On Reader Mail: What's wrong with the Action Economy?

I write in this post: "the action economy sucks"

I'm curious if you have more about this elsewhere, and/or care to elaborate. I (effectively) grew up on 3.X, so I've never know anything but Full, Standard, Move, Swift, etc.

I think it has very much to do with how you play at the table.

The long and short of it is, it is massively powerful and easy to unbalance. 

Currently, me and my friends, we play for four to six hours, once a week.

In that time we spend between 30 to 60 minutes in combat. They fight maybe five to eight different groups of opponents. Occasionally we'll have a much longer fight, up to thirty or forty minutes once every six weeks for a major fight, spending about 90 minutes of our four to six hour session in combat.

A fighter that cuts down an extra few opponents or a wizard with the occasional extra action from time stop makes very little difference. Your build, your skill at combat, how much you can accomplish in a round makes very little difference to your peers, because it's more about how you manage your resources across six to eight encounters.

Now, when I played Pathfinder, the reverse was the case. There was a four hour session with 20 minutes of setup and one to three fights, lasting the remainder of the time. This also was a great time. I don't like running games like this, but playing in them is plenty fun.

The problem with the action economy is that it is trivial to gain extra actions. Rod of quicken spell? Yes please! Animal companion? Don't mind if I do! Give up a single move action in addition to my standard to gain extra turns? That's tops! Familiars and mounts? Why not!

This isn't even getting into psion/swordmage/timestop/prestige class nonsense where characters can just straight out get extra standard actions every round.

In the basic core classes, you have ways to allow players to dominate table time of the primary action the table is expected to engage in. If you're spending four hours in combat, and my druid starts every combat by attacking and summoning, then I get three turns every round (Familiar, summon, and fighting spellcaster) - well, what the heck is that? If you build a game engine that expects and rewards game long fights, then allowing people extra turns; creates situations where there are explicit easy ways to gain an unreasonable advantage in combat.

An additional point, this is an issue with large single opponents. How do you build a balanced encounter with a single opponent when your four person party outputs 120 points of damage in a round? They only get one standard action, right? Or you're cheating to prep the opponent for the party. The character/monster equality was very harmful to the action economy in 3e in that way. I believe this problem is addressed in 4e, and anyone attacking a 1e dragon (He breaths, tail swipes, claws to his left, and buffets with his wings. . .) knows that it isn't a problem.

So I hope this addresses your question about why the action economy is less than a functional system.

Thanks for asking the question! I love to hear comments and read e-mails by readers. Feel free to write me at valis 'at symbol' oook 'dot' cz


  1. Your issue appears to be not so much with the existence of the action economy per se, but rather with 3e lack of control or even recognition of this fundamental mechanism.

    4e manages the action economy much more closely.

    1. Yes.

      I think there are few things more distasteful in life as the fifteenth minute of someones turn as they pour over their options on what to do with their minor action.

      Giving everyone 4 turns, and letting them look for ways to fill them is no solution.

    2. I agree that 4e swapped one type of complexity for another. It drove me just as crazy to wait while someone adds up slowly and wrongly the 6 different bonuses on their 3 iterative attacks.

      I haven't experienced such waits as you in 4e. People here usually err on the side of failure to take advantage of minor actions.

  2. Sounds easy to fix this to me. Simply have summons controlled by the DM, including the Familiar. This mimicks the independent minds that these beings have. The player can use a free action to bark an order at one of them, but the rest is up to them. They are not remote controlled cars, after all.

    1. I don't know how easy a fix this is for the DM. My understanding is this is how it is supposed to work, and DM's just end up letting players handle it because they have so much on their plate.

    2. In addition to adding complexity to the DM's job (something the DM really doesn't need most of the time), running familiars, companions and such as NPCs has at least one other big pitfall: You quickly run into situations where (regardless of what choice you make) it appears as if you are letting DM-only knowledge affect your decision making for someone's companion or familiar-- something that is never good for player/DM trust.

    3. Yeah, I have more then one memory of having a hue and cry rise up when I have a character/NPC/monster make a move that the players didn't understand.

  3. I've heard a lot of people talking about how people are spending forever deciding on their minor actions. This is not a flaw of the game. This is a flaw of the GM. You give people a little time and then if they haven't made a decision, you move on.

    Getting extra actions is a separate issue from the action economy. Extra actions have been done in lots of different game systems and they are always very powerful.

    I like the idea of a minor action. It's useful to be able to do things like open doors (unlocked, unstuck normal doors), draw weapons, etc. In my games, this is an endless stream of creativity.

    Though it's interesting to compare old school games where you spend 1 minute to attack and nothing else compared to a new school game where you move, attack and do something else in six seconds.

    1. I don't see why this needs to be so systematized though. D&D has always supported supplementary actions like dropping a weapon, opening a door, etc. I don't think those of us who are objecting to the action economy are objecting to those kinds of things. Rather, it is the minor actions that are more weighted with mechanical benefits. In 4E, for example, there are many powers that are minor actions. Healing being the major example, but there are plenty of examples for other classes. Here are a few such rogue minor action powers:

      - Quick fingers: pick pockets as a minor action
      - Foil the lock: open locks as a minor action
      - Hide in plain sight: treated as invisible if already hidden
      - Raise the stakes: crit range of 17 - 20
      - Hide from the light: like other hide above but better
      - Critical opportunity: free attack after a crit
      - Meditation of the blade: bigger die for dagger damage
      - Impossible to catch: another invisibility power

      That's just the rogue, and just in the Player's Handbook. All classes have similar minor action powers. And there are many, many more if you allow material from other sources.


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