• Hello game master! Welcome to our growing community. Please take a moment to Register (top right button, see how: Slides).

    If you use Campaign Logger, you can use the same login details - we've linked the app to this forum for secure and easy single sign-on for you.

    And please drop by the Introductions thread and say hi.

RPT Newsletter #1,148 | 3 Round Combat Plans for Lightning Combats - Part I

Stephan Hornick

Community Goblin & Master of the Archive
Staff member
Platinum WoA
Wizard of Story
Wizard of Combat
Borderland Explorer
3 Round Combat Plans for Lightning Combats - Part I
From Johnn Four | Published March 8, 2021, updated May 16, 2021

Roleplaying Tips Newsletter #1,148

In Faster Combat, a Three Round Combat Plan is how your combat will end after your side has had three licks against the other side.
Why would we make something like that?
If your fights finish after the third bell, think how much faster they’ll be than melees that just grind on to the last hit point with no plan.
It’s also a fun game you play against yourself. How can you design the combat to end in three rounds?
Think of the cool puzzle-solving you get to do here, and how it’ll help you master your game system much faster.
But there’s one benefit that beats them all:

Creative combats.

Your Secret GM Goal
Our objective isn’t killing the player characters.
That’s boring. We can do that without a single bead of sweat. We just overwhelm the PCs, cut off escape, and bang! Hello new campaign.

What we really want is an awesome story.
The path to confronting what’s in Room IV should be fraught with peril.
And as the drama escalates, everyone is on the edge of their seat, biting their fingernails off.

To achieve that, we need to play a different game….
Something I call The Resource Depletion Game.
A boring name for an amazing game.

For example, run a combat whose sole purpose is to take the fighter’s magic sword in three rounds.
Given the combat rules and monster book at your disposal, would you try:
  • An invisible foe ready to slice off the sword belt and dash away?
  • Some kind of telekinesis to relieve the scabbard of its burden?
  • Clobbering the PC with everything you’ve got, grabbing the body, and retreating through a maze of traps?
Your players play a different game than you.
They play to chop the other side down to zero hit points.
But you simply want to reduce the party’s resources.

Imagine the first encounter eating up a few minor spells and causing a couple of light wounds.
The next encounter does the same.
And so does the third combat.
The players are feeling great. Look how powerful we are!
The score card says 3 – 0 in their favour to prove it.
Yet, they’re now 30% down on resources. 10% + 10% +10%.
A cake walk, they think.

But nagging injuries, a bite out of spell and ammunition inventories, and special powers used maybe once or twice, means the next combat aimed at 40% resource depletion is going to scare the crap out of them.
Because that leaves just 30% left for the Big Bad Evil Guy!

Do they go for it? Do they push their luck? Not all might make it back intact.
That’s a fantastic story setup.
And it’s not about the formula.
It’s a way of thinking.

We want to design awesome combats that don’t take forever to finish.
So the first part of 3 Round Combat Plans is to set encounter difficulty for storytelling purposes, and to play the exciting Resource Depletion Game.

Your Secret Monster Mission
The best strategies begin with the end in mind.
We have a story purpose for the combat – some degree of party resource depletion even if it’s just time on a countdown clock that’s lost.
This will give us fantastic escalating drama.
And so we’re now on a mission.

We seek to deplete party resources a certain amount by using traps, hazards, tricks, threats, monsters, and NPCs.
It’s ok if foes last only three rounds.
We’ve achieved our GM goal for the Resource Depletion Game, and it’s on to the next exciting encounter we go.
That’s one way 3 Round Combat Plans speed up your game. You have a goal and make a plan to achieve it that must be done in three rounds.

Like stealing the fighter’s sword. Or the party firing torpedoes on a false sensor reading. Or piling on area effect damage to drain the healers. Or shocking the wizard into casting his biggest spell in the first round with a coconut attack. (Coconut versus rock: hard on the outside but soft on the inside.)
Your monsters have a mission.

Meanwhile, our players are still playing that silly other game. Last Hit Point Standing.
Please don’t tell them this secret.

Your Secret Clue
So we stop designing combats that try beating players at their own game.
We change the game instead, and play it our way.
With System sorted via your planned game mechanics, and Story structure paying dividends in the soiled breeches department, we come to the final piece.

We skin the combat with your Setting.

We want players to face Sorgon the mysterious lizard emissary, not 56 hit points about to try blinding the archer.
Players want names, context, and meaning.
They want descriptions and exciting details.
So we call our bags of hit points gnolls and dragons and beholders.
We skin our combats with leg traps, exploding kegs dropped from above, and petrifying eye beams,
We must skin our combats so they change the Story.
It’s the Story of your plot, character arcs, and your Setting.

Ask yourself next time you design a combat, how can its outcome change the world, even if it’s at the local level?
Does a party victory result in the rest of the foes going on high alert? Do foes retaliate against character minions or anything the characters represent? Does the enemy find another party enemy and make an alliance?
Once we picture how our combat can change the Story, we put the seeds of this in our encounters.

We plant clues.

So now we not only have faster combats with 3 Round Combat Plans designed to achieve our secret goal of escalating tension through resource depletion, we have a Story brewing with clues players can pick up and noodle on.
And when the world changes after a fight, your players will start connecting things and think you’re a storytelling genius.

Example: The Dry Cough
For example, my Murder Hobos D&D 5E game is 12th level now.
This means the magickers are starting to outpace all other classes. Their spells for battlefield control, area attacks, and focus nuclear attacks on foes outstrip the rogues and warriors.
I need to deplete their spell slots to make the climactic boss encounter in Room IV as exciting as possible.
So in Room I, I plan a 3 Round Combat with the goal of nuking the priest’s best cure spell.
In Room III I attack with a disease hazard aimed at Constitution saves. Why CON? Because magickers suck at those scores.
In Room II I put in foes whose attacks result in two levels of exhaustion. My goal is to hit each magicker twice. Why? In D&D 5E the Exhaustion condition at tier 3 causes disadvantage on saving throws. Thus setting me up nicely for Room III’s CON saves.
The disease in Room III causes victims to have a coughing fit. This interrupts casting and concentration.
By the time Room IV rolls up (pun intended!) I’ve put the spellslingers in their place, making the rogue and warrior types vulnerable as foes aren’t getting nuked with divisive walls of hellfire, squeezed immobile by 50 giant constrictor snakes, or whacked by dang miracles.
Rooms I, II, and III have 3 Round Combat Plans so those fights finish faster.

3 Round Combat Plans
Room IV: I also make a 3 Round Combat Plan.
But because it’s the climactic encounter I’m not aiming for speed.
Instead, I’m designing for the most challenging chess moves I can make with my allotted game pieces.

My Secret Goal
You can see in my example how I’ve got a strategy built around creating an awesome finale for my players.
My secret goal is to whack the wizard and druid to make the other PCs vulnerable.
If successful, I know it’ll result in a memorable Room IV because the party comes to rely on spells softening foes up, dividing foes for easy conquering, and incapacitating individual enemies.
Without the spell layer, how will the party cope against the mighty minions of Orcus? It will be exciting to find out!

My Secret Monster Missions
Room I: Shock the party with significant damage to a single PC in three rounds, resulting in the party using the only healing spell that could fix The Dry Cough disease.
Room II: Exhaust casters so saving throws become harder to beat in three rounds.
Room III: Inflict the Dry Cough disease on as many spellcasters as possible in three rounds.
Room IV: Show time! Plan my best setup and moves for the first three rounds.

Players will enjoy the seemingly easy victories of the first three encounters.
But I’m playing a different game now.

My Secret Clue
As you can see, I’m plotting in the layer I call The Matrix.
I’m creating a strategy first.
I’m looking at the game behind the fluff and flavour and using System to achieve my ultimate goal of an exciting and memorable adventure finale.
Now I skin my encounters and combats.
I pick foes out of my monster book or create my own.
Then it’s dressing up locations with hazards, maps, and Setting details.
Then it’s adding adventure hooks, a party goal, and some Lore for the Story.
Finally, I look at my adventure holistically, like it’s an organism, to see how each combat might change upcoming encounters, making the world seem alive and dynamic.
Ditto with Room IV and how the likely outcome of (very narrow) PC victory will change the region.
And then I consider these potential changes and drop clues about them in prior encounters so players feel like the whole adventure is this deep, exciting, and connected experience.
Meantime, combats for Rooms I – III are fast. And also exciting for players in different ways. So the pace feels amazing.

Stephan Hornick

Community Goblin & Master of the Archive
Staff member
Platinum WoA
Wizard of Story
Wizard of Combat
Borderland Explorer
It’s Your Turn
Try it out yourself next session:
  1. Create your adventure, milestone, or 5 Room Dungeon final conflict encounter
  2. Build encounters leading up to your finale that play the strategic Resource Depletion Game
  3. Give those earlier combat encounters 3 Round Combat Plans with the goal of achieving part of your strategy
  4. Skin your encounters with lots of flavour, detail, and Lore
  5. Figure out how combat outcomes change future encounters
  6. Drop clues about those consequences into your adventure
Three Round Combat Plans not only speed up your game and the pace. They also serve secret GM goals as you play a game within the game.
After each session, reflect on how your strategy and plans worked. Identify parts that flopped and try something different next session so you master this over time.
You’ll become known as the diabolical game master players shake their fists at but then flock to your table because of your fantastic storytelling and amazing gameplay.

In 3 Round Combat Plans For Lightning Combats Part II, I’ll show you exactly what to plan for each round. I’ll also include an example 3 Round Combat Plan as the PCs enter dark caverns filled with a hated enemy. Lots of tips and tactics follow in the example!

Stephan Hornick

Community Goblin & Master of the Archive
Staff member
Platinum WoA
Wizard of Story
Wizard of Combat
Borderland Explorer
Nice elaboration, Johnn!
Very different than my usual approach. I'm not used to focus first on the System Pillar of the WoA pyramid, when designing adventures. I also assume that your adventures are quite a bit different as I usually have only one combat a session, although even that is not an hourly grind or so. I focus a lot on scenastic impression and my players' emotional roller coaster experience.
But I find your approach very valuable nevertheless. In a kind of vague process I already deplete my player's assets, some by difficult skill challenges, some by setting circumstances, and some by combat challenges. But I'm eager to try it out in a more concise way as you describe above.


Game Master
Staff member
Platinum WoA
Gold WoA
Wizard of Story
Wizard of Combat
Gamer Lifestyle
Demonplague Author
Borderland Explorer
Thanks @Stephan Hornick!

My combat frequency depends on group and system. D&D is a combat game, so I serve those up frequently. But when my Barbossa group expressed sentiments of more roleplay and puzzles, for example, I reduced things to 1-2 combats per session.

I do love my wargaming though, so by default I like combat as part of RPGs.

A trap we sometimes fall into is when combats take too long.

If a GM is confident they can trigger combat for story or pacing or other reasons, and they know they're only committing 15 mins of gameplay, they'll trigger combats more often.

More importantly, they can start to get very strategic with when, how, and why combats trigger.

But if a combat takes up half a session, then GMs won't run as many or won't enjoy the game. So they shy away for melees. And they lose a very useful tool from their GM Toolbox.


Well-known member
Wizard of Story
Wizard of Combat
Borderland Explorer
Should have read this thread before my four-hour combat yesterday night! :D I'll use these advices for planning my next combat encounter. I just found a video on the Tube with similar, yet expanding tips, from lovable Ginny Di: 15 minutes that can chang your next combat encounter!

Fixing my BORING D&D combat: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8TDcYfZap1I

Stephan Hornick

Community Goblin & Master of the Archive
Staff member
Platinum WoA
Wizard of Story
Wizard of Combat
Borderland Explorer
What exactly would you have made differently, @Rardian ?