Quick preamble: this is probably system agnostic on some level, but I designed it for 5e.
5e’s design assumes you’re having probably way, way more combat encounters than you actually are, and that you’re playing long enough and quickly enough to resolve those encounters. I don’t know about your table, but mine doesn’t have 6-8 fights between rests, and even if they did, my brain goes a little numb from running a lot of combat.
Still, you want to be able to, for balance reasons as well as for the overall tension of your game, have your heroes be at least a little beat up when they reach the tower to rescue the Son of McGuffin. Those random encounter tables you’ve been ignoring were play-tested, after all, and the vampire lord at the end of the game wasn’t designed to eat everyone’s best spells all at once, and then be challenging through all their unused potions and utility abilities. You can definitely run 5e in such a way as to have one big, occasional fight, but then I kinda think you might enjoy a different game more.
If you don’t like tracking initiative and watching everyone go through the motions of killing mooks, though, this system might be right for you. Maybe you don’t have time to hand-craft the encounters the way you want, or didn’t have time to read the way the random encounters are supposed to work (this might especially be true for converting old, pre-5e adventures on the fly). If, for any reason, you want the party to be wading through the bodies of their enemies, but you do not feel like going through the specific motions of combat for every single goblin and rat, then this system is made with you in mind.
Step Zero: Perception and Stealth
See your party and the monsters see one another. If the party gets ambushed, or if the party ambushes another group, consider not using Quick Combat. There are situations where I absolutely would use quick combat in an ambush situation, but I might also let my players decide if they’d rather fast forward or not. They might want high fidelity control of the fight if they think they can get an especially good result (say, a prisoner or a chance to use the assassinate rogue ability to particularly good effect) or avoid an especially bad result through clever maneuvering or good initiative rolls.
Players that ambush monsters roll attacks (See step 3) at advantage, and players that get ambushed by monsters have their success value (also in Step 3) lowered by one.
If that is a particularly dangerous or story-altering outcome, have the monsters reroll ones on their damage instead (see Step 4).
Step One: Describe the creatures and make em angy
Be clear that this is a fight. Diplomacy won’t work and stealth has already failed. Be clear about what they see and hear. Give signals that this is combat.
You’re likely building these out of random encounter tables, so you probably don’t want the results to affect the overall arc of the story too much. In general, don’t let your random encounters be a way for high charisma players to farm new pets or sing Kumbaya with the forces of the evil army. Unless that’s your jam. I’m not the arbiter of what your group finds fun, and if I tried to be, I’d want you to laugh in my face.
Step Two: Set a DC
Add the difficulty of the encounter to 10. That’s your DC. Is the encounter CR 1? The DC is 11. CR 7? 17.
Keep bounded accuracy in mind as you get to higher levels. CR can go as high as 30, but attack rolls at the end game struggle to reach that in 5e. Pathfinder 2e has a chart of DCs by level, if you’re playing that system, so I’d just lean on that if you plan on co-opting this system for it.
Also, though, Quick Combat is for fights your players will likely win, but whose loss is only a minor setback – bandits rob them, or they’re forced to take a different route, or they’re just slowed down heavily. If the DC is exceptionally high, it’s not a good candidate for Quick Combat. Quick Combat is about making abstract the fights that need to happen for resource consumption, but that aren’t significant to the overall scope of the adventure.
Step Three: Call for an Attack Roll
Just a single, normal weapon attack with their best weapon. It can be a spell attack, it can be a ranged weapon attack, or it can be a melee weapon attack. The damage doesn’t matter, just their d20 roll.
Here are the results of every single Quick Combat.
|Critical Success||No Damage|
|Success||Take Half Damage|
|Failure||Take Full Damage|
|Critical Failure||Enemy Critical Damage|
Step Four: Roll Damage
Look at the encounter’s stat block and get its largest attack. Maybe it’s a breath weapon or a stat drain – include that stuff too. You can pair players off against monsters, if you want, or just disambiguate so that the most dangerous monster is the one that deals its damage.
Maybe the party met a pack of Intellect Devourers. You’ll roll 2d10 psychic damage and 3d6 intellect damage. You’ll need to make a judgement call about the intellect damage. Maybe have everyone who rolled a failure also roll a saving throw. Maybe only have people who failed critically take the intellect damage – but unless the party has easy access to resurrection magic, do not use critical dice on effects that will murder someone. Remember, these are about fights that it is appropriate to fast-forward through.
This also makes the lethal largely Body Thief ability inappropriate for Quick Combat, so at worst, someone becomes stunned because their Intelligence drops to zero – but also, I’m not your mom and if a player is okay with random death, have fun the way you guys have fun!
Step Five: Call for Mitigation
Mitigation is any limited resource the players have access to. A spell slot, a potion, an action surge, an ability that uses Ki Points or Sorcery Points. Be liberal in what you allow, and be flexible with the next thing you read.
In general, for every resource the party burns, get rid of a damage dice from the total damage. Players can burn resources to help one another or themselves. If the fighter succeeds critically, but the wizard failed, the fighter can absolutely burn an action surge to help the wizard.
Suppose our brain dogs from step four dealt 2d10 to the wizard, and 4d10 + 3d6 to the ranger, but nothing to the rogue and fighter. The rogue can expend a potion (any potion) to remove 1d10 from either the psychic damage or 1d6 from the intellect damage.
Don’t worry too much about how it worked – remember, you’re speeding through 4-5 rounds of combat. The Entangle spell doesn’t directly counter intellect damage, but it absolutely could have kept one of the intellect devourers out of the fight just long enough to matter.
Let players have a voice here. If the cleric specifically casts Cure Wounds, let them roll the spell’s healing dice instead of mitigating a damage dice. If the spell is especially effective — say, Protection from Evil versus Vampires — raise the victory level up a step. Let higher level spell slots and rarer consumable items be worth more, in general, too. Disintegrate versus a pack of goblins is probably an auto-win. Fine tune your results by applying specific effects from player resources and removing damage dice from monster attacks, and use your best judgement in the billions of weird edge-cases that will inevitably arise.
If every player burns a resource, then the players can each burn one more resource. They can repeat this process until someone won’t burn a resource, or if someone can’t burn a resource. Then combat resolves.
Step Six: Resolution
If the players have any success rolls, at all, they win the fight, even if they have a lot of wounds to lick. The bandits go running away, the intellect devourers are sliced up, the water elementals are banished – let your party describe as much of their victory as they want.
If every player loses, they lose the fight. The water elementals force a rout or the bandits escape with the party’s food or money. You can even have loss flavored as a pyrrhic victory, and our example intellect devourers (or any stat-lowering or curse-bestowing monster, such as a vampire or lycanthrope) are a great example. The intellect devourers are all dead – but the party also took a bunch of psychic damage and they’re all feeling foggy headed from having their intelligence lowered.
If you give out EXP, grant it here. If the party finds (or loses!) treasure, do that here too.
If the players lost the fight, but then burned so many resources that they don’t take very much damage (this is more art than science), or no damage at all, recast it as a victory. Everyone’s quick thinking and brute force turned a bad situation good. That’s what the resources were meant for, anyway, right? We just got through it in 10 minutes instead of 45. You’re welcome.