I was thinking of reducing all hit points by 1/2 (pc, npc and monster) to make combat deadlier and less Hp crunching. Is this a good approach or is there a better way to do this or would it be better to increase weapon damage (but how)?
I tried the same thing you proposed, and it shortened combats and made things more interesting. I think the combats in DnD-4e are too long and can become boring so anything that make them more interesting is welcome.
But it depend on the group of players, one group might like it and another might not. One group once said that you can't die in DnD-4e, so I halved the HP and they were happy. The other group wasn't happy with halved HP so I introduced mini skill challenges in combats where it existed an alternative solution and they resolved a lot of combats by passing skill challenges mixed with combat, and they were happy too.
I actually tried halving the HPs of both monsters and PCs. I don't think that worked out too well, as PCs often dropped too quickly. After 10 sessions with some experimenting I now use 0.75x HP for the players, 'bloodied' (=0.5x) HP for the monsters.
I never use 'easy' or equal level encounters, always 2 to four levels above. Take care with your monster selection, and rather use more lower-level monsters than one +4 level one. One of the deadliest fights my players had was when they were level 5 against a horde of L1 and L2 goblins. One enemy is easy to lock down, but let them try to lock down three...
Of course also the standard 4e encounter tips apply: Make sure you have an interesting battlefield. Traps and hazards, difficult terrain and not-easily but reachable foes make everything much more interesting. As the 4e combat system places a large focus on tactical movement and positioning, make it an important part of your prep too.
Finally, use tactics the players (should) use too: Two ranged attackers and a good controller that focus fire on the striker or controller make the fight much deadlier than just soldiers and a brute against the defender. Pick squishy targets, and make intelligent monsters use team tactics. Or get the leader unconscious.
My initial take on making combats more dangerous was to up the monster levels. Do not do this. The result is combats that take forever - the monsters defences go up which effectively gives them extra hit points.
I now use monster the party's level or lower by up to 2 or 3, and then adjust monster damage as follows: Brutes - double at paragon or triple at epic, the number of damage dice. Soldiers - double or add 5 per tier to the static damage bonus (whichever is bigger). Others - add an extra damage die. add static 5 at paragon and 10 at epic.
The result is that the PCs really beat down on the monsters as their defences are easy to hit. And the monsters really beat down on the players as their damage output is really pumped up.
Try and adapt the Vitality and Wound Points system from Unearthed Arcana to the 4th ed rules.
(These basically say that creatures (including PCs) have two pools that describe their current health: Vitality is your standard HP, whereas Wounds are a way thinner pool. Standard hits cause loss of Vitality, critical hits cause loss of Wounds, and the latter can also lead to death... obviously rather quickly. To make it all even deadlier, increase the critical range of weapons. But be careful, it's not necessarily as much fun as one'd expect.)
In a Nutshell
Only use monsters from MM3 and later, half monster hit points and double rolled damage dice.
Limit the number of healing surges regained from extended rests, ban immediate interrupt/immediate reaction tomfoolery from PC powers and don't even think about using the XP budget. Not only does it make for predictible encounters, but it also rarely challenges players, especially after the heroic tier.
I wrote a short article dedicated to Abandoning the XP Budget, check it out if you get time.
Set all damage to Level 1 equivalent. Here is an adjustment guide that goes beyond the updates proposed by MM3 to set all monster damage to be proportionate to the lethality of level 1. While this ends up as a 6d20+33 damage expression for limited epic level damage, it will make combat deadlier but in a pre-determined way. By replacing monster damage expressions with low/medium/high/limited as per DMG rules, you get additional lethality with a framework.
At the same time, if you want to increase player damage expressions, I recommend providing the math-fix feats free (X expertise, X focus, improved defenses are the big 3). That will increase player damage in a managble way (though you want to make sure that everyone is putting out acceptable levels of damage (8 round kills for non-strikers and 4 round for strikers at the absolute minimum. Give bonus static modifiers to adjust this to your satisfaction.)
I started out playing RuneQuest and always enjoyed the 'deadliness' of the combat, where players (and DMs) would role a D100 to determine the accuracy of an attack. Every limb (L/R arm, L/R leg, torso, head) would have a specific range on the D100, and each limb would have its own HP. This meant that a generic attack could potentially damage/sever a major limb (even your head!). Every fight kept players on the edge of their seat, and felt very realistic :)
You could perhaps make up a simple set of house rules that incorporate these traits by redistributing player hit points to limbs and rolling a D100 after every successful hit. There might need to be some tweaking involved, for example reducing everyone's damage by half so everyone's not lopping off limbs all the time!
Personally as DM, I find combat to be fairly risky, and I often feel bad that I'm about to kill a certain character "again". I often have to purposefully, attack the wrong character or use the less deadly skill, because the people I play with do not enjoy dying, and would be frustrated if they kept getting knocked out.
I think there are two easy ways to make combat "More dangerous"
- Add 1 extra soldier monster to the fight.
- Add +1 or +2 to every die roll that the monsters make.
However, if you are looking to just make combat shorter, then halve all HPs by half would certainly do that, but it risks making the combat too short. Perhaps then you'll only want to reduce hp by 1/3rd.
I have had a lot of success making 4e "deadlier" by doing the following things.
First - I give monsters a minimum damage level. For non-boss/solo creature it is 50% for boss/solo is 75%. If their damage roll is 2d10 + 7, then the least they will do is 17 damage for 50% creature or 20 for a 75% creature.
Second - Give your monsters a way to resist, shrug-off, or ignore contoller affects. I have found these to have a dramatic effect on the danger level of an encounter. If something locks down my boss or main creatures I give them an out: lose one-quarter HP to overcome, alter to a lesser affect via some magical or innate ability or just flatout roll a save vs affect. Nothing scares players more than having their favorite affect be shrugged off.
Third - If the encounter creatures don't have a power relating to being bloodied/killed you may want to add one. Your grunt soldiers types might explode, give off a gas or other magical affect or split into 3 minions.
Fourth - Terrain. This is usually the most over looked area of combat. Sometimes your terrain should be in the fight. It can do any or all of the following: afffect movement, do damage, force movement, reduce or negate powers based on key words (ex. fire powers in a heavy magical fog area). One that really scares players is having a terrain that drains healing surges. Party stays in an area for 2 rounds an on the start of the third round everyone loses a healing surge and after 2 more they lose another, etc.!
Use one or more of these as you see fit. You don't even need to consult the group.
Introduce some concepts of real life.
I was playing 5e with a really weird (but one of my favorites) DM. He was homebrewing. I was a druid. I was left alone to fight a dragonborn magically disguised as a halfling. I turned into a rat and lunged at the thing's fatal neck veins. (This isn't really allowed in dnd.) The DM told me to make a Dex check (to make it there), an Intelligence check (to know that the vein exists), and a Wisdom check (to locate the vein). As I rolled high in each, I pretty much instakilled it. I did 2d100 damage and I very quickly finished it off.
Note that my DM would not have done this if he did not want to just get the mini-campaign over with, but it's an interesting way to make combat less tedious.