Tobold's Blog
Wednesday, July 04, 2012
D&D and trash mobs

The Id DM is writing about combat speed in D&D Next, which is a good topic. I admit I never felt the need to use a stopwatch to time combat, but during a playtest that sounds reasonable. So he is doing a 4-hour session in which his group fights:
  • 7 Orcs
  • 3 Orcs
  • 2 Centipedes
  • 6 Kobolds
  • 6 Goblins
  • 1 Ogre
Six fights for a total of 94.5 minutes, with the other two thirds of the session being taken up with roleplaying and exploration. He enjoys that each fight is on average just 15 minutes, compared to 4th edition fights which on average are three times as long. I fail to see why that would be a problem. Because the very structure of combat in 4th edition is different. Basically the same session in 4th edition would have looked like this:
  • One fight against 7 Orc minions, 3 Orc soldiers, and 2 Centipedes
  • One fight against 6 Kobold minions, 6 Goblin archers, and 1 Ogre
For a total of 94.5 minutes for the two fights, leaving the other two thirds of the session for roleplaying and exploration. As an added bonus the 4th edition fights would have used interesting terrain with tactical options, like the Goblin archers being behind barricades, with the access guarded by the Ogre surrounded by the Kobolds.

Looking just at the time per combat gives a very misleading picture. D&D Next, just like older editions, has a lot of fights, but they are more of the "trash mob" type. Yes, you can kill those 2 Centipedes in 5 minutes, but the very fact that it only took 5 minutes reveals that the players didn't have to think much to win this fight. They didn't have much tactical options, and probably just hit the Centipedes with basic attacks until they died.

4th edition has fewer fights per session, but these fights are more epic, have more tactical options, and just take longer. At the end of the day, both groups killed exactly the same number of mobs in exactly the same amount of time, and spent the same amount of time with roleplaying and exploration. But the probability that the players still remember that fight where they tried to get past the Ogre to shut down the Goblin archers is significantly higher than that they remember those 2 Centipedes. So for me "shorter combat" is not really a selling point for D&D Next.

The thing about D&D is that the fights are only as tactical as the DM running the game wants them to be. With full control over the actions of each enemy, even in older editions a good DM can make some very challenging encounters requiring solid group tactics.

Similarly, there is absolutely nothing stopping a D&D 4th edition DM from running a multitude of smaller encounters in their game, rather than a couple of large, tactile battles.

In the end, as I feel it always has been, your game is only as good as your DM. An imaginative DM makes a world of difference.
True, faster isn't necessarily better, but faster than 4e is when you take into consideration the amount of boredom that builds up during a single fight. This may not be true for everyone, but after about the 15 minute mark, people tend to get bored of the fight in my experience. This is mostly due, I think, to what the IdDM shows in his 4e analysis of how long a single player's turn often takes. It compounds and makes it difficult to keep everyone interested the whole time. Personally, I would rather do half the number of fights that he did with Next and thus devote half of that fighting time toward MORE roleplaying and exploration. Or simply moving forward even more.
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