Saving the game in the middle of combat

Because my group has a limited time to game each week (about 3-3.5) hours, the amount of stuff we can do in an individual session is pretty limited. In particular, there’†s a big burden on the DM to craft encounters that she knows we can finish in that time. Sometimes the story leading up to encounter or the last few rounds are rushed so it fits all in before bedtime.

There’s a lot of discussion already about speeding up combat, but I ‘ve been wondering if it is possible to stop for the night in the middle of combat and pick up again next week. Here are my group’s constraints that make pausing for a week tricky:

  • We game on our hosts’ dining room table, so leaving everything laid out and set up is not an option.
  • We usually game every week, but there’s about a 20% chance the week will be skipped, so we need to make sure any needed info is not lost or forgotten.
  • The players may be different the next time we game, so we need to account for their characters.

The first problem is probably the easiest to solve. “Sarah” tends to draw the board out ahead of time on paper or a foldable grid map, and so I think the board will stay stable between weeks. We could mark up the board with either post-it flags or wet-erase marker to remember all the character positions and effects. We could then collect all the minis and other detrius and put them in a special box. My recommendation is to have a scribe write down any important info at the end, such as initiave order, effects on the characters and board and how much longer they will last. It’s a bit of pain, but I think it can be done in less than five minutes. The state will be easiest to save if we end the night at the top of a round instead of in the middle.

The second problem is really two problems. The first is information integrity. I’ve already suggested having a scribe record the state of the combat in terms of initiative and monsters, but it’s also important that each character saves his state: hit points, remaining healing surges and action points, used powers, status effects, etc. It’s incumbent on each player to dutifully record this information on a character sheet. Even though we use cards for tracking powers and poker chips for action points, the standard character sheet has boxes for checking off when these things are used. I can see myself doing this all at the end of the night if we are pausing the combat, but not on a round-by-round basis…I’m too lazy. It makes sense to leave all recorded the character sheets together in a folder with the other materials that will stay behind so they don’t get lost. For me, this may mean having two copies of my character sheet on hand — one for reference and one for tracking the battle.

The second part to the problem is inertia. Sometimes it may be better to slog through or rush a combat rather than having to pick it up a week later. There could be a loss of tension, excitement, or motivation between the weeks (or a gain, depending). Also there will a be a certain amount of time dedicated to resetting the battlefield and remembering what we were doing and what the plans were. It may help for each player to make notes about what they were planning on doing at the end of the night. For us, we’d probably use the same tactics we do now for getting pysched up before a regular game: beer and AC/DC.

I don’t know how general the third problem (changing players)  is, but it affects my group regularly. In the situation where we have one less player, another player or the DM could in theory take over the character of the remainder of the combat. This is logistically easy since he would have left behind the mini and updated character sheet. The difficulty here overcoming the resistance to play another character. I think it should be issue-free for half of a combat. When we have an additional player, the player can either take over some of the monsters or enter the fray as unexpected backup. This might upset the encounter balance, but since the game is about everyone having fun… who cares? There is still an issue when there is a mismatch of players to characters. When this happens we can instantly swap the characters, which may put the character in a sticky situation, or the player can do as above and play the other character for the remainder of combat before the characters are switched out.

Has anyone experimented with this? I think it’s easiest still to finish up an encounter before calling it quits, but it’s nice to have other options.


9 thoughts on “Saving the game in the middle of combat

  1. I agree, it is better to finish than to break, if possible. Sometimes with a boss fight that isn’t always possible.

    Since I game on-line and use maptool, I can save the board easily. I can also save the initiative order by cutting and pasting it into my log.

    I do recommend that if you have to stop, try to stop at the top of the initiative order, so there is no question about where you are starting.

    For most fights, there are a number of techniques that you can use to make it go quicker.

    – You can have monsters run away or surrender.
    – You can have the monsters fall at their bloodied level, unless they have something cool they can do when bloodied.
    – Monsters can suddenly become minions and fall with the next hit.
    – You can summarize the end of the combat.

    If the outcome is pretty certain, then shortening a fight using these techniques won’t really detract too much from the overall adventure. If you feel the group needs to pay more for the encounter, consider extracting a surge from everyone. While some might not have taken any damage at all, it will even out with the defenders that would have taken more damage.


  2. Both of the comments above are good ideas. You might have the opponents flee and regroup in the next room. Deduct one or two enemies for losses incurred in the retreat.

  3. I use initTool making it very easy to save that info. I use OneNote on my laptop to record hitpoints, monster power usage, and status, so there’s that.

    To record the map state, I will either put notes on the battlemat, or if I’m using Dungeon Tiles, create a quick sketch of the battlefield. I’m mostly concerned for the relative positions of people since the players usually have some recall of the more exact state relative to their character.

    The only thing “I” have trouble with is getting the players to record their state. I usually make sure I mark down the status effects that are currently on the players, but the players often have trouble remembering things like healing surges or powers used.

    I’ve tried using other Combat Managers which might easily save all the state information, but they usually take too long to setup or use in game, at least for my taste. Plus with OneNote, I’ve got my other notes right there too.

  4. @Elderac,

    Those are great suggestions. I do enjoy the actual strategy board-game aspects of D&D combat, so I’d hate to give up too many rounds, but there are the practical concerns of getting a good night’s sleep.

    For us there’s like an order:
    1. If there are only a few rounds left, slog through them.
    2. If there are more than a few rounds left, use tricks like the ones you suggested to end the encounter sooner.
    3. If it’s too detailed an encounter, don’t start it and end early for the night.

    It’s that last one that I’d like to propose this solution to my group. But maybe that would require a lot of work for our DM to allow for stopping points in the middle of an encounter. I guess we could also use some kind of strung-together encounter where there are actually multiple, distinct encounters, but less than a short rest apart.

    Good idea. My hosts have iPhones, so that seems pretty reasonable. I worry about about a single picture capturing enough of the board to reconstruct it, but it is better than nothing, and probably a good backup in case post-its fall off or marks get erased.

    The player responsibility is a big part in making this work. I haven’t figured out a good way to motivate people to do the paperwork… I have enough trouble motivating myself. But if everybody did their part, I think it would be worth trying. Our DM does use some kind of tracking tool, but we use a flags on top of her “laptop” to indicate the initiative order. It’s nice that we can all see it.

  5. For the third problem, with players changing out, don’t be afraid to go cinematic. Somebody didn’t show up? Boom, he’s knocked out of the fight. The boss just used a previously unknown daily power to paralyze him or something. It’s realistic, highlights the danger the party is in, and neatly solves the reason that character is no longer contributing. (Don’t kill him off, though, as that’s no fun.)

    Somebody new show up? That is totally a case of the cavalry/second wave showing up. You can either have it happen immediately, or wait a round or two to see if a really good moment presents itself.

  6. I take a camera pic of the combat scene, like by_the_sword suggests. Then bring it up on the camera or computer next time for setup.

    How do players track their current status right now? This might be photographable too.

    Else, end three minutes earlier, have a form ready, and fill it out.

    @Eldarac – Great tip about stopping at top of init order.

    I use a spreadsheet to manage init, so it’s easy to record round #, spells active, etc. I do it each round anyway, so I just hit save and close at session end, and am ready to resume fast next session.

    I used to use init cards. It was easy to make notes on each PC’s card at the end of a session, and to keep the cards in init order between sessions with a clip.

  7. Yes, I’ve done this more than a few times and pretty much in the way you suggest. It’s not ideal but sometimes it’s the only way to handle the situation. One alternative I’ve used a bit in 4e is to have the monsters withdraw and allow for a short rest, essentially splitting the encounter into two. In this case I’ve allowed the monsters to heal as if they had one or two surges in the gap between sessions.

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