Combat in 4e D&D allows players to take three actions on their turn: standard, move and minor. Different combinations of these actions are possible, but using these three actions are the basis for a round of combat.
Since the release of 4e many people have complained that combat is far too slow. The amount of options available and interupt powers just slow things down too much.
In a recent article Gamefiend from At-Will noted that “the speed of 4e is not a bug, rather it’s a feature.” I commend the full article to your attention (The Speed of Choice: the Real Reason your 4e Fights are so Damn Slow) as Gamefiend has hit on some very interesting points. Of course the speed of combat isn’t the true complaint that many have with 4e D&D. If this were the case the countless articles on speeding up combat that exist would be all that any gaming group would require.
However, the speed of combat isn’t the true issue with 4e D&D. Rather it is the cause of the issue which is a lack of time remaining to develop key role-playing opportunities. This is perhaps most prevalent in organized play where players only have four hours to finish an adventure, but it is also an issue for those playing with their home groups. If it takes approximately 10 encounters to gain a level and the average four hour session only has two or three combat encounters the pace of levelling and the game is very slow. If there is no room for role-playing in between combat encounters, D&D becomes more of a roll-playing game.
This is where the 4th action comes into play.
What is the 4th action?
The 4th action is a tool that can be used to add more role-playing opportunities into your game. During combat, a players turn consists of three actions. This fourth action is the player’s opportunity to do more than name the power they use and the actions they take. It is the opportunity for the player to get into their character and embellish their actions. After all what is more exciting jumping over difficult terrain or doing a back flip over difficult terrain while firing your bow?
The 4th action is not meant to take a great deal of time during the players turn, it is simply an extra action that allows the player to immerse themselves into their character. The theory being if the character becomes more immersed in their character during combat, then they’ll be more emmersed out of combat as well which should lead to enhanced role-playing situations.
Introducing the 4th action is one thing, having players make use of it is another. In order to accomplish this I suggest offering a reward. Players who successfully engage in the 4th action during combat are awarded an action point after every encounter. This means a player can to spend an action point in every encounter which increases the drama and sense of adventure experienced. Recently Ameron wrote an article about Putting More “Action” in Action Points. The article touches on how action points can make combat more dramatic through alternate uses of action points. If more action points are available, then every combat becomes an opportunity for greater drama and role-playing.
Yesterday RPG Musings added to the discussion of slow combat in 4e with a great article on Speeding up D&D 4E. In the article AlioTheFool writes “the key is to be able to show people how character progression can be made through role-playing, rather than just dungeon-delving, and put a system in place to do so.” I would argue that character progression only occurs through role-playing.
Combat and other encounters provide experience which is the mechanic that allows characters to gain levels. This allows for new powers and new monsters to be faced, but the character as a person doesn’t grow. That progression only occurs when a player actively role-plays their character. By using a tool like the 4th Action, DMs are asking players to role-play in a non-traditional way. Typically combat and role-playing are two separate yet vital parts of D&D. By merging the two together the traditional boundary is broken down with the hope of enhancing the role-playing experience for everyone involved.
Fair warning should be provided to DMs who are looking to increase the amount of role-playing at their table. Some players just aren’t interested. I can recall with clarity a situation years ago where Ameron introduced a role-playing element to a group of players who were more interested in rolling dice. One players response was very blunt, “We’ve been doing just fine without this role-playing crap until now. I don’t know why you needed to introduce it!” The player promptly had his character exit the role-playing situation awaiting the next combat opportunity. For the curious we were playing AD&D 2e.
In the recent Save My Game column of Dungeon, Stephen Radney-MacFarland discusses how to challenge players beyond combat and skill challenges. Essentially to create interesting and dynamic role-playing opportunities that characters are required to interact with. While this point might sound obvious I think many DMs miss this point or rely on their players to take the initiative when it comes to role-playing.
Unfortunately, many players choose to ignore or disregard role-playing situations as it distracts from combat which is where experience is earned. If this is the case for your group and you want to encourage more role-playing consider having your players level after fewer combats, but with more role-playing situations replacing those encounters.
Consider the situation in our article Screw Morals, Just Keep the Game Moving. To summarize the article the party sacrificed a great role-playing situation as the hour was late and there was a desire to finish combat. Had we instead focused on the role-playing aspects of the encounter the entire situation would have been more intense and threatening. We wouldn’t have finished that night, but the entire encounter would have been far more meaningful.
Many complain that 4e D&D runs too much like a MMO and that you can’t role-playing in 4e. Such arguments are nonsense and are made by those who haven’t attempted to role-play or who can’t get beyond the new mechanics for combat that 4e introduced. If you want to role-play you will, it’s as simple as that.
If as a DM you truly want to encourage role-playing you will eliminate experience. Characters will level when the story demands or makes sense that they advance. The story requires that the players interact with it, that your players role-play and immerse themselves in their characters. The 4th Action and using action points creatively are just tools that can be used to encourage your players to role-play. If your players buy in, suddenly combat isn’t too long, instead its tactical and creative. The moments in between combat are filled with players making decisions that make sense for their characters, not for what starts the next combat encounter quickest.
At Dungeon’s Master we have several posts in our archives that can assist with the goal of increased role-playing. Whether that is by encouraging role-playing or speeding up combat. I comend the following to your attention:
- Running the Combat Part of Combat Blisteringly Fast
- Speeding Up Your Game
- More Tips For Speeding Up Your Game
- An Accidental Solution to the Slow Combat Problem
- Speed Up Your Game: Know When to Call the Fight
- Character Motivation
- Playing Characters With Low Ability Scores
- Addressing Your Weaknesses
What steps have you taken to increase the role-playing at your table? Has your continued experience with 4e allowed combat to run quicker allowing for more time to role-play? As a DM do you encourage role-playing inside of combat?