Those of you within our closer circles have already seen, or heard of, the exploits of my Pathfinder character, Bigby. His story has been driven into the hearts and minds of all he graces with his crotchety presence, and many have been saved (or horribly killed) by his hand. And though playing Bigby was A LOT of fun, there were pitfalls in my approach to him, at least mechanically speaking... So let's take a look.
I wanted to make an old, grizzled, crotchety fighter well into his 60's...that can still swing an axe and battle monsters that would make his ancestors shake in their armor. He's a little forgetful, but he means well, and he gets frustrated when things get too complicated. Not one for political moves or cloak and dagger, Bigby deals with his problems directly and decisively, and holds little stomach for cowards. His backstory is pretty tragic in connection to his many sons and estranged wife, his entire destiny tasked to wreak vengeance upon the warlords, gangs, and circumstances that took each of his sons from him. And this doesn't do much to help his own mental state, as sometimes he sees the ghosts of his sons following him through life, but also guiding. He doesn't feel guilt for their deaths, almost at peace with the idea that they cannot rest until he fulfills vengeance for each, and they grant him the fortitude to soldier on.
That's some heavy and sad stuff... So I tried to make him the buffest of buff old men.
Tearing Into The Mechanics - My First Optimization
I've gone in depth a bit HERE, when I gush about my love of Pathfinder and its numbers, and give a little heads up as to the plan of Bigby's build. BUT, it's worth noting that ANYONE can build this character. There's no homebrew here; everything he has is within published, canonical materials inside the Pathfinder D20 system.
So, CORE CONCEPT - Grizzled FIGHTER, adept at close combat, hard to hit, hard to kill; literal tank of the party.
Gotcha. So, in order to fully benefit from all the things the system has to offer when it comes to combat, I have to be a Fighter. The Fighter class has persisted in D&D and all of its variants as an industry standard. Often viewed as a "simple" or straight-forward class, the Fighter is considered a master of martial combat, proficient in just about everything (except Exotic Weapons, in this case), and wearing any armor they can get under the sun. This can make them unbound when it comes to equipment, but also equipment dependent in order to keep up with casters and other variants.
The main benefit of the Fighter in PATHFINDER however is their ability to Feat Chain.
I once did a video on this exact concept, but looking at it from a negative managerial point of view when comparing how Pathfinder handles Feats as opposed to 5th Edition D&D. Upon revisiting Pathfinder in the last year and a half, I've come to appreciate the huge amount of thought and mechanical considerations of the extensive Feat list in the game. It really makes it so incredible things are possible mechanically.
Fighters can "feat chain" because of a blend of two main mechanics. As Feats are essential to making a functional character, EVERY character (regardless of class or multiclassing) gains a Feat every odd total level (1st, 3rd, 5th, 7th...you get the idea). A FIGHTER gains a Bonus Feat at level 1 in the class, then every EVEN level in the class (so 1st, 2nd, 4th, 6th...you got it). Therefore, if you're following here, as long as you stay straight Fighter and do not multiclass, you are effectively gaining one Feat EVERY LEVEL, and TWO Feats at level 1 (when most others get one). Add in the fact that a Human gains an ADDITIONAL bonus feat at level 1...and we've got it made early and often.
Let's RECAP. Bigby, at level 1, is a Human Fighter, so he starts the game with 3 Feats of his choice (it should be noted that the bonus feats from the Fighter must be classified as Combat Feats [there are different categories], but there's no reason for us NOT to take a Combat Feat when considering our plan here).
Level 1 Choices
Concept Path - Human Fighter, 3 Feats to start, good golly
How do I want to fight? Well, armor is awesome, and I want to get the best bang for my buck with any gear I'm using, and hit hard and often. Great offense with great defense? Of course. Sword and Board.
This choice immediately puts me at a combat disadvantage without Feats. If I want to slice and bash, I am now engaging in Two-Weapon Fighting, and in so doing suffer HUGE penalties to my attack rolls (a whopping -6 on your primary attack and -10 on your off-hand attack). These penalties drop a little if the off-hand is a light weapon, but I don't want that (it's my shield. Not gonna' happen). Penalties like this make sense, though. Any schmuck can pick up two weapons and swing them around, but they're not TRAINED in it, so they won't be as consistently effective. This is how Pathfinder uses numbers to represent this lack of training.
Which means, I need to lower that initial penalty. Feat #1 is easily Two-Weapon Fighting, which drops my initial fighting penalty to an even -4 for my primary and -4 for my off-hand. With a great starting Strength score of 20 and modifier of +5 to add to my attack rolls, I'm doing okay so far (+5 modifier to both attacks, after math = +1/+1).
Now we add in the fact that every class benefits from a mechanic called the Base Attack Bonus (or BAB) - a general numerical bonus to each of your attack rolls (not unlike the general Proficiency Bonus from 5th edition). In a martial class, your BAB often matches your class level, but for more varied classes, it progresses a little slower. Bigby is a Fighter, so his BAB equals his Fighter level easy, adding another +1 to each attack in his two-weapon fighting (+2/+2).
So, Feat #2? Improved Shield Bash. Normally, if one were to bash with their shield, they would lose the bonus to AC (Armor Class) that the shield provides in the round following the turn that they bashed; justification being that you're too busy crushing a dude's nose with the shield to use it to defend against oncoming attacks. Improved Shield Bash allows me to bash...and keep my AC bonus. Also, less thinking for me.
Feat #3 - Double Slice. This feat allows me to add my Strength modifier to the damage roll with my off-hand (where normally I would not be allowed to...so yeah, less floating numbers for me. Nice and streamlined.)
RECAP: Attack twice each round with a +2 to each attack, keep my AC bonus when I do so, and add my strength modifier (+5!) to both attacks. With a d10 for his Hit Points, and high Con score (17, so +3 HP), Bigby's pretty beefy so far.
Fast-Forward to Level 6
Bigby's seen some things, and taken only a few hits along the way. Most of the damage dealt to the party has been dealt to others, because at this point, between Armor Training, a rare set of Warplate, and a Ring of Protection, his AC is 27. That means that most thugs have to pray to hit him with a Natural 20. To top it all off, his hit points are easily triple the other party members (a gaggle of casters, a druid, and a rogue). He's grabbed a good many Feats along the way, each adding to either his attack/damage with a shield, or his AC with a shield. Quick breakdown:
Level 2 - Fighter Bonus Feat: Shield Focus = +1 AC while wielding a shield
Level 3: Two-Weapon Defense = +1 AC while wielding two weapons (shields included in Close Weapons category)
Level 4 - Fighter BF: Missile Shield = longbow or crossbow bolt hits me? Nah, I block it with my shield once per round.
Level 5: Weapon Focus - Shield = +1 Attack roll with Shield
Level 6 - Fighter BF: Improved Two-Weapon Fighting (second off-hand attack, so two shield bashes)**
**It should also be noted that when Fighters (and many other classes) reach Level 6, they can attack twice with their primary hand during a round whenever they take a Full-Attack Action (forfeit all but 5 feet of your movement to attack a lot). The way Bigby functions at this point allows him to wade into the fight, stand mostly still, and wail on enemies (attacking 4 times every round), confident in the idea that they will rarely hit him with their attacks...and if they do, he can take it.
With all of this front-loaded force, battles began to feel pre-ordained. Bigby was an unstoppable truck, even with his weakened Will saves; if he were upended by a spell, his party would back him up, and he'd only grow more angry at the idea that someone attacked his mind. His vengeance would be devastating and decisive.
I started to fall into a trap. I had picked everything I had based all within the realm of the rules in the game. But other than a few mind-affecting spells, Bigby was unkillable at this moment, and I felt myself becoming BORED. I had made a super-adventurer, and we were just over halfway to double digits in character level. What sort of insanity would Bigby be capable of when he reaches level 10, or 13, when I literally run out of applicable feats for the build (Shield Master happens, and by then I'm attacking three times with my shield, and suffering no penalties for it).
My mentality began to pull toward ripping through enemies, and tearing down conflicts with violence, not diplomacy, because that's what I knew to be MOST EFFECTIVE. Maybe it didn't help that the rest of the party had low agency themselves, so the violent old man was driving the story. It got a little frustrating, but we used it as an opportunity to BE FRUSTRATED in character.
But I cannot deny the rush of power in each fight...I just wish things didn't die so easily. Saitama-syndrome aside, a powerful player represents a unique challenge to a DM. He can scale the difficulty to accommodate for a beefy PC, but often at the expense of the more squishy player-characters. One dangerous martial combatant puts the rest of the party at greater risk. It makes sense, but from a group play scenario, it can get a little complicated.
The DM has to make sure that the main threats target the optimized player so as not to paint the picture of punishing the party for a player who just followed the rules, but then that player could feel, well, TARGETED for just playing the game. What really has to occur is a delicate scaling of encounters that affect the party in more dynamic ways. Instead of a big bruiser just becoming a BIGGER BRUISER, use intricate spells and traps to offset a heavy martial character, and provide a counter-balance to the rest of the party. A well-prepared wizard is a dangerous foe, even against the mack truck that is Bigby's build.
Pathfinder especially supports insane play through its mechanical system. Crazy-high numbers at low levels is not unheard of, and the entire system expects optimization and multi-classing as a rule. Playing the game can be exhilarating, satisfying, and massively entertaining...but it IS a LOT to manage, from both a player perspective (in ANY class) and the DM's perspective.
With so much going on, you might think you'd never be bored, but when you're nearly unkillable... You might feel a greater pull toward the more insane levels of shenanigans and odd-ball problem-solving that puts the group at greater risk. They're great stories, win, lose, or draw - but the ensuing madness can become the norm.
So what do we do?
Well, building a trust-empathy relationship with the party and your DM is paramount to having a positive experience regardless, and we (here at Questers' Way) err on the side of rising to the occasion as opposed to diminishing a player's power level (there's an exception to this, when players abuse rules, but this isn't it). If you have a powerful party, well, then you have to grow as a Game Master, and find new tactics, strategy, spells, and other tools to offer greater challenges. It's a push and pull, and you never want to appear cheap (like a monster "suddenly" gaining extra resistances, abilities, etc.), so having a discussion with the group of players is totally welcome and encouraged to help the GM level the playing field.
In the end, we're just creating more epic stories, and one must remember that this is a collaborative experience, not a GM vs. players mentality. An optimized player is not an insult to the game, they're an opportunity to grow.
See you at the table.
So we have a Livestream on Twitch. Didn't know if you knew that. Not many do, but those that do have been entertained quite well for the 14 episodes we've been running. You can find us HERE on Twitch, and 2 weeks behind up on YouTube, and, if you're a patron of our podcast (of any tier), you have access to the whole show in podcast form (soon with theme music and behind-the-scenes chatter pre- and post-show).
The Livestream itself is classic D&D adventure time for 90-minutes set in my custom world of Io-Empyr (the fifth age of my interwoven timeline), and features steampunk airship combat, sky pirates, floating cities, and dangerous foes from the Shadowfell and the Feywild as they vie for control of the skies. The show is called Cloudsinger, and features a rag-tag 4-person party of awesome adventurers attempting to trust one another as they navigate this high-flying world, all while dodging their various pasts, new enemies, and alarming secrets.
It's freaking awesome.
The experience itself marks the 6th campaign that I run weekly, and there's something very unique about running an adventure online in front of a digital audience; for the DM and for the players. My partner in podcast crime, John (Solomon Blackedge in the campaign), put it best: we're "accidentally professional." Everybody brings something unique to the table, and we run the gamut from REALLY experienced tabletop players to players just working through the main mechanics; we're patient with each other, celebratory of our successes, flabbergasted by our secrets, and no one metas too hard. We know others are watching, so we try to bring our best selves every time...and it's always an absolute BLAST.
I am always appreciative of this particular screen grab: Adam in disbelief, Jenn laughing but disgusted, John owning his live role-playing, and Lisa's just watching it all with a mask of utter apathy. Professional D&D players, everybody. ;)
Now, none of us are brand-spanking new, and we all follow a distinct mission here at Questers' Way Game On: to become our best selves through gaming. So, I thought it fun to take a look at the standard of play that I hold my Game Mastering to, and how it changes and levels up when you bring it to the Livestreaming Stage. ...Because it certainly changes things.
Clear, Consistent, Mechanical Rulings
The internet can be an unforgiving place. I've had my fair share of trolls on the internet, but D&D fans can be a little...possessive of the thing that they love so much. Critical Role isn't perfect on rulings, and they even bring it up as a defense: they're far from paragon players, and part of the fun is making mistakes.
For me especially, with custom rulesets for airship combat, special weapons, home-brewed monsters, whatever thing I bring up - I'm keen to explain my reasoning for its existence, and then play it through. In that case, if I reflect and find something does not work the way I wanted it to, I have to let my players know AND my audience online know if I change it and why. Now, upon writing this practice down, my brain screams: "Well, DUH" and this is because ANY campaign benefits from this practice, online or off, but online it is an absolute necessity. Rule and mechanic transparency is essential to keep the audience in the loop; in a way, they're playing too. :)
Always Moving, Even When Standing Still
Pacing can sometimes be tricky, regardless of the campaign. No person can be on-point all the time, and no party will be pushing for plot every session...and that's a great thing. Action can happen without "action." Character development is just as powerful and entertaining (sometimes moreso) than any fight. Sometimes the audience needs rest, too, and these key moments of "still movement" keep the characters growing and the audience involved. As a DM, don't be afraid of them. This is a group story, and few stories are one fight all the way through (and still entertaining).
Audio Setup Needs To Be Simple and Clean
We started the Livestream utilizing an online tabletop music resource called tabletopaudio.com. This is a copyright-free audio site where each audio segment lasts ten minutes and can be pieced together into a pretty solid playlist. ...However, with enough technical elements through the iPad (my main interface to save space in our setup), we had to abandon it. Still a great resource that you can find HERE.
Moving forward, we're hitting this on three fronts.
1) I've returned to Syrinscape. This an app available on mac or pc systems that is chock full of sound sets, music, and sound effects to help with your overall atmosphere and immersion. I did a review awhile back about how I found their music to be less than satisfactory, and opted out. I have since grown up a bit and I love that it's all copyright free. That's the big deal here. Plus, the interface doesn't take much to get used to, so I'm pretty pleased overall.
2) I'm writing music for this campaign. No joke. I write music, I've published two albums, had works premiered with live orchestras - I got this. It's a bit of work, but it's going to add something truly special to Cloudsinger that sets it apart from the rest of our weekly campaigns. If you care to take a look at my old stuff.
3) Cross-chatter needs to be at an absolute minimum. This is a theater thing: if everyone is mic'ed, then everyone can hear EVERYTHING you are saying, even if it's a funny joke you just thought of. Sharing is okay, but the timing needs to be clear. We're not going to talk over each other because A) that's rude, and B) it overloads the recording with essentially white noise. The dudes on Critical Role are respectful because they're good people, but also because it serves the recording tech tremendously.
Go With What Is Most Comfortable For You
No one wants a stilted performance. Not from the DM, not from the players. It's our game, first and foremost, so we're going to play the way we want to play. The audience will comment, but I don't really watch the chat during the stream, and that is so I can give my whole self over to the players I'm playing with. By keeping myself centered on them, and not on external hardware, I can be my best self.
In addition, peripherals are great tools. DnD Beyond comes up quite a bit and we decided to give it a go as a group to help ourselves get organized. Unfortunately, technical difficulties, connection issues, and the product of staring at a screen all the time just to check your abilities has started to pull people out of the action, or at least made it a little inconsistent. So, back to pencil and paper, dude. DnD Beyond is a great resource, and I still use it often to build out and test characters, but for OUR live show, we operate better without more tech at the table to look things up. It makes everything smoother, focused, and more intimate. ;)
Know Your Character, Know Your Stuff, and Get Organized
This one is a standard I always hold myself to. I am a professional, of course. ;) But this stretches beyond the DM.
When you're in front of others, like a performance, a certain level of preparation goes a long way in helping the audience become immersed, the players staying engaged, and story flowing well. Players that do their homework on their abilities, clarify understanding before and after the game, and think critically about the feelings, motivations, and personal stories of their characters will sync up to the world with alarming speed and precision. The less you have to guess about how your character would act, the better you can ACT, and therefore play.
The times that I have prepared my character - just got myself more organized, put myself into their headspace prior to the session - the more fun I would have, and I'd avoid those little hiccups of second-guessing. Subtle moments of pause when I didn't know what to do...disappeared. And I'm not the only one to put in some extra prep.
John, for example, runs a "test Solomon" in another campaign to help flesh out how THIS Solomon acts. This way, Cloudsinger Solomon is the strongest iteration of the character, and John clearly has a ton of fun playing him. Jenn and I have meetings every so often to chat about her backstory and where her character's motivations lie. Lisa is very up front about how Spifi acts, and Spark...well, remains a mystery, but in a good way (Adam B.'s on point as a cat-person).
We're eager to play, but we have an external responsibility to do so in the first place, so that little extra pressure is enough to warrant bringing our A-game every time. And that little bit of extra responsibility brings nautical tons of fun to the table.
Any campaign can benefit from these elements - I wouldn't save them for online-only experiences. I've been using music sets, sound sets, and mixes for a LONG time in my regular games, and I'm often recording the sessions for my own internal consistency. I do my homework every time, but any good DM should. Great players prep themselves before a session to ensure smooth play and fast fun. It's a great way to upgrade your gaming experience.
However, these elements I find to be absolutely necessary if you're running something online. The addition of an external, broad audience adds another layer to your game, and it puts some onus on you and your players to literally be entertaining...but don't add pressure that sacrifices fun. With so many people on the planet, if you're having fun, there are bound to be more peeps out there that like your play style. So, keep things moving, sure, but PLAY YOUR GAME. It's your time to have your fun - we're just along for the ride. :)
See you at the table.
Hey peeps. I'm not perfect. No player or game master is. But I've had better days, and whenever life kicks me in the head, I tend to go through a cycle of reflection, beat myself up a little (I'm not as harsh as I used to be), then take a look at a few things that I can change to make everything flow just a little better.
Warrior mindset, ya'll. Let's break it down.
A State of Flow
A State of Flow represents a "lack of resistance" from the player and the game master during a session of play. It is achieved when each player is fully invested and focused on the session, and the GM never feels like they're fighting the players. This doesn't mean that the players take a backseat, quite the opposite actually. The players have a strong sense of how their characters operate and what they would do, thus flowing along with the GM, and their constant adjustments to the players, without causing hiccups; whether they be stretching the rules, misinterpretations, not paying attention to descriptions, being unclear on their actions in combat - there are many, many ways to interrupt the State of Flow. However, EVERY game will have these hiccups. What we as players, GMs, and the group as a whole need to do is try to minimize our recovery time to return to that lack of resistance. This way, EVERYONE benefits from cohesive play. Here are some ideas to help achieve that, coded to GMs - Players - or Both.
Setup and Breathe - Both
Everyone is allowed a bad day. It happens. Maybe you're running late - you got hung up at work, you're stuck in traffic, something came up. Maybe you were just in an argument, and it's weighing on you still. Maybe your head's just not in the game yet.
We've all felt this, no matter the cause. However, with 2 hours of play, I want to get into my play-time as soon as possible without carrying external baggage into my little escape from the outside world. I achieve this by entering and setting up, before engaging with the rest of the story, closing my eyes, and taking a few breaths. I let my emotions flow and take the time to reset, effectively opening my mind and body to the game. When I open my eyes, I can imagine that I am in a new state; whatever happened before does not matter NOW. Now, I am focused on telling a group story with my party.
This works for both groups, and in many moments of life. As teachers, many of us need to switch gears from class to class. We cannot allow the upsets or flow of one class to color our teaching of another; each one must be treated like new. So such is each game session; I do not want to bring in other elements from my life into this game - I want to be focused and intent on playing, so I can get the most out of my experience.
It might be strange at first, but I have led some deep breathing exercises or STOPPED A SESSION and made everyone take a deep breath, when I felt the flow becoming an absolute train wreck. I encourage every player and GM to take the time to set themselves up (get their character sheet, dice, organization, everything), close their eyes, and take a deep breath or two before entering the fantasy world. It may be a few extra moments, but it saves a million headaches down the road, and you will get faster at it. So take a breath, and let's go.
Take Responsibility For Your Own Distraction - Both
This one flows directly from above, but it's more personalized. I KNOW that if I have my character sheet on my computer, I am bound to engage in other things (email, correspondence, marketing, BLOGGING), or at least feel the pull to do so during a gaming session. It's the way my mind works; which is why playing in a session is so healthy for me, as it reminds me to slow down and pay attention, instead of just powering through checklists of tasks. Similarly, I try to keep my phone at bay. Sometimes I do need it nearby, but it's flipped over, and it's ALWAYS on silent. I will never, ever pull up a meme on my phone to show to ANYONE during play, because I know if I let myself do that, that I will fall down a slippery slope of distraction.
That's ME. Now, others can be completely engaged and focused while using their phones. However, if you ever find yourself getting distracted, YOU NEED TO TAKE RESPONSIBILITY FOR THAT. If you feel yourself being pulled into your phone instead of the game, and it's causing hiccups in your flow and the flow of others, you need to recognize this and put it away. Some people can have their computers out and they know that they'll still be engaged, so I'm not saying "NO ELECTRONICS AT THE TABLE." We live in 2018; I get it. We've got great tools - we're also all individuals with brains and meta-cognition and the ability to introspect. If you are causing hiccups in your own state of flow or the flow of others due to your own external distractions, take ownership of this fact, and make a change. This helps build trust, empathy, and accountability into the group.
Streamline Dice Checks - GMs
Sometimes GMs try too hard to engage party members individually during a group task. This burns time, and can split attention unintentionally. I am guilty of this on a few occasions, and I am working to recognize it earlier than the night after, but it helps to put a few things into perspective.
GMs should assume that we have limited time at all times - this doesn't mean that we need to RUSH anything, but it does mean that precision and efficiency go a long way.
Don't require rolls for simple tasks, just move through it narratively.
If the group is engaging in a group task, have everyone roll at the same time, and announce the DC and what happens down the line to each player.
(Sometimes) Pre-roll opposed rolls if you're really strapped, so they act as general DCs instead of live rolls. I don't do this often, as it can kill that "live play" feeling for me, but using a general DC based on a creature's attributes can still speed things up.
A roll should only be used for a task where the outcome is unclear.
Strip Away The Gravitas - GMs
I like to describe things with accurate language, but still fantasy-oriented, like a good book. Sometimes, however, elements can literally get lost in translation, and players miss details. In this way, precision and transparency are more important than flowery language. You want to ensure that the visual of the players is the same visual you had in your head, thus everyone is moving together through this collective theater of the mind. If everyone has mostly the same picture in mind, you have a much lower chance of running into inconsistencies with character decisions (like someone assuming that a wall was a door, but the character would have known this, it was the player who was confused because the description was not clear to them) based on preconceived notions on the layout of the room.
This works for mechanics as well. You can be general, but your terms should match those in the book. In combat, for example, it is imperative to note what a creature is doing in established terms so players know exactly what they can and cannot act on. "The bandit uses his Cunning Action to Disengage from the group, then uses his Action to attack with his crossbow" INSTEAD OF "The bandit moves away from you, then shoots you with his bow" - "Do I get an Attack of Opportunity?" - "No, he Disengaged." - "Then how can he attack me?" - "He has Cunning Action, so he can Disengage as a Bonus Action." - "Oh, okay."
Or in the case of Legendary Actions and Spells and Counterspell: "He spends a Legendary Action to use his Disrupt Life Feature (features are not spells, and therefore cannot be counter-spelled)" versus "He uses a Legendary Action to CAST A SPELL (CAN be counter-spelled)." Neither of these spoil anything about the enemy; no one learns anything "secret" about them, and I don't fall into the assumption of trying to "trick" or "trap" my players by omitting elements that they could have acted on. The worst arguments (and wasted time) I've seen in play have often stemmed from that lack of clarity: "Well, if it's a spell, I cast Counterspell." "It's a Legendary Action...so it isn't a spell per se." "Well, is it a Feature or does it say he casts a spell?" You get the idea. The players don't have to know WHAT spell is being cast (a check might reveal it, or not, up to you), but they NEED to know that the entity is casting a spell, because they've got tools to counteract that; if you ignore those tools, you've robbed them of agency, and mucked up the process.
Finally, try to separate cinematic flavor text from mechanical changes. I fall victim to this, too, and it can be frustrating when you're trying to describe a battle cinematically. You might go into a cool description of a particular blow to a creature...and the players will interpret it as a mechanical change. "He's driven to his knees by your strike, the armor visibly denting from the raw force of your impact" - "Oh, so his AC went down!" - "No, it just hurt him a lot." - "But you said his armor dented!" - "But it doesn't affect his AC" - "Well, he must be prone, then; you said he went down!" - "...sigh." Whereas if I describe: "The force of your blow is so strong it knocks the feet out from under him (I move his piece to make him Prone). He falls flat on his back and now prone, the wind momentarily knocked out of him." I added a mechanical clarification to my description, using established terms, and no one clarifies or fights me. Sometimes in the former, I will have to clarify by saying instead "He is MOMENTARILY driven to his knees." See what I mean?
Though, the latter example is also a Player thing. If the GM does not announce a mechanical change, don't argue that there is one, but ask a clarifying question - this way, the GM isn't put on the defensive, and they have an opportunity to make adjustments where needed; this is smoother, and thus faster.
Prep Your Turn - Players
It bothers me to no end when a player casts a spell on their turn...then stares at me as if I have memorized every single spell in the book (I do memorize many of them just out of osmosis, but there are hundreds of spells) and know exactly what their spell means, their save DC, and what I am supposed to roll. It's YOUR turn - look up your spell, know what it does, know the save and your DC...prior to your turn.
Now, the battlefield changes during play, and that can affect people's plans, especially casters, so when it settles on their turn, they may have to scramble. I understand that, and it totally happens, but you as a player are responsible for understanding the capabilities of your character. The hiccups, actually, occur when someone casts a spell...and then sits there, as if they have forgotten the other elements required in casting a spell; some spells are spell attacks (where the character rolls), others are saves (where the enemy rolls), some have varied effects, conditions, contingencies. If you're not sure, have the spell description nearby; the idea here is to be organized, so that you take responsibility for what your character can do.
For EVERYONE, try to have an idea of your Movement, Action, and possible Bonus Action before your turn. Just like board game etiquette, you are expected to think about your turn PRIOR to your turn occurring. Things can change during play, and that can affect your turn, but if you're watching the battle unfold and thinking actively about your turn, you've already made adjustments as you go, so the interruption of flow should be small anyway. And when you take your turn, declare what you're using and how: "I spend my 50 feet of movement to run around the back of the beholder, and I spend my Action to attack twice, and then my Bonus Action to use Flurry of Blows and attack two more times (rolls dice, concludes actions). I'm done." My turn is over.
The trouble we run into is present in three ways. First, we're only waiting until our turn to even approach thinking about what to do. All that time between was us being distracted and departing from the scene. So, when our turn arrives, we're playing catch-up. Sometimes we need to pee - I get it, everybody does it - but when we come back, you make it a priority to catch back up before it's your turn. If you return and it IS your turn, then the pressure's on and you need to make some quick decisions.
Speaking of speed, the second way we interrupt flow is when players forget HOW the mechanics work and the steps needed to execute certain actions. For example: Attack and Damage. An Attack requires a D20 roll, then adding Proficiency Bonus and Ability Score Modifier to that roll (this should be ONE number next to the weapon on their character sheet for simplicity), and announcing the total. THEN, if you hit, taking the appropriate damage dice, rolling those, adding on the appropriate modifier and any extras (again, marked clearly on their sheet for ease of calculation and speed) and announcing THAT total. We get bogged down when that checklist is unclear or we skip steps.
The third way...is detailed in its own section below.
Respect The Scene / Wait Your Turn / 6 Second Rule - PLAYERS
BE EVERYONE'S BIGGEST FAN. If it isn't your turn, plan your turn (so you're ready), but celebrate the achievements and actions of your allies - this keeps you engaged in the scene, no matter what it is. This also makes your fellow players feel FANTASTIC. Now, this requires some caution - remember that when it isn't your turn, it isn't YOUR turn. Try not to, in your celebration of others, begin to add your own character into other player's turns. It's one thing to cheer on a player using an awesome ability and another to horn in on that use of ability; Ken uses Deflect Missiles - we all cheer and high-five him / Ken uses Deflect Missiles and Colton mimics him doing so, rolling an unprompted Performance check out of his turn trying to distract the Duergar chieftain. The former celebrates without taking the attention away from Ken, while the latter pulls the attention away from the active player. There's a difference.
The key point here being that you need to Wait Your Turn; plan it out, sure, pay attention, celebrate, but WAIT for your time to shine. This also means that you should be aware of your side conversations. If you're engaged in everyone's turn, those side conversations will be minimal to none, and that's great. I hate the feeling that comes up when I'm playing, it's my turn, and everybody's chatting about something else - but I'm quiet and engaged in their turns, how come they can't show me the same respect? And though that may not be people's intentions, it can come off that way; we want to avoid that perceived double-standard of respect. And though it might feel like you're waiting a while the first time, I guarantee that it makes everything flow faster. You'll be back to your turn before you know it.
When out of battle, and this one can be tricky to achieve without some patience, it is important to respect the scene that is transpiring. It may be an interaction between the barkeep and one other character, or a courtier and two characters, or most of the group talking down a hill giant while another investigates his house. Just because the rest of the party isn't there doesn't mean they should carry on their own conversations. Think of it like a theater production. No scene will transpire at the SAME MOMENT as another scene on the stage. Timeline wise, they might be happening at the same time, but we will SEE them at different times. What this looks like literally is the party watching and waiting and listening to an interaction until it comes to a close, and then taking an opportunity to engage in their own scene(s). Scenes where the whole party is engaged with the same things tend to flow pretty well, but the same principle can be used. If it doesn't involve you - watch and listen. If it does involve you - engage. If the former, and you want it to involve you - watch and listen for a moment that you might be able to enter the scene.
I know, it's a lot more waiting and listening, but if we've done everything else on this page, this one should be pretty easy by now. No person wants to feel drowned out by others, and everyone wants to shine, so respecting each other's scenes allows characters to shine without feeling like they're fighting to be heard, AND we get the added benefit of building up trust and empathy across the group.
Finally, don't try to cram a million things into your turn. Movement, Action, Bonus Action. 6 seconds, dude. The more you adhere to that main mechanic, the faster the rounds go, and no one can perceive that you're getting more bang for your buck during your turn as opposed to others. It also makes you more efficient if you assume that you only have those three (often two) things to worry about.
In conclusion, both GMs and players can do a lot to make our sessions flow better, but the greatest take away here isn't speed so much as taking a breath and staying present in the game. We all get hang-ups, and our brains can be more distracted than ever, but I have to remind myself: Slow is smooth, smooth is Fast. Slow down and take a moment; watch and listen to your fellow players; let them shine, so you can shine; get organized and let go of the day; take responsibility for your own engagement. And we'll all be better for it.
See you at the table.
PS: Remember, talking is free...unless it's a monologue.
...Please stop monologuing...
Game On! Director, musician, music teacher, game designer, and professional game master. In short, I'M A BIG NERD.