Putting the Swing Back in D&D

Some time ago, I experimented with lowering the hit points of monsters and increasing their damage in an attempt to speed combat along.  In the process, I learned an important lesson.  Swing is fun!

I define “swing” as the unpredictability of a conflict, and the ability of a single roll to shape the entire outcome of the conflict.  Swing was a big part of earlier editions.  At low levels, an lone orc could take a fighter’s head off with a single lucky critical, and at high levels the number of save-or-die spells made combat unpredictable at best.

Most of this was removed in 4th edition.  Yes, there exists the possibly that the monsters will win even if you play every move perfectly.  However, the actual probability of said loss for a level appropriate encounter is extremely low.  Monster damage scales evenly with level, and no single roll can drop a player character outright.

Taking the randomness out of combat is not necessarily a bad thing.  A game where a single critical hit from a monster can obliterate a party member is random and cruel.  Yet when the outcome of every fight is practically predetermined, combat as a whole can feel like, “going through the motions.”

You can make fights less of a defined affair by bumping the encounter levels up, but this tends to result in slow grinds, and it’s very hard to balance a fight which is just hard enough that neither side, player or monster, is assured a victory.  Combat is slow enough as is, making it slower isn’t going to help.

I’ve personally found that lowering monster HP and raising damage is the best way to bring back some swing into the game and to speed up combat.  Monsters are the domain of the DM, so you can change the scores of the monsters without the players having to think about it.

For a moderately swingy game, a good rule of thumb is to give the monsters 2/3 their normal HP, but bump the damage by 50%.  A 50% boost in damage can often be found simply by adding 1[w] onto the damage rolls, but you’ll have to examine each power to make sure you’re getting one-and-a-half on the average.

With the lower HP and higher damage, your players will be able to kill the monsters faster, but run the risk of being killed faster too.  It’s not enough for instant kills, but it is enough to make any player respect a level appropriate encounter.  Not fear, exactly, but definitely respect.

Minions, for obvious reasons, should be left alone.  You can’t reduce their hit point value, so raising their damage just makes them more dangerous than they already are.

There are a number of implications of this kind of change that take a while to be fully understood.  The party leader will be working harder each turn, and the party controller will become slightly more effective on average.  Initiative bonuses matter more, as does tactical positioning.  Flanking, cover, stealth, and other maneuvers become more important.  If your players are the kind who maximize every advantage and like setting up choke points, concentrating fire, and try to control the range and flow of engagement every fight, they’ll appreciate the accelerated combat.

Remember that adding swing to combat benefits the monsters.  The players need to win every single battle they come across.  The monsters only need to win once.  Therefore, you don’t want to use the accelerated combat as an excuse to drop level+3 encounters on your players.  Yes, the former slugfest fight will run a little faster, but with a significantly higher chance of a TPK.

It’s worth mentioning that since these changes all happen on the monster side, you can mix and match.  It might be the right choice for fighting kobold dragon shields, but inappropriate for a beholder.  If you don’t tell them what you’re up to, your players might not even notice the mechanical change, just the way that fights “feel” different.  The best kinds of changes are mechanically invisible.

Old monsters take to these changes much better than newer ones.  There’s been a push as of Monster Manual 3 to adjust damage of creatures upward and push HP lower, especially in solos.  As with any kind of home brew tweak, there’s the definite possibility that everyone dies.  The accelerated combat might just be worth it, though, even to the people more likely to die.

A final side effect of the faster combats: you will have to run more material every night!  You might have to work harder to fill your session with content, but I think most players and DMs will consider this effect a net win.

[tags]D&D, Dungeons and Dragons, 4e,  Role Playing Games, rpg, combat, swing[/tags]

8 thoughts on “Putting the Swing Back in D&D

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  1. Have you tried retrofitting the MM3 changes onto MM1 monsters? Does that result in a similar effect? I was thinking of trying a few but I was kind of hoping WOTC would publish some big errata with adjusted HP/damage for all the MM1/2 guys.


  2. As far as I know, there’s no “defined” way to retrofit the MM3 changes onto an MM1 monster, except to lower the solo’s HP by 20% at paragon and epic levels. It’s more of a design aesthetic as far as I can tell.

    That being said, this kind of change is pretty much the same as the philosophy behind MM3, where monsters are still a bit scary, but don’t take forever to drop. This is just the smallest possible change which makes monsters a touch more respectable, without raising the average balance of the encounter.


  3. About the minions, what I usually do is not increase their damage, but replace fixed damage with dice rolls. So if it’s an Orc Drudge with +9 vs. AC, 5 damage, I replace it with +9 vs AC, 1d10 damage (or 1d12, whatever).


  4. Mala, that’s actually a pretty good idea. I’d be concerned about adding complexity (and time) to minions but it solves two problems at once — adding swing and also making it harder to detect minions by the fixed damage rolls.


  5. I know I’m way behind on getting to this comment, I’ve had a rough two weeks, but you did a fantastic job with this article.

    For the short period of time that I ran 4e, I did something pretty similar. My solution wasn’t nearly as elegant, and I think had I used your “swing” I would have had a better time with it.


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