Analyzing Combat Encounters – Returning to the Penny Arcade/PvP Podcast Series

Introduction

Numerous voices are currently discussing the resting mechanics and speed of combat encounters during D&D 4e games. More specifically, the problem addressed is the sometimes agonizing length of combat encounters and how it can drain the momentum from an otherwise good night of gaming.

The most recent addition to the fray is the thoughtful article by Robert J. Schwalb, which presents a possible solution for the slow grind of combat and awkward rest mechanics in 4e. As the speed of combat is discussed on forums and blogs (not to mention blowing up Twitter on some days), one thing seems to be missing from the overall discussion.

Hard data.

Perhaps I’m not looking in the right place, but I haven’t seen anyone analyze a gaming session in terms of how much time is spent on specific tasks before, during and after combat encounters. The thought occurred to me that I could record our next gaming session, but I reailzed that no one reading this article would know if our gaming group is similar to the majority of groups out there or an outlier. The data would be easy for many to dismiss and ignore.

However, I remembered the Dungeons & Dragons Penny Arcade & PvP Podcast Series, which is one of the main reasons I got back into D&D in the first place. The Second Series introduced me to the mechanics of 4e and reminded me how fun it could be to sit around a table with some friends, goof around, roll dice and beat the hell out of monsters.

Also, everyone can still access these podcasts (and if you haven’t, then you’re absolutely cheating yourself) to determine if their home games are in the same ballpark in terms of pace and style. There are other articles that discuss and respond to the series, but I believe a time-analysis will show interesting – and perhaps surprising – information about how time is spent during any given combat encounter in 4e, and how best to alter the experience to improve the game for DMs and PCs.

Method

The first task was to create categories to code the podcasts. I kept the categories simple because it is possible to spend hours listening, rewinding, and listening again to get exact statistics. I settled on the following two categories to analysis the time of the turns during combat:

  1. Roleplaying & Tactical Decisions
  2. Rolling, Calculating & Results

If I had more time, then I would expand upon these categories. But they will do for now.  I split each PCs’ turn into the above categories. The first category counts everything between the DM informing the player it is their turn to when the PC decides on their attack and prepares to roll. The second category begins when the PC rolls, calculates damage (if applicable) and any other discussions before the DM informs the next PC it is their turn. 

I am not including the first episode in the series in the analysis; the group spends approximately 31 minutes on introductions and role-playing to begin the adventure. During those 31 minutes, the party interacts with each other and various NPCs. They ultimately arrive at their destination, and a combat encounter begins just as the episode concludes.

I analyzed the second episode of the series, which begins immediately with the process of assigning initiative. Initiative is established within 30 seconds, and I removed that small fragment from the time analysis. The combat encounter includes no terrain effects except for a large hole in the floor of the tower; the hole never comes into play although it is discussed tactically as an option. The enemies for the encounter are two human crossbowman and four human minions.

First, I recorded how long each turn lasted for the PCs and the DM. Whenever the DM prompted a PC that is was their turn, the timer started. As soon as the PC made their decisions and rolled dice to attack, then I stopped recording time for the Roleplaying & Tactical Decisions portion of the turn, and started timing for the Rolling/Calculating & Results portion of their turn.

For example, Binwin Bronzebottom is the first PC to act in the encounter. The DM notifies Binwin that his turn is ready 30 seconds into play (after initiative was decided). During the next 162 seconds, Binwin asks the DM questions about the environment, consults with his party and debates on movement and action options. Binwin decides on his actions, including an attack, and decides to roll his d20 at the 3:12 mark of the podcast. These actions were placed in the first category described above – Roleplaying & Tactical Decisions.

Binwin rolls and consults with his party to ensure he is adding up his modifiers correctly. He checks with the DM and is informed his attack hits. The DM records the damage and then announces at 4:34 of the podcast that it is the monsters’ turn. The 97 seconds between the 3:12 mark when Binwin rolled and the 4:34 mark when the next turn starts were placed in the second category described above – Rolling/Calculation & Results.

All turns were recorded with this system (yes, it took awhile!).

Results

The results are presented in a few ways below. To begin, let’s simply look at how much time was spent in each round.

  

The most noteworthy item from this chart is the clear trend in the amount of time spent in each round. The time spent in each round declines as the rounds progress. The presentation in seconds may be confusing; below the same data is converted to minutes.

 

The 1st round of combat lasts approximately 13 minutes. The PCs are Level 3, but they are still learning their powers and how the mechanics of 4th Edition operate. However, the DM and PCs go through the 2nd round of combat in half the time. They have a better understanding of the combat mechanics and their action options. The 5th round is brief because the party has eliminated all threats except one monster that is attempting to flee. After the monster dies, combat is concluded.

Next, I analyzed the encounter to determine the amount of time PCs were spending their turn in the Roleplaying & Tactical Decision phase and the Rolling/Calculating & Results phase. 

 

The above chart was compiled by adding up the time for both turn categories in each round for the PCs. During the combat encounter, the four PCs spend approximately 14 minutes roleplaying, questioning the DM, consulting with other PCs and finalizing their actions. The PCs spent approximately 11 minutes on tasks such as rolling, calculating for attack and damage rolls, and discussing the results with the DM and other players.

Now, I look at the same data but further analyze the information by PC. Below is a graph that depicts the amount of time each PC splits between the Roleplaying & Tactical Decisions and Rolling/Calculating & Results categories for the entire encounter.

 

Several noteworthy results in this graph; the first is the PC of Al. Al is played by Wil Wheaton who mentions several times during the podcast that he is unfamiliar with the rules and mechanics of 4e. He has not prepared his character with the online Character Builder, and must consult his notes before he attacks each round. These factors understandably result in his time spent in tactical decision-making longer than his peers in the group.

Second, if every player was as efficient as Omin, played by Jerry Holkins of Penny Arcade, then combat speed would likely not be the hot-button topic it is today. Throughout four rounds of combat, Omin takes less than two minutes to decide on his actions and just over a minute to roll, calculate his results and allow the DM to move to the next turn. The other PCs fall in the middle of Al and Omin.

Finally, I analyzed the behavior of the DM. I was unable to break down the DM’s actions in the same two categories (Roleplaying & Tactical Decisions; Rolling/Calculating & Results) because the DM – quite frankly – moved too fast for me. The DM does not appear to be rolling for his attacks, and may be using an automatic dice roller. The results are below, and the time is presented in seconds because a conversion to minutes would actually make less sense.

 

The DM, Chris Perkins, takes significantly less time to take the monsters’ actions when compared to the PCs. Considering the DM is managing the actions of up to seven monsters, this is impressive. As the rounds progress and the monsters fall in battle, the time the DM spends in combat is understandably reduced.

Discussion

I found several things interesting about this analysis. However, I must make note of several limitations before discussing the results. The most important limitation is the fact that this is only one encounter with a specific group of PCs, a specific DM and specific combat situations. By no means do I wish to imply that all combat situations will present similar results, but it is a place to start in order to discuss the pace of combat for both the players and the DM. With that disclaimer out of the way, here are my reactions.

I first listened to this podcast in 2009 before I started playing 4e. Listening to it closely again almost two years later, I’m struck by how focused the DM and PCs are on the task at hand. I had planned to code time into a category labeled “Chatter,” which I honestly thought about labeling “Bullshit” instead, but everyone is consistently focused on the game. There are plenty of jokes and laughter, but no one talks about work, family, sports, politics, religion or even food and drink. There are no disruptions to the flow of the game, and the game moves smoothly as everyone is focused on the combat.

And it must be stated – this is a very straightforward encounter featuring a party of four PCs clashing with seven monsters (four of them minions) in an open room with no other distractions. The environment does not change in any way during the encounter. The characters are Level 3, so their options are still limited to a small handful of powers (more on this below).

The combat situation is rather simple, but there are many articles on the web and advice on Twitter that suggests featuring combat encounters that are more “engaging” or “dynamic.” When a DM adds environmental effects, a trap (or traps), a skill challenge or various waves of monsters that hit with status effects like dazed, slowed, stunned or prone, they are making the encounter more complex. The complexity of the encounter is certainly linked to the length of time it takes for a DM to run the encounter, and for the PCs to process what is happening and how to best overcome the monsters and obstacles.

Yes, PCs may chat and get off topic, but when they have to figure out how to turn off the flame jets while avoiding the 30-foot pit and kill the mob of brutes, soldiers, skirmishers (not to mention that one lurker hiding in the corner) and the big controller in the back of the room, the encounter is going to take a while. As DMs, we need to anticipate and expect the combat to halt when the encounters get more complicated. And we need to inform the PCs that more complex combat encounters will take more time.

I want to get back to something I held off on a few paragraphs ago. The party in this encounter is Level 3. Your powers at Level 3 are not terribly robust – two At-Wills, two Encounters, and one Daily – for a total of five options in combat. The PC also has one Utility power at this point in the campaign.

Compare this to a PC at Level 10; the list of powers contains two At-Wills, three Encounters, and three Daily options – for a total of eight options in combat. The PC also has three Utility powers at their disposable. It should also be added that by this point in the campaign, the players will have a multitude of magical items that grant a wide variety of bonuses and powers. Each PC much keep track of their gear and know how and when to use their items to the fullest advantage – not to mention their set of Feats.

Compare this to a situation in your ordinary life – a friend asks you where you want to eat, “Do you want to go to McDonald’s or Burger King?” You may think about it for a few seconds before deciding on an option. Now, what if your friend asked, “Do you want to go to McDonald’s, Burger King, Taco Bell, Olive Garden, or Outback Steakhouse?” The various options might give you greater pause, and extend the amount of time before you can come to a decision.

I believe the combination of DMs designing more complex encounters and PCs gaining a greater number of power options is causing combat to drag. The question of how to speed up combat in your personal game remains.

Suggestions

Take all monster turns once during the round. One thing I noticed immediately is that the DM takes actions for all monsters at one point during the encounter. In the games I play, both as a DM and a PC, we have cards for the initiative order labeled “Mob A,” “Mob B,” “Mob C” and so on. I’m not sure if this is a good idea, since the DM needs to shift attention constantly from PCs’ actions to the monsters’ actions. I know there are many situations when all monsters should not attack at the same time (back to the complexity issue), but it’s something that I plan to experiment with, and I think you should too to determine if it speeds up combat in your game. Instead of keeping track of 10 or more initiatives, I’m going to have the PCs roll and then roll for all monsters. I’m curious to see how that may change the speed of the encounters.

Scale back on the complexity of encounters. There is great advice out there about how to create awesome encounters for your game at home. I personally have benefited from that information, but as the PCs advance in levels and I take great efforts to challenge the party, the encounters become cumbersome and everything slows down. As a DM, mix up the complexity of the combat encounters. Instead of creating a room with a trap, three different types of monsters and a variety of terrain – space the same obstacles across multiple smaller encounters. Sometimes the PCs just want to bash some skulls of bad guys. The podcast demonstrates that a basic fight between PCs and monsters can be fun. You don’t need to shock the world with each encounter you build! 

Prepare players to the best of your ability. The PC of Al is a good demonstration of how a player that is not knowledgeable of rules or appropriately prepared for the game can slow things down (and for the record, I am not disparaging the name of Wil Wheaton, but just using the situation as an example that you can surely translate to at least one player in your game). Ideally, players will use the Character Builder to print out and organize their powers. They will have their dice ready to go when it’s their turn. They will understand the mechanics of the game so rule questions are infrequent. Be patient and help players in the early stages; however, if your PCs are quite experienced but still spending minutes figuring out basic rules (combat advantage, combinations of actions per turn) then that’s a different discussion. I will post articles in the future about working with players that are slowing your game down.

Monitor your own game. I suggest you record your next game, and take the time to code your PCs (and yourself) as I have done above. The results may demonstrate holes in your game that are resulting in combat dragging on for too long. Perhaps one player is slowing things down consistently. Perhaps two or more PCs are always talkative, off-subject and distracted. Analyze your game and attempt to come up with solutions to the problems you find. If possible, record the group without their knowledge to prevent a Hawthrone Effect, which means that your players may change their behavior simple because they know they are being recorded. Recording without their knowledge will give you a more accurate analysis of your gaming sessions.

Inform your players to listen to the Penny Arcade/PvP Podcast Series. The podcasts demonstrate that combat can be interesting and challenging without everything coming to a grinding stop. It is a good model to strive for in your game if you wish to keep the focus solely on gaming and less on other topics that might interrupt the table. Plus, the are wildly entertaining!

The important thing is how much everyone is enjoying the games. Greater time in combat does not need to be a bad thing, especially if your PCs like combat. Talk with your PCs about how the game is going. Be open to feedback, even if it is sometimes negative or critical. The primary goal is for the PCs and you to have fun. If your group enjoys roleplaying and exploration for most of the night, then set up those situations. If your party enjoys beating up bad guys and gaining better loot, then run them through the meat grinder. The length of combat is not solely a DM or PC issue; the game is a collaborative effort and both parties need to be aware of how they contribute to the pace and flow of the game.

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About The Id DM

The Id DM is a psychologist during the weekdays. He DMs for a group of fairly loyal and responsible PCs every other Friday night. In the approximate 330 hours between sessions, he is likely anxious about how to ensure the next game he runs doesn't suck.
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31 Responses to Analyzing Combat Encounters – Returning to the Penny Arcade/PvP Podcast Series

  1. Jeff says:

    Nice article, very interesting results from your study. I remember when I listened to those that yes, Wil has lots to say during his turn.

    In our 4e game combat is indeed a major undertaking. Some of our battles take over one entire session of play; and it can get a bit tedious.

    I was in a group about a year ago where the DM threatened to pull out an egg timer. It never came to be, but he was like a hawk making sure that the next person to go knew he was up next and should be thinking of what he was going to do.

    It can be a source of frustration when some players inevitably only begin to think about what they are going to do when it is actually their turn…and then take forever. I’ve learned to just relax and enjoy the company, but I admit there are times when I want to move forward more quickly into the plot.

    Our 4e campaign is drawing to a close, and we are thinking of moving to a Savage Worlds campaign, where the combat is so much simpler and quicker. Hopefully that will be a solution for us.

  2. Awesome! This is absolutely fantastic.

  3. The Id DM says:

    Jeff and David,

    Thank you for the kind words!

    And Wil is great in the podcast; he’s a good player. It sounds like his first time playing 4e so it’s understandable that the turns take longer. I’m sure my first few sessions playing 4e were brutal for my fellow PCs who already knew what they were doing. It makes sense for players to take longer turns if they are not comfortable yet with the rules. The combat speed isn’t just a DM issue; everyone has to own it.

    Speaking of long combat, I played in another campaign as a PC last night. We started around 7pm, played through two combat encounters, which ended at 2am . . . only it was daylight savings so it was actually 3am!

    *yawn*

    • AJ says:

      You saying somthing about my DMing??!?!?! (Inititive!)

      • The Id DM says:

        AJ,

        Absolutely not! ;-) Those battles were complex with multiple rooms, levels and monsters in play. It was a lot of fun; I think daylight savings was just an unfortunate piece of timing. I need my beauty sleep.

  4. Jacob Zimmerman says:

    Nice article; great idea, analyzing the times.

    One thing: you kept using “analyze” and “analysis” backwards. You would use one when you should use the other.

    Otherwise, I found it very informative. I might actually look into those podcasts, but I’m not a big fan of sitting around just to listen to them.

    • The Id DM says:

      Jacob,

      Thank you for the feedback. And I appreciate the note about the analyze/analysis errors. Proofread fail!

      The pods are a great time. Perhaps you could listen to them when you’re in the car for awhile. I listen to many pods while on the treadmill.

  5. AJ says:

    BTW, old school D&D used ONE inititive for monsters. 4E changed that rule.
    Yes is does slow things down. I for one would be fine with moving back to the one MOB initive to rule them all.

    Here’s a sweet irony for you. 3rd edition (3.5) was brought about to help with the slow combat rounds from 2nd Edition. It’s ironic that 4E not only is slower than 3E, but slower then 2E as well.

    The main reason is due to PC’s doing MUCH less damage, and Mobs having significantly More HP. In 2nd and 3rd edition it was not unusual to see a 9th level fighter or rogue dish out 60-80hp a round. In which a Boss mob may have 100hp.

    In 4E the 9th level fighter/rogue MIGHT hit 25-30 damage on a mob with 150 HP.
    Spell casters also had spells which were save or DIE instantly as well, which is lost in 4E.

    These are the 2 prime reasons 4E is slower.

  6. j0nny_5 says:

    like the article. makes me want to do a study on my group. thanks for your time on this.

  7. dldzioba says:

    Interesting article but ultimately one that is a little lost on me as I’ve not played 4e more than once (and that wasn’t a true effort). I’ve got other problems with the game and prefer to stick to games I already enjoy such as 3.5 and Pathfinder.
    The hard data is interesting.

    • The Id DM says:

      Thanks for reading. I did not play 3.5 or Pathfinder, so I’m unsure how well the analysis might translate to combat in those systems. If the pace of the game is an issue for you at all, then it might be helpful to monitor how the PCs (and you) are spending time during the game. Check out the pod series if you want to hear how 4e is played. It was basically my tutorial before I started playing again.

      • dldzioba says:

        They’re really fun. As for 4e, from the most of what I’ve seen it’s really focused on combat and the use of miniatures which doesn’t mesh well the the style my gaming group employs for our games.

  8. AJ says:

    I too thought 4E was combat focused and rejected 4e at first. The truth however is that 4E is just as robust RP wise as any other RP game out there. Skill challenges are a mechanical way to perpetuate RP, but it’s not a “must do” thing. What makes RP work is the players/DM, not the system. What I like most about the 4E skill system is the consolidation of skills, it’s easier to use and keep track of.

  9. Chris says:

    Keep in mind, the reason they seem so efficient and that there is a distinct lack of “table talk” is that the podcasts are edited for content by Kiko after they are recorded. You can hear noticable gaps in the table chatter in lots of places.

    This really weirded me out at first, I was like damn, they are like johnny ont he spot, then I realized they had the benefits of post production. :)

  10. Geek Ken says:

    Great post, and I think you’ve deconstructed the combats as actions verses time very well. I find the results are quite interesting. How a DM and players tackle the ‘problem’ of combat length is a thorny issue. I do wonder that at higher levels, the amount of choices a player has might be a cause for dragging out combats. Still I think your approach with other play session podcasts might bring some light to how long combat events are really tactical fights mixed in with a ton of RP, playful banter, and just the general fun of being around the table playing D&D with friends.

  11. Kristin says:

    This was an excellent post. The PA/PVP podcasts were my introduction to 4e, too, primarily because I loved how tactics-oriented the combat seemed. I’m all for RP and exploration, but any game that lets me re-create the Laser Eye battle from Shining Force is a winner in my book, so I’ve never myself had a problem with the combat length- however I know a lot of people that don’t think the same way that I do. :)

    One thing I’ve been tempted to do with a combat encounter is to lower the enemy’s HP, but then that’s getting into all sorts of probable balance issues.

  12. The Id DM says:

    Chris, I thought about the possibility that there was some editing performed on the podcasts. It certainly is a factor with the analysis that I could not control. However, if the “side chatter” is sliced out, then the remaining podcast still presents a good picture of the best-case scenario for combat speed. And it demonstrates some of the issues that can increase or decrease the pace of combat encounters. I will likely do a follow-up analysis of a more complicated encounter – either from the Penny Arcade/PvP series or another source.

    Geek Ken & Kristin, thank you for the kind words. My group is getting ready to cross into Level 10, and I know their options in combat will continue to increases. We’ll tackle the “problem” if the players are getting frustrated. Most of my players enjoy the combat and don’t mind a lengthy encounter (if it’s interesting).

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  16. Greg Laabs says:

    Amazing work. I have thought about doing exactly this for quite some time with my group. I run the D&D 4e livestream “Thursday Knights” and as such, I have 99 episodes I could listen to to get this sort of data. I never got around to it because man that would take a while! But if you’re ever looking for more datapoints, there you go!

    I actually implemented a major change in how we do combat recently, which has nearly HALVED the amount of time encounters take. It’s a tad complicated but the gist is that players are required to complete all of the mechanics of their turn first without any flavoring, except for rolling damage. Then the player (Player A) announces that they are finished and begins giving the extravagant flavor of what their character did. DURING this, the next player (Player B) is doing his mechanics silently (moving his miniature, rolling his to-hits, etc). After Player A is done with his flavor, he starts rolling all of his damage (which can take a while) and then writes it down on a post-it and hands it over to me. Player B, meanwhile, finishes his mechanics, explains anything he needs to explain to the other players (healing and whatnot), and then starts his flavor. Repeat forever.

    It took some discipline to adhere to, but the time savings has been extremely worth it.

    • The Id DM says:

      A fellow player created a tool to code combat encounters, and that decreases the work involved. You can find it through the RPG ATTACK link at the top of the blog. I used that for the second analysis, and it moved at a much quicker pace!

      I have tried to juggle player turns somewhat like that, but I find that it distracts people more often than not. For instance, if you start focusing on another player, the person who hasn’t completed their turn might feel a bit tuned out. If everyone is on board with the system, then that probably works. I never tried to get my group into that type of routine. But I can certainly see how that would speed up play if everyone bought in. Good ideas!

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  18. Fizzygoo says:

    I can’t begin to describe how much I love data. I also can’t describe the horror of not hearing about this for over 15 months! But I love data more than the horror of being late to the party. My game group has been playing together for nearly 10 years now. In early 2007 one member brought over his recording equipment and recorded several of our sessions. I have two nights worth sitting on my desk. Thanks to your outlining of how you took your data I plan to go through both nights by the end of the week, following your methods, and post my results on my site. Of course it’s 3.5 D&D, but that makes it even more interesting to see how combat round lengths compare to your analysis of 4th edition rounds. I would have started tonight but I received some new dice today and spent the evening doing a chi-square test on the d20 (83.2% probability that it’s fair/random after 500 rolls).

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  20. Fizzygoo says:

    Neat, I came by to say that I got my data comparing two combats from one of my game group’s sessions with the data you have and there’s already a pingback notice :) Anyway, enjoy.

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