Running the mechanical part of combat blisteringly fast allows you to spend more time role-playing your character and describing the action in combat. You’re not trying to get through combat quickly because you dislike it; you’re instead trying to move past the computational elements of the game so that the story-telling can take the forefront.
By focusing on the story-telling your game can become so much more exciting. Instead of waiting for the Warlord to thumb through the PHB to look up his class features (again) you can describe how the Warlord leapt from the second story balcony, dodged a provoked opportunity attack by doing a shoulder roll, toppled the gnarled hag with a low cut to her thigh, then sprung to his feet to stare down into her rapidly dimming eyes.
Below is a list of suggestions that will help you get through the mechanical part of combat blisteringly fast. These instructions are not for the faint of heart, and though some tables may pick and choose from these suggestions to speed up some areas of a dragging combat, only the committed will achieve the supersonic pace described by this article.
Know Your Character, Know Your Monsters
It’s up to you to know your character and know his powers. Do your best to store your defenses and your attack scores in your short term memory. Failing that, place something akin to the old character builder stat card in plain view for everyone at the table. (See Monster Knowledge Cards from Sly Flourish).
If your group chooses to use laptops or tablet computers there are a range of programs that can help you easily reference character and monster information. Some of these programs have been discussed in greater depth elsewhere, such as the free ware RPTools or the very reasonably priced DMTools App for the iPad.
The faster you can gain the information you need, the faster the combat will move. Be careful about the level of computer integration at the table though, or you might discover that your 4e campaign plays more like a video game than you are comfortable with.
Use Quick Reference Tools
When I play I use the D&D conditions cards. I don’t read fast or accurately, but the picture triggers the memory with full details. (See 4e Condition Cards from The Weem). Others may want to develop their own shorthand for keeping track of conditions. Use pipe cleaners, poker chips or stickers to affix to your monster tokens or miniatures so that everyone knows which conditions are on which creatures at a glance. Separate your powers into a deck of cards and tap or discard used powers so you know what you have available to you at a glance. Use counters to track your remaining healing surges, action points, healing potions or special ammunition.
Assign Jobs to All Players, Controllers Exempt
The DM has too much work on their hands. One player should handle initiative, one players should keep track of conditions placed on each creature and party member, and one player should keep track of the battle map, including distances between combatants, placement of hindering terrain and issues of line of sight and effect. This way, when needed, players can receive a miniature brief of the combat and know the lay of the land.
Someone should already know every piece of information you need when your turn comes around. During combat, if you have a question that cannot be answered quickly, looking up that piece of information needs to be someone else’s job. Do not give these jobs to the controller! That player already has way too much going on. The most complicated jobs at the table should be given to strikers first, then either leaders or defenders depending upon their build.
Do As Much As Possible Off Your Turn
Are you going to use a Healing Word this turn? Pre-roll the overflow healing. You can also pre-roll saving throws off your turn, as well as Heal checks you’ll make to revive an ally or grant a saving throw. Are you a striker that uses one attack against a single target? Roll your attack and damage dice ahead of time so that when it’s your turn you can inform the table what you rolled against AC and how much damage the target took. An organized striker can easily get their turn down to less than 10 seconds. Some may claim that pre-rolling opens up too much room for meta-gamming, but if you have to worry about meta-gaming at your table, your table is not ready to run the mechanics of combat blisteringly fast.
The Best Rule is the Fast Rule
If there is a rules dispute the DM should immediately make a call and the combat should continue. If there are enough players at your table that you can spare a set of eyes and ears for a moment, you should have a player look up the correct rule. Don’t wait for them. House rule it and keep moving, adjusting on the fly if necessary. If you really do need to resolve the rules conflict put the disputed area on pause, continue to adjudicate unaffected areas of combat and then resolve the conflict.
Employ Speedy but Fair Table Rules
Some of these rules may seem unkind, but they will train everyone at the table to be more efficient.
- Any die that rolls off the table is a 1.
- Simple table etiquette – such as speaking in turn and listening in kind.
- If you don’t know what you want to do on your turn you automatically delay.
- Save the snacks until after the fight is over.
- One attack roll for every creature in burst.
This last rule will push the effectiveness of controller powers to either extreme, but the likelihood of hitting or missing should remain statistically the same in the long run. You may miss everything in the blast on a bad roll, but with a natural 20 you hit everything critically. This rule will not interact in a friendly manner to every feat and power in the book, so house rule this one wisely.
Develop Clear Table Language
With a glossary unending, there are too many game terms to remember. As a result, communication at the table can easily break down. It can take a while to engrain the habit, but if everyone at the table is using game terms exactly as defined there will be less confusion over what is actually taking place on the grid.
Build Your Character with Speed in Mind
This is the most questionable issue I’m going to add to this discussion – changing your character build for the sake of speed. It is understandable that for many their character concept is far more important than haste, but if you’re ok with your description of your attack not matching the flavor text in your powers than these tips can be of use to you.
If you want to play quickly there are some classes that should pretty much be avoided and some roles that should be discouraged. Leaders and strikers are roles simple enough that much of their work can be done off turn and interfere very little with the flow of combat. Of all the strikers, the Barbarian is the slowest because his effectiveness depends on many attack rolls. Defenders and controllers are usually time sinks, though there are a few builds that are not as slow. Though immediate interrupts can be used, try to build an effective character that uses as few actions per round as possible.
The Paladin is a good example of a speedy defender because the damage dealt by Divine Challenge requires no attack roll. The Battlemind is also a good choice because Mind Spike requires no attack and Blurred Step simply causes the character to shift. The Fighter is the slowest defender whose every class mechanic requires further attack rolls. The Warden can often be just as slow with their ability to mark a multitude of targets with regularity.
Wizards who select the feats that exclude allies from bursts and blasts will play faster than those who don’t. The Psion seems to be the fastest class in this role given that many of their powers are single target. The Shaper Psion however can quickly become exceedingly complicated and should be avoided. The Druid isn’t as such slow, though given the dichotomy that Wild Shape presents in order to be played quickly the player needs to have a very firm understanding of the way their powers interact.
Item and feat selection impact the pace of play. Those that grant bonuses to skills and other rolls that are not circumstantial will play the fastest as their effects can be determined far in advance and will not require valuable brain space.
Trust Your Comrades
This style of ultra fast play isn’t suited for tables with liars and cheaters. If you doubt the judgment of the player keeping track of movement on the grid, you are slowing down the game. If you are cheating at a role-playing game I have no hope for you. The DM’s rules are absolute and you shouldn’t second guess them for any reason. Rules clarifications are best done outside of combat when you aren’t trying to play as fast as possible. If you think a player has misread or misunderstood their class features or powers, deal with it out of combat. You can suffer a slight misinterpretation for the sake of keeping pace.
There will be very few tables interested in putting the entirety of these suggestions into practice, but I suggest trying to use them all in at least one encounter as an experiment. If nothing else it is very exciting to play a combat on par with the party’s level in under a half hour. Beyond that you can take just as much time in combat as you normally would, but instead of watching your buddy try to add 23 and 15 for the tenth time that night you can spend the time arguing over just how far the hag’s blood flew. Remember that the whole point in running the mechanics of combat blisteringly fast is to give you more time to focus on the story and role-playing elements during a fight.
Here are additional resources for speeding up combat.
- Speeding Up Your Game
- Speed Up Your Game: Know When to Call the Fight
- More Tips for Speeding Up Your Game
If you do try your hand at running combat blisteringly fast let us know how it went. If you’ve got additional suggestions please share them.