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I DM a group of four PC's and even "easy" battles take at least an hour to resolve. Normal encounters take even longer! I want to speed up combat so my players can do more in a session.

I've been trying a lot to speed up combat, we are already using:

  • Initiative cards that the players keep up
  • 30 second bonus rule: if someone take his turn within 30 seconds, he receives a token. This token can be used to give a +1 on attack or damage, after rolling.
  • Completely removed healing surges
  • Checked all character sheets, they are roughly equal
  • Roll damage and attack at the same time

I even introduced an experienced player, which helped my party to play more strategic, but speed hasn't improved.

Also the party is Lv 8, nearing Lv 9.

This is not an issue of the DM's turn taking too long. My turns take about 60 seconds tops. The 30 second rule helps a lot, most of the the players turns are within or near 30 seconds.

The major issue appears to be the sheer number of rounds, averaging on 25-30 rounds needed to resolve even a "normal" encounter.

What can I change to resolve combat faster? I'm looking for both 4e solutions, system agnostic and home brew solutions.

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see here: rpg.stackexchange.com/questions/16715/… –  kviiri Jul 9 at 10:46
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What is causing the delay? Is it players that are unsure of what to do or discussing strategy? Is it players unsure about the rules of their powers and having to re-read text and get rules clarifications? Or is it because there is so much going on (powers, effects, bonuses, math) that the resolution of each die roll and effect application is bogging down the game? Clarification / detail would be helpful in this question. –  Soulrift Jul 9 at 20:52
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Is that rounds or turns? that's a lot of rounds. Most combats go 5-6 with mid level optimized characters. You should stop by chat and we can talk about this –  wax eagle Jul 10 at 13:42
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What is causing your combats to go for 25-30 rounds!? Are you sure you understand the rules correctly? You said you completely removed healing surges altogether; are you aware almost no monsters have them and players can only use one second wind per encounter? What on earth is going on? How does your typical encounter play out? What are the monsters the players are fighting? What are the players doing the whole time? What are the monsters doing? –  doppelgreener Sep 9 at 3:24
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Voting to put this on hold as unclear - the major issue here is that you have so many rounds, and suggestions can only place band-aids over the issue that you are somehow having that many rounds. If you really want to solve this, you need to explain to us what's going on such that you can reach that many rounds - and we can tell you what your group's doing wrong. Something absurd seems to be going on at your table. –  doppelgreener Sep 9 at 3:29

7 Answers 7

up vote 16 down vote accepted

There are really only a few ways to speed up combat, and most of them really depend on what is bogging you down. Here is the advice I'd give if you really want to make sure you get through as fast as possible:

  • Limit Turn Time. This is the biggie, and you're already doing it with the carrot method (providing a chip worth a +1 to any d20 roll). That's great. I'd introduce a stick too, make them delay if they aren't ready to act. We've done this, and it works pretty well, though it can get a bit stressful if you have a character with a lot of options. This should fix player attentiveness too.

  • Create Flow Charts. Ask people to spend some time out of game mapping out their options. Sit down with your players (especially the ones who are regularly victims of analysis paralysis) and map out what powers and abilities they want to use in specific situations. Develop flow charts or rainbow tables if you have to. The should then be able to consult these during other peoples' turns to determine their optimal move and decide whether they want to do that or something else.

  • Plan Your Turns. Make sure your players are spending their time between turns planning out what they are planning to do on their turn. They have a good bit of downtime between turns, this should be spent mapping out their next turn (obviously some situations will come up that change this, but for the most part, you should know what you're doing by the time your next turn comes around). If you have your options well mapped out, this should be even easier.

  • Identify Party Synergies. Especially in paragon tier where your players are heading, it's fairly easy to develop a party wide strategy (whether that's radiant mafia, murder pinball, frost cheese, or any other common party wide strategies), that will not only make your party more effective, but will lead you to faster combats as you can more easily wipe out enemies.

  • Use Essentials Characters. Most essentials characters have fewer powers and options, the majority of them have things that fire when they make a basic attack. This is a great thing for new players, and players who regularly suffer from analysis paralysis. Fewer options means faster play.

  • Roll Attack and Damage Dice Together. If the attack hits, great, total the damage, if it doesn't ignore the damage roll. A subset of this is to have your dice read when you take your turn.

  • Use Average Damage The next step is to do away with damage dice all together. Use the average of the dice that would be rolled (d6 is 3.5, d8 is 4.5 etc). If it comes out a fraction, round up or down, your choice.

  • Use L1 Equivalent Damage. This is something our DM and I are discussing to speed up our Paragon tier combats. They are too slow right now (an average, relatively easy combat takes 2+ hours, and a complicated one can take 4 hours or longer). We would up monster damage and reduce their HP so that the fights are quicker, but deadlier. They would consume about the same amount of party resources (the point of most fights), but they would last less time.

  • Speed up DM Time. It sounds like you're not having trouble with monster turns (that's one of the big time wasters in our games), but average damage, or rolling damage with the hit roll can save some time. As can simplifying the monsters down to just a power or two instead of the several that monsters often have at higher levels.

  • Simplify Out of Turn Actions. Starting in Paragon and moreso in epic, out of turn actions become a huge time drain. They are great for getting more attacks, dealing more damage etc, but they can be a bear to resolve. Talk to your players about how to resolve this (many characters, like even midlevel battleminds have a lot of them and are reliant on them for effective play). This could include choosing character who don't use as many of them, or some other way of simplifying them (Don't remove them entirely, opportunity and immediate actions are important resource pools, and removing them will make entire roles(Defender) obsolete.

  • Rejigger Initiative. Have all the monsters go, then all the PCs go. This is a bit more common for PbP games than live play ones, but it can help speed up play.

Ultimately though, I'd talk to your group, do they enjoy hour long easy combats or are they annoyed by them too? Do they have ideas on how to speed them up?

You've got a great resource at your table for figuring out how to solve this problem. Your players. Talk to them (out of session, or before) as a group, and perhaps as individuals and try to figure out a solution that works for your table. No one thing is right for everyone and it may take some further experimentation to find the right thing. Identify specific things that take time (is there a lot of our of character chatter, does play stall with a couple of players all the time), and try to get to the root of it.

That said, 4e's combat mechanics, while well laid out and very well balanced are not constructed for rapid play. They are designed so that the majority of each session will be consumed by combat and that each combat will take a good amount of time. If I'm remembering right, they expect and average Heroic tier combat to take an hour. I've rarely had a normal heroic tier combat take less than 2. So manage your expectations here, you're probably about where most groups are.

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Wow! Great answer, with useful tips, thanks! –  Etienne van Delden Jul 10 at 6:46

Wow. 25-30 rounds per encounter, and it takes an hour to resolve? Consider my mind blown. That means each round takes about two minutes. That's 20 seconds per person assuming a six-person group to complete every character and monster action and all the interstitial chatter in between.

Typically, D&D 4e gets complaints of "taking too long" thrown at it because of its complexity. Our group complained about combat taking too long, so we timed everything, and we were looking at about half an hour per round, especially when players stacked complex powers and tallied up all their myriad bonuses. This doesn't sound like the problem you're having though.


Technical answer: you've got rules misunderstandings and/or out-of-date rules.

The source of the problem could be due to a lack of understanding of game rules, which I think may be the case, because if a player knows all the rules, they know they'll be citing numbers and effects and durations to the GM who'll have to track them all, and for a multi-hit controller power this can easily take several minutes, especially when you're expecting feedback over which one is hit, how to apply forced movement, whether or not they are vulnerable to the damage type, whether or not the attack bloodied them, and so forth.

The source of the problem could be due to encounter design. If you're using MM1 or early printed material, you'll probably run into a brick wall problem where neither players nor monsters can hit the other effectively, nor deal a meaningful amount of damage, and that monsters will rapidly apply crippling debilitating effects to the party and that just slogs combat down. Monsters like MM2 Krenshars, which have a close blast 5 Dazed (save ends) that recharges serve no point except to make the game experience miserable.

Consider getting up-to-date errata for math fixes like expertise and MM3/Monster Vault build formulas which have more damage, lower defenses, and fewer crippling effects.

Have the players optimize their characters, but know that if your players learn all the game rules and all the optimization strategies, this will slow the game down tremendously. They'll win the battle in fewer rounds, but take eons to calculate all the bonuses and extra effects/damage they'll be splattering all over the place.


Practical answer: Use DM powers to fix the problem.

As a DM, you can tweak monsters to fit your party rather than worry too much about the rest of the rules or optimizing the rest of the party. Simply hack some defenses off the monsters to make them get hit more often, chop down their HP to make them die faster, and boost up their damage and hits to make them more threatening, while leaving out crippling effects like dazed and stunned. Use vulnerabilities and ongoing damage instead.

The result will be that monsters die faster and so do players, so everything feels more quick and exciting!

Likewise, play monsters in a more "monsterous" way. Have monsters provoke opportunity attacks so they can go after squishy targets. Don't let your monsters act boring and defensively: make them rampage about like monsters! Make them play less strategically and more threateningly: they should be a risk to the party because of their brute force, not because of the tactical genius directing their actions. This will speed up combat tremendously.

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We played a 4e campaign weekly for 18 months - these are some tricks we came up with to make combat move a LOT faster (esp faster than any 3e encounter):

  1. Reduce all monster HP by half; add monster level to attack damage (even for minions!). The number systems in 4e make it really slow as players get higher level. This change makes combat faster and more lethal for everyone, and the balance still works.

  2. Use stickers for status effects, apply them directly to miniatures. Writing down status effects wastes a lot of time!

  3. Stay away from stun/slow/negative attack modifiers. These make the game feel slow for players.

  4. Premake your combat areas with dungeon tiles. Take a picture of it with your smart phone, then at the start of combat bring out the pieces and ask players to put it together for you while you get the monsters ready. Keep hidden/dynamic tiles aside in a baggie.

  5. Keep monster minis grouped in plastic baggies, so they are together/sorted and ready to go.

  6. Have players print out powers/spells and abilities for fast reference.

  7. Ignore the 4e skill challenge system. Use something simple like 13th age backgrounds/DCC occupations, and simply call for attribute checks with appropriate modifier.

  8. If player attack rolls miss by one ask them to roleplay for a bonus - hitting the monster makes up the time you burn and everyone has a lot of fun roleplaying unexpected hits.

  9. Don't fight to the death unless its really close/dramatic. Once the outcome is inevitable, either have the monsters flee or narrate the clean-up and move on.

  10. Don't award XP - just level everyone up together when the story calls for it.

Some of the tricks other people recommend that I would avoid:

  • Dropping tactical play: bad idea, this is the core strength of 4e, and makes combat much more enjoyable for both players and DMs
  • 30s bonus: tracking bonuses/bennies might actually slow you down. A little peer pressure and practice should be enough here; just ask players to plan while everyone else is taking their turns
  • Remove healing surges: these are integral to the combat balance; you might consider the combat tweak #1 above instead
  • Limit class choice: don't take away fun player options
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Good advice all except 7, it's a bit of a concern in that reducing skills to a single roll is problematic. Site denizen Magician writes at length about this here. –  wax eagle Sep 9 at 1:42

If you're running a system that turns combat into a long deliberation, and that's not what you're into... that's a flaw in the system, for your purpose. Being an oldbie I'd just drop 4e and go back to 2. (Moves go fast, but the DM has to adjucate quite a bit). Unlimately it comes down to what you like; some people love crunchfests. I consider battles to be mathematical annoyances that break up otherwise interesting stories, so I keep things light and fast by:

Using software to automate anything possible. Automated dice and pre-crunched hit tables go a long way.

If a spell's effect is ambiguous or difficult to adjucate, don't sweat it, make a ruling and move on.

As mentioned, if the player isn't ready to announce his action, he gets to defer his action until he's made up his mind. If he's paralysed by too many choices he'll simply be less effective and he'll learn to simplify soon enough.

Stop side converstions. Characters can't take half a half hour to discuss the pros and cons of their spells and weapons. So why should players?

Keep to the big picture: fights shouldn't last long because in fights, people get hurt, and in the end that's a strong reason to stop fighting. Even stupid monsters run away if they get beat on enough. Maybe you've made curing too available, so players keep up the fight too long?

And in the end: if it's too crunchy, change systems. A good game is about story, not rules.

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Re: your second to last paragraph, while 4e combat takes several hours, the actual fights are usually about 30 seconds to may be a minute (5ish rounds, rarely does a combat go 10), in game time. So it's not like the fights are probably dragging in game time, just real life time. –  wax eagle Jul 10 at 2:48

Why not take the 30 second turn timer idea one step further?

Drop initiative rolls and ask all of the players to simultaneously attack/move with their characters during each 30 second interval. This will cut combat time by ~50% (from ~180 seconds to ~90 seconds) and will add more realism & tension to fights.

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Interesting suggestion, but it might be needed to increase the interval time. I've used group initiative before, but it tends to lead to the party first discussing tactics before acting. The 30 second rule works because thinking happens during other players turn, but they tend to listen intently when it's the monsters turn, thus leaving no time to think/discuss tactics. It's worth giving a try though! –  Etienne van Delden Jul 10 at 13:43
    
Have you tried this? What was your experience? –  wax eagle Jul 10 at 13:43
    
@waxeagle - Ha, alas not yet - hasn't been playtested so it might be a complete disaster. Ideally, it would encourage players to plan a "playbook" of stnd combat actions & tactics ahead of time, and would force players to cooperate & pay attention during combat. "We're outnumbered 10 to 1 by the Orcs! Backs to the wall in the corner of the room. Magic-user, you're behind the fighters, get your spells ready! Hurry, hurry!" –  RobertF Jul 10 at 13:52
    
how would out of turn actions work (plenty of times free, immediate and opportunity actions come up on ally turns), how do you make up for the fact that this alters the game balance (dex becomes less meaningful, init feats are worthless etc). –  wax eagle Jul 10 at 14:15
    
@waxeagle - Good questions. Perhaps the DM would reserve the right to stop the clock to resolve opportunity actions during his and the player's turns. Or throw out AoOs altogether but make threatened squares "sticky" - PCs and monsters have to stop moving when entering a threatened square. Dexterity modifiers could be added to melee attack rolls to compensate for no initiative rolls. –  RobertF Jul 10 at 14:46

The 30 sec rule you mention rubs me in a wrong way. Instead of rewarding faster decisions, try "punishing" lightly the indecisiveness.

Try to pre-agree upon that if 20-ish seconds is not enough to make up the player's mind in turn-based phases, then the ruling will be that the PC dazed off, or are being too cautious or hesitant, and thus miss his/her opportunity in that round.

Similarly if you ponder too long upon whether to board the bus or not, it won't wait indefinitely for you alone.

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I've tried punishing in a previous group, but the group than feels wronged when they take too long. The DM takes away their actions, for no reason than that the DM wishes it to be so. Rewarding works a lot better, as my players can now choose to take a longer turn, which doesn't happen all that often. –  Etienne van Delden Jul 9 at 11:06
    
I've just told a player who takes too much time planning his move to plan their move and calculate their roll bonus in advance. It has worked, so I don't really see the need to offer extra incentives. –  kviiri Jul 9 at 12:00
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The OP is using positive reinforcement, but you're suggesting negative punishment. Reinforcement (positive or negative) has been shown to be more effective at molding behavior than punishment (positive or negative). –  Brian S Jul 9 at 14:02
    
It is always better to give than to take away. If you penalize players, they it brings a negative experience. The carrot gives them a positive experience. The latter will always be better recieved, the former may or may not... This goes for the old theory of xp penalties for acting out of characters as well..... –  Aviose Jul 10 at 2:27

The things you are already doing are great, however one of the weaknesses of 4th edition is that its combat system is based so heavily on miniatures...

My solution to speed up most combats was to remove the miniatures and move the combat to theater of the mind. I used minis when tactics were extremely important, or during climactic fights, but not outside of those circumstances.

If that's not your playstyle, cool, but it has worked very well for me for all but about the first 6 months that 4th ed was out, while I got used to the rules.

That said, I love 4th edition as much as the others, just for different reasons.

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I don't understand why I am getting so many negative votes, considering he asked for homebrew solutions and that's what I gave. I have seen nothing to refute what I said, just a string of occasional -1's to my score on this answer, although I still feel that it is viable enough to keep up. Please give criticism of the answer before down-voting if there isn't any there already. –  Aviose Sep 10 at 21:26

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