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Question

Our group finds that combat takes too long, and part of this is down to HP grinding. At first we thought it might be due to too many dice rolls, but that's not the problem; the problem is that our ability to keep immersive descriptions going is hampered by the turn-based CRPG feeling of chipping away at hitpoints without much to say about it (there's only so many times you can describe stabbing a troll in the arm because anything else would imply that you're doing more damage than you actually are according to the HP).

However, we still want a chance for failure and PC death so that our successes feel earned, so how can HP be removed and yet some sense of challenge and balance be retained? How can we describe our fights based more on creativity and the descriptions of those ideas but without insta-killing everything? If anyone has any experience with using this optional rule for reducing the role of HP used during combat, I would appreciate their answer to this question.

So my question is: How can combat retain the challenge and balance that playing RAW (i.e. tracking HP and damage rolls) achieves without using HP (or at least reducing its importance)?


Context

For context, we've decided that combat takes ages and isn't fun for us, especially if you have an enemy with a large number of hitpoints or large numbers of enemies. We're not that good at describing combat because we're just chipping away at those hitpoints and it's hard for us to keep up flavourful descriptions when we're not really doing anything significant; it feels like a turn-based CRPG. We are interested in the narrative, more so than the challenge but we don't want to just turn it into a story where we just describe how we win everything; we still want it to be a game, with a chance of failure and where our successes feel earned.

We've decided that we want to turn combat into purely description based scenes, lead by creativity rather than numbers (i.e. we can defeat things by being smart about it and what makes narrative sense), playing loose with RAW (for example, using Thorn Whip to swing across a hole that a pursuing enemy might fall in, not something that RAW would allow because it says you have to target a creature), but then released that there's no way to decide that we might fail.

So then we considered turning all combat dice rolls into essentially ability checks, where you simply describe your idea and roll something to see if it works (i.e. you want to shoot a troll's leg to make him stumble, not something that can happen RAW since there's no body part targeting, so as an ability check the ranger would roll "d20 + proficiency + DEX mod + whatever" to hit a DC that the DM thinks reflects the difficulty of the task; not quite the same as rolling vs. AC because it's specific for the situation and the task you're attempting rather than the creature's context-less ability to defend itself).

The trouble with this is that we don't know how we'll judge damage and potentially PC death with this light usage of the dice/rules/numbers, although that might simply be something we'll figure out as we go, but hence my question, does anyone have any experience playing in this way?

Note that this isn't a criticism of 5e's RAW, it just doesn't have the right feel for the game we're trying to play at the moment (with another group I'd be happy to play a strictly RAW game). Also note that despite the fact that D&D might not be the best fit for the kind of game we want to play, there are things that D&D offers that we like and would prefer to modify how we play it so that we have the best of both worlds, as opposed to picking a different game/system (we do have other games we can play instead, so we know that's an option, but we still wanna make D&D work for us).

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Remove or minimize combat in your games

First, the low-hanging fruit. If you don't enjoy combat, then don't include combat in your design. There is nobody forcing your hand as the DM to include it. Its presence in your game is solely up to you, and since nobody likes it anyway, don't have it.

Put only thoughtful, reasonable NPCs in your games

In real life, there is a reason that we don't engage in combat with our boss to get a raise, or attempt to murder anyone we think is trying to stop us from achieving our goals. Violence creates a lose-lose situation for everyone involved. As a combatant, you risk physical harm, reputational damage, and even death.

This means your boss NPCs will be more intelligent and less likely to scorching ray someone, but rather they will be more open to negotiation and intrigue. After all, they probably got to their current position by being smart about it. Your guards (which you most likely only put there to obstruct the player's goals via combat) have extensive alarms and communication systems such that, if even one guard spots you, everyone knows there's an intruder -- which is a powerful deterrent for any possible intruder, including the party. Your mad dogs, wild animals, and random monsters will have a sense of self-preservation, and they will try to run away from the fight as soon as they feel the fight slipping outside of their favor.

This either removes combat from your games entirely, or cuts them down to such an extent that the only combats you will have are the combats that make narrative sense to have.

If you must have combat, only include it when the narrative demands it

Don't throw in fights for fights' sake, because as you established, nobody in your table likes that. Include it as the climax to a story arc, or the final battle before the completion of a subplot. This will make your combat narratively significant. There is no feeling of "get on with it already" here, because the success or failure of the party will swing the story in vastly different directions.

In a game I'm running, I presented the players with a choice. The party agreed to not attack a second party (of NPCs) or try to steal from them, even though the second party had valuable loot the first party needed, on the basis that one of the players was brothers in bond with one of the NPCs from the second party. If the players don't get the loot, though, there will be horrible consequences. But as the pressure mounted, their choice was this: does the player betray his brother, or does he keep his pact and damn his party?

They did eventually decide to betray the NPCs, which led to combat. This combat was significant: if they killed the NPCs, they could find the valuable loot they were after, but the player would have killed a brother. If they failed to kill the NPCs, then the bond of trust between the player's character and his brother will be permanently broken, plus they don't get the loot they need. It is a dilemma. Both choices are awful, but which one will they take? How can they get out of it?

This is the first combat I ran for the campaign, and it as the 6th or 7th session. I absolutely cut out all the unnecessary fighting. There is no dungeon crawl feel. What is left is an intense sense of tension and intrigue.

When you do have combat, minimize the total time in play

There are a lot of variants and techniques you can use to ensure you spend as little time in combat as possible. The bottom line is, you must streamline your combat.

  • You already know this combat will be narratively significant, so prepare all the cheat sheets beforehand: rules you think will be important to reference.

  • Prepare index cards for each monster, pre-roll their initiative, attacks, and damage rolls. When it's their turn, quickly describe what they do (which you'd already decided before combat began) and throw the spotlight back to the players.

Use Variant rules that will shorten combat

The DMG provides several options that effectively reduce the HP of all the combatants.

  • Massive Damage (DMG 273): When a creature suffers damage in one attack equal to or greater than half its maximum hitpoints, it experiences a system shock. The effects range from not being able to use reactions, to instantly dropping to 0 HP. This means you only have to deal half a creature's HP to put it down, instead of its full HP.

  • Morale (DMG 273): When creatures are surprised, reduced to half its HP for the first time in battle or has no way of harming the opposite side (when alone), or when the leader's HP drops to 0 or the group has shrunk to half its size while the opposition hasn't suffered losses; then creatures may flee if they fail a DC 10 Wisdom save. A fleeing creature is out of the battle, so for the purposes of combat, their HP has already effectively dropped to 0.

  • Side Initiative (DMG 270): Instead of each PC rolling initiative, the group makes one check and performs all their turns simultaneously, allowing them to gang up on any one creature and potentially end combat very quickly.


On actually reducing the importance of HP

Introduce save-or-suck mechanics

Working with the system as designed, you can introduce a lot of save-or-suck spells to your player characters and your NPCs: forcecage, wall of force, banishment, polymorph, phantasmal force, etc. These are spells or effects where, if you succumb to them, it doesn't matter what your HP is, as it brings you out of the fight immediately.

If both sides of combat employ save-or-suck tactics, then combat is a game of rocket tag. This isn't desirable under normal game requirements, because combat becomes too short and is usually determined by who goes first rather than using smart tactics. However, I do think your table could do away with combat tactics (and combat in general), so this may be worth a try.

Reduce HP drastically in exchange for a very high AC

In designing monsters, there is a trade-off between AC and HP. Higher HP creatures can have a low AC because they can take strong hits and survive. I recommend that you adjust your encounters and reduce the HP of your monsters, but increase their AC drastically in exchange. The goal is to have a fragile NPC which can be killed in one or two hits, thereby devaluing their HP, but who is very hard to hit in the first place. This still has the effect of presenting a very hard encounter, and it forces players to adapt and strategize once they know any one hit will kill their opponents, if only those hits land.

Introduce dynamic and interesting terrain

You can get away with having high HP opponents if you also put a pool of lava that the players can push them onto, or a high pit they can fall off of. Put in a large body of water that someone can drown in (suffocating brings you down to 0 HP instantly). Essentially, design the encounter to have ways to instantly defeat the opponents by using the terrain creatively.

Take note that the opponents should also be able to use the environment to their advantage. Just as the PCs can push their enemies into lava, the PCs themselves can be pushed into the lava. This creates the sense of a high stakes arms race: I have to do it to them before they do it to me. That creates tension, and tension is immersive and interesting.

Don't make it about murder

A thing that happens when you introduce HP is, it creates this idea that you have to reduce someone's HP to 0 to "win." But in reality, you rarely win encounters by smacking someone until they agree with you. Realign your campaign so that it isn't about reducing a monster to 0 HP in combat. This removes the meaning from HP entirely, allowing you to reduce its significance to 0 without replacing it for a houseruled mechanic.

For example: the players have two minutes to reach the end of the hall, insert the MacGuffin into the place it goes, and stop the villain from completing his plans. But, standing in their way and blocking their path is a really high HP goon who cannot possibly defeat the party, but is resilient enough to take their attacks and hold the party off for the next two minutes. Reducing this creature's HP to 0 will actually be according to the villain's plans, because the party will have wasted all that time. This combat doubles as a puzzle: how do the player characters defeat this goon without bringing him to 0 HP?

Another example: the party's "opponent" turns out to be an innocent woman who is trying to protect her children. The woman has been possessed by a devil, and if left alone, she will turn into the devil's vessel and lose her mind, potentially killing a lot of people, and definitely killing her own children. However, right now, she is still herself, and she is afraid, thinking the party is out to kill her and take her kids away. The crux: they party has been tasked with killing her and bringing her kids to the government. She is a commoner with 4 HP and 10 AC: any one hit will kill her. But will the the party do it? This "combat" doubles as a moral dilemma, and it becomes a vehicle to explore and develop the player characters' personalities and beliefs.

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  • 2
    \$\begingroup\$ +1, I like this answer, the first half in particular. It made me question "so why is there so much combat in my game?", to which I answer a) because encountering creatures is interesting, regardless of combat and b) for xp. This second one is perhaps the underlying reason for this problem. I might raise a separate question about that (this question's been changed about enough already). The trouble is we still want it to feel like a dungeon adventure but more for exploration rather than combat, hence including various creatures, some of which are hostile. My NPCs tend to be reasonable though... \$\endgroup\$ – NathanS Jun 23 '17 at 17:53
  • \$\begingroup\$ @NathanS If you cannot cut combat out, then you have to learn how to run it in a more engaging way. To that end, I refer you to the 2nd half of my answer, which introduce situations that will force the party to adapt and change their play style (a sign they are engaging). \$\endgroup\$ – user27327 Jun 23 '17 at 18:01
  • \$\begingroup\$ I don't have extensive experience with D&D 5 (mostly 3.5), and notably its Bounded Accuracy, however in 3.5 lowering HPs and raising AC is not a zero-sum game. Specifically, a low-HPs/high-AC target is very vulnerable to spells, while becoming a purely chance-based target for melee characters (because when you have 35% of missing and several attacks, your damage each round is closer to the average: less swingy). \$\endgroup\$ – Matthieu M. Jul 1 '17 at 19:32
  • \$\begingroup\$ @MatthieuM. What you mention, for the querent's case at least, will be a feature and not a bug. They are looking for ways to make HP not that important, after all. \$\endgroup\$ – user27327 Jul 4 '17 at 14:21
  • \$\begingroup\$ @markovchain: Making HP not that important is quite different from completely changing the balance of the game though. I didn't get the impression the OP wanted to be able to one-shot every single foe, for example, or a sudden shift of power between casters and melee characters. \$\endgroup\$ – Matthieu M. Jul 4 '17 at 14:51
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This is something I've struggled with a lot. What is a HP? What does it represent? How can the thing it represents be better articulated? How will that combine with the current AC/Damage system in 5e? (Before you comment: yes, there are some quick answers, but they often don't account for all the things HP is used for, and HP is really vague. What does 1 HP of damage look like? Ask people, and you will get some wildly different answers.)

Here are a few solutions, but most of them are home-brew. 5e is about making the game your own, though, so this kind of thing is encouraged.

Rethinking Combat - (RAW)

The AngryDM addresses this a little in his blog posts: combat is not about whittling down hp, because that's boring, it's about answering a dramatic question. Players and creatures should have goals in combat, and the violence they induce is merely a means to an end. Using an example of players vs. trolls: the troll wants to eat and survive. The players want to protect themselves, and not become dinner.

Using these goals, the encounter plays out differently than a mere HP grind. The troll will try to go for a player, and they defend themselves in a scary way. The troll then decides to go for their packs; maybe there is food in there. The troll grabs a bag (since the players are too difficult for it), and then decides to run. The players, relieved that the troll isn't going to eat them, stop attacking and let the bag go.

The combat ends when one side will clearly achieve their goal. This doesn't always get rid of your HP-grind problem, but certainly avoids most of it.

Fighting Spirit (Homebrew)

The AngryDM has a solution which solves the HP-grind problem, although he presents it as the solution for another problem: Fighting Spirit.

Basically, you reserve hit points for actual, life-threatening, bodily damage. You then have another pool of HP-like stuff called fighting spirit (FS), which is how badly your character wants to fight.

This HP/FS total still sets things up for a bit of a grind, though, if you actually do want to kill something.

Less Hit Points (Homebrew)

This one makes games much more deadly and preserves none of the balance that the designers of 5e worked so hard to get. How you reduce it, such as total HP = (largest HD dice maximized) + (level*con), will be up to you.

This makes the game much, much more dangerous! Very little HP grind, though.

Injury (Homebrew)

Ignore all HP. Whenever a character would take damage, they make a constitution save equal to 15+(damage/5). This save is called an 'injury save.' On a fail, they take -1 to future injury saves (a 'wound') until they 'heal up.' Fail by 10 or more, and the character acts as if dropped to 0 HP.

My personal tweaks to this system: Healing (of any kind) does not restore HP, but does restore dropped characters to fighting fitness and removes injury save penalties at a rate of a wound (a -1 penalty) per 5 HP healed. Critical hits always add a -1 penalty per 5 points of damage done, even if the save for that hit is a success.

This means your players should keep track of how many injuries they have (an extra 1d10 or 1d12 tracks this quite nicely), and they should also get good at dividing by 5 to streamline the whole process.

This adds one more roll, so it could slow things down, but it also removes HP entirely. It also runs the risk of instant death, so maybe it is not what you are looking for!

I personally think this (with my tweaks) could be the solution you're looking for!

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  • \$\begingroup\$ I like these ideas; the "rethinking combat" has a nice focus on RP and narrative, although as you say doesn't actually remove the HP problem. "Injury" sounds good to me though, especially with the CON saves. High CON enemies will pose more of a threat than low CON enemies, although I'd be tempted to drop that limit of 10 to something smaller so that battles are over quicker... one way or another! I also agree with your tweaks. +1 \$\endgroup\$ – NathanS Jun 23 '17 at 7:51
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Consider a different approach

If I understand correctly, the main problem is that in your games most combat scenes are too long and aren't exciting enough. Announcements like "I attack X" are repetitive and break immersion. You are trying to solve this problem by introducing new house rules. You want to remove Hit Points from the game and have concerns of the game balance.

The game balance certainly might be shaken, since HP is a core principle of the system. However, there is a chance the problem might be solved another way.

In 5e combat is not meant to be repetitive and boring. The rules weren't designed to make it so. By introducing house rules, you are trying to "fix" existing rules somehow, but the rules themselves are probably okay. Don't try to remake the rules, but use them as a handy tool instead.

Redesign your combat encounters

If an enemy poses no challenge to the party, that wouldn't be exciting. It would be boring, when the enemy is nothing but a damage sponge, that deals some damage to heroes in its turn. Preparing exciting tense encounters is a different topic though, very broad. I strongly recommend AngryDM's "Guide to a**kicking combats" for the beginning.

Read the "Combat options" DMG chapter

If you feel that combat encounters are not dangerous enough, check the Dungeon Master's Guide, page 270. The "Combat options" chapter has several variant rules, like Massive Damage or Injuries, making the combat more harsh:

Massive Damage
This optional rule makes it easier for a creature to be felled by massive damage. When a creature takes damage from a single source equal to or greater than half its hit point maximum, it must succeed on a DC 15 Constitution saving throw or suffer a random effect determined by a roll on the System Shock table.

Use variant rules from the Unearthed Arcana

To speed up your dice rolls, check Unearthed Arcana: Variant Rules. There is "Players Make All Rolls" rules variant. It implies that instead of DM making a monster's attack roll, a player makes a "defense roll" instead, which is based on the hero's AC. It effectively relieves DM of dice rolling, while the mechanics behind the process remain the same (except that they do not).

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Disclaimer: I have not played D&D 5, however I have played quite a few D&D 3.5 which tend to suffer from the same issues of combat possibly taking ages for very little story progress (at least at low-level).


I will not repeat @markovchain's excellent points about avoiding pointless combats. If your group does not enjoy combats, then it seems obvious.

Still, even if you attempt to avoid combats, they should not entirely be banned as it would otherwise suppress the threat of possible violence. This threat is what forces people to act in a civilized manner, most of the time.

The rest of this answer will therefore concentrate on alterations I have seen made, or envisioned, to combat mechanics to speed up combats.


Nobody fights to the death

It always seems strange to me when both PCs and NPCs seem willing to fight to the death:

  • intelligent creatures should generally seek to avoid combat as soon as it become clear that they are about to be overwhelmed,
  • non-intelligent creatures are driven by instinct, and the instinct of self-preservation is one of the stronger driving forces in nature.

This means that apart from possibly some enraged badger or fanatic, most participants in a fight should seek to flee or surrender as soon as it becomes clear that they are going to die.

I do say most, not all. A mother may sacrifice herself for her children, a solider for its brothers-in-arms, ... still, this should be the exception and not the rule.

Note: a smart opponent may also retreat and participate in the next fight instead, fleeing need not be permanent.


Mooks are mooks: damage

In most cases, mooks will die with one or two attacks.

In this case, rolling for damage is nearly pointless, so you can just cut down on this and announce that for this swarm of goblins one hit is one death.

The other way around, it is fine for mooks attacks to always deal average damage.

This does not make mooks irrelevant: hard to reach mooks (perched on high terrain, behind the behemoth, etc...) are still hard to reach, and living mooks are still a threat to the PCs, to be balanced with other threats.

Mooks are mooks: hits

You can take it one step further, and avoid rolling to hit mooks.

Unless your players are not martial at all, they should have a fairly easy time hitting mooks.

I have used two different ways:

  • front-line fighters: one attack equals one hit,
  • others: quickly check how many hits they would land on average at the start of the fight, then each round they spend attacking mooks they just hit that many.

The other way around, just make a quick back-of-the-envelope computation for how many mooks' attacks it takes to hit the heavily-armored fighter (ex: 1/4), the lightly armored rogue (ex: 1/3) and the unarmored wizard (ex: 1/2). Then each around dispense the attacks by saying: this group of 3 attack the wizard, 1 attack hits (-5 HP).

Mooks are mooks: conclusion

If you apply all above points, you should spend considerably less time engaged with the mooks, and therefore the fight in general. You should also be able to pay more attention to the Big Bad engaged in the fight.

This does not prevent narration or heroics. A character can still swing off the chandelier to land on the balcony where two mooks were harassing the PCs from and dispose of them.


Whittling

I must admit that while I do not enjoy rolling buckets of dice, there is a sense of accomplishment coming after difficult fight where victory was barely grasped.

As such, I would keep heroic fights open, and use the dice as specified by the rules for the element of randomness they give.

If the fight is so long that players start coming short on descriptions, then it may be time for them to start describing the weariness their character experience in this combat.

Still, there is room to cut down on the number of rolls.

Single roll for attacks and damage

Disclaimer: I have never play-tested this approach, in the end my group decided that rolling some dice, and getting that adrenaline rush when getting full damage, was still desirable.

The design goal were dual:

  1. Avoid rolling twice for each successful attack, especially as damage rolls can involve hunting down special dies (1d8 + 1d4 + 3!),
  2. Avoid arithmetic and tallies, it gets harder as the night progresses, and may actually take more time than actually rolling the dice.

The approach I conceived was simple:

  1. Each character computes its maximum damage, and writes down 3 numbers: 1/3, 2/3 and 3/3 of the said maximum damage.
  2. A look-up method indicates, based on the minimum attack roll necessary to touch and the actual roll, whether to use 1/3, 2/3 or 3/3.

The following look-up table is used, it indicates the minimum roll necessary to achieve 2/3 and 3/3 of maximum damage based on the minimum roll necessary to touch the target at all:

1/3   2   3   4   5   6   7   8   9  10  11  12  13  14  15  16  17  18  19  20
2/3   8   9   9  10  11  11  12  13  13  14  15  15  16  17  17  18  19  19   -
3/3  14  15  15  15  16  16  16  17  17  17  18  18  18  19  19  19  20  20  20

For a minimum touch roll of 11, the thresholds are 11 (for 1/3), 14 (for 2/3) and 17 (for 3/3), they are inclusive, similar to how DCs work.


Appendix: how the table was designed.

The design goal were dual:

  1. Avoid rolling twice for each successful attack, especially as damage rolls can involve hunting down special dies (1d8 + 1d4 + 3!),
  2. Avoid arithmetic and tallies, it gets harder as the night progresses.

The idea I came up with was based on getting 100% damage for a roll of 20, and 0% damage for a roll just below the AC. As an example, imagining it takes a roll of 11 to touch:

  • 11: 10% of damage,
  • 12: 20% of damage,
  • ...
  • 20: 100% of damage.

Now, as you may imagine, this alone would get short of solving the arithmetic issue. It is easily refined in buckets though: 1/3, 2/3 and 3/3 buckets.

In the above example (hit on 11), you would get: 1/3 damage for a roll of 11, 12 or 13, 2/3 damage for a roll of 14, 15 or 16 and 3/3 for a roll of 17 or better.

This uses the banker's algorithm: 10 / 3 is 3 with a remainder of 1, so each bucket has a size of 3 and the remainder is distributed one at a time starting from the upper bucket1.

In the following table: the line indicates the minimum score required to touch and the column the actual result of the roll. At the intersection, you find how many thirds of damage the character deals.

    2  3  4  5  6  7  8  9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20
 2  1  1  1  1  1  1  2  2  2  2  2  2  3  3  3  3  3  3  3
 3  -  1  1  1  1  1  1  2  2  2  2  2  2  3  3  3  3  3  3
 4  -  -  1  1  1  1  1  2  2  2  2  2  2  3  3  3  3  3  3
 5  -  -  -  1  1  1  1  1  2  2  2  2  2  3  3  3  3  3  3

 6  -  -  -  -  1  1  1  1  1  2  2  2  2  2  3  3  3  3  3
 7  -  -  -  -  -  1  1  1  1  2  2  2  2  2  3  3  3  3  3
 8  -  -  -  -  -  -  1  1  1  1  2  2  2  2  3  3  3  3  3
 9  -  -  -  -  -  -  -  1  1  1  1  2  2  2  2  3  3  3  3
10  -  -  -  -  -  -  -  -  1  1  1  2  2  2  2  3  3  3  3

11  -  -  -  -  -  -  -  -  -  1  1  1  2  2  2  3  3  3  3
12  -  -  -  -  -  -  -  -  -  -  1  1  1  2  2  2  3  3  3
13  -  -  -  -  -  -  -  -  -  -  -  1  1  2  2  2  3  3  3
14  -  -  -  -  -  -  -  -  -  -  -  -  1  1  2  2  3  3  3
15  -  -  -  -  -  -  -  -  -  -  -  -  -  1  1  2  2  3  3

16  -  -  -  -  -  -  -  -  -  -  -  -  -  -  1  2  2  3  3
17  -  -  -  -  -  -  -  -  -  -  -  -  -  -  -  1  2  3  3
18  -  -  -  -  -  -  -  -  -  -  -  -  -  -  -  -  1  2  3
19  -  -  -  -  -  -  -  -  -  -  -  -  -  -  -  -  -  2  3
20  -  -  -  -  -  -  -  -  -  -  -  -  -  -  -  -  -  -  3

Of course, this table is a bit cumbersome to use (though it neatly demonstrates the bucket sizes), so instead the condensed form is used:

1/3   2   3   4   5   6   7   8   9  10  11  12  13  14  15  16  17  18  19  20
2/3   8   9   9  10  11  11  12  13  13  14  15  15  16  17  17  18  19  19   -
3/3  14  15  15  15  16  16  16  17  17  17  18  18  18  19  19  19  20  20  20

1 While you could start from the lower bucket instead, it doesn't work as well with the last two lines (19 and 20), and would make combats drag on slightly more.

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Well, the game system has a tendency of declare what you want to try to do followed by die rolls that fail to accurately depict what you wanted. If you begin with rolling dice in advance and then describing the outcome, the mood will start to shift dramatically.

You can compound this narrative change by not hiding DM dice rolls and occassionally letting the players interpret what happens. Sometimes letting the players know what their target numbers are, instead of the relay of "did i hit? Did it die?" and let the known values and success failure speak for themselves.

You can also let people go with flat damage values as their base, and only rolling when they want to deliberately spice things up. Let players roll bundles of d20s at the beginning of a round and pick how they describe the outcome of each.

You can play with initiative a bit by choosing whether or not initiative is rerolled each round, or letting very high initiatives "swallow" a round, providing additional actions, with very low initiatives losing a round - since PCs tend to be smaller than giant creatures, you might even rule a giant rolls every round for initiative, and a modified total of 0 or less loses a turn.

Different editions had different initiative and weapons systems. Some were faster than others. When monsters have very large numeric values for hit points, or players do disproportionately low damage (and vice versa) the duration of combat takes away something and it becomes an ablative battle of paper cuts.

The most brutally fast combat game ive run was Cyberpunk, where you pretty much rolled 1d10 and knew immediately the outcome. Rolling damage only added moderate technical descriptive flavor, but you almost always knew in one hit if the person was mangled, dismembered, or dead. Take Martial Arts for instance: you rolled either a d3 or a d6 for damage, but then you added your skill, which could be like 4-10 static damage. Limbs only had 8 hit points, so rolling 1d6+10, or even +5 pretty much guaranteed a predictable descriptive outcome. That radically changed the narrative to emphasize feel and description. No such thing as a "ball of indestructible hit points". It was visceral. There are D&D variants to do the same, though more awkward. Hackmaster has monstrous tables but it gets more dice heavy.

You can try what one LARP game did with reverse initiative, called reaction: The fastest person declares their actions last, the slowest people declare their actions first, and the story weaves itself together as some people shoot, some people duck, some people run away, etc. This is dangerous though, much like limb locations, and called shots, the feel of your game changes drastically.

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Several thoughts on solving this.

  1. Criticals only - Only describe critical hit and critical miss actions in detail. This is my strategy. having a player describe how he kills goblin number 20 of a horde encounter is boring. Think of it like the kill cinimatic in skyrim. It would be aweful if every kill was a short video. Instead only 1 in 20 (crit) gets the video. This is the only option I have actually tried myself.

  2. Puzzle Battles - I recently started listing to the adventure zone dnd playthrough (http://theadventure.zone). In the first few episodes They had a lot of clever alternative battle resolutions. I think they used charm to switch a bad guy to a good guy and then threw some chains into a giant rock crushing magical automaton. It puts a lot of pressure on the DM to prepare but it makes the battles more interesting. Think Zelda where each boss has a weak point and each enemy a strategy to defeat. On hit will be normal. One hit to the left tentacle that is glowing a funny color causes instant run away.

  3. Limb Damage - Add more details (instead of less) to the combat. Might take some time to balance but allow the players to swing for a specific body part. "I swing for the left arm". On hit user takes 50% damage and loses that arm (no longer use 2 handed or duel wielding). "I aim for the head" -5 to hit but guaranteed critical. This adds more role-play to the battle despite the added complexity. I've never done this on DND but it works on the Fallout Vats system and Fallout is pretty much a post-apocalyptic DND rip-off.

  4. Simple battle. Set a single damage threshold based on the CR. 1/8 is 10, 1/4 is 11, 1/2 12, 1 13, 2 14, 3 15, 4 16, etc. If the users hits they reduce the damage threshold by 1 reducing the corresponding Hit threshold. So one hit will kill anything 1 or below (the boring fights) and taking damage reduces an enemies ability to defend. Keep the Character HP the same. This way their is a fixed number of hits and the fluff is always a miss with no damage die roll for characters. This is something I have been tossing around in my head for a while and hope to try soon. It seems elegant and reflects the idea that a damaged foe is less able to defend itself.

  5. Roll off. If you really want to shorten but still allow death just have the characters all roll d20+hit against the monster. The chosen monster rolls d20+hit. Loser dies. Players can be revived with a hit die or short rest. No AC to worry about and the battles will be fast. The naritive will be something like "I stab at the eyes" while the opponent says "I swing for the leg" Die roll says who is faster, stronger, or more effective. Unlikely to scale past 5-6 level but you can tweak the idea. Kind of like a Pokemon battle with one hit kills. Only one player and one or two enemies at a time. I really don't like this option but it's fast.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ Have you actually done any of this or seen it done and work to solve the problem given in the question? At the moment this reads as a brain storm of ideas with nothing to back them up \$\endgroup\$ – Wibbs Jun 22 '17 at 19:22
  • \$\begingroup\$ @Wibbs I do 1 on a regular basis and it's my preferred method. I stated that in the answer. Just wanted their to be other ideas in case my preferred method wasn't desired. \$\endgroup\$ – danielson317 Jun 22 '17 at 19:31
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    \$\begingroup\$ I get that. The problem is that you have no idea whether any of 2-4 actually work well in practice for solving the problem at hand. \$\endgroup\$ – Wibbs Jun 22 '17 at 19:47
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    \$\begingroup\$ Please add some experience-based citation to back up how these solutions have worked out for you or others in actual practice. Our rules for homebrew solutions require citation of this form. \$\endgroup\$ – doppelgreener Jun 22 '17 at 19:55

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