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.