Length of 4e combat – Decision time, not calculation time

Geek Ken has a post over at This is My Game today talking about an idea for speeding up combat. He suggests doing away with rolling dice for damage and instead having fixed damage for each attack with some variety for crits, near-crits and barely-hits. The variety sounds like fun, but as I commented on that post, I don’t think the time it takes to roll and add up damage adds much to the problem of long combats.

What slows down combat is the time it takes to make decisions.

When I first started my Friday night online campaign in August 2010 with first-level characters, combat seemed to move at a pretty good pace. Lately, I’ve noticed that we’ve had some battles that have taken two hours to finish.

What has changed? The PCs are now eighth level rather than first level, and they have a lot more powers to choose from each turn. They have more interrupts on one another’s turns. They have magic item abilities to think about.

It’s probably also true that I haven’t had quite as much time to prepare for sessions as I did back in August, so maybe I’m fumbling around a little more on the bad guys’ turns. But I think I fumbled around back then, too, because I was a new DM. The time it takes me to run the monsters’ turns now is probably similar to what it was back then.

One of the reasons I’m so confident that it’s about decision-making time rather than mechanical time to roll and add dice is that we use MapTool macros that automatically handle the rolling and adding. When the fighter decides to use Crushing Surge, he clicks one button and the attack roll and damage roll show up for all to see, with the math done. Even if he’s rolling 12 dice for damage, it takes no longer than a single die.

What to do about this? Well, I don’t really know. Suggestions to streamline the math of combat won’t help me, since the computer is handling that part. Could I raise monster damage and lower monster hit points/defenses? That’s a possibility. I can have monsters flee or surrender when the fight is clearly lost (and I do that where appropriate).

In the end, it takes time for players to decide what they want to do on their turn. I have great players, and they pay attention and keep their heads in the game. They just have a lot of options at their disposal, and they enjoy the process of making the best decision on their turn. That’s the fun of a game that’s tactics-heavy, and I don’t want to take that away from the players. But it sure does take a long time!

12 thoughts on “Length of 4e combat – Decision time, not calculation time

  1. Player decisions to take a long time. On Tuesday nights, I play with a group where we regularly have had around 10 players (11 counting the DM). While we use MapTool for maps, initiative, and statuses, we don’t use it for attack/damage calculations. Even running the lower level encounters, they were taking a long time.

    We have since gotten into “pre-rolling”. basically, deciding what you are going to be before your turn, plan tactics with other players, and had the attack/ damage rolls done. We allow for minor changes, such as if the enemy the attack was supposed to be against died. It’s an honesty system, and we’re pretty good about it. Such as, I plan to use an at-will, roll a 20, and switch my plan to an encounter or daily instead. We avoid doing that (though still a bit guilty of it once in awhile).

    Since, our encounters have gone much faster, we are still keep our heads in the game (as we have to know what’s going on and how it affects our planned actions), and our DM can keep things going smoother (with a virtual army running around, he keeps making encounters harder and harder, trying to find our “breaking-point”: he hasn’t found it yet!)

  2. One rather drastic way that works is to use a timer – “You have 30 seconds to tell me what you’re doing. Otherwise, your character is paralyzed with indecision this turn.”

    If you have a tactics-heavy group they probably won’t appreciate it as a rule for always, but it can be nice to do that now and then – maybe the building is filling with water or on fire, or the princess is being lowered into the blade trap. It’s a fun change of pace and it reminds your players what fast combat can be like.

    • This might be an interesting experiment to try sometime, though I would want to let my players know beforehand that I was going to try it.

      “Okay, this is going to be a speed combat. When your turn comes up, you have 30 seconds to make a decision and actually hit your attack button. If you don’t, you delay. Delay long enough and you’ve lost your turn.”

      I would do the same for the monsters. I’d want to find a setting where this makes sense – an especially frantic battle, as you suggest.

      I don’t think I’d want to run EVERY combat this one, but doing one every now and then might be a fun twist.

      Thanks for the suggestion!

  3. The timer thing would be interesting for certain situations, I think! And yeah, I don’t mind combat taking a while, because I’m invested in it… even when it’s someone else’s turn. I try to keep thinking about what I’m doing next, and if something changes, then adjust, so that when it’s my turn I”m ready to go.

    • Whew! I’m always worried when I write about our game that I’ll upset one of my players (Maximilia is one of them). I’m glad that’s not the case!

      I’m happy to say that everyone in the group seems to be really into the game during combat, so I never have to get anyone’s attention away from something else they’re doing. That’s impressive for an online game in particular, where it would be really easy to do something else while it’s not your turn.

  4. I’m messing about with doing away with powers and replacing them with a few tactical options that can be selected in place of damage dice if the players choose.

    I think 4e is getting buried by its own complexity as far as combat goes. I’m looking to get more chess-like. That is, a few different options, with the complexity coming from play, rather than choice overkill.

    In addition to that, i’m designing sessions to be less combat-centric. By putting more non-combat choices in front of my players, the story moves along briskly, and even the hack-and-slash contingent is happy so far.

    • You’re right that simply having less combat can make the game move more quickly.

      As for the “few tactical options” approach, some of the Essentials classes are built more along these lines. If you’re a Hunter Ranger, you’re going to be making a ranged basic attack of some sort. You’ll probably even have default options (attacking one enemy – Clever Shot; for a group – Rapid Shot). I think these classes probably play faster to some extent just because of having fewer powers to sort through each turn.

    • I don’t know how I missed that article – thanks for pointing it out! I agree with the philosophy espoused there, that 4e should have a small number of really cool fights, rather than tons of fights just for the sake of fighting. Make the fights matter.

  5. I think there is two sides to long combats – if they are long and the PCs are handily winning, they are boring for the players and the DM. But if if the outcome is in doubt, the length doesn’t matter as much.

    Saturday I ran a SPEC LFR event. For those who haven’t played a SPEC encounter, it takes a long time to get through (6 vs. 4 hours). The first encounter (and the second encounter somewhat) ended up being a slugfest. Players were going down and coming back after healing or a lucky 20 on a death check. I thought it was one of the more fun and exciting events I’ve been in. (One thing to note, only 4 players, a number I love whether I’m a player or DM.)

    But last night, I DM’d a regular LFR session with 6 players. In this, the combats went long, were never in doubt, and players got distracted from what was occurring. I even broke a major DM rule by telling a player that he couldn’t use his action point because he took too long determining what he was doing with his first three actions (in my defense, the next player applied the killing blow to the last monster and the game was over).

    The steps I’d like to figure out how to implement to make things more interesting/speed things up are: reduce the monster types I have to track to (the most) three, emphasize that being prepared for your turn is critical, limit the going back to add a minor action or damage to a previous player’s turn, and most importantly being better prepared myself and focussing monster fire on the most fragile player.

    Okay, this got real long winded, sorry about that.

    I’ll be always interested in ways to make combat more engaging and efficient.

    • And as a player in both of those games, I can comment, too!

      I do think part of it is just the number of players – 4 goes faster than 6. And it’s true that the fights in the SPEC game were more exciting because the players were threatened; the Tuesday night game was pretty easy for the players.

      Had I been DMing the Tuesday game, I probably would have called the fights a little more quickly. When there are just a couple of bad guys left and none of the good guys are even bloodied, the bad guys surrender or flee and the action moves on.

      But really, some players took a long time to take their turns. Maybe it’s a question of training your players to know their powers and think ahead – but that’s tough with public events, since the players keep changing.

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