Under the Hood – The Perfect Fight (Part 3: Making It Last)

The Perfect Fight (Part 3: Making It Last)
By Cape Rust

Boxing may be the perfect comparison for measuring duration in any RPG. Each participant must be able to last all nine rounds, but their intention is to bring an end to the match sooner.

PREVIOUSLY: The challenge of incorporating the proper amount of challenge in a combat system is a challenge to say the least. It’s the first and simultaneous last step in the process, but is typically based on the past experiences of its players. Those used to miniature-heavy RPGs will look for games with complex maneuvers and options, while others with a history in story games desire something free flowing and devoid of complex rules. (Click here to read Part 1 or Part 2 of this mini-series.)

We base a lot of our interpretations on how successful something is by its duration. There’s a thought that the longer a movie runs, the better it should be; punts in football measure the hang time of the ball; and a perfect date runs for hours without ever noticing that the restaurant is closing. The trick to duration is the same with every other step in combat management: what works best for some is a travesty for others. The opposite school of thought can apply to any of those three examples. Some like their movies to have a quick runtime because it’s fast-paced and action-packed that way; low kicks don’t give the opposing team enough time to position themselves for the return; and someone else’s idea of the perfect date is one that skips straight to the fun part.

When a combat system’s overall challenge is determined, the typical duration of a fight scene tends to come hand-in-hand. The more abstract the reality, the more typical it is for combat to run at a near set amount of time because these types of games tend to build their mechanics from a player perspective, such as it is with RPGs like Dungeons & Dragons. Their goal is to provide balance amidst numerous rules and character provisions, thus ending up with combat scenes defined to an average number of rounds per fight. Gritty games featuring simplified damage output are not afraid to let combat play itself out as quick or as long as needed, a common habit of RPGs like Savage Worlds.

For the purpose of thoroughness, we’re going to take a closer look at the first kind of RPGs related to D&D. These RPGs are built primarily as games intended for creating a fun experience. Their core concept invokes guidelines for player enjoyment through balance and fairness and that means there’s a bar set for the perfect experience. (The second type was made in the image of a style, genre, or any other form of replication. If I wanted to make a hardcore, realistic modern military RPG, I wouldn’t be concerned with rules for players to survive through a few bullet wounds. I’d want to make sure the true combat experience – and all its horrors – made it into the game, even if that meant killing a player character every now and then.)


There’s one thing I can always count on whenever I play D&D: the fight’s going to last seven rounds. Any longer and we’re starting to wear it down, this bastard is just tougher than normal. If we drop the monster in the fifth round, that was too easy, but that may also be a sign of just how awesome we are. Otherwise, it’s safe to say we will not hear the DM call out round eight and if we do, the cleric has her hands full with seriously wounded allies.

When it comes to this level of balance and mechanical precision, Dungeons & Dragons seems to define the practice. They have to because how else are the heroes going to know how much XP they’ll collect at their current level. Every edition has been crafted and moulded into a lock’n’load game of combat with enough flexibility and rigidity to make it all come together predictably while simultaneously mixing it up between games to offer the spontaneity defined by a roleplaying game. In other words, you can count on the monster dying, but maybe one of the heroes is bitten or loses a level from an energy drain.

To understand the tools a combat management system needs to extend or shorten its duration, you need not look any further than D&D. While every game has its own components and options, you can adapt or apply many of the same principles for combat duration as D&D does, which is why I’m using it as duration’s mascot. The 4th edition Dungeon Master’s Guide even provides an entire chapter for Dungeon Masters to build their own combat encounters by choosing a level of difficulty based on the hero party’s average level (which should always be the same) and assigning an XP cost to spend on individual monsters, traps, hazards, and terrain elements. Tougher opponents (elites and solos) cost more to build into a scene, but they’re accounted for like the company Christmas party come tax season. Want to make your heroes sweat? Choose a higher level of encounter difficulty and you’ve instantly added on a couple of extra rounds to the fight.


Like every other step of this process, combat duration depends on how well it balances with every other step. If you cause less damage, the fight will take longer. If the heroes have a hard time keeping their liver tucked in their torso, the fight will end sooner. Boost the enemy’s defence too much and the fight will end when the GM decides to tweak the story and simply have the villain flee to fight another day.

As mentioned earlier in today’s article and became the conclusion of challenge’s objective, it’s all based on overall personal expectations and experience. The true question becomes how do we determine the perfect duration for a game’s combat scenes? How can we measure it accordingly to match the needs of the game and the expectation of its players? The easiest way is to start with the largest number in any RPG session and work our way down, meaning how much combat do you want in a typical session and how long should each one last?

Every game is designed and fortified under the assumption of a standard number of hours to play a typical session (plus whether that session will complete an entire quest/adventure or work as part of the complete story). The default does appear to be 4-5 hours per session. How many fights break out in that time will depend on the game itself and it’s challenge. A heavy combat, dungeon crawler like D&D may see as many as 3 significant combat encounters per game (though earlier editions may have had the occasional wandering monster or two to fill in gaps or feature rooms with a pair of lonely goblins here and there). Allowing time for roleplaying scenes, bathroom breaks, and casual conversations throughout the fun, we can make the assumption that a typical combat encounter should last 30-45 minutes.

Now we have something to work with. Remember, each game functions differently based on the challenge set down in the previous step; this is simply what happens to work for D&D. Many groups may find their own combat encounters require more or less time (my own group in its heyday had 7 players and a fight could run as long as two hours), but this does seem to be the average. Keeping this goal in mind, a design team can now break down the mechanics and construct the remaining two steps of a combat management system (damage and survivability) for the purpose of creating exciting and dynamic fight scenes that last 30-45 minutes.

Within this time frame, we can look at how many rounds are required to complete a fight scene working off the standard expectation for most games (in this case, the 7 rounds from our D&D-based example). Therefore, a 45-minute combat encounter with 7 rounds will take 6.4 minutes per round (or 6 minutes and 24 seconds). If the average number of players, including the Game Master, is 5, then it should take each player approximately 1 minute to play out their turn, while the GM may require additional time to complete actions for multiple opponents. Let’s agree on 30 seconds to 1 minutes for each player and 2 minutes for the GM to complete one round of combat.

If you build your combat management system under this basis, each player will use up anywhere from 3.5 to 7 minutes per turn in a 30-45 minute combat scene. A GM will use an average of 15 minutes to carry out the needs and plans of the enemy and any potential sidekicks offered to the campaign.

Find this amount of time too long? Not long enough? Adjust the game’s combat steps accordingly. Cut down on the amount of damage caused, provide more or less actions or dice rolls per turn, offer up a means for characters to gain reactions or interruptions within a fight, boost up their hit points, or increase the number of opponents in every skirmish. These kinds of adjustments, welded and adapted within the confines of your combat management system’s overall challenge, can allow a game designer ample opportunity to provide the right amount of time dedicated to running and completing fight scenes in their game.

The kicker about this step is that you may never hit it exactly for the sole reason that it’s based on numerous outside and uncontrollable influences. Right off the bat, many of you may consider the differences in decision-making abilities by different players – some take forever to complete their turn, others plan out their next move while the player before them is sliding her miniature across the map. And it’s true, there’s nothing much you can do about that, which is why all games are built using an average. It’s a goal, not a line in the sand.


It’s what players offer to every fight scene: mayhem and destruction. Taking all the Game Master’s hard work and effort simply to grind it to ash and collect some XP for their troubles. The amount of damage contributed to a combat encounter weighs heavily on a combat management system’s design and development, complicated by the sheer fact that it’s left up to dice rolls for settling damage output. Next week, we’ll look at how selecting the right damage levels affect a game’s combat.

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