A while back I wrote a post on the inconsequential nature of most fights in D&D. Summarizing (and by all means, do read it, it’s probably the best post I have here), combat is inconsequential because its purpose is resource ablation. Originating in the dungeon crawling roots of D&D, this default approach allows the party to go through 4-6 fights a day, with tension rising as resources get expended. Only the last fight will carry the threat of killing a character or three, if things go well. Everything before was a prelude, with good tactics on the part of PCs letting them reduce the danger in that final confrontation. Troubles begin when your adventure doesn’t expect the PCs to have that many fights in a day.
This is the bit that many DMs stumble over: they consider threat of death being the purpose of combat, and therefore try to make every fight be a fight that can kill a PC. Since 4e wasn’t built for that, they have to use more and higher level monsters (or introduce drastic house rules like “halve the hit points and double the damage of monsters”, but that’s outside the scope of this post), which only serves to make combat longer. And since the PCs still refuse to go down, this results in DMs becoming even more frustrated as combat is now longer and still not doing what they want it to do.
By acknowledging this bias of D&D combat, we can more easily apply the mechanics of combat to achieve our desired result. In the aforementioned post I suggest introducing stakes to combat encounters which differ from “how many resources were spent”, thus allowing combat’s outcome to impact the story. And as combat in 4e typically takes an hour or more to resolve, it’d better impact the story, or threaten to kill PCs or have some other consequences.
However, just as not every fight is a fight to the death, not every fight introduces a fork into the narrative, either. Often, it makes sense to have a fight to underscore a point in the story. There are wolves in this forest, so a few of them attack you. You refused to pay the toll to the bridge troll, so he swings his club at you. And the ever popular bar fight. Another excellent reason to have a fight is to change up the pace of the narrative. Players get restless after several hours of tense negotiations, and just want to hit something. Sometimes, that causes the plot to derail as they pick an unnecessary fight just to have one. An excellent advice I’ve seen in some Dragon magazine a while back was to alternate each non-combat scene, be that a puzzle, a diplomatic challenge, and investigation or whatever else, with a combat scene.
The problem with these inconsequential combats is the time it will take to play through them. That is why random encounter tables have more or less disappeared in 4e. Some of these small combats can be best handled as skill checks or skill challenges. But seeing as most of the character creation time is spent on refining their combat abilities, doing so regularly is not fair to the players. There also were several attempts to introduce simplified combat rules for this very purpose in other 4e blogs. This, however, is entirely unnecessary. The core rules of 4e perfectly support fast combat, if you disregard the biased guidelines they are accompanied with.
Simply use about half the XP budget you would for a regular encounter. Or, even simpler, don’t worry about XP budget. A dozen minions trickling in or a couple of standard monsters is all you need. This is a terrible fight according to the usual metric of resources expended. It doesn’t offer a threat of death. Neither does it necessarily advance plot. Its not even a tactical challenge. But sometimes that is not what you’re after! You just want to show your players that yes, there are wolves here. And let them blow off some steam.
Be clear with the players about the nature of this fight, so they don’t waste daily powers (which are usually more complicated and would slow the fight down). Because there are fewer enemies, rounds will go faster, and it will only take 2 or 3 to bring them all down. 10-20 minutes later, you can go back to the plot. The key here is to know the purpose of the encounter – could be, an inconsequential combat is just what you need.