Ruthless Efficiency, or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Math


I’m a dice rollin’ machine, baby!

The aim of this article is to present easily implemented tips that will make performing combat actions faster and easier, and therefore more fun and dramatic. After a brief introduction, there will some general advice, followed by a section for martial characters and another for magic users.


If you’ve played tabletop games for any length of time, you’ve probably had the aggravating experience of watching someone agonize over what to do with their actions, what dice to roll, what to add, and then slowly doing whatever arithmetic is necessary to determine the results of their actions. You’ve likely been that person yourself at one point or another, whether due to fatigue, inexperience, or just complicated character mechanics.

Playing like this feels more like work than a game, and the drag on narrative pacing tends to drop the energy level at a table pretty quickly. In limited time slots, inefficient players can necessitate skipping juicy dialogues and role-play so that the encounters can run in the allotted time. They can even prevent missions from finishing. I play Pathfinder Society organized play in four hour time slots. With a highly efficient group, combats tend to last around 15-30 minutes, but can easily last 45-60 minutes with slow players. With an average of four combats per session, those time differences really add up. Slow tables will wind up in four hour, slow paced combat slogs with intermittent paraphrasings of story, while the efficient players have more than half of their table time to socialize, get creative, and just generally role-play.


    1. Be prepared. Virtually any character in existence has a set list of things that they are likely to do in combat. Have that list written out, and divided into sections according to the action usage (ie, a list of standard actions, swift actions, move actions, etc.). Any calculations required for them should be done before you sit at the table.  Most of this article consists of the various things to know ahead of time, and what should be written down before you roll your first die of the day.

    2. Be present at the table. This doesn’t mean occupying a seat; it means listening to the GM and other players. It means paying attention to the game rather than your phone, computer, TV, whatever. It means trying to really be the person you’ve created as they navigate alien and dangerous realms.

    3. Have a plan by the time initiative order comes around to you. If you’re paying attention to the ‘board state’ during other people’s rounds, you can be formulating your plan of attack before your own turn. This will make your time to shine a lot more efficient than if you’re just tuning in when you need to do something. No more catching up to the game, be ahead of it.
    4. As silly as this sounds, just be careful when you roll your dice not to throw them too far or on the floor. If it happens a lot it can eat into your table-time more than you might expect.


        1. Make a chart of your most common attack options with all modifiers calculated.

Example (Archer)

Attack Type






Deadly Aim



Full Attack


+12 ea.

Full (Rapid)


+12 ea.

Full (Deadly)


+20 ea.

Rapid & Deadly


+20 ea.

This allows you to know what you’re adding on the vast majority of your actions, and prevents you from softly muttering, “…9 on the die, +11 BAB, +4 from [STAT], +4 from [ITEM], +2 from [FEAT], -2 from…”. Don’t be that player. You should still know where your total is coming from so that you can reverse engineer your rolls if necessary, but have the status quo locked down and on paper.

Pro-tip: If you print your character sheets single sided, put this on the back of one of them, or on separate paper. I draw the grid in ink, and fill in the boxes in pencil to make it usable for longer.

        1. Put an empty box/boxes on the side for conditional modifiers. I keep one to the side for things that are conditional but always there like favored enemy bonuses, and a blank box for buffs like haste, inspire courage, etc. You could even have one for positioning effects or enemy debuffs. It might look something like this:

Favored Enemy – +2 to atk/dam v. elves

Haste, inspire courage

Flanking, high ground

Cursed: -4 to atk & saves

        1. Pay attention to what hits or doesn’t. If you roll high, ask about the lowest roll: if it hit, everything hit. If you roll low, ask if your highest roll hit: if it missed, everything did. Otherwise, ask about something in the middle and go for there. The fewer you have to ask about the less table time is spent with a repetitive back and forth between you and the GM. After a few rounds you’ll likely be able to deduce the enemy’s AC, particularly if you’re listening to your allies’ rounds. Once that’s done you can deduce what number you need to roll on the die to hit, and no longer even need to do math to determine success or failure.

        2. Roll to determine success on all of your attacks simultaneously. If you have four attacks, roll four dice at once so that you can move on to damage and roll them together as well. It is faster to roll, for example, 4 d20’s, and when you find out one missed, roll 3d8 and add triple the damage modifier than it is to roll a d20, then a d8, then another d20, another d8, etc. Be sure to know what d20 belongs to which attack; color coded dice (red is highest, purple is first iterative, etc.) make this easier.

          Without feats like Clustered Shot or Pummeling Style, DR can throw a wrench into the math for this technique unless and until you know how much DR they have. As /u/Ph33rDensestsu from reddit put it, “If a creature has DR 10/-, and a character gets 4 attacks that deal damage [12, 8, 12, 8], then applying a blanket DR (40 in this case) means that if they roll all at once and give you a single total, they deal no damage. If damage is rolled individually and applied one at a time, they still actually deal 4 total damage.”

        3. Pre-Roll. If I have five attacks to take, that’s a lot of stuff to do on my turn that others have to sit through. While they’re taking their turns, I can usually roll my attacks and write down the totals. I can then roll damage and assign a damage value to each attack roll, such that it is easy to get the real damage total once I know which attacks hit and which missed. Not all GMs will be comfortable with this technique, as it would be easy to cheat doing this.

        4. Call out what penalties you included in your attack rolls when reporting them to the GM. For example, you might say, “Attack roll of 25, including the -4 penalty for soft cover and -2 for range increment.” This prevents the back and forth asking what was included or not, and just clarifies everything off the bat.
        5. Have a good idea of what equipment you carry. For me this meant making my own inventory sheet that’s easier to read. If you have items with usable abilities, keep those written down in your ‘common action list’. Example: Jingasa of the Fortunate soldier: immediate action, negate crit.

          Bonus: Here’s a link to my inventory tracking sheet.


        1. Know your spells and magical abilities. If possible have a list of the ones you commonly use printed, bookmarked in a physical book, or open on an internet connected device (sometimes I’ll make bookmark folders for mages’ spell lists). The important things to know are casting time, range, duration, school/descriptors, if SR is allowed, and effects.

        2. Know the DC of the spell and what save it requires.

        3. Know the rules for caster level checks, distractions and casting defensively.

        4. Know your inventory, especially scrolls and wands. Tips 1 and 2 apply to scrolls and wands as well.

        5. Prepare as many spells as you can ahead of the session. It’s usually wise to leave some slots open for after the briefing, but your staples should already be ready when you show up. I suggest a short-list of possibilities for the open slots.

        6. Have your dice ready for any damage spells, and use an electronic die roller if allowed once your die count goes past 5 or so. We’re all very impressed that you get to roll 36d6 of holy fire damage, but none of us care to watch you count it all up. (Okay, maybe once a session if it really gets your rocks off.)

        7. If you want to summon, have stats for any summons you might use already with you. Be sure to factor in any feats or abilities you have that might change their baseline statistics before play.


Using these suggestions should considerably streamline the combat process. When the roll-play is swift and painless, the role-play can have its day.

~The Brothers Ducey


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s