One option for reaching a Conanesque height of excitement in every fight is just, you know, don't play D&D. Play an abstract system like Tunnels & Trolls where any level of combat is over quickly. But the trouble with T&T, as we discussed, is that the fights are not detailed enough to give a sense of evolution over time.
|Immortal level: was this any fun?|
I know they're much reviled among the Old School, but the Wizards editions of D&D were developed with an eye toward player experience at all levels, and their solution was to give higher-level characters more feats and options in combat. In 3rd and 4th editions, you're too busy using your great variety of combat moves to realize that this fight has taken 20 rounds as you go to town on a 200 hit point colossal dire wombatborn ear seeker. Dismiss it as you may, I think I'd rather play that way at high levels than just step up, roll d20 and swing for 20 rounds.
But why should the combat take 20 rounds? The E6 approach to 3rd edition aims at making big monsters a bigger challenge by capping hit point advancement at level 6, while allowing the addition of feats and skills to give the sense of some kind of advancement, as well as the aforementioned qualitative increase in combat options. If you're facing something really terrible - like going up solo against a stegosaurus - you're still going to want to grab at all the dirty tricks you can. Hell, I'm not sure the actual Conan stories are set in anything more than an E3 world.
Of course, loading up on feats has disadvantages for those who want a quick and easily improvised game, where you can just drop a 6th level fighter into the mix without worrying what exactly his epic smorgasbord of moves looks like. Can we get a feat list that's shorter, not longer, than a wizard's spell list? Are there any other ways to speed and spice up high-level combat without leaving the assumptions of D&D?
More on that next.