How players can help streamline the D&D play experience

A particularly astute observation made in the fourth edition D&D Dungeon Master’s Guide is the mandate to “get to the fun” as quickly as possible. It is not surprising to find the mandate in that volume, as most of the time-wasting in a typical Dungeons & Dragons session is linked to insufficient preparation on the part of the dungeon master.

It is a pity, though, that the mandate to get to the fun doesn’t also appear in the Player’s Handbook, since there are numerous things players can do to streamline play and help everyone else to enjoy the game. 

Consider these thoughts on players helping to improve the game:

Punctuality is more than a courtesy. Some players don’t see arriving early enough for the game to start on time as important. This author submits that it is, even if your group allows for a period of socializing before the game starts; players who don’t arrive in time for socializing often try to catch up with their group-mates during the game, which can detract from play.

Other players attend sporadically, placing others in the unenviable place of running characters for missing players. When chronically absent players choose to return to the game, they often need extensive briefing to become re-involved, wasting still more time.

Obviously, real-life issues can affect punctuality and attendance, and this posting is not a suggestion that dungeon masters should be draconic in their attendance policies. This posting is, however, a reminder to players that other people rely upon their attendance and participation, and absence or tardiness can affect how well those others enjoy the game.

Player note-taking helps everyone stay in character.The importance of this consideration can vary between groups. Some groups operate with skeletal campaign backgrounds, needing little more than character names and the slightest excuse to sally forth to adventure; if this style of play describes your group – and there is no condemnation here if it does – note-taking probably isn’t necessary. If the dungeon master has presented a setting rich in political and cultural detail, filled with intrigue and complex motives for villainous action, note-taking is essential; if a DM is forced to spend ten minutes explaining – again – what the difference is between the Quarixian Royal Scouts infiltrating the region and Xanian Greenwardens sworn to stop them, the game has been interrupted unnecessarily. This author submits to players that, if your DMs care enough about your games to provide you with that level of detail, you may consider caring enough to write down and learn the most important information so your DMs won’t need to spend time presenting it a second time.

Most importantly, make lists – as many lists as you can think of. This suggestion may sound strange, but list-making is one of the most effective time-savers in the role-playing game hobby. In many ways, this idea is linked to the concept of the SOP, or standard operating procedure, so prevalent in small unit military operations. The motivation behind an SOP is to standardize certain types of routine activities, usually to improve safety or maximize efficiency in a given environment.

Applied to a D&D game, an SOP could be created for such activities as typical party marching orders for corridors of different widths: simple diagrams indicating who is in the front and second ranks, who occupies the flanks and who guards the party’s rear. A standard single-file marching order is also useful. With these determinations made in advance, players can streamline the game without repeating themselves. For example, every time the party enters a five-foot-wide corridor, everyone can assume that the predetermined marching order applies, unless the party specifically states otherwise. Standard operating procedures can also be drafted for routine events like opening doors, looking through windows, crossing pits and other spans, and even retreating from battle.

Not only do these SOP documents streamline play, they also help protect players. For example, if the party’s door-opening SOP includes the rogue checking for traps, it can be assumed that the rogue is checking for traps every time that the party decides to open a door, unless specifically stated otherwise. This way, even if the rogue’s player forgets to check for traps, the rogue herself will not, due to the SOP.

Lists can also be created to remind players about their options during certain tactical events, as well. In the heat of combat, it’s easy for a player to forget that a character has a certain type of resistance or a magic item that might be useful. One particularly well-organized player I once had kept SOP documents in a loose leaf notebook, with headings for separate types of foes and tactical situations, including facing elemental foes, undead, extraplanar beings, being surrounded by individually weaker foes,  the party being attacked from one flank or the other of the group’s standard marching order, and so forth. He also compiled lists of every magic item and spell the party had and how those items could complement each other, and provided every player in the group with this list, so that inactive players could remind acting players what their characters could do.

Although the bulk of time-saving is ultimately the dungeon master’s responsibility, players can do much to streamline the game as well. Do your players have any time-saving procedures not described here? If so, please consider descrbing them in a comment to this post.


41 comments on “How players can help streamline the D&D play experience

  1. Raolin says:

    As always a great article. Players should be just as busy as the DM. Not trying to loot mountain dew and cheetos out of the kitchen. (we all know the mountain dew should be in a cooler next to the table and the cheetos should be in a sack right next to the cooler.)

    Alric, Have you ever visited Play by Comment at ? These Guys have been playing a campaign since 2006. The DM (blog author) Sets the story and rolls the dice then writes down the outcomes as part of the blog. The Characters write their actions out in the comments block to be added to the next blog. It’s hard to explain unless you read it. It’s really quite brill.

  2. Alric says:

    Hey Rao,

    I have the same issues with Mountain Dew also. Must be a trait of the player species.

    Thanks for the tip about playbycomment – I’m heading over there now.

  3. Max.Elliott says:

    I like to make modular spell lists for casters that include spells for a given occurrence. Going to war the next day, with just a touch of hiding? Choose the “War” and “Stealth” lists. Each spell list is updated every level, and for a while I had a good set of ‘generic’ lists, sorted by caster level. I’d break that out then just augment the list with the unique spells for the current character. Almost every mage/cleric has a light spell, for example. Lost that binder though, shame. I really miss it.

  4. Philo Pharynx says:

    To comment on player note-taking. If the GM is making a detailed setting, and they players aren’t interested enough to remember it or note it themselves, there may be a disconnect between the style of the GM and the style of the players. If the players just want to get to killing things and the GM wants to detail every coner of the world, both sides will be frustrated.

    Another issue also comes up with this. Taking notes can slow down the game and there can be misunderstandings between the GM and player. Often, many subtle details are glossed over in the player’s notes in order to not slow down the game. As a player I also try to focus on what seems important, which means I might miss something that seems minor at the time. If there’s a lot of this, it’s probably best handled by out-of-game handouts or emails.

    • Alric says:

      Welcome, Philo, and thank you for reading my blog.

      Your points are well-taken. I’ve never really noticed it before, but I’ve always worked with players who were cut from the same stylistic cloth I am. I agree that forcing a style down the players’ throats is a recipe for disaster.

      And the idea about disseminating supplemental material via e-mail is a great way of providing player reference material without wasting a lot of play time.

      Thank you for your input. It makes the site better.


      • khovaros says:

        I agree about the value of the e-mail to put out notes. I also try to print out my updates whenever possible so that at least one copy is at the gaming table for the players to reference.

        Repetition is also a good tool. Having NPCs (different NPCs when possible) keep referring to important game events will build their importance in the player’s minds and help them to remember.

        Great Blog. Tell Zin that Petronas says hi.

      • Alric says:

        Welcome, Khovaros – nice to see you here. Zin sends his regards. 😛

  5. […] is precious: here’s how not to waste it Several weeks ago, the RPG Athenaeum published this post, which focused on ways that players could help streamline game play. When that post was published, […]

  6. […] Questioning captive heroes shouldn’t be much trouble for a DM, as he or she knows what the villains are doing and what the villain doesn’t know. Players, however, may not always know what to ask – they may not even plan on taking a prisoner until an enemy suddenly surrenders. One way for players to make full use of an interrogation opportunity is to create a list of questions to ask an enemy that has surrendered, in the manner described as “SOP Lists” in this post. […]

  7. […] Players can attempt combinations of field position, equipment, weapons, feats, powers, opportunity attacks, magic items and timing (through delaying actions and such) without fear of their characters dying in-game; as a result, players can and often do try outrageous  and/or convoluted plans. After all, there are no campaign consequences for success or failure. Particularly effective combinations should be documented for future reference, as described in the list-making section of this post; […]

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