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I’ve been running a Dungeons and Dragons fourth edition campaign for going on five years, and it feels like we’ve finally figured out how to fix the combat system. D&D 4e is intensely tactical, more so than any other edition, and I find the grid-focused combat quite fun, but it suffers from some severe problems. The biggest of these for us is that combats stretch on too long without enough excitement. Here’s how to solve that.
I’ll say up front that this isn’t for people who dislike 4e in general. If you don’t like the power system, where each class uses the same framework to pick their combat actions, you want more narrative combat, or you want more rules focusing on non-combat situations, this won’t help. Play fifth edition. It’s amazing and far more customizable if there are things you want to tweak. This post is for people who like 4e but want to improve it, or who have an ongoing 4e campaign that they don’t want to convert to fifth edition.
When you start playing 4e at low level, the combat is really cool. You’re learning your powers and your options, the tactical movement is interesting, and creatures feel very distinct from one another. However, after a few levels you start to notice that combats drag. By about halfway through an encounter, you’ve learned all of the creatures’ moves, you’ve used all your encounter powers, and you’ve found a good spot on the map to wale on the big enemies. The rest of the combat feels rote and dull: just a matter of managing resource rates. Once you’re used to your defensive and recovery options, there’s little feeling of risk. And when you take thoughtful players into account, a single combat can literally take over two hours.
There are three tricks that fix this issue. The first two are simple, but the third really makes a difference.
1. Make the combat dynamic.
This is straight from the original 4e Dungeon Master’s Guide. 4e combats work best when things are constantly changing. It’s not enough to have an interesting combat area, because players will naturally and wisely find the flattest, dullest area to fight on. Giving the characters a reason to move around helps with this. Hazards work better than advantages, here: players are much more likely to avoid taking damage than they are to go out of their way to get an advantage.
This is easier said than done, of course. It’s hard to come up with an excuse for falling rocks or shifting floors in every combat, especially when you’ve been running a campaign for years. It’s hard to keep being original, and it can easily feel contrived. Still, when you can, keep the combat moving. Sometimes it’s as simple as making monsters change tactics halfway through a fight.
2. Use later monsters, not too high level.
The 4e designers changed their monster design framework quite late in the lifespan of the game. The new rules adjust some numbers, which we’ll do further in step 3, but by the end the creatures also do more interesting and easy-to-manage things. Elite and Solo monsters especially have cool ways to avoid debilitating conditions, have ways to force player characters to move around or change their tactics, and tend to change over the course of a fight.
It would be nice if 4e made it easier to build monsters, but I find it way too much of a chore with how much encounter variety I want in my campaign. So the rule of thumb is to use monsters from the following, late-game books: Monster Manual 3, Monster Vault, Monster Vault: Threats to the Nentir Vale, Demonomicon, Dark Sun Creature Catalog, and Book of Vile Darkness.
Also: don’t use monsters more than a level above the party. They’re harder mostly because the player characters miss more often, and missing isn’t fun. If you want a “level 14 difficult encounter” for a level 11 party, use the level 14 XP budget but keep the monster levels at 10-12. Adding more monsters makes the encounter more difficult while maintaining the players’ feeling that their actions matter instead of missing every time.
3. Drastically change numbers
This is the big one. Various folks have suggested it on forums and such across the internet, with differing numbers, but here’s what works for us:
Divide monster hit points by 2. Multiply their damage by 1.5.
This means monsters go down in half the rounds, but deal a ton more damage. Just about every hit makes my players wince in a good way. This urgency pushes players to spend their encounter resources fast, makes them strategize about how to keep people standing, and encourages them to spend daily resources rather than saving them up “for a real fight.”
If you’re implementing this at low levels (i.e. below about 5), make sure to do some quick laugh-test math to make sure an enemy can’t one-shot-kill a PC with a lucky roll (unless that’s what you want). And make sure to talk with your players about it, especially if you’re implementing this in an ongoing chronicle.
If you make dynamic encounters using post-MM3 creatures, with half the HP and half-again the damage, you’ll end up with tenser, faster encounters even when the party is fighting brutes and solos that would normally take all night.
What’s your experience with making 4e combats work? Any suggestions for ways to make encounters dynamic without forcing it, especially in naturalistic settings?