Speeding up Combat #3 – Barking up the Wrong Tree (Or This Post Nullifies Everything Else I’ve Said On the Subject)

I’d fully intended to take a rest from discussing speeding up combat in 4e, but I just keep getting pulled back in.  🙂

There was some discussion about the speed of combats at DDXP.  Mike Mearls said that it was one of the things he’d like to change about 4e.  There was some discussion about it during the Expert DM seminar.  AlioTheFool at RPG Musings recently discussed the subject, as did GameFiend at At Will.  Finally, @DaveTheGame, @SlyFlourish, and I had a lengthy discussion about this the other day on Twitter.

In a nutshell, a lot of people are starting to come to the conclusion that our issues with combat speed are misplaced.  The problem isn’t really that combat is slow.  4e combat has been designed right from the get-go to be highly tactical.  The problem is that it is difficult to have a wide variety of encounter types.

D&D 4e is by far the best edition of the game when it comes to handling the big, epic set piece battles, especially those involving the major villain.  These battles can be awesome and epic.  Hardly anyone complains about those taking a long time.

The problem crops up in those other encounters that just aren’t as important as the climatic battle.  Part of the problem has developed because although early 4e adventures like Keep on the Shadowfell featured encounters with several rooms where monsters could be coming in from other areas, most tactical encounters now are against warbands that are all in a single room, and start there right from the beginning.  In effect, they’re like most single room encounters from previous adventures.

What’s almost needed is some way to differentiate different types of combat encounters.  Torg did this very well in splitting up encounters into Standard and Dramatic categories. During Standard encounters, the PCs are expected to be awesome and kick the bad guys’ butts.  The odds of a PC going down are very slim.  They get all the advantages, the bad guys get all the disadvantages, and the encounters were done in 15 minutes.

Dramatic scenes were much more dangerous, pushed the PCs to their limits and generally were much longer, on the order of 90 minutes.  D&D does the equivalent of Dramatic encounters very well, we just need some way to do Standard encounters.

One way to do this is to just use fewer monsters (2 Standard monsters, or a handful of minions plus a Standard or Elite monster).  This isn’t much of a challenge though.   The PCs are able to heal up at the end of each encounter, as long as they have healing surges left.  So it’s going to be pretty tough for two monsters to drop a PC, especially if the Defender gets his nose in there (which he will).

Now, this isn’t a big deal since by definition Standard encounters aren’t expected to really challenge the PCs. However, D&D also deals with resource handling, so if the Standard encounters can’t really threaten the lives of the PCs, they should at least drain some of their resourceds.  However,  4e doesn’t have as much in the way of daily resources, being limited to Daily powers and healing surges (previous editions included charges on magic items, uses per day, and many  more one shot items).  In a Standard combat the PCs really wouldn’t be expected to use their Daily powers, unless they wanted to.  So in order to make a Standard encounter worth doing, there should be some threat to healing surges.  That is, the encounter should have a good shot at doing enough damage that the PCs would have to expend some healing surges.  The problem is that the PCs often have a lot of healing surges.  My numbers could be debated but we’re probably looking at 6-8 surges for non-defenders and around 12 for defenders.  This means that a party of five, as a whole, probably has somewhere around 40-50 healing surges across the party.  If the Standard encounter is only doing enough damage to require the expendeture of one or two healing surges, it’s not really a significant drain on resources.

There are a few potential solutions.

1.  Rexamine the Dungeon, as discussed by Robert J. Schwalb.   Instead of several small encounters with Short Rests between each of them, go back to the original idea of having multiple rooms in the dungeon (Robert calls them a ‘sector’) involved in the ‘encounter’, instead with a monster XP budget of around Level +2.  The party would ‘rest’ between each fight, but this would not constitute a Short Rest which would allow the PCs to get back their Encounter powers, Healing Words or expend multiple healing surges to heal themselves back up to full hp.  This would allow for exploration and roleplaying to intermix with the ‘encounter elements’ that involve fighting, until the PCs succeed at their goal in the sector and are able to take a short rest.

2.  Eliminate the no-brainer Extended Rest.  Generally my players take an Extended Rest whenever they want, which is usually when they’re almost out of Daily Powers.  I don’t recall them ever being near the point where they were out of healing surges.  One way to do this is to have a cost to making an Extended Rest.  This option was one that @DaveTheGame discussed via Twitter and also applied in his Temple of Elemental Evil campaign.

You could decide to rule that you can only get to recharge your healing surges and Daily powers when doing an Extended Rest in a non-dangerous area.  No camping in the dungeon or in the wilderness but having to do it in civilized areas.  Incidentally this would help solve the ‘nova’ issue that develops during wilderness encounters.

You can do as @DaveTheGame has done and speed the villain’s plans along during an Extended Rest.  The only problem with this is that it requires some sort of timeline and not all adventures (like simple dungeon crawls) lend themselves to this method.

Finally, you could restock the dungeon when the PC’s take a rest.  Sure they can leave the dungeon, but they shouldn’t expect that the guard posts would still be empty.  If you decide to do this, I would make sure you inform your players that this is a consquence.

The effect of any of these techniques is to give the PCs an incentive to keep charging ahead even though they may be down on Daily powers or getting their healing surges drained.  This way, even if they’re not really challenged on an individual Standard encounter, they’ll gradually be losing healing surges.

3.  Halve the amount of healing surges.  Greg Bilsland has been experimenting with this for his Dark Sun campaign.  I wouldn’t go as far as he did (especially considering he’s also reducing monster damage), but by reducing the number of healing surges the PC has available, it does make those smaller encounters a bit more dangerous on the longer scale.

Bottom line though, is that I’m not so sure that the issue is how long combats go, but that the issue is that there is no low end ‘Standard’ encounter that just by definition would be shorter in duration.

What do you think?

http://at-will.omnivangelist.net/2011/01/the-speed-of-choice-the-real-reason-your-4e-fights-are-so-damn-slow

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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