The Alphastream Game Design Blog

Point, Counter-Point: Combat Speed

(Originally posted in 2010 on my WotC blog)

Point, Counter-Point: Combat Speed

I found myself wanting to play Devil’s Advocate yesterday. I gave it a day, and I still have that itch. Discussion on combat speed just won’t leave my brain. Here goes…

Combat Speed

Tips on reducing the time it takes to have a combat in 4E have been going around for ages, but there has been a recent upsurge. I really liked what Robert J Schwalb wrote on the 60-Second Turn. It is only the latest of many blogs to deal with the issue, but this comes from someone (immensely talented) very close to the game of 4E. I liked the piece, while disagreeing with much of it.

The basic premise

I get that it is great to know your PC and come prepared. No one enjoys watching a player flip through power cards several times and hem and haw. I get that. Outside of that, the basic premise seems to be that combats should be brief, there is some perfect time that a combat should last, and that steps must be taken to ensure this time. RJS sets it at an hour, and others have said similar things.

Hogwash. Utter and complete.

A combat should last as long as it should last. How long is that? It depends entirely on what is taking place. A defend-the-castle fight could last several gaming sessions, going from one end of the castle to the other with some special mechanic to grant rests in between waves. A highly tactical combat could span three hours. A snatch-and-grab-the-important-thing-fight could last twenty minutes. There should never be a hard target for the duration of combat.

What should be our focus is making combats awesome. The duration of a combat will affect how awesome it is, based on the design of the encounter. For example, a thirty-minute defend-the-castle combat is likely to fall just as flat as a three-hour snatch-and-grab mission.

I would love to see the conversation redirect toward “duration as an element of combat design” or “be efficient” rather than just a blanket “combat speed” discussion. Sure, use table tents for initiative. Sure, use a custom character sheet so you can make speedy decisions and a method to track conditions, but no, we should not prevent long combats. Long combats can be fantastic.

Last night I ran a combat with a single solo monster, several rooms, four items they had to grab and bring to a particular spot, and a variety of traps. We spent most of our 4-hour game in that one combat. And it was perfectly appropriate. Despite a lot of turns being non-combat actions (running away, picking up the pieces they needed, maneuvering around traps, etc.), the action was fluid, interesting, and rich in story. The players were as engaged as in any short combat.

Here are some tests:

  • Are the players engaged?
  • Are players role-playing?
  • Do PC actions matter each round?
  • Are at least some aspects of the result of combat still being determined?
  • Is this fun?

If the answers continue to be yes, you can have a combat last into eternity.

Gary Gygax passes away. If you aren't reading XKCD, you should be!

Gary Gygax passes away. If you aren’t reading XKCD, you should be!


I want to further explore two brief statements.

Not helping other players

One of the coolest things about 4E combat is that your presence matters even when it isn’t your turn. A warlord is a perfect example (“you took an action point? Ah, I grant you…”), but just about any class has a tactical reason to care about the combat when it isn’t their turn. I recall playing 3E Living Greyhawk where at conventions we would often finish our turn and go the restroom or wander and look at other tables. You had nothing to do and no reason to be there. The vast majority of classes just hit stuff with weapons and the spellcasters usually didn’t need advice. The monsters just hit you and made you bleed. You came back and someone said “Hey, you took 20 dmg.” Great, my turn yet?

It was night and day playing 4E Living Forgotten Realms at Gen Con. You couldn’t go to the bathroom! The moment you though about it, some player asked if they should attack the foe you cursed, or if that effect was up, or if they should slide you, or, or, or. It was so engaging!

Sure, I get that endless comments/backseat-driving of another PC’s turn can be a problem, but that isn’t true if we are reasonable and if the action is exciting. Take a look at the earlier bullet items. If those are true, then the players are excited and will have fun working together. Every player is an island is not as much fun in most cases.

The sense of urgency

Similarly, the sense that each player must speed to finish their turn is a fallacy. Yeah, you want to be efficient. Don’t waste time in unproductive ways. But, if you focus too much on speed you squeeze out the good stuff. Players should take time to involve other players in decisions. “We need to take this guy down, right? We might be able to race past the trap if this monster is slid here… you game for the risk?” Players should also take the time to RP. While we don’t need a novel, “AC 40 for 80 damage” is far too brief and sucks the fun out of the game. One of the guys in my game is a brawling fighter. He is always vividly explaining his moves. “AC 23 hit? Cool. So I step on the lizard’s tail and with my one hand I grab its snout. My other shoots across to grab his chest and I fall back, flipping him over and then rolling until he is under me. I end up here. I hit him for just 9, but my blow dazes and slows him.”

Why have a sense of urgency? Why cut out the good stuff? Combat is not some ‘fast-forward to my turn’ affair, nor should it be ‘can we hurry up and get our loot?’ syndrome. It should encourage efficiency but above all be fun and engaging.


I identify with this picture far too often. The 'someone' is, sadly, often me.

I identify with this picture far too often. The ‘someone’ is, sadly, sometimes me.


This entry was posted on October 10, 2015 by and tagged , , .


Follow me on

Mastodon logo Mastodon