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Combat Speed Part 3: Mechanics that Slow RPG Combat

Over the past few months I’ve taken notes in several games I’ve run or played using different systems: D&D 5e, Classic Traveller, Savage Worlds, Call of Cthulhu, and Stormbringer RPG. I’ve also consulted notes I have from play in systems like Pathfinder. I’ve noticed that combat can take significantly longer depending on your rule system.

A recent Boot Hill game with old-school, fast combat

A recent Boot Hill game with old-school, fast combat

There are a variety of ways you can speed up combat that essentially makes the players efficient or makes them hurry up:

  • Have the players not talk amongst themselves to strategize
  • Have the players hold (or skip) their turn if they are not ready
  • Have a timer or countdown to force the players to act quickly
  • Have the players have a buddy to help them with math or rules questions
  • etc.

But just looking at normal games like most GMs run them, allowing players to take turns and actions as they normally do, it seems to me the far bigger factor in having fast (or slow) combat is one thing—

—The Rules

The last time I played in a Savage Worlds game, we had 9 players with 0 XP. We had around 45 total combatants. The combat took two hours (with two sixty minute rounds!!!) and we still only defeated half the enemy (the rest ran away since we ran out of time). And this is the game that is ‘Fast, Furious, and Fun’.

By contrast, a D&D 5e game I ran with 6 players at 3rd level had 31 total combatants took 50 minutes (with five ten minute rounds) with the PCs completely killing all enemy combatants.

To put it another way, Savage Worlds had 50% more player and combatants, but combat rounds took 600% longer while killing about the same number of enemies.

Regardless of how long the total combat runs, one big factor of enjoyment is ‘how long till I get to do something?’

10 minutes is about right. 30-45 minutes between actions is just way too long for my tastes.

Can you speed up a slower game? Sure. But the number one thing (I think) to speed up the game is choose a system that plays fast. Second best thing to speed up combat is to add some speed house rules on top of an otherwise slower game.

Which Rules Speed (or Slow) Combat?

Here’s my thoughts (based on qualitative analysis) on what makes the difference between slow combat or fast combats in RPG games.

Rules that Speed Combat

The fastest games had these two rules:

Fixed Initiative

There were many ways these games did fixed initiative that still resulted in fast combat rounds:

  • Stan’s D&D 5e house rule (character with highest Dex roll goes first, then Round Robin thereafter).
  • BRP — Character go in order of highest to lowest Dex score (no roll needed).
  • Classic Traveller — Traditional rule — characters have group turn order and essentially play in round-robin order.
  • Classic Traveller — Stan’s house rule — Characters go in order of Marching order based on minis (first mini in line goes first, etc.).

The key to speed is to not spend time recording everyone’s roll from scratch each combat, and to not change the combat order each round.

Non-Inflated Hit Points

All the fastest games used hit points. Almost all roleplayers have used hit points before; tracking is fast and intuitive. There is a logistics advantage in large set-piece combats to using a Savage Worlds style wound system, but this comes at the expense of speed.

The other element of hit points making for fast combat is that in the fastest games they weren’t inflated. Most characters and opponents had 10-20 hit points. D&D 4e, Pathfinder, and other games where you inflate hit points to 100 HP or more generally run much slower. This being said, D&D 5e got away from hit point inflation by what they call ‘bounded accuracy’ — basically making sure the HP progression is very slow, and increasing your damage output a bit so that orcs are still a threat at higher levels and you don’t have excessive HP grinds in battle at upper levels.

Its worth noting that BRP and Classic Traveller for the most part don’t every increase your hit points. Your skills improve, but not your HP.

Rules that Slow Combat

Here are rules which I see slowing down the flow of the game.

Variable Initiative

Having players recalculate initiative each round slows things down. For example, in Savage Worlds you deal and collect cards each round which taking time at the beginning and end of each round. Moreover, I’ve notice a few seconds lost here and there as the GM or players look around trying to see whose turn it is.

Soaking Damage / Unshaking

Savage Worlds has a cool mechanic that makes tracking wounds very simple — you use miniatures and have Extras be up/down/off-the-table. Wild Cards (boss creatures) have a soak and wound tracking mechanic just like player characters. It is amazingly elegant at enabling large set-piece battles. However, taking time to soak wounds (spend a benny, roll Vigor, fail, spend another benny, roll again,…) takes time. It also takes time to deal out shaken / wound tokens. Less of an issue in small combats, but in larger combat or with multiple Wild Cards you’ll start feeling the delay.

Variable Dice

A small thing maybe, but games with Polyhedral dice take longer than games like Traveller which uses all-d6’s. In games with variable dice types, it takes a few seconds to pick out what dice to use for damage. If a game uses Polyhedral dice, but at least standardizes the key dice rolls (d20 for all checks and attacks in D&D, d100 for all checks and attacks in BRP), it will be faster.

Savage Worlds by contrast potentially uses different dice for each check (if you have a d8 in Vigor but a d4 in Agility you’re selecting different dice as the GM calls for different checks).

Exploding Dice & Raises

I’m a big fan of the energy that exploding dice (also called ‘Acing’) which Savage Worlds uses. However, it does take time to tally up the rolls and do the extra math of division to calculate raises.

Extra Rolls

In Savage Worlds there are lots of extra dice rolls (running means another die roll, damage dice exploding means more dice rolled, a wild dice in addition to Trait die needs a separate roll to evaluate with a separate explosion). I like rolling dice, but with more die rolls comes more time spent.

Rules Debates / Complex rules

The more rules that are in a game, the more confusion and debate will result. Pathfinder is likely the biggest rules-lawyering-debate system I’ve played. Even Savage Worlds isn’t immune to rules discussions. The simpler the game, the fewer rules debates, the faster it plays.

Other Factors

There are some other techniques which I’ve considered which effect game play but lesser so combat time.

Theater of the Mind and Miniatures

Running abstract (or narrative) combat without minis is something I love. It takes time to draw maps. But once the map is on the table, I don’t find having minis and counting squares to be too much of a time sink. Pathfinder is a bit of an exception, with the math you have to do for diagonal movement. That being said, counting squares does take a little time. 13th Age solves for this to some extent with its Engaged/Near/Far mechanics that is akin to Fate zones which still allow minis but dumps the counting of squares.

Minion & Mob Rules

Some games have minion (1 hit and they’re out) and mob (pooled hit points) rules. I’ve found this help logistics so that the gamemaster has less bookkeeping, but they don’t actually make combat go faster or slower. Some ways that people track Hit Points, like adding a die counter next to a miniature to track hit points lost, can slow things down a tad.

Conclusion

I would like to see a more quantitative analysis done of combat speed between different popular rules systems so that people can understand what systems are truly fast or slow, and what can be done to speed up combat.

I would say that many modern games like Fate and Savage Worlds are not actually faster than many hit point based traditional systems. Slow combat speed is not necessarily a drawback — some would say a long Fate RPG combat is cool and desirable. It all depends on what you want in a game.

But if your players are stacking dice during combat due to 30 minutes or more elapsing between their turns, you might want to revisit your rules system. There are fast games that are still cinematic. Perhaps the best story-game is one where you breeze past combat and keep the narrative flowing!

7 Responses to Combat Speed Part 3: Mechanics that Slow RPG Combat

  1. Brandon August 25, 2016 at 8:01 am #

    I agree with you. I just ordered the Savage Worlds core rules 2nd edition and the Super Powers Companion… I’m gonna start a campaign and haven’t done rpg’ing in two decades! I wanted a simply system and I thought SW was that. I guess when the books arrive I shall see. I wonder if I should have looked at GURPS or some other… some other such…? Or just went back to D&D which might be the easiest system still… or the one that makes most sense because I’m used to it. Good read sir.

  2. S. W. Shinn August 25, 2016 at 8:34 am #

    Savage Worlds is rules medium, makes for simple book-keeping (no hit points to track!), and has a ton of setting books. I am currently running a Savage Worlds Star Wars campaign (although combat is getting very slow as we level up). It is a good system, don’t get me wrong, but the idea that it has fast combat for any sort of challenging fight simply doesn’t hold up in reality.

    My top recommendations for RPGs:
    — D&D 5e (for anything high-fantasy; #1 game on the planet, fast combat)
    — d100 [Openquest/Legend/Mythras/Runequest] (for gritty, Game of Thrones style fantasy and fast combat)
    — Savage Worlds (for folks that like long, tactical, miniatures combat and a variety of settings)
    — Basic Roleplaying (BRP) from Chaosium (for multi-genre roleplaying with fast combat)
    — Mongoose Traveller 2e (for hard Sci Fi and fast combat)
    — Fate (for short campaigns and ‘story games’; combat is long but combat is a story thing, so its hard to compare that to other systems)

  3. Conrad December 8, 2016 at 10:16 pm #

    Great summary of issues with RPG combat speed.

    I would agree variable initiative is probably the worst of the bad ideas in a long time. The players each roll, add a point or 2, and then pass to Referee who tabulates, sorts, and then calls out combat order. For a 6 second combat round. Really? (It appeals to that desire for order from us gamers but … please … take a breath and think about this one.)

    Plus it seems that the mage (or priest) don’t seem to ever suffer from interrupting spells?

    One other consideration … the geography of the game. I find a game at a table with chairs with enough room for all the players to reach their own miniature tends to run a little quicker. Sitting back in a sofa and / or with one’s notes, summaries, rules additions, spell cards, logs, and journal tend to slow it all down.

    The best approach I’ve seen is the Better Games Free-Style approach. Each player decide if they want to go before all the baddies (Advantage) or after the baddies (Response). In the Advantage phase players can do quick but sometimes less damage. In Response, players can block damage from the baddies, or prep actions for the following round (set up multiple strikes). I will admit I’m biased. (Note, this won’t work for our favorite D&D game because the game does not lend itself to blocking damage, altering damage based on advantage / response. And, why would you want to change what works.)

    For D&D I just tell the players to all attack and shout out damage. If they desire to take more specific actions, I’ll loop around the table in one order or reverse. (Remember, 6 second rounds.) For those that challenge the simplification, I just say “It was meant to be simple … it’s just a game”. (Consider what a saving throw means.) Why is how much damage the monsters have taken a secret?

    Finally, and this is perhaps the best new thing I’ve seen in years. Early in the game, the Referee will call for complete attention and tell the players they are about to make the most important roll of the night. The Referee will call for a save or a to hit against AC20 or some such thing. The roll of course is for nothing. But, by focusing the players on the one thing that they are going to do over and over and over again (perhaps) and giving them all a chance to understand it, all players start with a level playing ground. When the roll is needed in the future, everyone has demonstrated they can select the dice and calculate the result.

  4. S. W. Shinn December 8, 2016 at 11:02 pm #

    Conrad, thanks for the insightful feedback! 🙂

  5. Wolfknight75 January 31, 2017 at 1:56 am #

    First of all, I wanted to say thanks for the cool dialogue concerning a facet of RPGs that has always been on my mind. I too have played many of the games, if not all of the ones you have mentioned in this conversation. Combat speed is significant in most games as this is one of the main factors used in RPGs to create danger and excitement. With this in mind, just before I discovered your blog and Rogue Comet web site via Kickstarter. I ran a similar experiment albeit with longer running campaigns of some of the systems you experimented with. By far I found BRP had the fastest and somewhat most satisfying combat sequences. Of course, the granddaddy of all RPGs was a close second in its new lean 5th edition.

    Now I also play my homebrew 1.5 ed of AD&D and for the past 30 years have used a simultaneous combat round based off the old edition round sequence (surprise check, 1 or 2 segment actions, skill checks & missile attacks, spells, followed by melee and Misc. actions then repeat). I normally begin either at one side of the game table or the other or sometimes by the knots of combatants on the battle field and then round robin. If a question of who goes first comes up for some reason such as; did the character hit the monster first or vice versa, did I get to a specific point on the board before someone else moving there, or did I cast my spell before the fighter slayed the monster I was targeting, etc. Then and only then do I roll for initiative (using an initiative die based on the characters weapon speed, casting time, or size modified by dexterity or magic.

    What my players (I have had dozens as I play at a game store regularly for the past 30+ years) and I love is the speed we obtain around the table (players know after the first round who they are after when I resolve their actions in the round (I’m sitting next to the left of Ed, so I know I’m resolving my action after Ed). Also, and definitely more importantly when the players or I do ask for an initiative roll, it creates an exciting if not very tense moment at the table as initiative is rolled. The fall of the dice and maybe Big John the fighter slays the Ogre Chieftain or perhaps not….

    One of the funniest and tense times in a game using this system was when the group mistakenly took on an encounter more powerful than they thought it would be. As characters were watching their hit points being cut to the wee numbers by the enemy (I think it was the first time they fought a Roper at 5th level), they decided to flee the cavern through a 5’ wide passage. Several of the characters made the decision during the same round to run for it through the passageway with the Ropers reach and the dimensions of the cavern leaving them each racing (and rolling for initiative) to see who would be the last (not first) one left in the cavern in range of the Roper’s attack. Fortunately, it was the warrior who had the most hit points. So he did not die as he soaked the damage from the Roper’s attack and the rest of the party made it through the passageway to safety with him hot on their tails.

    Anyway, just thought I’d mention an alternate way of taking turns pushing dice and lead in our favorite Fantasy RPG! Thanks again for the cool blog and interesting conversation topics. I look forward to more. Also, as a side note, I love your neat Ol’ School KS products and look forward to them being available to the public.

  6. S. W. Shinn January 31, 2017 at 3:07 pm #

    Great insights! I agree, BRP/d100 and D&D 1e/5e and their variants are hard to beat (among traditional RPGs) for speed. Love your comments on your initiative system. Also, thanks for your support on the old school KS front! I’ve got some more cool stuff cooking — can’t wait to announce some of these upcoming products 🙂

  7. Grazillx February 3, 2017 at 1:00 am #

    I run mostly Savage Worlds with my group (they like the exploding dice) and I’ve gotten to the “the rest run away” point many times just to end tedious dice rolls with no ultimate goal other than to clear the table of miniatures (50 skeletons seemed scary until I realized they don’t run away). I’ve changed my encounter style now to more of “they have to take out this many” and the time it takes to do that triggers some other dramatic shift. The longer it takes, the longer the enemy has time to put together a stronger defense/attack that is more dangerous to the PC’s (whether it was written down ahead of time or not). So they shifted form nickel and dime combat knowing their characteristics could live through it to getting the battle over as soon as possible before something worse happened. I still have to abbreviate a lot of nameless combatants to “miss next turn” “out of the fight, but lives through” and “KIA” to keep things moving. I’ve read that BRP has a fast resolution, but reading the book is not, is huge!

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