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WOTC Discovers Typical D&D Players Like Short Combats

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Amazing Stories has an interview with Mike Mearls talking about D&D Next. From one of Mike's comments it seems that WOTC has finally learned what many players have know for years: Most players like fast combats. In the interview, Mike says:

What we found through the playtest process, though, was that people like quick fights. They like them a lot, it turns out. A battle is part of the game, a point of resolution in the grander scheme of things, not the entire point of the game. That kind of philosophical revelation has been really big for us in working on the game. We might’ve ended up spending weeks adding detail to the combat system, never realizing that the typical D&D player simply wasn’t interested in that level of detail.

I'm not sure how the designers of 3.x and 4e ever came to the conclusion that most D&D players want combats that take 45 minutes or more. That was always one of the features of TSR D&D, combats were abstract and fast (unless playing with optional rules like those in the 2e Player's Option books). Short combats mean that there is more time in a session for non-combat activities like exploration and make it possible to have character classes that are not good in combat without their players getting bored every time a combat takes place. Gary Gygax even wrote about this in an article "The Melee in D&D" in The Dragon #24 (April 1979):

The game is one of adventure, though, and combats of protected nature (several hours minimum of six or more player characters are considered involved against one or more opponents each) are undesirable, as the majority of participants are most definitely not miniature battle game enthusiasts....

Obviously, much of the excitement and action is not found in melee....

As melee combat is so common an occurrence during the course of each adventure, brevity, equitability, and options must be carefully balanced...

It reflects actual combat reasonably, for weaponry, armor (protection and speed and magical factors), skill level, and allows for a limited amount of choice as to attacking or defending. It does not require participants to keep track of more than a minimal amount of information, it is quite fast, and it does not place undue burden upon the Dungeon Master. It allows those involved in combat to opt to retire if they are taking too much damage — although this does not necessarily guarantee that they will succeed or that the opponents will not strike a telling blow prior to such retreat....

The only thing I can think of to explain the long combats in 3.x and 4e is that either the designers really liked combat or they were designing the games like they were computer RPGs where combat is 90% or more of the game (at least in most computer rpgs). I'm just glad they seem to have discovered that many -- if not most -- D&D players really prefer short combats. I just how this will be reflected in the final version of D&D Next. Because it it does not feature short combats that do not require a lot of work on the part of the players and the GM, I know many people will pass on it. Yes, those who want and enjoy long, detailed encounters that are tactical challenges will probably object loudly, but WOTC needs to satisfy the typical player if D&D Next is to have much chance of real success, even if the typical player is seldom heard from in online forums.


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12 comments:
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Byteninja said...
April 3, 2013 at 10:56 PM  

I'm throwing the BS flag on the whole "We just realized this" drivel. I think they saw the rise of CRPGs as the way people wanted to go and changed course accordingly (see 4E and its copying WoW, which copied DnD). No way they went through 2 editions (plus revisions) and didn't notice combats were huge and no one liked them. I would be more inclined to believe them if they said corporate hq waaay above them said go that way (or else!).

It was my severe dislike of 4E that got me into retroclones and I don't see myself going back anytime soon.

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Sultan said...
April 4, 2013 at 3:14 AM  

I believe it was a direct response to the success of the player's option lines that indirectly lead to expansive combats.

In the early 3e days, combat didn't really take any longer than it did in late 2e; it wasn't until 3.5 that high-level combats got out of hand. But 3.5 was the natural evolution of 3e, which--at least to me--drew its inspiration for level of detail (as far as representing your character on the page with mechanics) from the player's option and handbook lines.

TL;DR: The increased demand for character options indirectly lead to prolonged combats.

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Rachel Ghoul said...
April 4, 2013 at 4:21 AM  

Gee, you don't say. Well. This is the first thing to really grip me about 5e in a while, though some of what they're doing with Clerics and Paladins is sort of interesting to me.

see 4E and its copying WoW
Really? This ridiculous chestnut?

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Wayne R. said...
April 4, 2013 at 6:26 AM  

I played through the 2e era and with Player's Option: Combat & Tactics all we really used was the critical hit charts, which were like a lighter Rolemaster type of system. Even with the advanced individual initiative system (1d10 + weapon speed or casting time, lower goes first) it was faster than any 3e combat.

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Matt said...
April 4, 2013 at 9:46 AM  

4e IS a clone of WoW. My newbies constantly compared it to that. Though I think the giveaway here is that 4e talked about encounters in terms of squares. 4e didn't just ape WoW in terms of combat: they aped WoW in terms of endless expansions and peripheral requirements.

It also made it tough (in my mind) to house-rule. 2nd ed and even 3rd was simple, and we often played without ever referencing a PHB

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JB said...
April 4, 2013 at 11:20 AM  

This is just so..."duh."

My new game has even SHORTER combats than traditional D&D...really gives players more time to "adventure."
: )

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Philo Pharynx said...
April 4, 2013 at 1:20 PM  

This should be corrected. The article actually said that the typical player IN THE 5E PLAYTESTS likes quick fights. Given the state of the playtest, it self-selects for people who want a stripped down rules system. Many people who prefer more crunch options are checking into the playtest now and then, but aren't faithfully following it. For them, the playtest is asking them to play in a non-favored playstyle for an extended time.

Would you be willing to play 4e for a year if they said that by the end there would be an option to play it like something retro? Maybe some people would, but most would probably spend the time playing something more to their taste and looking in on their progress from time to time.

And this is not a small contingent of gamers. Third edition changed the face of the gaming industry and is still incredibly popular in the form of Pathfinder and countless d20 based games. While Fourth edition was not nearly so popular as third, it was far from a failure commercially. Any game company except WotC would have killed for their sales figures.

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Rob Griffin said...
April 4, 2013 at 6:22 PM  

Perhaps the best we can hope for from Next (from an OSR perspective) is what they are terming the "modularity" of the rules system.

There could be a very basic game system which has old school D&D bones, upon which can be added layers and layers of complexity. Perhaps this would even allow players to use Next to run games from any Edition. That could make it interesting, and get people playing D&D more.

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Randall said...
April 4, 2013 at 8:26 PM  

@Philo Pharynx: True, many people do enjoy long combats, but many more seem not to. As I recall, many 3.x players hoped that 4e would have shorter combats, but WOTC decided that these players really did not want shorter combats, they wanted more interesting combats with more things to do in them. This time, they seem to be listening to what players are saying, rather than what they think those players really want.

@Rob Griffin: IMHO, it is always easier to add complexity to combat with optional rules and modules than it is to try to remove complexity if you start with it -- or at least it is with today's interrelated rules. It was not so hard with the independent subsystems of games like AD&D 1e.

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GreyKnight said...
April 5, 2013 at 4:25 AM  

I agree with Randall; as long as the *base* combat system is simple, it can easily be complexified for people who like it that way. Going the other direction would be much harder.

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Byteninja said...
April 5, 2013 at 7:49 PM  

@Rachel Ghoul: looks like a duck, sounds like duck, acts like duck... Might be a duck. I'm liking the OSR scene, so I'm not worried to much about 4E any more. If DnD Next is an improvement, I might pick up the core rules.

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Rachel Ghoul said...
April 6, 2013 at 8:49 AM  

Yeah, might be a duck, except if it's actually a goose.

This article explains pretty well, I think: http://vorpal-thoughts.blogspot.com/2012/01/d-4e-is-wow-clone-really.html

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