Tobold's Blog
Monday, April 23, 2012
Fighting your mirror image

My D&D 4E campaign is between adventures, and I'm entering my player's choices into their character sheets, leveling them up from level 1 to level 2. Now 4th edition has a "half your level" modifier on most d20 rolls, and as you always round down this modifier now appears for the first time. All attacks, skills, and defenses go up by 1, in addition to any changes from new talents and such. And of course hitpoints also go up with level, in 4E by a fixed value depending on your class. What *doesn't* go up is your damage. The half your level modifier does not apply to damage rolls, only to the d20 rolls which determine success or failure.

Now imagine a character fighting his mirror image, both at level 1 and at level 2. His chance to hit hasn't changed a bit, as the +1 to attack and defenses simply cancels each other out. His damage is still the same. But his hitpoints have gone up. In short, the combat between the mirror images at level 2 will take longer than the combat at level 1.

This is especially true at this level, because at level 2 characters only get a new utility power, and not attack powers. One would imagine that in levels where the characters get new attack powers, their damage output goes up a bit. And many powers deal more damage when reaching level 11 and level 21. But it appears that overall damage goes up slower than hitpoints.

Now I understand better the various comments I've been reading about 4th edition combat being "slow". Up to now in my campaign combat wasn't particularly slow. Patting myself on the back I can say that part of that has to do with preparation. But obviously another part of that is that the campaign is still at low levels. If combat against your mirror image gets slower with level, it is probable that combat against monsters also gets slower. Thus if in a few levels everybody has twice the hitpoints but still uses mostly the same attacks and deals the same damage, it is easy to see how combat could be felt to drag.

Over time this could become a problem. One way out of this is making sure that the magic items the group finds adds to their damage output. Basically I want to make sure that a character fighting his mirror image at a higher level doesn't need longer to kill it than he did at level 1. This is something I will have to keep an eye on over the length of my campaign.

This is something that D&D dev team is looking into for 5th ed.

Instead of increasing defences with leveling, they would increase damage output. The same would be done with monsters.

Thus a minion wouldn't need to be a high level monster (to have reasonable chance to hit and defences) with 1 hit point, but a lower level monster (goblins with a pack of ogres) that could be one hit killed by a higher level PC.

Don't know if this idea will make the cut or not.
It bumps up and down a bit as you go through the levels. Magic items have a lot to do with it, but so does feat selection. If your party is mostly focused on damage output, they're likely to take the 'Focus' feats early on (Weapon Focus / Implement Focus) which do bonus damage with your attacks, or other feats that help add to damage. Items like 'Iron Armbands of Power' can be quick ways of upping this count as well. And naturally, don't discount the power of the extra encounter power at L3, the next daily at L5, and similar milestones that let the players rely on at-will powers less often as battles increase.

You /will/ find battles getting longer, though. This does have a part to do with the HP scaling a bit faster than damage, but the majority of it is simply choice overload. As characters get more complex, they have more and more things to do on their turns, and more interrupts and reaction powers that make them do things on others' turns as well.
I agree with Kyre on all counts. You may find this article interesting -- it adjusts monster damage to make the game feel more dangerous.
I have to agree with Kyre here. Overall, the balance is quite solid, with feat choice and the like being the key. 3rd level (and 7th) will provide a bigger "bump" to the characters than 2nd level does, simply because the additional encounter power. By 7th, pretty much every encounter can start with three full rounds of encounter abilities, assuming neither of the two 'dailies' are brought to bear.

The real "slowness" is a matter of player choice, usually. The majority of our table time is spent deciding movement, which ability to use when, is it really time to bring out a daily, etc. When choices are clear cut (solo monsters, or just down to at-wills, or obvious "final boss of the day" fights where there's no point in saving any resources) play speeds up quite a bit.

At least in my experience, most of the "speed" issues with D&D 4 are tactical, not operational.
Since your HP has gone up and your damage has not, you surmise correctly that combat will take longer. But that's only half the story. The more specific effect of the changes you describe is to increase the average number of rounds per combat.

This figure, as Kyre says, will bump up and down through the levels: HP gain is pretty constant but each tier threshold (defined as levels 11 and 21) will see some damage boosts via feats and features (a feature is something like Sneak Attack, which gain extra dice between tiers); also at-wills gain an extra (W) at level 21. As the ratio of PC damage to enemy HP shifts, so will your average # of rounds per fight.

However, the amount of table time per round of combat is your true foe. "Off-timer" actions like Opportunity Attacks and Immediate Actions become prevalent as the PCs get more dailies and magic items with powers. Even arithmetic time adds up, as your PCs and monsters do 40 damage a swing instead of 7.

It turned out to be the my biggest gripe with 4e, so I wish you the best of luck with this advancement. It helps to 'train' your players whenever you can to have their turns planned out ahead of time, have their sheets marked up with as much simplification arithmetic as possible (in particular in heroic tier they should have critical hit damage listed on their sheets already, as you don't roll a dice and instead just deal max damage), and only choose powers they understand.
Well, I'm happy that I started early to reduce "table time per round of combat", by using things like monster stat cards, initiative riders on top of the DM screen so everybody knows when his turn is, and powers on little cards in trading card sleeves.
I would have thought combat was *intended* to take longer as levels go up. Players should have more options to try, players and monsters might have more magic items or powers that could increase damage, high-level characters simply have more to lose. It's pretty common that it takes longer in CRPGs, certainly.
What I do is both increase the damage monsters do and decrease their hp. It makes combat faster and more dangerous. My players get pretty bored during longer combats so this keeps it moving at a brisk, terrifying pace. No one likes when a combat has been reduced to "which at-will is least boring now".

The side effect though is they rely on encounter powers a lot and dailies but rarely touch the at-wills unless they absolutely have to.

Specifically, I reduce the hp by 25% and scale the dice for damage up one die. Two if the party has been lucky. So a D6 becomes a D8 or a D10. That can get things messy quick. Messy is good.
If you have a melee-based Striker in your party, you might want to see that they find an Iron Armbands of Power (Heroic) around level 5.

+2 damage on every melee hit is simply awesome.

Damage also depends a lot on what feats your Strikers are taking too.
Just wait until you hit paragon levels and the game complexity takes a big jump. My character (a fairly simple striker build) has eight different choices for how to shoot an arrow in his own turn and another 5 choices for reacting in somebody else's turn (usually shooting another couple of arrows).

To make it worse, each attack has 4 conditional to-hit modifiers and 5 damage modifiers before considering anything added by other characters or the opponents.

That's without counting magical ammunition which counter-intuitively gives me worse hit and damage modifiers than mundane ammo.

While many modifiers, such as for level, stats or feats, are pre-calculated on the character sheet the proliferation of conditional modifiers from leaders, feats and items in the mid to late game really adds to resolution time.
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