Why 4e Is ALL Combat*
*and what YOU can do about it.
Over the last three years, I’ve read quite a few blogs and forum thread by 4th Edition DMs complaining that all their players want to do is pick fights, how their games end up nothing but combat. I’ve also heard this echoed in panels, during interviews, on podcasts, and in reviews.
The response to this complaint is usually a weary “I don’t know, why are your games all combat?” The tonal implication is that it’s the DM’s fault, because they set the theme of the game.
Now, this response is total B.S. It’s blaming the victim! “You were just asking for it, wearing that outfit behind the DM Screen.” And by just shifting the blame, this rebuttal does nothing to answer the question, resolve the issue, or prevent future occurrences.
Since the edition launched there has been review after review and complaint after complaint that 4e is nothing but combat. If this were all the same group of malcontents and trolls it should rightfully be ignored. But it’s not. With so many different people echoing the same conclusion independent of each other, the “all combat” complaint cannot be so easily dismissed. Because if you just dismiss it – or pass the blame onto the DM – you do not or cannot identify the problems, the friction points of the edition. If you don’t know where the trouble spots are, you cannot work around them or advise people on how to work around them.
Knowing how and why games fall into the combat trap and vocally acknowledging them gives DMs the tools needed to save their games.
So, with all that in mind, let’s look at the issue of why 4e games might default to combat. This will likely be long. Grab a drink now and take a bathroom break while you can.
Write What You Know
D&D was created from a miniature combat game. The original Chainmail game was adapted to playing individuals instead of teams. So D&D has always had some slant towards combat. And now it’s owned and created by WotC, which is CCG and board game company that also happens to sell an RPG. It’s no wonder 4e also has a combat slant: when a game is designed by people who enjoy miniature combat, work on CCGs & mini combat games, and at the same time as they’re revising the related miniature combat game, well it’s no wonder there’ll be some overlap in tone. It’s what they know, it’s what they like. The designer made a game they wanted to play. If 4e had been made by the Milton Bradley branch of Hasbro the edition would have had d20s in a pop-o-matic. This is just a staffing issue: it’s unrealistic to expect a small company to have entirely separate workforce. There’s going to be crossover and new employees will be (and should be) hired for overlap of skills.
When they revised the game into 3.5, WotC made sure the sub-edition emphasized minis, likely because they were just starting the pre-painted plastic mini line. They’re a business after all, and it was a solid business decision. It’s no wonder 4e also focused on minis, as that continued the need, which they could fill to make money while subsidizing the collectible miniature combat game.
This is not some grand conspiracy or evil business practice, just a confluence of talent and the realism of running a business in a niche hobby. But it has influenced the edition into having characters with mandatory battlemap representation and plays best around a table.
Players pick and assign a number of options when creating a character: ability scores, powers, feats, race, and class. However, almost every choice relates to combat effectiveness. The basis of the game is combat effectiveness. This edition was designed so that a player would not have to choose between role-playing options and combat effectiveness. A player would never have to sacrifice optimization as all meaningful choices would be effective in the combat portion of the game. However, this means most options are purposely limited to combat optimization, because adding a non-combat option would be presenting a trap inexperienced players might accidently fall into hurting their effectiveness.
Ability score are primarily selected to mesh with class, each having a to-hit stat and secondary (or kicker) stat. Class features are almost universally combat related, save the few classes that receive Rituals. (Essentials has changed this with a couple non-combat class features – the ranger being a great example – but these are still the exception.) Races confer an ability score bonus and an Encounter ability designed specifically so each race feels & plays different in combat at multiple levels.
Of all choices made during character creation, two are combat neutral: feats and skills. While there are non-combat feats, most relate to combat, typically conferring a small situational bonus or augmenting a class feature. A few role-playing or exploratory feats exist but these are few and far between, as there are few other rule sub-systems to modify other than combat. And choosing one of the role-playing feats does still come at the cost of combat optimization.
Skills are really the only out-of-combat creation choice a character makes. Skills are only chosen at first level and this selection is usually still optimized, either for success in combat or success in Skill Challenges. From second level onward, a character makes no advancement choices related to anything but combat.
So from the start, the game establishes combat as the primary focus. This does not negate the possibility of role-playing or other types of play, but neither does it encourage alternate ways of problem resolution. I’ve used the adage of a toolbox before. If you only have a hammer in your toolbox, every problem is going to look like a nail. When you create a 4e character, you’re given a toolbox dominated by a small assortment of hammers designed to be appealing and interesting so players have a interesting choice of how to hammer in each nail. Of course people are going to want to use them, that’s the tools they’ve been given.
There’s little DMs can do to manage this. The absence of later choices related to other aspects of a character is difficult. DMs could reduce the number of skills at first level and allow additional skills at higher levels. Or they could add other small bonuses to characters. Free rituals would also work, perhaps pairing the ritual granting feat with 10 x level gp in free rituals each day. It’s also possible to rule that players’ have to take a non-combat or role-playing feat at certain levels, and the sting of this could be reduced by also granting the math fix feats (the ones increasing attack and defence) for free. Anything to get the players thinking about what else they can do at higher levels.
Combat powers need to be singled-out for a moment. They’re fun. I do like the idea of powers. They’re a great way of condensing a complicated combat action into an easily digestible and a manageable size. But this is also a trap.
As a player you select a new power 2/3rds of the time after you level. And you level-up fast, often after a couple sessions. So if you play 12 sessions, you have a brand new power in 4 of them. And you want to use the new power. It’s your new toy. So, of course the player is going to seek out opportunities to use their powers. The role-playing encounter or social Skill Challenge is going to grate and take forever while they have that new level 7 Encounter power burning a hole in their card stack. Add onto this problem retraining , gaining a new combat feat, or acquiring a new magic item. So, really, this might come-up every other session.
DMs need to be aware of this; they should watch out for odd levels when the player has a new Encounter or Daily power and plan sessions accordingly. This goes double for 5th level, when PCs get a second Daily for the first time, feel badass, and have a sudden urge to nova.
Power cards are also a mixed blessing. They easily summarize a player’s options and negate flipping through rulebooks. This good; there’s a reason spell cards have been around since 2e. However, they also tend to trap the attention. Players will default to looking at their cards when confronted by an obstacle, artificially limited by its hard text and game effects.
Knowing this, it’s a good DM tactic to ask players to put away cards outside of combat. For the creative types with free time, one neat idea is writing the name and flavour of powers on the backs of cards, and allow those to be used those in creative ways outside of combat. Scorching Burst could be used to light campfires, cook food, keep the party warm when stranded on a mountaintop, and the like.
Earlier editions of the game accidently discouraged combat. Low level PCs were fragile, so they had to creatively avoid combat to escape death. They could only survive so many fights, and the more they fought the weaker they got: combat was a last resort, when dirty tricks no longer worked. And at high levels, there was the increasing possibility of “save or die” effects, which limited combat to avoid having to make a life-or-death check, a very literal die roll.
Similarly, with fewer baked-in combat options, players had the freedom to creatively dispatch foes. Anything was possible, albeit possibly harder or complicated. Adding multiple options to players in the form of powers is a limiter artificially constricting creativity. Many DMs have fallen into the trap of only allowing powers as actions and limiting improvisation. If an action is available as a power it’s less acceptable to allow it to be attempted untrained. You cannot just attempt to trip a foe because there are powers that do that. If you wanted to knock someone prone you should have taken a power that knocks someone prone. Even the much vaunted “page 42” doesn’t help much: it relies on DMs to provide terrain that can be used and often seem suboptimal in terms of damage or negative conditions. Why would any rogue swing on a chandelier and knock someone into a fire when they can deal more damage with a Sly Flourish, have a superior chance of hitting, and deal Sneak Attack?
But, the actual fundamentals of encounter design in 4e – and to a lesser extent 3e – encourage combat. Players have a good chance of beating an even level encounter with minimal spent resources beyond lost surges and can go into a subsequent fight without any penalty (as long as they restricted themselves to At-Wills and Encounter powers). There’s no penalty for fighting, no way to discourage combat outside of a loooong series of encounters draining the party of surges.
This was less true in 3e, as there were monsters that inflicted lasting conditions and penalties. This could discourage combat, as players would be risking a negative condition. It has been noted that 4e fights are victory or death, and the latter is not much of a possibility. It’s only when a DM creates a purposely hard encounter (level + 2 or 3) that there is any real penalty for picking a fight. 4e encounters are balanced, rigidly well-balanced. Monsters are roughly equal in power with other monsters of the same type and level. Because of this, players know what they’re getting into. Players are always going to be effective. Partly because it’s boring sitting out in combat, it’s rare for monsters to be immune or resistant to PC attacks. There’s no need to avoid a combat because monsters are always a known quantity. They don’t need to be researched or even identified, there doesn’t need to be a tentative probing assault followed by regrouping and strategy.
As encounters take time to build and plan, good encounters are almost always prepared ahead of time. There are no random encounters or sandbox encounters of much higher level. It’s considered bad DMing to put the players against an enemy they cannot beat. It’s unfair (at least that’s the prevalent player mindset). So there’s no hesitation in resorting to violence because – unless the DM is a colossal **** – the players will win. In contrast, earlier editions had random encounters and less balanced monsters. If you picked a bad fight you might have to make an aforementioned “save or die” roll, or face an unstoppable juggernaut of a foe.
This “twack it” mindset it not limited to 4e, and is prevalent in 3e players as well. Back-to-back editions where the player mentality is “unless the DM is a colossal ****, we will win” probably does not help the frequency and predilection to combat.
Because of the above, it’s tricky for a DM to shift a group’s mindset. Warning your players (repeatedly) that they will encounter creatures that cannot normally beat in combat is one way, as long as this is backed-up by an unbeatable encounter. But this is tricky because it can be hard to actually crush a 4e group when they’re set on staying alive. The resources a party can muster to survival is astonishing, and the fight has the potential to drag as round after round is needed to whittle away hit points while the players each spent a couple minutes with their turn vainly swinging away. Suddenly, an hour of the game has to be dedicated to humbling the party, which can be very, very frustrating on the other end of the screen to players unused to being impotent and ineffective: so much of 4e is designed so characters are effective all the time in every combat. It’s probably better for the players to do NO damage or be told outright they missed by 10 (after rolling an 18 on the die) so they have no illusion of the possibility of success.
As a side-note slash book-plug, Mordenkeinan’s Magnificient Emporium does have some rules and advice on unkillable opponents, which is excellent and worth buying ‘n’ reading. More options and strategies are always good.
Lack of Other Mechanics
The trifecta of D&D is: role-playing, exploration, and combat. 4e only has rules for one.
Exploration is tricky in 4e with passive skills and the broken skills mechanic. There are no feats, powers, or items aimed at exploration.
The sidelining of exploration was largely accidental. As mentioned earlier, powers were focused exclusively on combat to prevent accidental un-optimization. There was also the Delve format for encounters, which gave each encounter area a full one to three pages: too much for a single room to be explored or investigated but too little for a room with an interesting feature andfull monster statblocks. To fill the mandated pages, rooms became combat encounters.
Skills have also hurt exploration, which seems contradictory. Previously, players would have to think of all manner of crazy plans to bypass a room or area. Now instead of brainstorming around an obstacle, players now just name-drop skills and throw dice. There’s no thought given, just the automatic response of rolling dice. And as mentioned earlier, skills do not follow the linear math of the rest of the edition: what challenges one character will be effortless for another, while a different challenge becomes difficult for one and impossible for everyone else.
Likewise there’s no role-playing mechanics. Yeah, the immediate response to that is the practiced and conditioned “I don’t need mechanics to tell me how to play my character”. But there’s a number of different ways you can approach a role-playing mechanic, as can be seen by a number of other RPG systems. Such as the Dresden Files or the various flavours of Cortex. Most are limited to plot manipulation, making it an entirely out-of-combat mechanic. The trick isn’t telling someone how to role-play their character but rewarding them for role-playing, especially when it’s not convenient.
There’s any number of house rules and homebrew content for “plot points” or “bonus tokens” for DMs interested in that sort of thing, and rules from other systems can easily be pulled whole cloth from other systems and added overtop D&D.
As for encouraging exploration, this is as simple as remembering to add interesting details to rooms. Lots of things to interact with and touch and manipulate in interesting ways. It’s a good idea to work with the skill system, so the knowledge skills reveal some information or clues otherwise unknowable but not outright reveal solutions without experimentation. Or embrace the inability for some characters to pass what are easy checks for other characters, so the challenge becomes getting the rest of the party past the obstacle.
And frankly, because there is so little emphasis placed on exploration in the rulebooks, there are precious few examples. A DM focusing on that element has to do all the work themselves, has to figure out a good way of managing wilderness exploration by themselves. Or think of new and interesting room or dungeons alone, without aid from the rulebooks. For the DM with limited time to write, this might lead to combat as an acceptable alternative on a deadline. Adventures from older editions are likely the best source of inspiration and advice. Especially the wacky 1e adventures, although Pyramid of Shadows is similar in some respects.
This point is the most contentious and controversial. I hesitated at its inclusion and weighed the pros and cons of self-censorship. I opted to “go there.”
D&D has always been a more combat heavy game, so DMs and players wanting to play a story-heavy game have drifted elsewhere. With 4e having a very focused combat experience, this has likely further distilled the audience. 4e players are likely to enjoy combat. And, more specifically, they’re likely to enjoy tactical miniature combat. At the very least, they don’t dislike combat. So, because of all the above, if you’re playing in a 4e game your players are more likely to start a fight because it’s the part of the game they actually enjoy.
There are many D&D players who dislike role-playing, whose eyes glaze over during the story parts and look around bored when there is something other than combat going on. This type of player is probably far less common in other role-playing games. While you can run a Vampire game as a combat-heavy action experience, the average player is still likely to enjoy role-playing and storytelling; they’re very unlikely to be averse to role-playing and long in-character scenes.
This is the final element DMs need to be aware of: what type of player is at the table? D&D has a wide audience, arguably more than other games, but this edition is a little more polarizing. The reason your games might regularly descent into combat is because that’s what your players want, and they might not see it as a problem. In fact, they might be enjoying the hell out of the game.
There are a number of reasons a D&D game might fall into the combat trap. First is the game’s design and history, as well as whom the game was designed by and designed for. There is also the narrow focus of characters and how, by removing the ability to accidently make a character inappropriate for combat they removed the ability to purposely make a character not combat focused. There are powers, designed to be appealing and exciting, they are hard not to use or focus on.
The structure of the game makes combat easy. It’s the path of least resistance. There are no negative consequences for combat, no likely penalties to discourage it as an option. Likewise, there is no focus on the alternatives, so a DM looking to emphasize the alternatives needs to shoulder much of the creative burden themselves.
Lastly, a game might focus entirely on combat because that’s what the players want. In that case, the DM should ask themselves: is it really such a bad thing?