For a spellcaster to summon monsters from the magical aether to the real world is one of the most iconic moves in a fantasy RPG. The essential idea of calling forth creatures from nothingness to do your bidding is always a cool move — especially in combat, where unexpected allies can easily tip the balance of a fight.
But because those unexpected allies each need to take full turns in combat, handling summoned creatures can quickly become one of the most frustrating aspects of a game, for everyone at the table. For the GM, each extra foe added to a fight increases the complexity of running that fight. And for the other players, all the extra actions, tactical decisions, and dice rolling that comes from madditional combatants can turn the fastest-paced fight into a slog of waiting endlessly for one’s turn.
So if summoning creatures has ever been a hassle at your table, the following options might help make the process easier.
Agree That Casters Shouldn’t Use Summoning Spells
This is definitely the nuclear option for dealing with summoning being a problem, but it’s not an entirely unreasonable approach. If you’re a GM (especially a relatively new GM still finding your way), feel free to say to the players: “Summoning spells absolutely wreck me, please don’t cast them.” If you’re a player who’s noticed that summoning spells are causing the GM grief and slowing the game down, you can just have your character cast something else. All RPGs are a continuum of choices, and making choices that make the game fun for everyone is always a good idea.
Share the Responsibility
Rather than automatically assuming that the player of the caster or the GM should handle all the tactics and die rolling for summoned creatures, get other players to help share that load. For a single summoned creature, ask the player with the most straightforward character — or the player with a demonstrated ability to get through their turn quickly even with a more complex character — to make the summoned creature’s die rolls and track their hit points. Especially if the player of the summoning spellcaster has a more complex range of choices to make while casting other spells in subsequent turns, they can focus on giving the summoned creature general directives, then leave the fiddly bits to someone else.
In the event of multiple summoned creatures, it can be great fun to have all the players take on a summoned creature or two like short-term secondary characters or companions. The player of the caster might continue to make tactical choices for summoned creatures in such circumstances, or that could be given over to other players as well, creating the strongest sense of summoned creatures as intelligent, independent combatants.
Use whatever tricks you can to make the presence of additional creatures in combat flow as smoothly as possible. Even if your game doesn’t normally use average damage for monsters, do that for summoned creatures. If you know that summoned creatures are badly outclassed in a combat encounter, rather than wasting time on missed attack rolls, let those creatures use the Help action rather than attacking on their own. Or at lower levels, when a single summoned creature can likely hold their own with the party, let the player of the weakest combatant use the Help action to give the summoned creature advantage on attacks, with that player running the summoned creature as above.
Sometimes the problem with summoning spells is less about how much they slow down a combat session, and more about how much they grind the session to a halt before combat even starts. Players using spells that summon distinct creatures (as opposed to generic “summoned monster” stat blocks) should think about what sorts of creatures their character is likely to summon, then have those creatures’ stat blocks ready to go — bookmarked in a monster tome, printed out for table use, saved on a tablet, and so forth.
If you’re playing a summoning caster, have two or three options prepared — one creature you like for scouting and recon, one creature built for combat, one creature for mischief and skullduggery. Even if those creatures turn out to not be ideal for a particular scenario, run with them anyway, rather than run the risk of derailing a session by having to quickly through a book of creatures looking for the perfect option.
GMs can likewise have a few easy-to-run creature stat blocks on hand — and are within their rights to ask players to use those stat blocks if they haven’t come prepared.