Gripe all you want about 4E, but I’ve learned more than a few things from everyone’s favorite whipping-boy RPG. As a player, I spent more than a few tense moments at the beginning of many encounters, wondering how the party was going to survive this onslaught. Once I recognized the pattern (thanks to a comment by Martin), it all made sense.

A number of factors contribute to the feeling of impending doom at the start of a 4E encounter, but the one that can be most easily drifted into another system is front-loading. No, I’m not talking about a high efficiency washing machine, but about maximizing the effect the obstacles (bad guys, tactics, terrain, etc) have on the player characters early in the encounter.

  • Fire your most powerful weapons early, whether powerful area-effect attacks like a barrage of grenades or a dragon using her breath weapon, or more targeted weapons like blowing through a magazine on full-auto or a phased plasma rifle in the 40-watt range. Those attacks may not be available again, or may take a while to recharge, but the effect will be instantaneous.
  • Less obvious is to use debilitating effects on your PCs at the start of combat. Every magic system has spells that negatively affect their targets without doing actual damage. Most sci-fi settings will have something similar. Even modern ‘realistic’ systems should model flash-bangs, varieties of gas, and even really loud rock music.
  • Tactics are another way to front-load an encounter. The classic example is an ambush, where the ambushers gain a huge initial advantage. Simple terrain effects like barriers for cover and concealment, or simply using the high ground can make the initial round or two much more “interesting” for the players.

Whatever you use, the net effect will be players who are surprised and concerned at how difficult the combat initially seems, but who aren’t in much danger of suffering a TPK. If your players are anything like me (and my players), they’ll be more engaged in the combat, and more satisfied that they survived.

Agree? Disagree? Got something to add? Sound off in the comments and let us know!