Slow Combat Isn't Bad

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... or at least, it doesn't have to be.

This article was inspired by a discussion I had on Twitter with Scroll For Initiative - make sure to check them out!


We're all familiar with the old discussion - combat in D&D is slow. It's unwieldy. It desperately needs to be streamlined, pared down, and made quicker in real time. But personally, I think this is putting our focus in the wrong place. Far more important than how long a round takes in real time is whether that round is fun.

A fast round can be streamlined, or it can be rushed. Pare it down to just mechanics too far, and it becomes bland and uninteresting, and your players will be just as disengaged as if the round took ten times longer.

A slow round can be plodding, or it can be suspenseful. Let it drag on too much, and the suspense turns to boredom and disinterest as players wait for their next turn to roll around, barely paying attention.

I think, perhaps, you can begin to see what I'm about to suggest now. As borderline heretical as it sounds, I actually prefer somewhat slower combat, at least to a reasonable extent. The key ingredient, like everything else in D&D, is roleplay. A well-polished description, from DM or player, or even better both, can turn a slow, methodical round into a lifelong memory.

Let's look at a simple example. It's not entirely uncommon for a player's turn in combat to look something like this:

  • Player: "I want to attack it with my greatsword."
  • DM: "Okay, roll to attack."
  • Player: "That's an... 18 to hit."
  • DM: "You hit. Roll for damage."
  • Player: "7 slashing damage."
  • DM: "The dragon dies."

If you ask me, that just... isn't very fun. There's a lot of engagement missing from that interaction, and an immense amount of missed potential. Yes, the round will go by faster... but will it be as fun? I'd argue that no, it won't. But if we revise that to look a little more like this?

  • Player: "I want to attack it with my greatsword."
  • DM: "Okay, roll to attack."
  • Player: "That's an... 18 to hit."
  • DM: "You hit. Roll for damage."
  • Player: "7 slashing damage."
  • DM: "Describe your attack for me, please."
  • Player: "I take my greatsword and slash at the softer scales of its underbelly, hoping to cut it open."
  • DM: "The dragon roars in agony as you land the final blow on its vulnerable stomach, collapsing in one last spout of fire that singes your armor as it shudders through its final breath."

Certainly, there's still room for improvement here. Encouraging players to not take too long to decide on their actions, rolling to hit and for damage at the same time, and other similar tricks can streamline the process a lot. But even without those, we've created a much more engaging flow to our turn by simply changing how we relay the information of what happens after the rolls our made. And yes, we slowed down the turn in the process, but in the end, that actually becomes a good thing.

This is just one small example, and there are many more contexts to consider. The balance between real-time speed and story flow is a difficult one to strike, and not one that's going to be the same for every group or table. But I hope I've been able to maybe shift your thinking a little bit on whether real time is really the most important metric of how well a turn went. Even if I haven't changed your mind at all, I hope that this can help shift future discussions away from painting real time as the biggest factor, and more as just one part of the puzzle.


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