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With level 10 and higher PCs, a lone Dungeons and Dragons 3.5 or Pathfinder combat encounter can take a long time, but I haven't heard if the same is true in Dungeons and Dragons 5E.

Does a 5E upper-level combat encounter take just as long and require the same amount of planning and forethought as an upper-level 3.5 or Pathfinder combat encounter?

Below are some specifics that interest me.

  1. Does 5E's smaller number of modifiers speed play significantly?
  2. Does 5E's pre-combat buff management take a long time? That is, can players of upper-level characters more quickly pick their spells and effects than in 3.5 or Pathfinder?
  3. Does 5E's theater-of-the-mind combat style end at-the-table arguments or encourage them when upper-level effects are used?
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Here's One Player/DM's Experience

For the DM, 5e is much, much easier to manage and the combat flows much faster than 3.5e. High-powered monsters have much simpler mechanics and strategies, and yet they still "feel" powerful and interesting - thanks largely to the "legendary actions". Thanks to the simple advantage/disadvantage mechanic there are fewer rulings to make and its much easier to answer the fundamental question of combat: Did I hit? Hit points and damage levels are generally well-balanced, so a 15th level combat doesn't take all that much longer than a 3rd level combat with a similar number of figures. That said, high-level combat in other systems can be brutally short due to save-or-die mechanics, which are nearly absent in 5e.

For the player, preparation for spellcasters takes roughly as much time as in other editions, depending on the particular class. But I find that there is one huge difference, and that is that in 5e getting the preparation right is much less important. A player doesn't have to obsess over getting just the right set of spells for their caster to be effective. You can pick up a blank character sheet and draw up a 15th-level wizard in the minutes before the game, pick out spells based on how you like the names, and your character will still, more likely than not, have a successful adventure.

In my experience, the theater-of-the-mind style can work both ways. At times it can slow things down as players pepper the DM with questions. On the flip side, it eliminates fussing over things like how precise can an area-effect spell be figured. Whether it is a plus or minus for you will really depend on your group.

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    \$\begingroup\$ "high-level combat in other systems can be brutally short due to save-or-die mechanics", or just from the amount of DPR that is possible in, e.g., dnd-3.5 (the effect known as Rocket Tag). \$\endgroup\$ – user23715 Apr 14 '16 at 19:31
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Does a 5E upper-level combat encounter take just as long and require the same amount of planning and forethought as an upper-level 3.5 or Pathfinder combat encounter?

No. Based on my experience of running multiple sessions of 5e it requires significantly less prep than 3.5 or Pathfinder. If I had to peg it precisely I would say it is between preparing a high level OD&D encounter and a high level AD&D 1st encounter. D&D 5e has options, and in some case more options than AD&D 1st, but it is far better organized.

Does 5E's smaller number of modifiers speed play significantly? Kind of. Where Advantage and Disadvantage has the greatest effect is on the players. They grasp it more intuitively than any other system of modifiers I have seen in 30 years of playing.

Does 5E's pre-combat buff management take a long time? That is, can players of upper-level characters more quickly pick their spells and effects than in 3.5 or Pathfinder?

Concentration means there's one thing going up and staying up. So it is a lot less headache involved. Spell casting involves casting from a list of prepared (or known) spells through X slots -- there is less messing around with getting the right spells memorized.

Does 5E's theater-of-the-mind combat style end at-the-table arguments or encourage them when upper-level effects are used?

Like classic edition, 5e is miniatures agnostic. It works well either way. Because of this it is no better or no worse than other RPGs that rely on theater of the mind. It depends on the ability of the group to clearly and effectively communicate and describe what going on.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ This answer coincides with my own experiences involving various editions. +1 \$\endgroup\$ – KorvinStarmast Apr 15 '16 at 12:04
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I should note - I am speaking mostly from experience, and attempting to back up as much of this as possible with RAW notes.

TLDR; Yes, 5e should be shorter.

From practical experience, I find the planning that goes into the fights is generally fairly simple. Typically a party will answer the obvious questions about their role (who will attack the mages, defend the low health casters, and flank* for advantage). This is all you have to do in 5e to do well in most encounters. That being said, I think where the majority of the time-saving comes from is the simplification of the RAW. For example, advantage/disadvantage. Having a quick system to say yes or no, or simple rules to follow makes it go by quickly, with very little planning in terms of attempting to get it.

  • Advantage/Disadvantage makes the rounds quick by simplifying the system.
  • Proficiency bonus as a whole increases the game speed, since its a constant number based on your character level.
  • I'll update with more examples as they come up.

* Our games use the optional flanking rules from the DMG.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ It's not too important to your answer, but flanking is an optional rule in the 5e DMG -- it may never come into play for some 5e players. \$\endgroup\$ – LegendaryDude Apr 14 '16 at 15:04
  • \$\begingroup\$ Good point - I added a slight addendum to that point to mention that it was optional. \$\endgroup\$ – Sh4d0wsPlyr Apr 14 '16 at 15:34
  • \$\begingroup\$ I'm not sure that makes it more clear -- Advantage/Disadvantage is clearly part of the core rules. Specifically, the rules regarding flanking are optional and are what I was referring to. Also, on point two: proficiency is not based on class level, it is based on character level. \$\endgroup\$ – LegendaryDude Apr 14 '16 at 15:36
  • \$\begingroup\$ I put a footnote on the mention of flanking that just says you've been using the optional flanking rules, which should resolve that concern. \$\endgroup\$ – SevenSidedDie Apr 14 '16 at 17:18
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    \$\begingroup\$ Proficiency is based on character level not class level. I made that correction. \$\endgroup\$ – KorvinStarmast Apr 15 '16 at 12:06
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I have played and DMed both Pathfinder and 5e, here are some quick takeaways one question at a time.

Does 5E's smaller number of modifiers speed play significantly?

Yes, most characters basically need 7 numbers to operate. The game requires you to memorize about 3 more numbers.

  • 6 stat modifiers
  • 1 proficiency bonus
  • the number 10 (base AC)
  • the number 8 (base save modifier)
  • Concentration Check => MAX(10, half-damage) vs CON save

Most numbers in the game are Stat + Proficiency Bonus or Stat + Proficiency Bonus + Base. This makes it trivial to re-calculate a number on the fly.

If you compare this to something like calculating "AC" in 3.5/PF, it's night and day. I need HeroLab to keep this all straight for my 11th level Psychic Warrior.

Does 5E's pre-combat buff management take a long time? That is, can players of upper-level characters more quickly pick their spells and effects than in 3.5 or Pathfinder?

"Hey Pathfinders, we're at the last room in the dungeon, this is clearly the BBEG, everybody ready?..."

This is inevitably following by the opening of spell books and ordering of appropriate spells by duration: Resist Energy, then Death Ward, then Protection from Evil, then Bless, then Enlarge Person(s), Bull's Endurance, then finally Haste as the party is ready to charge into the room... at this point the character sheets have scribbles everywhere and each action is followed by "did you remember your bonus from Haste and Bless?".

In 5e the total spell selection is significantly reduced and Concentration really limits the active buff/debuff effects. Bless & Haste and whatever the Bard is doing. Plus, Bardic Inspiration and Bless actually provide a "die" as a bonus, so it's really easy to just hand the person a die and say "you are blessed/inspired" and it's much easier to remember.

The 5e spells are also relatively more valuable. Between "scaling" of spells, less spell slots and flat DCs, your early spell slots do not become "useless" in the way they do in PF. People aren't running around lobbing buffs every combat because most buffs require Concentration, they get fired off one at time. Combat Cantrips are still used at higher levels.

Does 5E's theater-of-the-mind combat style end at-the-table arguments or encourage them when upper-level effects are used?

Really no difference here. I typically use minis for precision, but that's neither faster nor slower between editions.

Other stuff is faster too...

Monsters are much simpler in 5e.

Many high level PF Monsters actually have a selection of Feats on top of their written abilities which can lead to lots of back and forth between books. Some PF monsters are more powerful specifically because of feats like Great Cleave or Improved Bull Rush. But if you're not paying attention, it's really easy to miss this and play the monster wrong.

For example, take the Great Wyrm Red Dragon. It has 16 feats. Many of the feats are "built-in" to things like Saves and Attacks, however a few of them are actually quite relevant and not "built-in".

  • Improved Iron Will: re-roll a Will save once per day!
  • Cleave: which actually seems irrelevant.
  • Quicken Spell: obviously a big deal given the number of spells this thing has.

In 5e most of this complexity is gone. An Ancient Red Dragon is still insanely dangerous but only has about 10 things to keep track of in combat. The Legendary Resistance and Legendary Actions also make it far more reasonable to run against a party because it can actually get 4 actions spread across a turn.

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