View Full Version : Speeding Up Combat

02-10-2011, 02:13 PM
In the beginning, when Wizards was hyping the new 4th edition system that was in the works, one of the promises they made was that combat would be faster and dynamic than it ever was before. They were right on one account. I will admit that it is definitely a dynamic and interesting combat system, but faster than 3rd edition? No way in hell.

By mid heroic tier, the combat system begins to become more and more bogged down. A combination of things work against it. One, there is an increasingly complex array of actions available to players. I have witnessed combat after combat come grinding to a near halt as a player pours over their options when it comes to their turn. This can be managed, but what about all the triggered actions?

Interrupting the flow of the turn, while interesting, causes its own problems. If they thought attacks of opportunity were bad in 3rd edition, they made it ten times worse in 4th with immediate interrupts and reactions. It gets so confusing at times -- in my paragon tier game especially -- even I occasionally get lost as to whose turn it actually was once all the dice have been rolled.

Finally, one of the biggest differences between 3rd and 4th for me -- and the biggest paradigm shift I faced when converting -- is the shift away from using a single bad ass mob against a team of adventurers. Now, it is typical to have five or more critters on the board, and even if you do use a solo, it typically has multiple attacks and even more triggered actions to keep track of. This means the DM spends a lot more time than he used to resolving monster attacks.

The end result -- at least in my games -- is any single combat typically takes two or more hours from start to finish. In my paragon game, it hasn't been atypical to see a difficult (EL + 2) encounter take more than three hours. While I like to have challenging combats, I also like to have time for roleplaying and story development. Three hours is far too long as an average. Even two hours is a stretch. Ideally, I would like encounters to resolve in around one hour.

Recently, I have been trying out a new solution. I'd already tried having heavily encouraging my players to have their actions sorted before their turn came up with some marginal gains, but when combat takes 6, 7, 8 or even more rounds to complete, there is only so much you can do. So, my newest experiment was to bring down the number of rounds any combat takes while keeping the same challenge level. To do this, I have been playing with the monster damage to hitpoint ratio.

I started by increasing the monster damage by 100% and halving its hitpoints. The result was astounding. A combat that would have taken us two hours easily was over in 45 minutes! It was also a hell of a lot more intense. The damage output of the solo I was using was SCARY. The PCs were going from uninjured to bloodied often in just one hit. For the first time in a long while, my bad ass monster was putting actual fear in the eyes of my players. It was just what I was hoping for.

The only problem really was that the combat now went a little too fast. We finished an encounter of equal to their level in a blazing two rounds -- too quick for the players to even have a chance to use some of their coolest abilities.

In the next game, I altered the ratio slightly to 60% monster hitpoints and 166% average damage using the MM3 damage calculations. Definitely a little less frightening than the 200% I was doing before, which had the potential to actually take a PC down in a single hit if the monster got lucky. Our next combat using this formula clocked in at 3 rounds and about 1 hour and 15 minutes. Not bad, considering it was an EL+1 fight.

Of course, using this system does expose a few imbalances. Controllers gain a severe advantage. Preventing a PC or monster from doing damage for even one round is a lot more effective that it was before. I'm not deterred though. So far, my players seem to be enjoying the new fast paced and intense combat, and I like that I can make the encounters challenging without them taking forever and half to resolve.

Anyway, your mileage may vary. Definitely try this at your own risk. :)

Have you tried out something that has really helped speed up combat in your game? Tell us about it. I'm definitely interested in tuning my encounters as much as possible.

02-10-2011, 03:07 PM
I don't understand this either. Online play seems to slow it up even more. It seems like (at least as a player) my turn takes no time at all. Yes, I plan my attack ahead of time (which may change if the situation/layout severely changes), but I don't understand why my attack with resolution (marking the damage and such on the baddies sheet) takes about a minute, MAYBE 2, but other players will seriously eat up about 5-10 minutes on their turn. As such, 2 hours of the session are combat by other players (mine being 10 minutes total) and the DM's being about 20. 2.5 hours for 3 rounds is somewhat ridiculous (especially when you only partake in about 10 minutes of it).

Maybe if I try playing with the health/dam of baddies, it will help.

02-11-2011, 12:25 PM
I will chime in here, eventhough I run my games using 2E. I know first hand what yukonhorror means about some folks taking forever to do their turn when running an online game. Yes, there are times when a player may have had readied a plan for their character's turn and then with what took place in the preceeding character's turns, they now can't take the action(s) that they had planned. However, with a table top group as large as the one we have, (there are times that we can have 12+ players at the table), there is a pontential for combat taking forever. Fortunately, everyone in our group is onboard with having their character's actions ready when it is their turn. Obviously, the first couple of players need a little more time since they don't have the luxury of being later in the turn sequence. It is just a matter of having everyone actually at the table be focused on playing the game and not dicussing what they did last Tuesday at work.

I will ask this. Do you folks that use 4E, or even 3.0/3.5, find that as characters rise in level and gain more feats and skills, does it just make for a gradual slowing of combat until as Farcaster said, "a player pouring over all the various actions their character has to choose from." Also, it sounds like there are lots more variations on the old concept of "Attacks of Opportunity." Is it getting to the point that there may be too many different trigger actions that allow for this, that, and the other thing to be done that can either slow or negate the character that initiates the action?

Again, since I have very limited 3.0 experience and no 4E experience, I am eager to know what those of you that have extensive play time with these versions. Especially the 4E, so that if a member asks a question, I may be able to point them toward some of you that can help them.

02-11-2011, 01:12 PM
The time factor with combat has been a problem with RP's in general as far back as I can remember. Some players and even some GM's seem either ok with it, or enjoy it this way. But it bothered me, both as a player and then as a GM. As a player I have been forced to endure and in some cases to leave a game where my character had, like cplmac stated ten minutes of input in a three hour combat situation. Sorry, but that is bored and lazy players and/or a bad GM. (could also be too many players and/or a new or overwhelmed GM.)

As a GM, (I do not play any form of DnD. Though that is where I got my motivation from early on) I like to keep my combat situations to about an hour for the four players I currently have. For a six hour game I will plan four to eight encounters, and be satisfied with four completed and a few not encountered or flew by. To get combat to an hour or close I have bumped up the hp of the monsters and some of the players. To some extent rather significantly for the fighter types. Damage is also bumped up rather significantly, all the way around. Death can come fast for the monsters and for rather weak characters who insist on hand to hand.

02-12-2011, 01:18 AM
Farcaster, try it with 9 players. Some sessions as the DM, I want to go to sleep while players are deciding what action to use. Encounters either take forever, or aren't a threat.

We switched to a Dark Sun campaign, and this time we started with 9 players again. Though a few have had to drop for various reasons and so we are now down to a manageable 5 or 6 players again for each session. A smaller group would probably speed up combat, but nobody likes being left out, and I don't like excluding anyone who wants to play. Still, combat seems to take too long, despite the smaller group size and the fact that the Dark Sun creatures seem to deal out more damage than the regular MM creatures. The first fix I tried, was to have Intelligent creatures that were bloodied, flee. This ended with the PC's chasing down all of the fleeing creatures and killing them anyway (should have seen this coming). Second, I dropped all enemy combatants AC by 5, to make it almost impossible to miss them, but it didn't help greatly. So I was thinking about doing the 1/2 HP or damage x2. My only problem with this though, is that had we been playing with this rule this week I would have killed the Psion character with one hit, a critical, but still one hit. I would feel pretty bad about that. I would be okay with two hits though:)

I'm still thinking of trying it out, but perhaps with the rule that enemies don't crit.

Some other options I've been thinking about is to reduce the number of player options. The inherent bonus option is good for getting rid of some of the magic items, which are way too plentiful IMO, but players still have a slew of options. In order to reduce these options, and speed up play I'm thinking of possibly getting rid of daily powers altogether, and replacing them with extra feats. Alternately, I had thought to tie daily powers to milestones. Each time a PC reaches a milestone they gain the use of a daily power, otherwise they are not an option. They don't start with them and only earn them through heroic actions and by pushing themselves to the limits. Not by quitting in the middle of something important so that they can take an extended rest to get them back. Which address some other game issues. Still the loss of daily powers isn't that big a hit on the number of options, though it may be in terms of damage output. Another option that I had thought of was to increase At-will powers by 1[w], that way they would be an attractive fallback option, especially when your setting at the table with 5 or 6 people staring at you because you can't think of what to use.

Nothing definite, just brain-farting to come up with ideas at this point.

02-12-2011, 11:42 AM
Farcaster, try it with 9 players. Some sessions as the DM, I want to go to sleep while players are deciding what action to use. Encounters either take forever, or aren't a threat.

For me, nine would be way too many players. My absolute limit is a group size of six regularly attending players. But, the problem of players taking a long time to decide on what their characters do is not unique to a larger group; it is simply magnifying the problem by the number of players you have. There are a couple things I could suggest that might help if you haven't tried them already.

One, make sure that the initiative order is visible to everyone, so that they know who is coming up next in the round. Also, on each turn, try calling out both whose turn it is and who will be up next. This prompts the next player to start thinking about what action they are going to take before their turn starts.

If that doesn't seem to help, then I'd also consider putting in a rule that rewards players who have their actions ready or otherwise keeps things moving. In one of my games, the DM gives the player an automatic +1 to hit if they had their action ready to go as soon as their turn came up. This helps a little, but I might take it one step further. At times, if a PC is languishing about what they are going to do in my game, I consider their character to also be delaying to consider the situation, and I move on to the next initiative count. Heavy handed? Maybe, but it is effective.

Another thought for your large group is to promote one of the players to a CO-DM and have them help you out during encounters. That in and of itself can really help. It would also give you an opportunity to try running two encounters at the same time by splitting the party up enough that each part of the combat can be considered independent of the other.

As to modifying the system to reduce the amount of power options, maybe the Essential builds could help out?

02-12-2011, 01:17 PM
The idea of warning the next player they are up next is a great idea, one I think I will try in my game.

In the past I have called a players name to go and found them not even aware they were next. I will skip them and take them at the end of round. Doesn't take long and they start to pay attention and are then ready when it is their turn. That I find really helps in speeding the game up, while waiting on them to think of what they would like to do with several false starts thrown in for good measure.

02-12-2011, 03:17 PM
The reason why I stopped playing 4E was because for combats it took our group of 5-6 regular players over two hours even at lower-Heroic tier, not because we weren't playing attention

In our 3.x games, we reduced our combat times by following these simple rules:

A player is assigned as Party Leader and it is his/her job to keep the players alert and ready for anything.
Another player is assigned as Scribe and jots down everything, and is also in charge of keeping up with Initiative. The Scribe alerts whomever is next in the order as well as the next person after them.
DMs: Group your monsters into types and have them act on the same Initiative. If you have 4 zombies, 2 ghouls, and a Vampire, the zombies go on one Initiaitve, the ghouls another, and the Vampire another. It gives the DM time to adjust strategies while mixing up the actions of the players.
Keep a stopwatch and time the players. Our group limits each turn to 60 seconds to decide on and begin executing an action. If they don't, they are considered to be Delaying and must wait at least 2 other Initiative actions before they can act. The DM has the same limitation, but for each creature.
Don't fight to the death. All creatures have survival instincts, and fight-or-flight is used very regularly in our games.
Limit the number of sources you use in a campaign. When I run a campaign, I stick to the Core Rulebooks, the Complete ? books, and the campaign books (if any) for that setting. As DM I limit myself to the MM books and campaign books for monsters.

02-14-2011, 08:16 AM
I think it was kirk who said it, but he just gave me a great idea. With regards to limiting options.

Do one of a couple of things (mainly for higher level games):

Limit how many powers can be used in an encounter. The players get access to one @ will one encounter, one combat utility, and either a daily or another encounter attack. You take one round to decide which powers seem useful the for encounter at hand. Allow some knowledge rolls for better planning and set a time limit of 5-10 minutes for EACH player to decide. Either use power cards (or make your own) to decide. This would require some HP lowering (as the attacks aren't as deadly), but with less options there are less decisions to be made.

Another idea is to have a SET plan. In other words, a formula for what order each attack will take, with some stipulations in place. For example, start with a charge attack for rd 1, shift towards a flanking position (if possible) then use shatterbone strike, etc...

On top of that you have a timer (from pictionary or something). They get that time to move their dude, state the attack, and roll the appropriate dice and do whatever else they need to do. If the time runs out, the player does the action in the set plan for round number x, and you move on to next player.

Ways to speed up things for DM:

Have a VERY set plan. Something you rarely deviate from. I.e. goblin snacker attacks wizard guy with flaming bowel movement, kobold witch doctor forces movement on the fighter to make him near the hulking mass, hulking mass smashes and kills, etc... On top of that, have the rolls pre-rolled. Assuming you are targeting who you want to target, you'll know if it hits (unless there is a bonus or penalty) and don't even need to look at a character sheet or anything. Maybe keep a spreadsheet, so you can add bonuses and penalties dynamically.

This plan doesn't have to be STRICTLY adhered to, but it will avoid decision making time when you are indecisive. But if you know you want to use X instead of what's on the plan, use X. But having it laid out prematurely makes it easier to reference. and if the rolls are already rolled, you can just peak at your spreadsheet, see that it hits, and sprout out the damage.

Finally, with respect to opp attacks, immediate interrupts and reactions. I say if the person with those actions don't speak up within the time limit of that round, it doesn't happen. No retroactive actions. As a DM, if you are aware of the players imm ints and rxns, put a note in the spreadsheet. As for the monsters, if you miss it big deal, otherwise, try and keep in your head at least the juicy ones.

Those are some of the thoughts I had the other day. Don't know if they'll work or not, but they are there.

Soft Serve
04-08-2011, 11:54 AM
If you use a computer (either a laptop at the table or in a chat game) there's an Initiative Tracker (http://donjon.bin.sh/d20/initiative/) at donjon.

Some other guys already know about the site here pointing out the Dungeon and World generators that are extremely valuable to me (I'm lazy...).

The Init. Tracker lets you add PCs HP, AC, and other defenses, as well as any monsters. Then you type in their initiative after they roll it and click sort. They get displayed first on top last on bottom, then when the encounter starts you just click a little blue box that times their turn and lists "Delay" and "ready" options. You can pause their turn by clicking the timer, and when their turn ends you just click the next box in the row.

When someone goes out of order for whatever reason you can drag and drop their column to a new area in the order. And all the items (HP, AC, etc.) can be erased and rewritten on the fly so it gets a lot easier to track HP loss or temporary AC (de)buffs.

It's a really nifty time saver if you can access it.

04-08-2011, 04:25 PM
I had a group that had several players with the, "I'm thinking," problem, and it was easy to fix.

I announce at the start of game-play that I have a stop-watch and I was going to use it for battles.

When I announce, "Hey Timmeh, it's your turn," I very obviously hold out the stop-watch and click the button. If he can't come up with an action within 30 seconds, I announce, "Okay, you are to busy thinking to do anything this round." If he DOES announce something (attack, spell, move, whatever), he gets an extra 30 seconds to complete the action (outside of calculating damage). If he can't do that, I announce, "Okay, the orc sees that you really intended to attack him, but for no apparent reason, you held your action. Bob, you're up next!"

It took about three fights with these three guys either getting killed at each battle due to inactivity or losing out on ALL experience for the encounter due to indecisiveness, and they were cured.

Was a being a jerk?

Yeah, kind of, but everyone got the idea, and fights went MUCH quicker.

Something I've done since then are use 3x5 cards - with each player writing their name on TWO of them. I use them for initiative rolls, and make the PC's cards "kiss" - If Tim is first and Bob is next, then I have Tim's card face up on top, with Bob's first card face down behind it - and Bob's second card next, face up. When I say we're ready to start, I peel off the first two cards and announce, "Tim, you're up." Everyone looks, and see's Bob's name on the card in my hand... so EVERYONE knows that Bob is next.

04-15-2011, 06:19 PM
Stripping it back to 1 Page

When we first started out playing 4ed, we didn't notice the time issue that much with combat. We were already using an initiative tracking process that alerted the next player they were up, and we were also in the habit of not splitting monster initiative spots - everyone gets one turn, even the DM. However, as our players progressed in level, and the range of supplements increased, so did the time it took to get through an encounter.

It's as though level progression insists on increased complexity of action in order to deal with increasing monster hit points. Its an arms race that inserts more and more time into the encounter. Its a conundrum, because I love the speed of play at lower levels, but I also love the character variety at higher levels - maybe I could convince my group to allow me to be the only Level 8 character at the table, everyone else stuck at Level 1!

However, last Sunday I hosted a one-shot 4ed game for seven players, of which 2 had some experience with 2ed and 2 had no experience at all. To make it simple I used pregenerated character sheets based on the WOTC pregenerated characters for their March of the Phantom Brigade Encounters. You can find them at: http://www.wizards.com/dnd/Tool.aspx?x=dnd/4new/tool/charactersheet

We didn't use the actual WOTC characters, but we did make sure that we stripped back anything that couldn't fit a a single page of paper. There's such as thing as too much choice, and this process certainly dealt with that.

Back in our regular game we continue to play with our 6 page character sheets; but I'm definitely thinking about stripping it back to 1 page in our next campaign.

04-16-2011, 12:54 PM
We didn't use the actual WOTC characters, but we did make sure that we stripped back anything that couldn't fit a a single page of paper. There's such as thing as too much choice, and this process certainly dealt with that.

The new essentials builds answer that problem pretty well. I'm not sure that I am a big fan of them. But, I do like some of the concepts. For instance, having encounter powers trigger when you hit with an at-will solves a couple problems. Yes, your encounter powers are more reliable, which is good, but it also means there are less choices to make before the dice are rolled. If the player misses, then choosing an encounter power to use becomes moot and the round moves on.

04-16-2011, 07:51 PM
your encounter powers are more reliable, which is good, but it also means there are less choices to make before the dice are rolled.

I think that you hit the nail on the head with this Farcaster. The key factor driving speed of combat depends completely on how many choices there are to make before the dice are rolled. You can make the process more systematic (initiative trackers etc), or get players to determine what they're doing before their turn, or by timing their decision durations (but too much pressure removes playing as a Team, building on the actions of others).Or you can limit the choices - a more 'old school' feel to the new D&D.

04-18-2011, 01:01 AM
It's been a while since I posted my original thoughts. So I talked it over with the group and they were interested in trying out the damage x 2 option. We decided to think it over between sessions before giving it a try. So, we then played our regular game that night and the halfling rogue was killed and eaten by a kank (halflings are delicious you know, and bite size), and two of the other characters were also nearly killed. In the grand scheme of things the attack on the Kank Outriders was a minor encounter. So, as you can imagine, no one is keen on the increased damage output now.

Thinking of allowing characters who don't make a move to instead make a basic melee attack. Not sure if this will speed up play or slow it down, but limiting it to basic attack only to try and keep it simple. If it bogs things down, I might try switching it to an extra 1[w]. Trying to keep from making it a certainty and add a little variability, extra tactical choices, instead of straight up extra damage.

04-18-2011, 07:44 AM
I got a game this weekend, and I am going for 75% HP and 133% damage. It is not EXACTLY 4/3 damage, but it is approximate. Left alone things like insubstantial and ongoing dam though. We'll see how things pan out. Blood bath, or perfect level of challenge/speed/enjoyment.

04-20-2011, 12:11 AM
I haven't played a ton of 4E, but I like what I have played. I think that it actually moves faster than I was use to with 3.5. Then again, my group tends to string together rules to make something more complicated than it is, so maybe that's why 3.5 seemed slower to me.

All in all, I have played up to level 8 using 4E (kind of like the heroic teir more than others, guess I'm just into the super epic stuff). I thought that it was too limiting and too short on the combat end of things in the first few levels, but think we are at a good spot at level 8 or so. Of course, I built my fighter to actually have few attacking options and lots of interrupt abilities instead. So I guess I did limit myself.

The group I play with face to face rarely takes an hour or more to do any combat. Most combats are resolved on average in about 35 minutes or so. We have 5 players and 1 DM. I think what has worked for us is that when it becomes someones turn in combat, all eyes turn to that player, and they are pressured to act quickly, not because we are worried about wasting time, but instead because we want to preserve the story feeling, and there's nothing worse than having to press the pause button in your mind's eye theater.

04-28-2011, 09:28 PM
I've tried the double damage and half hit points for the monsters, and it definitely speeds things up. My main concern is that it tends to pigeon hole the roles a bit. With the extra damage going out the Leader class becomes more of a dedicated healer. With the faster combat Controllers don't bother with terrain effects and look more for damaging effects. Its probably important to mention that the group I'm in is fairly small, each session is 3 or 4 players so roles are already pretty thin. Its unlikely this is as big a deal with larger groups.

Another place I've found to speed things up is to limit the use of conditions on the PC's. While its amusing to watch the Defender scramble to keep monsters focused on him while dazed, it breaks the party's strategy and makes them patch it on the fly. This requires a bit of thought, and as mentioned a few times when the players have to think the action slows down. Things like prone and slow seem to be alright, they aren't a huge impact. Weaken and dazed are the ones I only use in special occasions, since they are more likely to affect what a player wants to do.

The last thing I'd like to mention is that its useful to be able to recognize when an encounter is effectively over. The party has killed the brutes and are directly attacking the artillery monsters. Or all of the exciting single use powers the monster have are used up, leaving just basic attacks. Or the controller has cut off access to the special terrain making your dynamic encounter very static. You know the point, aside from the monsters getting a string of lucky rolls all the danger is gone. When this happens end the combat. My group does not take to this so well, they'll grudgingly accept when their foes surrender but if they try to run they'll hunt down every last one of them. Since my group wants to end the encounter by slaying all their foes I start to help them. I'll have their enemies start "acting out of desperation", which lets me be intentionally careless without breaking character. Make the enemies try to run and trigger attacks of opportunity, have them put the defenders mark to work by taking shots at the rest of the party. Find ways to give them extra attacks so that they chew through the monster's hit points faster.

04-29-2011, 07:24 AM
Reporting back, I tried 75% hp and 1.33% dam (inverse of 75%). I was happy with the results. We got TWO (count it TWO) encounters in with RP in a 4 hour session. That is like a record for me. Maybe being live made it easier, and we did only have 4 players, but still. I was ecstatic.

Now certain creatures (my soldier) died after getting one attack in (some lucky rolls), but that left the other creatures to seriously pump out damage (brought a guy to zero right quick). It all balanced out in the end, but I like the variety of abilities that comes with a variety of monsters (why I REALLY like 4e vs. older editions). I might move it to 80% hp and 125% dam as they said it was a BIT deadly. They also made the comment, if they were higher level, it wouldn't have been so bad, so maybe at higher levels, I'll skew the split more.