by Mike Shea on 21 February 2011
Long battles are a big common complaint of D&D 4th edition. Most encounters can take an hour to 90 minutes with very few taking any less than 45 minutes. There are lots of things you can do to speed up a battle. My two favorite ways to speed up combat include displaying your initiative order to everyone at the table all the time and revealing monster defenses after your first couple of rounds of combat. This will only get you so far, though. Without some radical changes to the way combat runs in 4e, you'll never dramatically reduce the time it takes for a battle in 4e.
Desire for a 30 minute skirmish
Not all battles deserve a full hour in your game. Sometimes you just want a warmup round or a battle that adds some flavor to your story without taking up a full hour. You might do this easily by reducing the number or level of your monsters but this also heavily lowers the difficulty of the battle. The key is to keep the threat of a battle high while at the same time removing the elements that take a long time in a battle.
Reducing player options
As often as possible I highly recommend changing rules on the DM's side of things. However, that isn't always possible. In my observation, player choices and complex PC rounds take up the most time at the table. Thus, the only real solution to achieve 30 minute battles is to reduce player options.
In a recent seminar at D&D Experience, designer Greg Bilsland stated that in his own game, he has reduced PC options to Essentials-only which significantly reduces player options. For players used to the wide variety of options both in character creation and in options at the table, this can be a hard sell. We can learn from this, however, and use it to design a few encounters. Here are a few ideas for building 30 minute skirmishes.
The Weakness Aura
In this encounter design, some object or creature in the encounter is creating an aura of weakness that affects the entire battle area. This weakness effect removes any ability for the PCs to use daily, encounter, or item powers including a leader's healing powers. Second winds, however, are still allowed and probably the only way to heal.
To off-set this dramatically reduced set of powers, there are far fewer monsters on the table. For example you might have only a single lower level solo creature or an equally leveled elite creature with a hand-full of minions or only two or three normal creatures. The battle will go much faster with fewer monsters on the table, but a heavily reduced set of options for your players and limited healing capability will keep the threat high.
This encounter design can work well once, but it might be difficult to implement it more often without pissing off your players. You could, for example, have an entire dungeon that weakens players with only certain rooms (larger boss fights) that allow for full player options. But then your players will feel like they rarely get to use their characters full potential and they're right to feel that way. For that reason, this design can work once every so often, but its not one that will help you get to 30 minute battles often.
The skirmish as an encounter type
At the beginning of your campaign or mini-campaign, you might explain the skirmish as a gameplay mechanic just like the encounter or the skill challenge. If they know ahead of the time that they will sometimes find themselves in these short 30 minute battles that allow for no encounter or daily power use, they might be more willing to accept it as a combat type. If players have a chance to select characters and select powers knowing this to be one of the types of encounters they face, they will be better prepared for it. Also, explaining the intent and the design may make it a more reasonable consideration. Trying to come up with a good in-story reason for this limitation is harder.
Light on monsters, heavy on environmental effects
Another way to build 30 minute encounters is to go light on monsters but heavy on environmental effects. Consider a room that seals up with the Paragon-tier party enters it and suddenly begins filling up with poison. Round one, the group takes 10 poison damage each as it begins to fill up even more. In round 2, they take 15 damage each and skeletons begin to rise out of the green mists. These are only minions but they're enough to keep the party busy while someone has to figure out a way to get out of the trapped room. In round 3, non-minion skeleton warriors might stand up.
These would be the only actual monsters the PCs would fight but they aren't the real threat. By this time the party is taking ongoing 20 poison a round and things are getting desperate. When the PCs either defeat the two skeleton warriors or break out of the trapped room, they succeed in the encounter.
Internet gaming sensation, Dave the Game, often described his solution for speedy combat as the "Out". He designs combats so they have a success state that isn't simply killing all the monsters on the table. When designed correctly, an encounter with a clear "out" can achieve our desire for a 30 minute skirmish.
Consider a necromancer wrapped in a sphere of protection who is surrounded by four wraths that protect him. The wraths are immune to all damage, so the only creature that can take any damage is the necromancer. The wraths should really only have one attack they can do to keep things simple on the DM side.
The shell of protection gives the necromancer bonuses to defenses and a little bit of damage resistance so it isn't quite so easy to kill him but it is still much faster to kill him than to wipe out the whole battle field. Each round he summons four skeletal minions that CAN be destroyed but are only there to keep the threat on the party. When the necromancer dies, so too do the wraths and the skeletons.
Since the necromancer is only the equivalent of an elite, the battle will go very quickly. You'll want to make sure it is very clear to the players what is going on. Don't spend a lot of time having them figure out that the wraths are immune. Simply tell them through arcana, religious, or perception checks that the focus is on the necromancer. What you're left with is a quick battle that keeps the threat high on the PCs but doesn't take ninety minutes to play out.
That's just one example, but a good way to shorten any battle is to have a single mastermind whose death causes the rest of the creatures to flee or fall apart or disappear. It's an easy way to go at it. To turn that into a 30 minute fight, just make this very clear ahead of time.
A new tool for storytelling
Above all, our intent with the 30 minute skirmish is to extend our toolkit for building the framework for great group storytelling. Like the skill challenge and the encounter, it exists as a set of mechanics with a specific goal in mind - a short 30 minute bit of combat. The ideas above aren't perfect, but they might give us a shot at finding something better.