Tobold's Blog
Sunday, May 25, 2014
Speeding up pen & paper role-playing

I was listening to an actual play podcast of a role-playing session in the Pathfinder system and it was a single combat that took 2 minutes of game time but over 2 hours of real time. The encounter had been designed for 4th edition Dungeons & Dragons and then translated into the Pathfinder system. 4E encounter design tends toward the epic, with the players facing different monsters and many different things happening. And that podcast confirmed my suspicion that what makes combat encounters in 4E take so much real time is that epic design, and not a fault of the rules system.

Having said that, I believe that real time speed of combat depends a lot on organization. On the side of the players the issue is usually how well the players know their characters. It makes a huge difference whether a player knows his attack bonus and damage by heart, or needs to look it up every time he attacks. I've played some games like Rolemaster where you ALWAYS needed to look your attacks up, because attack results were found on weapon type vs. armor type tables, and that of course was horribly slow. 4th edition Dungeons & Dragons can get slow when players don't know their powers and need to read them when it is their turn. The various incarnations of 3rd edition D&D, including Pathfinder, can eat up time when players aren't very familiar with the various combat modifiers, and there are lots of calculations going on.

The same consideration that knowing your powers and combat modifiers speeds up combat also applies to the DM. But as the DM usually has more than one monster to play, and doesn't play the same monster in every fight, it is a lot harder for him to have everything in his head. So then it becomes a matter of preparation. After some experimentation I found that it helps enormously if I put everything I need for one encounter in one A4 plastic pocket: Battlemaps, tokens, initiative riders, monster stats, and a sheet with the monster hit points on it, which I use during combat to note status effects and damage.

Now some people prefer a "theater of the mind" approach to combat, without maps and tokens. But to me that approach means that I can't prepare things as well any more. It works fine for small encounters, but as soon as there is a lot of stuff going on in a battle, you lose a lot of time re-establishing where everybody is in relation to everybody else. That was very clear in the podcast I mentioned above, which didn't use maps. So not only do I like maps and tokens / figurines for a more tactical approach to RPG combat, I also like them for their contribution to speed. They save a lot of time explaining how close or far you are from friend and foe, or questions of line of sight.

In my campaign a combat lasting 2 hours isn't unheard of. But then that would be some epic fight with 6 players on one side, and several types of monsters on the other side, complicated by a lot of terrain effects or surprise events. And narrative description of combat events takes some time too, and so does the players arguing over strategy some times. But the important thing is to keep things going forward at a pace where nobody ever gets bored while waiting. I think I'm doing pretty good at that now, after 2 years back in the saddle as DM. And my players rather spend 2 hours in an epic boss fight than 2 hours dawdling about in some role-playing situation in which for some reason the party goals and path forward aren't obvious. But that would be a subject for another post.

4E encounter design is radically different from that of any other iteration of D&D. You can argue that it's better, or worse (I'd lean towards the former, actually) and it has cascading implications for scenario and adventure design and narrative flow. I think it's one of the biggest disconnects between 4th and earlier editions in the collective D&D consciousness. It makes conversion no simple matter, and I'd argue that the group you mentioned (how about a link, btw?) was making a major mistake by trying to adapt a 4E encounter directly into Pathfinder.

As far as speed goes, the major factor in my experience is indeed familiarity with the rules. We played Rolemaster for years back in the 90s and made it run pretty swiftly and efficiently, but that was a group of skilled and experienced players under a GM who knew the system cold. One newbie can be guided easily enough, but put a bunch of them at a table with a GM who is insufficiently sure-handed and Rolemaster can certainly be a slog. I can certainly make the case that (say) Pathfinder, which by my reckoning is significantly more complicated than Rolemaster would place one in the same mess.

That's an interesting point you make regarding playing with maps and miniatures, by the way, and a good one. I think many might say that doing it all in the imagination is easier and faster, but for big, epic encounters with many foes and lots of situational stuff going on I think you are certainly right, save possibly in the simplest iterations of D&D.
A good house rule our group has for speeding up encounters is the "ready" rule. If you as a player are ready and can execute your attack within 15 - 30 seconds of your turn coming up, you get a +2 Ready Bonus to Attack.

It works extremely well to keep players on track, because that +2 comes in handy a LOT. It also means that there are fewer misses, so things die a little bit faster.

In cases where they're on the ropes or it's a really complex encounter, they're already pretty engaged with planning their turns, so they don't get the ready bonus, but it hardly matters when they're actually throwing together extremely clever tactics.
I've DMed over 200 sessions of 4E and more than that in Pathfinder now (perk of two weekly groups). I can absolutely assert that even with a modest group of four or five experienced 4E players combat in that edition is encumbered by the mechanics in terms of speed. Pathfinder/3.5 can take just as long, sometimes longer if you play it by the book and don't try to inject narrative flow. Conversely, game systems like Magic World, 13th Age and Tunnels & Trolls (for a radical reverse example) definitely take less time while --and this is the important part-- still accomplishing the same level of epic events that 4E ostensibly is best at. In fact I have found that 4E's extremely sense of balance (much as I like it) usually leads to combats that are tactically eventful but seriously lacking in that sense of momentous excitement that I used to experience in 1st and 2nd edition, precisely because the mechanical contrivances of the system are designed to keep characters alive for as long as possible; you have to go way outside the conventional framework of encounter design to make a genuinely risky encounter for PCs in 4E to have a chance of failure (that, or you have to engineer a situation in which attrition wears them down, but even then played RAW 4E is built to mitigate attrition as much as possible).

On maps and minis: I've found that they are a symptom but not the cause of slower combats. When minis and maps are absolutely necessary to manage the combat encounter it's because the rules themselves provide no sustainable framework for large encounters. To contrast, I've run some staggeringly large encounters in 13th Age (a game with heavy 4E DNA in it) that I wouldn't have even considered in 4E, because of time considerations.
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Kudos for these pen-and-paper posts - they are as interesting as your campaign posts.

I am far too inexperienced and new at this type of thing to provide much (if any) meaningful commentary, but am really finding that knowing a bit more about the GM side is helping me with my play.

In my brief experience playing my Paladin, if a fight against an evildoer is taking too long (usually because of some damage reduction thing) I whack on my Bless Weapon and Smite Evil spells to take care of it.

Two rounds of 40-odd damage unreduced by DR usually does the trick.
Reply to Nicholas.

Could expand on how 13th Age which is strongly inspired by 4E goes faster?

Actions per turn?

Attack modifiers?

Less powers and options for PCs?
I have always wondered how good tech support (for example a simple iPad) able to provide fast info about powers and results of using powers could help to speed up combat and make it more fluid.

I also very much like the 4E rules in terms of balance and tactics but it's true they take a lot of time to run (attacks of opportunities... large number of actions that can be taken in a turn for each participant in the fight, etc...). This becomes overwhelming for the DM pretty fast. A computer or app should help to speed up some of the more boiler plate stuff.
Reply to Lazie.

I use Hero Lab to play my Pathfinder character and find it very helpful.

The developers of Hero Lab have just released a new tool which is apparently for GM's called Realm Works.

Not being a GM I haven't used it, but it would be interesting to know if anyone has, and how useful they found it.

I agree, technology could be of use in quickening things up - I daresay that the whole 'more knowledge leads to better, quicker outcomes' thing would still apply.
I love technology to for example look up rules faster in the online compendium. But after some experimentation I found that I am faster with a pencil and a piece of paper to write down hit points and status effects than I am with an app to note those things. Apps have a certain structure, while on paper I can scribble down anything I want.
In the end, it boils down to whether the app is providing the support you are looking for or not. Probably the ones you used didn't suit your needs but I don't think that means no app can ever work for you.
Plus the tech support doesn't need to do *everything* but it can help to take care of the simple stuff. For example you could replace your map and figurines with a giant touch-enable screen with a number of basic metrics (movement, HP, available powers, can be easily tracked). Of course, I fully acknowledge this is very complex to handle. I don't think such technology exists today but it may at some point
@Carmedil: 13th Age has a lot of features that have their origin in 4E (Rob Heinsoo co designed 13th Age with Johnathan Tweet, so that's part of the reason). It looks to me like a major design effort for 13th Age was to keep the style/structure of the game (powers, at wills, very precise math) but built from the ground up for an abstract combat system. I do use maps and minis with 13th Age, but mainly to show off how different combat feels when you are not using precise tactical maneuvers.

Anyway, 13th Age has lots of short-cut designs which let even inexperienced GMs (imo) handle abstract combat smoothly. All of the game's powers and effects are built around the terminology of the game's simple and abstracted methodology of handling distance and positioning. You can handle large mobs of monsters easily, and the system utilized an "escalation die" to provide an escalating variable which triggers various effects.

I talk about 13th Age a lot here:
About 13th age combat: it cuts the amount of dice rolls drastically (to a degree that my players wanted to roll more). And you got less in-combat spells as caster.
While it might be faster than D&D, it is still quite slow. We averaged between 1 and 1.5 hours for the demo adventures fight.
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