The 30 Minute Skirmish
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  1. #1

    The 30 Minute Skirmish

    After reading Robert Schwalb's excellent article on Re-examining the Dungeon:

    Reexamining the Dungeon

    I was struck by the idea that there is still something missing in 4e in regards to scenes. In a typical adventure we can have roleplaying, exploration, skill challenges, and combat. Combat, however, is really built around larger hour-long battles (sometimes more). There really isn't room, however, for short battles that are still meaningful to players.

    I'm looking to design a system to add another scene type to 4e, the Skirmish. Here's some of my design thoughts:

    Goal: Have a complete combat encounter in 30 minutes or less.

    This "skirmish" would be for smaller fights such as a bar brawl, a quick fight in the streets, or some small battles in the middle of a larger dungeon. It would be something else to go between your exploration, skill challenge, role playing, and full-on combat encounters.

    There are two easy ways to reduce the time it takes to run a battle.

    First, initiative goes around the table rather than in initiative order. All players roll initiative and go around the table beginning at the highest. If the initiative is an even number, it goes clockwise; odd and it goes counterclockwise. This way players don't arrange themselves around the table based on how higher their init is. When the turn comes around to the DM, thats when the monsters go.

    Second, the total experience budget for a skirmish should be level - 2. The number of monsters should be lower than the number of PCs, and no solos should be included.

    Those can help move the duration of a battle down, but it isn't enough. Too few monsters or monsters that are too low level and the battle is simply too easy. At higher levels, players can simply wipe the floor on any encounter that isn't level+2.

    When we think about the time a battle takes, the amount of time spent is usually on the players side. They have a lot of things to choose from.

    There have been a lot of studies on decision making and they have some interesting results. In short, people believe they want more options but end up making better decisions with fewer. (source: Sheena S. Iyengar - Research)

    So the best way to cut down on time and increase the difficulty of a lower level battle is to remove player options.

    So what if, during skirmishes, players could only use at-will powers, second winds, and expendable items?

    This would make lower level battles more meaningful since PCs will be more greatly challenged. It also reduces the amount of choices they can make so it speeds up their turns.

    The only problem is....players will hate it. Sure, they will get to use all their encounter and daily spells in your larger battles, but the skirmish will still feel like a battle only limited.

    So how do we sell this idea to them? One way is to really clarify that this is something else - not a typical battle. Like skill challenges, it's a different wrapper around a set of mechanics. I'm not sure what other ways this could be sold to players but I'm up for suggestions.

    So what do you guys think?

  2. #2
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    Mike,

    This is a great idea for quick encounters when you want fighting to mean something without dragging a quick bar brawl out to 2 hours.

    Using a similar model, here are things I've used to ensure short fights, some of which you mentioned:

    1) Round Limits: At the beginning of the fight, you hint to the players that finishing the encounter in X rounds or X minutes (player time only) will result in a bonus, either an easier next encounter, milestone, recover a surge, etc.

    While not a mechanic change, this encourages the players to speed up their end (which is of course the most time-consuming part).

    2) Two and Three-Hit Minions: Using minions that take 2 or 3 hits to kill instead of one is a simple way to speed up combat, and the minions can even deal significant damage as they're still very frail. This eliminates the sluggish end-of-encounter back and forth, where the players have clearly won but must slowly beat down the last couple of enemies.

    The minions are not difficult to hit, but have a high attack bonus themselves, so are still dangerous and minions only in the sense of how many hits they can take. This whole idea was to avoid a wizard using a daily to deal 50+ damage to everything on the board, which would normally kill all minions. How it normally works is an at-will attack or encounter takes away one hit, while a daily takes away two.

    Also, players are less likely to use encounters and dailies when the enemies only require a certain number of attacks to kill, which is somewhat related to...

    3) Only Allowed to Use At-Wills: This was the one thing that did not work out at all. The players were upset and not being able to use their stuff, which they saw as an a right to use whenever and however they wanted. This came out often if the fight was taking too long or the players were not doing as well as they had hoped. "Why wouldn't I be able to use this?" they'd ask, "we're losing pretty bad, my guy wouldn't hold back if he thought we might lose."

    I could see players being more accepting of it if they were told up front that it was not a standard fight and a different set of mechanics and rules, but I'm not sure they'd like it. When any kind of combat is involved, players have a hard time not turning to their powers sheet; they specifically picked those powers to excel in some situations, and it makes them angry when you won't allow them to make use of their decisions and resources.

    But that brings me to a possible solution for your problem:

    4) A Point System: I've only used this a couple of times, but it was essentially a minimal fight that the players didn't see as much of a threat. I'd tell the players when combat began that they thought the fight could be accomplished without exhausting themselves by using their more powerful abilities.

    During the fight, a player is free to use whatever they want, but they incur a penalty (by gaining points) for using healing surges, encounters, daily powers, etc.:


    • 1 point - Using any expendable (potion, etc.).
    • 2 points - Using an encounter power.
    • 2 points - Spending a healing surge.
    • 4 points - Using a daily power.

    Most of the enemies are the two, three, and sometimes four-hit minions, so combat won't be difficult. The players are essentially given a choice to stay at 0 or very low points and gain a bonus after the combat (can be anything desirable up to and including action points, surges, bonus XP), or they can use their powers (often when they get into trouble) and gain a bunch of points.

    When the fight is over, add up all of the points for all players, so say player 1 used a daily, players 2-4 used nothing, and player 5 used a healing surge to stay alive. In total the group has 6 points. For every point over 2, for example, you could reduce the bonus XP by 50%, so at 6 they're actually losing the basic XP from the fight (doesn't go into negatives).

    I play this off as experience being the ability for players to learn how to apply proper force and combat tactics - overkill is rarely necessary and shows a lack of confidence, skill, and management of strength and resources - if they go over the top in points, then they don't get much (if any) experience points, because they didn't learn anything (which is what I see experience points as representing).

    Under this system, the players are encouraged to use only at-wills and tactics, but not completely restricted to them. This does away with their frustration of not being allowed to use encounters and daily powers, letting them make the conscious choice of not using them (which is what you wanted all along), because players are clever and will almost always follow the rules if they think they'll get something more out of it (XP in this case).

    Anyways, it's something that has always worked well for me and seems to accomplish most of the things you wanted (mostly using at-wills, quick fights), while not completely changing the mechanics so as not to confuse or frustrate them in combat.

    Let me know what you think, either through here or email. I can give several examples of fights with the point system to show how it balances based on the length and difficulty.

    Good post though, enjoyed reading it.

  3. #3
    I like the idea of 2-4 hit minion kills.
    How about using average damage divided by 5 to estimate how much hits an attack can do. Do the same math to monster's HP and you can bring more than minions to the fray...

  4. #4
    Personally I don't like the idea of not letting the PCs use encounter or daily powers. Daily powers are a valuable resources that you want the group to expend rather stopping them.

    I am also undecided on the wisdom of creating two different types of combat encounter. My main concern is that it is two different ways of doing the same thing only with different rules sets. This could be confusing to the players who might not understand in the heat of the moment why you are using rules set "y" instead of rules set "x".

    Anyway in an attempt to be constructive if I were doing something like this I might consider:-

    1: Making sure that the monsters were simple and easy to run.

    2: Reducing the HPs of the monsters slightly to make sure that 3 hits would probably kill them.

    3: Increase the monster damage to make sure it was at the high end of expected (to compensate for 2). Eg an attack at 2d6+6 might become 1d6+12.

    4: Adding a "cool factor" bonus to using a daily power. This could be increasing the damage dice, maximising the damage, increasing the burst/blast by 1 etc. The theory behind this is that daily powers are probably the best thing for quickly resolving a standard encounter but players are usually loathed to use them in these situations in order to nova in boss fight situation. They may be more willing to give them up if they think they are getting a greater benefit in doing so.

    5: adding some sort of system where the PC could spend a healing surge for some sort of bonus to an at will attack, maybe even something as radical as +5 to hit, automatic maximum damage. That might be interesting from both a speedy resolution and resouce use aspect?

    Anyway they are my initial thoughts.

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    One thing to consider is "simultaneous initiative". Everyone, including the DM, makes all their decisions for the round at the same time.

    That way you don't have people stopping to reconsider the tactical situation every time their turn comes up.

    Drive-by pimping
    In my last game we ran an encounter with 27 characters (13 on the PC's side, 14 on the NPC's side) and it was over in 30-40 minutes. 20 minutes seems like average.

    I am rewriting the Skill Combat system to include rulings that we're going with but don't exist on the sheet and some clarifications to make it easier to run. Some features are:

    -heavy use of DM judgement
    -based on how skill checks are made
    -abstracted hp and damage, based on an average monster taking 2 hits before death
    -init, attacks, and damage resolved with the same roll
    -simultaneous actions - everyone is assumed to be acting at the same time
    -morale checks

    HP is lower so there are fewer rounds; there's usually only one roll to make, instead of init + (attack + damage per target); everyone makes their decision at the same time, so you don't have to constantly refocus when your turn comes up; and morale checks can end combats early instead of having them drag out to the bitter end.

    The rules are also geared to reward players who think in game-world terms ("What my character can do and is good at") instead of rules terms ("I have a Burst 1 attack that deals 2[W] + Wis fire damage"). I'm not sure how well that works; I'd like to say it does speed things up, but I'm biased so I can't be sure.

  6. #6
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    I would allow encounter and daily powers, but doing so reduces the XP. A minion levels worth for an encounter power, and a full monster's worth for a daily. Thus, they have the option, but won't consider it unless the chips are down.

    This is a great idea, I think I might use it.

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    Quote Originally Posted by LostSoul View Post
    One thing to consider is "simultaneous initiative". Everyone, including the DM, makes all their decisions for the round at the same time.
    It seems like that could actually take more time, at least for the dm, since he may have to decide 5-10 sets of actions.

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    Quote Originally Posted by the Jester View Post
    It seems like that could actually take more time, at least for the dm, since he may have to decide 5-10 sets of actions.
    With turn-based initiative he still has to do that, but instead of basing his decision on one set of conditions he has to stop, re-evaluate the situation based on the resolution of each character's turn, and then make another choice.

    "This guy is going to try and knock you prone so the Pronebashing Ogre can bash your skull in."
    One point to stop and make decisions, one set of conditions to consider.

    "This guy tries to knock you prone... failed. Hmm, what will the Pronebashing Ogre do now? I guess he'll use his Awful Breath attack."
    Two points to stop and make decisions, two sets of conditions to consider.

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    Quote Originally Posted by LostSoul View Post
    With turn-based initiative he still has to do that, but instead of basing his decision on one set of conditions he has to stop, re-evaluate the situation based on the resolution of each character's turn, and then make another choice.

    "This guy is going to try and knock you prone so the Pronebashing Ogre can bash your skull in."
    One point to stop and make decisions, one set of conditions to consider.

    "This guy tries to knock you prone... failed. Hmm, what will the Pronebashing Ogre do now? I guess he'll use his Awful Breath attack."
    Two points to stop and make decisions, two sets of conditions to consider.
    So what happens when the dude fails to knock you prone? The ogre loses his action?

    YMMV, but that doesn't seem very cool to me.

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    Quote Originally Posted by the Jester View Post
    So what happens when the dude fails to knock you prone? The ogre loses his action?

    YMMV, but that doesn't seem very cool to me.
    Probably just a melee basic attack. Whatever system you came up with would have to deal with that.

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