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How to Keep Battles Moving in D&D

A massive roper flings its tentacles at a crouched wood elf shadow, thrusting him into the air. A half-devil dragonborn lets loose a bolt of electricity that arcs across the battlefield, zapping multiple tiny ropers. On the other side of the cavern, a blue dragonborn monk leaps into the fray, pummeling the massive roper with reinforced fists and claws while dodging his companion's lightning strike. And then a halfling bard — is not prepared. He fumbles with his lute, unsure of what to do. Unfortunately, the battle stalls to a halt.

Everyone wants a battle to go smoothly. Everyone takes their turn, one by one, until one side achieves victory. All of the orcs are slain. The kobold prisoners are saved. The abyssal portal is closed. The mercenary reinforcements arrive. The green dragon concedes. However, there are plenty of possible hindrances to a smooth combat.

One of them is a player, including the Dungeon Master, not knowing what to do on their turn.

How can we solve that problem and keep the battle moving?

Pay Attention and Prepare!

The easiest way to solve being out of touch and unprepared is to pay attention and prepare. Instead of looking at your phone, perusing the internet on your laptop, or talking about something out-of-game during combat, ready what you want to do. Pay attention to the layout of the battlefield and what your companions and enemies are doing. If you know what you’re going to do on your turn, think of a way to connect your action to the action of one of the battle’s participants. If the thri-kreen lancer impales her spear into the ground after a missed attack, change your attack description to include taking advantage of her momentary weakness. By the time you’ve thought up an exciting move, it will be your turn. If it’s not, just pay attention to your fellow players. You’re there to play D&D, not scroll through Reddit, Twitter, or Facebook.

Recap the Battle

Primarily, this is a tip for Dungeon Masters. To ensure everyone is paying attention and immersed in the action, constantly describe the battlefield. Let’s say Joras and Wren are fighting a deadly phase spider. Instead of going from turn to turn with no description, at the beginning of Joras’ turn, urgently say:

“The phase spider crawls before you, blood spurting out of multiple wounds on its body. It screams out in pain as its mandibles grow closer to your tiny form. Joras, what are you doing?”

This creates a sense of urgency in the battle and gives them a springboard for Joras’ player’s description. If we move to Wren next, state:

“As Joras stabs the phase spider with his steel dagger, it stumbles backward a few steps — straight toward you, Wren. What are you doing?”

Again, a jumping off point and a sense of urgency is present. Brief recaps of the battlefield help immerse the players, understand where they are in the combat, and what their enemy is doing between every turn.

Dodge or Cower

If you have no idea what to do on your turn, simply take the dodge action. It’s a defensive move that keeps you safe and is simple to remember. Dungeon Masters, if you want to force your players to plan out their turns to keep the battle moving, enlist the cower action. Characters only take the cower action if they can’t decide what to do on their turn. When a character cowers, it loses 2 armor class and has disadvantage on dexterity saving throws. It’s a harsh penalty, but a good way to reinforce your desire to keep the battle flowing.

Skip and Come Back

The final solution to stalling out battles is to just skip your turn and return to you before the end of the round. This solution only works in some groups, because intelligent players know how to manipulate this rule. What might start out as a way to give slower thinkers a way to plan their turn will transform into a deliberate strategy to change the order of initiative. It’s not a great solution but it’s one that will suffice for some of you out there.

In Summary

It’s never fun to stall the battle because you don’t know what to do on your turn. Here are a few remedies:
  1. Pay attention and prepare. Try to relate your action to someone else’s.
  2. Dungeon Masters, briefly recap the battlefield between every turn.
  3. If you don’t know what to do, take the dodge action. If Dungeon Masters wants to be particularly brutal, force players to take the homebrewed cower action.
  4. If your table is forgiving, just skip your turn and return to you before the end of the round. Be wary, though, this solution can be abused by intelligent players.
That’s all for today, folks. Thanks for reading!

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