One of the leading frustration points in 4th Edition is how long combat can take to resolve. It’s happened to the best of us: we’ve set up an elaborate encounter, complete with cool terrain effects, surprise ambushes, weather, the works. The problem is, now your combat encounter is taking 2 hours to complete and the attention span of half your party is waning fast. You could tone the encounter down, but then it wouldn’t be as interesting. This frequently manifests when the players all choose to just use At-Will powers, either because they’re used their dailies up or they’re preserving them for anticipated future encounters, and the fight drags on slowly.
An underlying problem this exposes is that a lot of us are trained to run combat all the way through until the last opponent (or player!) drops. This is well and good from a completionist’s perspective, but there are many ways you can make combat go a bit faster without sacrificing the parts which make things fun for your players. So, for today’s article, I’ll be focusing on techniques you can use to speed up combat itself. It’s worth noting that while 4th Edition is what spawned this discussion, many of these techniques can be applied to other roleplaying game systems as well.
Live to Fight Another Day
Combat typically ends when one side of the fight drops dead, which is the way things normally run their course in D&D. There are times, though, when fighting to the last breath makes no sense for the creatures in the fight. There are many examples of this for consideration: intelligent predators will know when they are the prey and turn tail to lick their wounds. Mercenaries will suddenly decide that their pay isn’t worth losing their life. Leaders will see their troops dropping and make a break for it. Generally speaking, any time a creature or enemy has enough intelligence to be aware of its condition and isn’t just a mindless beast hell-bent on eviscerating a path through the party, there’s likely a point where they’ll make a break for it.
There are a number of triggers you can use to “call the fight” for the NPCs. The simpliest one I use is 25% health: when the creature hits 25% of its max health, this is the point they’ll make a break for it. A leader figure may choose to flee when a certain percentage of his troops have been disabled or died, and the flip side of that would be having the morale of a pack of troops break when their leader dies. If you’d like more of a variable way of handling this, to represent the tenacity of a particular NPC, then try one of these techniques or come up with your own:
- Starting the first turn a creature takes while bloodied, roll a d20. If the roll is 4 or less, the creature’s morale breaks. (That’s a 20% chance.)
- Same as above, but make the roll increasingly harder: every round after the first, and every time they take a hit equal or greater than 10% of their health, subtract a -2 penalty from the roll. This penalty is cumulative: the third round will have a -4 penalty, and if he took a nasty hit the prior round, it’s a -6 penalty instead.
- Gather enough d20′s and d10′s that their max rolls equal approximately the bloodied value of the creature. Each round that they’re bloodied, roll the dice. If the total meets or exceeds their current hitpoints, their morale breaks.
Be prepared for the real possibility that, even if a creature breaks from the fight and runs, the party may not let it get away unhindered. If the creature can’t escape, optionally give it a +2 to attack and damage rolls as a sign of its desperate fighting for its life. Be sure to give visual clues too: describe the sweat coming off the bandit’s brow, the look of fear in the drake’s eyes, etc. If they wish to pursue the creature, turn this opportunity into a miniature skill challenge: if the creature is outdoors, use Nature checks to keep up with its trail; if it’s indoors, use Stealth checks versus Perception checks to have the creature hide from its pursuers; if it’s in a crowded town market, it’ll use Streetwise to find places to hide in. Don’t be afraid to let the group catch their quarry: it’ll be even more satisfying to your players if they have to earn that prize!
If, in the event they get away, you could have yourself a recurring scenario. A leader who flees could return later with more powerful followers. A predator could become a nuisance somewhere else nearby, having decided to look for easier prey, which could be a minor quest. The options are endless, especially if this turns an inconsequential encounter into a minor ongoing problem for the party.
The Price of Freedom
I am under strict orders to tell this tale, because the GM in particular has never let us live this one down. Once, long ago in a 3.5 Edition campaign far far away, we were hunting down a few powerful artifacts and our trail took us to a Green Dragon’s cave. Long story short, the dragon didn’t take kindly to having its home invaded and attacked us right away. What the dragon didn’t expect, though, was the well executed throwing of a net that brought him down from the sky. A round or two of fierce combat later, and a standoff took place: the Dragon made it clear that he would annihilate our nearly-dead Druid if we didn’t put down our weapons and made it clear what we were doing there. What we didn’t know was that the dragon was one or two hits from death, and it decided to give us what we wanted (knowledge) instead of risking his death.
There comes a time in a creature’s life where they decide it’s a good idea to find out how much it would cost to get the Paladin to stop screaming holy threats at him and to get the Mage to kindly stop setting him on fire. A mercenary who is outmatched is going to know that running is akin to suicide and would sooner toss a sack of gold to the party rather than his head. A guard protecting something may decide it’s not worth his life to do so. When that time comes, consider having the creature in question offer a portion of what it has on them. Be prepared for Bluff and Insight checks as part of the negotiation, but remember that the NPC’s motivation is to stay alive. They may also offer up information they have which the NPC thinks could be of value to the party.
Fast Forward to the Inevitable
After about the 17th round of slapping each other around, your foe finally drops. It only took 3 hours, but the last half of that you’ve been basically using nothing but At-Will attack powers. Eventually, you can do the math yourself and realize that the party is going to prevail in this fight. This should only be used when three conditions have occurred: 1) the party is clearly going to be the victors in the fight, 2) the opponents are at least bloodied and 3) the opponents have used up their limited powers. The idea is that everybody is making basic melee and ranged attacks and has no real plans to use anything else, and you’ve ruled out using the idea of the foes surrendering or escaping.
In other to do this correctly but fairly, be sure to have allowed at least 3-5 rounds to pass where everybody does the same thing: holding their action or doing a basic attack of some kind. Next, gain the permission of your players. This is because you are removing the randomness of the combat and replacing it with a simulation, and the damage may be higher than they expected. After the permission is gained, do the following:
- Determine the average damage per round done to each of the creatures over the past three rounds. You can make this a bit easier by keeping this total running leading up to this.
- Determine the average damage per round done by the creatures and to whom over the past three rounds. You’ll need to keep track of this on a note card.
- Determine the number of rounds it will take for each creature to drop to 0 HP, and inflict that many rounds of damage to the targets of the creatures as well. Allow the players to heal as normal, using Leader powers or Second Winds.
After that, the combat is effectively over. The idea is to ensure that the party isn’t getting a free ride by overwhelming their foes over time. They will still take damage from the remaining combat, but you can reduce the amount of time it takes for a combat to complete.