D&D 4E Changing the Combat Parameters of 4th Edition

Tony Vargas

Legend
Frankly though, I don't entirely agree with the initial analysis of 4e. It isn't anywhere near as slow, IME, as it is being made out to be.
Not usually. It can bog down, in, IMX, the following circumstances:

  • Large parties - more than 4 or 5 players and it's stunning how rapidly things slow down, it's more than just linear. (By the same token, 2-player combats can be amazingly fast).
  • Imbalanced parties - light on the strikers or none at all slows the race to 0 hps, not just because the party's dishing less damage, but because defenders and leaders keep the party chugging along longer. (Controllers can go either way.)
  • Unfamiliar characters - when you run a campaign up from 1st on a fairly frequent basis, characters grow organically and players know them well (they even get to know eachother's abilities and synergies well). If you create characters at a higher level, or come back to a party after a long break, it slows everything down. You can also see this at Paragon, even in an otherwise smooth campaign, especially the first time you hit Paragon. There's a sudden bump in PC capabilities the first level or two of paragon. You get several new class abilities, a new feat (maybe a retrained-to-Paragon feat) and a new power all at 11th, another feat & power at 12th, and the availability of off-turn actions ratchets up in Paragon, too. (It's a speedbump, though, a couple levels in, things are back under control.)
  • Inattentive Players; This is, IMHO, the big one. If players don't pay attention between their turns, every turn takes longer to play out, the wait between turns stretches, and more players become inattentive. It can be a death spiral. If you have a player who's in any way dissatisfied going into it, you have a weak link that can start that spiral quite easily, if any of the above start to do wrong, they can kick you down the spiral.
  • Assumed player victory. If you don't mind TPKs, you can always dial up the threat until the party must win quickly, or die.
  • Hating combat. If you can't stand it, the only good combat is a short combat.
 

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I do not want this thread to turn into another edition war, either defening all aspects of 4th Edition and keeping everything as it is, or why you should change to 5th Edition because playing TotM is a gift from god, etc. I am intrested to see how changing some parameters of 4th Edition could lead to it being changed into something new. If you do not like the thought of that, find another thread.

So what do I mean by changing some parameters? Here is an example:
Example: How would changing Healing Surges in 4th Edition into “Stamina Surges” and changing the following rules affect the game play:

1. Short Rest is 1 hour long. It allow you to recover all you Encounter power by using a Stamina Surge. You can recover one Daily power by using a Stamina Surge, or you can recover 1/4th of your hit points with a Stamina Surge.

2. Extended Rest is 8 hours long. It allow you to recover all your lost HP and you regain all your Stamina Surges which you can use to regain Encounter Powers and Daily Powers in a similar way as a Short Rest.

In such a game the capability to heal will be reduced and having available powers comes with a cost. Even a small encounter that plays through fast in real time, can have an impact. It might force the use of an encounter power, or do some damage that has a cost to recover.

I look at it differently. The difference between 5 minutes (4e) and 1 hour (5e) is just a matter of a DM ruling. 4e gives the DM permission to say "you catch your breath, it has these standardized resource consequences". The 4e DM could still simply toss the next encounter at the party without a short rest, or create a time crunch that thrusts the players onto the horns of a dilemma. 5e isn't 'hard mode', nor increasing the significance of minor encounters, its just taking away some DM authority and handing it to the rule book. It mystifies me that Mike Mearls wouldn't understand this point.
 

I personally think it's rather hard to do resource attrition - especially hp attrition - as "the main game" in 4e. I agree with @AbdulAlhazred that something else - some story thing - needs to be at stake.

That said, there are RPGs out there that handle the short/long thing fairly easily: they have simple resolution (a la 4e skill chekcs), and then complex resolution (a la 4e's combat rules or a skill challenge), and the GM toggles between them as is appropriate to the dramatic weight of the situation.

In 4e you could easily do something like this - use opposed checks, or just minions, to resolve combats, rather than engaging the hp and damage mechanics. You could even do something like allow the players to pay 1 HS (or 2 HS - whatever you think the right exchange rate is) to convert a standard creature of their level to a minion.
Right. Other options might be something like powers that require an HS (something that my 4e hack, HoML, has) which can then be things like "Force all the bad guys to make a morale check or run away". Actually I was thinking of having a sort of 'inspiration-like' mechanism for this kind of thing where you declare 3 attributes of your character and you get Inspiration, which you can spend by explaining how you use one of these 3 character attributes (I prefer them to be a strength, a weakness, and a bond or principle) to change the situation. You can also regain this Inspiration by using one of these against your character, creating a complication. In this system Inspiration doesn't accumulate, you either have it or not, you can't get multiple points of it (so there's not a huge incentive to keep hoarding it).

My inclination for adjudicating this sort of stuff is as a skill challenge which has the upshot that enemies are "minionised".

But if the goal is to speed things up, I'd be wary of bringing in too much buffing/prepping. That has always been a big part of my RM experience, and I remember sessions where basically the whole time was spent prepping and buffing for a plan that wasn't actually carried out until the next session!

Well, it can be an SC that leads to getting some 'fire resistance potions' or whatever (again this is a reason for dissociating loot from a schedule, something I know I've harped on here pretty often). Minionization could be another approach, though rather less traditional.

And yes, there's always the danger you can overdo it. I just think 4e went too far the other way. Most potions in 4e for instance are nothing but a small trade-off, an HS for some minor DR that MIGHT sometimes net you a positive benefit, but at the cost of precious loot from your fixed income. Its quite unsurprising that NOBODY really bothered with those sorts of consumables in 4e. Even ritual scrolls don't do much in 4e.

Also, I think the GM is still pretty much in the driver's seat with this kind of thing. The players can only plan to the extent that they have good information, so again you can basically create a situation where the PCs can do SCs to acquire that info and spend the resources to get the buffs and have a fairly low-risk combat encounter, but overall the stakes are just DIFFERENT, not lower (IE, maybe you have to make a deal with the fire cult to get the formula for the potions, which make the salamander encounter trivial, but involve taking a side in some other conflict that may later become significant).
 

I think we run a little different games. Yours seems more story focused where you adjust circumstances and rules based on characters actions. In my games I try to stick with the rules and based on the players knowledge of those rules (or the game world), their actions have consecuenses. If they would be stupid enough to take a 1 hour rest in front of the orc kings hall when they are low on resources, then they are in for a tough ride. I would not “pace” that to be nice - bad choices are rewarded with dire consequences. But the only way that can work is if we have a set of agreed rules that everybody understands and knows about.

But this is why I argued that 4e's approach is better. You STILL have the option to make hanging out in front of the door for even 5 minutes a bad idea. OTOH you have gained the ability to logically allow it to be a GOOD idea too. The PCs can even make some checks to figure out if it is one or the other (listen at the door, interrogate a prisoner, etc). 5e decreed it should probably be a bad idea and makes the DM work harder to change that when he wants a different pacing option. I don't see what the upside is.
 

The 1 hour rest might have an impact in a dangerous zone, such as a dungeon, where there is limited available areas to find a safe haven for 1 hour. In 4th Edition this is not the case. A dungeon of 4 major encounter areas would guarantee 3 short rests between each area, with full recovery of encounter powers and HP between each encounter. That would not be the case if the short rest were 1 hour and there is no chance in hell to find a spot without leaving the dungeon. As a DM this could allow me to create 3 simple encounters and one really hard. The first three is basic skirmish and the final one uses the full advantage of 4th edition tactial combat. The first would involve at least 2+2+2+2 hours of tactical combat the later maybe ½+½+½+2 hours, while still having a nice 4th Edition experience in the last battle, leaving me with 3½ hours of exploration, puzzles and roleplaying opportunities I could never had fit in to the 4th edition version of the dungeon during the same time period.

However, as you say, it would not solve the Ogre ambush while travelling to the Dungeon of Doom. That would require another mechanism. What would that be? You could go back to 1st edition with no healing surges whatsoever. You only recover encounter powers after a short rest. You regain 2 hit points after an extended rest. Yes, now those two Ogres would have a serious impact on the party. Maybe the party will have to try to find solace somewhere in the dark forest for two weeks to recover enought hit points to dare enter the Dungeon of Doom. I might not want to take my game back to those lovely days again (without risking by players' wrath), but I hope you see my point. There are mechanisms - parameters - that changes how taxing the Ogre encounter becomes.

There are still plenty of ways to make 3 quick but potentially draining encounters in 4e. Traps are one option. Lurkers are another possibility (IE trap monsters of various types basically, though I admit they are poorly represented in stock 4e bestiaries). Its also perfectly feasible to have a few higher level artillery minions, or explosive minions, or etc that can do some meaningful damage. Remember, just because the PCs rested doesn't mean they're made whole, they are down HS and possibly powers too (and this is a motive for being less transparent with the players, thus making them have to decide if they want to blow a daily or not without being certain what they're up against, something I find quite in keeping with gritty dungeon crawls).

I actually DID write several dungeon crawls for 4e over the years. Not super long extensive ones, but they DID work, and they could be reasonably quick. Some of the encounters were SCs, some were rigged up as above to be harmful but not drawn out, and sometimes I followed [MENTION=42582]pemerton[/MENTION]'s advice about using a wave encounter design. As he says, the key point was reasoning about desired pacing and then arranging the world such that this desire was achieved, though the players certainly had chances to thwart that in many cases.
 

Myrhdraak

Explorer
So for those that are into homebrewing and changing rules to fit certain flavors of the game, or to achieve a new type of gameplay, please join in. For you who like 4th Edition exactly as it is, and find all homebrewing as an abomination, quickly leave this thread before the Far Realm consumes all your logic and reason.

So to attack the Ogre problem we will have to dig deeper into how resources (HP and HS are consumed in 4th Edition). To continue the analysis I took our rogue and applied a CON 12 ability over all levels. No feats to boost the amount of HSs (should I do that?). If you look at the statics you can see that the the average remaining HP after the battle is on average 36% of Max HP, or a 25% average consumption of all available Healing Surges (Total HS = 7 + 4). This shows that the calculation of 4 average battles before an extended rest seems to be the design goal of 4th Edition.

Remaining HP.jpg

So whats happens if we start to fiddle with this? What should we change and how? What effect would it have on gameplay and would it serve to change the combat universe to be more in line with the new design goal that I set up? Any ideas or proposals?
 

One question here is swinginess. Your two ogres, supposing they wade into a level 8 party with surprise, can easily do some really serious damage to one or even 2 characters. Cutting hit points further will increase the odds that a couple good hits from even modestly challenging monsters puts paid to a PC, probably in a fairly "oops, you never got a chance to even see that coming" sort of way. I can't say if this is an issue or not, though it does make me leery.

In any case. You want to speed things up. You're still playing about 4-5 round fights at most levels by your estimates. You'd have to either further decrease hit points, increase damage, or increase accuracy to make things go even faster.

Frankly I'd prefer to see some increased drain of HS if you have to change things. Leave hit points relatively untouched, but if people are spending HS quicker, or more of them for some reason, then that would increase the pain of taking even modest damage. What if, instead of less HP characters just all had 2 less HS? Swinginess would be unaffected on a single encounter basis, but characters would certainly be more loath to expose themselves to damage of any sort, and would shake it off a good bit less easily.
 

Myrhdraak

Explorer
Frankly I'd prefer to see some increased drain of HS if you have to change things. Leave hit points relatively untouched, but if people are spending HS quicker, or more of them for some reason, then that would increase the pain of taking even modest damage. What if, instead of less HP characters just all had 2 less HS? Swinginess would be unaffected on a single encounter basis, but characters would certainly be more loath to expose themselves to damage of any sort, and would shake it off a good bit less easily.

I agree. My thinking is as follows. If we look at 5th Edition it is not designed from a 4 encounters, 3 short rests paradigm. The 5th Edition DMG on page 84 says it is framed around 6 (hard) to 8 (medium) encounters, with 2 short rests. If we applied this to 4th Edition, what would happen? First of all we will have to distribute the Rogues 11 HS (7+4) over three periods instead of four. The result would be (11/3=3.66 HS, or 3.66/4 of Max HP) that the characters had 8.3% of his or her Max HP remaining when it was time for the first Short Rest. 4th Edition was based upon you having 36% of Max HP remaining when you take a Short Rest, which means that we have greatly increase the likelihood of player death if we applied the 5th Edition adventuring day straight off.

If we do it the other way, calculate how many HS the rogue should have in order to do two Short Rests during an adventuring day, we come to the following conclusion. 11/4 x 3 = 8,25 HS. What if we applied a rule that said, “After a Short Rest you can recover all your spend Encounter Powers at the cost of 1 HS”? This would result in the Rogue only have 11-2=9 HS to use in a normal Adventuring Day (using 5th Edition distribution). 9 HS / 3 = 3 HS lost before the first Short Rest, or the PC having roughly 25% of his or her Max HP when it is time for a rest. 25% would be much better than 8.3%, and as 4th Edition is generally considered as a quite “PC friendly” game compared to older editions. It might be ok? What do you think?

Another positive thing with this is that characters do not benefits from taking too many short rests. If the number of threats remain the same during the adventuring day, the character will at some point actually die due to having taken to many short rests - at least if he or she always try to recover his or her encounter powers, see below:

Short Rests.jpg

One intersting finding is that (in this example) the final HP after 2 or 3 short rests are actually the same (1 HS = 25% of max HP remaining), but if you take 3 rests you end up with 43% of your Max HP when you take the first rest, rather than 25% which is the case when you take 2 rests. The end result are still the same. At the end of the adventuring day you have 25% of your Max HP remaining. However, if you start to take more, you will actually end up worse.
 
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Myrhdraak

Explorer
In any case. You want to speed things up. You're still playing about 4-5 round fights at most levels by your estimates. You'd have to either further decrease hit points, increase damage, or increase accuracy to make things go even faster.
In the example I am using I have reduced the HP progression for both Monsters and PC to 75% of what is normal for 4th Edition, while keeping the initial HP at first level the same.
 

Myrhdraak

Explorer
So how do I build my encounter? What monster level? How many encounters between each Short Rest? Well as we saw (if we want to mimic 5th Edition adventuring day) we should have maybe 2 to 3 encounters before a short rest. We also saw that we have also increased the expected HP at the end of those encounters to be reduced from 36% (current 4th Edition) level to 25%, i.e. if we run a single encounter the damage output should be (1-0.25)/ (1-0.36)=1.168 or roughly 17% higher. In 4th Edition this would correspond roughly to an Encounter Level of 1 level higher than the character level (Encounter L+1).

However, if you were running 2 encounters before the short rest, it would be 1.168/2=0.584 or roughly 58% of a normal 4th Edition encounter, i.e. an encounter level 3 levels lower than the character party (Encounter L-3). If you were running an adventuring party of 5 players you would have to reduce the number of equal level monsters from 5 to 3 monsters. If we are running a 5 round battle we have now reduced it to 3 rounds.

If we run 3 encounters before a short rest it would be 1.168/3 or 39% or a 4th Edition encounter, i.e. an encounter level 5 levels lower than the character party (Encounter L-5). If you were running an adventuring party of 5 players you would have to reduce the number of equal level monsters from 5 to 2 monsters. Potentially the two ogres we talked about previously. If we are running a 5 round battle we have now reduced it to 2 rounds - the same design goal which 5th Edition had.

However as a DM you might want to pit the party against lower level monsters, rather than just reduced numbers of ogres. Anybody who has played 4th Edition knows that a threat level 5 levels below the party level is no threat, just due to the fact that the monsters would hardly be able to hit the adventuring party. So for this to work - we need bounded accuracy, and we need to make sure that the 4th Edition XP reward for monster level, really mimics the damage output when you apply bounded accuracy to the monsters to hit chance.
 
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