Sunday, June 12, 2011

Saving the game

I’ll let you in on a little secret: I never play long D&D sessions. I have this amazing gaming group who meets with regularity, takes turns for the DM role, and is kind enough to come play to our house and patiently wait for us to put the baby to sleep (often after several attempts) before we start with the dice rolling. Pulling off multiple encounters in a single evening is plainly impossible for us, and we are are often hard pressed to find the time for properly closing one fight. Still, we have managed to get by, and slowly level a party well into the paragon tier in these small increments, without finding any major trouble – that is, until last night.


This is how the table looked, like, when disaster struck.

It was a combination of several factors: poor planning, a late start, and an epic (though not Epic – we’re still stuck at level 12) encounter involving a large map and waves of minions. To be fair, it was a blast of a fight, where everything came together perfectly except for one niggling detail: it just wouldn’t end. A climatic moment where the party Assassin was brought down with no healing available wasn’t properly appreciated by the Assassin player, because she had fallen unconscious (save ends) in the sofa a while before that. The adventurers eventually started to drive back the hordes of foes, but there was more yawning than shouting with excitement. I tried to press on, to give this session a proper end but eventually it became obvious that we’d have to leave it unfinished with just a few monsters standing (but still resisting boldly against the worn down adventurers). And thus, a game that would have been all kinds of awesome had we started playing at an earlier hour had to be interrupted anticlimatically due to lack of time.

After my players left, I was left wondering how we could have addressed the situation better, other than turning the encounter into a more conventional and brief skirmish. It’s not like our scheduling allowed us to start playing much earlier, anyway. And then, looking at the untidy table covered with dungeon tiles, dice and miniatures, the solution dawned on me – I could save the game state at any point and continue the fight the following day!

Ok, so it’s not a huge revelation or anything (and besides, the post title was kind of an spoiler). Stopping games mid-combat is a straightforward concept, and one that I had already implemented as early as 20 years ago (don’t try to play Rolemaster in 15-minute school breaks, kids!). But it’s never been an efficient solution, and it only gets harder with a game as complex as 4E, with its rich tactical map, and the zillion variables to keep track of for each character. So, for practical considerations, I had erased that idea from my mind, when it came to my 4E campaign. But thinking about it at that moment, it all started to click.

The map status is easily taken care of, in this digital age – just take a handful of photographs, and use them to reconstruct the map at a later point. But what about the game status? How to handle the initiative order, spent HP and surges, PC conditions, and used powers for PCs and monsters? It turns out I had solved that problem months ago. As the group DM, I’ve been experimenting for a while with aggregating all game data on an excel sheet, which I update in real time. It’s a bit cumbersome, but you get used to it, and it is by far the most efficient way I’ve found for keeping track of all game variables. I figured out that with the data I had filled into that sheet, plus a couple of photos, we would have no trouble continuing an interrupted encounter.

This had two interesting consequences. The most immediate one, that I will actually be able to play through the demise of the mighty Ssark and his cohorts next week, making up for the failure of last session. And the second, that I will no longer need to force my patient players through a few more rounds just to prevent leaving a fight unfinished. I am now free to close a session whenever we feel like it, which is quite a relief. Hooray!

So, is there a lesson to be learned from all this? I don’t think this specific method for pausing and resuming encounters will be useful to all groups, as there are uncountable ways of keeping track of game status, and I suspect most wouldn’t lend themselves to this. But maybe you can do the trick by taking some notes, or it doesn’t matter so much if some information is lost along the way. The important thing is, there is a definite temptation of trying to push a game beyond the time your players should be going home, just because you only need one more turn (or two). When that time comes, it’s good to know that other options exist.


  1. A photograph could also be very useful to "preload" a map, since constructing one in the moment of the fight takes also a lot of time.

  2. 4e Turn Tracker rocks. Pretty sure there are comparable encounter management apps for Windows (not even counting full VTT systems like MapTool).

  3. I use masterplan personnally cause I had the same problem, you can use it to track initiative and status effects and it has a save option. Before that I used combat manager witch is simpler and more straightfoward.

  4. @frankie1969
    My group uses MapTool but that's because we play online. . .I have not seen it serve a useful purpose during an in-person game, though we've tried. Not saying there isn't one -- replacing that excel sheet Perico mentions, but not actually using the "map" part of maptool, might work pretty well. A glance at the screen would show the DM all status effects on monsters and PCs.

  5. Stopping encounters mid fight really kills the flow of things in my mind, but it can be done when it needs to be done-my group has had to do it a number of times after all.

    I wonder if you could get Maptools to run on an iPad, allowing people to effectively "drag" tokens along the surface...

  6. 4e DMG actually tells you to do just this, take a photo & resume later - it seems the WoTC designers all play on their lunch breaks.

    My personal solution I used in 3e is to take a cue from Real Life(!) in more ways than one*: I call it a day and declare that the combatants on both sides are too tired to continue, so everyone withdraws from the battlefield, and the fight ends.

    *This happened routinely in pre-modern combat; modern weapons are a lot less tiring to use. Plus it accurately reflects the actual state of the players!

    Surviving monsters get away and may link up with other monsters, perhaps to return to the same battlefield. 4e PCs get a Short Rest, which probably makes the players happy.