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Speeding Up Combat In The 4th Edition

Written by Expy - Published on July 20, 2010

Dungeons and Dragons 4th edition saw dramatic changes, many of which simplified several aspects of the game. Combat is not one of them, however. One of the biggest differences players experience playing 4e is a greater concentration during combat encounters, which makes them take much longer than before, especially if the players are very ‘chill’ or just too damn slow. I’ve never been a fan of spending exaggerated time on a single encounter. There are some options you can give players as a DM that will speed things up so that the game doesn’t drone down into dice-throwing and waiting…

The skills and powers system introduced in the 4th edition limits many of the possibilities of what a character can do and makes it easier for a player to make a decision. The downside is the often involved effects of these skills and powers – especially at higher levels. The power cards are very useful and prevents players from always flipping through the rulebooks but an even better idea is to make a cheat sheet.

Write down the salient points of each power that you have at your disposal: action required, range, attack, defense and any special effects. Write down the attack bonus and damage with all the bonuses from feats and magic items included. For example, if your level 6 wizard with an Intelligence of 18 and the Raging Storm feat has the Thunder Wave at-will power your cheat sheet will look something like this:

Thunder Wave (standard)

Close blast 3

+8 vs. Ref

1d6+5 thunder and push 2 sq

All the necessary information is right there without you having to work out attack bonuses on the fly or to look up the details of powers.

Try to think about what you are going to do before your turn in the initiative comes up. Pay attention to what is happening on the battlefield so that when your turns come around you are ready to act. Think of it as a real battle. People don’t stand around aimlessly waiting for something to happen – they act.

If your DM is okay with it, roll your attack and damage rolls beforehand and right them down. Then, when your turn comes up you can just describe your actions and tell the DM what the effects are and the turn can move on to the next player.

As any Dungeons and Dragons player can tell you, math is a big part of any game. It is understandable that not everyone can add up tons of numbers in their heads at once. If you are like me and find math to be an annoyance best left to accountants then use a calculator to add up your damage and keep track of your health. This is especially useful at higher levels when bonuses require you to add up lots of high numbers with a handful of dice.

Combat in 4th Edition Dungeons and Dragons should be a fast and pitched affair with swords clashing, spells flaring and monsters roaring. With these simple tips you can keep it that way and keep combat streamlined.

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Written by Expy

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Expy is the mascot for DungeonMastering.com and the real mastermind behind Expy Games. He likes to hoard treasure, terrorize neighbors, burn down villages, and tell white dragon jokes..

No matter how fearful the legends claim dragons are, they always end up being defeated in 5 rounds by adventuring parties they encounter. That’s what dragons are – experience points for the heroes in your Dungeons & Dragon party. And this mascot is no different, hence the name Expy.

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17 Responses to “Speeding Up Combat In The 4th Edition”
  1. JR says:

    Lots of people ask about speeding up combat. The WotC boards have archived a Compilation of Combat Accelerators (tips to speed up combat) which is great. One thing I do at my table is keep a 60-second sand timer for everyone’s turn. If you beat the clock, you get a white +1 token good for tacking on to any die roll. They don’t stack but three of them cash in for a +2 token good for tacking onto any roll. Three of those cash in for a roll of 1d100 on the Table of Fun, a list of one-shot power cards that have cool effects that are approximately equal to +4 or +5. Things like “Immediate interrupt: Gain +5 to FORT until the end of your next turn” or “Free Action: Until the end of the encounter, you may shift one square as a minor action” and so forth.

    The players love it, and they really hustle to speed up their turns, which means more people get turns, which means More Fun for everyone.

  2. Ameron says:

    We’ve written a lot on speeding up combat. My feeling is that if you’ve got any tips, tricks or suggestions for making combat go faster, please share it with te rest of the gaming community. With that in mind, here are a few resources that might help. I think you’ll notice that some of our suggestions overlap with yours. Clearly we’ve all come to some of the same conclusiions and they’re working.

    Speeding Up Your Game

    More Tips for Speeding Up Your Game

    Speed Up Your Game: Know When to Call the Fight

    An Accidental Solution to the Slow Combat Problem

  3. Fozz says:

    Another useful tip is to have your powers sorted by minor, move, standard. Since that is all you can do your turn, it prevents scanning of all your abilities asking “what else can I do?”

    Also on that list you can have sections for immediate interrupts, things that happen when you CRIT, other situational type abilities.

    Another thing I have noticed in my games, having the initiate order visible helps players know when they are coming up next, so they can start planning ahead of time.

  4. greywulf says:

    We found the best way to speed up 4e combat, EVER!

    Our group just decided that a combat round lasts 3 seconds instead of the usual six.

    Now our combats take half the time!


  5. Ameron says:

    How we didn’t come up with this one before now is baffling. Clearly you’ve got your finger on the pulse of the gaming community.

  6. Noumenon says:

    I took your advice about precalculating things and sorting them according to major/move/minor/free actions. It’s two pages long and it’s what I play off of as much or more than my character sheet. Chroma’s Action List (fifth level wizard).

  7. Lastchapter says:

    Thanks for the tips! This has been bugging my D&D group for some time now.

    Take a look at this though: “If your DM is okay with it, roll your attack and damage rolls beforehand and right them down.”

    I think you meant ‘write’, right?

    And to JR up top there, you have a great idea there too!

  8. Verkan says:

    One thing I’ve carried over from running 3.x Living Greyhawk games…6 seconds.
    I explain before we begin that the round is 6 seconds, so you have 6 seconds to DECIDE what to do. You can take longer to describe your actions, but you only have 6 seconds to decide. if you take too long, you delay. You may not get to do the optimum action, but it does force you do do something.

    I also require that attack and damage be rolled together.

  9. Firebeetle says:

    I’ve blogged quite a bit about this, with revisions. I’ve got another entry in shortly (I accidentally deleted it yesterday, grrr)



  10. Eldrad says:

    I dunno leaving out people if the don’t go fast enough is not a really good thing for the non-rule type gamer. It causes animosity and possible hurt feelings. I really love what they did with the 4th edition except for the HUGE amount of Hit Points and the sometimes overly complicated combat system (for some). Other than trying out some of the “Old School Renaissance” games out to beckon back to the old days when rules were simple but the death rate was really high I don’t know what to do. The new Essentials line is supposed to be more streamlined.

  11. Joe G Kushner says:

    I like Paizo in terms of their Game Master Guide. Have an initial chart that everyone can see and if they don’t have their action ready in five seconds, move onto the next character. The person whose turn is missed? When they decide what they are doing, that’s where they fall in the new initiative order.

    At the moment though, we’re using a 60 second timer and encouraging people to know what their actual powers do ahead of time. It’s like reading is hard or something…

  12. Galadare says:

    I had a similar idea to the OP’s cheatsheet. The principle difference is that I have more experience from the DM’s side of the screen so mine ended up looking like a monster stat block i.e:

    Thunder Wave (standard, at-will) • Thunder
    Close blast 3; all enemies in blast; +8 vs. Ref; 1d6+5 thunder and target pushed 2 squares.

    It’s fundamentally the same, but a lot less space on the page.

  13. Enon says:

    It isn’t free, but the official character generator already does most of this.

  14. Fr. Scadric Spudshot says:

    It seems so simple…the hit points for creatures are are too @#!%** high! It takes forever to complete an interesting encounter. Does anyone have links to modifications that change this aspect??


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