Faster 4e Combat: It starts with the players

April 26th, 2011

There is not shortage of posts on the internet talking about how to make 4e combats shorter.  You can find everything from detailed analysis of the Penny Arcade combats to tips for speeding up combat.  To me the faster 4e combat topic breaks down into two separate issues: one is dependent on the game and the actual rules of combat, two is dependent on the players and DM.  Before we get too deep let’s define “speed” of combat: this is the time from rolling first initiatives until the combat has concluded, either with everyone on one side dying or an early out being taken which ends combat.  What I cannot define is “fast” vs “slow” combat.  This is entirely in the eyes of the beholders (pun intended).  What may seem like a fast combat for a beginning group of players may be too slow for an experienced group.  And a highly social group may take much longer to progress through a combat but not care because they all had a good time regardless of speed.

In this post I am going to look at the second issue: how the players and the DM impact the speed of combat. This is the more actionable issue for most DMs.  No matter what rules govern combat the players and the DM are going to be the limiting factor for speed.  Obviously five computers adhering to the 4e combat rules could run an entire combat in a matter of seconds, which even an experienced group of humans would spend an hour playing out.  So what are the necessary steps for a player to complete on their turn:

  1. Move character
    • Decide where to move
    • Move mini on board
  2. Cast one or more spells
    • Pick a spell
    • Roll dice
    • Compare results
    • Resolve effects
  3. End turn

It seems like a pretty simple list, but by making speed improvements here you gain lost time on each turn of each round, really giving the combat the feeling of being quick.  Let’s step through and see how each can be sped up.

Move character

The actual process of moving a mini across the board is rather quick, but the decision of where to move can take much longer.  The decision of where to move can be made before a players turn even begins. I always smile when I see a player counting out spaces from their character during someone else’s turn because I know they are planning their move ahead of time and by counting it out they know it will be a valid move.  If they also note and prepare for any attacks of opportunities or environmental effects that helps take some of the burden off the DM.  So when that player’s turn rolls around, they can instantly move their mini, having used otherwise idle time for decision making.

Casting spells

The decision on spell selection can be sped up the same way that moving was.  Spend some time during other people’s turns deciding who to attack and with what spell.  Players can ensure their target is in range and read over the spell and it’s effects so when their turn arrives they can spring into action.  Once a player knows the spell they are going to cast they can pre-select any dice they will need, rather than spending time on their own turn picking through a pile of dice for the 2d8s they need to roll damage.  Comparing results and resolving effects is often a group effort between the player and the DM.  The DM needs to be just as ready with the appropriate defense stat as the player is with his spell information.

End of turn

This may seem like an unusual step to list but a lot of time is wasted while the next player is waiting for a player who had finished their turn but never actually said so.  DMs are often tasked with keeping this part of the flow going, but why make the poor DM ask “Are you done?” fifty times a night when the player could much more easily announce they have completed their turn?

Initiative tracking

Aside from making players aware of these concepts for speeding up combat, a DM can facilitate this thinking-ahead methodology by using a visible initiative list.  There is no reason the players need to guess at whose turn it is or try to construct the initiative order as the rounds progress.  Instead just make a visible list that shows the order.  I like to hang notecards in initiative order with the players names and enemies along the top of my DM Screen, then use a pointer to move along to always show whose turn it currently is, that way players know when they need to have their decisions made by.  If things start to bog down a bit, having the DM announce whose turn it is and who is on deck (the next player in line) can help jumpstart players into thinking at least a little ahead about their turn.

Scheduling fun

So here’s speed-increase idea I haven’t seen: have an index card that says “fun” hanging out in the initiative order.  All the players must remain somber and battle oriented until it is “fun” turn, then jokes can be made, fun can be had, smiles allowed, then back to work.  Sound awful?  Well it should.  That is not a recipe for a good combat.  Fun should not be scheduled during combat, it should be a constant state the players are in.  If you’re speed increasing rules are starting to lower the amount of fun players are having, then you need to double-back and remove the rules that aren’t working.  At the end of the day D&D is about socializing and having fun.  The rules merely facilitate this having of fun into a common structure that people can share.  If your group is having fun at whatever pace of combat you currently have, then you’re all set, mission accomplished.  Feel free to sprinkle in some of these ideas to help keep your combats moving along to get to more story.  The initiative tracking is a DM tool you can use to help yourself track combat and it may accidentally even speed up gameplay, so there’s a win-win.

I strongly believe that combat flow is more important than overall length. Flow is keeping the combat rolling, each player taking their turn in a reasonable amount of time and passing on to the next player.  If each player is actively engaged and thinking during a combat, it will seem much shorter, regardless of how much wall-clock time has elapsed.  Better flow starts with the players and that leads to smoother, quicker more efficient combats.


April 26th, 2011
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