I've been asked to link to a blog entry about one of the techniques I use to make combat in 4th edition faster, more dynamic and more interesting. I'm honored that anyone would be interested, but first, some caveats:
First of all, while I arrived at the idea independently, I have seen it posted in other places. I've just never seen it gain much traction.
Second of all, it doesn't matter very much anymore. The designers have changed the monster "math" to deal with the "problem." I'm only still thinking about it because I haven't moved to the new monster math (partly because I have a solution I prefer) and because questions about combat speed still show up on the "What's A DM To Do?" forum, which I frequent.
With that out of the way, here's the basic idea with details and background to follow: Use the monsters' HP and defenses as resources to enable it to move where it wants on the battlefield, and attack with impunity. The PCs will do more damage through opportunity attacks, defender marks, zones and the like; the monsters will be more of a threat to the party as a whole (and certain members in particular); there will be more movement; and combat will be faster, more dynamic, and more interesting.
The basic issue with combat in 4th Edition is that it takes longer than many people prefer to spend to fullfil the baseline assumption of D&D combat, which is to reduce the monsters to 0 HP. This is largely due to the fact that monsters originally (and some would say still) have relatively high HP and defenses, so that even a party's encounter powers are not enough to finish the monsters off and, unless dailies are used (which I believe is the intent, but that's for a different article) the PCs are quickly reduced to "grinding" the monsters down with at-will powers.
Compounding this is the relatively low amount of damage monsters used to do. This doesn't itself increase the length of combat, but it makes it more frustrating for certain DMs and groups, because despite all the time spent in combat, the monsters don't seem to be much of a threat.
I became fully aware of these issues during one particular combat with my group and it dawned on me what I could do about them.
I first discussed this in another blog entry: community.wizards.com/centauri/blog/2010... Basically, I decided in that encounter, that the monster would quickly (if not prior to the battle) realize how physically tough it is compared to the PCs attacks. However one imagines HP to be represented inside the game, it's plausible that a creature knows how hurt it is, so, if a character's attack takes off only a small fraction of its HP, the creature would come to think of the attacks as not much of a deterrent. If the PCs are having a hard time hitting the creature's defenses, it would also probably conclude that the PCs aren't an immediate threat.
A creature would also probably draw some conclusions from how much of a threat its own attacks seemed to be toward the PCs it was attacking. HP are abstract, but if the creature has unleashed a barrage against the fighter and wasn't able to bloody it or drive it off, it might reasonably conclude that the fighter is too hard a nut to crack, and look for targets that seem softer.
What this all adds up to is provoking more opportunity attacks and defender marks from monsters, in order to allow the monsters to put their damage where it will have the most effect. Creatures might also brave damaging effects, either staying within them, or moving through them, to deal damage to the right targets.
I think part of why this idea has trouble gaining traction is that I think there's a general perception that if a monster is provoking opportunity attacks then something has gone terribly wrong. It's never necessary to provoke them, and accidentally doing so is, I believe, taken by many as a mark of inexperience, and, yes, doing so will cause the monsters to die sooner. But monsters don't necessarily know any of that. They would plausibly come to think both that they are relatively safe (at least for a while) from PC attacks, and that sustaining a few extra hits might be worth it to chomp on the guy in the robes at the back. I think even mindless or dimwitted monsters might reach that conclusion, or be guided to it by some internal or external imperative.
This technique is not guaranteed to make combat more dangerous. After all, a marked creature might still have a hard time damaging other targets. It also might not be more dangerous if the PCs realize the threat, realize that opportunity attacks and defender marks aren't enough to deter the monsters from attacking their softer allies, and step up the defense. But in that case, the PCs are probably using up more resources to improve their defensive line, and using up resources in one battle means later battles will be that much more challenging.
And it doesn't need to be used if it just seems too improbable that a creature would take that approach. I switch back and forth during battles, as the creature becomes more wounded, and the softer targets get out of the way, or as other conditions change, making the tactic more or less effective for the creature. Monster goals might also change. Not all monsters want to take risks, not all monsters have the goal of killing PCs at any cost. In fact, I encourage DMs to give their monsters more interesting goals, but it's common for people to run monsters as if all of them have dreams of TPKs in their horrible little hearts.
It's worth noting that some defender players will not like it if monsters ignore their marks, especially if the mark has an effect than can miss, such as Combat Challenge, and if the attack always seems to miss. Be mindful of this, and remember that the point of this technique is to make the game more fun. If it's not achieving that, don't use it.
The technique also requires attentive players, as they will be making attacks off their turn. I find that players quickly get into the swing, so to speak, of their basic attacks, and can be quick about them, once they see that the attacks will often be provoked. Having the players roll more attacks means more critical hits, which is always fun. Combat also tends to be more dynamic under this technique, because monsters are harder to "lock down" merely with the threat of damage. There is more movement of monsters to get at targets, and more movement of PCs to protected those targets.
I recognize this technique is not for everyone, and as I said above, the time of its larger relevance and usefulness has mostly passed. Despite this, it's a useful thing to keep in mind not just for 4th Edition games but for other editions, and even other games, in which monsters have resources that they can use either to stay alive, or to make the most of what life they have left.