Saturday, December 25, 2010

Fast-Forwarding Combat Part 1 – Overwhelming Victory for D&D 4e

I think a lot of people notice that D&D 4e can drag a bit. I have especially noticed this in the few games that I have hosted this year. The Guys at RPG Circus brought up in one of their podcasts the idea of limiting the number of meaningless fights that you go through in an adventure and really skipping toward the last boss type of big encounter that you get near the end, but then again, there are still a lot of people that fall in that middle ground; these are the people that really like having lots of monsters populating their dungeon. They want to have a bunch of progressively more difficult combats which lead up to the big final boss encounter.

I guess that I fall somewhere in the middle of these two courts. I really feel a drag sometimes when I am throwing encounters filled with flunkies at the party; these combats take time, but the victory is almost always decided in the parties favor and very few casualties, much less damage, ever gets suffered.

If you look at games like WoW, even their developers realize that nobody wants to spend hours fighting the trash mobs in instances. They have started to shrink the size of the dungeon, limiting the trash mobs, and then break those dungeons down to 3 or 4 big combats before the final boss.

I really prefer this model. So, I have been trying to think up some house rules which I can use to essentially fast forward through the meaningless battles, that are essentially just filler before the party finally gets to fight the BBEG. This series will talk about a few of those house rules and how I plan to use them. Today I present the first of these rules: Overwhelming Victory

Overwhelming Victory
If you think about the typical organization of an organizations lair, or a dungeon populated with Gnolls/Kobolds/Orcs etc. you would usually expect there to be a lot of bad guys filling up a rather modest sized dungeon. But, playing out all of the combats with the rank and file can be monotonous. Now, you could simply say that the players mow through all of the enemies unscathed, but I really think that doing something like that takes a bit of fun out of the game. And, when you realistically think about it, even the mightiest of Players might take a lucky shot to the skull by a Goblin wielding a Big Hammer.

One way to keep these enemies in the dungeon, but speed through combats with them, and essentially skip their encounters, is to use a house rule which guarantees victory for the players, but has them rolling dice to see how much of their precious resources they expend. I think D&D 4e actually does a really great service by giving us Healing Surges, which can be used to gauge roughly how many times the players get hit in combat.

Basically, what I have decided to do in the future is that when the player’s are fighting an encounter which is below their average character level, I will have each of them roll a Saving Throw. For every level that the (not being played) encounter’s level is below the players, they get a bonus to their Saving Throw roll. If they make their Saving Throw, they make it through the combat unscathed. If they fail the roll, the group loses one collective healing surge. So, if you had 5 players and 2 of them failed their saving throws, 2 people from the group would lose a saving throw. The Default for this rule is that the person who failed the saving throw would lose his or her healing surge, but, if the group has a tank who want to lose that Surge for the team, he or she can lose his surge in exchange.

I look forward to giving this house rule a test drive. I will be interested in tweaking the bonuses to the Saving Throw, or the number of Saving Throws you force the players to make.


  1. Doesn't this just turn your game into a session where you narrate/talk about what the characters see/do and then the players roll a d20 and potentially reduce their resources. Repeat as desired. Eventually, you get to the big bad and you have one battle where the PCs may or may not have reduced resources. I guess it depends upon what you want to get out of your game play.

  2. I've heard about people successfully turning combat into a skill challenge; I've been meaning to try something like that myself sometime. The way Skill Challenges are presented, failing one still moves the plot forward (just not necessarily as well) so a failed skill/combat challenge might cost you a healing surge or two, collectively, but would still let you move on toward the BBEG. Emphasize creativity and narrative description of skills, attacks, and powers being used over attack and damage rolls.

    Something to think about.

  3. Reducing the number of combats IMO is good. Also, giving the combat a story reason other than "in Room 5 there are 6 Bugbear Ravagers and 1 Owlbear Mauler". There should be a reason for the fight.

    Something else that's helpful is to remember almost no monster (excluding mindless types) should be willing to fight to the death. Most creatures should try to flee or surrender if they are taking a whooping. The key to this is making sure the players understand that they get xp for monsters that flee or surrender, and don't have "trash mobs" carry loot.

  4. I guess I do not get where this is heading. In 4e especially easy fights have become less of a thread to the characters because 4e characters in general are less likely to die. And now the easy non-threatening combats get replaced by a saving throw? Mechanically the idea is good, but what's the message? Will the final stage be maybe to have one character of the group lose a surge per "prologue fight", then fight the boss, grab the treasure and the princess and head home? Or the "one roll dungeon" adding two paragraphs of story to read and that's it?

    I know those small skirmishes with the lower levels are not that much of fun all by themselves. I personally have a huge problem with fights within skill challenges because they often take days (at least in my Dark Sun game). But travelling without fighting is not Dark Sun. But in this one fight the PCs can totally nova and blow all of their powers. Doesn't work at all and you can't fill random wilderness encounters with much story (at least it'S difficult). But just reducing the fights to single rolls can't be the answer.

  5. To be honest, I'm not a huge fan of later editions of D&D because of just this sort of thing. Instead of making the system simple and easy to use, so that combat can be done efficiently and in a fun way, the each new edition adds complexity and forces a lot of niddling rules. In the latest release the designers appear to be trying to appeal to Gamists who are currently running around in WoW, not playing D&D. They figure that you can't compete against MMORPGs with table top RPGs because everyone will naturally play the former not the latter and over time table top RPGs will go the way of the Dodo bird if they don't compete. So they made D&D more like WoW to compete and try steal their players with the idea that D&D is now more like WoW in design. Players don't like to die? Fine! No Problem, we make it almost impossible to die in 4e. Etc.

    This, in my opinion, was a pretty bone headed decision because table top RPGing is inherently different than computer RPGing. There's overlap, sure, but the overlap is not where they seem to think it is. So we wind up with yet another edition of D&D that's off the mark. Table top RPGing is a fantastic idea, and really fun, when done with a system that makes it easy instead of hard. I tend to go with light-weight or medium-weight homebrew systems that we designed to keep combat and the mechanics from bogging down the story and the fun of the game. 4e seems to me to do anything but that, and so the result is, as you say, ... what?

  6. Here's what I think the real issue is- even though very few people seem to get this: "Everyone knows" that D&D4 combats are set up so that they are tough, tactically complex battles. So that's how all battles are set up. Every battle- in effect- becomes the boss battle. *But they don't actually have to work like that*. Using fewer monsters at a half-sized encounter budget (use the correct level monsters or slightly higher than average PC level, though) provides an encounter that will last only about 10-15 minutes or so.This only works if you use the possibility of many encounters (try to prepare ten different groupings just at first and see how many get used). The first 4 or 5 encounters will have the characters bouncing back for more after some scuff damage (what we used to call bleeder encounters in D&D3), but soon you run out of the ability to heal when surges deplete. ONE boss battle is usually enough for a D&D game, but it doesn't hurt to toss in 3 or 4 (or 8) small battles.

    "Everybody knows" this isn't the way it is supposed to work. But try it. Making easier/smaller encounters is often disregarded as "not challenging" but remember- 1) as a DM, you are setting up the long game. and 2) You still get to do the boss battle.

    It's all about dynamics.

  7. VBWyrde, I'm familiar with the term "gamist" and you are misusing it. In fact, you seem to be imagining a lot of things about "what the designers intended" for D&D 4e. Wouldn't it be better to stick to topics you kinda have some systemic knowledge of? I'm not saying you shouldn't have an opinion but based on the recycled MMORPG rant stuff.. you clearly don't understand what the issue is here (encounter balance/length/complexity) or how to address it constructively. Hope that doesn't come off too harsh. Happy Holidays!

  8. WoW! That was a slew of comments. The reason I like this rule is because there are some times when you want your players to go into a castle FULL of bad guys. Realistically, the orc king is going to have hundreds of orcs with him, but some of them might just be little guys with very little power at all, but the Orc king himself might be a BBEG of Paragon level. If you consider that a Paragon boss might keep a hundred or even 2 hundred level 1 minion followers around his citadel, why in the world, and how in the world, are you going to do combat with creatures of that level. It will just take too long. But! The problem with 4e is that everything gets balanced out by healing surges. If you think about it, every character must make sure not to use too many of them at once, in order to do as many combats as they can before resting. This system, is simply to simulate the players maybe taking a single hit or two off of a low level minion as they stomp through a castle full of baddies, which I think is better than simply saying that, yea, you kill all of the little guys and make it out without a scratch and without breaking a sweat, because, realistically, that is BS!

  9. @pseckler13 - Thanks! That is exactly the term I was looking for. Bleeder encounters. We used to do stuff like that back in 3e and it worked great. You could actually simulate figthing your way through a massive stronghold. First, you have a bunch of really just bleeder combats where the PC's maybe roll an attack to kill 15 enemies of much lower level than they are, then you have a couple fights a little below their level, then a couple challenging fights, and then finally a VERY challenging boss fight. If you look at it that way, a battle through a massive stronghold takes about 2 sessions. The first to get through the bleeders and the easy encounters, then the second to do an encounter before the boss and then the boss himself. This whole conversation is about encounter length, variety, and quantity. I don't want to play a dungeon that has 15 encounters before the boss, but realistically speaking, a lot of BBEG's should have a veritable army surrounding them. Overwhelming Victory is basically my solution to shredding through the grunts.

  10. @pseckler31 - Sure, granted, I'm not familiar with your use of terminology such as Gamist. My understanding, narrow as it may be, is that the term connotes a player preference for complex rules that pertain to the game mechanics. That's how I intend the term in my statement at any rate. Wouldn't it be more constructive, if you care to help me, to say what it is about my comments specifically you object to, instead of saying "you don't get it" and leaving it at that? Granted, I believe you when you say I don't get it. But why not be a little more illuminating so that maybe I might get it with some help? I don't think that my general point was all that bad, though it went beyond the question of what is the mechanical solution to the question at hand. I understand you may want to discuss that, but this is the internet and when I read the post, I wanted to make what I consider to be a valid broader point. I hope that's ok here. Maybe not. If not, ok, so be it. I'll wander off. No problem. Thanks, and happy holidays to you too.

  11. I think I will need to make a very large discussion post about this whole subject once I get back home. Sorry, until then, please feel free to use this area to discuss. I appreciate all the discussion here.