Combat is a major party of DnD and I believe that fourth edition’s goal was to make combat smooth and enjoyable while leaving roleplaying flexible and easy. The combat rules are very good, very straightforward, and easy to understand but sometimes it can take some time. Sometimes, however, combat just seems to drag on and an important encounter can end up lasting several hours. Aside from the more straightforward choices such as cutting the enemies’ health, reducing their defenses, or using less monsters here are a few things you can do to speed combat up.
Get Combat Started Quickly
The one thing that throws my players off focus quickly is setting up combat. We use to use dungeon tiles and the DM would have to search through the box of tiles for just the right size and image while building the room and then he’d search through the miniatures for the ones he needed in combat. Just setting up combat alone could take five minutes or more. If you’ve planned ahead you should know what your players are going to fight. You can help combat wrap up quicker by wrapping it up before it starts. I recommend getting some small containers such as plastic bags and putting all the miniatures you’ll need for the encounter in them. Ideally you should have your battlemat mapped out ahead of time, too, so you can throw it down and place the miniatures quickly. If you’re following a pre-made module you probably don’t need to put each miniature in the exact square it says. Unless they have special powers or requirements the approximate location is all you need and if that means you can keep your players attention, all the better.
Make Sure Your Players are Ready
Your players need to be able to quickly access their character’s information when combat arises. They should have power cards with descriptions of their abilities as well as an understanding of their defenses and the general layout of their character sheet. It would be wise for them to have a crib page with their defenses, hit points, action points, speed, healing surges, and the quantity of any often-used consumables on it so they can quickly access that information. It would also be wise for you to have a copy of that information just in case you need it.
Roll Attack and Damage at the Same Time
From my experience most players like to roll their d20 alone then ask for a confirmation that the attack hit. Once they have that they roll dig around to find their damage dice then roll them and add it up. Instead have them roll the damage at the same time that they make their attack. If the attack misses the other dice can be disregarded, but if it hit then they’ve skipped a step and just need to add up damage. This will only save you a few seconds with each player but that few seconds can add up quickly, especially over long combats or with big groups.
Reward Speed and Team Tactics
A lot of players have a habit of tuning out when they aren’t involved in the action so once their turn is over their mind wanders, they start text messaging or watching videos and generally don’t pay attention to the battle. When their turn comes around again they’ll likely be give it 100% again but they’ll ask several questions to figure out what they missed. To avoid this I’ve started giving out +1 tokens to my players when they work together to use team tactics rather than reacting to the round of events only on their turn. The +1 tokens can be turned in to grant them +1 bonus to any roll. Not only does this keep your players involved in the flow of combat it also speeds things up since they’ll be working more efficiently. I have a player who will usually just charge on his turn but since he has gotten more involved he started using a much wider variety of actions.
Natural 1 for Dropped Dice
When I instigated this rule I didn’t think my players would take too kindly to it. The rule is that if I die falls off the table and lands on the floor it is considered to be a natural 1. This goes for d20 dice as well as damage dice. The logic behind this rule is that it will take a significant amount of time to find the lost die especially if it happens to blend in with the flooring. The player will likely have to crawl under the table to retrieve it then make their roll again (or keep it if you let them). Considering it a natural 1 not only eliminates the time needed to find the rogue die but also makes your players roll more carefully. You’ll find they shake their dice less, toss with less spin and generally try to keep their dice in a controlled area. Some of my players even bring small boxes in which to contain their dice rolls. I found my players accepted this rule with little question and have adapted accordingly.
End it When it is Over
A lot of times it is obvious who is going to win the battle and in 95% of situations it should be the players. If your players have dispatched the boss, his first and second in command, and 50% of his guards without much effort the last 1-2 guards are likely to have broken morale by now. Unless they think there is a good reason for them to continue fighting most intelligent creatures will surrender or flee at this point, even if they themselves are in good health (perhaps even moreso). You should use this especially if the battle has been dragged on and it is clear your players are getting tired of the fight.