Speeding Up Combat: Attack & Damage Rolls

While preparing to playtest an upcoming Fourthcore adventure, I searched for methods to quicken the pace of combat and other elements of the game that rested on my shoulders. I knew the party would face a difficult challenge to complete the adventure in the alloted time frame, and I didn’t want to slow them down. I read the adventure two or three times, but in thinking about how else I could speed up play, I experimented with another idea – rolling attack and damage die ahead of time.

My plan was to pre-roll attack and damage dice for all traps and monsters in the module, but I ran out of time and only got to the traps. Since it’s a Fourthcore module, there were many traps, so I figured it would speed things up a bit. I printed out the module and whenever a trap was listed, I rolled the attack and damage dice and wrote the results in the margin. For example, if a trap is a close blast 5 (+5 vs. Reflex, 2d6 + 3 fire damage), then I would take a d20 and roll it several times and jot those “attacks” in the margin of the page. This would result in a list like the one below:

        Attack

Suffering a critical attack from fire trap.

  • 12
  • 14
  • 16
  • 9
  • 23
  • 15
  • 8
  • 8
  • 20* (15)
  • 15

Since the trap is a blast and is likely to hit multiple targets, it seemed better to roll many attacks ahead of time. You will notice the 20 with an asterisk; this indicates a critical hit and the proper damage is listed in parentheses. For the rest of the attacks, I rolled the 2d6 + 3 and listed them in another margin on the adventure.

        Damage

  • 12
  • 11
  • 10
  • 13
  • 8

Since the trap attacks multiple targets but only dishes out one damage per round, I did not roll as many damage results. During the encounter, I would simply check off each attack and damage result as it was used in the game. This approach has potential benefits and consequences, which I plan to discuss after presenting how you could incorporate this method to speed up combat by pre-rolling attack and damage dice for monsters.

DMs run combat in a variety of ways. I have run combat encounters out of published books and relied on the Stat Blocks written on the page. I have printed off encounter information from online or printed custom monsters through the old Monster Builder. However, I most commonly run encounters through MasterPlan, which allows me to track everything on my laptop. This speeds up my end of the game since it calculates hit points and other effects quickly. I don’t need to fumble with math in my head (always a dangerous proposition)!

If you are managing monsters out of a book or something you do not wish to sully with a list of attack and damage rolls, then you can use a separate piece of paper. Imagine the party is going to fight three Shambling Mummy (Monster Vault, p 212) enemies. The Shambling Mummy only has one attack, Rotting Grasp (+11 vs. Fortitude, 2d8 + 8 necrotic damage). On your sheet of paper, you can pre-roll the attack and damage dice for each monster:

Shambling Mummy 1 – Attack: 29, 24, 1*, 23, 13, 15; Damage: 13, 20, 22, 13, 13, 17

Shambling Mummy 2 – Attack: 1*, 26, 28, 18, 29, 20; Damage: 18, 23, 12, 24, 13, 21

Shambling Mummy 3 – Attack: 15, 23, 21, 29, 20* (24), 14; Damage: 20, 15, 16, 15, 17

You can see the third attack from Shambling Mummy 1 is a critical miss (1*). You can see the fifth attack by Shambling Mummy 3 is a critical hit (20*) and it lists the automatic critical damage (24). This process could certainly speed up combat since you will only need to refer to your sheet of paper with the rolls above and check them off as the battle progresses. However, this is a monster with only one attack; many monsters have two or more attacks they can unleash on the one or more members of the party. Writing all of those down ahead of time can get to be cumbersome for the DM!

Instead of calculating attack and damage rolls before the session begins, another option is to use one of the many useful online tools that have been developed for DMs. I created a Stat Block for Shambling Mummy 1 with the same stats that are listed above. The card below was created with Power2ool.

The card could be printed off and the attack and damage results could be checked off quickly, or it could be stored on your laptop for easy reference during combat. You could create a card like this for each of the Shambling Mummy creatures, or you could combine all of the attack and damage rolls into one card. You can experiment with the formatting in Power2ool quite easily once you learn the application.

An example of how one Stat Block could include the attack and damage rolls for all three Shambling Mummy creatures is presented here.

The Shambling Mummy is an easy monster to prepare before the combat encounter begins because it only has one attack. However, the same method could be used to prepare any monster in your campaign, although I realize a creature such as a Hydra would present many headaches for rolling attack and damage dice ahead of time!

But here is an example of a creature that is significantly more complicated, the Drow Arachnomancer (Monster Vault, p. 117). The creature has one At-Will weapon attack, one At-Will ranged attack, one Encounter ranged attack and one Encounter blast attack. The same pre-rolling of attack and damage results can be incorporated into the creature’s Stat Block. Again, the Stat Block below was created in Power2ool.

I listed the attack and damage rolls within the space for each specific attack. For the Scourge, which is an At-Will, I rolled many attack and damage rolls since this is a power that will likely be used often. I did the same for Venom Ray, which is another At-Will power and will certainly be used multiple times during the battle. Spider Curse is an Encounter power that only targets one creature, so only one attack and damage roll were needed. Finally, Venom Blast is the creature’s final Encounter power and can target multiple enemies; I rolled eight attack dice and the results produced both a critical hit and critical miss; however, only one damage roll was needed. The rest of the Stat Block is exactly how it appears in the Monster Vault or other online tools.

I encourage you to experiment with this method of pre-rolling to determine if it is a good fit for you and your table. It should certainly speed up combat but will require more time before the session to calculate the attack and damage rolls. I see several potential consequences and benefits with this system. I will cover a few of the possible negative outcomes first.

Consequences of Pre-Rolling Attack and Damage Dice

Not nearly as fun! I’ve discussed the love/hate relationship I have with my dice, but rolling dice at the table and anticipating the outcome is a great source of enjoyment throughout any gaming session. As the DM, you are constantly rolling dice during a combat encounter, and stripping that activity away during the combat may result in combat being quite boring for the DM.

Meta-gaming. Staying with the Drow Arachnomancer above, I rolled a 30 vs. Will on the Spider Curse power. Typically, I would level this power at the toughest foe to slow them down and give them something extra to deal with early in the encounter. But if I knew that the player I would typically target has an Will defense of 31, I might be tempted to direct the attack elsewhere to ensure it hits. Another example would be the fourth attack roll for Scourge, which is 20 vs. AC; that attack is not going to hit anyone in the party. I could be tempted to attack with Scourge three times (Attacks: 37, 29, 32) and then switch over to Venom Ray as the preferred At-Will attack, since the rolls for that power are more likely to hit. Now imagine that I rolled a critical miss on the Spider Curse power, which only targets one creature once per encounter. Knowing that the power will miss and “waste” a round for the Drow Arachnomancer, I would be tempted to avoid the attack altogether. There are countless scenarios that would tempt the DM to metagame during combat, and it could really detract from the overall experience for everyone, which brings me to the next point.

Players may think you’re being unfair. Even if you avoid the temptations above, the players may believe you are not acting fairly during combat. It’s certainly easily to fudge die rolls alone in the comfort of your own home compared to the gaming table surrounded by others. Some DMs routinely roll behind the screen while others roll in plain sight of the group. If you are a “roll in public” DM, then this would be a more dramatic departure for your group. Some players may not care about the change, but others may be quite unhappy with it, especially if you roll in public most of the time and the group eagerly watches the die to see if it’s a “good” or “bad” roll for them.

Benefits of Pre-Rolling Attack and Damage Dice

Combat length will decrease. By rolling attack and damage rolls for your traps and monsters before the encounter, the time spent in combat should decrease by a substantial amount. In my analysis of an encounter from the Penny Arcade/PvP podcast series, four Level 3 characters engaged in combat against several enemies for over 10 rounds. During those rounds, the players spent over 14 minutes combined rolling and calculating attack and damage dice. The players only have their own attack to deal with each round, but the DM may have over 10 attacks during any given round in combat to calculate. Pre-rolling will eliminate time spent fumbling with dice, rolling and adding bonuses.

DM can focus on other components of combat. Instead of preparing dice and working on calculations, the DM is free to engage in other activities during the encounter. The DM can become more involved in roleplaying with the players or working to ensure everyone at the table feels invested in the outcome. While one player is debating tactics, the DM would have more time (and focus) to engage other players with off-turn skill checks and roleplaying dynamics. The DM could engage in these behaviors regardless of pre-rolling attack and damage rolls, but after you spend several minutes rushing through the monsters’ turns, I personally feel ready to chill for a few moments while the players take their actions. Without the “stress” of dealing with attack and damage rolls, I would have more energy to do other things during combat encounters.

Final Thoughts

Consider pre-rolling your attack and damage results to speed up the pace of play during combat. Talk to your players about the new system and determine if they have any concerns. The consequences listed above – especially the meta-gaming issue – are important to think about as it could really detract from your game. Let me know how it goes!

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About The Id DM

The Id DM is a psychologist during the weekdays. He DMs for a group of fairly loyal and responsible PCs every other Friday night. In the approximate 330 hours between sessions, he is likely anxious about how to ensure the next game he runs doesn't suck.
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10 Responses to Speeding Up Combat: Attack & Damage Rolls

  1. Though I love the idea of speeding up combat in any version of DnD, pre-rolling just ‘feels’ wrong to me. I think you nailed it when you noted that part of the fun is rolling the dice.

    When I DM, I roll most things behind the screen, but make the dramatic rolls (the BBEG swinging on a low-HP PC for the final blow) in front of the players just for the “Booyah!” or “Suck it!” moments.

    • The Id DM says:

      I usually roll out in the open, but it’s not like the players are scrutinizing every roll. I sometimes make a bigger production out of “big” rolls. When I first started DMing, I rolled behind the DM Screen. There are benefits and consequences to both methods. But I agree with you – rolling the dice is a big part of the fun. Heck, I just bought three new sets of dice so I don’t want to give that up so quickly! :-)

  2. Arbanax says:

    I like what you’e saying here, especially when it comes to saving time. But you’ve hit the nail on the head with the whole Metagaming thing. Its just that if you know this power on this round won’t hit anyone, you also know two other powers, will hit, you’d go with them. No one wants to see a combat be no fun, especially where typically because of the balanced nature of encounters, monsters not do anything to threaten.

    What I would say though is that it might be fun to roll damage, so that you can cross off that aspect of combat in advance: this slightly can be less metagamy, yes you might do more damage with this attack, than this one, but you still don’t know if you’ll hit or not. And I guess if you don’t hit, you can still cross off the damage, to indicate that your efforts were wasted, so as to keep things more fair. In fact I like that idea so much I might try it out at our next game.

    Ab

    • The Id DM says:

      If you are rolling 2d6 for damage, then the range of damage (2-12) is only 10 points. However, in higher levels with larger damage dice, the swings can be much more dramatic. For instance, 4d8 has a range of damage (4-32) of 28 points. Mike Shea over at Sly Flourish wrote an interesting article recently about damage “swings” that illustrated some good points.

      http://slyflourish.com/calculating-monster-damage/

      To quote, he said:

      “Now it’s time to talk about dice swings. The higher the number on the die, the bigger the swing is going to be. When you have a very precise monster, like a rogue or a were-rat, you want to stick to lower dice types. When you have a big massive creature swinging around a tree trunk, you want to use bigger dice.

      When you’re rolling on the table, these big dice may roll low and produce glancing blows or they may roll high for a big surprising hit. Keep this in mind as you’re selecting dice types.”

  3. You can use Average Damage if you are really intent on trying to speed things up (that’s basically how Minion damage is calculated). You could simply have Average damage and Critical damage ready to go and static. But I would never use pre-rolled anything (especially To Hits) at the gaming table. Despite how fair you think you will be, you are still biased. That’s just poor DM’ing imho and honestly that can not only ruin a session, it can kill trust. I’ve seen it happen.

    • The Id DM says:

      It seems the consequences significantly outweigh the potential benefits for most people. I have never used this method myself, but thought the idea of adding attack and damage rolls to a Stat Block was interesting. And perhaps useful for some DMs out there. I think I would pre-roll things like traps in a normal campaign, but leave the other rolls as normal. If we played another timed module, then perhaps I’d do this to speed things up. The Average Damage is a good compromise, but like I just posted above, the damage swings in larger weapons can really be dramatic and influence combat. Averages take away that drama a bit.

  4. Kincle says:

    I think you accidentally did the right thing rolling for traps and not monsters.
    Pre-rolling for traps seems fair; they’re inanimate objects. You know that the trap is going to use X power every turn in Y square or Z area until it is destroyed, so the metagaming would be kept to a minimum.
    The same with minions and maybe even monsters that only have one or two powers; however, they have more choices to make in combat. You’re more likely to attack a weaker target with an attack you know will be weak, and save strong rolls for strong targets.
    Monsters with multiple powers and dynamic tactics should never be pre-rolled, because it’s way too easy for you to line up its bursts and blasts so you can hit everybody whose defenses are under the prerolled number.

    • The Id DM says:

      Since writing the article, the majority of the feedback has sided with *not* pre-rolling attack and damage dice for monsters. I think pre-rolling for traps is less of an issue, especially if they are burst or blast traps that are likely to attack most of the party.

      Minions already have a standard damage output. I actually roll for minion damage during the first round or two to “mask” that they are minions. The party quickly figures it out though.

  5. Pingback: The Transparency of Damage Dice Irrelevance | The Id DM

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