Rory’s Pocket Guide to D&D 4e – Playing Combat

I gave you some handy tips for Character Creation!

I set you straight on Roleplaying!

Now let’s focus on combat!


Combat in D&D is its own beast, and there are a lot of things to keep in mind when making decisions. In D&D 4e, the increased complexity can make for longer combats, so staying alert and knowing what to do is important!

  1. Make a game plan: When a combat starts and as it evolves, you should be making a game plan for how the encounter will be playing out. A few good questions to run through: Is this going to be a tough combat or is it just meant to drain my resources? Is there terrain I can take advantage of? What monsters should I be targeting? Should the party be staying close together or spreading out? Are there certain abilities that are going to be in high demand this combat, such as movement abilities, extra healing, and extra saving throws or bonuses? Being able to answer these questions will play a huge part in what resources you use and which abilities you know to keep track of so you aren’t left floundering when it comes time to act.
  2. The Three Action Tango: During other players’ turns you should usually be planning the three actions you’ll take on your turn: Standard, Move, and Minor. Obviously, you may need to reassess when your turn comes around since enemies might die or move around, but even a rough plan is VERY useful and will help the game run smoothly. For standard actions, you’re almost always looking at an attack power, so look through your encounters first and see if any are particularly appropriate; there is NO reason to be stingy with encounter powers. If not, turn to your trusty at-wills. If the fight is looking like it will be very difficult, go ahead and pop a daily if it will help the encounter significantly, since many have encounter long effects that will be more useful at the beginning of the battle than later on. For move actions, well, movement is pretty obvious, though keeping in mind that you can swap down to a minor is a good thing to do, especially for wizards who sometimes have multiple effects that they need to sustain. Think about where you’re going to need to move to get the best attack off, avoid dangerous situations, and get flanking bonuses. Finally, always think about something to do with your minor action. This will often mean popping a useful utility power, but it might also mean grabbing a potion or interacting in some way with the environment.
  3. Roleplay: Just because combat is a little more tactical and less freeform doesn’t mean you can’t role-play. Even when I am making the most coldly strategic move to keep me and my party alive, I try to inject at least a little characterization. “Inkroot the Bard shouts uses vicious mockery and insults the orc pretentiously in highborn elven while he winks to Tree Bulb and murmurs a Majestic Word under his breath to keep him alive.”
  4. Be clear and quick: When your turn comes around ask pertinent questions, state clearly what you’re doing (in character!) and then pick up the dice and start rolling! Every once in a while it’s fine to have that turn where you flounder a little if the situation has changed dramatically right before your turn comes around, but generally you should be ready to jump into action and roll dice. Some people recommend rolling damage dice with the hit roll; that’s fine, but I’ve never found that it saves that much time and I sometimes find it a little confusing since it’s pushing two steps together. What does take up time is having to look through a pile of dice for those d8s you need, so have them ready!
  5. Remember your bonuses: There are a ton of bonuses and negatives that can come up in D&D. As a player, your duty is to record as faithfully as possible both the bonuses and negatives. Just write them somewhere on your character sheet or a spare note card! With that said, it’s fine to do a quick check at the start of your turn to see if there’s anything you failed to account for. I like to have them all down before I roll so I know where I stand. Also, it’s more fun to know decisively whether you hit or missed soon after rolling than to do a lot of simple but annoying math later. Probably the most common bonuses come from combat advantage and charging, but of course there are tons of others granted by abilities and powers. The most common negatives are probably cover and concealment.
  6. Remember all the effects you’ve caused: If you place a zone or effect on the map, it is your responsibility to remember it, not the DMs. Similarly, if you mark a monster you better be keeping track of the negative to hit and the bonuses you get if the monster doesn’t attack you. Furthermore, it’s best to remember sooner than later! As a DM, I’m often annoyed when someone reminds me of a mark AFTER I’ve attacked another character. If I’d remembered the mark, chances are I wouldn’t have gone through with the attack. It feels like the player was concealing something from me when it’s likely they just didn’t remember either. So remember!
  7. Be Useful: During a combat, a DM has their hands full trying to manage multiple monsters + whatever the hell other crazy things they have planned for an encounter. Anything you as a player can do to help the DM run the combat will be greatly appreciated. One big thing is to volunteer to keep track of Initiative. This is basically open information after the first round of combat and a HUGE way to take the burden off the DM. Volunteering to keep track of effects on monsters (like stunned, -2 to hit, etc) is a pretty big boon as well, and I am sure your DM will thank you for it.
  8. Take advantage of what the DM gives you: No DM likes to spend hours crafting a cool multifaceted encounter with a fight and a skill challenge and cool pieces of terrain only to have the players do their usual thing of crowding together in a dense ball and fighting the monsters in one corner of the room. Unless it’s blatantly suicidal, strongly consider trying to take advantage of everything the room has to offer. If there’s cool terrain, try to use it! If there’s a skill challenge element, strongly consider going that route. If you see potential for some tweaks, don’t be shy suggesting them to the DM. If they’re easy to implement and good tweaks, the DM will probably take you up on them. For example, if the DM has a mechanic where you can push bookcases over with a strength check and make a fort attack against enemies on the other side, you might suggest upping the damage to make up for the two rolls you need to make to hit. If the skill challenge doesn’t seem beneficial enough to warrant a full standard action, suggest allowing checks to be made as a minor action with a +5 difficulty. The job of creating a fun dynamic encounter does not fall on the DM alone; it’s up to the players to make it exciting too!
  9. Dailies: Daily powers are super important. They tend to be super powerful and the best ones usually have encounter long effects. Thus, try to determine as early as possible if you need to use them. If you think they’ll be necessary, let other players know too! There’s nothing more depressing than popping an awesome power that gives the group +2 AC in the middle of a really tough fight, knowing full well you could have avoided half a dozen hits if you’d done it sooner.
  10. Items: God, don’t forget your items! Passed level 5 or so, there’s no excuse for not having a potion of healing or potion of clarity when you need one (which is often any time you can spare the minor actions to draw and drink it). Also, you probably have some handy encounter and daily item powers up your sleeve. Use them to give you the extra edge in battle!
  11. RUN: Seriously, you really need to be able to tell a battle is hopeless before three guys are dead beside you and fleeing is almost impossible. Watch for the tell tale signs of a battle that is too tough: running out of heals + other ways of triggering healing surges and most of the monsters still standing and unbloodied after several rounds of combat. Both of these things are indications that the battle is not going your way, even if no one in the party is dead or dying yet.

4 Responses to “Rory’s Pocket Guide to D&D 4e – Playing Combat”

  1. Noumenon says:

    During other players’ turns you should usually be planning the three actions you’ll take on your turn: Standard, Move, and Minor.

    I make the planning easier by making a list of all my options, so I don’t forget “hey, I could have made an Arcana check this round!” I have the to-hit and damage precalced on there too.

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  3. Rory Rory says:

    That’s a nice list. I like that you have all the reasonable options there, such as aid another, which is easy to forgot in the rare cases when the DM throws a nigh unhittable guy versus the players! It’s nice to be able to know what all your options are at a glance.

  4. paul paul says:

    “Making a game plan” is huge. I’m an impatient player and I like combat to keep moving around the table. When it comes to your turn, it’s not time to wake up and assess the battlemat! It’s time to roll dice!

    I agree that rolling damage with the attack roll is overrated; also overrated, rolling multiple simultaneous d20s if you target multiple foes. The time spent on clarification (“the green die is the hobgoblin, the red die is the wolf”) eats up the time savings.

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