Running the Combat Part of Combat Blisteringly Fast

by Bauxtehude (Liam Gallagher) on January 11, 2011

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.

  • Defenders

  • 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.

  • Controllers

  • 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.

Good Luck

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.

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.

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1 Alton January 11, 2011 at 10:46 am

Great article. I wish more people would implicate themselves in trying to speed up combat.

Another tip for those that do everything on their turn…well even prerolling. Take out all the dice you need and roll them at once. There is nothing I find more annoying than a player rolling to hit and then ‘Did I hit?’ Ok so I deal this much damage and then ‘2’ and then sneak attack ‘5’ and then etc…. their turn seems to take forever.

Trusting your players was a great section of the article. Unfortunately, the D&D rules can always be interpreted in many different ways and players will always read them in their favour. As you stated in your article, review it with them after the encounter.


2 newbiedm January 11, 2011 at 11:03 am

Nice tips guys, good article!

I think that long combats and 4e will always be tied to each other, (in my opinion) it’s just a part of the game.

While this is not necessarily a bad thing, as many gamers enjoy the tactical aspects of combat, I do wish that WOTC put out an article on alternate rules for quick skirmishes or something similar.

Perhaps using the Unearthed Arcana column of the mags they can strip down combat of conditions and OA’s for example…. In my experience, there’s no such thing as a quick fight in 4e, which is why I eliminated random encounters at my table a long time ago.

3 Brian January 11, 2011 at 11:58 am

Another one that may work for some tables, but should not be used all the time: average damage. Instead of rolling for damage, know ahead of time what the average damage of each of your attacks is, and use that. Especially for attacks that do lots of dice worth of damage, adding up rolls can take some time. Admittedly, rolling lots of dice is fun. Hence, don’t use average damage all the time.
(FWIW, we used to use this mechanic with wands of cure light wounds in 3.5)

4 Bauxtehude January 11, 2011 at 12:06 pm

@Alton: Rolling all your dice in one go does speed things up. When ever I am in game shops I poke through the loose dice to see if they have any in the colours that I use so I can pick up an extra one or two. There’s nothing quite like waiting for someone to do math at the table is there?

@newbiedm: Random encounters in 4th ed. just don’t seem to work. There seems to have been a shift in design philosophy so that the game only focuses on the details of the adventure that are the most exciting. As result we’ve got really involved tactical combats that require a bit of work to set up and if you spend that time on an encounter that is just some nobody trying to mug the party than the payout never seems to be there. It takes too long to give a highway man a wringing and it feels like it just should have been roll played.

Slow combat can be cool though. If you’ve got a meta gamey team of players who really go in for the position and the most effective use of powers you can pose combats that are almost like puzzles. It’s neat.

5 Camelot January 11, 2011 at 1:52 pm

Some great advice. I’m definitely going to use the house rule for dice rolling off the table. We don’t usually play at a big table, and my players frequently aren’t careful enough to contain their rolls. Damage dice will be 1, but any d20 will count as 2, so there’s not too much fumbling (since I use the fumble = grant combat advantage rule too).

And yeah, PLAYERS, KNOW YOUR CHARACTER! That can’t be stressed enough. That’s the first step to even being able to do things when its not your turn and managing a job that the DM gives you. D&D should be a team effort, not a bunch of lazy players and one overworked player (i.e., the DM).

6 Thorynn January 11, 2011 at 2:18 pm

I really like the idea of getting back to the story being the main deal in D&D. I would argue that combat is more exciting the faster paced it is as well.

7 anarkeith January 11, 2011 at 2:38 pm

I’ve been paring down the conditions applied in 4e to this:

No Senses (including: Blinded, Deafened, Dying, Stunned, Unconscious)

No Attack (including: Blinded, Dazed, Deafened, Dominated, Dying, Helpless,
Petrified, Restrained, Stunned, Surprised, Unconscious, Weakened)

No Move (including: Dazed, Dominated, Dying, Helpless, Immobilized, Petrified, Prone, Restrained, Slowed, Stunned, Surprised, Unconscious, Weakened)

I’m letting my players narrate the flavor of the effect, but mechanically, just imposing the three options above.

8 Tourq January 11, 2011 at 4:53 pm


I especially like the idea of dice rolling off the table ending up as a natural 1. that would kill one of my old players.

Here’s a take on how I tried to speed up combat, which backfired fantastically.

9 tiles January 11, 2011 at 11:00 pm

Here is a variation of the monster knowledge cards I have been using in my games thats been working for me. Set out a folded card with the bbeg’s name on it. (At the bottom). When a player hits his will, I plop a small card on top with his will def number. When his AC is hit, I add that number, revieling def as they hit. (NOT miss!) As a side note this only works if you have the cards made before hand. Not as fast as your suggestion, but it avoids exposing the monsters weakest stat before actually being hit.

10 Tony January 12, 2011 at 6:02 pm

Exactly the advice I’ve been starving for. We’re really struggling with 4e’s 1-hour standard for encounters, and I’m trying to both adjust as DM and remove non-essential encounters (though it’s hard to shake the habit of a classic random encounter scrum!), and also look for tools, tokens and ideas to speed up player turns. I’d really love to get away from 1-hour long encounters in 4e, but the “slow burn” setup of combat in 4e really makes it hard without making some drastic mechanical changes or being an ultra-efficient playgroup.

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