Chad Perrin: SOB

20 February 2009

We can have more than one combat per session!

Filed under: Geek,RPG — Tags: , , — apotheon @ 11:45

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:

  1. 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.

  2. 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.

  3. 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.

  4. 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.


  1. 3e fans – Let’s dispense with the argumentum ad hominem

    editor’s note: That was almost funny, and was a comment on a separate SOB entry, so I won’t count it toward your limit of one asinine, pointless, snide comment per person in such a short span of time. It might be more than almost funny if my treatment of the subject of the lengthiness of combat encounter resolution was actually an example of argumentum ad hominem as you insinuate.

    Comment by Thasmodious — 21 February 2009 @ 02:07

  2. Me, not fond of either edition of D&D, I am just amused at the minute differences people say there exist between the two games. Both have long combats, playtime-wise. So clearly people who play them want to spend a long time with the combats; otherwise, why bother?

    Comment by Tommi — 21 February 2009 @ 04:46

  3. Both 3.x and 4e have very long combats compared to those of OD&D, B/X, BECMI, etc. Four hour dungeon (or wildnerness) crawl sessions in these games can easily have 10-12 combats with 90 to 120 minutes left over for non-combat activities. If you want truly short combats, the 3.x and 4e versions of D&D are simply the wrong versions of the game to play. Note that’s not knocking those versions of D&D, it is just stating a fact: playing out combats takes much longer in these editions than it did in some of the earlier editions.

    Comment by RandallS — 21 February 2009 @ 06:48

  4. […] at SOB, Chad Perrin has a brief discussion of a common point presented in favour of 4e by its defenders: that combat is quicker than 3rd […]

    Pingback by This is not an attack on Grognards or 4e « Compromise and Conceit — 21 February 2009 @ 07:08

  5. I’ve commented on this over at my blog. I think part of the reason 4e players think they are getting in more combats per session is that 3rd edition had an extensive skill system that encouraged DMs to set non-combat challenges; and it had a lot of magic spells to support that. I think 4e seems lighter on these elements, so will encourage DMs to set more combat challenges. Like a computer game, I think it will be best suited to adventures with linear plots funneling people through the slaughters.

    Comment by faustusnotes — 21 February 2009 @ 07:10

  6. So are you moving your content to daily 3e vs 4e bitchfests now, or might we see something different again at some point? You have other strengths, and it’s kind of sad to see you posting edition war crap instead.

    Comment by Wyatt — 21 February 2009 @ 09:30

  7. Tommi and RandallS:

    There are other reasons to prefer 3.5 and 4E over earlier editions of (A)D&D than the speed of combat encounter resolution. Sometimes, one has to take a hit in that area to get the other benefits — but I can understand how, if one perceives all else as being equal, one might choose between the two based on combat encounter resolution speed. I just don’t agree that how many combats one can cram into a game is the best way to measure that, or that 3.5 imposes the kind of combat encounter resolution speed overhead on the game that 4E proponents often claim.


    I think your point about skill challenges and non-combat spellcasting playing a part in the perceived slowness of combat encounter churning is definitely relevant and insightful. Anyone who cares about how this perception of combat encounter resolution plays out should definitely read your thoughts on the matter, on your own Weblog; I tend to find your thoughtful posts quite illuminating at times.


    So are you moving your content to daily 3e vs 4e bitchfests now, or might we see something different again at some point?

    I’ll write something else again. I tend to write about what’s on my mind, when I feel I have something to say about it, and it tends to come in spurts of similarly-focused subject areas. Just put your fingers in your ears and sing the “lalala I’m not listening” song for a bit, if you don’t like my current subject obsession, and it’ll go away in favor of other subjects. I promise.

    I totally don’t mean that in an insulting way. I understand how you might get annoyed with the subject matter, and hope you’ll find my writings on other topics in the near future more interesting.

    You have other strengths, and it’s kind of sad to see you posting edition war crap instead.

    I appreciate the vote of confidence. Thanks for commenting.

    Comment by apotheon — 21 February 2009 @ 10:28

  8. I’d just rather people not post this kind of thing, when they very clearly have TALENT. This is the kind of stuff you post on Giant In The Playground and ENWorld to have people waddling around the in mud taking walrus-slaps at each other. I just really don’t like seeing people spending their time on this – especially when it’s for two days in a row, in a blog that can otherwise produce good, useful content. But that’s just me. Carry on.

    Comment by Wyatt — 21 February 2009 @ 11:13

  9. Now I’m really feeling flattered, Wyatt. Thanks again.

    Here’s the thing, though: If I hadn’t posted those things when I did, I wouldn’t have posted anything about RPGs at that time. I don’t tend to let stuff like this displace other, possibly more productive, writings. Thus, while you may find them annoying in and of themselves, at least they aren’t taking the place of something more “important”.

    I promise to post something a bit more useful related to RPGs in the next two or three days, and in fact I plan to post a question to my RPG-oriented readership in the next few minutes.

    Comment by apotheon — 21 February 2009 @ 11:21

  10. I think you’re missing the point here Wyatt. To the extent that any of us feel we have anything to say about game design (and any of us care), contrasting 4e and 3e is a completely legitimate way of illustrating our opinions. D&D’s popularity means that the radical changes which occurred between 2, 3 and 4e provide an excellent test bed for different game design philosophies, and I think it’s useful to discuss those differences. Everyone accepts that 4e and 3e are very different, and it’s fun and illuminating to discuss those differences.

    D&D 3e represented the apotheosis of the Skill-based approach to gaming, in that from the release of 3e there was no major system which didn’t depend on that approach. 4e represents the first major influx of computer RPG ideas into gaming, and (I would suggest) a kind of Object-Oriented approach to character development which, whether you like it or not, represents a major design change. Are other games going to go this way? D&D 3e played catchup on the rest of the game market; does 4e represent an attempt to recapture the lead and if so will other games follow? The edition wars are a small but important part of the task of wondering what’s going on (though they could be minus the “you’re a munchkin nyah!” element of the discussion).

    Also, it’s pretty rich for someone whose obsession is anime child-women to complain about other people‘s obsessions :)

    Comment by faustusnotes — 21 February 2009 @ 11:47

  11. Loli isn’t my obsession, it’s moe. Loli just happens to hold a high quantity of moe. But nearly anything can be moe if one is willing to look at it through the proper filters. Even the edition war can be moe, if somebody posts something like “Well I believe 4e made all character classes the same, ~nya :3”

    Anyway, I don’t think the Edition wars will ever lead to forgesque introspection in this way and even less to a breakthrough in game design. Except maybe in The Forge. I don’t see productivity. I see GARGLE WARBLE WARGARBLE, or agreement. I was not made a believer by all the lauded “mature discussion” going on at ENWorld on this subject, which a lot of people seem to bring up. I’m not seeing the productivity.

    I can keep an open mind and await to be dazzled, but I haven’t been dazzled yet.

    Comment by Wyatt — 21 February 2009 @ 02:05

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