Behind the Screen: Speeding up combat in 4e

2009 August 27
by Dante

Up today is another topic from our GM’s Jam that took place at GenCon this year, continuing on from where I left off yesterday.  It was another audience question, once again relating to 4e D&D: How do you speed up combat?

Once again, we received varied excellent feedback from the panel.  This topic actually sparked quite a bit of discussion from both the panel members and people in the audience, which all seemed to share similar tales of long, protracted battle sequences.

To Retreat or Not Retreat

One of the options brought forth by the panel (sadly, not me) was to simply have a certain portion of lesser baddies or minions just up and take off after one of their leaders is struck down.  Or, if for some reason the players are putting up a particularly noble, valiant fight make the group of baddies make the equivalent of a morale check to determine whether or not an expeditious retreat is the better option.

At this point, an audience member asked what to do about the perception of lost treasure from the baddies that ran away.  Chgowiz replied back in very short order “just have them drop what they’ve got!”  and continued on to say that you could go so far as to make it a random roll to see if they dropped any treasure they might have had.  This is a very elegant solution to both problems: the players get a shorter fight (potentially easier too!), and they may get some treasure out of it for scaring the beejeezus out of some guards.

Fighting to the Death

My advice on the matter was to simply reduce the number of enemies in a given encounter, then taking the option to ramp up the number of battles to continue to challenge the player characters.  This gives the player characters the joy of fighting a baddie to the death, the thrill of rifling through his remains for treasure, and you can scale it throughout the game session to insure an appropriate challenge.

Mix ‘n Match

Probably the best option is to liberally combine these two concepts, occasionally ignoring this advice all together.  I don’t think the longer running combat of 4e is necessarily a bad thing.  You get the opportunity for your player characters to really explore their combat options, and you can always temper a long battle with a liberal dose of roleplaying time to even things out.

Oh, one other thing – Newbie DM posted a great article on imposing a thirty second limit on determining actions in combat.  That’s a good idea for tightening up the combat timeline!

2 Responses leave one →
  1. August 28, 2009

    It’s hard!

    I like keeping the initiative order open on the table for all to see. I do my best to remind the next person up to get ready. I also try and encourage my players to plan their actions before their turn so that when they’re ready to go they know what rolls to make, where to move, etc. I’ve even tried getting them to pre-roll their actions.

    However, after about two rounds, interest starts to fade and someone inevitably strikes up an OOC conversation with others. This then breaks down the pacing and they forget to think about what’s happening on the table and plan their moves. Combined with the pressure of everyone wanting you to hurry up, indecision when its your turn is a game-killer. I sometimes find myself wanting to scream, “JUST DO SOMETHING ALREADY SO WE CAN MOVE ON.”

    Getting gamers to follow the rules, oddly, can be like herding cats.

    So I think the major problem is the mechanics slowing things down. At least not in the games I’ve played in so far. I think its a matter of keeping player focus on the table when its not their turn. In 4e you get three possible decisions and an action point to take another. Some powers let a player chain attacks together which can make some turns last forever.

    I’m not sure if it would break the mechanics of 4e, but I’m tempted to try doing the “old school” thing and reducing a turn to a single action.

  2. August 28, 2009

    Fighting to the death doesn’t make sense in a lot of cases. Good ways to get your players out of the habit of doggedly chasing down down and killing every foe include making sure they know that they get xp for foes they force to flee, don’t have monsters walk around with treasure on their bodies, and have a few fleeing monsters flee into reinforcements.

    My players have figured out it is usually better to let the runners go and save their resources for the next fight. The big exception would be if the runner could go get help/raise the alarm, in which case I usually set it up so that they have a fair chance to bring the runner/look-out/scout down.

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