>D&D: No Masters Degree Required. Pt 2: Combat Encounters

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Picking up from our last lesson, here’s a quick summary of what we covered before: 
Look, an ancient Roman d20!
Okay, it doesn’t have anything to do with anything,
I just thought it was cool.
  1. The Core Mechanic of D&D:
    1. Roll a d20 – higher is better
    2. Add all applicable modifiers
    3. Compare to the target number. If your result is higher, you’ve succeeded.
  2. How characters are created. 
Among other things. I highlight these because they tie directly into what I’m going to talk about today, which has to do with encounters… and, because they directly relate to encounters, I”ll also be discussing things like powers, and the basic attacks available to all players. So, basically I’ll be talking about encounters and the toolbox of options players have to overcome them, and defining my terminology as I go. Starting with encounters, because really, there’s enough for a whole entry there.

What I’m not going to talk about are the tactics of miniatures combat, because they don’t actually matter enough in my mind to go into here; also because the books have more to say about this than I ever could, and I don’t want to run the risk of giving you too many reasons not to read them. 

If any of this looks terrifyingly complicated, please don’t panic. It really isn’t that complicated. Don’t worry if you don’t instantly master all the connections, just take what you do understand, jump in and start playing. Either your DM or one of the other players will be able to help you out with the rest, and you’ll master it eventually; the best way to learn a game is by playing. 
Incidentally, for those of you so inclined, there’s a link in the sidebar to a PDF that explains how combat works – very helpful summary, and a good thing to have handy if you forget how all this works. As an added bonus, Kiznit managed to fit the entire thing onto a single page, something I doubt my longer-winded version will accomplish. Short, sweet, and probably more comprehensible than I am as a bonus. Onward. 
An encounter, as defined here, is basically something that happens to you in a game. It’s a challenge that your characters must overcome with the help of your ingenuity as a player. 
There are basically two kinds of encounters. Role-playing happens throughout all of them, impacts all of them, binds them together and creates life, and fear leads to the Dark Side – wait, no, that’s the Force. Anyway, the point I’m making here is that the actual “playing a role” part of a role-playing game isn’t the part we need rules for, and I’m talking about rules right now. 
The first kind of encounter, and (after witnessing many playground debates which basically boiled down to, “I shot you!” “No, I shot you!” I think I can state this with some degree of accuracy) arguably the real reason why Role-playing games actually HAVE to have rules, is the combat encounter. 
A combat encounter, or simply a combat, is basically an encounter that involves overcoming something that specifically wants to kill your character. And possibly eat him/her. Monsters, thugs, kobolds, orcs, dragons, zombies, whatever it is, the world of medieval fantasy is a dangerous place, and adventurers are equipped to handle that kind of danger. 
Here’s a quick step-by-step description of what happens in a combat encounter. 
  1.  At some point, usually after giving some kind of description that sets the tone for what you’re dealing with, and possibly after giving one side or another the opportunity to surprise their opponents, the DM will ask you to roll initiative. 
    1. Initiative: This is basically a fancy way of saying, “roll to see who goes first in this combat encounter.” It’s not entirely unlike the way you roll to see who goes first in any other board game. It works like this: 
      1. Roll a d20 – higher is probably better, although certain classes would rather go last. 
      2. Add relevant modifiers. In this case, this would be your Dexterity modifier, along with 1/2 your character’s level rounded down. Half your level actually gets added to many of the rolls you’ll make when playing D&D 4th Edition – ask your DM if you’re not sure. 
      3. Compare to everyone else’s initiative total – highest goes first. If there’s a tie, the person with the highest dexterity modifier goes first. If you have the same dexterity modifier as the person you tied with, you each roll against each other. 
    2. Once Initiative has been rolled, and the order of combat determined, the combat encounter actually begins.
  2. Each person takes their turn, one at a time, in the sequence determined by initiative. During each turn, you perform the following: 
    1. Check to see if you’re taking any ongoing damage from something like being poisoned, or if you’re subject to any other effects that end at the beginning of your turn. If this is your first turn, you probably won’t need to worry about this. Proceed to step 2. 
    2. Take some actions! An action is basically defined as something that your character does. There are a few different types of actions, and you get one of each per turn under normal circumstances. These actions are: 
      1. The standard action, which is about how long it takes to attack someone with a sword or cast a spell or aim and fire a bow or do any of the other kinds of things that adventurers do in a fight. Basic Attacks are a Standard Action, and most attack powers are, too. There are a few other things that can be done as a standard action, too, but basically it’s the amount of time needed for a “somewhat complicated task.” You can trade this for either a move action or a minor action.
      2. The move action, which is usually used for – you guessed it – moving. All characters can walk their speed or shift a single square, (shifting lets them avoid Opportunity Attacks; it’s a safer kind of movement). Some skills may take a move action, as well. Some characters can do cooler things, like teleport on a more limited basis, depending on the powers they have available. You can also trade one for a minor action.
        1. Just so I don’t forget to cover it, an Opportunity Attack is what happens when someone does something next to a guy with a melee weapon that requires them to let their guard down, like turning your back and walking away. Most of the time, your DM will let you know if this comes up, so don’t worry about it too much right now.
      3. The minor action, which is fairly inconsequential in terms of effort required, but still takes more effort than, say, talking. Drawing a weapon, closing a door, opening a chest, all are usually minor actions, as is using any power that costs a minor action. 
      4. The free action is something so easy for you that you hardly have to think about it, like dropping something, talking, breathing, (I’m kidding about that one), and can be done during anyone’s turn. You can take as many free actions as you like, within reason – that’s why they’re free! 
    3. Make saving throws or do other things that specify that they happen at the end of your turn. Ask your DM if you aren’t sure. 
  3. Everyone plays in order, including the DM/monsters, and this repeats until the combat reaches its logical conclusion, whatever that might be. Everyone gets experience points (XP) and loot (if any) and the encounter is over. 
Still with me? Okay, I know that sounded complicated, but QUICK LOOK AT THE KITTEN!
Daaaaaaaaaaaaaw.
Okay, now that your mental batteries are recharged from that infusion of cuteness, I will continue. Here’s a summary of the last set of steps, simplified: roll initiative, take turns until the end. Each turn, do some combination of attacking, moving, hiding, jumping, or being creative and making your DM actually think. Roll a lot of d20s and a few other dice, too. Pretty simple. Oh, and if you can throw in a heroic catch phrase or something, you get bonus points. If all else fails, ask someone for help. 
Here’s a brief outline of how you’d attack something: 
  1. Pick your attack. This will be either a Ranged Basic Attack, a Melee Basic Attack, or a Power of some kind. It might also be some clever improvisational attack that noone was really expecting, like pushing the statue down the stairs. Let’s say, for the moment, that we’re doing a Melee Basic Attack. 
  2. Make your attack roll. This follows the core mechanic; the only thing that varies is which numbers you add. For example, for a melee basic attack, you would: 
    1. Roll a d20. Higher is always better, here. 
    2. Add your Strength modifier (unless you have a feat or class feature that says otherwise) + Half your level, rounded down, + the Proficiency bonus of your weapon + Any enhancement bonus of your weapon + anything else that says it adds to attack rolls, like a feat or class feature. 
    3. Check to see if the result is equal to or greater than the targets Armor Class. . 
  3. Roll damage dice for your weapon, and add your Strength modifier (unless you have a feat or class feature that says otherwise) + enhancement bonuses + any feats or class features that might boost your damage. 
I should note that powers and ranged basic attacks follow the same basic rules as the above; the only thing that changes is what numbers you add, and occasionally which target number you compare your roll to. I’ll explain this in the next entry, along with the number of tools that players have at their disposal – I really meant to cover more of them in this entry, but there just wasn’t space. 
So, next time I’ll cover: powers (including the difference between Implement and Weapon powers), healing surges, action points, defenses, and pretty much whatever else I have time for. 
OR, you can read the PDF I linked above, which explains action points along with some of the other little important things like combat advantage and the like. BUT . . . 
Again, the best way to learn this stuff is to play the game, and creating a character for yourself. Build a character, and learn whatever you need to know about how to play that character in the game. Then, it becomes easier to learn how to play a different one later, and you’re not overwhelming yourself by learning rules that you won’t actually use. 
No, this doesn’t have anything to do with anything.
I just figured you could use something cute to look at by now.
Aren’t they adorable? 
In closing, I’ll offer a few minor tips about reading powers for when you get into classes: please note that whenever a power gives its range, it is expressed in “squares.” This is kind of silly, but the fact is that D&D is usually played (by most people I’ve met) on a game grid, which does, in fact, feature “squares,” each of which represents 5 feet to a side. 1 square = 5 feet. Pretty simple. The only difference between 4th Edition and previous ones is that in the old days, we had to do that mental flip the other direction; this got somewhat complicated when dealing with things in the hundreds of feet, so having things rendered in squares is actually simpler. Multiplication is easier than division in much the same way that addition is easier than subtraction. 

But more on that later. This is WAY more than enough for now. 

Also: KITTIES 
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