Combat Speed in D&D Next

Over the weekend, I was finally able to play Dungeons & Dragons Next. Our group had first playtested the game over a month ago, but I had to miss that session. I jumped into the fray as Professor Giroux, High Elf Wizard. I enjoyed my time playing D&D Next, although I cannot provide grand conclusions regarding the game system for a variety of reasons.

Don't let his male-pattern baldness fool you. Professor Giroux can BRING THE PAIN.

Who needs armor when you have robes as resplendent as these?

First, it was the first time I played with a DM other than the gentleman who has been running our Scales of War campaign well for the past two years. The DM for our session of D&D Next also did a wonderful job and I enjoyed his style. Second, it was the first time I played with the specific collection of players at the table. A new player joined the group for their first D&D Next session and I had not met him previously. He was also a good addition to the game, but attempting to compare two game systems (4e and Next) between two campaign settings run by different DMs with different players is like comparing apples to hand grenades.

There have been many columns on initial impressions of D&D Next and I’ll certainly offer a few of mine before the end of the article. But I wanted to focus on the specific factor of combat time, which is how this blog started way back when. Below, I present preliminary data collected during my first D&D Next session, which illustrates a vast difference in combat time compared to other data available on 4th Edition D&D combat encounters.

Method

I was eager to play D&D Next and enjoy the simple joys of playing from the other side of the DM screen so the collection of combat time data was admittedly rudimentary. The party going through the playtest consisted of five players – 1 Rogue, 2 Wizards, 1 Cleric (Pelor) and 1 Cleric (Moradin). While playing the ever-flamboyant Professor Giroux, I used my iPhone’s Clock application to log the time of each combat encounter with the Stopwatch feature. I began the stopwatch when the DM prompted rolls for Initiative and stopped the stopwatch when the DM informed the party combat was concluded. I tracked the time of each encounter on my player sheet in the Equipment & Treasure section for those really detail-oriented folks out there. In addition to the time of the encounter, I wrote down the type and number of monsters fought in each encounter.

Results

The party was involved in six combat encounters during the D&D Next gaming session, which lasted approximately four hours. The length of each combat encounter is presented below in minutes.

The longest encounter for the party against three orcs lasted 31 minutes. Two encounters, one against two centipedes and one against six kobolds, lasted five minutes. The total time spent in combat during the six encounters was 94.5 minutes with an average of 15.75 minutes per combat encounter. The chart below illustrates the amount of time spent in each combat encounter versus time spent during exploration and roleplaying.

Discussion

The data analysis, while crude, offers a glimpse at the different style of play D&D Next hopes to encourage with the game system. In previous analyses of Dungeons & Dragons 4th Edition combat led by a stellar DM and savvy players, one simple encounter lasted 25 minutes and another lasted at least 75 minutes for a more complex encounter. The six combat encounters combined in our Dungeons & Dragons Next session lasted 94.5 minutes. Early results demonstrate the combat system as currently presented is quicker to navigate for the DM and players in D&D Next when compared to previous D&D 4th Edition analysis.

Four of the six combat encounters (67%) were resolved in 20 minutes or less, and three of the six combat encounters (50%) were resolved in 10 minutes or less. The two encounters that required more than 20 minutes to resolved features either numerous enemies, moral quandaries or what felt like a 4th Edition Solo fight with a big monster who decided to run away after the party pummeled him in the first two rounds of combat.

Two of the combat encounters – against the six kobolds and the six goblins – were significantly shortened by the use of Sleep spells, which incapacitated half of the monsters in the first round. Without the use of the Sleep spell, these encounters would have lasted a good deal longer. The results are likely influenced by the low level of monsters the party faced during the combat encounters. Combat speed is likely to increase as monsters present a greater challenge, although this is likely to be balanced with player options that are more deadly as well.

First Impressions of D&D Next

Dice tower built by the wonderful folks at Roving Band of Misfits

Rolling with Advantage is good times!

I enjoyed my time with D&D Next. It was great to simply play D&D and take a break from the DM role. Our ongoing Scales of War campaign in 4th Edition has experienced a variety of scheduling snags in recent weeks so it has been a while since the homicidally brave Dragonborn Rogue, J’hari Wrex, has allowed me to stretch my player legs! Playing a Wizard was also a nice change of pace from my Melee-based Rogue. As the combat rounds moved along faster – and the Wizard has Magic Missile, which never misses – damaging and killing monsters each round was certainly enjoyable. Rolling with advantage is also a joy as it can greatly increase the probability of hitting with an attack. As a player, I imagine the increased speed of combat rounds would keep everyone more engaged at the table.

In terms of specific mechanics, it seemed odd that I my Wizard could walk up to any monster, unleash Shocking grasp and then retreat without facing any penalty. It was great fun, and it led me to daydream about creating a Wizard with increased speed who could dart around the battlefield like an elemental ninja inflicting the Five- Point Palm Exploding Heart Technique on monsters! I know quite well that attacks of opportunity and interrupts slow down game play in 4th Edition, but it seems that there should be some cause for pause for a Wizard to zip in and out of the battle fray

Our Cleric (Moradin) really focused on his Guardian Theme and combined that with the Dodge action during many rounds of combat. Besides increasing his AC and Dexterity saving throws, it also forces disadvantage to an attack made against an ally within five feet. He made quite the effective front-line tank while the rest of the party disposed of other monsters. This combination was very effective in tight spaces as monster were bottle-necked and did not have many options other than retreat.

Out of combat, the game did not feel much different at all compared to 4th Edition sessions. The party explored a town, interacted with NPCs and learned about a variety of quests. Instead of being asked to roll for a Diplomacy or Intimidate check, party members were asked to roll Wisdom or Charisma checks. The DM later explained that he enjoyed the new system because 4th Edition skills felt too limiting (I’m paraphrasing):

Before Intimidate was tied to Charisma but what if a Fighter wanted to Intimidate by making a huge display of strength like picking up a boulder and smashing it to the ground? That shouldn’t be a Charisma check; it should be a Strength check. As a DM, I now have more flexibility to decide what check is required.

The lack of Skills did seem to free players up to try different things when usually they might not because of being untrained in a specific skill. It did not come up often but it would be something to keep in mind during future portions of the D&D Next playtest.

Finally, a brief thought on gold. Our first foray into the caves resulted in each member of the party getting 35 gp. As a Wizard, it did not seem like there was anything worthwhile to buy from the available Adventuring Gear. In general, the party bought Healer’s kits, Healing potions and an assortment of basic gear. After acquiring the basis gear needed for exploration, I wonder what items players will have to buy. I previously discussed how the economy in 4th Edition does not make sense and the cost of magic items is rather insane. I am curious to see how the economy in D&D Next is handled. I wonder why a Spyglass is 1,000 gp! For the price of one Spyglass, a party can buy 20 Healing potions; what is more valuable to the survival of the party?

I look forward to continuing the adventure provided with the D&D Next playtest materials. Specifically, I can only imagine the fun scenarios that involve Professor Giroux’s cat familiar exploring ahead of the party and delivering touch spells to an unsuspecting monster!

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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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25 Responses to Combat Speed in D&D Next

  1. Interesting report of D&D Next section

    The use of graphs help to show how much time are spent at combat and roleplaying and exploration. I hope that next interaction bring more good stuff to make us really desire play D&D Next.

    I don’t finish the exploration with my players just because I understand that the rules, as presented, is good altought some things must be fixed.

  2. Alphastream says:

    Nice to see some times pulled together. At our last playtest our group was actually surprised that combat was not faster. I think that topic came up because disposable fights seemed to take up more time than expected. We had a fight with stirges, and ambush with a few thugs, a fight against a reskinned medusa, a fight with party split up against a bunch of orcs, and a final fight with cool terrain and three strong foes. While that is a lot, the stirges and thugs were totally disposable. That leaves three fights, which is the standard amount for both 3E and 4E living campaigns in a 4-hour game. When we looked at this (and previous sessions) we saw a few things that had an impact.

    First, healing. The lack of healing meant even simple fights had a lasting effect as they ate away precious HPs and hit dice. This made PCs especially vulnerable in later fights. Also, we were playing with the one cleric that just has healing word… and adding one die of healing is just not enough to bring a PC back into a fight. Heal a PC for 2 HPs and that PC is going right back down the next round. All that falling unconscious really curbs PCs’ ability to speed through combats. Our last combat, for example, caught our DM by surprise, because the foes could drop all of us with one hit at that point. Our DM quickly compensated to keep us going.

    Second, defenses and to-hit values. The AC of some of the monsters (such as the Dark Priest) and of some PCs (plate mail found in an adventure) can make combats really swingy. At times, that can mean the combat is devastating to PCs (a lot of hits by weak foes can drop a level 3 party very quickly) or that it goes very long (no one hits the Dark Priest for two rounds, but it misses as well). This looser balance hasn’t really been an asset at our table. And while Advantage can theoretically compensate, it doesn’t if we use the rule of a standard action being required to earn it.

    I wouldn’t mind seeing PCs have greater resiliency and hit more often. I think it would make the play faster primarily by reducing parts of the game that currently have low value.

    • The Id DM says:

      One of the good things about 4e is the ability for a DM to know what to expect from a series of combats. There are certainly surprises, but I have an accurate idea – most of the time – about how a party will get through an encounter or series of encounters. The problem is that often 4e “needed” to have multiple fights to knock down the party a few pegs through attrition otherwise they would steamroll through each fight if they didn’t have to expend precious resources such as healing surges and daily powers.

      I haven’t played enough D&D Next to know how different the balance is; it would not seem possibly for an early draft of an entirely new system to be balanced right away. I think the playtest is meant to fix those issues. One thing that I hope the next edition has is an simple way for the DM to prepare; 4e very much excels at this! Please keep the amount of time a DM needs to prepare a session in mind! :)

      • Alphastream says:

        It is a potential issue. I’m thinking of it this way: the game should work with rooms of 20 orcs, but also with using a higher XP creature on its own (a medusa, for example). At higher levels you might run 5 medusae against a party. Now, accepting that monsters have not yet received emphasis, we can still run a few playtests or even look at just the rules and see potential issues. Take the damage inflicted by 20 orcs and think about how that compares to PC hit points. At what level, irregardless of boundless accuracy, will this be a cool and also fair fight? Similarly, is a single medusa a great fight at level 1-3? How swingy are fights with many/few foes when the party has or lacks healing, when the party has or lacks control (Sleep, etc.)?

        Related to this is the vision for the game. Classic mods were often very delve-centric. The concept was to roam through a large complex before resolving the narrative (evil cult, etc.). Because of the delve situation, it was seldom critical whether the fight with the basilisk, medusa, or 20 orcs was legendary or not. With so many rooms and situations, some would be legendary, some would be about flight, and some would be duds. I like to think adventure design and also the player base has advanced beyond those days. Yes, we all do like that at times. But, we also want adventures where the critters in each room are all important, and where the medusa either isn’t or is intended to be a challenging fight, because it fits the narrative, and the 20 orcs are likely to be too hard and thus result in flight because that is part of the narrative (perhaps pre-saging a future battle against the orc king and sweet revenge, or maybe because their flight leads to an awesome escape across a perilous rope bridge!).

        Right now, these issues are too big. They end up in the domain of expertise, where only an expert DM knows whether a D&D Next fight will be a challenge, overwhelming, too easy, or a boring grind. That’s not something I favor. While we want expertise to have its place, we want the core to work really well. Right now, XP is not at all a gauge of challenge, especially when we vastly change how many monsters make up a given XP amount.

        These issues can be resolved, but it will take some concerted changes to do so.

  3. I like your time analysis. Our play sessions were also quick. I definitely hope WOC maintains this speed of play going forward.

    • The Id DM says:

      The speed is certainly one factor I hope they keep in mind. Fast combats all the time can be boring too if they are not interesting, so I’m curious to see how they balance that as PCs progress and gain new abilities and powers.

  4. Macnol says:

    “Before Intimidate was tied to Charisma but what if a Fighter wanted to Intimidate by making a huge display of strength like picking up a boulder and smashing it to the ground? That shouldn’t be a Charisma check; it should be a Strength check. As a DM, I now have more flexibility to decide what check is required.”

    That was the standard in both of the last editions of D&D; if I recall correctly, that was probably the EXACT example used in 3rd edition to show how different attributes should be used for the skill check according to the circumstances.

    It seems quite unfair to criticize past rules due to misunderstanding them.

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  6. Shane says:

    Macnol, please cite your source. The RAW for skills in 3E and 4E specifically tie every codified skill and associate a particular ability score with that skill. Occasional feats allowed exceptions to the rule. There is no mention of “Use a different skill if it seems right” in the PHB or DMG to my knowledge.

  7. Macnol says:

    Page 91 in the 3e DMG, and page 33 in the 3.5 version.
    I’m not very fond of 4e (to put it mildly) so I don’t have the books here to check – but a friend once told me they had something similar too.

    Funny that the Intimidation by Strength actually isn’t mentioned in the examples of either book – I must have misremembered it due to being the most common example whenever the “weird key ability score for skills” subject comes up.

    • The Id DM says:

      I do not believe that type of flexibility is printed in the 4e manuals, but I could be wrong on that count. I didn’t not play 3e or 3.5. Of course, a DM can houserule things on the fly or ahead of time.

  8. Walt says:

    I had the same experience with the write that the combat seemed faster and we got through way more encountered then we ever did in 4e. Just hope that there is more versions of the play test with higher level characters so we can verify if the number of encounters shrink drastically as you level.

    • The Id DM says:

      I agree with you on this point. Going back to run 4e combat at Level 1, 2 or 3 would seem like a breeze compared to even late Heroic or early Paragon Tier. I wonder how they will handle increasing complexity when characters and monsters level. If there is an overload of options, then the action will likely bog down again or fights will be *extremely* swingy (see Alpha’s point above).

  9. chad says:

    After acquiring the basis gear needed for exploration, I wonder what items players will have to buy. I previously discussed how the economy in 4th Edition does not make sense and the cost of magic items is rather insane. I am curious to see how the economy in D&D Next is handled.

    This aspect of the game gets my attention frequently, for three big reasons: First, one of my first long-term D&D groups included a couple of Econ-major types who really liked understanding (and sometimes exploiting) toy economies. Second, one of my formative and still-favorite D&D DM’ing experiences came from the 1991 Dark Sun line, where the economy is obviously strongly warped. Finally, I play, run, write, and organize a lot of Organized Play games, including Living Greyhawk (where cash was incredibly, vitally important), Living Forgotten Realms (where cash is intentionally sidelined), and Ashes of Athas (where we’ve almost entirely abandoned the idea of cash).

    In short, I believe that 4e’s distorted Adventurer Economy stems from two factors. One factor is a reaction to 3e, where the economy was pretty badly broken, in ways that distorted the game but created an economy mini-game that some people liked (centered around crafting items). If the 3e economy worked well for your group, then that’s awesome, but you probably weren’t playing with anyone who knew how to study economies, or you played entirely with people who enojyed breaking systems (and probably also with a good DM who knew how to compensate). This was definitely NOT the typical case in LG. 3e followed (or lead) many video game economies in exactly this regard. That’s a pretty strong player-fun motivation for the simplified, stunted 4e economy, in my opinion.

    The other major factor for 4e’s economy take, I believe, is more relevant to D&D Next: the idea of the `Classic, Core D&D Experience’. When I think back to iconic D&D, fantasy, and sci-fi stories, the idea of an adventurer saving up money to buy cool or necessary magic items simply doesn’t appear. Even stories that you would think might be gold-oriented like the Lankhmar don’t have it. REH’s Conan adventured for treasure, but not to save up for a big purchase. Gord the Rogue doesn’t do it. Nobody from Greyhawk, Dragonlance, or the Forgotten Realms, or Mystara does it. It’s just not the sort of thing that occurs in the narrative.

    And that brings me to the following conclusion: it’s a firmly gamist concept. The simulationist aspects are almost always terrible, and the narrativist aspects are non-existant, but it’s a reasonable gamist feature. Unfortunately, the simulationist failures generally make the gamist factor fun for a few people and un-fun for many more people (ala Living Greyhawk, which spawned and then killed new subsystems just to deal with the problem).

    So, what to do? In My Not So Humble Opinion, I don’t want to see an attempt to fix the simulation (certainly, not in the Core). Instead, I’d like to see D&D Next embrace the narrative approach to money and wealth – characters with money spend it not on powering up their character sheets, but on expanding their characters. Bribe some people. Eat good food, at good places. Throw lavish parties that make you friends in high, medium, and low places. Buy the tavern a round every time you’re in town, and keep an ear open for the loose lips that follow – or just buy the tavern. Attract a thieves’ guild, and a constabulary, and support either or both as makes the story more fun. As suggested by another game I playtested recently, 13th Age by Tweet and Heinsoo: “Don’t plan or play for the safest, easiest path; make the choices that lead to more awesome” (paraphrased).

    Sorry for rambling. Thanks for listening, and for starting the conversation!

    • The Id DM says:

      Thank you for the thoughtful post!

      It seems that it is up to the DM and the players to turn money into something else meaningful besides gp to horde until they can afford a new items. One player in my group hired a bard to sing his praises wherever we traveled. In my first D&D Next game, I decided my Wizard had a lustful attitude toward jewerly and trinkets. It was fun to play around with that idea of him always on the lookout for shiny rings and gems. Not to sell for new gear, but to wear and keep for himself!

      With comments they have offered in the past about magic weapons returning to something more special, I thin an economy that moves away from the cost of magic items is a good start. Offer specific missions geared toward earning enough wealth to satisfy a goal.

      Rescue and sacred shrine from a suspected evil lord that plans to buy the land with the shrine to corrupt it. The party must seek odd jobs to earn enough gold to buy the land themselves. It sets up a variety of plot hooks for other adventures in town with a running clock of “we need to save money to buy this land or else The Shrine of Awzum is going to burn in unholy fire!”

      I do not think PCs want to grind away for gp to complete ALL missions, but DMs should feel free to experiment with alternative goals rather than “kill the evil lord trying to corrupt the sacred shrine.”

      What do you think?

  10. Mike says:

    One thing I see a lot of is people trying to play D&D Next the same way they played 4E. And that is often with the preconceived notion that the PCs can prevail in each and every combat purely through the numbers on their character sheets. I think Next will eventually be able to provide that experience, but I don’t think it can now, nor should it. In my group, in the playtest, we found a game very different than what we had in 4E. We have been enjoying 4E weekly for 2 years now and it took a bit of recalibration to “get” what the current state of Next is. 4E was designed such that combats would be predictable for the DM. What ended up happening was that it also become somewhat predictable to the players. This was, IMO, to its ultimate detriment. Once players saw a few hit rolls, they could quickly guage the challenge of the encounter. There were very few mechanical surprises. The current state of Next does not attempt to replicate this. It doesn’t currently support system mastery. The low level short-on-options playtest gives short shrift to optimization. So gamers looking to “flex” the mechanics of the system will be left wanting. Those options are coming, but we need not put the cart before the horse. We need to get the core strong, so that when we add those more advanced options, the entire system doesn’t buckle under their weight.
    With regard to combat speed, our combats were so intense and rapid-fire that we were very pleasantly surprised. The “awesome” as I call it came from the roleplay rather than the mechanics and that was a really nice benefit. This is the same group of players in a different ruleset so even though I used to argue that you don’t need simplified mechanics to foster more RP, I have to admit I was somewhat mistaken. Nobody was looking at their character sheets, flipping through trying to decide which power would be “optimal”. Instead, they were constantly probing for more description of the environment in order to decide what would be the best course of action. I didn’t realize how much I had missed that type of experience until I saw it again. But more than that, I loved the fluidity of the transition to and from combat. It was just more of the story, rather than feeling like the session was broken up into combat and non-combat sections.

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  13. Fizzygoo says:

    Love the data analysis!

    My assumption on the extravagant price of the spyglass is that it takes into account “complexity” and “availability” of the components and process to make it (under non-magical means). Having the tools, skills, knowledge, and materials to grind two (or more) lenses (possibly without knowing Snell’s Law) far exceeds most D&D medieval-esq craftspersons. While a hammer on the other hand, pour the iron into the mold, cool, and shove a wooden handle in it (to simplify it). … But I agree, 1K gold seems excessive.

    And for me, as far as economy: http://fizzygoo.com/blog/2012/08/30/dd-economy/

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