Sometimes you need to remember to slow down and take a breath. Intermediate steps can provide a different sense of structured time. Knights engaged in a sword fight

A scene is emphasized if it builds up and maintains dramatic focus. Unfortunately, exhortations to “play it out”, relying on the table to maintain dramatic narration and pacing, out often fall by the wayside. (How many of you have played in games where the rules recommend describing your actions in detail, but after a few sessions players report “I hit for seven damage”?) Similarly, scene resolution mechanics–or even task resolution mechanics that cover great scope–can fail to capture the ebb and flow of a complex scene.

When we first played Primetime Adventures, we had difficulty developing scenes in depth; scenes would build quickly to the conflict, which was almost invariably brief, leading to a rapid resolution. When we incorporated optional “chase mechanics” into our PTA game–just breaking scene resolution into three discrete flips with narration between each–we drilled down and developed more detail, narrated exciting reversals, and concentrated more attention on exciting conflicts. It also gave us more material to incorporate into the scene’s ultimate resolution, enriching what often had felt “tacked on”.

Assembling Scenes

Some fights are epic; a good sword duel in a movie (whether it’s Inigo Montoya’s “I am not left handed” moment or Errol Flynn) can be inspiring, though the first image that comes to mind is the epic duel in Castle Amber’s library between Corwin and Eric (from Nine Princes in Amber). Nine Princes in Amber book cover image

Viewed at one scale, there’s a lot of missing, many swings that don’t connect. Neither prince is near death at any point–a slight cut is the main wound inflicted over several pages. Despite that, the fight feels tense and deadly, with entrancing descriptions of swordplay–the resolution is not disappointing at all. But a similarly long scene at the table would be very disappointing if the end result of all those attacks, banter, and dice math was “6 damage”.

Particularly when you get away from fights, you often find that you’d like more development before final resolution. Climbing 200 feet of perilous cliff face feels wrong as single roll, but it can also feel like “test until you fail” or tedious if it’s just “you progress 30′, roll again”. I’ve done it poorly in my own games as “tell me how many rolls it takes you to accumulate 10 successes”.

If you instead construct the challenge as “5 tests”, and narrate progress and setbacks at each roll, you can concentrate on the overall effect, while providing interesting narration for each test. It feels more like a struggle than a single roll–you spent more time on it, giving it focus and making it interesting–without going on at length and turning it tedious.

Similarly, you could build-up scene length skill checks in FUDGE games by rolling a die at a time and narrating the progress/setback implied by each die result, before summing up and comparing totals after four rolls and incorporating the net effect of the roll as a whole into a concluding description.

For a different, great example of breaking up “big actions” (like a debate) into smaller procedural steps (attack, deceive, rebut), Burning Wheel provides great tools.

Time and D&D

While I was thinking about breaking actions down into components, I thought about my dissatisfaction with the time scales of D&D in all of the editions. Under first and second edition, one minute rounds could feel very empty: “what, I can only swing my sword once a minute?” or even worse, waiting for your turn and rolling poorly, having your minute of action dismissed in narration as a single clumsy stroke. [That was contrary to the rules text, but frequent in my play experience.]

Conversely, just how much is sensible to pack into 6 seconds? How many lethal blows could even a master swordswoman deal? At low levels, an effective attack per six seconds feels reasonable, but when you have 3 primary, 2 off hand, plus cleave attacks–just how much space can a sword cross so quickly? Not to bring up realism, but set up some mannequins and–even with them stock still–how many can you “kill” in 6 seconds? I like action sequences, and maybe that pace of attacks works well for martial arts strikes… but does it make sense for an axe? Recovery from the first blow’s momentum alone seems likely to take several seconds.

Applying the general principle of “break long actions into short, meaningful steps”, we might be able to square the circle and have one-minute rounds composed of meaningful six second steps. The round and its segments reunite!

A Weird Solution

Much like the d10,000,000, my solution involves dice. Lots of dice. Let me first assure you that I don’t have stock in Chessex, Gamescience, or Koplow. (If this solution gains traction, I may have to travel back in time to invest before this catches on.)

My main issue is that a minute represented with by one roll doesn’t prompt you to describe a minute of action. Conversely, six seconds involving 6+ people dying from axe blows is too crazy fast–it wrecks my suspension of disbelief**. So my solution is to return to 1 minute rounds, but use extra dice as prompts to remember to narrate what’s going on for the whole minute: not just the one slash, cut, or kick represented by the attack roll. (As multiple attacks stack up at higher levels, killing lots of people in a minute remains impressive but doesn’t seem flatly implausible.) Here’s the proposed process:

  • Each player takes ten gray dice.
  • Take 1 colored die for each “effective” action (such as each iterative attack).
  • Assign each attack a specific color/die style. Perhaps your sword attacks are a chessex mercury die, the second is an inked gamescience red, while the last attack is an uninked gem die.
  • Remove 1 gray die per color die, so you’re always rolling ten dice.
  • Roll all 10 dice.
  • Order the gray and colored dice into a line, spacing the colored dice out into rough halves (or sixths, or whatever, depending on the number of “effective actions” you get each turn. (So for our three axe swings, above, place the three “effective” dice in slots 2, 5, and 8, or so.)
  • Now narrate each six second segment, remembering to prompt each character to describe their effort, whether it’s an effective die or gray. Gray dice don’t kill–but the raw number on the die can guide narrating the relative competence of each action. A 20 on the segment’s gray die could be an excellent feint, a parry that unbalances the foe, trapping their sword with your offhand dagger that sets up your counter strike, a shallow cut, a shove or elbow strike that may ring their bell, but has no chance of killing the foe…
  • Repeat until the fight is over.

On the other hand, it would be insane for a DM to do roll ten dice apiece for a dozen goblins. (If you’ve ever GMed Aces and Eights, keeping track of several opponents’ precise actions [both movement and action] and keeping track of when they go off creates a similar overload.) Instead the GM rolls the effective dice (as you always have), but divide them up over the round. So five goblins might strike in segments 2,3,6,8 and 9. On a third hand, breaking up a big monster’s attacks into several segments offers a way to make every blow distinct, instead of blurring into a hurriedly recited “claw, (roll), hit 7 damage, claw, (roll), missed, now bite…”

This works better in the abstract than on a grid, if only because organizing movement and precise distances at each 6 second time period [so everyone’s in reach at the right moment] is tricky.

Odd Benefits

Bringing back segments lets players arrange their characters’ actions to set each other up, allowing for fluid sequences–delay and coordination becomes natural, instead of feeling like a sacrifice.

Spells return to taking “real time” to cast, instead of being a few seconds of effort. In fact, you could bring back casting time to specify the minimum number of segments that must elapse between spells. And narrating several dodges and staff parries during the spell’s casting makes a wizard sound more impressive–it fights the image that they’re static, getting beat on without response.

But Let’s not Get Too Technical

On the other hand, there are a lot of bad places that a mechanic like this could drag the system. Attacks spaced by weapon speed factors, making daggers flash faster than axes; or using the gray dice result (instead of 10+) as the AC factor (since you’ve rolled them anyway), or lots of other distractions could become appealing. They’re exciting design spaces–but going down those paths leads to games that deliver a very different experience than traditional D&D. This could even lead to a system like Champion’s old speed chart. [Shudder.]

For Your Games

Do you have tricks that build tension, investing complex tasks with a weight that seems appropriate? Even better, do your players consistently narrate complex tasks interestingly? How do you encourage that?

Or, if you’d rather wander down the dark tunnel: Do you like rounds as six seconds, a minute, or some other length for your D&D games? Have you always played with rounds of a specific length (like 6 seconds), or have you had to address the change in perspective before?

Please share your experiences, advice, and sufferings in comments!

** The aside: a realistic sense of time can be hard to keep in modern entertainment. For example, the cooking show Chopped contains a 20 minute round and two 30 minute rounds, with specific focus on (initially) 4 overlapping/simultaneous preparations. Half of the show is devoted to the judge’s critiques (not included in the 80 minutes above), all in a show that airs in an hour time slot minus four commercial breaks.***
*** For a more genre appropriate example: look at bullet time. How much like our experience at the table is the concept of slowing down and stretching out actions in tense fights? It seems less ridiculous for characters to study foes and deliver blows precisely, despite combat’s chaos, when the camera slows down to give us the same chance to study where the blows should go. But after several movies incorporating bullet time, I’m ready for filmmakers to move on to their next trick.

About  Scott Martin

Scott is an engineer turned gnome and game store owner. He lies awake at night building intriguing worlds and plotting your character's demise.

23 Responses to Pacing, Rounds, and Segments

  1. Even better, do your players consistently narrate complex tasks interestingly?
    I’ve been playing with actionbased narrated combats these last five years, and I’ve come to discover one thing: after 5-7 actions, the players starts to focus more on the numbers than on the descriptions. So keep the encounter short!

    Also, keep it the system simple. Having to do a lot of calculations is another thing that takes focus from the narrating. The players should roll and then describe, not roll and the calculate. This is one main thing I got against Feng Shui where the math is 1d6 – 1d6 + your value – opponents value + your damage – opponents toughness. The fun part of the game is “If you roll 5+ against the mooks target number, you kill them”. There you can talk about “Roll, then describe”.

    Keep the scene simple as well. Remove anything that may distract from the scene taking part in the player’s mind. Miniatures are a description killer, for example. Even a map is a distraction. Let the players make up things on the spot that should be in the environment. When I play, I usually just say “library” and then the players may come up with “computers”, “librarian”, “book shelves” and whatever that you may find in a library.

    Another thing I’ve been experimenting with these last five years is to create creative challenges for the players, by adding stuff that they have to include in the description. “Ok, tell me how you break into the house but you have to include a banana in your description”. The added thing should be important in some way to the action.

    In my first published game, the players could combine any skills as long as they described how they did that. Sword Fighting + Acrobatics to get that swashbuckling feeling. Sword Fighting + Animal Handling, if you want to include your dog in the attack. Sword Fighting + Banana Peeling to … well, you figure that out.

    In my upcoming game – This Is Pulp – I’ve combined the first thing I wrote in this post with creative challenges. The GM creates a scene with a problem and tells the players that they have to do 1-5 actions to overcome the problem (keep the encounter short!). The PCs will always succeed, but the game system itself creates troubles that the players have to include in the description: someone gets a wound, something breaks nor something occurs that hinders the PC in some way.

    It’s fast paced, every roll is full of descriptions and it certainly creates creative players.

  2. You’re absolutely right: even when I begin with the best of intentions, by round seven I’m usually reduced to “hit for seven damage”. Your point about simpler systems also rings true–if the player can narrate with confidence from the initial roll without back and forth for permission and scale–they can share more of the action building burden.

    Your challenges, where you ask players to incorporate specific elements, sound like a fun way to work important information into the plot and keep descriptions specific.

    • if the player can narrate with confidence from the initial roll without back and forth for permission
      Yeah, that’s another thing. Say the opponent’s AC, so they don’t have to roll and then ask if it’s a hit. When players have to ask, it slows down the game.

      Disclaimer: I don’t play with this in all games. Just in those where the players should take care of their own narration.

  3. Savage Worlds has a great (and, as usual, simple) method of doing this. By default it takes 5 actions, with narration after each one. Letting players see not only their progress (oh gee, one more success…) but the complications, sudden insights, help from friends, etc and does it all in half a page of rules. Even if not playing Savage Worlds, I highly recommend checking out the Dramatic Tasks page since the process could be applied to almost any system.
    You might want to check out the Social Conflict rule page also for doing dramatic one-on-one battles of wit (or even battle with swords, like the Amber example).

  4. What the article suggests sounds like Hackmaster. Unfortunately, playing Hackmaster feels like being punished for having the audacity to bring your noob self into the Presence of “Da Greatest Game Evah”.

    It seems to me that if your fights are boring, they’re taking place in a boring environment. Errol Flynn’s fencing bouts weren’t fun for the expert swordplay (Olympic fencing is tedious for the average person to watch), they were fun for the chandelier swinging, table hopping, candle slashing chaos of it.

    And here’s how slow and clumsy axes are:

    • Yes Hackmaster/Aces is a failure mode of this idea.

      Exciting environments do perk up fights; before 4e came out, I was excited by Mike Mearls’ discussions about action zones and was looking forward to an updated version of the Iron Heroes concept.

      Your lumberjack link actually made my point for me. Even attacking stumps, even if every blow was killing, they’re not killing that many “people” in 6 seconds. What they’re doing is impressive, and over a minute I can easily imagine many dead foes. It’s not just axes that strain disbelief: at 6 second rounds, does your sword or dagger never get stuck in bone? How do you ever parry a blow when your weapon is committed to lashing out every second?

    • It really needs to be pointed out that a wood axe is nothing like a battle axe. A battle axe is much lighter and can be used extremely expeditiously. From all my research, barroom brawls, and stupidly dangerous sparring with steel replicas, I find that a six second round is far far too long. Something more like a 1-2 second round is a perfect balance of reality/playability. If you want rounds to be one swing/thrust/etc.

  5. I have to admit that the wheels in my brain are spinning fast at this idea. Both with how awesome it could be, and with how incredibly confusing and tedious it could be.

    I would definitely not want to simply drop this into a standard D&D game as is. I think the ROI (Return Of Imagination) is not sufficient. Most of the people who have trouble adding a description to an attack roll aren’t going to be suddenly inspired by the addition of more dice.

    You also run into a lot of issues incorporating this with other system elements. The one that leaps to mind is initiative. Your descriptions above definitely make it sound like everyone’s minute of actions is taking place simultaneously. So, where does initiative come into play? Also, how do you handle movement, and other non-attack actions?

    On the other hand, building a system (or system variant) around this concept from the ground up has HUGE potential. I already have a d20 variant I’ve been toying with in which the players roll everything, and the monsters just use static TNs for attack and defense (effectively always using “take 10”). Combining that variant in here allows you to easily use those grey dice as parries. You can also tack on a d20 skill system, and apply those grey dice to skill checks for non-attack actions (e.g., you can move a number of feet each segment equal an Athletics check using that segment’s grey die).

    7th Sea had a really nifty initiative system that could be relevant to the discussion. Each round had 10 phases. Each player got a number of d10s equal to their initiative. At the beginning of the round, you rolled those d10s. As the GM counted through the phases, if you had a d10 showing that matched the current phase number, you could act. If you had no action, you could save that die for a later phase. If you had more than one die matching a phase, you got to act more than once in that phase.

    • Most of the people who have trouble adding a description to an attack roll aren’t going to be suddenly inspired by the addition of more dice. True!

      Your variant is where my imagination was going when I realized that it was a very slippery path to not much left in common with D&D. I tried to hold back… but from the tone of the comments, it’s clear that I still went three steps too far. 😉 Ah, it was a fun thought experiment anyway.

  6. All due respect and deference, DEAR LORD HAVE YOU LOST YOUR MIND??? Your solution to creating a short, descriptive combat is a multi-step, complicated process. Its gaming through equations! Your results will no doubt be accurate, but I predict, especially around the not math inclined, they will take too long and kill, not promote, your desired result.

    I am obviously in the less rules = more fun camp. But one of my favorite gaming memories was what the players, now long separated by life, still refer to as “the battle of quails perch keep”. This was straight 3.5, and as epic as it gets. The battle lasted for roughly 8 hours, real time. We had so many minis out the gm had to use pennies. We were all totally engaged, the battle was genuinely engrossing, and we did everything “wrong”.

    It worked because the action flowed. Flow is the creator of the story. When info comes continually, it stimulates the imagination into creating scenes. If its through “6 damage”, or what, the mind will fill the gaps. The numbers can be more meaningful than people think.

    This is not an opening to just report numbers. One of the most boring gamed I’ve played was just a numbers report. But I also had no attachment to that game, and there was nothing pulling me in. No narration of anything.

    The number one thing any game needs will always be a good story. Rules like this slow the storytelling down. Likewise, artificial mandates can constrict.

    The length of a round is not a minute or 6 seconds. Its as long as it needs to be.

    I hope this wasn’t too confrontational. This approach just really doesn’t work for me. I’ve always narrated the action myself, which seems to work well. The system was just a guidepost informing my descriptions. So it almost doesn’t matter what those rules are.

    • Less rules = more fun is fine, but without prompts, I’ve often fallen into the habit of just narrating the swing, not a minute of action.

      Flowing action is the key–that’s what a good fight needs. If you can encourage it–and build up good habits to prevent cutting down on narration as hour three, four, or six sets in, then you’re doing very well.

      Don’t worry about confrontation–your response was great!

  7. Gah! Wheels spinning out of control!

    Okay, let’s suppose that each minute-long round is simultaneous. Also, let’s suppose that we want individual initiative to matter. And, for kicks, we want those grey dice to represent defense rolls.

    Everyone decides roughly what their strategies for the round are. Take your ten grey dice, replace with attack dice as above, and remove dice from the pool for movement and other non-attack actions. (We’ll assume that we’re using fairly abstract movement. I’m thinking FATE’s zone system.)

    Everybody roll initiative (or, y’know, keep the same initiative from round to round, if you prefer). The person with the lowest initiative rolls their ten dice, and lays them out in the order they want those dice to happen in each segment. The person with the next lowest initiative then lays their dice out in a parallel row, and so on up to the highest initiative. (Meaning that high initiative now reflects better tactical ability more than simple speed, because if you have a high initiative you can arrange your dice to take advantage of the arrangements of the slower people.)

    The GM then reads off each segment. If you are attacked on a segment in which you have a grey die allocated, you can add that die’s value to your defense, to represent some kind of active parry. If you don’t have a grey die, you default to some sort of “passive defense” value.

    This is going way off track from your original idea of just spacing out the action a bit, but I think it could be an awesome way to run combat. I’m already thinking of ways to incorporate weapon speed and casting times.

    • That’s where I was going, but was afraid to go too far down that dark path. I hope it’s useful to you!

      One alternative that came to mind was rolling 10 grey d20s each round, so that you have a defense number target that’s independent of your attack. Otherwise, you risk having matched color dice result in “wow I rolled high… but they rolled high, so… we both miss?”. Though, if you’re doing a detailed Eric vs. Corwin style fight, those misses could still be very dramatic, so maybe that’s a virtue instead of a problem. Hmm.

  8. All: If you’re just using the “grey dice” as spacers, there’s no reason they have to be d20s. You could have a set of d6s and just use their relative value to shape your narration (from 1=clumsy, but if they miss anyway, perhaps you executed a slow but good enough against chumps block, to 6=deflected their blow and drove your shield to their gut, setting up your counter). Fudge dice would be the most elemental version: – is not performing at your best, 0 is solid, performing at your skill level, while + is inspired or lucky.

    Everyone: Here’s a different spin on the question. How would you work specific prompts into a system to remind “weaker” roleplayers (like younger me) to make even misses exciting, and reflect a minute of activity, instead of sounding flat and looking pathetic?

  9. You’ve got quite a conundrum, and we could spend hours debating it.

    For me, it boils down to immersion. To get the players into it, reward their descriptions and make sure you lead from the front. Be descriptive, and reward your NPCs for descriptive actions, and point out that they can get the rewards as well. (Rewards can be more than just bonuses.)

    The martial arts geek in me would like to point out that a good Filipino knife or barong fighter can get in more than six cuts a second. Also, didn’t a guy with an axe hold off a small army at Stamford Bridge? ( 😉

    Just read your last comment. To put it into the system (say, Savage Worlds), each encounter, a descriptive enough attack will result in an additional d6 to be applied to either the attack or damage.

  10. For me, it boils down to immersion. To get the players into it, reward their descriptions and make sure you lead from the front. Be descriptive, and reward your NPCs for descriptive actions, and point out that they can get the rewards as well. (Rewards can be more than just bonuses.)
    I think this is a bad idea. You want the players to describe because it’s fun, not because they get a reward. Rewards creates a will to do something for the reward and just the reward.

    And can the players describe something in a really bad way and not be given the reward? That sucks because of two things. One, the players start to describe things like you want it to be described and not how they want to describe. Two, players who are unsure in the beginning to take the spotlight and describe something is pressed down even further.

    Basic psychology.

    I would recommend to instead create a game system where the player have to describe the action to create a connection between the game mechanics and the fiction. Lets say you roll a die. Why? We don’t know. What skill did you use? Lock pick? Why? To pick a door. Ok, so we successfully picked a locked door.

    That’s how a game system should work if you want the players to describe their own actions. Why did you make the roll? Describe it!

    • I don’t think we’re fully connecting here.

      Rewards can get you to try something you’re unsure of, as any parent can tell you. (“Try the slide, and I’ll let you have a cookie after dinner.”) If it’s fun, then they’ll learn that it’s fun without the reward; my daughter doesn’t need a cookie every time she uses the slide.

      Some folks don’t like being descriptive (like one of my players…), but with some coaxing and a few rewards, he’s doing much better. There’s no right or wrong way to describe an action; anything is better than “I hit a 12 for 10 damage.” The additional d6 is just for when the player really wants it to be cinematic.

      Also, not every action needs a description. It’s hard to put too much spin on a rifle shot from the prone position. 😉

      • Rewards can get you to try something you’re unsure of, as any parent can tell you. (“Try the slide, and I’ll let you have a cookie after dinner.”) If it’s fun, then they’ll learn that it’s fun without the reward; my daughter doesn’t need a cookie every time she uses the slide.
        Lets say a boy is practising how to play on his fathers old guitar. The parents notices this and buys him a new guitar or some guitar lessons. That’s a reward that acknowledge what the boy does. That gives a positive feedback on something that he really like doing.

        Lets say instead that the parents instead give the boy two weeks to learn a song so he can play it on his grandmother’s birthday. If he do that, he will get a new guitar or perhaps some guitar lessons.

        In the second example, someone else controls what the boy should do. Someone else is trying to bribe the boy into do what they want. And if the boy learns the song, it’s not because he wanted to do it, but he did it for the reward itself.

        Also, not every action needs a description. It’s hard to put too much spin on a rifle shot from the prone position.
        I’ve been playing action RPGs with totally random people for several years at conventions, and they don’t just lay prone and shoot at people. Trust me. They describe every action vividly (in their own limits, of course). They do this because I got structures like in the last post (descriptions must be made to create a connection between the mechanics and the fictive world) and the first post (creative challenges). I could talk more about this if you’re interested. Perhaps even in it’s own article.

        Giving rewards to make the players act in a certain way, may it be describing or anything else, creates something artificial. The player who’s hesitant to describe doesn’t do it because it’s fun to describe. They do it mostly for the reward. To read about this effect, check out The Overjustification Effect. Scroll down to “In 1973, Lepper, Greene and Nisbett met with teachers of a preschool class,” if you don’t want to read the whole article. :)

        • Interesting article. I see where you’re coming from, but I don’t think an occasional reward for something that makes the game fun for everyone is going to take all the flavor out of it.

          Of course, the latter part of the article you linked describes a situation where reward does create intrinsic validation, but only if it is because of how well the actor did (as opposed to just because he did it). In other words, saying “Nice description, take a +2 for it” when it was indeed a nice description is a positive.

          RE: Prone. Many games mechanically reward being prone (smaller target), and not moving during shooting. So does reality. But then again, it was just an example of how sometimes, there’s not much to describe.

  11. I think what you’re really running into is the unbelievable nature of combat in D&D. One minute is a very, very long time in a fight.

    Try this: Take a replica weapon (or something roughly sword-shaped that weighs a couple of pounds), go somewhere open (and devoid of anything you could accidentally hit, like small people) and try swinging it around for a bit. Get your whole body into it; jump forward and back, dodge sideways, swing, stab, spin, whatever. Do it fast, like you would expect to do in a real fight. See how long it takes before you’re out of breath. Being in shape helps, but the reality is that the fast-twitch muscle you need to strike and block quickly also gets tired quickly. Slow-twitch muscle is good for long distance running but not for fighting. You ever notice how out-of-breath and clumsy boxers get after a couple of rounds?

    Now 6 seconds is more believable (even for axes, as Randite pointed out; if it takes you 6 seconds to make a swing and recover then you’ll have been stabbed to death by the guy with the short sword after the first attack) but once you start adding in all the possible attacks and parries from feats and whatnot, it begins to break down.

    I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with the unrealistic nature of it — this is D&D after all — but I don’t think trying to make it more realistic should really be the point. I think the point should be about how to make it more epic and exciting, realism be dammed. Accept it and make it work for you.

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