Session time 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, this writer believed that considerable attention had already been paid to dungeon master (DM) preparation on other sites, but that little had been said about how players might help maximize the effectiveness of session time.

Upon further reflection, though, it became apparent to this writer that there is one facet of DM preparation that isn’t often described: approaching game preparation with a critical eye toward saving session time.

This post isn’t going to address obvious time-saving elements, like having a working kowledge of the rules and having read, reviewed and understood the encounters planned for the evening. Instead, its focus will be upon a handful of small changes in the way many DMs prepare that can add up to more hours spent adventuring, which is why everyone meets in the first place.

The first and biggest time-waster this writer has seen involves battle maps. The battle maps packaged with published adventures save time for the encounters they depict, but no published adventure provides battle maps for all of its encounters, so the DM must still produce maps for use during the game. From watching D&D games played at the local gaming store, it seems that the three most popular ways of producing a battle maps are drawing map features on a vinyl grid map with wet-erase markers, drawing features on gridded paper (the easel-pad sort used for business presentations) or by making use of D&D Dungeon Tiles.

In all of the sessions this writer observed, the DM would begin each encounter by setting up the map. Whether the DM was drawing out the map or hunting through a box of dungeon tiles to find the appropriate pieces, map creation usually occupied between 15 and 25 minutes. Usually, the players would use the time spent on map preparation to visit the lavatory, smoke cigarettes, or get beverages and snacks – and there is nothing inherently wrong with that – but this writer began to wonder: how much playing time could be saved if the DM prepared those maps in advance?

After obtaining a second vinyl mat and a pad of gridded paper and drawing maps in advance, this writer found out during his own game: about 40 minutes per two-encounter session. Obtaining a few more sets of frequently-used dungeon tiles and dividing them into separate plastic bags before a game could probably save a similar amount of time.

Another time-eater crops up during combat. After preparing the map, most DMs opened the Monster Manual to the appropriate pages and wrote the monsters’ hit point totals on a sheet of scratch paper (often, they needed to bookmark multiple pages in the book for different monsters, and had to flip between the pages numerous times during every game round). Next, they asked for the players to roll initiative, and they rolled for the monsters, duly recording the monsters’ initiative counts next to their hit points on the paper. Could any session time be saved there?

The answer was yes. There a numerous free, fan-generated computer applications that can produce “monster cards” that approximate the statistics blocks in the monster manual. Examples can be found at the Kingworks Creative Blog and the Tools for DMs Google Group. By printing out monster cards in advance on standard paper, writing out a hit point total for every monster present directly on the cards, pre-rolling and recording monster initiative and sorting the monster cards into initiative order, about another 25 minutes of session time were saved.

More time seemed to be wasted in locating miniatures for the combat. The DMs observed in the local gaming shop typically brought painted metal miniatures in padded cases, and pre-painted plastic miniatures were brought loose in boxes or bags. After setting up the map and monster stats, most DMs selected their miniatures from their collection and carfully placed them exactly where their adventure keys indicated, occupying about another five minutes per encounter, or 10 per session. By arriving a few minutes early, grouping the miniatures by encounter and setting them aside, and marking exact monster placement on the pre-drawn maps, that time was trimmed out of the session.

Although the periods of saved time were approximate, they do serve to illustrate a point: by adding the few steps described above to a DM’s game preparation, as much as one and a quarter hours can be saved from a two-encounter session: 40 minutes by preparing maps in advance, 25 for creating and preparing monster cards, and another 10 by pre-grouping miniatures. That is sufficient time to run a third encounter, roughly within the time frame that once held only two.

The first session in which this writer made use of these time-saving activities was met with a mix of surpsise and gratitude. One player, upon hearing that the maps were pre-drawn and initiative was pre-rolled, jokingly asked if this writer had pre-determined the outcome of the battle and asked if his hero had fought bravely; he withdrew his comment later, after realizing how quickly that extra encounter per session would multiply. With more session time spent on actual play, he could expect his hero to gain a level every third session instead of every fifth session.

Of course, you might already employ some or all of the suggestions just described, in which case you are well ahead of many game masters. If you’ve not tried to employ these suggestions, they will make significant changes in your group’s progress; if you know of other time-savers mentioned here, please consider describing them in a comment to this post, so that all readers might benefit.

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11 comments on “Session time is precious: here’s how not to waste it

  1. kaeosdad says:

    Great suggestions and ones that I will definitely put to use when I start my game back up in a few weeks.

    • Alric says:

      Thanks – making those changes really changed my game, and feeling a little embarrassed that I hadn’t thought of them sooner…

  2. Ameron says:

    Great article. My group uses RPNet MapTools rather than minis for combat and mapping. It allows the DM to have all the maps created and all the monsters/NPCs in place before the PCs even show up. Visit Dungeon’s Master tomorrow when we talk more about it.

    I find when I’m the DM I always pre-roll the monster’s initiatives for four or five encounters. I sometime pre-roll monster hit and damage scores if I think combat will take a really long time. I don’t like doing this because I feel that takes some of the fun out of it, but when I take this approach it does save a lot of time.

    • Alric says:

      Thanks for the tip, Ameron. That sounds very convenient, and I bet readers will benefit from that advice.

  3. Michelle says:

    I’ve used some of these ideas, but not very consistently. Your post makes me realize I should be doing this all the time.

    Pre-drawn maps are good when it’s okay for the PC’s to see everything. Sometimes I need to mask areas with paper. I also have some one-inch grid paper that I’ve laminated in 11×17 sections. I’ve been considering cutting some of those to make dungeon tile style erasable maps. Your post has inspired me to do just that.

    I always write out the monster/antagonist information before the game session. I also plan some tactics for the enemies so I know what they are doing for the first two to three rounds of combat. This saves time since I don’t need to consider various options.

    Rolling initiative for the enemies – ha! Why didn’t I think of that? The added benefit to rolling initiative is that I’d be better able to plan their tactics as well, saving the time I waste when I need to re-figure tactics due to poor initiative roll.

    @Ameron – just because you pre-roll hit and damage for your monsters doesn’t mean your players need to _know_ you pre-rolled. You could still roll dice at the table, hidden, and announce what happens. I’ve oscillated a lot about hidden vs open rolling, but if you are looking to be efficient and fun, hidden rolling to mask pre-rolled numbers might work. Haven’t tried this, so no idea.

  4. Jim_x says:

    I’ve done both in my current 4E campaign. I purchased a HUGE pad of 1″ graph paper from Office Depot. I pre-made a few maps on it and rolled them up in a poster mailer. Another time I had to draw a cavern map on the erasable mat. Having done both, I’m more inclined to take an afternoon and draw all the maps before hand on the 1″ graph paper and have them ready.

    I sort minatures by encounter and put them in ziplock bags. I know exactly who I’ll need for which encounter. Except for my huge bag of Orcs. Before play, I’ll dump a few Orcs out on the table just incase. (And, I like hearing the players groan when they see the Orcs spilling out; that’s just me.)

    I put each encounter’s monsters on one piece of paper. I do the old Print Screen->open Paint->paste deal. I print it out and everything is right there on one sheet. I also use Asimor’s tool for making custom monsters. (I think that’s how you spell it.) It lets you export it to .html format for the ol’ cut-and-paste deal.

    Lastly, I wrote numbers on the base of the minatures in permanent marker. This does away with trying to keep track of who was hit and for how much.

  5. Noumenon says:

    I like this post, but I have a complaint. As a new visitor to your blog, it is hard for me to get into it because all of your posts are hidden behind a “More” tag. I don’t think you realize how many page views this costs you. “More” is for stuff like the treasure parcels that are truly unwieldy — not for regular posts, making the reader decide “Am I really interested enough to continue?” Especially for a new and skimming reader, the answer is often no, when if you didn’t make them think about it, it would be automatic to continue.

    • zazamos says:

      I don’t think there’s much to be said or done about this “problem” regarding the website’s design. It’s just how it is designed and that’s that.

      I’m a novice DM myself and I absolutely agree that seeking assistance and aid from online resources has absolutely boggled me down and flabbergasted me with so many things to look at, learn from and to practice with before making anything my own. However, I will say that the nature of the DM in my mind is to always, always, -always- be prepared and anticipate everything and anything.

      A good DM will click that “More” button because they want to know more. A DM’s role is parallel to that of an educator. Like an educator, they’re always learning, and a DM that stops learning isn’t a very good DM in my opinion. I agree that some information presented on this site isn’t particularly beneficial for a novice such as myself (Phat Epic Lootz for Level 15+ PCs), but it’s my duty and obligation as a DM to at least try to scope as much as I can so I can present an awesome spectacle for my players.

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