At-Will wrote a good piece on the speed of 4E combat. Since I had an upcoming piece on the same topic I figured I’d put it up now rather than later.
One of the problems with 4E combat speed is also one of its greatest strengths in a game system. 4E is one of the best systems for allowing the combat field to change as it progresses. A lot can change since the last time you had your turn. This is a good thing. It provides for dynamic and engaging fights.
If a fight is predicable and a slug fest as the two sides trade blows, that can quickly become mind numbing. Not only for that encounter but over the life (however, short it may be) of the campaign. In the previous editions, and other game systems, the new and exciting parts come from such things as magic items or unique monsters. And this was less about how the monsters affected the combat field, but rather the unexpected actions they could take. Once you knew the “secret attack” it went back to the old slug fest of exchanging hit points.
In earlier editions, if it wasn’t your turn there was no reason to pay attention. In 4E there are a lot of reasons to pay attention when it is not your turn. The playing field is constantly changing and so are a player’s reactions to them. Right up until it is your turn to act, things will be changing. It keeps things engaging and stimulating.
This is also part of the problem. You can not plan out your moves ahead of time. If a player were able to plan ahead it would speed up combat, but its not possible if things keep changing. That plan you had in mind, the follow-up to your last attack, it has all changed in the intervening turns. A player has to decide at the time of his turn what he is doing that turn. This slows things down. As At-Will pointed out, all the options available to a player can bog things down, especially if you don’t know what you need to accomplish (hit point damage, control, defensive actions, etc) until the exact time it is your turn to act. If a player were able to plan ahead it would speed up combats.
However, I like this. It keeps things exciting throughout a fight, as opposed to just on your turn. Sure, we could remove or reduce some of the options the players have. We could remove a player’s and monster’s ability to move things around, to change the playing field. But, I don’t want to go that route. I like the fact things are ever-changing, and I’m willing to suffer slowed down combat to get that level of dynamic combat.