DMs: Managing your (4e) combats

Benimoto

First Post
I've seen complaints that 4e combats take too long. I've occasionally felt it myself, and I've developed some techniques to avoid it. I'm sure they won't work for everybody, and if your game is going well, there's no need to change it based on what I'm saying, but if you feel as though combats are taking too long, give some of these a try and let me know how they work.

These tips are mostly for GMs. Players seem to be pretty good at figuring out the right strategies themselves, but as a GM you have a more responsibility and less immediate feedback, so it's a lot harder.

Fourth edition says that it "fixed the math", and for the most part it did. But it did so by making a lot more of the party's resources "per encounter". This creates a sort of a "sweet spot" and when you're in it, combats are dynamic, full of excitement, challenge and creativity.

There's two main contributing factors. First, the PCs have a bunch of per-encounter powers. These have interesting effects, and do more damage than usual. They may be situational, and as the PCs level, they'll have more of them, but they're typically used in the first few (2-5) rounds of a combat. When they run out, the PCs switch to at-wills, which do less damage and are more repetitive and less exciting.

Second healing via leader powers is also per-encounter. This lasts a while too, since PCs have a fair amount of hit points, but when it runs out PCs tend to go on the defensive. This stops them from dying, but also limits their offense.

When both situations happen, the combat enters what I'll call "slog mode". In slog mode, the PCs general lack of heavy-hitting offense can make what monsters are left last more than twice as long as they would otherwise. Slog mode can be good in dramatic situations. It can make a big bag guy appear even more menacing, and victory even more sweet. But when it happens too much against normal enemies, it sucks. Try to avoid slog mode.

While you're designing the adventure:
  • Not too many tough encounters in a row. I suffered from this when I first switched to 4th edition. My 3rd edition players were mostly optimizers and powergamers, and it came to be that encounter levels had to be at least two levels higher than the party just to offer the standard amount of challenge. I came to see extreme challenge levels as the only way to actually engage my players. Needless to say, I had to make some adjustments when we switched to fourth edition.
  • Be careful of situations where multiple combats can combine. Too many enemies is the number one way to have a combat enter slog mode. Again, this is something I had to get used to with the 3e-to-4e switch. In 3e many of the PCs resources were daily or single-use, so when there were twice as many enemies, the party could use twice as many resources. In 4e, many important resources are encounter-based, so that option is just not available anymore.
  • Mind the amount of solos and elites you use. With a group of normal enemies, unless the PCs spread the damage around a lot, the enemies will gradually die and lose offensive power. Elites and solos do not lose offensive power in the same way. Thus, they are at a higher risk of putting a fight into slog mode. I use them as more of a spice than a staple.

Right before combat:
  • If you're short on players this session, be sure to lower the number of monsters. This is important. Do this. Again, too many monsters is the single easiest way to put a normal combat into slog mode. I put so much emphasis here, because it's an easy mistake to make, and one I've made myself too many times.

During combat:
At least some of the monsters should be able to see the obvious--that the PC party is a superior force who is favored to win. Thus, to even get in a fight, the enemies should logically have to be risky, desperate or overconfident. Let the monsters act that way, and let this free you as a DM to keep your combats moving.
  • Act quickly. Get through the monsters turns as quick as you can. Don't worry too much about making mistakes, or of using bad tactics or whatever. Monsters that take forever are much worse than either of those things.
  • Try not to take things back. Since it interrupts people, this can take a lot of time for little reward. Just let small things go and learn not to repeat the mistake.
  • Don't be afraid to draw extra attacks. Monsters that are too afraid of opportunity attacks, or of the defender's reprisals are playing right into the defender's hands. Plus, if your monsters are taking too long to die, this is an easy way to change that.

Those are my main techniques, or at least the ones I can think of right now. I'd love to hear if other people have similar or entirely different solutions. If things are running smoothly in your games, what have you done to make it that way?
 

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brunswick

First Post
DM'd my first 4th Edition combat at a Con Game on Saturday afternoon last and I reckon I need some sort of "condition markers" to have my games run smoothly. Scribbling on poker chips with permanent markers as I speak...
 

darjr

I crit!
Nice, thanks.

Something else I noticed. Sometimes the 'kids playing soccer' effect takes over. The monsters plant and the battle goes static.

Use some of the above advice and break things up.

Not only in 4e, mind, but in other games too.
 

Chainsaw

Banned
Banned
Great post. I'm about to begin a single-person campaign with someone who doesn't have alot of experience - the last thing I want is a ton of accidental slog making combat boring. Plus, I like Hobbesian combats anyway: nasty, brutish and short.
 

Monkey Boy

First Post
4e combat some things I learned the hard way

Low AC = fun. I've learned at low levels to use low AC opponents. Swinging and missing gets old fast. I used hobgoblins with a group I game with for their first 4e experience. They couldn't hit the AC's of 22 at level 1. The combat went forever and they concluded 4e was a joke. This group are now playing 1e. Please learn from my mistake. AC 17 max at level 1 is about right.

Easy fights. Give the players some easy warm up fights so they can get used to their characters and abilities. Easy fights for level 1 are 400xp for a 5 player group. They include plenty of minions and opponents coming in waves.

Save solos. They take forever to kill and the solo fights I've been part of have been pretty bland. Save them for the really big bad, your end of session fight should be an elite + mates and not a solo.
 

CharlesRyan

Adventurer
Funny you should mention condition markers--I think they can actually be part of the problem.

In some games I've played, the GM (or players) insisted on putting markers on or under every mini that was bloodied, marked, quarried, or whatever. Picking up minis and putting markers under them, putting them back, and then straightening up the other minis that inevitably got jostled or knocked over added a solid minute or two to the length of each combat round (for 5 or 10 minutes or more per combat).

In other games, nobody bothered. And you know what: The has fighter never forgotten which bad guy he marked (and the GM never forgets either, since the fighter always reminds him as soon as he reaches for a marked mini).

For conditions affecting PCs, I use markers--but on the character sheet rather than the battle mat. A monster effect dealing ongoing necrotic? I toss a skeleton mini to the affected player, which he sets down on his character sheet. If there's a skeleton on your sheet at the start of his turn, take your damage and remember to save at the end of your turn--nobody wants that skeleton hanging around.
 

When the slog appears, I deal with this in one of two ways:

1. The monsters run away

2. The monsters choose to fight to the death, and both deal and take double damage from that point forward.


I do this because the result of combat in 4E can often be seen many rounds before its actual end. Once the fight is won, its just a matter of playing out the string. Playing out the string is almost universally where the slog occurs. I choose to have the monsters respond, either seeing that they've lost and attempting their escape, or going out in a blaze of glory and by my rule hastening the end.
 

When the slog appears, I deal with this in one of two ways:

1. The monsters run away

2. The monsters choose to fight to the death, and both deal and take double damage from that point forward.


I do this because the result of combat in 4E can often be seen many rounds before its actual end. Once the fight is won, its just a matter of playing out the string. Playing out the string is almost universally where the slog occurs. I choose to have the monsters respond, either seeing that they've lost and attempting their escape, or going out in a blaze of glory and by my rule hastening the end.

This might speed things up but it also gives a combat that video game "stage" feeling. It would feel like a trigger to start mashing buttons fast to end the combat and clear the level. We experienced this stuff with Irontooth in KOTS. Boss mob goes into "freak" mode at a certain stage and starts hitting harder for no apparent reason. As a player you had better have DPS'ed him slowly until he entered stage 2 then pop your cooldown abilities to finish him off. If you did something stupid and illogical such as pour your best attacks into the boss as soon as he showed up then you could be in trouble. Tactics?
 

MerricB

Eternal Optimist
Supporter
In my 4e combats so far, I don't use markers - the players remember who is marked well enough.

Cheers!
 

greyscale1

First Post
Some really really simple DM advice:

During combat, talk like a commander dispatching planes urgently. I'm not talking bad drill sargent impression.

Also, my group has a homebrew rule that gives minions and the like more tactical advantage. Whenever monsters act on the same initiative (that is usually when they are the same type of monster) they can all move at the same time then attack. Rather than move attack, move attack as the two goblins move in, the goblins can move, move attack attack. Basically it allows for them to jump into flanking etc faster.

DM: These kobolds move here and ready to fire! 18!
Player 1: Miss!
DM: 24!
Player 2: Miss!
...
As you all dive in different directions the hail of arrows passes over you harmlessly. The kobolds curse loudly from accross the gorge. Player two your move! go!

Just act quick and snap your words out there with some urgency, the players will pick up on it.
 

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