An Accidental Solution to the Slow Combat Problem

by Ameron (Derek Myers) on September 23, 2009

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?

{ 8 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Tclynch September 23, 2009 at 10:39 am

Err…. too SLOW? Really? Jesus, I find it MUCH faster than 3.5 could ever hope to be. YMMV….

2 Wyatt September 23, 2009 at 10:44 am

My Eden Monster Math tweaks have so far produced great results for me. I don’t like fast combats – a one-round blowout just isn’t for me. But my math tweaks have so far given me solid, fun 3-4 rounds of combat. In essence, you should change monster HP to be more in line with PC HP and increase monster static damage (but not increasing the base dice) by 2 points or so. Use the Fighter, Rogue and Wizard as your HP models. In a very small nutshell, that’s what I did and it’s worked out for me. In fact, the static damage boost has made combats a bit deadlier and more resource-intensive and the HP tweaks have made PCs more confident that a Daily can really hurt a monster.
.-= Wyatt´s last blog ..So what’s Wyatt doing? =-.

3 Anarkeith September 23, 2009 at 12:24 pm

I’m beginning to wonder if the speed issues may lessen further as we all get more experience with 4e. Most of us had years with 3e, and longer with earlier versions.

Also, I wonder how much of it is just a human need for attention. I’ve run across players old and new in 4e who look to their character sheets first for answers. Combat is the one time you have a formal turn, so I wonder if people struggling with 4e might subconciously feel the need to spend more time there? Can giving players more rp opportunities outside combat speed it up?

4 jonathan September 23, 2009 at 2:38 pm

IMHO — the issue with slow combat in 4E is related to situations where casual gamers play once a week or so and don’t have time in their schedules to study the PHB. Each week, you gather, socialize, and over a period of months learn the game. Sure, combat eventually picks up speed for casual gamers – but in my experience it doesn’t happen for weeks – sometime months depending on the player. Its this reason why 4E should have a rules light version — kinda like BASIC was — to introduce people to the game. Take someone who has never played any RPG before and drop them into a 4E game and you’ll find out what I mean. With character sheets that are 4 or 5 pages long, it’s not a game for casual gamers in my opinion (this is something I’ve recently come to understand; which is why we are switch to savage worlds (1 page character sheets) for a while while I introduce roleplaying games (in general) to some new players).
.-= jonathan´s last blog ..Encounter: Rooftop Rumble =-.

5 Mike September 23, 2009 at 3:22 pm

Our combat has definitely sped up in recent weeks (about 6-7 months into the campaign). I have a few players that only have limited experience with Pencil and Paper RPGs and a few that are 3e (and earlier and other systems) vets…

It took everyone a while to catch on, but most of them got it and fight are coming together a lot faster. I have one player who spends too much of his not turn time txting and isn’t prepared when his turn rolls around, but other than that, it’s smooth sailing.

6 Ameron September 24, 2009 at 10:14 am

@Tclynch
I agree. Personally I never really found 4e combat as slow as the blog-sphere makes it sound. Maybe my group is just an anomaly.

@Wyatt
I’m not interested in having combat over in one round, I’m much more interested in a long battle with good tactics and unexpected twists and turns. But if each round takes 10-15 minutes then this just isn’t practical. As long as each round can be completed quickly I’m all for longer combat.

Your adjustments to monster stats sound interesting. I may have to try this kind of adjustment and see how it works for my game.

@Anarkeith
I agree that experience with 4e will speed things up in the long run. I hadn’t considered the “spotlight” factor. It’s an interesting observation and remarkably accurate.

@jonathan
Welcome back, it’s been a while since we’ve heard from you. I like your suggestion to have basic and advanced versions of the game. I’m actually surprised Wizards hasn’t thought of it. After all they could sell even more books that way. But in all seriousness I agree with your rationale for slow play. D&D 4e requires commitment and I don’t think all players are willing (or able) to put in the time and effort required to make their gaming experience great. Thanks.

@Mike
My group uses laptops at the gaming table (we don’t use minis, we use MapTool from RPTools.net) and the internet often causes distractions. A guy’s turn comes up and he has no idea what’s happened since his last turn. We have to waste time bringing him up to speed when he should already know. But when everyone’s focused things run smoothly. We’re a pretty experienced group so the learning curve wasn’t that steep.

7 Dave October 7, 2009 at 1:49 pm

Anarkeith is a player in my game so I make the following claims realizing that he already posted. :)

IMO D&D 4e is an extremely fast game. However, it requires as the author reported that the people be familiar with their characters and the system.

in our game we have the following rules to help move things along in a friendly way.
1. If a player is not ready to take their actions we simply remove them form the initiative order and proceed with the next player / monster. After that next action if the player is now ready they can get back in the initiative order. This is a nice way to help people get ready without delaying the game and doesn’t penalize them to much.
2. Only in character short suggestions. No coaching and managing of other players. Let their decision stand and let your characters reaction be the only reaction.
3. When we first started and had new players and characters we actually spent time doing practice runs.

I have found that the players spend a lot of time discussing things and our goal is to continue to stop this behavior and let the game just play out.

Also, our combats tend to last longer than the 45 minutes. This is mostly because the campaign is a dangerous one and I’ve set most of the encounters at the hard level.

8 Ameron October 20, 2009 at 9:56 am

@Dave
I like your 3 points and encourage more gaming groups to take this approach. We often use #1 and have people delay if they’re not ready.

We recently played a level 30 dungeon delve and we were able to complete each combat encounter in about an hour mainly because we were familiar with our characters from running them through lower level delves. Had we played these PCs from level 1 I think the combat would have been even faster. Familiarity is the key.

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