A big adjustment I had DMing 4E was to rethink how fights worked compared to AD&D. I used to throw down a lot of fights back then. Usually my dungeons were chock full of monsters and fights were fast and furious.
With 4E I find combats are a lot more dynamic and almost have a cinematic feel. They’re a lot more tactical and everyone is constantly maneuvering around for a better position. Even in an open room, in 4E you have a real engagement, where in AD&D it would be a glossed over fight (maybe some excitement if a person rolled a 20). It took me a while to wrap my head around how combats played out in 4E, and what works well (or doesn’t).
I found out one important thing with 4E fights, if you are fighting just to have some combat, it’ll make for a boring affair. In older versions this was never a big deal. If my group got jumped by a monster wandering the woods, I’d just play it out. 4E combats work better as staged set pieces. If you used an old approach of just dumping out monsters to fight on a grid, things get old pretty fast. So I learned to ask myself constantly, ‘why should this be a fight?’
I found this was critical in designing encounters and more importantly, stringing them together to make an enjoyable session. So when I’m planning out a dungeon, I try to think of a few reasons why I should be having a fight and what is the purpose of the combat encounter.
Moving the story along – Likely the number one reason players are trading blows with creatures. The group is in combat with a main villain, or some key encounter, because of the story. It is an event central to the plot. Not every fight has to hold a critical element to the campaign arc, but it’s something you should be striving for.
I try to avoid having a fight simply to give a clue. If I go this route, I try to limit to a few rounds, usually having the opposition run, surrender, or offer some other quick resolution to get the players moving on.
As an example, my players landed on a dock where a local crime lord had control over the longshoremen. A few burly dockworkers with cudgels badgered their ship captain into getting more coin to unload some cargo. They turned their ire towards the players, clearly itching for a fight (the non-lethal thumping of heads kind). Combat went for about two rounds before the town guards came in and broke it up, siding with the longshoremen on who started it.
It was a short fight, but it helped established a few key points that some dockworkers were more thugs than laborers, and that local authority were either corrupt or inept. I didn’t want to drag the fight out to a bloody conclusion. But at the same time I thought it useful to have the players exchanging a few blows, before getting some key information about the town they were in.
Drain the resources of the players – This is an effective way of ramping up the difficulty of later encounters. A straight up engagement against a group of guards may not have a tremendous story purpose. But if it is an encounter before the group moves further in a bandit camp to fight against the main bad guy, you’ve definitely have a reason to have the fight. While the party is expected to win, they will take a little damage. This results in healing surges being used, and may result in use of some magic item powers, all of which drains the resources of the party for future combats.
It’s a decent ploy to make that later combat against the main villain a little tougher, without having to ramp up the encounter level. If players have used most of their healing surges, a few magic items, possibly even a daily, you’ve got players working a much tougher fight. The main trick is to keep the group moving and not have them head back to town for an extended rest. This does not necessarily have to be a battle either. Traps make for great ways to drain the group resources also. Don’t forget that you don’t have to almost kill the players, you just need to dig into the HP a little and in turn, whittle away at their healing surge total.
A combat for the sake of combat – This is something I try to avoid. Yet sometimes after several nights of talking around problems and clever use of skills to overcome obstacles, it’s nice to have a throw down with some monsters and hack away at things. However I think for these type of encounters to work, you should have one rule. Keep things interesting.
Pull out the stops and have a fight on a collapsing bridge over a chasm. Dig through the monster manuals and pull out some wild planar creature. Whether it’s the location or the type of creatures they fight, make the combat exciting and memorable. A bar fight with some surly dwarves may have nothing to do with the campaign, but can make for a grand time. You won’t get the same player reaction from another nameless wilderness encounter in a wood clearing.
Don’t hesitate to hand wave a fight – Don’t worry about having an actual combat for every encounter also. If the players have to infiltrate a fortress and fight through waves of opposition, you don’t have to play out every combat. Hand wave a bit and resolve it through narration. Maybe have that first fight against a few initial guards and don’t worry about the rest. Save the encounter combat for the main boss at the end.
This is where healing surges work wonders. Tell the players they made their way through an orc enclave, slaying a few groups, then have each player lose a healing surge. If you want to be tricky, also roll a basic attack against each player and have them dock off another surge if you hit. It’s a nice way to represent some scrapes and bruises from a fight, without having to actually play out a combat.
In my past campaign, I had my players clear out a kruthik nest. The original layout was an optional encounter if they failed a skill challenge, followed by a tough fight, with a final fight against the nest queen. While my group succeeded at the skill challenge, they opted to take on the optional encounter. After that happened I looked hard an long at the second encounter.
Did I have to have this fight? Would it really push the story along? I wanted a series of progressive fights, ramping up the difficulty to emphasize the group was going deeper and coming closer to the nest queen. But that optional encounter took off a few healing surges, so did I really have to have another full battle to do the same? Nope. So I just narrated to the players they ran across more kruthik and killed them as they explored further the tunnels. I moved them on to the final fight, just handwaving the middle combat and sticking to the more meaningful final encounter against the nest queen.
These are a few things I keep in mind when I design a string of encounters. I still (as the kruthik example above) flub things. While it may look good in preparation, actual play can change things. You might get a really bad string of rolls from the players (and some awesome rolls for the monsters), so a simple fight on paper may end up being much more difficult. I try to keep things fluid with my plans and read the players’ moods at the table to keep things interesting.
So with 4E, I've had to shift my thinking about combats compared to previous editions and shed that idea of a throwaway combat. Seems DnDNext has let this creep back in somewhat. I'm sort of on the fence with that but by recognizing this difference in how combats fit into the story, it's made my 4E game better.