Speeding up 4e D&D Combat
“You’re chasing the half-dragon demon and his dragonborn minions down the hill, your feet skidding on the soggy leaves underfoot. The trees whip past your faces and you go, arms whirling as you try to keep up. There’s a clearing up ahead as the slope levels out. The dragon turns, prepared to meet you in battle. Roll initiative while I set up the battlemat and get the figures ready. Matt, you wanna grab some more drinks, this is going to take a while……”
Here, at the core, is my group’s problem with 4e: The Combat Bump. We prefer combat to be a part of the action, something which maintains the flow and pace of the story as a whole. Instead, there’s a disjoint between the events leading up to the combat and the battle itself as the game shifts a gear from free-flowing to round-by-round miniatures-based play. The whole thing stops as things are set up, and that immersive sensation of excitement quickly fades. And when you’re in combat in 4e, you’re going to be there for a while.
If a game session was a comicbook, the combat elements should be a few pages of the tale with perhaps a climactic double-page spread. It should be fast, energetic and exciting. In contrast, a 3-hour long session using 4e feels more like a comicbook that’s 80% combat scenes. No matter how cool, well-drawn or awesome those comicbook panels are, if that’s all there is it’s going to get boring, fast.
4e combat slows the whole game down to a crawl. A typical 4e encounter takes about an hour to run. Have 3, and there’s your session gone with little wiggle room left for plot or character development. Do the math. If you’ve got 4 players and 10 foes in an encounter and each player averages 30 seconds to take their turn, and monsters 15 seconds (averaged for attrition), then every combat round is going to take 4 and a half minutes to play out. If it’s going to take about 10 combat rounds to play through the encounter then that’s 45 minutes right there. Add in bathroom breaks, out-of-game chatter and the inevitable rules lookups and it’s easy to see where the hour goes.
So, what’s to be done?
The easy solution is just to say “4e isn’t for me”, and walk away. That’s fine, but you’re also missing out on what is a darned good role-playing system and fun game. Whatever your game engine of choice, there’s bound to be elements you want to chop’n’change to suit your style of play, because you’re not the game designers and how they play is unlikely to exactly match how you play. I don’t know of a single RPG system that I haven’t house-ruled or re-interpreted in some way to better suit my group’s gaming preferences. Such a beast doesn’t exist, and never will unless we wrote it ourselves.
Here’s a few suggestions we’re going to be playtesting over the next few games to see if they can smooth out the Combat Bump and improve the overall pace of play. Some of these are old-school tricks of the trade, some are House Rules or a re-interpretation of the Rules As Written. I’ll let you know how we go on.
1. Halve the Hit Points
This is one that’s already seen a lot of coverage on the Wizards’ forums, and a popular one with the game designers themselves. In theory, by reducing the number of hit points the monsters begin with, you’re reducing the length of the combat by that proportion. That’s not quite true, as 10 Orcs will still take 10 rounds to kill one-by-one unless you’ve got some nifty area-effect firepower (I’m looking at you, Mr Wizard), but it’ll definitely reduce the number of rounds required overall. I’m all for this change, and it’s easily rationale’d by saying that the HP values in the Monster Manual assume a clean, healthy physical specimen at full fitness. Ordinary Orcs, Goblins and the like have bedsores, hacking coughs and festering wounds so the ones the players face are halfway toward death to begin with. Fiddle with the hit points to taste, giving different values to different opponents. Maybe one of the Orc Raiders is particularly weak and sickly with just 10hp. Most are merely of poor health with 23hp (half the usual total) with the Orc Chieftain’s pampered eldest son at the maximum 45hp. This adds in a little more role-playing potential to the game, and speeds up combat at the same time. Perfect!
Minions, being the cannon fodder that they are, remain with just their lowly single hit point. Speaking of which………..
2. Use Minions! Lots of Minions!
Here’s a challenge for you. Watch any fantasy movie, and every time the good guys kill a foe with a single blow, shout the word “Minion!” out loud. I’ll bet you end up saying it an awful lot. Those goblins in the Mines of Moria? All minions. 90% of Conan’s foes? Minions. The huge battle at the end of Narnia? Minions!
Minions should make up a high proportion of the bodycount in any battle, yet it’s all too easy to just think “….oh, and four Minions” when designing an encounter. Turn that around and put the Minions at the top of the list, and you’ll make for a much faster paced (and bloodier!) game. Minion slaying is what makes the heroes feel like heroes. Remember that Minions don’t wear a hat that says “I’m a Minion! Hit me!”. Don’t make it clear who’s going to die in one hit and who is going to keep on coming and hit right back. Give them the same weapons as the rest of their tribe and the players can’t tell ’em apart and don’t know whether they’ve just downed a Goblin Skullcleaver at low hit points or a lowly Goblin Cutter until you tot up the xp at the end.
It might seem counter-intuitive to say that adding more foes to the table speeds up play, but in reality it’s the difference between one foe who lasts six rounds, and four foes who last one round each. It’s down to the math again. Picking on the Orc once more (guess which page I’ve got open on the Monster Manual), an Orc Berserker is a level 4 Brute with 66 hit points. It’s going to take a fair few rounds to bring him down. His Minion counterpart, the Orc Drudge, is worth a quarter the XP but will do down in one hit. Drop 4 of ’em onto the battlemat and you’ve only added 4 more combat rounds (assuming each attack hits) to the game, but given the players more chance to shine. And that’s a good thing, right?
3. Roll Five
This is something we’ve used to good effect in previous sessions. Have the players roll 5 d20s at the start of combat and jot them down. These are their combat rolls for the next five rounds, and they can use them in any order, for any attack. This greatly speeds up combat and encourages tactical play at the same time. Let’s say the player rolls 20, 17, 10, 6 and 2. They’re most likely to use the 20 for a Daily or Encounter Power (‘cos missing with those sucks, right). They’ll save that for when it matters the most, burning the low rolls on at-wills and doing what they can to turn them into hits. It’s amazing how players love combat modifiers when they know they’ve got a low roll to work with. Not rolling the attack dice round-by-round means more time to emphasize role-playing and tactical play – another good thing. Optionally, allow the player to spend an Action Point to re-roll their 5 if they don’t like how the dice fell. Every five rounds, call for another five rolls, and keep on playing.
4. ……and as GM, do much the same
Roll a ton of d20s and note them down in order – or spend an hour writing an Excel spreadsheet or use Google to see if someone has done the same. Rolling dice is quicker. Seriously. Unlike the players, use the result in order. As the game progresses just strike a line through each one as you use it. If you REALLY want that Goblin to hit, or those guards to notice the players for Reasons of Plot then strike a 20 off the list further down the page. Thus, the Karmic Balance is maintained (you’re just pre-using a future roll) and not cheating either. Not really, anyhow. Anyway, GMs can’t cheat. Who asked you?
Doing this means you can plan in advance, right at the table. If you know that three rolls down the line there’s a 20 then set that up for the Big Bad’s Special Power. ‘Cos missing with those sucks too. Bwahahahahah, etc. This speeds up combat because the players aren’t sitting there watching you roll dice all the time (you’ve already done that ahead of time), meaning the action flows more quickly, so more fun can be had by all. That’s the theory, anyhow.
5. Gridded whiteboard
Grab a whiteboard and a permanent marker. Carefully draw a 1 inch grid covering the entire board, and you’ve got a battlemat that will last you – well, if not forever then for a fair few game sessions. Use normal dry white markers to draw terrain features as you play and place the figures as you describe the surroundings. I prefer using Jelly Babies for miniatures, but that’s just me. This saves time hunting out the right battlemat for the setting and means less juggling stuff mid-game. You’ve just got the one battlemat in the table all the time, and don’t have to worry about sorting your precious figure collection into encounter order. Ick.
6. Have fewer encounters, but make ’em count
Take too long to run 3 encounters in a single session? Aim to run 2, but make them doozies. If you’re struggling to fit two in the allotted time, run 1. If you’re struggling just to fit a single encounter into a game session, you’ve got problems! The key is to go for quality, not quantity, and it’s much better to spend time running a couple of decent, memorable encounters into an evening that rush through as many as possible and make the evening one big smush. Good word, smush. Fewer encounters, played well, means a more enjoyable experience all round, and more time for all that important plot and character development stuff. Good, eh?
There’s plenty of other ways to speed up combat using such techniques as having fixed damage values for monsters (Minions have them, why not all monsters?), encouraging simultaneous play where two (or more) players act on the same turn, every turn, and more. We’re going to stick to using the ones above for now, but I’m interested to see what other suggestions you folks can come up with.
How would you speed up 4e combat?