Combat speed in D&D is an oft-debated topic, and while much of the conversation is useful, I have one method that I trumpet above all others to make your combats take less time and work better as a scene in your game, and that’s the combat “out.” Since this technique is primarily in the hands of the DM and takes place in the story instead of the rules, it’s easier to implement than a lot of suggestions and is useful for most RPGs, not just D&D.
Though it’s a technique I’ve discussed before, to recap the core of the method:
In a given fight, have alternate means for the combat to end beyond the D&D default “one side is dead.”
To start, put yourself in the situation and in the mind of the adversaries. Now make sure you know their goals. Why are they fighting? What do they want to get out of it? Would they be open to negotiation? Is their heart really in the fight, or is there something else forcing them? Is one of the bad guys in the fight in charge? And so on.
From there, you can develop alternatives to having the fight just go all the way to the bitter end. Some examples that could result from the above questions:
- The elven brigands want an item from the PCs, and will focus on the PC with the item. If they can steal it, they’ll run away from the fight with it.
- The bad guys are a mercenary company. If too many of them are bloodied or killed, they’ll stage a tactical retreat. Alternatively, they respond well to offers of gold pieces.
- The orc is bossing around the goblins and getting them to fight. If the orc drops, the goblins take parting shots, grab their payment from the orc’s body, and get out of there.
- The hobgoblins operate as a brave unified fighting force- until there’s only one of them left. Then he pleads for his life to fight another day.
- The crazed wizard has summoned a group of elementals to help him fight. They are bound to his life force, so if he is killed, they’re banished back to the Elemental Chaos where they came from.
- The only thing keeping the zombie horde controlled is the will of the vampire necromancer. Stake him, and they begin to attack randomly.
- Caiphon, the Whisperer in Dreams, destroys the dream world around the PCs. They can’t fight him, they can only hope to escape through the portal… which is being guarded by ravenous beasts.
- The summoned primordial is bound to a powerful artifact. By severing it from its wielder, the primordial returns to slumber.
- The demon queen draws her power from multiple portals to abyssal planes. By closing those portals, much of her power is cut off.
- The flight of dragons is only interested in hit and run tactics. They will not stand and fight, but instead engage, deal out some damage, then fly away.
- The homunculi are all armed with self-destruct spells, in case their gnomish master is killed.
As you can see, not only do you have a technique to shorten combats, you also have an effective technique to build interesting encounters. Use of this method encourages skill checks/challenges, dialogue, roleplaying, and creativity in combat. Not only that, but it makes it easier to use a wider range of relative power level of creature- it just means that fighting becomes less of an option, and using the out becomes more important.
Will this work for every fight? No. While there are plenty of options to create outs in fights with fighting mindless killing machines, it’s not going to always be an option. As the always insightful Sly Flourish says, sometimes you just want to fight a Gelatinous Cube and not have it take an hour, which this technique doesn’t help with.
What it does help with, however, is to take those encounters that are fights to the death and make them more important by comparison. If there’s usually a chance that the fight isn’t going to end with death on both sides (or that death can be sped up due to thoughtful play), the ones that are more serious have a bigger impact. That’s when the players know to pull out some of the big guns. Thus, your overall time in combat is reduced, and I hope, more rewarding.
If you have a DDI account, be sure to also check out this Unearthed Arcana article by Rich Baker, giving some concrete rules for ending a combat through fleeing, surrender, or parlay.