Speed Up Your Game: Know When to Call the Fight

by Ameron (Derek Myers) on July 27, 2009

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.

{ 8 comments… read them below or add one }

1 newbiedm July 27, 2009 at 9:44 am

I find myself calling fights plenty of time.
Consider that I have 7 pc’s, so if I see there are 1 or 2 monsters left,at about a third of their hitpoints, I usually hand wave it and narrate that the party was victorious.
It speeds things along and will get us to the same spot faster, a party victory anyway.
.-= newbiedm´s last blog ..Beginner tips for effective narration =-.

2 Lurkinggherkin July 27, 2009 at 10:40 am

There’s a useful edition-neutral technique that applies here. Think roleplay motivations and morale. Put yourself in the monster’s shoes. If the monsters know they’re going to lose, they ain’t going to stick around.

In my campaign, adversaries will generally turn and run as soon as it becomes apparent that they have no hope of winning. If they can’t run they will surrender and plead for mercy, if it seems as if their attackers might grant it – though they will they fight to the death if cornered by an obviously merciless foe.

Aside from that, the only creatures who should fight to the death are suicidal fanatics, mindless undead, automatons or a few brave souls who will lay down their lives to buy time for their friends and family to escape – and you don’t often encounter that sort of selflessness amongst the adversaries of a typical adventuring party.

I should add that most of my monsters have an escape route planned… ;)

.-= Lurkinggherkin´s last blog ..Quest For The Hanging Glacier – Character Sketch: Sorrel =-.

3 Mike July 27, 2009 at 10:42 am

Combat for me is usually around 5 rounds of combat [Warlord, Warlock, Rogue, Cleric, Fighter, Wizard, Ranger] and each combat is a good 45-60 minutes.

I’ll kill off a monster if its 5hp away from dying, i see no point in keeping it around for another combat (unless its a elite or big fight)

Knowing when to let things die is important but one thing to consider is has the party used enough resources for the experience?
.-= Mike´s last blog ..Minion Mondays: Cackling Fiend =-.

4 Phaezen July 27, 2009 at 11:01 am

A way to keep fights interesting from round 10 onwards is to make liberal use of page 42 of the DMG. Once you have weaned players off the reliance of what on their character sheets and have them looking at the terrain of an encounter you will find things really kick up a notch.

Other than that, monsters are not only there to die, have then run away or surrender as appropriate when it is clear they have lost the fight. If you do this well, you might find that your players start acting in the same way occasionally. This is one of the areas where DMs need to take the lead.

5 Rook July 27, 2009 at 7:30 pm

A great many bloggers have suggested shaving monster hp from the get go, down to ¾ of normal. Whether you do it initially or wait till combat runs too long, it works quite well.

However, since I am all about the story, rather than the mechanics, I usually opt to have the monsters retreat or surrender, which ever is most likely, rather than fight to the death. This is especially true if your group manages to nail the leader/master of the opponents. Besides, if some should get away, plaguing the PCs with a rematch later on is always fun.
(I do so love re-occurring villains)
.-= Rook´s last blog ..My Foray into 4E: My Iconic Character(s) =-.

6 Ameron July 28, 2009 at 9:36 am

@newbiedm
With 7 PCs I can see why you’d want to call the occasion fight and keep things moving. I’m sure you’ve come up with many other ways to keep the game moving. Please feel free to share your ideas so that we may all benefit. If you’ve already got an article with your tips, post the link.

@Lurkinggherkin
I think far too many monsters fight to the death in D&D. At least in some adventures the author has provided a reason for the fight-to-the-death mentality. I think if intelligent monsters and NPC surrendered more often the PCs wouldn’t know what to do. If you’re half way through a dungeon crawl and the evil priest (not the big boss) surrenders, what do you do with him? I think this is one of the big reasons most PCs kill everything.

Escape routes are good. Nothing upsets PCs more than a bad guy who gets away. Especially if he’s got good magic loot.

@Mike
Here’s how I handle a near-death attack. When a monster is brought to 10 hit points or less, I drop him. But I take his remaining few hp and add them to the monster standing next to him. This give the PCs the satisfaction of a good kill, but makes them still deal with those 6 hit points.

I agree that if you call a fight too soon then the PC may end up earning XP without doing the amount of work expected. As long as you’re not calling a fight every game this shouldn’t be too big a problem.

@Phaezen
In the three examples I talked about none of them had any interesting terrain. It was just a big empty room. Had there been pits, ledges, hazardous terrain, difficult terrain, object creating cover or anything of the like I’d be less interested in calling the fight. Cool terrain inspires cool ideas and cool role-playing. A 10 x 10 room does not.

@Rook
The problem with shaving the hp at the get-go is that you never know how the fight will play out. For all you know the fight may never get to the “boring” stage and shaving the monster’s hit points right off the bat just means the bad guy falls faster. The up side of lowering hit points right off the bat means that the monster has the same number of hit points before its bloodied as after its bloodied. Since many monsters and PC have powers and effects that change when either is bloodied it’s important to let the monster keep swinging when its bloodied and not just say “ok, it’s bloodied, lets call the fight.”

7 Toldain July 28, 2009 at 12:16 pm

Possibly as a DM running such encounters, you can manage things to make them more interesting. For example, hold back a really good power until the PC’s think they’ve hit easy street, then confound them by pulling a new power out of nowhere, and maybe send in reinforcements. It’s all about what serves the story.

Instead of shaving HP off a boss, maybe let them regen their power, or have an item they can use. Remember, the players find it fun when they have had to overcome more obstacles. Who knows, maybe the boss triggers some kind of doomsday spell or device when he hits “0 hit points”.
.-= Toldain´s last blog .."I Don’t Make Games, I Make Toys" =-.

8 Ameron July 30, 2009 at 8:21 am

@Toldain
I like the idea of holding back something big (like an encounter power). I may try this the next time the PCs get into a fight with a monster who is nothing more than a big-bag-of-hit-points. It’s funny how tactics change if the PCs think dropping a monster to 0 will cause something bad to happen. Ever thrown a Balor at your PCs? Watch how quickly they change their usual routine.

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