Is 4E Combat Too Slow?

There’s a particularly interesting article today on Chatty DM’s blog, asking if combat in D&D 4E takes too long. Game speed is a particular problem in online games or with new players, both important fronts for Dungeons & Dragons.

Leave a comment: What’s your method of keeping the game running quickly? What’s your favourite trick to avoid boring, drawn-out combats?

Comments (12)

Mike Brady (August 29th, 2009)

I’m running the Scales of War adventure path from D&D Insider via MapTool (i.e., online). In a 4-hour session we typically make it through 2 combat encounters. In-person RPGA games are typically the same: if a module contains more than 2 combat encounters it will inevitably stretch past the 4-hour mark.

Personally I’d love for our game to progress more rapidly, but try as I might I can’t find any way to cut corners. It doesn’t seem like the players are taking especially long on their turns, and I’ve done everything I can to optimize mine. Chatty DM mentions “the Grind”, but I’ve never found that to be a problem. At that point in the encounter players are usually relying solely on at-wills, so things move pretty quickly. A new (or new to 4E) player starting above 1st-level can take an eternity, but that’s more a problem of character familiarity and not unique to this edition.

My best advice is to throw the DMG’s “10 encounters per level” rule out the window. Throwaway encounters are good as a periodic confidence boost, but should be rare. Use narration and creative skill challenges to negotiate the small guys, and save the combat for climactic, high-level encounters. This can bring on potential new issues, however, as players will be more likely to fall into the Nuke->Extended Rest->Nuke routine.

ChiPsiUp (August 29th, 2009)

One thing I’ve read is that people find that combat takes a long time because damage does not increase as fast as hit points do. Monster HP goes up really quickly, but the strikers in the PC party will likely not be doing a lot more damage at level 5 than they would be at level 1. (They might have a few extra 2[W] encounters, but for the most part the majority of damage comes from their bonus hunter’s quarry/sneak attack/whatever dice.) What I tend to do is that I fudge the hitpoints of my monsters constantly, and most of them I usually read their bloodied value as their actual HP total. This should make fights end a little faster. If it seems like the players can breeze through combat too easily, we can also scale up the damage dice of the monsters to compensate, making combat overall a lot faster and deadlier.

Wyatt (August 29th, 2009)

I switched to using PC hit point formulas for monsters and noticed a pretty significant speed-up in fighting. I also upped their damage a bit, but I run fewer encounters than the DM says I should. So my monsters are as durable as a PC will be and deal just a bit more damage than they used to.

Alex Schroeder (August 29th, 2009)

No matter what edition: I’ve found morale to be the most important tool. Monsters will run to fight another day. That also tends to add a new element to fights: you can now try to scare away monsters, or you can make plans to prevent an escape if it’s really important to the party. I’ve found fleeing monsters should not show any time soon, otherwise it just feels like an extended fight. Let them go.

Oz (August 29th, 2009)

Only the most vicious, desperate, or insane monsters should fight to the death, especially “thinking” ones. Morale is always a good idea, just make sure your players no they get credit for run-offs the same as kills.

Another idea that I’ve experimented with is adding the half-level bonus to damage for PCs.

DarkSchneider (August 30th, 2009)

Oz: How does the half-level bonus damage come out feeling? That’s an interesting idea but it’s one I’d be a bit worried would tip too far the other direction. Have you been using it for very long?

Personally I find that, in my groups, while combat is as always the slowest part of the game, it’s a pretty fun element all the same. Slow does not inherently equate to bad. I do my best to create challenging, interesting fights though.

On the other hand I definitely don’t think that solo monsters work as intended and usually end up either avoiding them entirely or shaving off a lot of their HP to keep the fight interesting. I suspect there’s a lot that could be done to make a solo encounter interesting, with terrain effects and hazards and different “phases” to the combat, but as it stands I haven’t felt they offer much more than an extended slugging match and I find that a mix of elites, standard monsters, and minions is a much more interesting way to design a fun fight.

Then again I’ve got my players actually considering minions as serious threats…

Saragon (August 31st, 2009)

When it’s down to one or two creatures — especially when there’s a block of PCs coming up in the initiative order — go ahead and call the fight done. There’s little to no chance they’ll be hurt (important for healing surge management) and it’s very unlikely they’ll use daily powers (they might use encounter powers if they’ve any left, but that just speeds up the “mopping up”.)

Knowing which monsters will flee and which monsters won’t flee as the tide turns against the monsters is important for several reasons. It speeds combat up, certainly, if some monsters flee. It’s also more realistic if some monsters flee and some fight to the death depending on their character - cowardly hirelings won’t stick around, fanatic devotees will. Likewise (and I wouldn’t over-use this, but it’s fun to drop on your players from time to time), have a host of creatures that appear in the combat but who will flee quickly — lots of minions, etc. The shock of a massive army arrayed against the PCs is always fun, and driving off a huge mass of monsters is especially rewarding.

Saragon (August 31st, 2009)

Oh, man, I completely forgot about this awesome piece of advice: How to spice up bland combats. Basic gist of it: Let each player pick one (maybe two) “lucky numbers” on the di(c)e they’re rolling in combat. When that number comes up, they get a freebie attack or some other bennie, but with one caveat: They can’t use their equipment to do it. Instead, it’s something like “my arrow misses but knocks a precariously-balanced urn off the shelf on the far wall, dropping it onto that guy’s head” — that sort of thing.

I use it in my 4E game now; it works well. It does make the player characters slightly more powerful, but in conjunction with the other advice given here your PCs won’t be significantly enhanced, and your players will have more fun in combat anyway and won’t notice.

Icosahedrophilia (September 2nd, 2009)

In my opinion, what makes 4e combat run (a little) slower than 3e combat is the increased range of choices in the core rules. However, you can 3.5e combat down to 4e speed quite easily by letting PCs range into the various sourcebooks like Tome of Battle that introduce completely new mechanics. Power cards, whether purchased from WotC, printed from the Character Builder, or just jotted down on index cards. If the players know the PCs’ powers well, they should be able to act quickly. My group recently affirmed a :30 rule: if you don’t act within :30 of your turn’s start, your PC automatically starts “delaying.” I bought a :30 sand timer to help track this, though it didn’t arrive in the mail until after my most recent session. Also, when announcing whose turn it is, I (as DM) also state whose turn it will be next. “Actassi, it’s your turn. Alanso, you’ll be next.”

Syrsuro (September 11th, 2009)

I’ve been using a variety of reduced hp/ increased damage approaches and they help some. My current approach is between 2/3 and 3/4 hp (depending on role) and increasing damage by one die.

But I am planning some encounters designed for a more ‘old school’ approach. The principle is an area or situation where resting really isn’t possible - such as an occupied dungeon/ stronghold or (as in the planned adventure) a pursuit where they really don’t have time to stop and rest after encounters.

Within this ‘encounter region’, the plan is to create ‘mooks’. These have 1/4 to 1/3 the hit points and are worth 1/4 the experience (unlike minions which are not really worth 1/4 the experience). A normal encounter of several levels higher composed of roughly equal level opponents might give you six opponents. This would be the equivalent of 24 mooks. These 24 mooks are encountered in small groups making the one long, drawn-out encounter into several faster encounter while the inability to rest between them helps to maintain the tension and challenge.

I suspect that this approach will require a lot of balancing to get it right, but the goal is to turn the two encounters described in several posts above into several quick encounters separated by periods of exploration and interaction with the environment (and when the party does find somewhere they can rest it will hopefully feel like an accomplishment).


Redwynd (September 23rd, 2009)

I’ve never found 4e combat to be frustratingly slow, though this edition is my (real) introduction to tabletop gaming.

Speaking both as a player and as a DM, combat tends to move quick enough, and with enough effects and potential tactics to employ that, even at low level, its fun and engaging. Two caveats, however:

1. Boring Encounters: Lets face it, not everything can be an epic showdown with the evil genie as you race across the desert on flying carpets (though I’m going to have to remember that, it was top-of-head), but I’ve seen some boring fights. Particularly when you’ve seen the same three-soldier+skirmisher+four-minions fight for the third time that night.

2. Slow Players: particularly if its always the same guy. If your wizard wants to take a minute to consult with the group for the placement of an zone? Awesome, lets talk strategy. When he wants to do it every turn? Not so much.

Personal gripes, really.

Forgarn (September 30th, 2009)

When we first started playing 4e, we all decided that combat was very slow compared to 3.5e. But we soon found out why. We had been playing 3.5 for almost 7 years and had become so familiar with it, the class did not matter and we knew what we were going to do. We discovered that being new to 4e slowed things down because we had to look stuff up, and reference the books more for stuff that in 3.5 we had memorized.

Now that we have been playing for a year or two, the basics are memorized again and it is now just getting used to a new class and their powers. Combat has again sped up. Recently we have started using a VTT (MapTools) and getting familiar with the program has slowed things down a little but we are getting back up to speed again.

As the DM I read the modules and have everything prepared ahead of time. I am trying different encounter managers and one I find one that I like I will have the whole module setup in their encounters before we even start the module. I will also not start a new player above 2nd level. There is too much to learn to have them jump into a 10th level character, and the other tiers are even worse.

Someone mentioned the nuke->extended rest->nuke routine. One of the things that I mention all the time is the rule for extended rests. There must be 12 hours between extended rests. If my characters try to take one before that time, I just throw an encounter at them half way through. That is enough to disrupt the “rest” that they think they need and no one gets their powers or hit points back. Or if I feel like being an a$$hole, i just tell them they cannot take one yet because it has not been enough time since the last one.

In my experience, I have to agree with Redwynd and say that the biggest problem is slow players. If you can get them to move faster, combat moves faster.

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