Speeding up Combat #1 – The Case Against Ongoing Damage

First, I should mention that I love 4e Dungeons and Dragons.  It does some things very well, especially with monsters (and especially after MM3 and the Monster Vault came out).  It definitely is superior to all the other editions at the big set piece battle.


I wish that some combats could go quicker.  Longer combats was definitely a design decision, as the designers wanted the monsters to be able to ‘do their thing’ before getting killed.

And it’s not that I want all combats to go quicker.  When that epic battle with an Elder Red Dragon and her minions goes 2 hours, I don’t have a problem with it.

I don’t buy into the idea that all battles need to be ‘important’.  Some have the simple purpose of introducing the characters to the situation or the environment and the types of monsters that are in the area.

Torg, a roleplaying game published in the 90s, was quite good about dividing encounters into Standard and Dramatic types.  The Standard encounters were your typical quick encounters like the guards at the entrance to a lair.  The PC’s were expected to win, and usually did rather quickly.  Dramatic encounters, usually the set piece battles against the major villains, took much longer, usually 60-90 minutes and the PCs were definitely in danger of dying.  Unfortunately, 4e combats generally are all ‘dramatic’ even if they shouldn’t be.

There are several reasons that combats can take a long time, and this has been discussed quite a bit on the Internet.  These reasons include:

  • Encounter Design (the ‘Grind’) in which the PCs slog through high defense monsters such as MM1 Elites, Solos, Soldiers and monsters substantially higher than the PCs’ level.
  • Player Options during Combat – The PCs used to just decide where to move, who to attack and what spell to cast (and often those spells were frequently used, like Fireball or Magic Missile).  Now, they have to do all that, but also decide whether to use an Action Point, whether to use an Immediate Action power and whether to use a Magic Item to boost the action.  In some cases the class the PC has chosen will cause problems with deciding what to do before their turn comes up (see Runepriest, Psionic classes).
  • Time to Resolve Actions – With the addition of Opportunity Attacks, Immediate Actions, Action Points, Minor Actions, burst and blast to-hit rolls, it can take a long time to just resolve the actions, even if the player knows exactly what she wants to do.  In one case, one of my players took over 15 minutes to resolve the actions of just one round because he did a large area attack, which had the effect of moving all the friendly and enemy creatures around the map, then used another action point for another area attack.
  • Record Keeping – This isn’t horrible, but there is a fair bit of record keeping that needs to be done:  marking, curses, hunter’s quarry and especially effects (which can all end at different times).

This is the first article in a semi-regular series discussing various ways to speed up combats.

This time, I want to address one of those Record Keeping items that I’ve come to realize I don’t much care for:  Ongoing Damage.

In the earlier editions of D&D, there wasn’t a lot of ‘ongoing damage’.  The classic cases were Heat Metal and Melf’s Acid Arrow, which sacrificed high damage for a lower amount of damage that occured each round for several rounds.

Now, ongoing damage is seemingly everywhere.

There are a few drawbacks to using ongoing damage.

  1. It takes away from the ‘immediate damage’.  Even with the new MM3 damage amounts, monster powers that do ongoing damage do less damage on a hit than a similar attack without ongoing damage.  This does keep the ‘expected damage’ in line with the standards, but there is a problem because…
  2. It’s usually not very much damage.  Generally you’re looking at 5 points of typed damage per tier (5 at Heroic, 10 at Paragon, 15 at Epic).  To me the possibility of taking one (or more rarely, two) rounds of damage, especially when it has reduced the damage you already rolled for, makes the extra paperwork dealing with ongoing damage not worth it.  This is exacerbated when…
  3. Any resistance to that typed damage pretty much eliminates the ongoing damage.  Generally I’ve found that whenever a PC has resistance vs typed damage, the tier-appropriate ongoing damage amounts aren’t enough to overcome the damage resistance and it becomes even less of a challenge.
  4. Ongoing damage becomes less impactful the higher level into the tier you go.  Because the damage is based on the tier, not the level, the impact of ongoing damage when you’re say 9th level compared to 1st is much, much less.
  5. We almost always forget to apply the damage and make the save…until after the end of the player’s turn.  Even then, it’s pretty rare that I’ve seen the ongoing damage have much effect on a combat.  The only situation I’ve experienced was in our 2nd session when it killed the Wizard who had wandered out of healing range of the Warlord.

So what is the solution?

  1. If you want to speed combat up, just add the ‘ongoing damage’ amount to the damage roll when the attack hits.  This makes things quicker, reduces the amount of paperwork needed and avoids the ‘doubling up’ of resistances.
  2. If you want to keep ongoing damage as part of the game (and I don’t recommend eliminating it entirely), make it meaningful by increasing the amount of ongoing damage going on.  I favour doubling it.  Ongoing 10 damage at Heroic, or 30 damage at Epic will get the PC’s attention.  It’s actually something to be feared, and just being resistant to the damage type won’t avoid all the damage, just mitigate it somewhat.

Part idiot. Part old man. All geek. I'm a 37-year old meteorologist. No, not one of those guys you see on TV, but someone who actually forecasts the weather. In my spare time (what I have with a toddler), I game. Mostly I run a D&D 4e game every two weeks, but also play Warhammer 40,000 and Warmachine. I'm a skeptic (not a cynic) and am interested in political topics. I can be followed on twitter @ArcaneSpringbrd

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About Arcane Springboard

I'm a 37-year old meteorologist. No, not one of those guys you see on TV, but someone who actually forecasts the weather. In my spare time (what I have with a toddler), I game. Mostly I run a D&D 4e game every two weeks, but also play Warhammer 40,000 and Warmachine. I'm a skeptic (not a cynic) and am interested in political topics. I can be followed on twitter @ArcaneSpringbrd
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