Wednesday, 2 November 2011

Rapid Fire - Cheat Sheet

Need a simple trick to speed up combat- try writing things down.

In 4th edition D&D, there are 6 types of actions: standard, move, minor, immediate, opportunity and free. As part of the design effort, powers and magic items were spread across all of these actions so that players had the option to use all of these actions. Soon, it wasn't enough that you could use all of these actions, for many it became that you needed to use all of these actions to create combinations of attacks.

Combinations aren't bad. They're amazingly fun. If you've ever played Dominion, you know the sweet joy of stringing together a combo of 20 cards and drawing through your entire deck to win the game in a blaze of glory. And most combos are devised before the character ever hits the table. As a player, you start piecing together your mad string of powers, calculating maximum and average damage from your amazing super nova round, culminating in a good ten minutes of maniacal laughter that has everyone else at the bus stop slowly edging away from you and fingering their cell phones.

When the laughter dies down and police decide you're not a threat to public safety, the process ends until you finally hit the table. Then no one's laughing. Because it takes you 10 minutes to remember all of the actions you need to take for your awesome combo:
"Oh, I forgot that I have a reroll daily item power, so that first attack I did 3 minutes ago actually was a hit, which means the monster was actually prone for the next 2 attacks I did, and he should have 10 more damage done, plus I need to roll extra sneak attack damage on him now because I have combat advanatage. Um, now I have to choose a minor action, so I'll use my acid breath attack, oh and I have some feat here about that, just a second, etc."

This is why you need a cheat sheet.

Power Options not Power Cards
Power cards are fun to have at the table, they have all your abilities laid out for you in nice format, and they're easy to track because you can just flip them over after they're used. The only thing they can't tell you is when to use them. The Monster Manuals started figuring this out. They not only started organizing powers by type, but they also added a section to show common strategies, combos to use, or situations to look out for and how the monster deals with it.

But us players, we're reeeeealy smart. We can remember all that stuff we need. Plus, if we don't remember, then we get to feel super smart again when we figure it out on the fly during the game. Keeping tables handy is a DM job. That's why they get DM screens, after all.

Originally, players didn't want to bring an extra piece of paper to store all their powers. First, it took up too much room on the table. It was hard to organize all your powers the way you wanted. Plus, players didn't want to have to keep drawing and erasing checkmarks whenever they used their daily and encounter powers.

So instead, we all brought power cards to the table that got sorted in 10 different piles. We have our Player's Handbook opened up and bookmarked in 3 different spots for the tricky rules we have trouble remembering. And a pencil and a good eraser for tracking hit points, healing surges and consumable magic items on our character sheet.

See how smart we players are?

Cheat Sheet
Instead, try this. Put all of your powers and magic item abilities on one side of a paper. They easily fit, trust me. Ok, you don't trust me. Then look here instead. If he can squeeze his entire character on one page, you can squeeze your powers on one page.

On the back side, copy your sticky rules that you keep running into: how combat challenge works, jump and balance DCs, arcane knowledge checks. Write down groups of powers that will help when you run into situations: get the hell out of Dodge, I got hit, teammate is dying, saving throws, start every combat with these, my two round super nova. If you can, leave some space. If you run into something during the game where you need to stop and figure it out or look up a rule, write it down there, or at least make a note here so you know to add it for next session.

As you gain new powers, your sheet will change: new combos, new rules, new situations. And other sections, especially the rules, will become so second nature that you'll be able to remove them.

Now that your cheat sheet is all prepped and ready, you might go through the next session without even glancing at it. The act of making the cheat sheet is likely to commit most, if not all, of that information to memory. When your turn rolls around, whether you use the sheet or not, you'll be rattling off half a dozen different actions and tallying up damage rolls so fast, everyone else will think, "See how smart that player is?"

No Take Backs
This is a common rule DMs use to speed up combat- no reversing in time because you didn't add in one of your bonuses, or you forgot to take a minor action on your turn or you missed your chance to take an opportunity attack. However, it often encourages players to take extra time on their turn to ensure they did everything correctly; they know they won't be able to fix it afterwards.

The cheat sheet will make sure that you don't have to worry about missing out on what you should be doing. And you'll be able to do it just as quickly. If everyone at the table has this kind of preparation, take backs will be a thing of the past.

Do you use a cheat sheet? What do you put on it? I'm starting to play in a Dragon Age game in a few weeks, so any advice on a Dragon Age cheat sheet is welcome!


  1. It's been a while since I've played D&d 4e (and it might be a while before I get to play it again), but I'm going to keep the cheat sheet in mind for when we start our new Interface Zero / Strands of FATE game tonight. I don't really know if I'll NEED a cheat sheet, but I'll keep it in mind just the same.

  2. Thanks for the comment, Anon. The nice thing about a cheat sheet is that you might not ever need it. You may write it up and then never look at it again, or have all the info memorized after writing it up. But if you do need it, then you'll be glad it's there, not only to speed up play, but to help remind you of cool things you can do that may get you out of a jam.

    Good luck in your game tonight.