Combat Encounter Analysis: Penny Arcade/PvP Podcast Series Enters “The Dungeon”

Introduction

I recently listened to an episode of the DM Roundtable Podcast and someone – can’t remember who – suggested that if you do not see the type of information you are looking for, don’t complain and go create it. I had not heard the podcast until this past week, but the message therein is what drove me to start this blog. I had been lurking around online reading other blogs and absorbing information, but I felt something was missing. I felt like I had a voice to contribute, and it culminated with my dissatisfaction during the wrangling about combat speed in Dungeons & Dragons 4th Edition . . . which continues to this day.

Many opinions had been offered and numerous useful suggestions were outlined to speed up play, but I never saw anything approaching scientific data about how combat encounters transpire. Motivated by the notion that other people might be curious about the same information, I started The Id DM and my first post was an analysis of a combat encounter from Season 2 of the Penny Arcade/PvP Podcast series. The post is – by far – the most successful article I have written in the short life of the site. It was always my intention to continue analyzing the podcast series, and I was finally able to return to the project recently.

I had the pleasure of piloting a new method for tracking combat encounters, and I hope to discuss that system in a separate post in the near future. In the meantime, I picked up where I left off in the last analysis and coded the time in the next encounter, The Dungeon, in Season 2 of the Penny Arcade/PvP Podcast Series.  After a brief review of my methodology, I present the results below.

Methodology

I suggest you read my first article on the subject since it explains how I developed the coding system. But if you do not feel like bothering with another article, then I’ll quickly review. I kept the categories simple because it is possible to spend hours listening, rewinding, and listening again to get exact statistics. One could code any number of statistics for each player such as hit percentage (think batting average in baseball), damage inflicted each round and number of kills. However, I was more curious about the overall flow of combat and settled on the following two categories to analyze the time of the turns during combat rounds:

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

It is certainly possible to expand upon these categories, but they work well enough for my purposes. 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 a die, calculates damage (if applicable) and any other discussions with the DM regarding the various rolls and results.

Since posting the analysis of the first encounter, I have refined the coding system. I still use the two categories above, but I no longer separate each player’s turn into just two parts. Instead, I only use the second category – Rolling, Calculating & Results – when dice, math and back-and-forth with the DM about a possible hit are involved. After that is resolved, I return to coding the time in the first category – Roleplaying & Tactical Decisions – until the DM alerts the next player it is his turn.

With this coding system, I started the analyze Season 2, Episode 3 of the Penny Arcade/PvP Podcast. The party has completed the first battle and is now plotting how to descend into the dim chamber below. You can access the adventure, Storm Tower, and follow along with the players in Encounter 2: The Dungeon; a DDI account is required to view the adventure. It should be noted that the encounter is not an exact match for the enemies in the podcast. The encounter in the podcast features multiple minions, which are not listed in the Storm Tower module.

The DM provides descriptions while the players discuss tactics for over 10 minutes. At the 10:21 mark, the DM requests the party to roll for Initiative and starts the combat encounter. I started the coding at this point – once the DM alerts the party to roll for initiative.

The notorious Jim Darkmagic is first to act. He takes 104 seconds to make a tactical decision about his actions while discussing his options with the DM and the party, which leads to the gift of the following quote, “Can he cast spells hanging by his feet from the ladder?” He decides on his power – Sorching Burst – and then rolls his dice, attacking multiple enemies (18, 27, 16) and clearing the room of three minions. His attack rolls take 37 seconds to complete. This is followed by a very brief 24-second segment of tactical discussions before moving onto the DM’s turn. In total, Jim spends 128 seconds in the Roleplaying & Tactical Decisions category, and 37 seconds in the Rolling, Calculating & Results category during Round 1. Jim’s completed turn length in Round 1 is 165 seconds (2.75 minutes, or 2 minutes and 45 seconds).

The actions for each player and the DM were analyzed in this fashion until the encounter ends. Several problems arose during the analysis, and I will discuss those throughout the results.

Results

I start with the total time spent in combat by round. The results are below, but there is a flaw in the data, which is an error I cannot correct. The podcast for Penny Arcade/PvP Season 2, Episode 4 is only 25:54 and the end of Round 6 is cut off. The play begins in Season 2, Episode 5 at a different point in the combat encounter. It’s unclear how many rounds of combat are skipped. It may be only one round or several. In the results below, I discuss specifically how this interferes with the analysis. The remaining data is still interesting to explore.

It is difficult to read the graph in terms of seconds, so I took the data for seconds and divided it by 60 to display the minutes in each round.

The results demonstrate the entire combat encounter has a duration of 78 minutes. As mentioned previously, the combat encounter is actually longer than 78 minutes because some of the audio from the encounter is missing. The bulk of the time is taken by the first four rounds of combat, which have a duration of 40 minutes.

In my previous analysis of the first encounter in the PA/PvP podcast series, the first round of combat was the longest. I would have guessed that the first round of this combat encounter would also be the longest, but this is clearly not the case. A closer examination of the podcast demonstrates two reasons why later rounds last longer than the first round.  The primary reason is the battlefield changes throughout combat. Two new threats – a Level 4 Skirmisher hiding in the shadows and Level 3 Soldier trap waiting for a player to land adjacent – are introduced after the first round. As new threats are introduced to the battlefield, the players respond by evaluating their tactics once again since the dangers have changed.

The second reason is something that we have all experienced in our games – distraction. As we will see in a moment, the DM’s turn in Round 3 runs for approximately three minutes. Not only is the Level 4 Skirmisher introduced in the round, but the players spend well over a minute joking about the size of Binwin’s penis. Binwin is a Dwarf, and needles to say, hilarity ensues. Various jokes are told and the players are distracted by their own laughter. The DM attempts to get the game back on track, but the players continue to discuss the merits of Binwin’s sexual prowess and whether or not their banter will be kept in the podcast. The game finally gets back on track, but just this small interaction of 60 seconds or so takes up 13% of Round 3.

The next set of statistics will examine the specific actions taken by each player in the rounds of combat. The actions will be coded in the categories described above: 1) Roleplaying & Tactical Decisions, and 2) Rolling, Calculating & Results.

A major caveat is that the above graph eliminates data from the interrupted rounds that were excluded from the podcast. I did not wish to skew the results for players that had more rounds to act. The results above include all rounds of action when every player had the opportunity to take actions. Rounds 6 and 7 were excluded since thee 6th round was cut short and the 7th round skipped players.

The first interesting result is that three of the four players take actions for almost exactly the same amount of time. Jim, Omin and Aeofel take 14 minutes each for their actions in the combat encounter. Binwin is the only player that takes less than 14 minutes, and he takes actually less than 10 minutes throughout the encounter. A primary reason for Binwin’s lack of time is the fact that he is unconscious and dying for the final three rounds of combat. Poor Binwin!

The second reason for Binwin’s short actions in each round is the fact that he is a Fighter. Fighters are typically a close-range melee class that focuses on dealing damage to one or multiple enemies. The tactics for the Fighter are not typically complicated – Mark a creature and hit it hard. Binwin takes just over five minutes to make all of his Roleplaying and Tactical Decisions during the combat encounter. He spends almost five minutes rolling dice and calculating damage; Fighters often roll more damage dice and have the option of hitting more than one enemy with an attacks (Cleave, for example).

Now let’s turn to Jim Darkmagic, everyone’s favorite Wizard. As a Controller, Jim often surveys the entire battlefield to decide on the most important target. During each round, he has a choice of hitting any one target or multiple targets with a variety of spells. As a result, his time in Roleplaying & Tactical Decisions is significantly more than Binwin. Since his attacks can often hit multiple targets, his time in Rolling, Calculating & Results is the longest in the adventuring party.

Omin, a Warlord, is a Leader and he has the longest period of time spent in Roleplaying & Tactical Decisions. Since he is the only member of the party that can heal, he is often being questioned or begged to heal by his fellow party members. Not only is the Warlord balancing the threats on the battlefield presented by monsters and traps, he also must evaluate the status of each party member. The time spent in Roleplaying & Tactical Decisions is offset by the relatively short time spent in Rolling, Calculating & Results. The Warlord’s attacks often focus on a single enemy, and much of the rolling and calculating by Omin is associated with healing powers.

Some may believe that Omin is just a slow player, but his actions in the first encounter are blazingly fast. In that encounter, his total time during the rounds is the shortest by far. Omin’s turns in this encounter are longer because the encounter is more complex and difficult. His fellow party members need his assistance more often compared to the first encounter when the party walked all over the enemies.

Finally, Aeofel falls in the middle of the pack. Aeofel is played by Wil Wheaton, who is only playing D&D 4th Edition for the first time. This is his second encounter in the system so he is still learning his powers and the rules of combat. Aeofel is an Avenger and as a Striker, his role is to focus on attack. It is likely that Strikers will take less time in the Roleplaying & Tactical Decisions compared to other character roles since they are not concerned with controlling the battlefield but simply attacking one or multiple enemies.

Finally, the DM – THE Chris Perkins – once again performs quickly. He takes the monsters’ actions swiftly and keeps the combat moving along by prompting the players when it is their turn. I did not code his time in the same two categories as the players since he is mostly focused on tactics and description. It’s possible he is using a computer program to “roll” the dice, or he may be rolling the attacks and damage ahead of time to speed up the combat.

The DM only takes more than three minutes to act for all of the monsters in a round twice (Round 3 and Round 4). As discussed previously, over 60 seconds of Round 3 during the DM’s “turn” is taken up by the players joking and laughing. The DM tries to corral the players once but fails to redirect the focus back to the game. The following rounds are longer because new monsters are introduced, including one creature that grabs the players after a successful hit. It should be mentioned that not only do the players need to constantly react to the changing battlefield, but the DM also must react to the changing battlefield with a variety of monsters.

Rounds 7, 11 and 12 have a value of 0 because the DM did not take actions during those rounds. Round 7 was cut off in the podcast, and the final two rounds are very brief as the monsters are defeated and the players rally to save Binwin from death.

Last, I compiled the total turn time for each player and the DM in the first five rounds of combat. As I mentioned, Round 6 and Round 7 are corrupted and the final rounds are not as interesting as monsters are eliminated and Binwin is dying. The first graph below displays the length of turn in seconds for Rounds 1 – 5.

The graph above is a bit difficult to understand at first. The players’ length of turn are stacked on top of each other and the DM. Next, I will present the same material but convert the results to minutes instead of seconds.

The graph has the same shape, but I added the individual turn lengths in minutes at the bottom of the graph. In the first five rounds of combat, there are only three instances out of the 25 turns (12%) of a player or DM taking less than one minute to complete their turn (Binwin in Round 1, Jim in Round 3, and Aeofel in Round 5). By comparison, there are 12 turns out of the possible 25 (48%) that are two minutes or longer in length. The remaining 10 turns (40%) are between one and two minutes. The results are presented in graphical format below.

The majority of the turns (40%) last over two minutes while only a small percentage of turns (12%) are completed under one minute. The players in this encounter are well-versed in roleplaying games even though some of them are new to 4th Edition. The DM and players take their turns at a quick pace, and it is quite possible the encounter has been edited down in time for the podcast. If anything, the length of turns is longer than displayed in the data.

Discussion

The analysis of the second encounter in the Penny Arcade/PvP Podcast Series provides many interesting pieces of information to discuss. When compared to the first encounter in the series, the second encounter lasts well over double the amount of time. The first encounter was completed in approximately 30 minutes while the second encounter was completed in approximately 75 minutes. And that is with some time cut out between episodes of the podcast during the encounter. Why is the second encounter longer?

Perhaps the most obvious answer is the second encounter is more complicated. The encounter features elevation, difficult terrain, more powerful enemies and a greater quantity of enemies. The encounter also features a changing environment as new enemies are introduced in later rounds, which forces the players to reevaluate their options.

A slightly different answer to why the encounter is longer is that it is significantly more difficult than the first encounter in the podcast series. As published, the first encounter, Yellowskulls, had a total of 878 XP. For four 3rd-Level PCs, Yellowskulls is just over a Level 5 encounter. The second encounter, The Dungeon, is published with a total of 1,000 XP, which is a Level 6 encounter for the party. However, the DM has added several minions to the battlefield that are not featured in the published adventure, which will bring the total XP closer to 1,200 and a Level 7 encounter.

Perhaps the DM made other adjustments such as lowering the Stat Blocks on the published enemies, but the information we have suggests Yellowskulls was just over a Level 5 encounter while The Dungeon is closer to a Level 7 encounter. I never challenged a party at Level 3 with an encounter four levels above them; players seems quite fragile in the early Heoric Tier. However, I am in no position to question Chris Perkins!

The encounter above featured a clear example of how players distracted at the table can derail the flow of combat. In Round 3, the players make several jokes and the DM is not able to get the party back on task for over a minute. The hijinks by the party only last a bit over a minute, but that makes up 13% of the combat round. I can only imagine how much of my home game is devoted to chit-chat and banter.

Suggestions

Be aware of the target XP for your encounter. Encounters above the party’s level will most likely take longer to be completed. Encounters well above the party’s XP will be slugfests, since the players will miss their targets more often and will take more damage, which forces players to consider tactics and healing actions in more details.  On the opposite end, encounters at or below the party’s level will move more swiftly since players will hit the enemies more often, will take less damage and not be as contemplative when choosing tactics.

Be mindful of the role composition in your party. Overall, Controllers and Leaders can be expected to take longer turns because of the many tactical considerations and the likelihood that they will attack multiple targets each round. Meanwhile, a party with multiple Strikers will likely take shorter turns as they line up to quickly blitz the enemies with attacks.

Limit distractions by redirecting the party. Players having fun and joking is not always a bad thing, but consider how often it is happening and whether or not all players are enjoying the action. A social group is less likely to care about distractions and side discussions, but a group of more “serious” gamers will want to focus on the game. As a DM, you need to be aware of these distractions and take control of the game. The DM in this encounter tries once and fails to focus the players, but he quickly makes another attempt and the party takes the cue and gets back on track. If you don’t succeed on your first attempt to redirect the party, try again.

Experiment with alternate monster builds. A DM has many choices when it comes to encounter design, but few in terms of how to build a monster. The DM can utilize minions to add short-term risks to the encounter and “regular” monsters with complete Stat Blocks and hit points. It has been suggested often to reduce each monster’s hit points to speed up combat, but the DM still needs to monitor the creatures hit points. Plus, the DM has to take extra time preparing for the encounter by adjusting hit point totals. There are other options for the DM to consider. The first is to experiment with two-hit minions; instead of one hit killing off a minion, it would now take two successful attacks. A second option is to experiment with “regular” monsters but removing hit points entirely. Instead of tracking hit points, create them with a three strikes and they’re out mentality – the monsters are killed after three successful attacks. There are many ways to edit monsters so they provide a threat but do not grind the party through many rounds of combat. Be creative!

Long combat is not always a bad thing. The encounter analyzed above is the second in the Penny Arcade/PvP Season 2 Series. The encounter, The Dungeon, is over twice as long as the first encounter, Yellowskulls. However, it certainly seems the players are thoroughly enjoying themselves. If every combat encounter is taking a long time, then scale back on the complexity and difficulty. Check in with the party to gauge their interest level throughout the campaign. Some players may enjoy a nice, long tactical grind on occasion. Mix it up!

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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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12 Responses to Combat Encounter Analysis: Penny Arcade/PvP Podcast Series Enters “The Dungeon”

  1. AJ says:

    Minor item, Warlords are Leaders, not Controllers. It would be interesting to analyze our gaming group. Rolling dice, discussion, Flexing muscles after a natural 20, drinking…

    • The Id DM says:

      Thank you, I fixed that error. It’s not clear if Omin is a Warlord; some people suggested he’s a Cleric. But he uses Inspiring Word, which is a Warlord power.

      • Shimrath says:

        Omin Dran was available in the original offline Character Builder as a “sample hero” (as were all the characters from the podcast). If those character files match their actual characters, then he’s a half-elf cleric of Avandra, but he has the Student of Battle feat, which allows him a daily use of the warlord’s Inspiring Word in addition to his clerical healing.

  2. The Id DM says:

    Shimrath, thank you for the clarification!

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  4. Rico says:

    I suspect that Chris Perkins may be using average values for attacks and damage (e.g., add 10 to attack bonuses) rather than rolling dice. Depending on the range of armor classes in the party, this could result in either more or fewer hits. It also eliminates the possibility of critical hits.

    The complexity of character powers (both in terms of their number and in the different effects those powers create) is a major factor in slowing down combat. Many times I’ve seen it happen that a player has decided what action to take, or more specifically what power to use when his turn comes up, only to have the landscape of the battle changed by other players’ actions (e.g., enemies are slid, pushed or pulled) and now that action/power is no longer an option (e.g. the enemies are not in the blast radius of his attack or an ally now is). So he has to go through his available powers again and choose something else. As a side note to this, I find that when I spend my off turn time looking through my powers, trying to decide on what action to take on my turn, I am paying less attention to what is going on in the game as a result, and I think that is unfortunate. And this only gets worse as the number of available choices rise as the character goes up in level.

    • The Id DM says:

      That is entirely possible, average values for attacks and damage speed things up but it takes away the various swings in combat. It’s fun to randomly have a monster that rolls two crits in a row and roleplay that with the party. It happened in my group a few sessions back when a shadar-kai with a battleaxe started crushing people with crits or near max-damage rolls. But that certainly takes more time; it’s give-and-take.

      You make an excellent point about preparing for your next turn. If you’re shuffling through power cards, then you’re not mentally tracking the current events in the game. Granted, much of 4e combat seems to be “rush to finish your turn then wait 10+ minutes” but being checked out is the same whether you’re on your cell phone or if you’re thinking about the next combination of powers to use.

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