“Speeding up combat” gets thrown around a lot.

When I talk about speeding up combat, I’m not interested in “patching” the rules or providing helpful alternatives to Problems X or Y, or creating nifty game aids. I’m interested in addressing problems underlying the combat system.

Some of those problems have to do with the procedural nature of combat — something I’ve seen discussed recently — and some of them have to do with the frequency of combat, and complexity of resolving combat encounters.

4e combat takes a long time, so it doesn’t occur as often. Combat occurs less frequently so players are unfamiliar with their features and powers. 4e combat takes longer to resolve because it takes a long time to resolve.

This isn’t the whole answer. 4e combat is also complex, full of many — some extraneous — options available to all characters and monsters. A noticeable, inconsistent variance in mechanics leads to inconsistent resolution systems.

Bull Rush pits Strength against Fortitude as a Standard action to push an adjacent enemy 1 square. Thunderwave pits Intelligence against Fortitude (again, as a Standard action) to deal damage and push creatures (in a blast 3) n squares.

Why are these at-will attack powers so different? Bringing a degree of consistency to effects will definitely help players resolve combat encounters more quickly, because they can apply the same information to more situations.

Again, this is only part of the answer. I’m given to understand that initiative systems were a variant rule “back in the day,” but with new mechanics like a “surprise” condition or “reaction” powers, initiative isn’t nearly as important.

The speed at which your character can act will largely be determined by the powers and features you have at your disposal, and the wits by which you use them. Oh, and your position on the battlefield. Why ever roll for initiative?

Taking turns seems to slow things down quite a bit, not to mention the whole “rolling for initiative” and determining an order for combatants. It makes sense to me for one side to go, then the other. If you’re stuck going second but have reaction powers, you’re in a great position. You can start all the fights you want.

I figure giving the GM the first turn — monsters always go first — would also speed up play tremendously. It gives the players time to assess the battlefield and the opportunity to “react first” to whatever the monsters are doing.

This will all certainly help, but is still only part of the answer.

You know what else would “speed up” combat? Making combat shorter.

And I’m not just talking about decreasing hit points or making the math easier, even though I’ll be doing both of those things — but I’ll also just make combat end sooner. Rather than forcing PCs to fight to the bloody end, monsters flee.

Constantly. As in, “monsters will run away if not dead.”

As in, “after about two rounds of combat, surviving monsters run away.”

You know what else this will help with? Maps and terrain. Instead of staring at the same map until your eyes bleed from a single fight, you can use much smaller maps and swap them out more often. You spend a minute or two with starting positions, then get rolling. You can get a lot of practice really quickly.

Shorter, like literally shorter. Easier, like “never look up a rule in the middle of a fight again.” Faster, like “we chased them clear across the castle and back again. They ambushed us once at the stairs, but they doubled back and we cornered them in the throne room. We fought ’em like five times.”