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Lightning Combat

Lightning Combat

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Sometimes in roleplaying games, everyone at the table is so into some epic tactical combat that they never want it to end. I’m not talking about those times.

I’m talking about when you want speed combat along. It might be to improve the pacing of the story, because your players are going to leave in 20 minutes, or that you see everyone’s attention wander when a big combat goes on for more than two or three rounds.

Buff Offense and Initiative, Nerf Defense

This is a great way to keep the combat exciting but stop it from taking forever.

Why Buff the Offense?

If you are going to shorten at 5+ round combat to a 2 or 3 round combat, you want the players to still worry that they might lose. You need to hit them harder and faster.

In games like 5E with death saves, I like to have at least one player have to start making death saves. Nothing focuses players like death saves. I mean, just the name death saves. Also, it allows a healer character to really shine when they save the day.

To buff the offense, you can

  • Increase the damage the monster does

  • Increase the chance that the monster will hit the player characters

  • Add more attacks by the monster

  • For Cypher System games, start each combat with a GM Intrusion

A simple method is to increase the damage done by 1/3. What’s great about this is that is simple, easy to remember, and while you may need a calculator (like the one on your phone), you can do it on the fly.

The downside is what if you roll bad and the monster never hits? It’s unlikely that the players will feel like a 2 or 3 round combat where they were never touched was an exciting or memorable action scene. How big worry this is depends on the game system (looking at you, Rogue Trader) and the chance for the monster to miss.

If you’re worried that the monster is likely to miss, adding to the monster’s attack chances helps, as does adding another attack.


Since we’re about to nerf the defense, you want to make sure your glass cannons get a hit or three in. See that they go early in the initiative order. For a d20 game that might be a +4 to initiative, for a Cypher System game it might be +2 to the initiative difficulty, and for a GUMSHOE game it might be a +2 to the weapon skill (but just in terms of initiative).

Or you can just decide your monster goes first. Simplicity is beauty.

Nerf the Defense

This is how you make the combat go faster. The PCs will be able to bring the monsters down faster and get on with whatever comes next. You can:

  • Decrease the monster’s hit points

  • Decrease the monster’s defenses

  • Monsters could surrender or flee

  • Steal the escalation die mechanic from 13th Age (for games like 5E where monsters get saving throws, the escalation die can be a penalty to that roll):

The escalation die represents a bonus to attacks as the fight goes on.

At the start of the second round, the GM sets the escalation die at 1. Each PC gains a bonus to attack rolls equal to the current value on the escalation die. Each round, the escalation die advances by +1, to a maximum of +6.

Monsters and NPCs do not add the escalation die bonus to their attacks.

  • In a 13th Age game, allow players to spend an icon boon to increase the escalation die by one.

A simple method is to decrease the hit points by 1/3. Again, this is simple, easy to do (maybe with a calculator), and you can do it on the fly. A writeup of this for 13th Age by Rob Heinsoo can be found here:

Again, the downside is potential misses. Those lower hit points don’t matter if no one can touch the monster. In a game like 5E, defenses are armor class and saving throws. Lowering some or all defenses by three or four in a d20 game will often stop the misses. In Cypher System, lower the difficulty by one or two. In GUMSHOE, lower the hit threshold by one.

What Works for Me

In d20 games, the +1/3 damage and – 1/3 hit points works well for me, especially on the fly. I will bump the initiative by four.

If I have time, I might lower the defenses of some monsters while lowering the hit points of others, just to mix it up and give different monsters a different feel. Same for offense, I’ll increase the damage for some, and the hit chances for others.


What have you done to encourage Lightning Combat, and how did it work for you?


Dread Unicorn at AetherCon VII

Dread Unicorn at AetherCon VII

Scheduling Game Time

Scheduling Game Time