Mike Mearls talks about the concept of a one-hour D&D game in his latest Legends & Lore post. The goal here isn't to boil all D&D games down to 1-hour, but rather to benchmark what you can actually do in an hour. No doubt inspired by his lunchtime D&D sessions, Mearls envisions a game in which you can get in a role-playing encounter, a few quick encounters with traps and/or enemies, and a boss fight.
It sounds excellent to me. I've been running my own lunchtime game for the last year and a half, and the sort of things that Mike talks about are exactly the sort of things I like to do in my game. Of course, I'm doing it with Savage Worlds, which lends itself to this sort of thing (particularly with one-hit minions) but I'd love to see a D&D game that's efficient and fast enough to take on this kind of challenge.
Extrapolating it out over a night of gaming, and you could have a 5-8 small combats and perhaps two or three "boss" fights. Rather than getting bogged down in combat, you'd be able to quickly advance the story. That should make players and game masters happy, and even if game play slows down at higher levels -- say 2 combats an hour instead of 4 -- that's still better than what we have with high level 3.x or 4.x D&D.
I think the big question, particularly for diehard D&D 3.x and 4.x fans, is this: is D&D still D&D when it runs this fast? What do you lose in order to accomplish this feat? I have friends who still long for the weapon speed-based initiatives of D&D 2nd Edition's Player's Option books. I have others who love 4E's interrupt-driven style of combat, where people are constantly engaged because they have the potential to act on every segment. I don't know how either group would respond to a combat so fast that it's over in 5-10 minutes.
For me, I think the answer is "yes" ... as long as your combat options at the table still feel "D&Dish". To me that means having a good mix of combat, skill, and magic capabilities. I don't think those options need to be as extensive as what you see in 3.x, 4.x or Pathfinder, but players need to feel like they aren't boxed in by what they can't do.
I like the implications of faster game play. If small fights can be fast, than it stands to reason that big fights can still be pretty quick. That's not something we see much off in D&D, but it's a staple of Savage Worlds. It changes the kinds of stories you can tell -- suddenly you can have the PCs facing off against a small horde of orcs.
It may also mean that you can introduce things like meaningful sidekicks. They can be problematic in regular D&D, which already has to content with innumerable player abilities, but in a fast-playing verison of D&D, you could have the plucky squire swing a sword, and still have the game move at a rapid pace.
I also like the idea of being able to launch directly into a combat to kick off a Sunday night game without having it bog down the night's session. I also like the idea of being able to have a series of running fights, Three Musketeers-style, with fights punctating the narrative.
I know not everyone will like this fast and furious approach to combat -- some like to have the full breadth of options, no matter what impact it has on game play. For me it's the sort of move that could lure me back to the game.