“The troll’s turn begins.” The game master says while writing a note down on the troll’s sheet. “He moves forward and swings his fists out wildly.” He picks up a fist full of dice and rolls them out, counting them one by one. “The troll his Maligray for 35 damage, and causes 2 bleed damage. The troll’s own wounds seem to be healing. It’s now Maligray’s turn.” Maligray’s player guides his character through some healing and a bit of an escape. The game master says. “Alright, now time for the goblins.”
There isn’t really anything wrong with the above. I love to throw a fist full of dice at my players. It’s intimidating, it raises the feel of danger at the table. As characters get past the first few levels it becomes more and more time consuming, though. Monsters acting on multiple initiatives, various monster sheets to keep track of. These games are designed that, as the players get stronger, things get bigger and badder; which normally leads to more numbers! I have explained how to deal with GM Shellshock and simplifying your notes for the next adventure. Now, I’d like to share how I simplify monsters, damage, and combat with you.
The first thing we need to do is get rid of the excess. I like to look at monster rulebooks for ideas, examples, and numbers to fall back on for reference. But, just like my one page adventure setup, I want to only need a single page for my monsters, if that. I prefer to use quick small sticky notes or index cards. This way I can keep track of them. I actually have home-made laminated monster cards that I can use wet/dry erase markers on for the night.
When looking at a monster, we have just a few things that we need to know, number wise.; Name, XP (per player), AC, HP, Saves, Attack Bonus, and Average Damage. I have three major GM tools that I use for this process, The SRD, “Page 42”, and the Experience Point Awards chart. That’s it. No more than that, you can even do without some of these. A Gnoll would look something like:
Gnoll – XP:100 AC:15 HP:11 F/R/W:4/0/0 Attack:+3M /+1R Dmg:5
You may wonder, what about speed, initiative bonus, role play stats, and gear? We still have plenty of room for more. I like to add a notes section. So now the Gnoll information would look like:
Gnoll – XP:100 AC:15 HP:11 F/R/W:4/0/0 Attack:+3M /+1R Dmg:5 Notes: Likes to hunt in packs. +2 Perception. 60ft Darkvision.
That’s almost it. It looks like a ton of stuff is missing still, but that’s the point. His speed is 30, so no need to make any special notes about it, it’s not less than or more than the normal. His initiative bonus is zero, so no need to note it. If there is a zero on special stats like that; no point wasting time or space on it. You only want to note what is different. Now, there is one final thing I like to do to really spice things up. I want this Gnoll to feel like he is my Gnoll, from my world. In notes it says “Likes to hunt in packs.” Well, that’s cool but what does it mean? Let’s give it definition. And, I’m going to abbreviate things from now on, saves more time; it’s what I naturally do. So, my final Gnoll will look like this:
Gnoll – XP:100 AC:15 HP:11 F/R/W:4/0/0 Attack:+3M /+1R Dmg:5 Notes: +2 to M attacks when adjacent to a gnoll. +2 perc(+1 more for each adjacent gnoll). 60ft DV.
Now we have ourselves a pack hunting gnoll. This changes things up a bit, and should make the party use actual tactics. I don’t like throwing a fight in my game just for the sake of it. I want things to be different and fun each time. Normally this is all easiest when you have a monster to reference.
What if you don’t? Or don’t want to reference one. You want to make your own creation. It’s just as easy. Now we’ll be looking at that “Page 42”, you’ll notice it’s mostly for traps and skill challenges, no worries. I want to make a living tree demon for my encounter. I don’t have any references for that exact thing. But, I have an idea. The challenge rating needs to be 5 to match up with my party. I want it to be a moderate fight, just enough to warn the players of the dangers ahead.
Treemon – XP:400 AC:20 HP:75 F/R/W:5/1/1 Attack:+10M Dmg:6+1d4 Notes: Attacks 2 times a turn. At 25hp attack 3 times per turn and -4 to AC as bark falls off. Takes 2x damage vs divine. Always acts on first initiative. Speed 20. Perc 10.
Where did I get all of these numbers from? The XP was easy, it’s per player (4-5), and on that experience chart. I got AC from looking up Moderate on the Skill Checks of “Page 42” for CR5. HP is a simple formula. I add 10 per CR, so 50 base HP for any CR5 creature. Then add their Fort per CR, so that’s 25 more. Speaking of Fortitude, Reflex, and Will, where did those come from? From the low and high saving throws for CR5. I simply took the 10 out of them. I gave this monster one high save, and two low saves. Attack is from the CR5 high attack bonus. Since this is normally for traps, I reduce the damage dice down to half, otherwise the players would be killed in a heartbeat (as that’s what traps do, not most average CR monsters). It calls for 4d6+1 for low damage 5d6 for medium and 5d6+2 for high. Half of those, rounded up, would be 2d6+1, 3d6, and 3d6+2. So we can say that the highest damage rolled would be 20. The average of 20 is 10 damage. But, I want this monster to have a bit of variance in his numbers. So we’ll go to 6+1d4 to show the players that his damage isn’t fixed. Since he attacks 2 times a turn, he could max out at 20. Once again, notes are just things I thought would be cool. I gave him a 10 in perception, I didn’t want it going past his high attack bonus, so I figured that was just a fair number. The point here is, it’s easy to make a monster fast, and even easier to take premade monsters and have quick notes for them to have right in front of you. There is no need for all this extra stuff at the table.
This is one I love to experiment with. There are several ways to lower the math of your game. My first and foremost way is to average out my monster’s damage. Instead of 2d6+4, maximum of 16, I just go with 8. No need to constantly roll dice, unless I want to for the intimidation factor. Or, if you still like a little variance, go with 1d6+6. You still have a decent minimum, without always telling them a static number.
Another experiment I like, is to mess with experience. Going down to single digit numbers. Instead of tracking hundreds and thousands, just use simple numbers. I’ve found a good medium is 10xp*current level is needed for the next level. Each fight is worth the CR of the fight + the average party level (APL). So a CR 1 fight in an APL1 group gets 2 xp, they are 20% into the level. That keeps an even progression throughout, and is VERY easy to keep track of. You can have the players average out their damage too, if you want. There are plenty of numbers in this game, using the cheat sheets above is normally the best way to handle things, but always feel free to experiment.
Some nights it’s great to have all night dedicated to one tremendous fight, but that’s normally a fight that’s towards the end of the campaign. Players are more likely to remember a short, epic fight, than they are a long drawn out one. I like most of my fights to not go on for more than 2 rounds or so, especially at higher levels. Fixed initiative. Rather than giving a monster an initiative roll, I’ll just add their bonus to ten and stick to that.
Or say, They always go first, or third, or last, etc… On top of that, players that have combat companions are allowed to have those companions act on their initiative. I let this happen in my combats. But, I also treat my monsters the same way. My monsters typically all act on the same initiative. (Unless they have multiple initiatives in a fight). So if the dragon goes on a 25, so do the kobolds that worship it. This gives a bit more tactical advantage to the players, but also means that if they aren’t careful they can be quickly overrun… Against Kobold, that’s how you’re supposed to feel.
Try timing turns. A long while ago, we had to use a minute long hourglass. When it got to a players turn, I flipped it. They had one minute to announce what they were going to do, or their initiative was pushed to after the next PC/NPC/Monster acted. This kept players paying attention to combat, and made sure they were ready for what’s up next. A lot of time can go wasted explaining and re-explaining things. More time is wasted when players discuss every single move. I no longer do this, but my players know that I have no problems saying, I’ll come back to them after X goes instead.
The heat of combat should feel fast paced, dangerous, and fun. Keep it short and epic, and you’ll have amazing fights every night.
Check out the poll below. As always, ‘Tis but a scratch! ~Vexar