A common complaint about 4th Edition D&D is that combats (especially high-level combats) can take a very long time. Depending on the DM and players, this can be painfully true. However, there are some simple things that both players and DM can do to streamline combats, both at low level and high level. This makes combats less of a drag and gives more time for creativity and roleplaying.
Players: Know your character!
Nothing is more frustrating as a DM or as a player than having another player at the table waste everyone’s time by not being familiar with their character. When you sit down at a table with a character you haven’t played for a while, familiarize yourself with the basic mechanics your character uses. For example, if you’re playing an avenger, remind yourself how oath of enmity works.
You can also help yourself out by having a well-organized character sheet and power list prepared ahead of time. The Character Builder does a pretty good job of this, but it’s also a good idea to write down a list of conditional modifiers or damage bonuses that don’t always apply. For example, if your character is a rogue, write down your sneak attack bonus dice in a convenient place. You might even write these dice underneath each power that they apply to. This is especially important if your bonuses only apply to some of your powers. If you are a warlock, for example, you might write “+1 to hit with Prime Shot” underneath your eldritch blast power, but not write it underneath your howl of doom power, since Prime Shot does not apply to that close blast power.
Players: Be ready to go
As much as possible, plan your turn ahead of time. Pay attention, even when it is not your turn, and plan out what you want to do. Sometimes things will change dramatically and you’ll have to re-evaluate when your turn comes around, but typically you should be able to figure out what you want to do before it is your turn. This way when the DM calls your name, you have dice in hand and can take a quick turn. You can also take some of the time between turns to look over your power list and remind yourself about conditional bonuses and make sure that you know exactly what your hit and damage bonuses are when you roll your dice.
DMs: Don’t go backwards
This may seem harsh, but once a player’s turn (or a monster’s turn!) is over, that’s it. If a player says “hey, remember two turns ago? Yeah, that guy was actually dazed, so he couldn’t have done that thing he did,” just say “sorry, too late.” This keeps the flow of the game going forward, and helps encourage players to keep track of their own effects.
DMs: Make players responsible
One of the toughest things about being a DM in 4E is keeping track of the various effects that players toss around. Dazed, vulnerable, slowed, etc. can all stack up in confusing ways. Most players use magnets or other indicators for effects on monsters as reminders. Many of these effects are important to keep track of; for example, if a monster is dazed, then that’s something you should have marked on its initiative card. However, if a monster is vulnerable to cold damage, then that is usually something only the player needs to keep track of. If you make it the player’s responsibility to add the vulnerability damage, then that’s one less thing for you to keep track of. The other thing to keep in mind is: if you forget to account for something, it’s not a big deal. Your main job is to keep things moving forward and to help players have a good time. If you realize a couple turns later that you forgot to apply a penalty to a monster’s attack, and that penalty would have made the monster miss, then instead of going backwards (see above), either just don’t worry about it, or go ahead and (secretly) apply the penalty to a future attack. This, incidentally, is why I like rolling dice behind a screen. It allows me to adjust for things I may have forgotten without letting the players realize that anything happened.
DMs: Call combats when they are effectively over
The best thing a DM can do to keep high-level modules moving forward is to be willing to “call the combat.” When it is clear that the monsters have lost, and will be unable to inflict any more serious damage on the PC’s, just award the PC’s the win and move on. Some PC’s may complain that you did not give them the opportunity to show off some awesome power, but most will appreciate that you are simply trying to not waste their time. You should also consider calling a combat even when it is not truly “in the bag,” especially if you are running short on time. You might say something like, “well, this guy has 300 hp left, and he’s got some good stuff left, but you’re going to win, so I’ll call it, but everyone spend an extra healing surge.”
If you follow these principles, I think you will find that combats at high level will run much more smoothly, and you won’t find yourself running combats that last 2 hours or longer.