Amazing Stories has an interview with Mike Mearls talking about D&D Next. From one of Mike’s comments it seems that WOTC has finally learned what many players have know for years: Most players like fast combats. In the interview, Mike says:
What we found through the playtest process, though, was that people like quick fights. They like them a lot, it turns out. A battle is part of the game, a point of resolution in the grander scheme of things, not the entire point of the game. That kind of philosophical revelation has been really big for us in working on the game. We might’ve ended up spending weeks adding detail to the combat system, never realizing that the typical D&D player simply wasn’t interested in that level of detail.
I’m not sure how the designers of 3.x and 4e ever came to the conclusion that most D&D players want combats that take 45 minutes or more. That was always one of the features of TSR D&D, combats were abstract and fast (unless playing with optional rules like those in the 2e Player’s Option books). Short combats mean that there is more time in a session for non-combat activities like exploration and make it possible to have character classes that are not good in combat without their players getting bored every time a combat takes place. Gary Gygax even wrote about this in an article “The Melee in D&D” in The Dragon #24 (April 1979):
The game is one of adventure, though, and combats of protected nature (several hours minimum of six or more player characters are considered involved against one or more opponents each) are undesirable, as the majority of participants are most definitely not miniature battle game enthusiasts….
Obviously, much of the excitement and action is not found in melee….
As melee combat is so common an occurrence during the course of each adventure, brevity, equitability, and options must be carefully balanced…
It reflects actual combat reasonably, for weaponry, armor (protection and speed and magical factors), skill level, and allows for a limited amount of choice as to attacking or defending. It does not require participants to keep track of more than a minimal amount of information, it is quite fast, and it does not place undue burden upon the Dungeon Master. It allows those involved in combat to opt to retire if they are taking too much damage — although this does not necessarily guarantee that they will succeed or that the opponents will not strike a telling blow prior to such retreat….
The only thing I can think of to explain the long combats in 3.x and 4e is that either the designers really liked combat or they were designing the games like they were computer RPGs where combat is 90% or more of the game (at least in most computer rpgs). I’m just glad they seem to have discovered that many — if not most — D&D players really prefer short combats. I just how this will be reflected in the final version of D&D Next. Because it it does not feature short combats that do not require a lot of work on the part of the players and the GM, I know many people will pass on it. Yes, those who want and enjoy long, detailed encounters that are tactical challenges will probably object loudly, but WOTC needs to satisfy the typical player if D&D Next is to have much chance of real success, even if the typical player is seldom heard from in online forums.