This post is inspired bu a Twitter discussions I had last week.
As my player level up right into paragon level, I noticed that the length of combat in D&D 4e kept increasing. We often break the 90 minutes point for ‘normal’ encounters and massive boss-level fights will easily eat up most of our 3 hours long gaming sessions.
That started to bother me, although some of my players told me that they were having fun. In fact, they clearly told me that they would rather play longer fights than get rushed to play faster.
Fine, but I’m still bothered… I’d like to do more in my short D&D sessions.
I also know that this is an issue for many group playing the last 2 versions of D&D (and some newer games like Savage Worlds, or so I hear).
But here’s the thing, the length of combat in a RPG is only an issue if someone in the gaming group stops enjoying the scene. If everyone is engrossed in it and time flies, then there’s no problem.
However, if a player (or DM) stops enjoying the fight, then having it continue for more than 50-60 minutes will start taxing that player’s willingness to delay his enjoyment for the sake of others.
(And that brings a whole other subject, in that D&D 4e’s default take on intense tactical combat can and will turn off players who aren’t at least partly motivated by kicking butts or tactical planning. Storytelling Psychodramatist will certainly be irritated by long fights…).
The length of D&D 4e combat is usually attributed to the following:
- Turn planning:
- Power choices for high level PCs
- Analytic-minded players
- Brilliant Tactician and Optimizer players
- Low Experience Players/DM
- Page Flipping (Lack of Power Cards or monster stats)
- All the above combined
- Encounter Design
- Evil Combos that abuse keywords and status effects (Insubstantial + Regen + Weakness = no fun)
- Regular use of Elites and Solos
- Poor choice of monster roles (ex: all Soldiers and Controllers)
- A Storming Group : (Player conflict, rampant rules lawyer-ing and general lack of focus)
- Tired players and /or DM
Now, I recently realized that what really kills me during combat encounters (pun unintended, but retained after edits for chuckles) is when The Grind sets in.
The Grind is defined as the stage of a combat where the outcome is clearly in the party’s favour but the players must still go through the motions of whittling monster HPs down to zero.
While people have experienced the Grind in most types of combat, my group sees it mostly in fights featuring Solo monsters and Elites. Since I’m the one bothered about it, preferring that we progress in our story rather than spend an extra hour mopping up a fight, I’ve come up with my own fix.
- Use the ‘corrected’ D&D Monsters stats from the D&D Compendium, Solo hit points were dropped 15% across the board with a few exceptions (Dragons iirc, which are underpowered, but that’s another discussion).
- When a combat enters the Grind stage and energy level of group starts dropping, I call the fight off, using narration to explain how it ended.
- If the remaining fight could still cause significant damage to PCs, I may attribute a Healing Surge Tax, provided player approval, to account for end of combat wounds.
Now this post initiated from Twitter and some of the ideas I present here sparked some more discussions:
Destrin: that’s such a simple idea I didn’t think of it…though my pcs would want to play on to try and prove they can avoid the tax 😉
That should be in the player’s power to do so… however, some players, bored with the fight may actually come forward and pay the Healing Surge tax themselves!
chgowiz Doesn’t that preclude that the players may not win the combat?
The Grind is hard to define but evident to spot. There comes a point in a D&D fight that even if you score Crits, no players are going to die, unless there’s a freak statistical event.
chgowiz: Sometimes even in death, a little itty bitty thing can cause interesting random results. Don’t shortchange the power of dice.
In older version of the game (Chgowiz is a grade A Old School), the story was probably often shaped by the swing of the dice, as my crazy Gen Con Sword & Wizardry experience can attest to. In D&D 4e, the story is, IMHO, less defined by wild swings in chance.
Another point I discussed was that if the DM was the only one bugged by combat length, he/she should work elements in the combat to make the ‘end game’ more interesting. For instance, you could use Load-Bearing bosses (or rather, Load-Bearing minions), Damaging Terrain, Fiendish Traps that PCs can use against high HP monsters, etc.
With all the time D&D 4e DM save preping for adventures (compared to D&D 3.5), why not use some of it to design cool environmental conditions for the fight.
This launched another series of comments:
TheGamerDome It feels a little artificial to have every single room be a set piece with fantastic environmental elements.
It doesn’t have to be, long drawn-out combat should not happen every time, or at the very least, if the whole group agrees to play slowly, the Grind should not occur all the time. If it does, something needs to be addressed regarding the way your encounter are designed or the way the group plays the game.
For instance, a 4e group refusing to perform as a team will see combat stretch much longer than need be as they won’t be using the built-in synergies that a party can muster.
Published adventures often have design issues in their combat encounters, it’s still as much an art as it is a science. You want my trick? More Artillery and Skirmisher, less Soldiers and Controllers… and traps!
That is possibly the best advice I could share on making fights shorter. Stop using the ‘bring monster HP to 0’ default goal and add new victory conditions. In fact, you can create endless mini-games by mixing battlemap, combat and Skill Challenge elements to a combat scene.
Just look at the ‘ Rockball’ game encounter in the back of the Dungeon Master Guide, you could easily adapt it to have a Skill Challenge where hitting 4 Switches on a nearby wall would open a door allowing the party to dodge the endless horde of Kobolds pouring out of holes in the walls.
I keep saying that D&D4e and Magic the Gathering are more similar than what people think. It is precisely my experience with Magic and the concept of Inevitability (The point where you can’t lose a Magic game, baring gross player mistakes) that made me react to the Grind by ‘scooping up’ my monsters and moving on to the next Match Scene.
In my opinion, what it boils down to is:
As a DM, you need to gauge the relative fun of everyone now against the potential fun of the next scenes. If present fun takes a dive, move on to the next scene. And always, don’t make edicts, talk to your players, you might be misreading non-fun as concentration or tiredness.
What about you? How do you deal with long combat scenes in D&D 4e or your favorite game, I hear that Savage Worlds can also be like that.
Image Credit: WarnerBros