Timing Out

One of the biggest complaints about 4th Edition D&D is that combats take too long. That’s certainly been my experience. Characters and monsters have a ton of hit points, a wide range of powers with different tactical effects to choose from, a slew of situational bonuses, movement concerns, ranges, area of effects, and a plethora of bad guys with their own set of complicated powers and tactical strategies. For many of the individual aspects of a combat encounter, 4e is actually simpler than 3.5, especially when it comes to flanking, range, size, and area of effect. However there are just more options per piece on the board, making the time per round seem longer.

This discussion is nothing new. What is new for me is in our game group this weekend, even though we did have a big fight, each individual turn felt much quicker than it ever has before. I think this is due to several causes. Firstly, I think we’re hitting our stride both as players and as a group in terms of knowing what our own powers and each others are. This means we’re not only more effective (requiring fewer rounds to deal the same damage), but also quicker to decide on a course of action. Secondly, there were a lot of effects in play that potentially required action on someone else’s turn, and so we were more focused during the whole encounter. And significantly, we were down from 5 players to 4. This last point is pretty important as there seems to be a nonlinear effect of number of people on the time per round. In the past I’ve felt like 4 players was the optimal size, but now I wonder if 3 is a good number for 4e. 3 is certainly not in terms of durability or tactics, but purely in terms of time. If I ever do run a game at a convention, I think I’d like to try out this theory. (p.s. to my party-mates, I love you all equally).

Since 5 is the standard number of players, the suggestion I do have for speeding up combat after all the other options are exhausted (using cards, picking a buddy, halving monster hit points, etc) is to use a sand timer. The guys at Fear the Boot suggested a 5-minute timer. I think that may be too long, as that’s 25-minutes + DM time, which means an 8 round combat is going to take at least 4 hours! I think the timer should be between 1 and 2 minutes. Instead of loosing your turn, the out-of-time player should just be restricted to a move and basic attack. I thought about using a total time timer (like a chess timer), but so much can happen in an encounter that it doesn’t make sense to leave too much or too little time for the later rounds.

Does anyone have experience gaming with timers, or at least a gentleman’s agreement on time per person per round? Does it speed things up or just cause needles anxiety? I’ll have to see if as we level up as players (and DM) if the combat just starts moving faster on its own, as it seems to be slowly doing.

(image courtesy http://www.flickr.com/photos/laffy4k/ / CC BY 2.0)

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8 thoughts on “Timing Out

  1. Our group uses a one minute timer. However, instead of losing turns or restricting actions, we choose to use positive reinforcement. If you complete your turn within the minute, you receive a white poker chip which you can accumulate until you take an extended rest.

    Initially, these poker chips could be traded in for a percentile die roll to regain an encounter or daily power. We decided that wasn’t really incentive enough. Instead, we now allow you to turn in a set amount for a benefit: spend 2 to receive a healing surge, 5 for an encounter power, 10 for a daily power.

    This allows combat to go faster since turns last only about a minute and players occasionally regain a power that inflicts more damage.

    Now, there are certain times when you don’t get a white chip. When making death saves, for instance, you don’t receive a chip since your turn only involves rolling a die.

    Our group can have as many as 8 character running, so this has definitely helped our time spent per encounter.

    Here’s a link to a bit of discussion of our system: http://www.robotviking.com/2009/12/03/using-positive-reinforcement-to-make-4e-combat-faster/ The post was created while we were using the percentile die roll method, but in the comments the new chips for purchasing powers method is discussed.

    -Gavin O’Brien

  2. I always ask my players to think about their actions while the others are acting. This doesn’t always work, due to major reconfigurations on some rounds but it is our goal as a group.

    I’ve added a rule to my group: “if you don’t know what you are going to do on your turn delay”. This has sped up combat by proxy, no one wants to delay.

    I agree with you completely on a direct correlation of the number of players to the time spent in combat. I’ve found that three is ideal for faster combat but it generally is more difficult, as you said, to have a well rounded group.

    If you find the answer, let us know!

  3. You guys are much nicer than I am šŸ™‚ When I direct and someone’s turn comes up, if they don’t tell me immediately what they want to do, I start counting down from 5 and by the time I get to 1 they almost always come up with something . . .

  4. @Gavin,
    Thanks, that sounds like a good idea to me that might actually work for our group (‘hear that @SarahDarkmagic?). And although we are already using black, gray, red, and green chips, we haven’t had a use for the white ones yet.

    @ScotMcC,
    I thought about delay as a consequence, but we move around enough already in initiative, it would be tough for my group to keep track.

    @Jeremy,
    Remind me not to piss you off! šŸ™‚

    @NewbieDM,
    Thanks, that’s a great post. I like that you reframe it as a role-playing opportunity with a “sense of urgency.” Good discussion in the comments too.

  5. Michael,

    At my table we use a system similar to Gavin’s. We allow each player a one-minute turn to resolve (or at least completely declare) their actions. The parenthetical clause helps controllers rolling area attacks and players trying unconventional move actions that require a rules check on my part. If I’m the only thing standing in your way, you get a token.

    White tokens are worth +1 to hit, +1 to damage, or +1 to a skill check, but they don’t stack and can’t be used to boost your defenses. Three white tokens are worth a black token, which is worth +2. Three black tokens can be traded for a 1d100 roll on a Table of Fun which gets you cool one-shot power cards like “Standard Action: Make a melee or ranged basic attack, and continue making attacks as free actions until you miss.” Most of these are approximately worth +5 to hit, +5 damage, etc., but my players love the extra flavor.

    I allow players to spend their tokens on other players’ actions (but not stack them), and if a token is the difference between a hit or a miss, they can retcon them.

    Since we started the token system, combat moves VERY fast and all of my players agree that they’re having more fun. I’ve given away three power cards from the Table of Fun and one player already used one in last week’s combat. It was a great moment and really boosted everyone’s interest in declaring fast turns.

  6. @Michael – shared a link to the Google Doc of my table with you. I’d like to keep the really fun ones under wraps for my players, but a few examples are things like:

    Lightning Reflexes: Immediate Interrupt. Gain +5 to REF until the end of your next turn. (Stout-hearted and Strong-willed do the same thing with FORT and WILL respectively)

    The idea of this 1d100 table is shamelessly cribbed from a WOTC blog that I can’t seem to find at the moment, but I ended up rewriting most of the items because several of them (find a magic item of your choice!?) seemed far out of scale with what I’m trying to do.

    The idea – at least with my table – is that each item should be a little bit better than a +4, and WAY more fun. This way it attracts min/maxers (who might otherwise hoard their +2 tokens and use them on each turn in a boss fight) and also players who are looking for explosive, cinematic action.

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