Speeding up combat in D&D 4e: Part 1

One of the largest complaints that I hear about forth edition Dungeons & Dragons is that combat takes too long. I believe that there are several factors that lead to combat running slow. In this article I will discuss a few of these factors and ways that you can speed up your game.

The first reason that combat can be slow is because people are unfamiliar with the system. Forth edition Dungeons & Dragons has only been out a year now, making it a relatively new game. Another factor that can lead to long combats is a condition called decision paralysis. This happens when a player has so many options that they could take during their turn that they have a hard time deciding which is the best option. This can be amplified by other players giving suggestions to that player causing them to re-judge everything before coming to a decision.

KISS: Keep It Simple Stupid

An easy way to reduce player decision paralysis is to decrease the number of powers that each character has at the beginning of a game. By decreasing the number of powers that the character can access, you remove options from the player’s decision making process. This should lead to the player being able to use the powers that remain in a shorter amount of time.

There are many ways that you could reduce the number of powers that the character has, but here is one suggestion. First, you should be starting your characters at level 1. This will automatically decrease the number of powers that can be used by the character. To go further, I would remove all powers from the character except for one At-Will of their choice. This will give the player some combat working with that first At-Will, and allow them to get used to combat in Forth edition.

Once your players seem to be grasping the basics of combat, then you give them another power. This power could be either their other At-Will or their Encounter power. Give your players a few more combats with the additional power, then add in a third. If the character has racial powers, including the humans extra At-Will and the half-elfs At-Will turned Encounter, you could give it to them now. Have your players fight a couple more combats then give them their Daily power.

It’s likely that this many combats could cause your players to reach level 2. Don’t do that. The whole point of this approach is to allow your players the chance to grasp the basic mechanics of the game before you give them too many options. So, even if you plan to use normal experience throughout the rest of your campaign, I would recommend altering it for the first level. Rather than awarding them experience points during that first level, you are awarding them new powers. After they have had a fight or two with the daily power, bump them up to level 2.

Reward Fast Play

This is an idea I am considering for my next campaign.  I’ll bring a stop watch to the game table with me, and tell my players that if they can complete their turn within two minutes I’ll give them a token (white poker chip).  The poker chip is a +1 die bump that they can use on any roll that they make, they do not stack and they go away at the end of the session.  A +1 token should be a good reason for players to hurry through their turn if they can, hopefully getting them out of decision paralysis.  However, they should not have such a large affect that slower player’s are hurt if they do not receive them.

As a note, I’ll be handing out red poker chips which will give a +2 die bump as well.  The +2 tokens are going to be awarded for general “cool” things.  ”Cool” things will largely be decided upon by me as we play, but they will include: good roleplay, clever thinking and keeping notes.   I will be doing this because I want to encourage my players to do these sorts of things, but I plan to award experience on a storyline basis.

Player based Initiative

Since the DM is the player at the table who typically has the most to do and the most information to track, have one of your players track initiative for you.  This will allow you, the DM, to focus on the bookkeeping of NPC hit points, while a player handles whose turn it is.  I find that players are often waiting for the DM to inform them that it is their turn because the DM is busy writing down damage or noting effects from the last player’s turn.  If you decide to allow a player to handle initiative, try to pick one that is organized, and who usually can run through their turn quickly.  Make sure that the player who tracks initiative is giving people ample warning that their turn is approaching also.

Pre-rolling

Another way to speed up combat is to encourage your players to roll their attacks and damage before it is even their turn.  This works well with “Player based Initiative” from above.  If the player knows that they are the next person to act they should be able to have a good idea of what they will do on their own turn, unless things change drastically because of the currently player.  When they know what they will be doing on their turn, they might as well go ahead and make their rolls and add up their bonuses.  Then when it is their turn they should be able to tell the DM what they rolled and narrate their actions.

Information Management

I know that this one is going to be anathema to many DMs, but one way that you can speed up combat is to tell your players the defense scores of the NPCs.  From my experience much of combat is played out like this.  

*Player rolls d20, adds in modifier and gets a result.*
Player: “I rolled a 15.”  
DM: “Against which defense.”
Player: “Umm…”
*Player checks power card”
Player: “… AC.”
*DM shuffles notes around, finally finding the creature that was attacked.. checks the AC score.*
DM: “That hits”
Player: “Great!”
*Player rolls damage, adds in modifiers*
Player: “9 damage.”
*DM shuffles notes around looking for the NPC that was just right there… DM writes down the damage.* 

Rather than going through all of that back and forth between the player and the DM, why not just tell the players up front what the defense is that they need to hit.  If you want to keep some mystery, and not show the NPCs weaknesses right away then wait until a player has attacked a specific defense but as soon as they do tell them what the defense is.

The Wrap-Up

There you go five ways to speed up combat in Forth edition Dungeons & Dragons.  Try out the ideas that seem like they will work for your group and let me know how it goes.  This is the first post in what I expect will be a multi-part series.  

Here is a recap in bullet-style goodness

  • KISS: Keep It Simple Stupid.  Reduce the number of powers that your players have at level 1.
  • Reward Fast Play.  Time your players, and give them rewards for completing their turn on time.
  • Player based Initiative.  Have a player track initiative.
  • Pre-rolling.  Encourage your players to make rolls before their turn begins.
  • Information Management.  Tell your players the defense scores of your NPCs.

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    3 Responses to “Speeding up combat in D&D 4e: Part 1”

    1. newbiedm says:

      Nice.
      I plan to bring an hour glass to the table next time we play. I have one from a board game. I will incorporate your tokens ideas, +1 +2. I like that.

      newbiedm’s last blog post..Ki power source is gone, hello Psionic Monk

    2. Mike says:

      I do the poker chip thing now and it works well but 2 minutes is a very long turn. I try to do 20 second turns. Once I had an entire round of combat that took less than 30 seconds for six players. That was a great round. Everyone had pre-rolled and knew what had happened.

      Good suggestions but I haven’t found anything that helps me at paragon tier so I just houseruled monsters: 3/4 hps, +1/2 level in damage.

    3. me says:

      Fourth is the number.
      Forth is a word for forward among other meanings, like “go forth”.

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