Minding my own business last week, I was passive-aggressively challenged by Mike Shea of Sly Flourish to return to my roots and perform an analysis on the latest installment of Dungeons & Dragons played by the members of Acquisitions Incorporated. My first blog post back in 2011 was an analysis of the Penny Arcade/PvP podcast to track the duration of combat in 4th Edition D&D. I followed this up with another analysis of a later combat encounter in the Penny Arcade/PvP podcast series. In those posts, I was able to add meaningful data to the (then) ongoing discussion about the length of combat in 4th Edition. Mike figured it made sense to task me with using the same technique to investigate combat in 5th Edition.
I had not yet watched the PAX 2014 Live Game of Dungeons & Dragons featuring Jerry Holkins, Mike Krahulik, Scott Kurtz, and Morgan Webb of Acquisitions Incorporated. They were joined by a special guest, Patrick Rothfuss, and dealt with whatever Dungeon Master extraordinaire, Chris Perkins, threw at them. For those that have not yet watched the video, the two-plus hour session is below, and it is wonderfully entertaining!
Below, a description of the method used to code the first combat encounter featured in the PAX 2014 Live Game is given, and then data from that analysis is organized and discussed. Analyzing the session resulted in several intriguing questions including the surprising basic inquiry: Is the group playing Dungeons & Dragons?
Before going any further with analysis and discussion of the PAX 2014 Live Game, I feel the need to emphasize a few points. First, the session is being held in front of a large live audience and it is being recorded from multiple angles. The game is meant to be a performance on a grand scale, so comparing dynamics of this session to a typical session that might take place in a home environment or friendly local gaming store is like comparing apples to hand grenades. Second, the following analysis of the session is in no way meant to be mean-spirited, snarky (except for one comment at the end), or overly critical. The 4th Edition podcasts featuring Acquisitions Incorporated are the main reason I started to play D&D again after close to 20 years away from the hobby, so I truly appreciate the players’ willingness to share their gaming experiences with strangers. Hell, I even wrote over 1,600 words on how Wil Wheaton’s reaction to Aeofel’s death perfectly encapsulated the classic five stages of grief!
Last, it is certainly possible there are errors with my numbers in the analysis. Coding these sessions is not an exact science as players talk over each other; and in this case there is also an audience interacting with the players throughout the game. I will say I spent many an hour coding the session and analyzing the results. With those disclaimers out of the way, let us proceed.
While watching the PAX 2014 Live Game, I took notes while pausing the video to keep a running log of the actions that take place in the game. I split each player’s turn into two categories, which I also used in the prior analyses of 4th Edition combat. I kept the categories simple to investigate the overall flow of combat. There are many ways that combat encounters can be coded; I settled on the following two categories to analyze the time of the turns during combat rounds:
- Roleplaying & Tactical Decisions
- Rolling, Calculating & Results
The first category counts everything between the DM informing the player it is their turn to when the PC decides on their action 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. I only code the second category – Rolling, Calculating & Results – when dice, math and back-and-forth with the DM about a possible hit and repercussions 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 or her turn.
After I have the log of each action in a document, I transcribe the data into a spreadsheet and create numerous charts to illustrate the results. Although I did code all 2 1/2 hours of the video, I decided that the second encounter would not yield meaningful quantitative data. However, there is a wealth of qualitative data to discuss regarding the second encounter, and that will be presented later. The following charts are based on the first combat encounter featured in the PAX 2014 Live Game video.
The video begins with 11 minutes of entrances and build up to the session including a fantastic 4:20 animated sequence to catch up the audience on the adventure thus far. The DM, Chris Perkins, then sets to building an encounter with an amazing set of terrain featuring a ruined castle, numerous dragon miniatures, and multiple threats. After introducing the players to the current situation, he asks the group at the 16:56 minute mark, “What do you do?” This is where I started the analysis of the combat encounter.
The first piece of data is to track the length of combat rounds. As the combat proceeds, I logged how many seconds each player took in the two categories (roleplaying/tactics, rolling/calculating) described above. The first combat encounter is between five players, several dragons, and a group of cultists. The players in the encounter are:
- Jerry Holkins – Omin
- Mike Krahulik – Jim
- Scott Kurtz – Binwin
- Morgan Webb – Morgaen
- Patrick Rothfuss – Viari
The length of the rounds of combat in seconds is displayed below.
The first combat encounter last four rounds, and it is easily noticeable that the fourth round take less time to complete compared to the earlier rounds. Only two players need to act in Round 4 as the enemies have mostly been dealt with, and the DM quickly informs the players that all threats have been eliminated. The same data is displayed below in minutes, which is easier to understand.
With the data translated to minutes, it is easier to see that Round 1 lasts just over 20 minutes, Round 2 is 25 minutes, Round 3 drops down to just over 20 minutes, and Round 4 is less than five minutes long. The total time of the combat encounter is about 70 minutes long.
The next chart displays the specific actions taken by each player in the rounds of combat. The actions are coded by the categories described above: 1) Roleplaying & Tactical Decisions, and 2) Rolling, Calculating & Results.
The chart above removes the DM’s turns for monsters, NPCS, and other narration in addition to an early instance of the group interrupting a player’s turn in Round 1 to discuss their plans. The chart focuses on the five players who spend a combined 48.5 minutes taking turns during the combat encounter with 21 minutes (43%) used to roll, calculate, and respond to results and 27.5 minutes (57%) used to roleplay and make tactical decisions. The results from this session line up almost exactly to my first analysis on 4th Edition combat, which showed the players spent 45% rolling and calculating and 55% roleplalying.
The chart below further drills into this data by assigning the turns to the players involved; it depicts the amount of time each player uses between the Roleplaying & Tactical Decisions and Rolling/Calculating & Results categories for the entire encounter.
Several items of note. First, Jim and Morgaen are the only players to act in Round 4, so their time in combat is a bit more than the rest of the party. Jim and Morgaen spend approximately 2.5 minutes combined in combat in Round 4, so even factoring that out leaves them as the players who take the most amount of time. Second, Omin is once again on the quicker side in terms of taking actions in combat, which was demonstrated in earlier analyses of the Penny Arcade/PvP podcasts.
Next I wanted to track how long the DM takes with his turns in combat. Mr. Perkins was very fast in my earlier analyses, and my initial hypothesis of him not rolling was confirmed later when he admitted as such. The DM’s time spent in combat in each round is presented below.
Mr. Perkins spends approximately 20 minutes to take actions and narrate the circumstance of the combat encounter during the first two rounds. He then spends less than four minutes in the next two rounds of combat taking actions. The DM’s job during this session is challenging; Mr. Perkins has to manage the players, the crowd, multiple monsters and NPCs, and bring in a special guest (Patrick Rothfuss) in the middle of the encounter – all while being under a time limit that is running down on a clock in front of him. After the stage is set in the first two rounds of combat, the DM is free to streamline the turns in the following rounds.
A final analysis was to examine the duration of each player’s turn in the new edition of Dungeons & Dragons. When investigating the duration of turns in 4th Edition, 40% of the turns lasted between one and two minutes, and 48% lasted over two minutes. The turns for the PAX 2014 Live Game are below.
The five players took a total of 17 turns in the four rounds of combat. The raw number is displayed in the chart first, followed by the percentage of how often the duration appeared in the sample. For example, seven turns were greater than 180 seconds (three minutes), which comprised 41% of all turns taken in combat. Six turns lasted between 121 – 180 seconds making up 35% of all turns, and so on.
Turn Length. The data above illustrates the time in combat during the PAX 2014 Live Game; generalizing to other games should be done with a healthy amount of caution. The players are sitting in front of a live audience and there is an element of performance to the entire presentation. If the audience was removed and this was simply an audio recording of a game taking place in private, I imagine it would zip along at a quicker pace. Also, the players in the above encounter are high level and battling in an extremely complex environment including multiple dragons and an airship that arrives after the encounter has started. With that said, it is mildly surprising that the most frequent duration of turn length was greater than three minutes since 5th Edition has emphasized a streamlined approach to combat. While playing the new edition as a player and DM, the combat turns certainly seem to move along much faster than three minutes.
Terrain and Miniatures. The terrain used for this combat encounter is amazing. There is a ruined-castle diorama, miniatures for every creature involved in the combat, and an airship suspended in midair that hovers over the battlefield. While the terrain is fantastic, it certainly slows down combat. Watch the video and note how often dealing with terrain slows down the game. Is the trade off in efficiency worth the wow-factor of the terrain? I would say, “Hell, yes!” However, it is something that all DMs should be aware of as they play the new edition of D&D because terrain and miniatures are voluntary. All combat encounters in 5th Edition can be executed from a narrative point of view. I have no doubt the players involved in the PAX 2014 Live Game would be just as entertaining sitting around a table describing how the combat plays out, but the terrain adds a great deal to the experience as a viewer of the game – and it inspires both the players and DM during the encounter.
Initiative. In the above encounter, the DM informs the players at the 10:34 mark, “Alright. Now for the two most magical words in Dungeons & Dragons – roll initiative.” I previously discussed potential benefits and consequences of asking for an initiative order. The players respond and an initiative order is determined: Jim, Morgaen, Omin, then Binwin. Viari is added to the end of the initiative order when he is introduced as the airship arrives. However, the initiative order gets cloudy in the second round after Viari, the airship, and the ship’s robots are added to the encounter. In the second round, Morgaen takes two turns before Omin or Binwin act at all. The players and DM either do not notice or do not care, and this oversight does not break or ruin the encounter in any way. With the amount of moving parts and distractions going on during the encounter, it is not surprising that the initiative order would get mixed up at some point. If a DM is going to use a formal initiative order for combat encounters, then it would be wise to write it down and display the order for the entire group to see at all time to avoid errors.
Action Economy Consistency. The Dungeon Master in the above encounter gives the players a great deal of leeway in terms of movement and action economy. Mr. Perkins does not routinely ask players about their speed; he allows the players to move about the ruined castle unfettered on most turns. When he does ask for a check, it is related to climbing and not speed. However, the action economy is more liberal for Viari who is played by special guest, Patrick Rothfuss. In the first round, Viari arrives on an airship; during his first turn he leaps off the airship on a rope onto the back of a dragon then attacks the dragon with a sneak attack bonus. Later in the third turn, Viari uses his turn to attack a cultist, descend a tower successfully (on a roll of 1), and use an extra action to make a Sleight of Hand check to open and plant an alchemist’s fire potion on another cultist. The players around the table immediately begin joking that they will pass on their actions because Viari obviously has everything under control.
Joking or not, the players at the table believe that Viari is being allowed to skirt the rules everyone else is following. Are Viari’s turns cinematic and awesome? Yes. Are Viari’s turns perhaps unfair to other players at the table? Yes. Again, this gaming session was partially a performance so Mr. Perkins handwaving certain rules in the support of awesome actions makes perfect sense; however, he reels in Viari during the second encounter by ending Viari’s turn even though a by-the-book ruling would seem to allow another action. My reading of the decision is that Mr. Perkins noted the earlier jokes and comments from the players and wanted to avoid hearing those comments again. In my opinion, the video demonstrates that even the wickedly talented Chris Perkins can rile up players if his rulings on action economy are not consistent. If DMs are going to break the rules while running a game, then break them consistently to maintain the same action economy for all players.
Qualitative Analysis – Is The Video Above Dungeons & Dragons?
My original goal was the apply the above analysis to all combat encounters in the video. However, the second encounter does not lend itself well to this type of analysis because the rules of combat encounters are not exactly followed. The combat takes place aboard an airship flying through a storm that is housing over 20 dragons. Mr. Perkins forgoes asking for an initiative order and runs the combat by bouncing from one player to the next in a narrative fashion while actively avoiding combat rules. Players take actions in the following order during the encounter:
- Jim, Omin, Binwin, Viari, Jim, Viari, Omin, Morgaen, Binwin, Jim, Omin, Viari, Omin, Morgaen, Jim, Binwin, Omin
Another way to illustrate this, the players take the following turns:
- Jim – 1st, 5th, 10th, 15th
- Omin – 2nd, 7th, 11th, 13th, 17th
- Binwin – 3rd, 9th, 16th
- Viari – 4th, 6th, 12th
- Morgaen – 8th, 14th
Try to apply a typical round format to that data! As a result, I declined to attempt an analysis of those turns in combat because the encounter is too fluid.
However, there is no shortage of interesting data to be gleaned from the second combat encounter! Perhaps the best introduction to the question of whether or not the PAX 2014 Live Game is Dungeons & Dragons is the following exchange near the end of the session:
2:13:00 – Chris Perkins: “Make a balloon attack against the red dragon.”
2:13:07 – Jerry Holkins: “Is it like Strength to pull the wheel – or what are we thinking?”
2:13:09 – Chris Perkins: “Oh, fuck if I know.”
2:13:12 – Jerry Holkins: “Hold up, I want to make sure I understand. You’re saying that 5th Edition… Dungeons & Dragons doesn’t cover attacking dragons in midair with your balloon?”
The exchange is noteworthy for multiple reasons. First, it is an acknowledgement that the group is intending to play the 5th Edition of Dungeons & Dragons. There are other moments earlier in the session when Mr. Perkins is consulting a manual that looks like one of the new hardcover rule books, but the comment above from Mr. Holkins is the first explicit statement that the game is 5th Edition D&D. Second, even though the players have been involved in a session for over two hours that has skirted multiple rules, they continue to search for anchors to decide on how they can execute actions in the encounter that are consistent with the established rules. Third, Mr. Perkins admission that he is flying by the seat of his pants (pun most-definitely intended) is not only hilarious – it illustrates a paradox in roleplaying games about DM authority and rules.
Monte Cook penned the following on Google+ earlier in the year as a response to an article about proceduralism:
In my mind it comes down to the acceptance or rejection that GM fiat is, in fact, a mechanism for resolution. In other words, does a GM have to make a ruling because of a lack of rules, or does the GM make a ruling because that is, in fact, the rule?
… This is the crux issue, I think, because it sets up entirely how a game is designed and how it is played. It determines how a session is prepped, what physical form it takes at the table, and the relationship the players (and GM, if any) have with the rulebook, with recordkeeping, and with narrative freedom.
Mr. Cook summarizes the issues of DM authority and built-in rules more effectively than I ever could, and his comments apply directly to the PAX 2014 Live Game because Mr. Perkins ignores or breaks rules throughout the session, and he allows players to ignore, bend and break rules as well.
Someone more enterprising than me could code the video above to determine how many actions follow the rules for 5th Edition as published – and how many actions are outside of the rules. My guess is that a good portion of the actions in the game are outside – or contradict – the rules. When does DM Fiat stretch to the point that the game being played is something entirely different from what the rules intended? This leads back to the original question of whether the session is Dungeons & Dragons – or something else.
Remove the lens of a new edition of Dungeons & Dragons being released right before the PAX 2014 Live Game, and consider how the game relates to prior editions of the game. Does it feel like 2nd, 3rd, or 4th Edition? Does it feel like another system that is not labeled D&D? How far would a group need to play outside of the rules for a game to stop being D&D and start becoming something else? To me, the game feels like Dungeons & Dragons, but I hesitate to say definitively that it is a 5th Edition D&D session. It is a fascinating discussion, and I am eager to hear the thoughts and opinions of others.
And Now For Something Completely Different
A long time ago in this article, I alluded to a moment of snark. The special guest player during the encounter is Patrick Rothfuss, acclaimed author of The Kingkiller Chronicle novels. Back in 2011, I waited in line for many hours at Murder By The Book, a bookstore in Hoston, Texas, to attend a signing by Mr. Rothfuss. He was extremely pleasant, interacted with the crowd, read a passage from one of his works, and talked briefly about roleplaying games. During the Q&A, he was asked about different games and I distinctly recall him saying/joking (and I’m slightly paraphrasing), “Fuck Dungeons & Dragons. Want to play a real roleplaying game? Play Dungeon World.” Perhaps this is a bit of confabulation on my part, but that was certainly the gist – so it was humorous to see Mr. Rothfuss on stage playing D&D for a huge audience.
Regardless, during the PAX 2014 Live Game while Mr. Rothfuss is discussing Hit Dice and healing with the DM, an audience member yells out something about the Class of Rothfuss’ character, Viari, which resulted in the following comment:
1:46:11 – Patrick Rothfuss: I’m not a bard. Bards are wankers.
The crowd and Mr. Rothfuss laugh. I can only assume his comment above is sarcastic, because Mr. Rothfuss has written two novels about a character named Kvothe who is a talented musician who battles monsters, casts spells, and tells tales.
In orders words – Kvothe is a Bard.
So if this comment is not sarcasm, then I am very confused!