Welcome once again to the weekly newsletter. This week’s topic is fast and fun combat, which we discussed in our live chat. We hangout every Monday evening at 8 p.m. EST on Nerdarchy Live to talk about D&D, RPGs, gaming, life and whatever nerdy stuff comes up. Creating new material for RPG fans to drop right into your games to help speed combats up, spice up adventures and generally foster more fun at the gaming table is what we’re all about. Stay tuned as we explore a new path soon with exclusive content like magic item cards with custom art and maps for your incredible adventures. Find out more about this new direction and how you might be able to see your own ideas immortalized with custom art and game design here. You can get the Nerdarchy Newsletter delivered to your inbox each week, along with updates, info on how to game with Nerdarchy and ways to save money on RPG stuff by signing up here.
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Delving Dave’s Dungeon
Some people love combat in tabletop roleplaying games. Like, it’s the whole reason they play them. Others prefer other aspects of the game. The question is how do we engage these different types of players during combat? First off you need to identify them. There are several ways to do this.
One of the better ways would be to just ask before the campaign begins. Maybe you use a short questionnaire during your session zero or before your campaign kicks off. Then observe your players and keep notes on how they interact with the game so you can tailor it to them.
As for the actual combat itself, fast is relative and only matters if people aren’t enjoying this aspect of the game. For players who prefer exploration and social interaction over combat the key is to find ways to engage them during the combat.
For those who crave social engagement this could be as simple as witty banter back and forth during the battle. Maybe the villain insists on striking up a conversation during combat. Either the players are engaged with their minions or they themselves have a knack for gab even while mixing it up. Make it a meaningful conversation that might impact the campaign, not just simple banter. (Though banter can be fun as well.) Perhaps this enemy has crucial information and they are trying to persuade the players to their side, or they could just be monologuing.
For those who prefer the exploration aspect of the game include interesting hazards during the combat. Especially ones that could turn the tides of the battle one way or another. For instance in a chamber the characters square off against a group of enemies. At the same time the automated arcane defense of this chamber has been activated. It’s randomly attacking everyone. If someone can get to the arcane device in this room and figure it out they could turn the tide of the battle. First they must navigate the battlefield, make a series of skill checks or solve a puzzle and then they can use the arcane defenses against the enemies in the chamber.
From Ted’s Head
There are all manner of ways to increase the speed of combat in fifth edition Dungeons & Dragons. Simple things are having ready made actions for you and the bad guys or rolling attack and damage at the same time. The list can go on from there.
If you are looking for fun, there are lots of options. As a player give simple descriptive actions and as a Dungeon Master include things to make the combat more enjoyable — lots of simple foes to give the adventurers things to crush, problems to solve while the fight goes on such as things with a time limit or dire circumstances should the party not intervene).
What about both? Combat is a necessary part of 5E D&D but of the three pillars I believe it is my least favorite. Without combat however, the risk of failure and the chance of death practically falls out the window. Years ago I ran a game that boiled combat down to a simple roll of the d20. Combat was as fast if not faster than it would be in real time which kept the pace of the game fast and enjoyable.
Even though this was a very different style game played in a different edition it could be modified to use for 5E D&D in a way set to increase the pace of non-narrative driven combats or for games where combat is the least important pillar of the game. For this we are going to need two charts. Page 174 of the Player’s Handbook gives us the Typical Difficulty Checks and page 249 in the Dungeon Master’s Guide gives us Damage Severity and Level.
Individually these are both very useful for running games. The first gives us a codified set of numbers players must roll to succeed at on a task. The second gives us damage output from traps and hazards. But isn’t combat just another type of trap or hazard?
Every character in 5E D&D has a prime ability score, the one necessary for multiclass and the primary method of determining attack rolls or save DCs. Using this modifier and their proficiency modifier we can create a quick combat or QC bonus. A 3rd level fighter with a 16 Strength would have a +5 QC score — +2 for proficiency bonus and +3 from their ability score. As any of these numbers goes up so would your QC score. DMs can set the DC for the encounter based on the one chart and the starting location of the chart from the DMG.
Our fighter in question is going into a Quick Combat and the DM secretly decides this one is set at DC 10. With a +5 QC bonus this is indeed an easy check for our fighter to make. However I rolled a 2 on my d20 giving them a total of 7 for the QC score.
Now comes the time where the DM gets to work. With damage scale set those who pass take damage individually determined by the result of the check. Unless the check is super easy this will always result in some damage. The DM consults the chart and determines this combat was a setback so those who pass take the d10 damage of a type that fits for the creatures involved. Since this is the lowest damage those who passed by 5 or more take no damage. Our fighter failed to meet the DC so the damage scale goes up, so for them it was a dangerous encounter and takes 2d10 damage.
To sum up, characters have a QC score set by their primary ability score and proficiency bonus. DMs set the DC of the combat and the damage based on the severity of the encounter. If you pass the DC you take some damage, for every 5 you beat the DC by you take a category less of damage all the way to none. If you fail the DC you take more damage, for every 5 you fail by you take even more damage.
It is possible to have things like spell slots and other class features give a bonus to the QC score. Even consumable items could add a bonus with DM permission. This is a quick and dirty system full of clunky steps but I will begin playing with this and see if I can get something solidified and maybe released in one of our eventual products.
From the Nerditor’s desk
When it comes to fast and fun combat in fifth edition Dungeons & Dragons for me it’s all about pacing and purpose. Why are adventurers in combat and what’s the consequences of success or failure?
Even before COVID the majority of RPGs I get a chance to play are online and often live streamed. In both cases time is a factor. Even my longtime home group could squeeze in about three hours for a session at the most. Because of this my tastes changed and whereas I used to consider two hour combats part and parcel with playing D&D now, not so much.
Explaining the fast and fun part requires explanation of pacing and purpose. Does combat ensue because players fell into the discussion loop trap and monsters attack because that’s what happens in D&D? Do the adventurers know a combat scenario lies ahead and prepare in advance? Is the fight an obstacle, or circumstances unrelated to their goal, or a major villain?
Making combat fast is super easy in many cases. This may sound sacrilegious but a low purpose combat meant to change up the pace can wrap up as quickly as a DM wants. Players don’t know monster hit points and when the purpose for the combat is fulfilled the pacing can quickly follow.
You might even employ this bit of DM chicanery for a major antagonist combat and make it work for you to get players even more invested. In our last session of Those Bastards! we finally confronted a nasty dragon who’d been on our radar after a session with a lot of interplayer talking (which is basically every session). The combat was fast and definitely fun — it took place in a large arena style chamber where reduce and jump spells made the situation incredibly dynamic.
Our party rolled exceptionally well on our turns and between those turns DM Megan kept us engaged with lair actions going off and rapidly changing situations as the dragon swooped around while her minions kept us busy on the ground. Finally in the last minutes of the session we landed the final strike! But on a cliffhanger it seemed destroying the dragon triggered some new threat…one we’ll find out about in the final session.
I shared that example because it’s a great illustration of how a combat — even a really climactic and dangerous one — can be fast and fun and still have all the thrills and consequences of a long and drawn out tactical engagement. For all we know the only reason that part was fast is because we gabbed too long and our DM wants to get to key points in the story before it wraps up. And that’s totally cool! As a player I am wholly satisfied.
Essentially the answer to making fast and fun combats lies with you and your group because those are relative things. For me, a long campaign ending with a relatively fast combat with highs and lows is a blast. I love the narrative implications and storybook quality of a dramatic, descriptive combat over a precision coordination of strike team specialists. As often as I tune things on the fly for pacing and purpose I appreciate a DM who recognizes what makes combat fast and fun for players and focuses on the parts of combat or anything in the game to create a memorable experience for everyone.