I was curious to see how long combat encounters last in my Riddleport campaign, and how long my group takes on each turn to do our actions. I surfed around for a long time, looking for the right timer software, and then I finally found it, for the iPad.
This is a review of how long we took to play out our last combat, through the eyes of Chronology for the iPad.
Who’s taking so damn long?
Combat in our group runs at a pretty good clip. But I want it to go faster. I would like one more combat squeezed into our sessions without sacrificing any other encounter types or making sessions longer. That means making combat faster.
But first I wanted to learn where time spent in combat was going. I wanted to see who the culprits are. You know, the slow decision makers, the inattentive, and the dreaded rules lawyers. How much time were they leeching out of the fun?
I hunted down the Chronology iPad app. At the time of purchase it was $5. It had the features I needed:
- Multiple timers
- At least 7 timers (one for each player plus myself)
- Count up (most just count down)
- Each stop and start (one touch, any player, anytime)
As a bonus, Chronology has other great features, too. It has countdown timers for when I put time limits on turns or for special encounter setups. “You have 25 minutes to stop the ritual. Go!”
You can also save the timers you set up as a set, and load that set anytime. That is awesome, because I can just load the D&D set of 7 times at game time and start using it. I also have a set saved for my internet business, so I can see exactly where my time is going each day. Saved sets let me swap my D&D and business timesheet sets out in two click.
Resetting a single timer or all is a single click.
You can disable sleep, which I found handy during the session. It would have been a pain logging in again after sleep mode kicked in, or disabling sleep mode each time I want to use this app.
For countdown timers, there are alerts and background alerts. You can even set what chime each timer makes when it reaches zero.
Another great feature: simultaneous timers. Last session I only had one timer running at a time, because it was only one person’s turn at a time. However, I was frequently involved in player turns, making players wait while I decided or researched something. So, next session I will turn my timer on while a player’s timer is running when I am spending session time during their turn too.
You can also cascade timers, wrap timers, and auto reset timers. I do not plan on using those for RPG, but they are there if you need them.
Oh, and you can adjust the current count of any timer. A couple times I forgot to start a timer or I left one running when it should have been stopped. It was easy editing a timer and changing its current time.
Was it disruptive?
Players immediately noticed I was timing them. Nobody complained. I mentioned I was also timing myself. That seemed fair.
My Information Overkill system when GMing looks like this:
- iPad to my left
- Paper notebook and pen in front of me
- Laptop to my right
- Second monitor raised on a side table beside the laptop, for players
It’s a vice. Move along, nothing guilty to see here.
With the iPad right on my left (?), managing timers took no time at all (punny!). Earlier this year I had considered other options, including PC timers, stopwatch, and sand timers. They all had drawbacks that were too much for my tastes. I like to GM fast without props and devices getting in the way.
Fortunately, operating Chronology was a two tap operation each time. Current player stop, new player start. Round and round we went.
What did I expect?
I made a theory before the game about who the biggest time culprits were in combats. It is always good to check your own perception of reality against some facts. Real objective like.
I fingered two players for different reasons, and expected the total time spent on their turns to be equal to the total of everyone else’s combined.
For this experiment, I only tallied total time per player for the combat. Getting into round-by-round times is possible, but trickier and I wanted the timing of my first timed combat kept simple.
I also did not tally the type of actions. For example, how much time was spent making decisions versus calculating results versus rules checks versus chit chat and inattentiveness.
When it was each player’s turn, I said to the table, “It’s now your turn, [character name].” I tried to catch the player’s eye while saying this, but regardless, once my announcement was over the timer began. If a player was distracted, it would just add to their time used.
Two players had to leave the table for the call of nature. I decided not to keep their timers going in these cases. I wanted to be human about it, and this is still supposed to be just a fun game, after all. My players have excellent table etiquette, and everybody respects each other, so my goal with the timers was just to capture player turn length while at the table, playing.
The stats reveal the group’s time thief
What I found was unexpected. My theory was torn to shreds. Here are the results.
- Number of foes: 8 (a CR 10 demon who summoned a friend, so 2 CR10s, plus six bat swarms)
- Number of PCs: 7 – 5 (level 7) + 2 cohorts (level 5)
- Location: Large cavern with pillars for cover and poison spore fungus patches in certain areas
- Total time of combat: 77 minutes, 17 seconds
- Number of rounds: 6 until the foes were dead
- Crixus and his cohort: 12:59
- Velare and his cohort: 11:42
- Vigor: 9:19
- Fane: 6:25
- Hrolf: 3:03
- The demons and swarms: 34:14
Wow! The GM is the slowest player. Here I was thinking a couple players might be the culprits, when I should have been looking in the mirror the whole time.
I did not record how I spent my time. I just recorded my total time spent on my turn, or between player turns when I had to do something for the combat.
I manage all the initiative, but my system is so sleek it only takes seconds per round to operate, so that was not part of the slowdown.
Players are responsible for the rules – I almost never look them up. So I normally cannot blame that.
I included the initial combat setup in my time. Drawing the map, laying out the monster minis, and kicking off initiative. If memory serves, that took about five minutes. I expect that to be a new timer next game so I know for sure.
So what’s my excuse?
As the combat clock ticked upward I spotted the trend pretty fast. My turns were the longest. So I started paying attention while GMing to what I was doing that was taking so long.
It turns out (punny!) that it was a combo of lack of preparation and lack of knowledge of the game rules. Boo.
The demons had a number of spell and supernatural ability options. I did not research these before the game. So I caught myself hitting d20pfsrd.com and researching my options before deciding each demon’s actions.
Further, I had no familiarity with the swarm rules. Those critters have a lot of specific rules pertaining to them, so I looked those up several times during the combat.
Another factor, but a minor one, was not knowing what mini belonged to each PC. That caused me to hesitate several times. I’d figure out a demon’s action, then realize I had mistaken a mini for another PC, and go back to the drawing board.
The stats revealed many other golden nuggets
First, player times were actually great. The slowest player only took 13 minutes, or 17% of total combat time.
With five players at the session, plus GM, if everybody received equal spotlight time, each person should receive 17% of the spotlight.
That will be my goal moving forward. Getting everybody 17% or equal share of the spotlight. At the same time, if each person’s turn is not wasteful, but not high-pressured either, we’d have fair and fun combats.
Next, the players with cohorts took longest. For one player, this is session #2 with a cohort in combat. For another player, it was his first combat with a cohort. I am not ready to draw conclusions here yet, especially because their time ratios were within my goal range.
Could be the cohorts caused extra time expense. However, the two player characters themselves are complex. One is a wizard, so lots of options to consider each round. The other is a min/maxed fighter who usually gets multiple attacks per round and needs to maneuver in place to get them.
So, it could be just the PCs causing more time needs, not the cohorts so much. We’ll see.
Another interesting tid bit is the times for Hrolf and Fane. The times are low, so I am worried about how much fun those players are having. Fane’s player records session notes on our wiki, so he is keeping himself busy, at least. Whether that is because his turns are so quick or whether he enjoys session logging, I’ll find out.
Hrolf was a brand new PC that session. The player retired his previous PC because he wanted to play a different type of character. Could be Hrolf was just figuring things out in his first combat, and will have more involvement in future fights.
However, it could also be the character is simple and has no other options.
A third possibility is the player p0wns the rules, is super efficient, or plans his turns in advance so there’s no delay when the timer starts for him.
I will follow up with Hrolf’s player between session to get his thoughts and reactions. If the player is super efficient, we will find out why and share the tips (and expectation) with the whole group. If the PC is just simple, then I have a couple ideas on how to make his combats more interesting.
Last, the whole combat took about an hour and twenty minutes. That was a combat with 7 combatants on the players’ side, and 8 on the GM’s. A 15 foe fight with sides being roughly equal in ability in 1:20 is good time in my books.
If that lazy GM would sharpen his pencil a bit, combat could go even faster!
Overall, this is the best possible news I could have received from the experiment. I cannot control the players. I can only control myself. If the opportunity for faster combats lies mostly within myself, then I have all kinds of options and ideas, and I can try them all because it’s all on me, within my control.
If it had turned out those one or two players I had initially fingered were at fault, I’d need to have some conversations, do some analysis with them, and work ongoing to shave time off their turns.
Instead, I just need to work on becoming a better GM. I also get a chance to try to get certain PCs more involved in combats so that we do an awesome trade of my time for theirs, keeping combat the same length or less.
For my group, with the current data at least, our challenge is not shorter combats as a whole, but shorter GM turns and longer PC turns.
I will let you know how it goes.