One of the biggest criticisms I’ve heard about 4e D&D is that the combat takes too long. Sometimes it’s necessary to stop combat, assume the PCs will emerge victorious and keep things moving. When DMs find themselves in a situation where dragging out a combat encounter is just an exercise in rolling dice then it’s time to call the fight. We’ve already shared some of our methods for speeding up your game and as PCs move into the Paragon and Epic tiers of play DMs will find this latest tip more and more useful.
In my regular game the PCs are about to go from level 9 to level 10. I always expect that the monsters will get tougher as the PCs get tougher but this doesn’t seem to be the case. The monsters seem to be advancing at the same pace as the PCs. The only real improvement that I’m seeing with higher level monsters is that they have more hit points. The difference between level 9 and level 10 monsters are better defenses (+1 to AC, Fort, Ref and Will) and better attack scores (+1 to hit). Since my PC will also get +1 to his attacks and +1 to his defenses when he goes from level 9 to level 10 the monster hasn’t really improved that much at all. The only significant difference between the PC and the monsters on a level by level basis is hit points. The monster’s hit points usually increases much more dramatically and much more rapidly than the PCs hit points. More hit points means longer combat. So an encounter that might have taken 5-10 rounds at level 6 now takes 15-20 rounds at level 10. And let me tell you those last 10 rounds really tend to drag on.
By round 10 in a combat encounter most PCs have used their all of their encounter powers, utility powers, actions points, item powers and any daily powers they plan to expend on this fight. By round 10 on the other side of the screen you get one really tough monster stuck using its at-will attack while it desperately tries to recharge its one remaining decent power. Meanwhile the PCs are trying to finish the fight using only their at-will attacks, without expending any more resources or taking any more damage. Those last 10 rounds tend to be long and boring. In a recent game this exact scenario took between 30 and 45 minutes to play out.
Unfortunately this is part of the way that 4e D&D is designed to play out. It doesn’t happen with every fight but it happens often enough that most of you reading this right now are probably thinking “I’ve been there before.”
This is when it’s up to the DM to step back and consider the bigger picture. Since this situation generally occurs when the PCs are fighting the big villain at the end of the adventure the PCs will most likely be taking an extended rest when the combat is over. If this is the case then the DM should call the fight when he realizes that it’s just a war of attrition.
Unless the monster has a means of calling for reinforcements or some other trick up its sleeve, then its demise is pretty much a foregone conclusion (baring some really unusual behaviour by everyone’s dice). This is especially true if the PCs have lots of healing surges left and the ability to use them. Playing out combat the pits one monster using at-will attacks against five PCs using at-will attacks is just a waste of 30 minutes. Call the fight and let the PCs take their rest.
Now if the end-result is still in question then by all means play it out to the bitter end. If some PCs are already out (and possible making death saves) or half the party is out of healing surges, then there’s still a lot that can happen. The last three times I’ve been in this situation there was absolutely no doubt that the PCs were going to win and in all three situations the PCs had ample opportunity to take an extended rest following the combat.
There are some things we can all do to keep the game moving and speed things along. DMs need to realize that sometimes playing out an encounter will not add any value to the story. In situations where this is true, the DM should call the fight, reward the PC, let them take their extended rest and put those 30 minutes to better use.