If you’ve played 4E D&D for any length of time, you know that the typical combat encounter can take quite a long time to resolve. It’s not uncommon for a fight to take an hour or more, in my experience. As PCs gain levels and move on to paragon and epic tier, the problem worsens.
Since the combat length issue is so well known, various suggestions have been made across the D&D blogosphere. Dave “The Game” Chalker uses “outs”, ways for combat to end early. Mike Shea proposed the skirmish, a 30 minute alternative to a full-on encounter. Both of these methods are excellent, and can be used to cut down on combat length considerably. Still, even a “short” 30 minute encounter is too long for certain situations.
Last week, The Id DM wrote about his experience playing old-school Basic D&D. His thoughts on the pacing of Basic D&D combat, as opposed to the length of 4E fights, intrigued me. Sometimes, you just want the players to quickly slice through a group of orcs. But there’s not really a way to do this in 4E. Can we easily adopt the faster pace of classic D&D fights to an encounter, while still remaining true to the core 4E ruleset?
First, we need to analyze what makes combat in 4E take so long. Here are what I consider to be the biggest culprits.
- Using battle maps, miniatures, and tokens
- Too many combat options to choose from
- Resolving turns one at a time
- Obscuring in-game information for dramatic effect
The issues with battle maps and miniatures need little explanation; deciding on the most advantageous position in battle is crucial, but takes lots of time. Some classes have dozens of options available to use, and choosing the best one in any given situation can lead to analysis paralysis. There’s a lot of down time when it isn’t your turn. And while not telling players the AC, hit points, or other stats of enemies might be more realistic and exciting, it also adds a lot of complexity.
What if we created an alternative to the standard combat encounter, where all of these pace-slowing factors were not present? Remove the battle map, and let the action unfold in the players’ imagination. Limit choices by allowing at-will abilities only. Let all the PCs’ (and monsters’) actions take place simultaneously. Use only minions to cut out damage rolls, and tell the players the defenses of their foes from the beginning. Would a combat set up in this way (let’s call it a brawl encounter) work?
I think it would. Here’s an example.
DM: “As you begin to camp for the night, you hear guttural voices in the brush around you. It appears your presence in the Harken Woods has not gone unnoticed. Recalling that you are in Daggerburg goblin territory, you draw your weapons, wary of attack. With a blood-curdling scream, a half dozen hobgoblins, spears drawn, rush at you. These hobgoblins are minions, with AC 17, Fort 15, Ref 13, Will 12. And this is a brawl encounter, so you can only use your at-will powers.”
The players select their attacks and roll to hit, all at the same time. While they do so, the DM rolls for the hobgoblin’s attacks.
Slayer: “I killed one with my axe.”
Thief: “I eviscerated one with my flaming dagger.”
Paladin: “I used Strike of Hope and missed!”
Mage: “No dice rolling for me, I cast Magic Missile and laugh!”
DM: “Sure, it’s easy to laugh when you’re standing behind the guy in shining armor. The dying hobgoblins managed to get attacks off before they fell. The paladin got speared for 5 by one of the two engaging him. The two on the slayer both missed. Incredibly, the mage dodged an incoming spear, but the thief took a hit for 5. There are now three hobgoblins left.”
The players roll dice again, as does the DM.
Mage: “I Magic Missile again. These guys don’t have any wands on them, do they?”
DM: “Maybe you can search the bodies after the fight. Oh look, one hobgoblin scraped you for 5 while you were looking around for loot. The other two miss the thief and paladin.”
Thief: “I do a fancy flip and stab one from behind.”
Paladin: “Seriously? I missed again? Bahamut must be angry at me.”
Slayer: “No worries, bro. I just cut one in half from neck to hip.”
DM: “And the magic missile takes down the last remaining baddie. Nice work, folks!”
Mage: “Now can I check to see if they have any magic items of unimaginable power?”
Of course, this is a very simple model, with a small number of generic enemies, but the brawl encounter moves pretty fast. With fewer choices and simultaneous action resolution, rounds move very quickly. Fewer time-consuming calculations are required. A good narrative structure remains, and players can describe their actions as they like. It still feels like D&D.
There are some obvious limitations to the brawl encounter. Players might feel like their characters are being crippled when they don’t have access to all their powers. Fighting against huge waves of minions could get repetitive. For some groups, the brawl might feel too “dumbed down” to be enjoyable at all. Each of these objections are certainly understandable, but I think the benefits of having an option for five to ten minute combat encounters far outweigh these drawbacks.
What kind of situations would the brawl encounter be best for? Wandering monsters are the first thing that spring to my old-school mind. Throw a pack of wolves at a group of heroes entering a creepy forest, and resolve it as a brawl. A brawl can add flavor to mundane things like long periods of overland travel. To spice things up, toss in an encounter with highway bandits who have a clue to an upcoming adventure. This adds depth and richness to your game world without bogging the entire evening down with another lengthy combat.
Another advantage to the brawl is that it makes the PCs feel more heroic. Heroes defeating dozens of lesser opponents with ease is a standard trope of the fantasy genre. When they can take down a dozen hungry lizard men, kobolds, or enemy troops after just a few minutes of gaming, they feel powerful and important. Movies do this kind of thing all the time; think of the Lord of the Rings series. Aragorn can take down multiple opponents in a short span of time; it’s a given that he is much better at swordplay than his opponents. When you put away the battle map and let players one-hit their enemies, they will have that same movie-star, “I’m invincible” feeling.
To summarize the rules for a brawl encounter:
- Don’t use maps or miniatures
- At-will powers only
- All actions resolve simultaneously
- Use only minions with openly declared stats
There is definitely a place for short, five to ten minute fights in 4th Edition Dungeons & Dragons. These brief brawl encounters can be sprinkled in as you see fit throughout your campaign. They provide a nice alternative means of engaging PCs without all the baggage that comes with a standard set-piece style encounter. Consider using brawls in your campaign, and let me know how they turn out if you do!