Getting Into the Out

There's more to combat than methodically hacking your enemy to bits.

If you’re a DM like me, you want to find out ways to shorten your 4e combats. There are a lot of crazy criticisms of D&D Fourth Edition but this is the only one that I think is always legitimate. The reason for this length is that all characters have lots of options to do each round, really that all 4e characters are as skilled at fighting as 3e spellcasters, which is a good thing in my opinion.

Still I’d like to get in more than one fight a gaming session so I took to the blogosphere over the past few weeks to get some new ideas. Thankfully, Mike Shea and Dave the Game have posted some recent articles that are just what I’m looking for. Like a complex computer network for an island park full of cloned dinosaurs or a telepathic corporate teenaged assassin, when designing a 4e encounter, give yourself a way to shut things down when they get out of hand.

The idea behind the Out is simple and precisely worded by Dave Chalker himself: “In a given fight, have alternate means for the combat to end beyond the D&D default ‘one side is dead.'” In thinking about this, I wonder why I never considered this before. If the only way to end a fight is to have the PCs churn through all the hit points out on the table, it will take exactly that long to finish it. On the other hand, if there is something else which can happen to end the fight (or better yet a few somethings) then you can trim down your combat more easily. Rich Baker gave us one tool in his recent Unearthed Arcana article by providing solid rules for having the enemy surrender in a fight. This is more realistic anyways since common marauders, criminals, or kidnappers are unlikely to fight to the death. This is only a small fraction of a typical adventurer’s foes, however, and they are much more likely to face mindless undead, crazed necromancers, zealous cultists, and unrelenting demons. So when the enemy is unlikely to give up, what are you to do?

Other authors have already given plenty of examples for combat Outs which can be used but I want to give the subject a little more structure. Maybe it’s my science background but I like to give things left-brain labels to help my right-brain come up with creative game elements. Below I have three broad categories that I think encapsulate most of the Outs that I’ve seen so far. I won’t say they’re the only ones to be had, or even that they can’t be broken into even more basic categories, but three’s a good number to start with and, dammit, it’s my post!

Monsters & Environment: Not the Beard!

Think of the scene in the Fellowship of the Ring film where the party is rushing down the stairs in Moria on their way to the Bridge of Khazad-dûm and the fateful showdown with the Balrog. Or, if you don’t know the movie scene-for-scene (those few of you), the part where Gimli starts to fall and Aragorn grabs his beard. Everyone there with me? Good. This is a pretty dramatic scene and one that stands equally against the fight in the tomb before it and the duel on the bridge after it. But why? There are no great fighting maneuvers (except a dead-eye shot from Legolas but those are a dime a dozen by this point in the movie), there are no big characters like the cave troll or Balrog to steal the spotlight, and the only enemies that are to be seen are distant goblins hiding in shadows.

The reason why it’s tense is the environment. The Fellowship almost blithely ignores the arrows as they concentrate on the stairs collapsing beneath them. If we think of this as a 4e encounter, those goblins are just minions but they present a threat that some people can concentrate on while the others struggle to make their jumps across chasms and ride crumbling stair sections. As another example, think of the infamous boulder trap in Raiders of the Lost Arc. Now add some tomb guardians or hostile natives in that hallway as Indy runs down it and it starts to seem even better. Those guys can be push overs, but when the DM insists that you have to move at least X distance each round or be crushed and you also have to kill enemies along the way then things start to heat up.

The environment doesn’t have to be hostile either, just different enough to present a challenge. Consider the free-fall fight scene with Joseph Gordon-Levitt in Inception where he’s floating through the hotel without gravity, fighting off security personnel. The lack of gravity isn’t going to kill him by any means, but it does make the fight against the few enemies a little more challenging even though it takes less time to whack down all their hit points. Of course, you can also think of a situation where the environment is only hostile to the PCs. If you were to turn the shark scene from Thunderball into an encounter, James Bond is fighting some sharks which are very likely well below his level. The low-level enemies, however, are perfectly suited for the environment and James Bond is uncomfortably out of his.

Monsters & Other Goals: Aren’t You a Little Short for a Stormtrooper?

As I said before, when you present a bunch of enemies for the PCs to batter to death and you don’t provide a way out, things will definitely take that long to resolve. You can provide fewer hit points as a cure but you can also think of different goals forthe PCs to accomplish that are the real purpose of the encounter. Think back to Star Wars Episode IV and the rescue of Princess Leia from the detention block. There’s a skill challenge to disguise themselves and get into the block, a brief fight to gain control of the command post, then a botched Bluff check which brings down more enemies on their heads. The next fight is not about killing everyone as soon as the PCs spot the garbage chute as an escape route. They could stay and fight each and every stormtrooper but that’s not at all why they’re in the detention block in the first place: they got the princess, now they’re trying to just get out as quickly as possible. Consider the same for your PCs some time and let them get all the way to the back of a dungeon complex without problems, then fight their way back out.

This type of Out also works well for situations where the PCs are facing off against tougher foes since they don’t actually have to get through all of those foes’ hit points. Thanks to a Harry Potter marathon on TV recently, I caught the Order of the Phoenix (or, Harry Potter and the Finally Decent Films) and thought about the scene in the Department of Mysteries as an encounter. The teenaged students are obviously out-matched by the Death Eaters, but they don’t actualy have to best the enemy, just retrieve the prophecy they came for. This could be combined with the Monsters & Environment type of Out by having something which switches the environment. If the party is fighting lower-level shark enemies underwater and there’s a lever that drains the room, as soon as they accomplish that Goal then the now-handicapped enemies can be mopped up (pun intended) without much fuss.

Another example is the scene from the original Tomb Raider in the Cambodian temple with the swinging ram that pierces the statue (it’s alright if you have to look this one up). Here Lara Croft is outnumbered and outgunned but it’s still a manageable encounter because she doesn’t actually have to kill all the enemies. This is more of a footrace where she has to get to the clue before they do. Death is secondary to achieving the goal and if Lara stubbornly stands there and mows through enemies she’ll probably lose and miss out on the Goal. I can see a race like this working well to manage this Out even with the Slayer archetype player who wants to shoot everything moving.

Monsters & Time: Indy, the Torches are Going Out!

Another way to motivate Slayer-type players is by setting a clock on them. I recently re-watched Raiders of the Lost Arc with friends and, in addition to contemplating boulder traps, I thought about the scene where Indiana and Marion are trapped in the tomb. The enemies there are snakes (not even dire snakes) which are clearly no threat as long as the torches keep them back, but the tension in the scene is time. The torches are fading and as soon as they do the pair of them will be swarmed.

I have some PCs winding their way through cavern complexes at the moment and I’m envisioning a similar race-the-clock scene for them with a swarm that is being kept back by fading torches. The party just needs to leave the room before the torches fail totally, but the exit is blocked by some equal- or lower-level soldiers. These wouldn’t be an issue normally but the party has to finish them within four rounds or the situation gets very serious, demanding speed and efficiency from the PCs which are exactly the qualities I’m hoping for. This is probably the most likely situation to be combined with other sorts of Outs (i.e. a timed environment like a room filling with water or timed goal like a race to the clue) but innocuous situations can all have tension added by stressing the time involved. A bar fight is more of a fun diversion for professional adventurers than a legitimate threat, except when they’re trying to get through the melee and out the door before the powerful king’s knights show up to arrest them.

The flip side to this is a race against time where stamina and not speed are the answer. Similar to the Goal discussion earlier, you can imagine a scene where the PCs are trying to accomplish something other than killing everyone around. Consider the seige of Helm’s Deep in The Two Towers where the protagonists would probably love to kill all the orcs but they are really just concerned with outlasting them until potential help can arrive. Try using a timer which counts up instead of down, where the PCs have to survive in the fight for just a certain amount of time against greater numbers or higher-level enemies until they are relieved by some event. If they can make it for five rounds against this onslaught, then Gandalf comes riding in on a white horse and kills the enemy. The beauty with this is that the encounter will last exacly that amount of time, or potentially less if the PCs lose. Of course, this “heroic last stand” sort of encounter is story-specific in most cases, but it also works in stories where the enemy will be killed anyways after a certain interval. The vampires must be kept outdoors for five rounds until the sun crests the horizon; the twisted necromancer must reach his elixir of youth in time to keep his 300 years of unnatural life from catching up to him at once; the traitorous merchant must get to the lever to open the gate for enemy soldiers in time for their assault on the castle. Time can work equally well whether its counting up or counting down, and it’s especially effective when it has some visual aid remind the players of the ticking clock.

So what do you think, audience? Are there more categories I missed (likely) or do you think these ones are enough to get you going? Have you used the Out already and have some advice for the DMing community?

Pictures taken from the Internet Movie Databse.