This is part of my RPG series of entries here at SOB. See the inaugural entry in the series for more details.
The title of this SOB entry is a paraphrase of something I have read at least two dozen times in online discussion. This is a common refrain amongst fans of D&D 4E who extol the virtues of the new edition’s “streamlined” combat rules. The statement is meant to convey the sheer weight of 3.5 rules, their complexity and tediousness, and how it takes forever to resolve actions and progress the action through combat. Every time I think about that, the following ideas occur to me:
Maybe these people are moving from high level D&D 3.5 characters to low (first) level 4E characters. Higher level characters tend to take longer to get through a combat encounter than lower level characters, because these characters have more Feats and class special abilities to sift through. This applies to 4E characters, too, especially with the way all classes — not just the nominal spellcasters — now have the equivalent of spell lists with their growing pools of Powers.
The focus on being able to crank through several combats per game session strikes me as a pretty monomaniacal interest in combat. My games rarely have more than one combat per game session, but that’s not because a single combat encounter takes a full session. It is, instead, because most of the game isn’t about combat. The characters in my games actually do things with their lives other than shed blood. They interact — with each other, and with the people in the world around them — and often manage to do so without waging war on each other. The frequency of more than one combat encounter in a single game session is about the same as the frequency of no combat encounters in a game session.
The enemies must not be much of a threat in most of these 4E games if they’re plowing through six combat encounters per session. Usually, a closely matched opponent makes things take longer, and usually, a tough opponent reduces one’s ability to take on the next tough opponent that comes along, if there isn’t any rest and recuperation time between encounters. It’s only the easy, cannon-fodder stuff that goes down in a fountain of gore quickly enough to leave PCs ready to take on the next challenge without batting an eye, and that’s the way it should be if you’re roleplaying instead of rollplaying.
Most of my games aren’t dungeon crawls, so even if my gaming groups were more combat-focused than they are (and less roleplaying focused) there wouldn’t be as much of a “knock down one, another stands just behind it ready to get knocked down” justification for constant combat encounter churning.
More important as a counter-argument, I think, is the gaming experience I had tonight.
In about two hours and fifteen minutes of play:
one combat with a creature whose challenge rating was the same as the average group level, in a group of two PCs and one noncombatant NPC
one combat with four creatures of a slightly lower challenge rating, involving the same two PCs and noncombatant NPC
probably about an hour and a half of noncombat play — roleplaying, travel, exploring, avoiding combat, et cetera
I guess, if we were doing the combat encounter churning dungeon crawl sort of game, we could have fit another four combat encounters in a single session. It’s worth noting that this included having to look up rules a lot, because this is only the second time I’ve run a session with a Barbarian in it using the Pathfinder RPG Beta rules, and I wanted to make sure nothing had changed since the Alpha 3 rules.
Somehow, having paid closer attention to just how long things took this time around, the performance of tonight’s session makes the strident complaints of 4E fans about the lengthy, complex combat rules of 3.5 seem pretty damned thin.
Thinking back, I remember a game session a couple of years ago in which a group of four “good guys” in a D&D 3.5 dungeon crawl cut a bloody swath through half a dozen combat encounters per session. Seriously, I don’t know where these 4E guys get their notions about 3.5 combat.