April 07, 2011

Grindstone blues

Recently a debate of sorts has been raging about the length of combat in 4e. The argument is not about whether it takes longer than in most older editions (only 3rd Edition is really debatable) but whether long combats diminish the overall play experience.

As I've previously opined here, I believe they do.

I've read plenty of the "pro- longer combat" posts and 95% of them seem to raise two basic points:

a) if the combat is fun, what's the difference?


b) if combat is so long for you, run less of them.

Bah. I respectfully take issue with both statements above. Obviously everyone has their own preferred play style, and that's paramount. But neither statement holds water for me.

Let's take "A" first.

Combat is fun. As I've previous stated in this blog, it's an essential element of play. Remove the combat and you've removed much of the die rolling and much of the enjoyment. Let's face it, examine any adventure, even complex ones such as Paizo's adventure paths, and most are basically a long string of set-piece combats.

But the overall roleplaying experience is far more than combat alone, otherwise we might as well be wargaming or playing a tactical skirmish game or simply playing RISK. We want to exercise our brains as well as our dice-throwing wrist. And although choosing combat options and coordinating attacks between characters can involve some thought; exploring the depths of a new character, interacting with NPCs, and overcoming puzzles and non-combat challenges with friends is a huge part of the experience. For me, a near 50-50 balance is best.

Now "B" next.

I actually have run less combats when running 4e games, but out of sheer necessity. This change is not enriching my play experience.

In my experience, everal short combats do more to move the plot along than one grindingly long, let's-whittle-down-those-HPs combat any day of the week.

Playing 4e has forced me to all but abandon the wandering monster encounter, that fun on-the-spot test of DM imagination. My group's time is limited—and in this age of 30+-year-old players we're hardly unique—and we simply can't afford to "waste" a whole session to a wandering monster when more enjoyment would probably be had from a meaningful combat that furthers the plot.

And yes, I realize the point is simply to have fun. Who cares if it's plot-related, you say, if all have a good time? If that's the case, I suggest abandoning the traditional campaign and simply meet for the Fight of the Week Club. Each session the DM simply creates an interesting fight—no plot or reason or connection between them—to challenge the same group of PCs. I think most would drop exercise that rather swiftly.

We need more, an underlying reason for our combats. We could accept a "meaningless" WM encounter in the old days because it meant perhaps 15 or 20 minutes of play time. But now? Is it worth possibly losing most of a session to the experience?

I'm also a big fan of the warm-up fight, that beloved DM technique of letting the players roll some dice right off the bat to let off steam, which starts things on an exciting note and helps ensure they'll sit still for the descriptions or exposition to come. I've found that a first combat, right at the start of a new campaign, is also a great way for players to get a "feel" for their characters. But now, on at least 3 occasions, I've seen a first campaign combat gobble up the entire first session, leaving players & DM that had fun yet feel somewhat "shorted" by the experience.

In my circumstance, in which the players meet once a month (and we're happy to get that), I'm forced as DM to (re)consider how we're going to spend each 5-hour session. My goal is to pack those 5 hours with plentiful combat, brainstorming, intrigue, etc. I don't always get it all, but the overall experience should be a mix. I accept that groups that meet once or twice a week have more time to kill and may not feel this constraint, just as my 1e games many years ago allowed for much time "haggling in town." But as the game grows older so does many of its players, and time can become a precious commodity. I think newer versions of the game need to streamline elements of the rules to allow for this. (If, for instance, granting characters killer powers means the bad guys must have more HPs and that means fights become a grindfest, perhaps PC powers should be scaled down.)

That's my two copper pieces.


My peer, the worthy Mike Ferguson, comments here on this very same issue.

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