It's wintertime, and thoughts turn towards gaming (or at least mine do). While most of my gaming these days revolves around games suitable for playing with a four-year old, I've also been thinking a bit about my current (if sporadic) D&D and Gamma World games. As my players know, I've been a bit unhappy with my games for a while now, though I haven't exactly been able to put my finger on why I've been unhappy. My most common complaint sums up as "the combats are too long", but thinking it over, I don't think that's quite right. It isn't that the combats are too long in an objective sense -- it's that the combats are too long by the metics I want to apply to role-playing game combats.
What do I mean by this? As I've always run RPGs, combat serves one of two purposes. In an exploration/sandbox type game, combat is essentially a random or quasi-random act of violence that reinforces the danger surrounding the area being explored. Think of the classic "Keep on the Borderlands" - why does combat occur in this setting? It occurs because the characters are wandering through a complex of caves inhabited by hostile creatures. Or two of my other favorites - "The Lost City" and "The Isle of Dread". Both of these involve the characters exploring a dangerous area - a lost tomb and a "lost world" island full of dinosaurs. Combat in these scenarios is essential to the settings - the environments are dangerous places full of all kinds of hostile threats - without the combats you don't really have an adventure.
I said that in my experience combat served one of two purposes. The second purpose is the narrative purpose. In this situation, every combat is part of the plot. There is no "random violence" unless the plot requires there to be "random violence" -- and then the combat isn't random, just staged to emphasize that random violence is occurring around the characters. In just about every non-D&D game I've ever run or played, this is the model of combat I've used. Most of my experience in this area is probably with Torg, where the staged encounter was baked into the rules, but Call of Cthulhu, Marvel Superheroes, Star Frontiers, World of Darkness - basically anything I've ever run outside of D&D falls into this paradigm.
The problem that I've been sensing as "combat runs too long" is, I think, a problem with the framework I'm expecting from my role-playing games. In an exploratory game, where combat is about underscoring how dangerous the world is, quick combats are the rule because the point is to have the short adrenaline rush of danger and then get back to exploration. In a narrative game, where the combat is about advancing the plot, the duration of the combat is going to be driven by the need of the narrative. Short quick combats are used to punctuate narrative points, longer combats when reaching the climax of the narrative. And yeah, I'll admit that I'm probably prejudiced in this by my exposure to Torg as one of my first non-D&D, more narrative focused RPGs. Baked into the Torg system was the idea that there were "standard" encounters and "dramatic" encounters. Standard encounters were quick and punchy and of minimal threat to the characters - they might take some damage, but characters were unlikely to die in a standard encounter unless they were stupid or very unlucky. Dramatic encounters favored the villains, tended to be more drawn out, and were more likely to result in death or severe injury to a character.
But regardless, I think that narrows down why I find the current model of D&D unsatisfying - in either its 3rd or 4th edition. There is no fine grain distinction between combat modes in D&D except via the "level" of the encounter. All combats in 3e and 4e are essentially dramatic combats - fights to the death between equally matched opponents. If you lower the encounter level you can, in theory, get something like a Torg "standard" combat (where the PCs have an advantage) but in practice what you get is a combat where the PCs have an advantage but it STILL takes an hour for them to whittle the hit points of the villains down to the point of death or surrender.
So this points to how I probably need to solve this problem - a change in my expectations for what an adventure "should" be. My players all insist that they like the D&D 4e game system - they are all really enjoying the tactical combat - so shifting to a different game system is not really an option. What's more, our limited schedule of games means that my preferred kind of narrative style game (full of long-running mysteries and conspiracies behind the action) is out anyway - nobody can ever remember what happened last session, let alone what happened several sessions ago, when you only play once every 2 or 3 months. So I need to shift my expectations. For the near term, I'm going to shift to more "delve" style adventures. My players enjoy the tactical combat, so why not just give them some combat encounters linked together by narrative instead of coming up with a branching narrative and using that to dictate what combat encounters might happen? I'm basically thinking of "bad action movie" sort of plotting - the kind of thing I complain about when I see it in a movie (see the "Tomb Raider" movies for a classic example). But I think this might work for the "beer and pretzels" role playing game that my gaming sessions have become.
Whatever it is, I've got to do something different. Because as much as I enjoy hanging out with everyone on game days, I'm not really enjoying the games I've been running and something needs to change.