When I started DMing 4E, it took me a little time to work out thinking up combat encounters. Some worked out well, while others dragged on, or others just weren’t that exciting. Technically, I could sit there and get an encounter together with the proper XP budget. However at times things were a little off.
I typically planned out too many fights, and would fail to realize that while some combats looked brief on paper, might drag out in real play. Other times, I’d forget the context of an encounter in relation with others designing a dungeon. While I would think the fight might be challenging, the PCs managed to bypass certain encounters and traps, having a lot more in-game resources to throw at that baddie for the final epic fight. In turn, the players sometimes just rolled over the opposition for something I thought might be a climatic battle (no harm as I think once in a while it’s great when PCs totally kickass in a fight).
It dawned on me that I was still planning out combats like I used to when I was DMing AD&D. Players would hack through a fight in 15-30 minutes, do a little exploration, and roll into another battle. Fights were in general vicious bouts of die-rolling that ended in a brutal, quick fashion. I tended to think about adventures as the PCs hitting group A (logically placed as initial ‘guards’), then on to group B (that would be lounging away in some kind of ‘barracks’), followed by group C (more guards for some important area), etc.
I initially failed to realize that small change in 4E game philosophy. I would sit down and plan something like, ‘Okay, the players tear through this group of gang dockworkers. They beat them all, then find a clue through interrogation (or some other means) about the underworld chief that is running the docks.’ In previous editions this could be a very throwaway fight. But if I sat down and made a level appropriate encounter for 4E, it could potentially mushroom into a larger event around the game table.
What clicked in my head was that 4E fights worked well when they were these grand, cinematic, action-packed scenes. Duking it out on open ground just made for a boring fight. The monsters were made for trading blows with the PCs. If I wanted a quick, knock-down brawl, I had to be ready for a combat to take more time.
So I had to readjust how I planned out my fights. I found I should have less fights in 4E and concentrate more on making them engaging and exciting. I could still have that simple fight, but I needed to think of other ways to run it aside from planning out a typical encounter as per the DMG. So some quick points I’ve used are:
Make fights memorable – If the group is going to fight, make it important and interesting. Consider using hazardous terrain, split levels, and think about the opposition you place down. Heading off against 5 soldier types of the same monster will make for an uninteresting fight. Try to mix it up with some minions and another role (just try not to go overboard and be sure to run a mix you are comfortable DMing with).
Consider the fluff also. Having players fight along the edge of a huge chasm can be a lot more evocative than having them duke it out in another nameless dungeon room. List off some trappings in the area and be ready to roll with it if a player wants to utilize something for combat. If you are describing a dingy barracks with piles of fur and refuse scattered around a large cauldron with some foul stew simmering in it, be ready for that one player wanting to knock over the cauldron towards some baddies. Allow that wizard to maybe get one additional square of area covered if they put up a wall of fire near the piles of furs on the floor. In short, provide some details and let the PCs play with them if needed.
I think another key point is to help create movement in your battles. You really need to encourage players to move around. Either through traps and hazards, or forcing the players to move up and engage certain targets. Oddly, while sticking together in a group within a hallway might be an excellent way to deal with a melee combat might make for an excellent tactic in a real world situation, it makes for a very boring fight in 4E. D&D is a game of heroic fantasy, push the players to move around and have a dynamic fight.
40 minute fight time – If the fight is not a critical story element (such as a final epic battle against the main villain), make 40 minutes your goal time for the encounter. At the the half hour mark, I start wrapping up the combat. Either I make the monsters flee, surrender, or secretly crit (or double) all PC damage. A great indicator for you as a DM is to look at the powers your players are using. If most have used their encounter powers and are continually using at will attacks, likely it is time to wrap up the combat.
If your players are familiar with their powers and roles, typically I find that 40 minutes becomes the make or break time for keeping their interest. By that time, they have pretty much done all the cool things they can do, maneuvered around a bit, gotten the tactics of the fight. Usually at the tail end of a combat, things are pretty much on autopilot as much of the encounter powers and daily powers have been used. If they get into a rut of doing the same actions repeatedly, it is time to move on.
Consider abstract combats – If it is appropriate storywise that the players fight a series of engagements, I’d consider using some other way narrating combats. One thing I’ve liked is having monsters make a basic attack against all the players, taking a healing surge if they hit. If I want to make this more engaging, I have the players all make an attack of their choice to set the bonus and targeted defense (at will, encounter, or daily). If less than half the players hit, the monsters get 2 rounds to roll attacks, otherwise they only get one.
The result is that the players get a healing surge knocked off (or possibly two). I can narrate their progress, and get through a few ‘battles’ if needed. Sometimes this makes sense, like the PCs storming a guarded tower. They likely have a few groups of guards to go through. I might play out the first fight making it very easy (just so they have some experience fighting the typical monsters in the place), and narrate any other remaining fights. I save that last big battle for the main bad guy at the end where you want to pull out the map and have a huge combat.
Use, and retool, the minion – Use minions, use them a lot, and don’t shy off using them exclusively for quick battles. If you really want them to give a little lasting power, consider giving them a death save (an idea stolen from someone else). If a player hits, roll a D20 with a 10 or more meaning the creature is still on his feet. If the same minion passes 2-3 saves, consider just dropping it on the next hit. Some folks use 2 hit minions also. Just don’t be afraid to place down minions for a quick fight and be willing to tweak them a bit if you want a more engaging combat. They do a great job allowing the players to quickly run through a fight, and still keep the story rolling.
Out of the box, 4E combat is designed to be engaging and exciting. It’s made to be part of the story, allowing a sweeping battle to be played out with the players making critical decisions on their actions each turn. When you don’t approach fights that way, you end up with a boring melee. Either it turns into a slugfest, with players moving around in a simple area, or it tends to drag on with misses and high monster HP totals. While a simple random encounter in older editions might make for a fun quick battle, it can become a boring, slog of a fight in 4E (especially if not having any interesting terrain).
I think it is interesting that 4E combats by the rules aren’t that dynamic in their implementation. A DM really has to approach them as important events. Conversely, in older editions I think you could make fights either these epic combats or a simple ‘monster crashes out of the underbrush’ type of encounter. 4E just doesn’t seem that flexible, I think you have to tweak the encounter design process to make things more applicable to different game situations. I’d be curious if others found this idea similar in their game, and how they found ways to incorporate simpler fights around the game table.