I dunno. The appeal of 4e was the tactical combats with all their fiddliness. Everything is tuned around giving the players enough rounds of combat that they actually need to make meaningful decisions on what powers to use and when. If you shorten combats (e.g., have fewer rounds), tactical decisions become less meaningful, and you're taking away arguably the best element of 4e.
I would disagree that tactical combat was the best element of 4e or that its fiddliness added to the appeal.
Arguably the best element of 4e was that it delivered a game where the characters were actually the main protagonists and they were capable adventurers from the get-go rather than bench warm up chumps, IMO. Class parity across all classes, and the fact that classes from the original Player's Handbook stayed competitive even against the last books on the game line, added to this delivery. No longer was there entire classes that became obsolete as other classes gained levels. In addition, everyone had something interesting to offer during most aspects of the game. A conscious attempt was made to make "equal time on screen" for each class into something important, and the time between your turns was still engaging because your class might have ways to be effective even during that phase. Some of the perceived fiddliness is an attempt to keep players engaged even when it is not their turn - a problem that other editions had and the designers were trying to address.
The issue with long combats has to do with a shifting paradigm across editions. The designers went with the assumption that combat is something that players find cool and fun. Therefore it is supposed to be interesting. A long combat that is actually interesting and keeps everyone engaged never feels like a waste of time. However, the opposite is also true. A long combat that is not interesting/meaningful becomes a wasteful drag. Therefore, combats that are not meant to be interesting should not be used as time fillers. Random encounters to eat up resources clearly fall into this category. The problem is that the designers never really took a lot of time to directly address this with DMs. So DMs that were used to a lot of filler combats in other editions went back to their tried and true techniques and found out the hard way that they were not as effective anymore, and even boring.
Action Pacing is the sole determining factor on whether a combat remains exciting.
The chart above shows what an exciting combat should look like as the action develops. A build up phase, then a sustain phase, then a climax, followed by a rapid clean up phase.
13th age, for example, uses the escalation die to increase accuracy of attacks as the build up is happening. You don't want to Nova on the first rounds because you might miss, you save your good techniques for when they are more likely to land a hit.
One of the beauties of 4e is that the DM can control a lot of this from his side of the screen without really having to change much from the player side. A few tweaks can get you a long way, but there are some severe tweaks also if you can stomach them. As a DM I always prefer when the system teaches "how to fish" instead of "giving me a fish." In that way the DM that understands the underlying framework is better equipped to tweak to taste and improvise for unforeseen circumstances.
If you examine the things that can make combat boring you start to see a correlation between them, and can start to address the actual issues. I'll list some of them here for reference:
- When characters miss a lot with their attacks their "cool" things are ineffective - boring.
- When combatants are under "action denial effects" they "lose their turn to act" - boring.
- When the expectation is "something dangerous" but there is not a sense of danger - boring.
- When the result of an engagement is a foregone conclusion but it just keeps going - boring.
- When combat is supposed to be exciting but is used for the sole purpose of depleting resources - boring.
- Every single lever of interactive modification that takes additional time makes things drag - boring.
As you start to hone on those aspects that lengthen combat in boring ways you start to see that there are several controls that the DM can use to keep the pace going and keep combats within what I'll call the "golden mean". Which I'll define as a combat that always feels exciting, and ends exactly at the right time without the ending feeling forced.
Taking each of those issues and addressing them in a set of Generalized DM Guidelines gives you a much better chance of getting exciting combats by keeping an exciting pace. I have an extensive set of "rules changes" I have made to address some issues but the most significant changes have been in what I prepare for the game, and how I run combats.
Characters Miss a Lot/Do Too Little Damage
Pay attention to the guidelines in the DMG for encounter design.
Design your combats so that within your encounter budget the opposition are within Level-3 to Level+1. Any Unique Monster that would effectively be 4 levels below the character level is a Mook* of same Level.
Whenever possible don't use monsters with the Soldier Role, unless they are lower than PC level (e.g., Level 4 PC against Level 2 Soldier).
Whenever possible try to maintain action parity at 1:1 ratio. If there are 4 players use 4 monsters. If there are 3 players or less no encounter should have more than 4 total monsters.
Pay attention to numbers of swarms against character without blast, burst or area attacks.
Use the Weakened condition sparingly.
*Mook is a 2 hit minion. First hit takes it to bloodied, second hit eliminates it.
Combatants are under "Action Denial Effect"
Any combatant can choose to take damage equal to their Healing Surge Value during the Start of their own Turn Phase to remove the Dazed condition. Removing the Stun Condition in this manner changes it to Dazed.
Dangerous should be Dangerous
Upgrade all damage to MM3 damage or better.
Multiple Minions attacking the same character should put the fear of dying on PCs.
Use the environment to heighten the sense of danger. Make it actually dangerous. Include terrain, obstacles and hazards that can be used by anyone to make the encounter more exciting (e.g. Fiery Braziers, Pools of Acid, Toppled Bookshelves, Cave-Ins, etc.)
Ending Encounters - Encounter Length
Don't use Monsters more than 2 levels above PC level. If you MUST increase monster HP, decrease all their defenses by 2. In general, Monster Hit Points eventually outstrip the damage per round per PC.
Every encounter should have multiple ways of ending that do not require whittling down the opposition to 0 hit points. Think about several ways an encounter can end. See below for some examples and keep expanding the list.
- Opposition surrenders
- Opposition runs away. Following them leads to a Skill Challenge, not a square by square chase.
- Something in the environment forces a stop to the action (e.g. fissure in ground separates the 2 parties)
- The encounter objective has been achieved, no need to continue fighting (e.g. PCs press the "Shiny Red Button", The Ring of Power has been tossed over the side, etc.)
IMO, the worst ending to a combat is for the DM to say, "we'll just call this one." That is the exact opposite of exciting, and it's usually being used to end an encounter that has gone too long, but the players cannot lose. Get more creative than that.
Just say NO! Don't use them.
If you must absolutely do these filler encounters they should be with mooks, and minions or take your random encounter table and create setpiece combats with the same monster type using creatures with 1/2 of the normal hit points (e.g., normal goblin has X hit points, random encounter goblin has X/2 hit points)
Completely Stop Pixel Bitching.
Counting squares is a pain, recounting squares because you are one square short is worse. Recounting 4 times to see if you can avoid triggering an OA is just bad form. State where you want to go and DM assume that PC is taking care so as not to trigger an OA for movement. The simplicity of the grid is there, use it - K.I.S.S!
Does it matter if the bonus was +1 or +2? Nobody really gives a crap! If someone has already missed, then don't retroactively start counting to get a hit. You missed! Get over it and move on.
Roll attacks and damage dice together.
The combat fiddliness area is where I have done the most house ruling tweaks, which I'm not putting here because of length. It still feels distinctly like 4e because fiddly math is not what characterizes 4e. On the other hand tight math definitely keeps it a good 4e option. Most of my house rules are geared towards removing fiddly math options that add nothing to the game, while keeping the flavor options that add so much to the game.
The most significant "tweak" if you want to call it that is how I run combats. It helps to keep things moving. If as a DM you are not pushing forward each round of initiative and the game is going at a meandering pace you need to get on the ball and push. Players taking forever to make decisions is a time killer. Keep that pace where if they players are indecisive, the action moves on.
4e was designed so that when combat is joined everyone is supposed to have something meaningful to do. Entire classes of monsters don't negate class defining abilities, for example. Working as a team is more beneficial and important than going lone-wolf. Immediate actions add some serious level of fiddliness to some games. So you can consider changing immediate actions altogether, but that is something that should be evaluated carefully because immediate actions are part of the "keeping players engaged" ethos of the game.