The length of a D&D combat round changed when the 3rd edition was released. Does the length matter or is the length of a combat round trivial as long as it fits the narrative?
Shortly after the release of 3rd edition I played with my friends the Sunless Citadel, a great module recently re-released for 5th edition in Tales from the Yawning Portal. We created characters, assembled our party and ventured down to the Citadel after a short stop in Oakhurst. Before long we encountered a few giant rats and had a hard time killing the vermin, after all our characters were 1st level and we were still a bit stuck in the AD&D way of thinking.
After the encounter, I proposed that we’d rest, since my character was low on spells and the fighter had taken some damage. The dungeon master look at us bewildered: “Rest, you’re not tired. The fight only lasted 24 seconds!” We all stared shocked at the grinning DM behind his screen, and finally mumbled something that could be understood as a consent and trekked further down towards the Citadel. We had just discovered that D&D had changed more than we thought it had.
1 minute combat round
Until 3rd edition the combat round was considered 1 minute in D&D. This was explained so – every feint and parry needed to be taken into account and to make sure that spellcasters had time to duck and weave through the battlefield, find the right spell components and utter the verbal phrases needed to summon the energy to power their spells.
PHB AD&D 1st edition p. 104:
The 1 minute melee round assumes much activity – rushes, retreats, feints, parries, checks, and so on. Once during this period each combatant has the opportunity to get a real blow in.
Granted, in 1st AD&D edition every round could be divided into 10 segments, but that only applied to distance travelled.
PHB AD&D 2nd edition p. 91
A round is approximately one minute long. Ten combat rounds equal a turn (or put another way, a turn equals 10 minutes of game time).
This means that many spells in earlier editions of D&D had much longer in-game durations, combat took more in-game time and the system accounted for all the hazards and the chaos of combat.
The AD&D PHB has a pretty good explanation of how much more difficult it is too gulp down a potion of healing in the midst of a battle, than when your life is not threatened by a large, angry fire-breathing dragon.
Every character had a base action and actions that take negligible amount of time (see AD&D 2nd edition PHB p. 93), which included shouting a warning etc. What a base action included was a bit loose, since it could involve several lesser actions.
6 second combat round
In 3rd edition the 6 second round was introduced to D&D. Ever since the round has been that long and remains so in 5th edition.
PHB D&D 5E p. 189
A round represents about 6 seconds in the game world. During a round, each participant takes a turn.
Later editions also improved and clarified a whole lot better what you could accomplish or do in a round. You had your standard action, your move action and free/bonus actions (this in some editions could get a whole lot more complicated).
On the other hand, this also meant that spells lasted in many cases not as long in-game as before, i.e. duration could change from minutes to seconds. And all the chaos of combat, all the jabbing, feinting and parrying, was gone from the system, unless the DM took special time to describe it.
A high level fighter thus could make perhaps 30 attacks in a minute and even a mid-level spell caster could cast 10 spells in a minute. That, of course, meant that these characters moved with a lightning speed, finding spell components, uttering verbal components or studying opponent, parrying, feinting and finding openings in their defence.
Movement in minutes or seconds
In AD&D an unencumbered human could walk 360 feet (ca. 109 meters) in a minute, or 36 feet (ca. 11 meters) in 6 seconds. By jogging the human could double it’s move, triple it by running if it made a successful Strength check. This means that an unencumbered human could move 108 feet (32 meters) in 6 seconds. That’s 1080 feet in a minute.
In 3rd and 4th editions an unencumbered human can move 30 feet per round, run with full round action at 120 feet (36 meters) per round.
In 5th edition, you can move your base speed in 1 round or use the Dash action to move twice your speed. An unencumbered human can move 60 feet (ca. 18 meters) per round.
Dwarves and smaller races have lower movement rates, while larger races could have higher movement rates. This applies to both modern and older versions.
Some classes, such as the barbarian, had a higher movement rate in AD&D, and could move 450 feet (137 meters) in a round. A running barbarian moves 135 feet (41 meters) in 6 seconds. In later editions a human barbarian could run 160 feet (ca. 49 meters) with a full round action.
To put this in perspective, Usain Bolt’s world record in 100 meters is 9.58 seconds, which roughly means that in 6 seconds he ran 241.5 feet or 73.62 meters.
The round as a narrative tool
What if the round didn’t have a special temporal unit assigned to it? Would it matter? Would it change anything?
The round is a systematic measurement, for the DM to enforce some limits to PCs actions. It doesn’t really matter if the round is a minute, 15 seconds or 6 seconds. The numeric value is entirely arbitrary (for all intents and purposes). In fact, the round can be what you want it to be.
In 5th edition it would only affect spellcasting, since the casting time can be a Bonus action, 1 action, 1 minute, 10 minutes or 1 hour. But then again, how often does it happen that a spell caster decides in the midst of a heated battle to cast a spell that takes 10 rounds or even 100 rounds to cast?
As for the duration of spells, whether they last 6 rounds as in 36 seconds or 6 minutes, it’s all the same, after all, the main temporal unit is the round, not the length of it.
The round as a strategic tool
In the strategic games that 3rd and 4th edition combat situations are, the round is paramount and vital to portraying all aspects of the battle. These editions rely heavily upon the use of battle mats and models, in order to help players understand and make the right decisions in combat.
In older editions and 5th edition you have more leverage in using the mind’s eye and just describe the combat, as it plays out. The round, as a fixed temporal unit, isn’t as vital in these editions as in 3rd and 4th editions.
A round is just a round
Though the PHB states that the round has a fixed temporal unit to it, you can change it in your game. Does the 1 minute round, as explained in the AD&D 2nd edition PHB, make more sense to you? Then play the game like that. Does a 6 second round where the PCs can take a sprint action (move 4 times their move) sound plausible to you? Then play the game like that. Does it even matter? Can’t a round just be round, with no numeric value affixed to the amount of time that actually passes?
If you think that it takes a wizard more time than 6 seconds to dig out a bit of spider web from her pouch, place it under her tongue and utter the arcane syllables that power her spell while weaving her hands in intricate patterns through the air, then make it so.
If you think that it takes the fighter more than 6 seconds to drop his backpack, open it and dig out the healing potions, while making sure that the goblins shooting arrows don’t hit him, make it so.
If you think that it takes the rogue less than 1 minute to move full her speed away from the group and find a suitable hiding place, make it so.
If you think that firing 40 arrows or 10 crossbow bolts in a minute sound a bit absurd, change the length of the round. It’s your game.
If you think it’s more believable that a spell caster casts one spell per minute and not ten spells per minute, change the length of the round. If 20-30 attacks per minute is something that makes no sense to you, change the length of the round.
You are in control of your game and it applies to everything within it. If you want to make a house rule about rounds, movement, actions etc. do it. Just remember, to make sure that all your players are on-board, are fine with it and understand both why you’re making the change and how it works. Make sure that the length of the round has an all-around effect, i.e. durations and casting times of spells are also affected.