Combat speed has come up over and over again as an issue in 4E D&D games. The fact that it is still being addressed after 3 years means the solution hasn’t been found yet.
And the Quirky DM has got ideas on changing this. Oh, do I have ideas. And they’re at least half as good as the ideas that other people have come up with. Maybe even 2/3 as good!
Lack of Motivation
There is absolutely no incentive for players to want to play fast. Combat in 4E D&D is a tactical game often requiring thought and a plan. At the very least, it means making sure you didn’t forget to do anything on your turn that would help you win. A player approaches his turn and has two options:
- Play slow and remember to spend an action point, shift into a flanking position, choose the right encounter power, and use a minor action to activate a magic item. He might not get through more than one encounter tonight, but he’ll make sure he lives through that encounter!
- Rush through his turn and forget a few of those points. The purple worm lives a few extra rounds. While the character is dazed, the purple worm swallows him whole and the character development done over the last 8 months is erased in a matter of a few dice rolls.
A player weighs these two alternatives in his mind, and he goes for option 1. What possible reason would he ever go for option 2 except out of utter boredom and a desire to end the 8 hour fight against the innkeeper and his stable boy.
In general, most games and sports faced with this issue use dueling clocks- each team has a set limit of time to perform their turn/actions and if they run out of time, they lose. Curling and chess are two examples of this kind of format.
I have no desire to bring a chess clock to my D&D games. And I’m the DM; I’m not going to race my players to see who can roll their dice the fastest. The point of the clock shouldn’t be to punish players for slow play, it should be to encourage fast play. Combat is fast paced and hectic. Any change to the pace of the game should encourage those elements.
Excitement is Better than Boring
The common response on getting players to go faster is to penalize them with slow play. “You have 30 seconds to finish your turn. Go!” Or “You’re not ready? Fine, you lose your turn. Who’s up next?”
In this case, the game is not being enhanced. The player is being given an ultimatum “Play fast because I say so or sit there and be bored.” It breaks down for a number of reasons:
- It’s no fun to be told you don’t get to do anything, or to be forced to do something you don’t want. Like anything in the D&D, the player should be given a choice on what to do and decide if the penalty is worth the risk they’re taking.
- The combat doesn’t go faster because of missed turns; the dice rolls and decisions have shifted to the next player in order, but nothing in the combat actually advanced to help bring combat to an end. Short of the monsters winning the combat, all we’ve done is shifted the attacks to later rounds and nothing has been sped up.
- Hobgoblins swinging their swords at your character while you dodge and leap about is fast and exciting. Being told that you missed your turn doesn’t make you feel like you’re in a suspenseful situation. It makes you feel like you’re walking in slow motion.
- It’s still the DM trying to force players to go faster, especially because the pressure feels arbitrary and they’re only dong it because they have to.
Instead, let’s see what we can do to bring excitement into the game as a method for encouraging players to take their turns faster. In response to those 4 points above, we want a method that:
- Gives players a choice if they play fast or not, with a potential penalty for slow play that they understand and accept.
- Does not slow down or stall the combat even when players go slow.
- Gives the players a sense of excitement due to the speed, not feeling undly put upon.
- Encourages the players to not only make themselves play faster, but push other players to do the same.
The Timed Event
With the timed event, you let the players know something in the combat is going to happen for every interval of real time that passes. Generally this will be bad for the players, though it can be used to the players’ advantage if they can manipulate it properly. The rules for the timed event are:
- Set a stopwatch to a standard interval, say 10 minutes. Whenever the stopwatch beeps, the event takes place. If you have access to more appropriate and evil sound effects, (ie. laptop) use that instead.
- The event happens immediately, regardless of what else is happening or whose turn it is.
- The timed event shall not cause an effect to prolong the combat. That means no healing monsters, no penalties to attack rolls, no knocking prone or causing stun and daze effects. Push, pull and slide should be used judiciously.
- The timed event should reflect an effect that is present in the game world. This gives the timed event mechanics a direct connection to the theme of the battle.
- Timed events affect all the players.
- If the DM is taking too long during his turn, the players should demand an extension on the timed event.
- Rule of cool- if the player is doing something really cool, (exceptional roleplaying, fun maneuver) the timed event should be delayed until after the cool activity is completed. Keep fun foremost in the game.
The timed event is an incentive for players, as a group, to quickly take their turns in combat. Whether they decide to act quickly or not is their choice; they can decide to suffer the timed event more often if it means making better decisions, or make faster decisions and attempt to avoid timed events.
As a group, players can work together to divide their time more efficiently. The controller may need more time to apply their effects, but the defender can scream through his turn to try and make up for it. A habitually slow player may be encouraged by his teammates to go faster because they don’t want to suffer the timed event. Or two players who are immediately after one another in the initiative order may switch places (using the delay action) because the player who goes first may need more time to make up their mind.
This Lair will Self Destruct in 10 Minutes …
As an example, let’s use a fairly typical example- the self destructing lair. An inverted tower hangs suspended over the mouth of an active volcano. The party sneaks past the guards and enters the chambers of the Firelord. As the Master Efreet is laid low by the heroes, his death triggers a massive eruption. The volcano is erupting and lava is engulfing the castle!
The characters must race back up the tower to safety. However, there is no time for stealth, and the various guards will be working to block the player’s progress. (mostly because they are unaware of their own doom)
Timed Event: Every 5 minutes, the lava will rise by 2.5 feet. (1/2 square) The lava is considered difficult terrain and inflicts 15 points of fire damage to anyone half submerged in lava. Anyone fully submerged in the lava takes 30 points of fire damage.
The obstacles: Various groups of guards are preventing the heroes escape. Some, like the orcs and goblins, will fight until they see the lava bursting up the stairs. Some won’t care, like the Azer mercenaries and the enslaved Beserker Ettin.
Not for All Combats. Or All Players
Using a timed event is not necessary for every battle. A timed event should only be used when the stakes need to be raised as the battle continues and an element of excitement needs to be added. Just like you don’t have the players fight solos and have boss fights in every combat, neither should you force a timed event into every combat either. With experience in the timed event, the players will start picking up good habits which they can carry to all their combats.
While timed events can bring a lot of thrill to your encounter, some players can’t handle the pressure it brings. If you have such players in your group, you either need to start with large intervals between your timed events, or not use them at all.
Here are some other timed events available for use. If you have more ideas, I’d love to hear about them!
- A gigantic demon has been summoned in the middle of the city and is wreaking havoc. The mayor offers you 8 000 gold to stop the beast, but he’ll subtract 500 gold for every building that is destroyed. Every 5 minutes, the demon dissolves the nearest building with his acidic breath weapon.
- You’ve tracked the evil wizard to his underground laboratory. As you’re preparing to attack, the wizard finishes his latest monstrosity- a hydra/ooze hybrid. Its new form is unstable and still evolving. It starts with 5 heads, but every 5 minutes, a new head emerges, giving the hydrooze an additional attack per round.
- The evil elemental prince Imix is making a last stand on the plane of fire. Every 10 minutes, he causes a huge explosion over the entire area for 40 fire damage.
- An infernal warlock is trying to control a living timestop spell left from the old war. Every 10 minutes, the timestop spell goes wild. If the characters have taken at least 2 full rounds of action in this time, they all get a free standard action to use. If not, then the warlock and his minions gain a free standard action instead.
- You interrupt the high priest of Orcus during his ritual sacrifice. Every 5 minutes, a blast of necrotic energy surges from the statue and consumes one of the 9 victims on the altar and transfers the energy to the priest, who gains a cumulative +1 to attack and +2 to damage. The party gains a bonus 500XP for every victim they save from this fate.