February 11, 2011

It's All in the Timing

Recently the wise Ken Hart raised the subject of slow combat in 4th Edition. Certainly this is not a new subject to you, gentle reader. I’ve seen numerous posts and solution posts addressing this so-called flaw in the 4e rules. I’ve seen other posts stating that the slow combat isn’t a flaw at all.
Here are my 2 copper pieces on the matter, taken in part from a recent e-mail I sent to Ken and other worthies.
I've read enough posts about the slow combat in 4e that I do consider it a flaw (especially as they promised at 4e's release that combat would be faster than 3e combat, which is blatantly untrue). Some contend—and it’s good argument—that the plethora of combat options 4e offers all participants more than makes up for the extra time, the basic idea being “If it’s interesting combat, who cares if it’s long?”
Recent blog posts by Mike Ferguson and myself examined some differences between 1e and 4e, in particular the boring combat of 1e versus the more tactical combat of 4e. I don’t discount this. The swing-repeat cycle of combat for fighters in 1st and 2nd Editions could get boring. But I think there is also the consideration of what the players accomplish, how far the plot moves along, and so forth. Dice rolling is all well and good, but D&D is a roleplaying game, and if a single combat dominates your session you’re getting too much roll and precious little of the role. The price of interesting combat should not be at the expense of the rest of the game, or at the expense of what have become precious hours of playing time for many older players.
For me, combat is a big deal—an essential part of the game—but it's not everything. 4e can taken a lot of (justified IMHO) heat about being overly combat-minded, and I think it's important to remember that those final combats can mean a lot more if the players have previously interacted with NPCs, made friends, exposed spies or turncoats, solved puzzles, explored new environments, etc. A 3-hour play session that is dominated by a single, routine combat doesn't allow for such things. It squeezes them out. And that hurts the play experience.
As an old grognard, I used to love the DM-challenge implicit in wandering monster encounters. Now you rarely hear about wandering monsters. Why? Because in 4e no one wants to lose an hour of play time to a random, non-essential combat encounter.
So why is 4e combat so long?
A part, say 25%, of the problem comes from player options—players deciding tactics and interactions and such when in the 2e days, as Mike mentioned at Emerald Lich, you just kept swinging away. Likewise, the DM has more critter combat options (though often less than 3e, particularly with regard to enemies with spellcasting ability).
In the case of our group, all roleplaying veterans, there is rarely any lag time. Every player generally know what they play to do when their turn comes, so I think much of the problem lies elsewhere.
I feel that the main culprit is enemy hit points. In my 1e adventure Training Ground (published in Dungeon back in the day) the big bad guy had 34 HP. A goblin underboss in 4e has 110 HP! A goblin! It do think it’s cool that players can be surprised at the toughness of a mere goblin (as my players were recently), but with that number of HP there's no way most combats won't grind on and on.
The flaw is thus: The 4e bad guys have a ton of HPs. Why? Because certain Daily powers or power/feat/racial combinations or a lucky critical can dish out enormous damage. Giving a boss 34 HP when a player’s 4th-level barbarian might dish out 30+ HP in one strike doesn't seem balanced.
The problem, IMHO, is that 90% of the time you guys dish out 1-12 HP of damage—so the bad guys are stacked very high to balance a rare event. In most combats, any decent non-minion takes 8+ hits to down, which is makes for long combats, especially given that 4e encourages combats with multiple (and mixed) opponents. (Most of pre-4e adventures feature single opponents in many encounters, something that rarely happens in 4e.)
Assuming that your 4e PCs do an average of 8 HP damage per strike, that goblin underboss still takes 15 hits to down—and that doesn't factor in your misses or other opponents...
So what to do? Let’s slice down those hit points a bit. Minions aren’t a problem, but most other monsters can be reduced, depending on their role. Secondary creatures, those beneath the big bad, can definitely be reduced.
Let’s take a sample 4th-level encounter (balanced for 6 player characters):
Level 4 Encounter (XP 1,050)
1 goblin underboss (level 4 elite controller leader) - 350 XP (110 HP)
1 dire wolf (level 5 skirmisher) – 200 XP (67 HP)
1 goblin skullcleaver (level 3 soldier) - 150 XP (53 HP)
2 goblin warriors (level 1 skirmisher) - 100 XP (29 HP)
6 goblin cutters (level 1 minion) – 25 XP (1 HP)
We’ll leave the minions alone. The big boss and secondaries (his dire wolf steed and skullcleaver bodyguard) will have their HPs trimmed by approximately 25%. The warriors, being mere flunkies, will have their HPs reduced by a third.
Big bad, secondaries = HP x 75%
Flunkies = HP x 66%
Minions = No change
So here are our revised numbers:
Level 4 Encounter, revised (XP 1,050)
1 goblin underboss (level 4 elite controller) - 350 XP (85 HP)
1 dire wolf (level 5 skirmisher) – 200 XP (50 HP)
1 goblin skullcleaver (level 3 soldier) - 150 XP (40 HP)
2 goblin warriors (level 1 skirmisher) - 100 XP (20 HP)
6 goblin cutters (level 1 minion) – 25 XP (1 HP)
If time allows, I'll run two sample combats using the same PCs against the standard and revised groups above and report the results in a future post.
Of course, this is only a start. Hit points aren't the entire problem. Dropping enemy hit points without a corresponding drop in PC hit points also has the potential to make life a lot easier for the PCs, but I'm not sure to what degree.
I'd advise against lowering PC hit points, but instead consider limiting Daily powers (to once per 24 period, regardless of resting*). Another option, possibly to be combined with the Daily limitation, is a slight decrease in XP awarded for "downgraded" monsters. Such downgraded critters can still dish it out, so I wouldn't recommend more than a 10–20% XP reduction.
*A rest would still be required between each Daily use, but the "new" Daily wouldn't become available until after midnight. So if the PCs got into a fight 10 minutes before midnight, there wouldn't be an automatic second helping of Dailies after the strike of midnight.
What are your thoughts about speeding up combat? Special skirmish rules for non-climatic combats? Changing some combats into skill challenges? Using number tweaks as suggested above? Something else? Or perhaps leaving well enough alone?
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