Winging It in D&D: Is it Back?

alt textRemember how in 3.x and 2e or even Basic D&D, after a few years or sometimes much less, winging it as a DM became pretty easy? 

Or how, as a player, you knew the combat rules forwards and backwards?  Even some of the more complicated spells and magic items you knew by heart.

Whether you have or haven’t played or DM’ed other editions, let me tell you the why of it, and how it compares to 4e.

My Mechanics Are Jerks

First, mechanics were simpler in previous editions.  Or maybe they were easier to manage?  Meaning, not just simpler, but there were less mechanics to track, study or prepare for beforehand.  So, in essence, what we have here is a much steeper learning curve with 4e when it comes to rules knowledge and mastery, whether you’re  a player or DM. 

I mean, look at the original D&D 4e PHB combat chapter.  It’s thick and reads like a car instructional manual.  Very mechanical.  That’s a lot of heavy information and math to assimilate and blend with the creative side of your brain.  It’s undoubtedly going to take you more time to understand, never mind master.

Time Heals All Rules

Yet it’s been three years now, and much like MM3 and Monster Vault started turning the corner on balancing in more story in 4e, I feel as though we’re starting to turn that corner on rules mastery and winging it in D&D 4e too. 

Now, a few of you have been winging it a lot already in 4e, for a while, right?  Well, I don’t know how you did it without missing a whole bunch of crunch in the car manual!  Still, however you did it, know that more of us are catching up.  Why?  We’ve run and played more campaigns, more characters, more combats.  We’ve learned what works (teamplay and synergistic powers) and what doesn’t (skill challenge over-mechanization). 

We’ve basically experienced the both the light and dark side of 4e in these three years, and as such, it’s easier to move forward to with all that knowledge and experience and play and DM more organically and naturally, like we’ve always done in prior editions of Dungeons & Dragons.

My Monstrous Hurdles

For me, I’ve struggled but finally feel like I’ve turned the corner when it comes to improvising or winging encounter creation.  With 4e encounters essentially designed as complex and (unfortunately far too) long tactical set-pieces in the game, it’s high risk to just throw something together and expect anything resembling smooth or challenging combat every time. 

Still, combining my knowledge and experience of player tastes, character strengths and weaknesses, and most importantly, the ability to identify and shape D&D 4e’s literally hundreds if not thousands of combat options, tactics, and features has allowed me to feel like, yes, I can take my game to the next level and actually wing a whole D&D 4e session – and one that doesn’t suck! 

And Yours?

Which rules or parts of the D&D 4e game are hardest for you to master or wing as either a player or DM?  Which are the easiest?

4 Responses to “Winging It in D&D: Is it Back?”

  1. j0nny_5 says:

    I’ve been winging it for a while now, yet every time I play I still learn something.

    The majority of my prep goes into story design and encounter building. Roleplaying is where I stop preparing. Sometimes I’ll write out a few lines an NPC may say during a conversation, but more often than not I just take note of what they know. I wait for game play to have that NPC reveal his knowledge, based on roleplaying. I’ll rarely prep a conversation.

    The only thing I feel I really need to have prepped is monsters. I’ve often renamed monsters on-the-fly, describing their actions as something completely different than as written. I’ll always try to have at least two groups of monsters readied; already scaled to the party, ready to fight when they’re needed. Usually I’ll have an encounter planned around those monsters, but if that plan falls through, I still use them, I just describe them as something else.

    I feel winging it is really helpful in public play. You never know exactly how many will show up to Encounters on a given night. It’s real helpful to have a base understanding of how to scale encounters on-the-fly, whether you have 3 or 7 people, 2 leaders, or no strikers.

    • Kilsek says:

      jOnny, you make a great point about monsters and organized play.

      It’s hard for me to go in without prepping monsters and encounters at all, but I feel I’m on the verge for the first time in a while – that is, knowing the monster mechanics well enough to pull it off in a challenging way.

      After all, anybody can throw together a simple or easy encounter – but it’s hard to improvise a great and challening one.

      I might have to check out Encounters some day. I’ve thought about it, and your blog’s been very educational about some things I can expect. Good stuff!

  2. Wund says:

    Hi Kilsek,

    Thank you for bringing this topic up as it’s been a focus of mine since I’ve started DMing in 4e. My main prep time has always focused on moving plot lines and a shifting setting/planet based on players choices similar to Peter Molyneux’s Fable and Bioware’s Dragon Age.

    With an average of 12 hours a week spent on coming up with ideas based on character backgrounds, actions, and plot line reactions, I realized encounter setup time needed to be streamlined at least as much as I had in prior editions. Here are some of the major time reducers that helped me wing combats:

    1) Bulk up your prep before the campaign starts; saves you time later

    a) Read dungeon delves related to your campaign
    b) Look for modules related to your campaign
    c) Pick out some Technology to help track your campaign
    d) Select key Supplements to focus your campaign on
    e) Select artwork and monster history/descriptions that inspire you
    f) Set clear rules/guidelines for PC backgrounds

    2) Choose a method for handling encounter building

    a) Choose a number of encounters per level. I typically do 6 battles, 2 major missions, 1 skill challenge and 5 minor quests per level.

    b) Build a way of selecting combatants. I used the card deck method in the DMG, reducing the cards from 50 to 30, and again targeting 6 battles instead of the standard 10 per level.

    c) Build a damage table. This gives you freedom to make monsters on the fly or adjust any monster you like. Using the recent changes in the Compendium and a spreadhseet, I came up with a fair monster generator for powers/damage and triggers. This allowed to me make fun combatants that didn’t destroy encounter difficulty calculations or slow combat down.

    d) Build your encounter by actions per round, not just xp.

    What I believe, and over time it proved out, was that actions truly slow combat down. Each action needed to kill a combatant should be considered, so when selecting your combatants, limit your actions per round by average damage including miss chance to death ratios. For instance, a minion is one action kill, however on a standard non-brute the average is about four, elite 8, solos 16.

    Let’s look at a solo which would take about 4 rounds of perfect combat to die, which in a 5 person party should be at least 7 minutes per round(1 min per exceptional player and 2 for the DM) totaling half an hour at best… In that amount of time a solo takes a minimum of 13 actions (4 minor 4 move 4 standard + one action point). Now add triggers per round and figure each “action” is about 15 to 30 seconds real time to resolve.

    This is why this method works: think about how long will it take them to defeat the combatants. Or more importantly, how long you want the battle to go, and then select your combatants.

    This method of building combats led to epic three hour sessions of five to six battles a night, including lots of role play instead of just creature/combat management.

    e) Understand trigger effects. I often limit ongoing and trigger effects to two per encounter. For the same triggers or same ongoing effects, remember they are an additional 15 to 30 seconds.

    3) Love your play group and story

    a) Be willing to create at all times within the rules
    b) Be willing to advance a scene if it’s slow
    c) Be willing to enjoy your player success, find joy in their advanced tactical minds or sharp wit, as well as in their epic fails
    d) Be willing to let your villain run, fail or dominate. In each case, open a window when the door you planned closed
    e) Remember:

    “In preparing for battle, I have always found that plans are useless but planning is indispensable.”- Dwight David Eisenhower, Supreme Commander, Allied forces in Europe during World War II, and 34th President of the United States.

    Once you have your inspirations and your tools, you can reduce the encounter plans and just enjoy limited combat prep. Now you can focus more on the setting and tactics instead of the combatants and excess trigger rules.

    This edition, the combat focus should be on the actions within each round if you want your battles to be fast and fun. Unlike in the past, where you simply picked a cool monster and ran it as DM, I’ve found that the key is picking the cool tactic and *then* selecting monsters that support it.

    thanks – Wund

    • Kilsek says:

      Welcome to Leonine Roar and thanks for your comment, Wund! You have a beautiful system for 4e that balances prep and improvisation, and I love it, just like I loved your last D&D/Dragon Age hybrid Shadowfell.

      Blog-worthy piece here, my brother – tons of great advice for every DM. You’re absolutely right about the value of prep, research and planning *before* a campaign even starts. In that sense, it’s like many art forms – that sort of passionate devotion in creating a strong, rich foundation shows through in the art itself.

      Can’t wait for your next campaign! 😀

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