I came across the blog of The Id DM and I like it so much I’ve permanently added a link to his blog over there on the right (under the ‘Gaming’ category, natch…but one of the things that I like about the blog so much is that I could put his blog under the ‘Science [mostly]‘ category).
There’s a lot of great stuff over at The Id DM, and I’ve only read through his June 2012, April 2011, and March 2011 posts; meaning I have a year and a month worth of articles to read! He plays D&D 4th edition, so I’ve glossed over the edition-focused articles but his general DM advice/musing, Interviews, etc., are great.
What really made me drool was his 2nd post, back in March of 2011 where he analyzes the Penny Arcade/PvP podcast (Season 2, Episode 2) to determine the combat round length of a D&D encounter, both overall and by breaking it down by the players and DM’s turns.
It just so happens that I have a couple of recordings of my own game group from back in 2007 so I could use the Id DM’s methods to analyze my group’s combats and see what the differences/similarities are.
Differences in Methodology
The primary difference is that this is a comparison between D&D 4th edition (Penny Arcade/PvP) and D&D 3.5 (my group).
Second, the Id DM was able to break down individual player turns from the Penny Arcade/PvP podcast into two categories; 1. Role-playing & Tactical Decisions and 2. Rolling, Calculating & Results. This wasn’t possible (or at least couldn’t be accurately determined) for my group for the reasons listed in Role-playing Differences, below.
My analysis is of two combats in one evening of play with 5 players using D&D 3.5 edition, compared to the Penny Arcade/PvP session which consists of 4 players using D&D 4th edition.
The Penny Arcade/PvP session only included the 4 PCs and the ‘monsters,’ while both combats in my group consisted of the 5 PCs, one NPC with a character class as a companion of the party, about 4 caravan NPCs, and the ‘monsters’.
Breaking up each character’s turn follows the Id DM’s method where from the moment the DM declares “Player X, you’re turn” until the DM then states “Player Y, your turn” is counted as the time taken for Player X’s turn. There were several overlapping turns, where the DM would say “Player Y, your turn” and within a few seconds Player X would state some follow-up action (i.e., “as a free action I say…”, “oh, and I take a 5-foot step to here,” etc.). This was primarily due to players not remembering the totality of their available actions but on occasion it was also due to the DM moving on before the player was finished. Best estimates were used to determine when Player X’s turn actually ended and when Player Y actually started in these instances, but as such it still increases the margin of error for the final results.
The same estimates are made for when a player’s turn ends and the turn of an NPC begins.
In the comparison of the Id DM’s results and my own, I’ve dropped his 5th round as it isn’t a full round, “The 5th round is brief because the party has eliminated all threats except one monster that is attempting to flee.” I did the same to the last rounds of my groups two combats (which are not included in the data below).
The largest difference between the Penny Arcade/PvP style and my group’s style is the amount of description given to each action by the PCs and NPCs. In the Penny Arcade/PvP episode, at the very beginning, the DM states that it is raining and then once again during the first player’s turn in regards to the paint on the face of the enemy being streaked by the rain but then it is not brought up again during combat. During the player’s turns they largely declare their movement, move, then use their power by stating the name of the power and then rolling. The DM then states the results in what I would call description-light terms if at all (the DM says nothing about how the first opponent reacts to the opening Tide of Iron attack and later when minions are killed, they “go down” and “burnt toast” are about the extent of the descriptions).
The DM in my group, on the other hand, does a quick ‘recap’ of each action at the end of each player’s turn where he would have said something along the lines of “So you rush up, rain coming down, and slam your shield into the skull-painted man sending him reeling backward several feet, his eyes wide in surprise at the force of your attack but he steadies himself, gritting his teeth, he adjust the grip on his weapon and shakes the rain from his hair” if he had DM’d the encounter in the podcast.
The second difference is in the ability to split up individual turns between RP & Tactical section and Rolling and Calculating & Results. This is largely due to the interweaving of role-playing both before and after die roll results on the part of the players and DM. Additionally, the Penny Arcade/PvP session seems to always follow a RP & Tactical (which I’m assuming Tactical includes movement) and then Rolling-Results finish method. But in my games there’s often an attack first (roll, calculate and results determined) and then movement based on the outcome of the attack in addition to DM description interspersed throughout.
Precise comparisons with the Id DM’s results are difficult as only the graphs are reproduced in his article so I can only make close-approximations to the actual numbers of his results (margin of error for his results is +/- 20 seconds).
(click to embiggen)
The first combat (in blue) started with a surprise round (not shown) by approximately 6 bandits while traveling on the road with a caravan (approximately 5 NPCs including the party’s companion), and the first full round of combat was largely movement focused in order to get into range of the enemy. This combat lasted for 3 full rounds in addition to the surprise round and the ‘clean-up’ rounds.
The second combat was an ambush at night (surprise round also not shown) by approximately 10 orcs on the PCs and caravan’s camp which resulted in the party being in the thick of things right at the start of the first full round. This combat lasted for 5 full rounds in addition to the surprise round and the ‘clean-up’ rounds.
The numbers for each round are produced in the table below:
Next is the overall time spent in combat for the players. An accurate comparison between my data and the Id DM’s data cannot be ascertained here because of his addition of the 5th, shortened, round in the Penny Arcade/PvP session. Because that 5th round is included in his data I divide the total encounter times he reports in his graph, “Time Spent In Combat By Category,” by 5 (with a best estimate for the times based on the graph, margin of error +/- 0.5 minutes) to get an average time spent per round in combat to compare to my group. However, because the Id DM breaks down the DMs time per combat into each round, I threw out the 5th round to get the DM’s average (margin of error +/- 10 seconds) as a better match to my data.
(click to embiggen)
Note that the Penny Arcade/PvP characters are paired with the characters from my game in no particular order.
At first glance, it appears that my DM takes, on average, 6 times as long as the Penny Arcade/PvP DM! However, the category labeled “DM Split” is the average time that my DM took for the NPCs turns. In both combats the DM’s turn was split in half where two of the three NPC groups (Caravaners, party NPC, and monsters) acted together giving the DM effectively 2 turns per combat and the “DM Split” category reflects the average time the DM took on each of those turns per combat. So given an encounter where the only NPCs the DM has to contend with are the monsters; our DM’s time would be closer to the Penny Arcade/PvP’s DM’s time. A final note about DM time is that during one round, on the DM’s turn, in the 1st combat there was a 7-8 minute discussion about a rules issue which heavily affects the overall DM time for the first combat (and I greatly appreciate the player recording the session telling the DM “no, arguing the rules is part of the game, I will not pause the recording” when the DM requested him to ).
In the shorter 1st combat, the time per round of the DM does not fall off largely because the majority of the bandits ran away, but in the 2nd combat, as in the Penny Arcade/PvP session, the DM’s time per round does fall off as the enemies are defeated.
Finally, I averaged the round time averages of all 5 players for both combats in my group and compare that to the average round time for the 4 players of the Penny Arcade/PvP session.
(click to embiggen)
And a final piece of data, not included in the Id DM’s data, is the average round duration per Combat/Encounter. In the 1st Combat, the average round length was 953 seconds (15 minutes, 53.3 seconds), and 672 seconds (11 minutes, 12.2 seconds) in the 2nd Combat.
These data largely correlate with the common assumption that the more monsters and NPC-factions the DM has in one encounter the more it will increase the time the DM spends per round (and therefore the whole of the encounter will take longer).
Additionally the more flavor text the DM adds to the scene will, understandably, increase the duration of combat.
But what is interesting is that despite my DM consistently ”recapping” the actions of each PC during their turn, the overall average time per PC round per encounter was either on par or shorter than the Penny Arcade/PvP characters. This, of course, comes with the caveats that my estimation of the Id DM’s graphs will be off in addition to Will Wheaton being new to the system (and hence taking longer than the other Penny Arcade/PvP characters in that encounter).
Additionally, I’m not aware of the character level for those PCs in the Penny Arcade/PvP episode. Traditionally it is assumed that the higher the level of the characters/encounters then the longer an encounter will take. I hope to find the recordings of the higher level characters (we played high/low tandem groups where upon reaching ~9th level for the first group, a second party is introduced to the region that is typically 6-8 levels lower than the primary party), which were around 10th-12th level at the time in order to compare the differences.
While inconclusive, this data, when compared to the Penny Arcade/PvP data, seems to point towards the fact that, regardless of the system, combat takes the same amount of time when other factors are controlled for, such as multiple NPC factions involved and level of “flavor text” the DM provides during the combat.
Comments on Suggestions
The Id DM provides some suggestions at the end of his article on how to have combats run faster/smoother. These are ordered replies/comments to those suggestions:
1. “Take all monster turns once during the round.” Initially, on reading the Id DM’s article, I agreed that having all NPCs act at the same initiative in a combat would reduce the time it takes…but without a multi-faction encounter from the Penny Arcade/PvP sessions analyzed (or a single-faction encounter from my group) I don’t feel this is conclusive. With a blanket assumption that our DM had to spend 3 times as much time during his turns since he was dealing with 3 factions compared to the Penny Arcade/PvP DM only dealing with one faction, if we divide my DM’s “DM Split” time by 3 we come up with 72.3 seconds and 49 seconds for my DM per turn between the two combats compared with the Penny Arcade/PvP DM’s 66 seconds. The assumption being if the Penny Arcade/PvP DM had multiple factions he would take an additional ~66 seconds per faction for his turn whether he splits their initiative rankings or not.
2. “Scale back on the complexity of encounters.” Overall this is true. My groups’ combats would have been shorter had there only been one faction. One player’s turns averaged 3 times as long during the 1st combat than in the second, largely because he was using his mount and performing special maneuvers (charging with a lance, for example). And so on. And in 4th edition especially, traps and terrain can act like additional NPCs and add to the overall duration of the combat. Throwing in a mix of complex and simple encounters is a great way to mix up combats (and keeps the PCs on their toes as to whether a simple-seeming encounter may turn into a complex one on the discovery of a trap or the activation of strange terrain).
3. “Prepare players to the best of your ability.” This is key. The more familiar a player is with the rules and how their character’s abilities work the faster they will be, in general, on their turn. Noting the mounted player in the 1st Combat, there was a point in the charge attack where time was taken to confirm the damage multiplier of the lance when used in a charge (opening the Player’s Handbook, flipping to the page, etc.). The same thing happened for a character’s use of a bardic ability and there was another point where I didn’t have the duration of a spell my character cast on hand when the DM asked for it which required me to take the time and look it up (and then roll as it was a variable duration). I even made the excuse of “sorry, it’s my first time playing a wizard,” to which the player of the bard character laughed and said, “it’s my first time playing a bard.”
4. “Monitor your own game.” I can’t stress this enough. Especially since it can lead to pleasant surprises. I was positive that in analyzing my group’s game I was going to discover that our rounds would take phenomenally longer than the Penny Arcade/PvP’s session. But I was surprised to see that this was not the case and that even with the added descriptive interpretations of our characters’ actions by the DM (which I generally enjoy) the time was not increased to a disappointing level. It will also help to keep my frustration low when I feel a player is taking to long when usually it will be just a minute longer than average (though occasionally players took 3 or 4 minutes to complete their turns out of those two sessions).
However, I’m not sure I agree with the Id DM’s suggestion to record without the players’ knowledge; not only because in many states that is illegal, heh, but also because I think the Hawthorne Effect can be benificial to moving things along (if the players’ know they’re being recorded, and especially if they know some anal retentive data-geek like myself will analyze how long it takes them to act during their turns, then they’re likely to be more focused during the game on completing their turns to the best of their ability).
5. “Inform your players to listen to the Penny Arcade/PvP Podcast Series.” Of course I listened to the first session when it came out but then misplaced its existence in my mind until now…and I’m happy to see I have several series to listen to .
6. “The important thing is how much everyone is enjoying the games.” And this is the key to it all. Have fun shall be the whole of the law, law under game . Regardless of system, style of play, and so on, making sure everyone is having fun is of paramount importance. If slow players/DMs frustrate you, find ways to help them learn their characters and the rules, keep notes on how their abilities affect you so you don’t have to ask “what does your bardic ability give me”, “how far does that power of yours let me slide,” etc., and so on. If you feel that the other people at the table are annoyed with your overly long descriptions of what your character does during his/her turn then work at finding ways to say the same thing with less words, use a sound (like a grunt, scream, etc.) to convey the character’s actions/reactions (instead of describing that your character grunts, screams, etc.), and so on.
I think the largest impediment to ’swift’ combat is player focus. It was amazing to me to find out that most characters only took a minute or two to complete their turn, but as I’m listening to the recording of my groups combats I’m overhearing side conversations that have nothing to do with game. Making the DM repeat information he or she has already provided because you were engaged in a side conversation is a bit rude. Maybe no where near the level of kick you out of the game and salt the fields of your family’s farm rude, but rude enough to annoy those who were paying attention and possibly the DM. Of course clamping down on the players (and the DM) to not engage in non-game chatter is not helpful for the group overall as, especially in long running campaigns, the friendships that develop reach beyond the gaming table. But being aware that the group is there primarily to play the game can help the players focus during the part of the game that requires the most focus.