• 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.


    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.
    • Black Rage, Solo Brute: Take 1

      This is my first attempt at creating a custom creature for Dungeons & Dragons Forth Edition.  All comments and suggestions are welcome.

      The Black Rage is a giant that has been twisted by the necromatic powers within the Shadowfell.  The Black Rage has learned to live off of its pain, turning it against those that dare attack it.  In the middle of battle the Black Rage will go perfectly still, allowing its enemies to strike it, seeming to absorb the damage.  Then suddenly dark energy will burst forth from the Dark Rage striking against those that had damaged it.

      Black Rage Level 5 Solo Brute
      Large Shadow Humanoid (Shadow, Giant) XP 1,000
      Initiative +4 Senses Perception +4
      HP 252; Bloodied 126
      Regeneration 5
      AC 19; Fortitude 18, Reflex 15, Will 14
      Saving Throws +5
      Speed 8
      Action Points 2
      M Club (Standard; at-will) ♦ Weapon
      Reach 2; +8 vs AC; 1d8 + 4 damage.
      m Sweep Club (Standard; recharge 56) ♦ Weapon
      The Black Rage makes a Club attack against two Medium of smaller targets; on a hit, the target is pushed 1 square and knocked prone.
      r Hurl Rock (Standard; at-will)
      Ranged 8/16; +8 vs AC; 1d8 + 4
      Absorb (Minor; recharge 6)
      Chose either close attacks or ranged attacks. Until the end of the Black Rage’s next turn, anytime it is damaged by a power of the chosen type record the damage and who damaged it.
      c Reflect (Standard; at-will)
      Close burst 20; target creatures that have damaged to Black Rage since it used Absorb; +10 vs Will; Deal damage to the target equal to the damage that the target dealt to the Black Rage.
      Alignment Chaotic Evil Languages Giant
      Skills Athletics +12
      Str 18 (+6) Dex 10 (+2) Wis 10 (+2)
      Con 18 (+6) Int 12 (+3) Cha 8 (+1)
      Equipment hide armor, club

    • Removing magic weapons from DnD 4e

      In an upcoming Dungeons & Dragons Forth Edition campaign, I have decided that I don’t want to be bothered with giving out standard magical items.  Items like +1 longswords and +2 suits of platemail.   I want the magic items that I award to be special, not just an expected result of the leveling up process.  I want Excalibur, not +1 longsword.

      The problem with this is that the mechanics of 4e expect the players to regularly receive magical items.  Every five levels the player is expected to receive the next tier in magical items.  +1 around level 5, +2 around level 10 … +6 around level 30.  This type of equipment grind works in a computer game, but doesn’t really work in the episodic, fast-leveling campaign that I am planning.

      In order to remove these “mundane” magical items, and still allow the player a fighting chance at surviving at higher levels, changes will have to be made.  Making these changes will first require an understanding of just what exactly these magical items do for the player.  I plan on dividing this subject up into two or three posts, this first one will discuss magical weapons.

      There are two mechanical benefits from “mundane” magical items.  First, they increase the characters chance to hit.  Magical weapons do this by giving a bonus to the character’s Attack Bonus equal to the enhancement bonus of the weapon.  The second benefit that magical weapons offer is an increase in the damage dealt. 

      Magical weapons provide bonus damage in two forms.  Magical weapons add their enhancement bonus to any attacks made with the weapon.  Additionally, when the character scores a critical hit the attack deals extra damage based upon the weapon.  Most magical weapons have a critical hit die associated with them.  Most commonly this is a d6.  When the character make a critical attack they roll X dice of the specified type, where X is equal to the weapons enhancement bonus. 

      For example, a +5 longsword deals 5 extra damage on every attack made with the sword.  When that sword lands a critical blow, it deals 5d6 extra damage.

      Now that we understand how magical weapons benefit the character, what changes do we make to the system to balance out the removal of those magical weapons?  I believe that balancing out the damage will be pretty easy, so I will be focusing on balancing out the attack bonus first. 

      Before we can make any changes I think we need to explore the interaction between player character Attack Bonuses and monster AC.

      Monster AC increases each level.  From a post on Enworld , we know that average monster AC is level + 14.  This average should give us a good baseline to compare against, even though AC will fluctuate depending upon the monsters race, role and other factors.

      Player character attack bonuses are a bit more complicated.  There are many factors that go into determining a characters attack bonus.  Each weapon has is proficiency bonus, along with any enhancement bonus that is may grant due to its magical nature.  Player characters ability scores directly affect their attack bonus, and abilities increase as the character’s level increases.  Additionally, one half the character’s level is added to the attack bonus.  Finally, there are feats that can increase the character’s attack bonus.  The most common feat to do so is likely to be the new Weapon Expertise from Player’s Handbook 2.  This feat gives +1 to the character’s attack bonus; it then scales up at levels 15 and 25.

      To see how all of these factors work together see the chart below.  For this chart I am using a player character that starts with an 18 in their primary attack ability.  The character will be taking the Weapon Expertise feat, and will be following an epic destiny that increases their stats at level 21.  Magic Weapons are being awarded at levels 3, 7, 13, 17, 23, 27 to help even out the chart.

      Player Character’s Attack Bonus      
      Level Level
      Feat TOTAL   Monster
      1 0 4 3 0 0 7   15 8
      2 1 4 3 0 0 8   16 8
      3 1 4 3 1 0 9   17 8
      4 2 4 3 1 0 10   18 8
      5 2 4 3 1 0 10   19 9
      6 3 4 3 1 1 12   20 8
      7 3 4 3 2 1 13   21 8
      8 4 5 3 2 1 15   22 7
      9 4 5 3 2 1 15   23 8
      10 5 5 3 2 1 16   24 8
      11 5 5 3 2 1 16   25 9
      12 6 5 3 2 1 17   26 9
      13 6 5 3 3 1 18   27 9
      14 7 6 3 3 1 20   28 8
      15 7 6 3 3 2 21   29 8
      16 8 6 3 3 2 22   30 8
      17 8 6 3 4 2 23   31 8
      18 9 6 3 4 2 24   32 8
      19 9 6 3 4 2 24   33 9
      20 10 6 3 4 2 25   34 9
      21 10 8 3 4 2 27   35 8
      22 11 8 3 4 2 28   36 8
      23 11 8 3 5 2 29   37 8
      24 12 8 3 5 2 30   38 8
      25 12 8 3 5 3 31   39 8
      26 13 8 3 5 3 32   40 8
      27 13 8 3 6 3 33   41 8
      28 14 9 3 6 3 35   42 7
      29 14 9 3 6 3 35   43 8
      30 15 9 3 6 3 36   44 8

      As we can see from the chart, the player characters attack bonus increases at pretty much every level.  This balances out well with the increase in the monsters average AC. 

      Note that before the addition of the Weapon Expertise feat with PHB2 the character’s attack bonus would have fallen behind by 3 points at level 30.   To me this indicates that the feat is just a band-aid on the system.  A band-aid that works well, but one that I think we can do without.  So in addition to removing “mundane” magical weapons from my campaign, I also intend to remove Weapon Expertise.

      Now if I take the total attack bonus that magical weapons can grant (+6) and add the attack bonus from Weapon Expertise at level 30 (+3), I determine that any changes to the system will need to balance out a total of +9 to attack bonus across 30 levels.

      To make this easy on the players, allowing them to use the Character Builder without modification, I have decided to handle the alterations on the DM side.  This means that I will be decreasing the AC of the monsters as the players level up. 

      Dividing the 30 levels by the +9 attack bonus, we get 3.33.  To make the math easier, I’ll just use 3.  So every 3 levels, I will decrease the AC of the monsters by 1.

      So for a level 10 monster, I will be decreasing its AC by 3.  In fact, I will be decreasing all of its defenses by this amount.  While I have not included a detailed study of non-AC defenses they follow the same pattern.

      Returning to the topic of damage, I plan to mostly ignore the bonus damage that magic weapons add to each swing with a weapon.  I will likely end up doing something in regards to hit points or damage to speed up combat, but that would be a future post.

      Bonus damage on critical hits is a different matter.  I have a harder time just throwing this damage out the window.  There is a fairly simple solution for this however.  I’ll simple give all weapons the ability to deal bonus damage on a critical hit determined by the level of the character.  Bonus damage will be in the form of the default d6.  Critical hits will deal 1d6 bonus damage for every 5 character levels.  (Level / 5 rounded down)

      The magical weapons that I do hand out, Artifact type items, may increase the size of the critical hit die.  For example, Excalibur may deal Xd12 damage when a critical hit lands.

      To achieve my goal of removing “mundane” magical items from Dungeons & Dragons Forth Edition I will be making two changes to the game.  First, I will subtract 1 from every creatures AC for each 3 levels.  (Level / 3 rounded down)  Secondly, I will make all weapons deal bonus damage on a critical hit, 1d6 damage for every 5 levels.  (Level / 5 rounded down)

    • Making Rituals More Usable

      Earlier today Mike Mearls asked “Thursday’s #dnd question – have rituals seen much use in your game?”

      Looking through several responses, it looks like many groups have not used rituals.  Those groups that have used rituals, do not use rituals very often.  The largest complaint about rituals were the casting costs associated with them.

      My proposed solution to this problem is to follow the example given in the Player’s Handbook II with the Bards.  Bards are allowed to perform one ritual per day of their level or lower without having to pay the component cost.  The only catch is that the ritual must be a bard specific ritual.  At paragon and epic tiers the bard is allowed one additional ritual per day for free.

      Following this example I would extend this class feature to the Wizard, Cleric and Druid classes, since I consider these to be the main ritual casting classes of their power sources.  Wizards would be only be allowed to perform Arcane based rituals for free.  Clerics would be restricted to Religion based rituals, while Druids would only be allowed to cast Nature based rituals without component cost.

      This house rule should increase the usability of rituals in your campaign, and make the Wizard, Cleric and Druid classes the best ritual casters of their power source.

    • Introducing new players to DnD 4E

      I just responded to a post on ENWorld, in quick a user asked:

      Great ideas you did (or wished you had done) for your first game?

      Here is my reply (posted in the thread @ ENWorld also):

      What do your players enjoy?

      If they enjoy combat, give them a nice interactive battle. Use some interesting terrain, something that changes can be fun (a sinking ship comes to mind). Toss in some minions so they can get get some one-shot kills in. Make it a fun tactical encounter. DO NOT USE KOBOLDS. Not for your first combat at least. Their shiftiness will frustrate your melee fighters, and their high reflex will frustrate your ranged casters.

      If they enjoy a deeper role-play encounter more, try an interesting skill challenge. Make sure its not just a “clear rocks with Althetics check for 10 hours”. A chase scene through the dark allies of a city with the guard in close pursuit. (Or it could be a band of thieves, a cabal of dark necromancers they stumbled upon, whatever.) Let your players describe what thye are doing in detail, asking for skill checks as appropriate. Try to get through the skill challenge without ever letting them know it is one, until the end when you say “you just defeated your first skill challenge” or “the guards have you surrounded, there is no where to escape to… you just failed your first skill challenge.” Success means they get away. Failure could lead to a combat, or them getting captured and taken to the Captain of the Guard.

      Or combine both into one session.

      Your PCes are making a journey on a ship, but when they reach their destination they find the port under attack by pirates or a enemy state. Another ship engages them on the sea, damaging their ship and sending over a raiding party. The PCes must ward off the attacks as their ship is sinking. (Every turn one square of the ship sinks under the water. And the edge of the water there are 2 squares of difficult terrain, beyond that its too deep to stand and athletics checks are required.) If the PCes win the combat, they must sail for the port which is under pirate attack because their ship is too damaged to make it anywhere else. (The pirates ship should be damaged and sink during the combat.) As the ship lands at he dock (enter Pirated of theCaribean scene of Jack Sparrow stepping onto the dock just as the ship finally sinks under the water), other pirates/attacks see them and the chase is on. They may have to fight small bands of pirates along the way of the skill challenge (make a failure mean they get caught by a few minions, or a some minions and a couple stronger pirates). Eventually they either get captured by the pirates, or they escape they city. End the session there =)

      How would you introduce new players to Forth Edition?  How about new converts from older editions?