The Speed of Choice: the Real Reason your 4e Fights are so Damn Slow.

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4e combat takes time.  I’ve run enough and played enough to realize that the speed of 4e is not a bug, but a feature.

How can this be, you say?  4e combat takes entirely too long, we need to speed it up! But do we?  More importantly, what are we trying to speed up? I’m going to address what I believe makes 4e combats take a while, but first I want to talk about what is not going to help you out.

Procedural tricks don’t save you nearly the sort of time you want.  There are many great tricks for running combats more efficiently, but let’s face it — these don’t  shave that much time do they?  They’ll save a little time, but I’ve yet to try one that offers notable speed improvements.  Note that procedural tricks don’t combine well for ultimate efficiency; I can’t use three different methods for running a combat to cut the combat time in half.

Combat will also not get much faster with most rules tweaks you do.  There is the classic halving tweak (half hit points of combatants), but in practice all that does is de-stabilize your game.  4e is built with certain hit point totals in mind, the whole game is built on a particular tempo of attrition.  You change that and you break up that tempo.  I’ve played with this rule several times and found it always lacking.  You can add more action points but that doesn’t quite do it either; action points are actually subordinate to accuracy so only certain party compositions can abuse action points enough to  make a considerable dent in the overall combat time.

So by my reckoning, trying to prune your procedures doesn’t work, rules tweaking doesn’t really work…what does speed up 4e combat?

Knowledgeable players.  Players who know the system well enough to make decisions quickly.  This is the only thing that I’ve seen make combat go fast in practice. When players come in with game plans and high system knowledge, they tear through combats.  Playing at GenCon’s D&D tournament 2 years ago with Mike Shea, his wife and Jake Fitch, we tore through multiple combats in around a half-hour.  We knew what we wanted to do tactically, we knew the system very well, we came we saw, we almost conquered.  Why we didn’t actually win is a whole other article, but can be summed up as this: the encountered we ran out of time on introduced variables that slowed our decision process and also introduced variables to eat up precious game time. But half-hour combats are totally do-able if you are “pros”.

But that’s not what you wanted to hear is it?  An RPG shouldn’t be about system mastery if you don’t want it to be right?  I’m all about system mastery in games I play but I actually don’t want to enforce that mindset on my players.  People play for all sorts of reasons, and for many people who are completely awesome to game with, this is not a goal they keep in mind.  I support their right not to know the system inside-out and to enjoy the roleplay more than the “game”.  I know I’m not alone with this viewpoint.  So what are we supposed to do?

The first thing to understand is that 4e’s default speed of “slow” during combat is actually a feature, not a bug.  4e combat is created from the ground up to be very tactical;  It offers more meaningful choices per round than any other game out there.  Where do I move this turn? What impact does that move have on my group’s turn? How do I spend that minor action, if at all?  Which of my multiple powers will I use for my standard and what effect will that poewr have on the fight and my group?  The list gets even more subtle and muanced than that, but my point remains: There’s a lot of stuff to decide each turn.  And that decision cost is where your time goes.  This is why tables full of experienced players go significantly faster than tables full of new players –the experienced players make better decisions faster. But let’s take a further step and we can see that games with Essentials characters also move more swiftly. In this case it is because the classes tend to offer less choices  per turn (not true of all the classes), so it speeds up the decision-making process.

Again, because 4e is designed to give choice, this isn’t something I would label a “bug” or “flaw”, though it does create problems for sure.  Recognizing this, we can see though that ultimate reason for slowdown is people making choices.  Now we can just people on time limits, but I file that under “procedural trick” and note that it just tends to encourage poor, time-constrained decisions which cost time because you have to make choices later to correct the rushed choices you made earlier.

I feel a little bit that this is something that WotC has steered us wrong on with fight design in the past,  only now starting to correct it in their more recent adventure design.  Older adventures were just brutal gladiator pits of fight after fight after fight. Story existed, but it was assumed that the story was mostly going to advance through fighting, encouraging the notion that 4e is all fighting all the time.  But 4e actually works better with fewer, better designed fights.

It is in fight design that we will actually create speed within our fights.  Encounter design is key.  We can’t make every player a 4e jedi master able to instantly move on his turn with the best choices, but we can build encounters that offer them improved situational choices that increase the speed of the combat.  Hey, I notice I can trigger a mini-avalanche and bury those henchmen in it…In the far corner there is an orb reanimating these skeletons…If I put my sword in the fire I can make it a flaming sword for the encounter…

The point is that you’re putting accelerants into the combat with a minor opportunity cost (don’t make it too hard or players are going to go back to their old standards) to make combat more interesting and also faster. Trust me, the characters are going to remember the time they leapt inside a water elemental to attack the creature’s “heart”, doing critical damage each time (true story, and fun fight).

Accelerants can be environmental effects such as terrain, but they can also be great places to work in off-the-cuff situational advantages. A player successfully bluffs a stupid ogre as a minor action and gets a chance to make his next attack versus the ogre’s will instead of AC.  Speaking the proper sacred blessing (successful religion check?) removes the insubstantial keyword from a ghost.

Where accelerants in your encounter can go wrong is having too many moving parts.  The temptation is to make it so a perception check needs to actively be made (or having high passive perception), then 2-3 steps must be taken to unlock the accelerant, then you can start using it. If you design something with this many (or more) steps, make sure it ends the fight and make it clear that it will do so! Otherwise, players will stick with the “safe” choice.  I find the best way to add such elements is to tie them into something the players are going to do anyway ( first successful attack notices something, or a character enters an area) and then abuse the heck out of minor actions.  Making a character spend 1-2 minor actions to activate your special terrain is the sweet spot. If a character really wants to do it right now, he can spend multiple actions to get it done. Otherwise he can take a standard action and not feel as if he’s “missing out”.

The next thing we’re going to do is build outs.  I’ve seen many different morale systems, but I think rather than leaving it to chance, you only need to determine a threshold for which combatants leave the fight.  A dragon may fly away when it reaches 3/4 of its hit points, or a group of soldiers may break when they are  halved in number.  Just determine the threshold and use it.  Morale can be done as the monsters fleeing, or what I like to do is a “finishing sequence”; the characters reach that threshold and then I ask them to describe how they mop up.  Players dig taking control of the scene for this and you get some interesting RP out of it. When you alternate that with just having monsters turn tail and flee, you get to keep the threat of all your monsters for most of the fight while getting rid of that ending standoff dance that sometimes happens.  I recommend setting your threshold for monsters leaving at about 3/4 of total strength.  Less important fights can have a  higher threshold, as you just want the “feel” of the fight anyways, not to run the whole thing in full.

This post is already ballooning in size, so I’m going to stop here.  I encourage you to share your thoughts, questions, and complete disagreement with me though.  Have you used these methods in your fights? Do you use other methods to speed up fights?  How well do they work?

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About the Author

A Jack of All Trades ,or if you prefer, an extreme example of multi-classing, Gamefiend, a.k.a Quinn Murphy has been discussing, playing and designing games straight out of the womb. He is the owner and Editor-in-Chief of this site in addition to being an aspiring game designer. As you would assume, he is a huge fan of 4e. By day he is a technologist. Follow gamefiend on Twitter