A lot has been said about combat being too slow in 4e D&D. We’ve shared our ideas for Speeding Up Your Game and provided More Tips for Speeding Up Your Game. But over the past few weeks we discovered what I believe is a solution to the slow combat problem: familiarity and cooperation. Here’s how it happened.
My main group is currently between campaigns. Our characters reached paragon tier and the DM decided that was a good place to put the campaign on hold. But before we jump right back into another long-term campaign we decided to do something a little bit different (for us). For the next 10 weeks or so we’re going to play a bunch of dungeon delves and LFR games. This gives us multiple opportunities to try new character classes at a variety of levels. With so many options now available this seemed like to only way we’d get to play a variety of builds. Nothing’s worse than creating a character you think will be cool and after a few games realizing that he’s just not what you expected.
When it comes to trying new and different characters, playing a series of one-off adventures – such as a dungeon delve or an LFR game – is like a buffet. You try a little bit of everything and keep going back until you’re full. With every new visit you can try something new or try a few safe selections and a few risky ones. And if you find something you like there’s nothing stopping you from just having just that over and over again.
In the past we’ve tried playing a couple of paragon or epic tier dungeon delves as one-off games. They were disastrous. We’ve learned that jumping into high level PCs is tough. It takes a lot of time and effort to build the PC (even with Character Builder to help). The more powerful your PC the more powers and items you have at your disposal. The game grinds to a halt as you waste time reading and rereading your powers. The criticism about combat in being too slow seemed justified, until we made an accidental discovery.
Combat is slow because people just aren’t familiar with what their PC is capable of doing. For example, I’ve been playing a Paladin for over a year and he just hit level 11. Regardless of circumstance, I know which powers he has and which ones work best in any given situation. I know which ones are defensive, which one deal radiant damage and which ones deal the most damage. Even if I end up going first in the initiative (something that never happens) I still know, without looking at the character sheet, what his most likely actions will be.
When you make a one-shot PC for a dungeon delve you don’t have that familiarity. You don’t know what’s best for any situation. So when it’s your turn you read, and read and read. Until you find something suitable. Your character sheet (including power cards) may be seven or eight pages. You don’t have that kind of time. And the other players don’t want to wait.
So how to you build familiarity for one-off, high level characters? We’ve come up with a solution that has kept our game, including high-level combat, running smoothly and quickly.
We decided that we were going to play three dungeon delves, one at each tier. The trick is that we use the same character at all three tiers. We began with level 8, then jumped to level 15, then jumped to level 25. By starting in heroic tier the PCs didn’t have an overwhelming number of abilities to choose from so things moved along at a good pace. By the final encounter of the level 8 delve we were sailing along as if we’d been playing these PCs for months. When we jumped into the level 15 delve the following week we didn’t experience the delays and slowdowns we expected. Even though we’d only played these PCs once before and even though it was eight levels lower, that one night gave us familiarity that made a huge impact.
The other thing that made a significant difference was cooperation. My group has six guys in it and we’ve been playing together for 20 years. Needless to say we’re all good friends. Over the past year we’ve all tried a few different characters. During the delves we found that sharing what we knew about various classes helped a lot. I was able to answer questions and provide suggestions to the guy playing a Paladin for the first time. Another player who had extensive experience playing a controller was able to clarify some rules about push, pulls and slides even though he was playing a leader during the delve.
After seeing the value of sharing what we knew about the other classes and powers I may have to reconsider my stance on The Gaming Jerk. I still disagree with his blurting out monster powers, but his reminders about class powers may have stemmed from a similar positive experience with his other gaming group.
By playing the same character in just a few different sessions and sharing what we knew about those classes, the game didn’t seem slow at all. Combat did take longer as the PCs got tougher, but that was because everyone had a lot more hit points.
Have you experienced similar results by playing familiar characters? If players knew their PCs better and had actions ready on their turn do you think this would stop or at least reduce the number of complaints about slow combat in 4e D&D? Do you have any other suggestions for keeping things moving at higher levels of play?