your way to mastering slow combat! When each fight takes two hours you don’t need to prep as much other stuff! What’s that, you want non-fighting to also take up as much time and be just as boring? Let me introduce you to skill challenges…


The single most important thing you can do if you want slow combat that takes a lot of time is Turn Order. Every player turn is completely atomic and needs to happen, and be resolved completely, in strict order. Pathfinder 2e is extra good (for purposes of slowness) here where you have three actions (because a sword chop needed to be as intricate as a Netrunner turn).

I’m getting tired of the bit.

Switching over to non-sarcastic mode.

I was playing in a B/X game before I started DMing and our DM pretty much ran the turns all simultaneously. Combats were lightning fast. I tried bringing in a little bit of that speed into our 5e game. Conversation, anytime there’s a question that needs to be answered, that’s a precious resource. In computer terms it’s like the modem is waaaay slower than the individual computers. I/O so pricy. So use that luxury well♥︎

When someone needs to think for a few seconds longer, move The Conversation Prompt to someone else.

This doesn’t just go for combat. It’s the lynchpin of all pacing: what are the unanswered questions right now before time can pass? What do they need to know from you, what do you need to know from them? Be clear and intentional in what you convey. “Alice, yer wizard pal is about to get his head chopped off right now, the two skellies over there are swinging their swords just as you glance over, whaddayawannado?”

It’s not static chess pieces, time is on fire!

Writing about this stuff makes me wanna go run a game right now! Next sesh is tomorrow.