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.
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.
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:
- Roleplaying & Tactical Decisions
- 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!).
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.
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.
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.