You might have heard the following words said or written many times since June 2008, which is when 4th Edition Dungeons & Dragons was released: “Combat takes forever.” No doubt you have also heard many solutions to this.
In deciding what to do about the speed of 4E combat, it is important to know what everyone at the table is looking for out of the game. Each person’s perspective on the time it takes for combat will be influenced by how much he or she cares about different elements of the game. In its work on D&D Next, Wizards of the Coast has identified three pillars of D&D: exploration, roleplaying, and combat. Players who prefer to spend a lot of their game time in exploration or roleplaying will typically find 4E combats to be time-consuming because it isn’t what they want from the game, while players who are more interested in combat will find 4E combat long only in certain situations. It is important to understand what your group wants before trying to change the rules to shorten combat length.
Balancing the Pillars of D&D
The first place to start in examining combat length is in the design of your story. A 4E combat, without rules changes, should take 30 minutes to an hour. So if you have a 4-hour period in which your players can get together and if they don’t really care too much for combat, be sure to only have one combat per session. 4E has many ways for players to earn XP to advance their characters without a blow ever being struck, so combat isn’t necessary to advance either your story or your PCs’ stories. If the combat is important to the story, roleplaying-focused players might find that spending an hour on it will be less of a problem. If it’s just another random encounter with some orcs, then spending an hour on it is going to be a drag. Look at what purpose encounters have in your game. Do not get distracted by the traditional “dungeon crawl” mentality of many published adventures—4E is an excellent system for telling far more varied stories. Picking the right style of game for your group will help alleviate the “combat takes too long” problem.
The Third Step Is the Hardest
After finding out what your group wants from the game and designing sessions to accommodate that, the group should look at party synergy. Sometimes you just need to sit down and make sure the party’s members actually work well together. You don’t need to optimize to the nth degree, but ensuring your group understands what it needs from each character within it to be effective and figuring out how to work together to achieve those goals is important to getting through combats quickly. For example, warlords (and some cleric builds) can combine very well with strikers due to their ability to hand out extra attacks. Other leader builds are very effective at buffing their allies or debuffing the enemy. Coordinating actions to take advantage of these elements will speed up play. Looking at the strengths of your characters to do these things will help you end your battles faster.
Some people will argue that looking at the synergy of the game mechanics of the characters is “meta-gaming,” but consider this: You are in a hostile environment where creatures are trying to kill you and you are with four other people who have skills that can help. Wouldn’t you work with them and find out more about each other’s skills and so on? Finding out how your PCs synergize is just like doing that. Slow combats happen when the party doesn’t work well together.
If All Else Fails . . .
If you still find that combat is taking too long, there are a plethora of suggestions out there for how to speed combat up, and all of them involve introducing home brew elements into the game. Modifying the game system changes the core interactions of the game, and, as a result, you should do so with care and due consideration.