Faster D&D 4e Combat: Top Tips

alt textWe all know by now that the average 60 minute encounter in D&D 4e is far too long.  It’s an eternity compared to prior editions, but worst of all, it has a negative impact on the smoothness and progress of play and adventure pacing. 

That dark road eventually leads to a non-immersive experience and disenchanted and bored D&D players and DMs – if you let it.  Even D&D 4e lead designer Mike Mearls has admitted to seeing combat length as an issue in retrospect. 

However, it doesn’t have to be this way.  Here’s a Leonine Six – the Corvette of Leonine 12′s - to get your playgroup’s combats back on the fast track!

#6) Visual Aids & Combat Aids.  With so many conditions and triggers to keep track up, make sure you use some sort of visual aid or simple tool to track it all.  For example, hairbands and bottle rings make for excellent color-coded visual condition markers, as do Weem’s Condition Cards.  Also, just as important, you need a way to track all the friendly little buffs and class feature or feat triggers you have without your head exploding.  A simple index card for each session or encounter is a great option as your Combat Card or Buff Cards.  Another big visual aid or combat aid to consider?  Going power card dashboard-style during play.  Doing so turns your character sheet’s power cards into a visual dashboard.  Group your powers in front of you by action type – not frequency – for maximum turn efficiency.  You’ll be surprised how much faster you make decisions, simulating the new monster stat block format.  The basic point of this tip?  You must be organized. 

#5) Offensive Features of the Area. No, not furniture that swears at you – although that could be a blast!  We’re talking about encounter design here: include more dangerous or offensively-oriented features of the area and terrain (i.e. more fonts of power and similar damage-increasing fantastic terrain or dungeon dressing features).  Look to books, TV series and movies (in just about any genre!) for inspiration, or just take a look through Dungeon Delve.  An interactive and rich environment – the more deadly the better - beyond the monsters is essential to a memorable, exciting combat.

#4) Alternate Victory Conditions. Also when designing encounters, include more dynamic changes to or alternate victory conditions for the encounter (i.e. killing the leader ends the encounter, time limits, the dragon flies away at bloodied, etc.).  For more on this check out DMG2 (an outstanding book chock full of brilliant storytelling advice), or visit Critical Hits and Sly Flourish for their detailed and helpful articles and podcasts on The Combat Out.

#3) More Minions.  Finally, use more minions or exclusively minions (the latter for super-quick combat) when designing encounters, for any type of combat encounter, random or otherwise.  This not only creates a more epic atmosphere as the party fights a larger, more intimidating force, but it has the benefit of moving along much more quickly as a single strike or spell brings down the beasts. 

#2) Turn Table Rules. No, not turn-tables, DJ, but table rules for your turns so they don’t become an extended, gamey, boring 10-minute monologue, wasting not only your time, but everyone else’s.  Example turn rules:  no take-backs or re-do’s after saying “done,” no out-of-character tactical discussion (though brief RP’ed free-action tactical speak is OK, like it’s always been), calling out whose turn it is along with who is on deck in initiative order, etc.

#1) Know the Rules.  There is no replacement for knowing what the hell you’re doing!  Every playgroup should have an updated Deluxe DM’s Screen and multiple copies of the Rules Compendium.  Both are the very best, most handy and most reasonably costed references for gameplay during the actual game.  But you must take it a step further – study your Rules Compendium (offline or online) and DM’s Screen and memorize, bookmark or make notes on critical rules you expect to come into play during next session.  Know how to make Stealth checks before you want to do them.  Know how Charges and Bull Rushes work before you attempt them.  The basic point of this tip?  Be kind and be awesome by being prepared.  Save yourself and and everyone time so combats move more smoothly and cinematically without bogging the whole game down in a miasma of rules confusion and rules look-ups.

These six things are by far the lowest hanging fruit in my experience, gleaned from both playing in and DM’ing multiple playgroups and campaigns since 4e’s release in June of 2008, combined with many years of D&D experience across the editions since Basic.  These six actions and tips get you the most mileage for your combat efficiency and total time cost, allowing more progress during your sessions and more opportunities to enjoy the other equally critical aspects of D&D that can often get lost in the gamey mess: exploration, roleplay and storytelling.

Like these tips and want more?  Seeker95′s list of D&D 4e Combat Accelerators has tons of great ideas and links, from whichever angle that grabs you most, to help speed up the average 60 minute D&D combat encounter as noted in the DMG. 

Now get out there and use these tips to be a more prepared, efficient D&D 4e playgroup and run faster, smoother, more exhilarating 4e combat!  And, best of all, you’ll have more time for more combats, other encounters, roleplaying and other fantastic scenes in your adventures.

10 Responses to “Faster D&D 4e Combat: Top Tips”

  1. Tourq says:

    #3: More Minions

    I think my players were nearing the end of Heroic Tier, when I put them in a room with over 50 minions. The fight ended in three rounds, because of a certain power that a player had picked up, which I was unaware of. That kind of stuff doesn’t bother, because the players felt like they reallllly won that encounter.
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    • Kilsek says:

      Wow, now that sounds like a blast Tourq! An encounter of that size at that level of play definitely amps up the cinematic feel. Waves of minions are often a more effective challenge when there’s a ton of them – consider that an addendum to #3 :) Thanks for your comment and inspiration on that point!

  2. [...] for some of the best tips for faster 4e combat – including the #1 tip: Know the Rules which essentially includes seeking to become both an action economy and rules knowledge black [...]

  3. themadbat says:

    I have a couple of house-rules i’m thinking about implementing to speed up combat:

    1. Doubling damage dealt by monsters and halving their max hitpoints.

    2. Group initiative for the PC’s and the monsters. Any PC can just declare their move as soon as they have made up their mind. (My experience is that some players take longer than others to decide what they want to do, doing combat this way optimizes time)

    • Kilsek says:

      Welcome to Leonine Roar and thanks for your comment, themadbat!

      You first idea reminds me of today’s excellent Combat Velocity article over at at the D&D website. Some fantastic ideas and pros and cons of each approach to speed up combat.

      I really like your Group Initiative idea too. I hadn’t thought of it until now, but asking and wondering who’s initiative it is certainly does cost a lot of time when you add up all those checks and pauses.

  4. RoboKomdo says:

    Reading back thorough some old entries, I’d like to relay an “out” that my players came up with themselves.
    One of my players, a barbarian, is being pursued by the soldiers of a far-off region for “murdering” the son of the ruler there some years ago and escaped prison. A group of soldiers try to take him into custody earlier, but the local officials intervene. The party is ambushed on the road at tell the barbarian that if they can’t take him alive, they’ll just have to bring back his head.
    Two three of the soldiers leap out from behind a rock and attack the barbarian. One crits with the encounter power, one rolls nearly max damage and another does moderate damage, enough to bring him to -10 hp. He exclaims “What the hell?!? They’re trying to kill me!”
    .
    .
    “…That’s kind of the point…”

    Anyway, a few rounds later, and a few dead soldiers later, the bard and psion roll excellent diplomacy checks and convince three of the soldiers to surrender. The (now revived) barbarian chases down the leader and disembowels him in a rage. Upon seeing this, the mage gives up.
    What I suspected would be a tough fight is over in 3 rounds, with 4 prisoners in tow.

    I guess this is a great example of “attacking” with your social skills as well. The point is, while you should be letting the players tell the story most of the time anyway, sometimes you need to let them decide the victory conditions as well!

    • Kilsek says:

      I love when players take control or create the “victory conditions” of an encounter or part of the adventure on their own. It’s very engaging for everyone playing, and it adds a lot of depth and life to a D&D game. In a true RPG, where the only limit is your imagination, anything is possible, right? Awesome story, RoboKomdo!

  5. [...] for more advice for faster combat?  You might also like Faster D&D 4e Combat: Top Tips, Monster Complexity and Selection, and Combat Mastery: Tactical Awareness & Teamwork [...]

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