Combat “Speed” in Role-Playing Games

One of the largest concerns for gamers, especially DMs, is the time it takes to get through each round during combat. This concern can be seen in the Angry DM’s post as well as several of The Id DM’s posts (in fact the reason for the creation of his blog).

Now I fully agree that combat rules contribute to the length (short or long) of a combat round. And because of The Id DM’s data analysis of combat rounds I have, in fact, been left with a man-crush not unlike Dr. Plait’s Will Wheaton man crush.

But my praise of both of the above bloggers does not stop me from arguing (politely, academically, of course) with their ideas.

Or more specifically, to meta-argue a point.

Now The Id DM’s analysis of D&D Next combat rounds would indicate that, so far, they are faster than 4th edition (and by extension 3.5/Pathfinder). But without a fully comparable system this analysis is purely hypothetical in regards to how the finished product will work.

When D&D Next approaches the quantity of options given to players and monsters as in 3.5/Pathfinder or 4th edition only then can an accurate analysis be made (but again, I stress, I’m not faulting The Id DM in any way: preliminary analysis will help to understand later data gained from the finished system). For an extreme example, it would be absurd to compare combat speed (or character creation for that matter) between the Hero System and TWERPS. And to be fair, the Id DM does a good job of pointing out that his analysis of D&D Next is as the system is “currently presented.”

But here’s the crux of my argument: After careful consideration, and looking at the past data provided by The Id DM, myself, and new data that I have but haven’t put up on the blog yet, my hypothesis is that it is not the game system, or the specific rule-sets that are inherently frustrating in regards to the time it takes to play through combat…it’s the people playing the game.

In my nearly 30 years of playing D&D and other RPG systems there’s always been those players that take a long time during their turn (myself included, especially when GMing Shadowrun). After learning of The Id DM’s work I have since become hyper aware of how long each player and DM in my group takes during their turn.

Now there’s two types of gamers, engaged and not engaged. Neither of these types are set in stone, meaning that a player can be engaged one evening and not the next. Real world concerns are especially significant as external problems or concerns can cause a normally engaged player to become un-engaged. Just as turning off other player’s cellphones/laptops/etc.  at the table can increase the probability that they become engaged.

There is also another type of gamer; decisive and indecisive. This type can overlap either way with the engaged or un-engaged players. A normally decisive and engaged player can become un-engaged if going through a personal issue like a break up, finals, divorce, lay-off, etc. Just as indecisive players can be constantly engaged. And external problems can cause a normally decisive player to question their every move and become indecisive.

The best gaming session is when players are both engaged and decisive. By being engaged they are following the combat, listening to the DM and other players, and constantly formulating and updating their character’s (or the NPC’s) plans for their next turn. And by being decisive, when their turn comes they state their actions, get up to move their miniatures on their own, roll their dice, state the results, and indicate clearly that they are done.

The worst is when players (or DMs) are un-engaged and indecisive. By being un-engaged they are not following along with what the other players and DM are doing (whether they are concerned with external life issues or because they are checking Facebook on their computer-device or because they are just so self-absorbed that they find paying attention to others boring). By being indecisive they second guess every possible action during their turn; performing some internal monologue as to the best action, moving their miniature (or worse, having someone else move it and saying something like, “no, on the other side…no not the rock…no not the tree, the other side of that goblin.”) and then deciding to make a different move (often forgetting their starting location), rolling the dice and stating the result and then saying something like, “no, wait, I forgot to add modifiers from X, Y, and/or Z,” and then once their turn has ended and the next player is acting they say, “Oh, wait, I forgot to…”

A DM can work to keep the players engaged by descriptive narration during combat to quickly relate how the current action by a player or NPC affects the other player (“Gregor swings at the goblin who ducks out of the way while still clutching the wound that Bothik gave him just moments ago and the other goblins scream at the wizard and cleric as if they have blasphemed their goblin god directly”).

Eye contact is also key for the DM. Make sure to make eye contact with each player as you’re giving descriptive text, even if it’s just expounding on the results of a single player. By making eye contact with each player, or at least attempting to, you’ll then become aware of the players that are not making eye contact back and you’ll get a feel as to whether they are getting ready for their character’s next move or if they are un-engaged. If they are un-engaged, try adding a bit of description that mentions their character by name. For example, if you’re relating the outcome of Gregor’s attack against the goblin and Lormath’s player appears un-engaged you can say, “As Gregor’s blade comes down hard on the goblin’s make-shift armor, bits of metal fly off, one peace even striking Lormath on the cheek, leaving a red welt.” Of course some may feel that if the player still seems un-engaged, that causing a small amount of damage would help to “wake-them-up” but I am loathe to pursue such actions unless I am very sure as to the cause of the player being un-engaged. If they are feeling picked-upon, bullied, etc., outside of game and that is the reason for them not being wholly present at the table then arbitrarily damaging their character could increase that feeling rather than helping them be in a space where they are accepted for who they are. But if you keep them a part of the action then they will have to work at focusing on the game to know whether it’s just a “flavor text” moment for their character or the character is really being attacked.

However, there is not much that can be done with an indecisive player. Pointing out a positive path to take may make them resentful, as if you’re trying to control them. And yelling at them may make them withdraw or become more fearful of taking action. I’ve seen DMs try to time the indecisive player’s turn, “you’ve got 30 seconds,” but the problem with that is that unless all the other players are timed similarly with equal time then it can appear as favoritism or as antagonist towards the indecisive player. Also, some players don’t work well under pressure and timing them just increases their indecisiveness. Otherwise, all that can be done is politely make them aware of their indecisiveness and ask that they attempt to rectify it.

So far, in the games that I’ve played in (and recorded) the average length of a round is about twelve minutes and the average player’s turn at around 1 minute 20 seconds. With this in mind, a DM can inform all players (but specifically doing so for the indecisive players) at the end of their turn that they now have only about 10 minutes to figure out their next action.

Through all of this, I am assuming that I’m talking about players/DMs that want to be at the game. If a player doesn’t want to play then they’re prone to being un-engaged and, not just indecisive, but uncaring. At the very least, the indecisive players are indecisive because they are concerned (maybe overly concerned) on the outcome of their turn. And they shouldn’t be faulted for their concern. But the uncaring player, if after sincere attempts to fix the problem(s) have failed, then they need to leave.

The engage/un-engaged and decisive/indecisive problems can be complicated by other personality problems; shy people can appear un-engaged and indecisive, scene-stealing over-acting players are made even worse when indecisive as they make in-character speeches only to ask to retro it and make a renewed speech, etc.

In the moment, at the table, these problems can be infinitely frustrating. Just 5 seconds of pause on a normally indecisive player can make everyone’s hair stand on end when a rare 30 second second-guessing moment by a normally decisive and engaged player can evoke little or no frustration all because it is known beforehand that the indecisive player is indecisive. But on the other hand, looking at the data and extrapolating, if an average (leaning towards longer combats for this example) combat is around 5 rounds and the average indecisive player takes an extra minute per turn. That’s only an extra 5 minutes per combat. And 5 minutes, split over 5 rounds, is largely nothing…unless it’s 5 minutes watching the microwave count down.

Knowing and understanding which of your players are indecisive allows the DM to take advantage of that time by thinking ahead for what the NPCs are going to do. Think of it as the indecisive player giving the DM a gift of time to plan ahead. I mean, if all the players were always engaged and decisive then clearly the frustration for how long combat takes falls squarely on the DM’s shoulders.

As a final note, a player’s time, I suspect, is also determined by the character class/roll they are playing. Controllers and classes that have abilities that affect multiple targets, require marking areas of effects on the map (if playing with miniatures), animal companions, etc., all should take longer than straight-forward melee attackers. As more data is acquired I’ll be able to make more accurate round lengths by class (from different players) to see how this hypothesis stacks up.

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