D&D 4e Combat Tips

This post was spawned by my comments to Yax’s 4e D&D Learning Curve post at Dungeon Mastering.  He makes some good general points, except that I disagree with his analysis that 4e characters are complex.  I don’t think they are any more complex than any other game with any amount of crunch.  However, they do retain close to the same comlexity throughout play, instead of increasing.  Of course, complexity is a pretty subjective category.

I digress, complexity isn’t the core topic of this article.  Speeding up combat is.  I’ve been told that one of the major “selling” points for 4e was how combat is more streamlined, yet after 40 hours in 9 games with the RPGA at GenCon, I know that combat can become just as mired and slow as in the previous edition.  My observation is that the combat sequence can become a crawl because of all the effects, marks, and saves.

I have created the following three tips to help speed up combat encounters.  While these tips have been tailored specifically for 4e, they could be easily adapted to other systems with similar mechanics.

1. Information cards.  Having to flip through the very poorly indexed 4e Player’s Handbook is a pain in the ass.  These things keep DMs and players from having to ask, “What is your Reflex?” or “Your bloodied, but how many hit points do you have?”
♦ Initiative Cards – Put every character and monster (or group of monsters) on a card, put the cards in initiative order, shuffle through order.
♦ Power cards – Put each power a character has on a card.  If it is an encounter or daily, turn it over.  This works with action points too.  Ander00 from EnWorld put these wonderful cards up.
♦ Character Nameplate – A folded nameplate for each character with Name, AC, Defenses, Passive Insight & Perception scores, Hit Points, and Initiative modifiers.  Place these on the table so they can be seen by everyone.
♦ Action cards – Create a table resource of actions cards that describe the actions available from the Combat Chapter of the PH.
♦ Effects cards – Put the mechanics of effects on cards as a table resource, so you don’t have to dig to find out what “stunned” or “dazed” means.

2. Effects tokens.  Makes tracking effects, marks, quarries and other statuses easier.  This alleviates a lot of the “Is this guy bloodied?”, “Wait, I forgot to roll my save!”, and “Well I didn’t realize the other fighter had this dude marked.” show stopping comments.
♦ Magnetic Markers by Alea Tools – These things are very visible, but can sometimes attract or push other marked minis.  Also, minis will look like they are “flying” if you accrue a lot of them.
♦ Pipe cleaners – Preformed colored pipe cleaners can be looped around minis
♦ Poker chips – Performs the same function as the magnetic markers, but it is tricky find a correct size

3. Initiative.  In addition to the init cards mentioned above, you can have the players pre-roll 6-10 initiatives and write them on the init cards.  Then roll a d6 or d10 to see which one they start with.  Also, make sure the players know where they are in the initiative order and put a 30 second to 1 minute time limit on their turn.  If they use up their time, have their character default to a melee or ranged attack on the nearest enemy.  This forces the players to think about what they are going to do while everyone else is taking their turn.  It also clears up the problem of waiting on players who have small bladders and nicotine addictions.

Listening to: Deadstar Assembly – Unsaved – Serial

8 thoughts on “D&D 4e Combat Tips

  1. At my table – the following “helps things go faster” rules apply to the players (not the DM):

    1) no rulebooks allowed. If its not on your character sheet and you don’t know what it does, how it works, or where you put it – then it’s up to the DM and the DM’s spot-ruling holds. Period. Write down what you missed, and look it up later.

    2) 15 seconds to decide what to do on your turn. The 15s rule is golden. Your turn may TAKE longer (rolling dice, resolving effects, etc) but if you dont start taking actions after 15s, then I usually say “OK… Milli the Mage stands there in shock at all the blood everywhere; bewildered by the scene – she looses her turn. Moving on, Sir JamminFast, you’re up next.” Since we keep the initiative order on a magnet board for everyone to see there should be no reason for someone to not know what they are doing on their turn when it comes up. This is a major time saver, and … people “feel” the frantic pace of combat at times – making mistakes in judgement, and dealing with the consequences. Fun times…
    3) All power on stat cards (like you suggested). When you use a daily or encounter power, you give it to the DM.

    I LOVE the idea of NAME cards. I think I’m going to have to put this into effect. Nothing like asking a player what there [SKILL] level is when you want have a creep sneek past them, stab them, surprise them, etc.

  2. @ Jonathan While I never made the jump to disallowing rulebooks, I think its a grand idea, and I am also all for shaving time off turns.

    @ Chuck Thanks for the link to additional resources! I dig the picture of the “You are Dominated” condition card.

  3. Hilarious. Jonathan linked here in his weekly around the blogs post today. I dutifully came ’round and read this. I thought “hmm, I should really tell him about the condition cards at dragon avenue and how we’ve used pipe cleaners.”

    Then I read comment #2… from me.

    I at least have something to add at this point. We started using pipe cleaners and a few months back I posted about it with a picture: http://neartpk.blogspot.com/2008/10/tracking-ongoing-effects-on-cheap.html

    Chuck’s last blog post..Weekly What the Heck

  4. Tried out a very similar init card idea in my last session that sped things up. Instead of using it like a deck of cards to shuffle through, I hung them on the top of my DM screen and wrote on the back the character’s defenses, and notes on HP/conditions/marks/etc. I’m going to try putting the same thing on Monster cards in the next game and actually expose the creature’s defenses to the players on the opposite side of the board. That way the players can easily tell me if they hit. Next step encouraging descriptive attacks rather than ‘an 18! I hit, thats 24 dmg’.

  5. @Chuck: Hehe, well welcome back! Glad to see the pipe cleaners in action!

    @Chris: What would be slick is to create some sort of laminated character cards that can be hung on the screen with check boxes for bloodied, marked, etc., and then you can use wet or dry erase markers on them. While I’m not one for revealing monster stats, I could see where it might speed things up, but then it might make it more difficult to add descriptive damage later.

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