03 Nov 2010

Ask Dr. Evil: Better late than never?

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Apologies to Mike who sent in a question only to not receive an answer for weeks! Bad Doctor. Let’s not waste any more time.

Dear Dr. Evil,

I very much like the idea of larger encounters and dungeon “sectors” but I also need the mechanics for a quick skirmish game – something no longer than 30 minutes. The battle shouldn’t push players too much but it should make them worry a little bit if they had to face a lot of them. Think of this like the 4 orcs in a room sort of thing.

My idea right now is to limit players to just at-wills to reduce their decisions and speed up combat against a group of monsters selected at level -2 or so. Do you think something like this would work? The main thing that takes up time at my table are players needing to make selections.

Thanks Dr. Evil!


Hi Mike!

Thanks for the question. Skirmish game, huh? Okay. What are looking at here?

1) Fast. The combat encounter should run in 30 minutes or less.

2) Small Resource Expenditure. The encounter should not drain much from resources or test the PCs too greatly.

Now the ideas you out forward are interesting—at-will attacks only vs. encounter group of level – 2. I’m also intrigued by what you’re saying about how player decision takes too much time. What I see here is that the problem you want to overcome is to reduce the overall encounter length and two factors contribute to combat length: indecision and monster assortment.

Too often I think we designers overdesign to solve what is basically a simple problem. In this situation, you could create a variant ruleset to address the issue and what you’re suggesting might do the trick, but it also denies players the ability to use their most interesting and exciting resources. Furthermore, you get another complication from augmentable powers as well as from classes that don’t use the traditional power acquisition scheme (slayer, thief, and knight). Rather than impose a framework over the existing rules, I think it would be simpler to do the heavy lifting behind the screen by addressing the problems I mentioned above.

Monster Assortment

Creature composition is the easiest place to start. Many DM’s aim for a 1:1 PC vs. Monster ratio, where the PCs and monsters have the same level. This is fine, but it lends itself to the war band vs. war band problem I discussed a while back. You can easily speed up the encounter and retain the relative threat by populating the encounter with lower level creatures or fewer creatures of the PCs level. For a 2nd-level party, for example, the ideal encounter level is 2 and worth 625 XP. You can keep the encounter level the same and just slot in 1st-level monsters instead of 2nd-level monsters. PC attack accuracy climbs by 5% thus the monsters should fall a bit quicker.

Be cautious about using monsters whose level is 2 or more below the PCs. An n – 2, the monster hits about half the time or less. A monster who misses all the time is not a threat.

Another thing you should do is to use minions liberally and also use them smartly. When using minions, the key is to introduce them in waves or after specific triggers. Minions join the fight when a door is opened, bell rung, and trap sprung. Minions should also exploit cover and concealment so make sure the location includes them. Finally, the new minions deliver a bit more damage than did the old ones so they should be an actual threat and fall just as fast.

Monster hit points are also something you might adjust. After a conversation with my friend Chris Sims, I decided to try out his house rule, which effectively reduces hit point values by 20% for monsters. What I’ve found is that the combats run faster and the tension lasts longer than in a normal fight.


Creature assortment can help players make decisions more quickly. If they’re battling minions, then they might not waste their encounter or daily powers to clear out the room. Instead, scorching burst and thunderwave can do the trick. Also, when it’s apparent the monsters (of lower levels) fall more quickly, players should reserve their less-frequent powers for the bigger fights.

Then again, you can just light a fire under their collective ass. One of the more exciting combats we played recently was near the end of the game session. We had 30 minutes left before we were supposed to wrap it up. I didn’t want to leave the game with the last battle lingering so I told the players they each had 30 seconds to take their turn or they delayed. We used a timer and people immediately focused on what was going on each turn to prepare for their own turn. It worked well and it was pretty darned exciting.

There are all sorts of things you can do to encourage players to hurry the hell up. You might grant a +1 bonus to the attack roll if the player makes the attack before 30 seconds are up. Or you might add low-level minions if players take more than a minute to complete their turns. Experiment here. Give your players a carrot to make decisions in a speedy fashion. Once they learn to think quickly, you can gradually phase it out.

Hope this helps!

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4 Responses to “Ask Dr. Evil: Better late than never?”

  1. Perico says:

    A random idea for ultra-quick skirmishes: what about simultaneous turns? You could have all PCs act at once, and then all monsters. For sanity’s sake, players could first declare their actions (perhaps writing them down?) and then they would resolve as fast as possible, maybe rolling for everything first, and parsing the results one by one.

    There’s also the issue with interrupts and opportunity actions, which could bog everything down. A shortcut could be to avoid resolving them out of turn, but give characters a marker, so that when their next turn came, they could make an opportunity/interrupt attack followed by their standard attack. Movement-preventing reactions, like Combat Superiority, would need to be rewritten somehow, maybe just granting immobilization for the following turn.

  2. Maurice says:

    Try using a 30- or 60-second timer for each player. If the player fails to make a decision in the allotted time, he loses his turn.

    Brutal, but quick. Also, use a timer with a ticking action you can hear. The ticking action creates a lot of pressure on the players, and in a way mimics real combat in the sense that you’d better get your act in gear quick or they gonna git ya!

    The break in the action actually happens when the DM is having his turn(s) (the DM doesn’t have to use a timer!).

  3. Links Roundup: 8th November 2010 « Jonathan Drain’s D20 Source: Dungeons & Dragons Blog says:

    [...] Ask Dr. Evil: Better late than never?, via Robert J. Schwalb. Encounter building advice for D&D 4E. [...]

  4. Vinicius Zóio says:

    Fixed damage!

    Many may schew this solution, but it does speed up things!

    Have the PCs all deal maximum damage with every power/hit, whenever damage is rolled. Criticals deal an extra D10 damage, and you roll critical damage for weapons properties and magic itens as usual.

    The monsters will -sure- go down a lot faster if any attack is hitting for this much damage output. You may also fix monster damage in the average (not the maximum!).

    You’re not rolling damage (a procedure that takes time) and the PCs are packing a hell of a punch. Thing -will- end faster, but the system may become a little “swingy” – a couple of hits by the monster followed by a couple of misses by the PCs may put them in a pretty bad shape.

    Well, at least give it a try in a “test session”! It may solve the “speed” problems :).

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