Combat Duration

So what is the optimal duration of combat? It's kind of a vague question but something a couple of folks have mentioned is that the current martial bonus is primarily there to speed up combat.


Two things spring to mind:


If I need to up player damage to speed up combat, then probably the combat in question isn't worth taking the time to do in the first place. If the combat is significant enough, then it's worth the time. I know we hit an extreme in previous editions and we should expect combat to be shorter, but all the same I want my fights to matter or I don't want to bother fighting.


If the numbers are fixed such that combat is almost always 2-3 rounds (as it's been stated in a few places), that creates a treadmill feeling far more ingrained in the game than freely scaling numbers-by-level ever did. That means that no matter where my character is, what level they are or what they're fighting, a given combat will last 2-3 rounds. I could be fighting a pack of goblins or a pit lord and it makes absolutely no difference whatever.


Being certain that a fight will be quick is just as bad as being certain the fight will be lengthy. I would love to see more variety in the beastiary and a removal of some of the really weird system patching going on to force combat into this duration.

There is no one optimal duration of combat.
D&D Next = D&D: Quantum Edition
While mand12 is right that there is no one optimal duration for al combats, if I'm stuck with all combats being one duration I'd rather that duration be more like 5-6 rounds than the 2-3 we've got now.  I'm with the OP that a 2-3 round combat may as well not be a combat.  There's just no time  for tactical play, no room for in-combat decision making (although I'll grant plenty for pre-combat planning if you're so inclined).  And if there's no room for that, why bother with the enormous math exercise and the silly blow by blow?  This half-way option of "fast combat" seems to my taste to be keeping everything that's bad about combat and dropping everything that's good.  

ATM, we can't actually have long fights except with a party of fighters.  Only the fighter can survive more than 3 rounds of an at-level monster's DPR (and by at-level, I actually mean a monster with an XP value sufficient to be at least an average challenge for an at-level hero, not a mook designed to outnumber you 2:1), and that only because parry desperately needs fixing.  Personally, I think DPR/HP ratios should be set for a combat of more like 5-6 rounds.  Then you can extend it a bit with some healing, and you can have short fights any time you like by just not planning on challenging a full strength party.  That being the point of HP as a daily resource (albeit one you can achieve in other ways with less collateral damage, but that's another thread), that you can have short fights that are still meaningful.  But you can't easily adjust fights upward.  So yeah, 4e's problem was that you couldn't have a short fight that was anything but a waste of time.  5e's problem is that you can't have a long fight that is anything but a TPK, and I like having my BBEGs survive more than two rounds.  How about a system where you can have both?
So what is the optimal duration of combat? It's kind of a vague question but something a couple of folks have mentioned is that the current martial bonus is primarily there to speed up combat.

There are two types of duration that matter here. Real time for the players and the number of combat rounds the PCs go through. There is no single optimal number because it depends on too many things, but probably the single biggest one is how important the fight is.

Minor: less then 10 minutes and 2-4 combat rounds. This sort of fight is never a threat to the characters unless they are already near dead, but might wear them down a bit could get out of hand if they don't fight effectively. The guards might get a chance to alert the base, the target might escape, or some other plot related matter.

Average 15-30 minutes and 5-8 combat rounds. This is a fight that the party will win unless they are already in bad shape or do very badly, but could wear the party down a lot. This is going to use some daily level resources, a few spells and a few HD and possibly something else, but not a huge amount.

Tough 20-60 minutes 6-20 rounds. This is a big fight, one that either threatens to kill the party or is important to the plot of the adventure. This could take a long time with a few number of rounds if very complex or it could take a lot of fairly simple rounds if it turns into a chase.

Both 3e and 4e had problems with big fights, but they where very different problems. In 3e the big fights often reduced to who got the first action, as everybody let rip with their big daily powers. These fights where often insanely complex but over in 2 or 3 rounds. In 4e the would eventually turn into slog fests where everybody was hitting with at-will powers, but it still wouldn't be fast because many of the characters where doing trivial damage and trying to load up as many little side effects and conditions as they could.

4-10 rounds for a real fight

PCs should be hitting with 60-75% accuracy and dealing (15-25/X)% of the total HP in damage of the enemy where X is the number of PCs and a few rounds on non-attacks because of tactics.

Orzel, Halfelven son of Zel, Mystic Ranger, Bane to Dragons, Death to Undeath, Killer of Abyssals, King of the Wilds. Constitution Based Class for Next!

I think the important thing is not how long combat lasts, but whether the combat is fun. Obviously that is going to vary greatly based on the people playing and the situation. But for me, the question is this: is it a long combat because it is a knock-down, drag-out fight, full of excitment and tension, where both sides are evenly matched? Or is it a long fight because we have to stop and re-calculate to-hit rolls and damage each round, or look up complex maneuvers and conditions and spell effects, or wait for players to decide exactly which square they need to be on to be in optimal position for flanking and opportunity attacks, and blah blah blah...

So I guess what I'm saying is that when the tactical options are simplified and easy assess quickly, and when the round-to-round math can be done quickly and intuitively, and when the effects of conditions and spells and so on are simple and quickly applied... then the combat can last all night and still be fun because it's an epic battle. But when any or all of those things are not simple and quickly resolved, thus forcing a combat to take a long time, then that's not fun, because it's just a slog.

Personal opinion, of course.
So what is the optimal duration of combat? It's kind of a vague question but something a couple of folks have mentioned is that the current martial bonus is primarily there to speed up combat.

There are two types of duration that matter here. Real time for the players and the number of combat rounds the PCs go through. There is no single optimal number because it depends on too many things, but probably the single biggest one is how important the fight is.

Minor: less then 10 minutes and 2-4 combat rounds. This sort of fight is never a threat to the characters unless they are already near dead, but might wear them down a bit could get out of hand if they don't fight effectively. The guards might get a chance to alert the base, the target might escape, or some other plot related matter.

Average 15-30 minutes and 5-8 combat rounds. This is a fight that the party will win unless they are already in bad shape or do very badly, but could wear the party down a lot. This is going to use some daily level resources, a few spells and a few HD and possibly something else, but not a huge amount.

Tough 20-60 minutes 6-20 rounds. This is a big fight, one that either threatens to kill the party or is important to the plot of the adventure. This could take a long time with a few number of rounds if very complex or it could take a lot of fairly simple rounds if it turns into a chase.

Both 3e and 4e had problems with big fights, but they where very different problems. In 3e the big fights often reduced to who got the first action, as everybody let rip with their big daily powers. These fights where often insanely complex but over in 2 or 3 rounds. In 4e the would eventually turn into slog fests where everybody was hitting with at-will powers, but it still wouldn't be fast because many of the characters where doing trivial damage and trying to load up as many little side effects and conditions as they could.




I agree with this approach. This is exactly how I would prefer designers to approach combat, with these numbers in mind.

For those who think that shorter fights shouldn't be fights I disagree. My feeling is that I'm trying to create a believable world here and frankly having the PCs waltz into to the heavily fortified base, spend 20 minutes to an hour fighting one group of guards and then another hour fighting the king's retinue doesn't always capture what I'm looking for. How does he not have more guards? How come they are all in one place?

Look, sometimes that's what I want but sometimes I want the PCs to wade through smaller groups of easily dispatched enemies. In fact most of the time it's better because it creates a real sense that the PCs are accomplishing a lot and that the game is moving fast. Slogging through the same battle for an hour doesn't capture that feeling.

As for there not being enough time to think tactically in shorter fights, well that's what I thought too but my recent playtest with 5e did not bear that out. We had a bunch of short fights but the PCs were able to think tactically and really surprised me. Maybe that's a fluke but it at least shows it's possible.

My real concern right now is that the only duration the game seems to support is the short one but then I havent' done enough playtesting to know for sure.
I like fights to feel like they have a little bit of back and forth, so I prefer for the number of rounds to be a little bit higher. A two-round fight is nearly always too short. (Nearly).

It's generally important to me that a fight is long enough for the monster to get to show off its stuff a little bit. Most of the most interesting things monsters can do are offensive. That's a good thing, because offensive powers are better for the game than defensive powers. But a creature that dies before it can do anything doesn't really get to show off what made it interesting. I want creatures to last at least that long.

Really what would be perfectly ideal would be to take the excitement of the first couple of rounds, stretch that out, and eliminate the mop-up phase entirely. The idea of eliminating the mop-up phase isn't new, but to the best of my knowledge it's never been something the system has really been built around. It might be interesting to really have the game embrace the idea that at a certain point you're not so much fighting things as just kind of killing them, and just "call" the combat there. If this requires a bunch of math and rolling and tracking and players making intimidate checks and stuff then it's not worth it, so complex morale systems are out, but I wouldn't mind seeing monsters actually designed around the idea that it's a core rule that when the DM judges that there's no chance that the players are going to lose and that it's unlikely that the rest of the fight is going to drain a meaningful quantity of resources from the players that the fight switches over to a purely narrative mode. Obviously in fights where the drama is best-served by this not happening it doesn't have to, but it can be the default.

That gives us the freedom to design monsters that can make for some exciting back-and-forths without having to deal with all of the time commitment that that can entail.
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I'm ok with 5-6 round, so long as they are quick rounds. Length of combat cannot always be measured in rounds. A 3 round combat in 4e was still much longer than a 3 round combat in 2e. It's about the individual length of a players turn more than it is about rounds :P
My two copper.
It's worth noting when I say I'm not a big fan of short fights - and I think many others who have said the same would agree with this - I'm not so much saying that short fights against small groups of enemies shouldn't exist, but that they shouldn't necessarily be handled with all the same mechanical complexity of the knock-down drag out fights.  By all means wade through a couple of pairs of weakling guards on your way to the more serious fight.  But we could handle it with a few skill checks, some narrative, and "everybody loses 0-15 HP and maybe the alarm is raised depending on how well those checks went and how good your ideas on how to approach it was" instead of breaking out stat blocks and summing up all those damage dice for what's destined to be an easy fight.  It would be a lot faster, and I don't think we'd be losing anything important.  You'd still have as much room for tactics in a narrative sense (and you've got no room for tactics in a mechanical sense as it is), I for one don't get anything out of the blow by blow when the conclusion is inevitable, and I think a bit more of a freeform narrative would actually help make it more interesting than the mechanically complex but shallow experience we have now.

Negflar:
Could you describe what you meant by your players showing a lot of tactical thinking?  Tactical can mean different things to different people, which is often getting in the way of the debate over whether 5e is actually capable of tactical play, and I'm curious whether your experience is actually different or we just have different definitions of the term.  
As someone who had problems with combat lenght in 4E, I have to say that eventually we've managed to hit a sweetspot (upon several tweaks) of about 6 rounds for a normal fight. Tough ones will take more, easy ones less. Our range is around 4-8 (with the very rare 10+ full session battle royale once or twice in a campaign).
For 3 rounds or less I wouldn't bother doing a fight, unless the PCs deliberately push for it (which they won't for fear of retaliation Wink). 

2-8 rounds. Most fights should be 4-5 rounds. Easy fights should be 2-3 rounds. Tough fights should be 5-6 rounds. Fights against gods should be 7-8 rounds. I REALLY like D&DN's fast combats. 

Long enough to keep the players entertained, short enough that it doesn't become a slog

Our longest fight in any of the playtests was about 6 rounds, our shortest was...well not everyone got to act after they rolled Initiative (two crits under the max damage +2d6 system certainly wrecks a "boss" monster's day).  The main thing though is that they were fun.

A rough guideline of 2-3 rounds for an easy fight, 4-6 for an average one and higher for boss fights works well for me, but I always let my ability to read the table affect the pacing.  If the players are having fun and are engaged then I'll alter the parameters of the combat without cheating.  If they're not really and it's become a slog then I alter it in their favor.

I have a fear that if there's hard and fast numbers people will cling to those as proof of how a fight is supposed to go.

I think fights should scale in length to how much time I as a DM have to spend setting them up. Three guards in a guard house done theater of the mind style can be over in 2-3 rounds in 10 minutes. Asmodeus and his retinue on a tabletop set up with 3D terrain? Probably 6-10 rounds over the course of an hour.


Fast moving turns is a great idea, but the game needs to have a method to allow for enough give and take to make the important combats interesting, rather than a version of who won initiative rocket tag. If they do modules right, using different modules for different fights should enable this. At the very least, I do think the game needs some sort of elite or solo designation to create monsters designed to handle a sustained assault by a party of PCs that lasts longer than 3 rounds.


Also, if the game doesn't have encounter powers, and daily abilities are designed to be useful past one round, you can substantially reduce the instance of mop up time, because everyone is fighting at a similar ability throughout the encounter. If you ensure that monsters don't become a weaker threat after round 3-4 and the whole fight can be interesting down to the last blow. Later 4E solo design did this well, with built in changes to how they acted when the chips were down. That way even if that dragon is pretty much destined to lose, it's not so clear if it will or will not take a party member or two down with it.

I feel that combat , ATM, is just a little too short. Short fighths should be about 2-3 rounds, tough fights 4-5, and boss fights 6-10, depending on the intensity. We just ran the fight against the wight from Reclaiming Blingdenstone, and the battle only lasted 3 rounds. This feels off to me. I hope that when my party squares off against Asmodeus (or any other big bad) eventually, the fight isn't a matter of 4 rounds.
Run the math on his HP vs a party's DPR.  It won't be a matter of 4 rounds.  More like 2-3.  1 if you've got a really nic soul gem.
Run the math on his HP vs a party's DPR.  It won't be a matter of 4 rounds.  More like 2-3.  1 if you've got a really nic soul gem.


That's ridiculous. I get that WotC wants quick combat, and to some degre. i do too, but 2 rounds of beating the crap out of an Infernal Prince is not a good finale.
People talk about number of rounds per fight, number of fights per day and try to relate that to balance - but that's not the correct approach.

Balance cannot be on a razor's edge, where a little bit above or below ideal conditions you have severe damage.  Balance must be across a tolerable range of potential encounter design, character choices, and adventure/campaign styles.  Now, what "tolerable" means is inherently subjective, but there's incentive to having that range being wider rather than narrower.  Some slack in the design is critical to the system as a whole being able to meet the other goals in addition to balance.

This means that you may have some fights where one character or another is overly strong.  That's fine.  It's important to know how fight duration affects various classes, but to then take that information and make a judgment on what is "best" - that is a step too far.
D&D Next = D&D: Quantum Edition
Not even the most fabulous on-screen fight scene would stretch over ten minutes and still keep its audience. No D&D conbat should break fifteen, and even then only for major set-piece battles with end bosses.
Not even the most fabulous on-screen fight scene would stretch over ten minutes and still keep its audience.


Helm's Deep, Siege of Gondor.
D&D Next = D&D: Quantum Edition
Those weren't combats, they were entire battles with thousands of participants. Different scale. D&D is not a large-scale war simulator.
Not even the most fabulous on-screen fight scene would stretch over ten minutes and still keep its audience. No D&D conbat should break fifteen, and even then only for major set-piece battles with end bosses.


I'm confused. Are we talking about making encounters dozens of rounds long, or are we discussing the difference of two or three rounds? Because ten minute would be 100 rounds. Unless you are talking about actual time, in which case I can testify that my group can spend half an hour on one fight and, as long as it's an exciting one, remain totally excited about the fight. It probably helps that the combatants are not characters on a screen, but heroes the players have created and put a lot of time into.
I can testify that my group can spend half an hour on one fight and,as long as it's an exciting one,remain totally excited about the fight.

And if that's your thing, you and your group should absolutely write up massive fights with dozens of demons gating in minions, and have a great time slogging through a single combat for hours.

But the game shouldn't be designed with that as the default. Simplicity is core. Adding complexity later is easy...but the base game should aim for ten (realtime, player) minutes per fight, excluding, perhaps, boss battles. Tops.
I like to be able to run a single, combat driven, 1st level adventure in under 4 hours. I can currently do that, so I'm happy. 

From there, it can get longer and more complex, but I like it to be POSSIBLE to run a at-level encounter in less than 20 minutes. Currently, we can do that...
Well, I haven't played with the newest packet yet.
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Those weren't combats, they were entire battles with thousands of participants. Different scale. D&D is not a large-scale war simulator.


Matrix - rescue of Morpheus.

There are some pauses for dramatic effect, but it's very nearly constant from the moment they walk into the lobby.
D&D Next = D&D: Quantum Edition
2-8 rounds. Most fights should be 4-5 rounds. Easy fights should be 2-3 rounds. Tough fights should be 5-6 rounds. Fights against gods should be 7-8 rounds. I REALLY like D&DN's fast combats.



I really like Next's fast action resolution, but I don't actually like how quick the combats actually are. I think that the fast action resolution enables me to be more descriptive and it allows more thinking time where we figure stuff out without feeling like we're just dragging things out more. That's awesome.


But their seeming obsession with keeping the actual number of rounds down feels off base to me. I like the tiered approach that's been suggested in a couple of places where a straightforward situation is fairly quick and a "boss fight" is quite a bit longer. What that then leads me to think is we should significantly reduce the martial combat bonus to allow some fights to take longer.


Really, if a longer fight is acceptable at the high end then we don't need to patch the math.

One strategy I use to keep tension is to never actually end the combat for large stretches of game time, or keep the combats coming so fast and furiously that there's no time for the players to stop moving.


The 2-3 round combat is perfect for that; it lets me interrupt the players without interrupting the pace of play.