Time Dilation – Important things happen on your turn

Yesterday during the latest Castle of Horrors GURPS session I got to experience, first-hand, the exact situation that makes some people run screaming from GURPS – or any game in which your turn is broken down into a very small segment in time.

Almost certainly, +Mark Langsdorf of No School Grognard will throw up a session summary.

Ultimately, though, what happened (so far as I can tell) was this: we set up camp after last session (which I missed) in the middle of the outer courtyard, under one of the castle’s 60′ tall walls. We set a watch and other useful things. The session opened with us getting attacked from the air by a bunch of one-to-two foot tall leprechauns who were rightfully pissed off that we’d stolen their pot of gold.

They attacked us with fire. Alchemists fire. After achieving near-perfect surprise.

The session basically went like this:

  • A period of time where it was all we could do to not die in flames
  • A (short) period of time where things were basically even, as they were nearly out of fire and spells/charms, but not entirely
  • A period of time where, for whatever reason, the tiny flying guys decided to attack our half-troll (ogre? something huge and nasty with thick skin) and could not do anything of value at all, meanwhile we were assured that nearly any hit was a fatality with us firing 7d6 firearms or shotguns loaded with buckshot at them.
  • At some point, the GM noted that the tide had turned, and it was just a matter of ammo expenditure to mop up the numerous but weak remaining foes. This is the third or fourth (third, I think) fight that has been ended this way.
However, and here was the problem, this manifested itself as my character, in the span of two hours, doing roughly the following:
  • Wake up and shout an alarm
  • Get set on fire
  • Roll on the ground and burn
  • Roll on the ground and burn
  • Roll on the ground and burn a little, and make a DX roll to put flames out (successfully)
  • Aim (it took about 90 minutes to this point)
  • Shoot
  • Aim
  • Shoot
+Kevin Smyth, one of the players, offered up that games with fast turns (like GURPS) can really be done well if you’re just whipping through options, calling them out, rapid fire.
This is exactly true. I’ve also never, not once, seen it happen. I bet +Peter V. Dell’Orto could pull it off, since he runs a pretty bare-bones DF game. But mostly, there’s a LOT of tactical chatter, option selection, and it takes players and the GM alike a while to resolve each turn. In fact, it seems to take as long to resolve each turn in this game as any other game I play. Mostly inlcuding D&D5, but the tendency for that game to default to “I hit the bad guy twice with my sword” for a lot of the group means that the game with the longer turns (in seconds of game time) tends to play pretty fast. 
I noted this before where in a S&W game we did 8 combats in three hours.
You can’t even complain that we were going that slowly in the GURPS combat above. There are five players and the GM, who was controlling at least seven adversaries (three flying bombers and four on the wall, I think). At fifteen minutes per cycle around the room, that’s about two minutes per player. Since we have some strict rules about chat and cross-talk and open mics, and a lot of what we’re doing we have to type into MapTool, that’s not awful.
Nonetheless, to spend fifteen minutes so I can stop, drop, and roll again (it takes three Ready maneuvers and a DX roll to extinguish oneself) is frustrating. It can easily be seen even among the patient as a player might suggest that in one second he can pull out a fire extinguisher while rolling out of the back of a tent while aiming his gun at a bad guy. The GM would then say (rightfully) “pick one.”
OK, I exaggerate a bit for effect, but if  you wait fifteen minutes for your turn, you want to accomplish something. 
I need to think more about this for my own games. A five or ten second clock on decision and resolution might be a way to go here. Having a queue or dual-pane thing going where you can pre-script your action during downtime might be another way to go. Because honestly, the “time dilation” effect where how much you want to do on your turn depends on how long you have to wait for your turn has been cropping up quite a bit, and not just in GURPS.
But ultimately, last night felt very frustrating for me in terms of useful and fun action per time spent, and since I’ve played other games, and GURPS games where it didn’t feel quite like that, finding concrete ways to deal with this issue seems key as both a GM and player
How have other people dealt with this when it comes up?

16 thoughts on “Time Dilation – Important things happen on your turn

  1. I added the shot clock to my game. My players trended towards dithering and indecision, searching for the perfect action rather than doing something in the now.

    In some cases I had to enforce a books-down order while the player was doing a research project on the rules instead of, well, playing.

  2. Actually, to my great frustration, I can't do that. You need two things:

    – stripped down rules or people who strip down their own options

    – Players who are willing to make quick decisions that are definitely a good choice instead of weighing their options until they've made the absolute best choice as they see it.

    There is clearly a combination of issues preventing me from doing this, as our Gamma Terra game (which uses GURPS Action range bands, no maps, and the GM rolls damage for everyone and secretly tracks HP) runs very quickly. The only difference in that game in personnel is I'm a player, not the GM. So it's clearly a combination of both my rules choices (as light as they are) and my own GMing. Maybe when my players have guns doing 6d or more their choices are more clear (shoot it!) but that doesn't explain the great speed difference to my satisfaction.

    If you, as a player, insist on doing the best thing instead of quickly choosing what's a pretty good option, you have to expect that combats will be slower and the game will be more about second-to-second decisions made in tactical slow-motion. If you want the game to move quickly, you have to settle for "good enough" and be willing to bet your character on that.

    Generally I find that most people choose the same options with "good enough" as will "optimal choice" within a very close approximation. They may choose a slightly different facing with optimal, or choose a different hex to move to, or choose a slightly different level of Deceptive Attack, but otherwise they just do the same thing.

    As a player, I try to decide very quickly (generally, I know this turn what I want to do next turn, I just can't do all of that yet) and try to encourage the same. As the GM, that's harder, because people don't want to be pressured into a decision by the guy running the bad guys and then get killed "because" of that bad decision.

  3. Combat is hectic and furious. The player has about 3 seconds (this is actually generous given the real time-pressure of the situation) to ask a question or declare an action – if not, they lose their action to "indecision" (this usually means they take a default 'parry' or defensive move that reflects the fact that they are unoccupied and fully ready to deal with any threats that target them, but don't have the presence of mind to launch their own counter-attack).

    Note: this doesn't just make combat faster – it makes combat SCARIER. Which is a good thing. If the player's are feeling the same trembling fear the characters probably are, then all is as it should be.

  4. Even in games like our Mystara GURPS game, where we have never really had much dallying going on, and folks tend to quickly make decisions, there's periods where you can get to feeling like you'll never do anything fun. "Let me cast this spell, that'll take 3 seconds, then aim for three more to offset the crazy range penalties, and… oh, the combat's over?"

    It's a steep price for that level of granularity.

  5. In my Saturday group, I've used per-turn screenshots in Fantasy Grounds to track turn times after-the-fact, and even when things are humming, it can still take forever. It's not unique to GURPS, but it does suffer more often for it.

    In at least one instance (the Banestorm game) we had a couple of combat-guys—with lots of skills and techniques— and what we ended up doing was to make some pre-arranged maneuvers we could slap down on the fly. These combat-guys were usually the fastest turn-cycles of the group, because they were always ready to go.

  6. I've got some ideas on this that are not totally formed yet, but I do think the shot clock is a good idea. Since GURPS is a 1 second round, taking minutes to decide what to do breaks the suspension of disbelief in a way. My gut reaction would be 3-5 seconds to decide, otherwise all-out-defend. If you read The Angry GM (interesting and funny angles, highly egotistical in a humorous way), he's asking people to declare the second he asks them what they do, or they wait/defend. It DOES make combat scarier and more realistic, I think having a few trademark moves is important, for melee and spell casting. It's not easy, but it takes some getting used to. Also worth thinking about: everyone declare at the start of the round, and MAYBE allow minor adjustments if things happen (enemy moves out of reach) that would change it. One interesting effect in Gamma Terra is how we sometimes end up shooting a dead enemy, because it's all happening so quickly and we all declared in advance; it's happening simultaneously or near-simultaneously. Makes sense, like when you read about police or military firing well after the threat is neutralized.

  7. I've used preparation and props to a decent degree of success especially when combined with a shot-clock

    Its the same basic way Rolemaster is made to work, you have everything ready in advance so math slow players don't need to whip out a calculator to figure out how much to allocate.

    The GURPS example someone playing a sword and board guy will right down his differing maneuvers, degrees of defense vs attack, aimed locations etc either on a sheet or on index cards, When his spot in the initiative comes he gets a five to tend second count to declare and roll. If the declaration isn't made they default to one of evaluate or all out defense

    The GM of course does the same thing for NPC's

    What this does is creates a fast action flow in combat

    Imagine say 4 Dungeon Fantasy type PC's vs 4 Orcs all weapons ready — PC's go on say 7,6.5 ,6.25 and 6 Orcs on 5

    The GM has a sheet with the Orcs moves and of course each player has a sheet and some extra dice or a counter borrowed from magic to track fatigue and the like

    DM — The Orcs approach #1 its your move hits clock

    #1 looks at sheet, throw a knife (counts hexes or estimates) umm I need an 11 – rolls a 9 – hit does 3 moves counter by 1

    GM looks at sheet — sees DR3 armor — doesn't bother to roll since no HP can be done The orc grunts , no effect

    GM #2 your turn #2 hits clock

    #2 Umm- time runs out

    GM — your on all out defense

    GM #3 Your turn hist clock

    #3 I cast fireball 1 turn — rolls 3d6 vs 15 skills — success! I throw the fireball skill 12 – 2 for range, a 10 I hit

    GM The Orc blocks with his shield fails and the fireball erupts — roll damage!

    Player #3 I roll 15!

    GM The orc is on fire , rolls HT succeeds he drops and rolls , well done.. Groans from players

    GM #4 your move hits clock

    #4 I Evaluate

    And on to the orcs

    If you use separate dice or counters for tracking they are easier to keep track of and faster to deploy as well and done right you should be able to get through a fight in a few minutes.

    However you have to be prepared and pretty ruthless about it and kind of adding to what Vic said, players who don't think on their feet will end up with incomplete moves, errors in targets and hesitation . Realistic ? Yep This can be a bit deprotaginizing in some genres

    Also I would suggest that that advantages of course need to be taken into account . Combat reflexes ought to grant more time on the clock as should thinks like altered time rate and enhanced time sense and the like. You might even go as far as to give people a multiple of time equal to the highest combat skill as a base. Half skill if you want fast , full skill if reasonable

    Do that and say a skill 15 fighter can get his round over in 45 seconds so if you are 6th in rannk, the wait time is maybe 4 minutes.

  8. I think it's tough to plan ahead well, especially for new players. That orc you were planning on shooting with the fireball you charged for 3 seconds, and aimed for 2 seconds, now dead with an arrow in his eye socket? What do I do now? Disperse it, throw it at the lich-king, at great range and probably miss, keep it and step? I'm not sure how to promote fast play, even though it should be, and usually is, obvious to everyone at the table that it's valuable to get action time. I'm going to push people to plan ahead, and then try to help if there's a legitimate tactical question. But I don't think there's value to timing it.

    1. It is tough to plan ahead but that's a feature not a bug. If the players aren't given as much time to think as they'd like than they'll learn to make snap decisions which can be a real way to have fun things happen in play.

      Back in the old school days there was a play style where players made the choices in many areas, not the rules. If for example someone was searching for traps, they didn't roll Traps or Perception skill but instead actually described what he was doing. This had some advantages in terms of making for a more clever play base and I'd like to bring that into GURPS.

  9. For ranged combat, I decided recently to try to write a simple Javascript web-app to manage all the modifiers—essentially a dynamic checklist of conditions that outputs a total modifier (and in this case, I intend to output the modifier in a format that Fantasy Grounds can use). Trying to sort out ranged modifiers is one of those things that slows us down without pre-preparing. For a sniper character of mine, I plotted out several range/target/aim-time entries so I could, at a glance, decide if a shot was doable or not, without having to do any calculations on the fly.

  10. The most important thing is that the GM moves quickly. If the GM is taking excessive time to plan his minions' moves, and he has a bunch of them, that really bogs things down. If the GM moves fast, that both solves half the problem, and serves as a proper example for the players. "I moved 7 guys in 20 seconds; why does it take you so long to move one?" If it's a pre-planned encounter, then the GM already knows his forces and opponents and terrain before the session starts, so he should pre-plan their tactics to the degree needed for instant decisions.

    The GM has the power to make the game move quickly. Just inform the players that turns are one second, and if they don't decide quickly, they pass. Then enforce it. Reasonable grace period, then "3…2…1…You pass." Once or twice should be enough to get the players to plan their moves on other people's turns.

    That said, the more PCs you have the harder it is to keep things moving, and online is harder than face to face. So 5 PCs online is inherently difficult.

    1. As the GM, it isn't always easy to pre-plan the tactics. You can plan ahead, but then the PCs do something weird or the planned actions aren't worth while, so you start having to think. And while the players have 15 minutes to think about what to do until it's their turn again, the GM is constantly having to answer questions and make defenses for Team Evil and it's hard to re-plan on the fly.

      I had a good idea at the start of this fight, and then ganking the biggest foe seemed like a good idea. But it turns out that even stabbing a troll in the heart doesn't work if he has DR 5 and your weapons only do 1d-4, so then I had to decide what to do next. And while I'm doing that, I have to decide if I'm using my resources effectively and how much Deceptive Attack should I be using and maybe I should try some Rapid Strikes and how many Destiny Points should I reserve for defense and … suddenly, my turns aren't taking two minutes, they're taking 5 minutes of thought and desperate typing and I'm not setting the example anymore.

  11. As others have said, from the player's perspective, having a good general idea of what you're going to do is key. I try to have my action ready to go at least two people ahead of time; that is, with a turn order of GM > Steve > Gary > Mark > Shane > Me, I want to know what I'm going to do by the start of Mark's turn, and have all the system questions for it worked out BEFORE my turn comes up.

    I can't always do that, obviously; sometimes the battlefield is shifting too quickly for that approach. In those cases, I settle for (As Mr. Dell'Orto says) 'anything that seems like a good choice' rather than 'the best possible'.

    As an aside, that encounter probably should've killed us. The GM pulled his punches after realizing his ambush was too good. 😉

    1. I've started to keep an alternate window open to have the text of my MapTool action already in place. I tried to have this done in the main window for a while, but too frequently had to nix it out due to getting ganked or something. This is where the auto-generators that can be used with D&D games can come in handy – hitting the ATTACK button in Roll20 does what you need it to do. Y'all have written some nice custom macros to do similar things, though it's a bit more hit and miss, since "hit him with my mace" is the extent of detail in a lot of D&D, while GURPS requires a tetch more fine-tuning.

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