A Little Conversation About Limits – Time Limits

I’m not an ogre. Ettins are far more gentlemanly, I assure you. (Ahem. I am NOT gentlemanly…) But sometimes there are conversations that just have to be had at the table. Limits and boundaries that have to be set. When you’ve got a table of 7+ players, one of those conversations needs to be about time limits. Specifically during combat. Because playtime is precious, and there is little more frustrating than gearing up to get your game on and making next to no progress. Especially when you get bogged down in a fight that seems awesome in your head but drags on into hours of boring waiting in reality. Even more so if, like me, half your players are not even teens yet. Attention spans are a thing, you know?

Why Time Limits Are A Needed Thing

Here’s the problem I ran into a few weeks ago with our group. Because of conflicting work schedules (for some reason, it’s hard to explain to a boss that your D&D game is more important than their needs) we had to run a mere 2-hour session. The previous week had seen the group attempting negotiations with a pack of barbed and bearded devils for information about the party’s quarry. Naturally, the negotiations went awry and things fell to swords and spells and fiery painful stuff. The story of my players’ lives.

Excuse me? I recall several times where I attempted to negotiate and got quite favorable results…

Yeah, like the time the flying castle ended up crashing?

That was NOT based on my negotiations…

ANYWAY… Negotiations while held in the palm of a giant’s hands aside. My party gets themselves in trouble. Nothing new there. It’s what the game is about, right? However, when preparing through the week, I was painfully aware that the odds of my group completing their battle against the devils and making any actual progress through the Tomb of Diderius were pretty slim. Sadly, I was proven correct, as we ran a few minutes over our two-hour limit. We didn’t even have XP fully allotted when the time came to pack up.

Although I enjoyed the battle, I was disappointed that we didn’t ‘get’ anywhere.

Challenges In Setting Time Limits

Time Limits with Mordenkainen's TomeWhenever the conversation at the D&D table turns to limits, it can be a sticky situation. People often take suggested rules as a personal attack. You’ve probably seen that at a table. You mention one thing about failed negotiations being a problem and all of a sudden purple text butts in…

*Long silence…*

Ahem, anyway, suffice to say that people take things personally. This means that any rules and limits you try to impose need to apply universally and not be directed at any one individual. Yet, they need to address any specific problems or challenges that people might have in meeting your limits or rules. In my case, I’m working with 3 kids 10 and under, who are also using D&D to practice their math skills. Fortunately, they’re all pretty advanced for their age, but sometimes the addition can come a little slow. Likewise, the only seasoned player at my table is my other half. Finally, attention spans are particularly short when dealing with youngsters, and some of the adults. In fact, waiting can cause a particularly large amount of ire at my table. Patience is not a key skill in my family…

What I Needed and What I Found

So, I needed a rule that would encourage people to act fast, stay focused, not get mad at other people for taking too long, encourage cooperation, and allow for newer players to still have enough time to do everything. Seem like a tall order? It did to me.

I went searching. The internet is a wonderful tool, and Reddit is a great place to find advice.

Most people agreed that one-minute time limits allow sufficient time to perform a round’s worth of actions. After all, your character only has 6 seconds to do it, so why should we get 5-minute discussions on the best tactical course? It seems likely that this will actually increase the difficulty of some encounters. More tactical mistakes might be made. But that isn’t something I was particularly worried about, as I’m not running a meat-grindingly challenging campaign right now. I’m trying to get preteens addicted to D&D for crying out loud! The problem was in getting everyone to buy into the time limit.

One brilliant individual posted an idea for a magical hourglass that rewarded players with a Sandpoint when they finished their round swiftly. If the entire group had earned a sandpoint, then they got a +1 bonus on all d20 rolls. Although I find the idea of a magical item that works based off out of character speed a little sketchy, the concept seemed perfect. Until I looked at my players and the specific challenges I was facing. Impatient, grumpy players losing a +1 to everything because one person took too long? Uh oh.

How I Set Family Friendly Time Limits

So here is how I adjusted the Sandpoint system to fit my group. First and foremost, we’re keeping this as an out of character convention and not explaining it in game. I really wanted to get everyone’s buy-in on having time limits. Without player buy-in, a new rule like that is, honestly, destined for failure.

Time Limits with Rise of Tiamat

We began with a conversation outlining the problem and hitting on everyone’s desire to get more done in a game. I suggested the one-minute timer as a guide for how long a round should take and offered that all players would start with a token at the beginning of every fight. When their initiative came around, the timer would be turned over in front of them and they’d have until it ran out to turn the timer over in front of the next player. If they succeeded in doing so, they kept their token. For the kids, we agreed to give them the option to turn the timer over once if it became necessary for them to do so, or give them two tokens at the start of the fight, so they could afford one mistake.

Here’s the kicker. Anyone who has their token at the end of the fight gets 10% more XP for the encounter.

This wasn’t really a big change from the proposed idea, but it solved a lot of problems. For one, it meant that no one could mess everyone else up. If one player took too long, it didn’t penalize those who were doing great. For another, it allowed a benefit that everyone is excited about receiving. +1 to d20 rolls is nice, but more so to the two-weapon wielding fighter than to the enchanter, savvy? Everyone wants to level up, though.

The Results

Time Limits with the Dungeon Master's GuideNaturally, the important part is, did it work? The answer is a resounding yes! Combat rounds dropped from 30+ minutes per to less than 10 minutes. Which is a huge difference, let me tell you. On top of that, it actually greatly improved the whole experience at the table. The kids were more engaged, the conversation more on-topic, and the non-combat scenes got a lot more screen time and focused attention. All in all, it was probably one of the best things I could have done for my game. Hence, why I’m sharing it with you as I promised. However, we did run across a couple of players having difficulty making the one-minute time limit, and not who you’d expect. ‘Simple’ martial classes have a lot of dice to roll, so we also implemented some changes in that department, but I’ll have to talk about that another time.

For now, if your table is having trouble getting it all done in a timely manner, consider giving them an incentive and getting their buy-in on setting a time limit. The results will do more than just give you more time to play.

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