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How Many Rounds of Combat Are Ideal?

by Mike on 2 October 2023

The answer? Don't worry about it.

Ok, you probably want more advice than that.

Recently Hayley M., a Patreon of Sly Flourish asked:

Combat encounter length: It depends, of course, but do you or your players have a base expectation of how many rounds feels too few or too many for a main story-related fight? You often talk about buffing hit points on monsters and villains, is that because you expect them to last a minimum number of rounds?

I don't know if there's a base expectation. I think many DMs and players expect the answer of roughly "three" – maybe more for big story-moving fights like boss battles.

Like many aspects of the game, I tend not to think about how many rounds a battle should go. Like Gandalf, I think a battle should end precisely when it means to.

As Hayley says, it depends. You don't want a battle with two bandits outside of a hideout to take three rounds. That encounter can be over in the same amount of time it'd take you to roll initiative. You also don't want your massive three-phase pinnacle boss battle to be over in three rounds. Climactic multi-phase battles might go six or nine rounds.

I don't think it's useful to worry about how many rounds combat takes. Instead, I think it's better to focus on the feeling, the pacing, and the beats of your game. Keep your hands on the dials. Know when monsters have overstayed their welcome and turn that hit point dial to 1. Don't just "call it right here."

GMs tend to worry too much about aspects of the game that really don't matter to the fun and story of the game. The number of combat encounters per long rest, the exact details of encounter balance or combat difficulty, or how the characters might bypass an encounter we intend for combat – these details aren't the critical criteria for a great session. They build a desired but often stale structure around an otherwise free-flowing game.

Ignore things like the ideal number of rounds and focus on building interesting situations for the characters to explore however they choose. Maybe a battle takes half a round. Maybe it takes nine rounds over an entire session of the game.

The real question is:

Are you and your players having fun?

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