Thursday, October 8, 2009

Back From the Future - Speeding up 4E Combat

There seems to be a bit of cautious curiosity in the old-school blogosphere lately concerning 4E, with most of the "cautious" aspect seemingly directed towards the perceived drastic change in flavor from traditional D&D and the sometimes overbearing length of combat time.

While most old-school DMs can adjust flavor in-play at will (for any game, not just 4E), getting those combat times down to a palatable length is more of a challenge. With the rules-heavy later editions especially, houserules can become overly complex in a hurry, so my "fix" for combat length was to come up with a simple, 3-step procedure for making combat faster, but still dangerous and challenging. The most obvious root cause of long combats turned out to be the surprisingly large number of hit points 4E monsters get. Its not unusual for an orc to have 50-60 hp or even more, for instance. Despite that, 4E PCs are still doing pretty much the same amount of damage with the basic longsword hit that they've done since OD&D.

The compromising factor in this is that 4E characters have a modest selection of "powers" at their disposal which, among other effects, often double or even triple damage output. The problem is, once those powers are used up (comparable to Vancian casting), combat is reduced to what is referred to as "The Grind": PCs chipping away at that orc's remaining 30 hp's (or worse, that Otyugh's remaining 235hp!) at a rate of 5 or 10 points of damage per round.

My solution?

Brutal 4E

Step one: Reduce monster hit points by half.

Step two: Increase monster damage by +1 per 2 levels. (as in, a 6th level monster is +3 damage with all attacks.)

Step Three: All attacks are "High Crit". (Standard crits in 4E do max damage, whereas High Crit attacks due max damage plus another roll of the weapon die.)

And there you have it.

It should be noted that, unlike monsters, PCs in no way need their hit points to be halved. 4E characters are pretty soft on hit points already, albeit on a more gradual curve from low to high level. Step two and three increase monster damage, which is already pretty devastating to PCs, and most monsters have special, more dangerous, attacks they can only access when "bloodied"(at half their starting hps), which they obviously gain access to a whole lot faster when they start out with half to begin with! PC fatalities may actually increase, if they aren't careful.

With regards to those PC powers, their value increases drastically under Brutal 4E, and players will begin to manage their expenditure more wisely, rather than using them all at once just to get through the first encounter they run into.

I came up with the houserule over a year ago (and have seen evidence of other DMs trying it out) and used it with both my Wilderlands and Forsaken Halls Megadungeon sessions (both sadly languishing in Hiatus Limbo), and it increased average combats per 4 hour session from 1-3 up to 3-5. More encouragingly, from my perspective anyway, it took enough of the emphasis off combat that the PCs spent more time exploring, investigating, and interacting. That, I suspect, is a favorable result for most old-school DMs.


  1. If you'll permit me, I'd recommend a 4th step: Bring back morale! Monsters that are outnumbered will flee, especially if they have just seen their fellows slaughtered. Have 'em run—then the PCs can weigh pursuit vs. securing the area, healing comrades, etc. Always keep the focus on resource management and the grind should take care of itself.

  2. 4E actually has a morale mechanic of sorts, in that PCs can intimidate "bloodied" monsters into fleeing or surrendering. Good point nonetheless, I seldom see anyone implementing that, or just using common sense to say when a smart opponent knows when to give up.

  3. Our group went with halved hit points (including for players) and it had an interesting effect. Fights were shorter, but also more deadly and edgy. Not everyone liked it though, so we switched to another method, which I don't fully understand, but seems to cut out on the grinding aspect, but also make things a bit less hairy than the halved approach.

  4. @Kelvin
    Could you elucidate?

    I like it. I'll suggest it with our group. But, I'm going to pretend that I've never played 4E for a moment here and ask, what are powers?

    I'd like to hear an explanation from you Al. I know what I think they are, and that's quite possibly one of my biggest hang ups on 4E.

    If I can only somehow get over my issue that the game now feels like everyone has been made a magic user, then I'm sure I'd enjoy it a lot more.

  5. @Gamer Dude

    From a mechanics standpoint, "powers" are indeed very much like giving every class Vancian spells, but I assume you're looking for a roleplay justification?

    The best I can come up with is that Powers represent a character's ability to control the odds. For instance, a player might have a daily power that lets them hit an opponent for double damage and stun them. The perfect conjunction of circumstances needed to accomplish that (the enemy jags left instead of right, and forgot to wear its helmet, is distracted, etc) is only probable maybe once per day. The player simply gets to pick when that happens.

    I don't play 4E enough these days to White Knight for it, but that line of reasoning has worked for my players in the past :)

  6. Al, you pretty much hit the nail on the head with the power description. That's how we look it as well. Powers aren't magical powers, but more along the lines of a set of circumstances a character can exploit. Half the fun is detailing what you are doing to accomplish those things. Ahh, the fun of having a halfing jump onto your back, push off and over the monster, sling daggers into it's head and back, and land on his feet on the far side. All the while the dwarf swings low at the distracting monster, cutting away his feat, with the monster dying there at the end.

    And that's just with normal non-power attacks! =)

    Another way to speed up combat is to increase the use of minions, or change up the type of minions you use. Most minions just need to be hit once, but there is nothing that is stopping you from having 2 Hit minions, minions that die after taking 2 hits, regardless of damage. After the first attack, describe them as bleeding so the players aren't afraid to blow a daily on a minion, but beyond that, it adds a bit of tension to the combat.

    But using more minions is nice. Players get to face off against a LOT of monsters, generally swatting them away like the heroes they are, and save the really big guys for special combats.

  7. Alright. I like that description. I'm not sure I've heard it before.

    One of my largest Achilles' heels at the moment is my lack of "learning" all of the powers, so that, like Jason, I can actually start getting into a more descriptive style of play. Instead of going w/ the rote, "I move 6 squares and perform my daily 'Blade of the Sly Trickster' on him..." Blah! That's just so mundane.

    But, in 4E's defense, I'll have to say that it would be incumbent upon me to "learn" all of the powers for my character. The plain and simple truth is though...that type of "study" sounds boring to me. ;-)

  8. Gamer Dude, what would you like me to explain further?

    When our group went with halved hit points, we found that fights went much more quickly, as we didn't halve damage output. It also meant that combat became a bit more unpredictable in that a single good hit could take a player character out of the game. Although I liked that unpredictable aspect, I don't think the rest of the group did as much.

    So we switched to another system, which our GMs apparently found on some message board or another (possibly enworld). I don't know the exact details, but I do know that the basic concept is to chuck out the DMG's encounter construction guidelines. One of the things they do is use monsters of the same level as the players, rather than the XP budget method, and another thing they've mentioned is that they've dropped one of the monster types; again I don't know the details, but I think it's the Soldier type.

  9. I think I'd rather simply boilerplate the 4E powers onto my 0e game

  10. I like this rule. Do you use the actual high crit rule +1[w]/tier or just +1[w]damage for crits?



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