Friday, January 27, 2017

Understanding Action Economy (And Why You Need It)

"Why Gilbert, you seem nearly apoplectic," Silke said, idly stacking his coins. "Surely a worldly man like you knows that gods and dice never cheat?"

"There's only one thing around here that's cheating," Gilbert snarled, leaping to his feet.

Before Gilbert could so much as reach for his blade, though, Silke had let fly. The dagger sank deep into Gilbert's chest. Its mate joined it with a sound like an ax thunking into a tree stump. Gilbert's fingers went slack, and his eyes rolled into his head. He crashed to the floor, death rattling in his throat.

"Worldly men also know dice may betray you," Silke said, tossing a gold piece onto the body before retrieving his blades. "But steel will ever be by your side."

A lot of the time the victor in an RPG is decided by who has the biggest stats, or who went first in a given encounter. Sometimes it's all about who got which spell off, or who made what saves. But a major factor in any game is something called action economy, which is a fancy way of talking about how much stuff your character can do in a given round. It isn't something we always think about, but it is something players need to understand if they want to exercise all of their options.

Understanding Action Economy

Every game has it's own version, but since I'm most familiar with Pathfinder, that's the basis I'll use for explanation.

Now, in Pathfinder, you have a certain number and type of actions you can take in a given round. You have a standard action, a move action, and a single swift or immediate action (swifts take place on your turn, immediate actions tend to happen when it isn't your turn, acting as a kind of interrupt). You also have the option of taking a single, full-round action (such as a full attack) instead of the usual standard and move combination. Lastly, as long as you don't move from the square you're standing in, you can take a single, 5-foot step at any point during your turn. Even if it's in the middle of your action, or when taking a readied action.

All right... I'm following so far.
Generally speaking, most rounds are pretty samey. You will either reposition yourself using your move action, and then use a standard action to make an attack, cast a spell, etc., or you'll take a full attack action on whatever big nasty is getting in your face. Sometimes you'll take a full round action to cast a spell whose effects will start on your next turn. However, action economy allows you to do more, thus getting more bang for your buck.

For example, let's look at drawing a weapon. Most of the time you're in a dangerous situation, you're going to have your weapon in your hand, but let's say you're walking the city streets, or just riding through the forest. Are you seriously walking around with bared steel? Of course not. However, that means that when you are attacked, you need to take a move action to draw your weapon.

This is a huge pain in the ass, especially if you're a mid-level character, because if you need to spend a move action to pull your sword it means you can only attack with it once. Alternatively, if you'd had it in your hand, you could take two, or even three, attacks with a full-round action. Maybe more, if you're a two-weapon fighter. It also means you can't charge, which is also considered a full round action.

However, there are ways around this. For example, if you have the Quick Draw feat, you can draw an unconcealed weapon as a free action, which means you can pull steel, and then take all the attacks you could get with a full round action. Alternatively, if you have a base attack bonus of at least +1, you can draw a weapon as part of a move action (or as part of a charge). So if you have to walk up to your target, you can pull out your weapon at no cost. Or if you have a spring-loaded wrist sheathe, you can draw a small weapon as a swift action, which is ideal for knife fighters and backstabbers.

It's All About Getting Your Costs Down

Action economy exists as a way to make certain actions more difficult. You can only cast one spell in a round, you only get one attack of opportunity, you can only take either a move or a standard action during the surprise round, etc., etc. The key is to look at the sort of action you're going to be taking most often, and then get the most bang for your buck out of it.

Put another way, how fast can you rack that slide?
Let's look at conjurers, for example. While there are a lot of spells under conjuration, most of the time these spellcasters are associated with summoning creatures to help them, and the party. After all, everyone loves having reinforcements. The problem is that summoning spells are full-round actions, so they take a while to get off, and there's always going to be a delay.

Unless you can find a way to cut it down.

For example, if you have an aura class feature (typically associated with clerics), then you could take Sacred Summons. This allows you to summon monsters whose alignment matches yours as a standard action, rather than a full-round one. Acadamae Graduate is a feat that is open to prepared arcane casters at level one, and it allows them to reduce the time of a summoning conjuration spell by one round, to a minimum of a standard action. Doing so is taxing, and the caster must make a Fortitude save to resist becoming fatigued. And, of course, there's the ever-popular Quicken Spell metamagic feat, which allows you to cast any spell up to a full-round action as a swift action. This is a popular way for high-level casters to cast multiple spells in a single turn.

These kinds of challenges to economy are quite common. An alchemist who specializes in bombs can only throw one per turn, unless they take the Fast Bombs discovery, which can turn them into a death blossom by letting them throw bombs at their regular rate of attack as part of a full-attack action. A character who specializes with a crossbow needs to be able to reload just as fast as they can shoot, taking feats like Crossbow Mastery to reload any crossbow as a free action, or using a repeating crossbow so there's a whole clip of ammunition to go through. The key is to find what you need, and to cut down on how long it takes you to do it.

A Few More Action Economy Tips

I've peppered this post with several tips to boost your economy, but I've got a few more that I'm a particular fan of. A lot of them are very class/build specific though, so keep that in mind before you embrace them too hard.

Economy is up, enemy victory down.
One of my personal favorite combinations uses the bandit rogue archetype. At 4th level it replaces Uncanny Dodge, and instead it states that you get a full round of actions when you can act during the surprise round. If you combine that with a class that gives you the power to always act in the surprise round, like the sohei monk archetype, or a diviner, then you have just netted yourself a free, full turn to do with what you will. And if you have a particularly high initiative score, you might even go before the bad guys do.

For those who love alchemical weapons, the fact that you can't quick draw them is a big drawback once you have more than one attack in a full-attack action. However, if you invest in the underground chemist rogue archetype you can quick draw them. Even better, you can get your sneak attack with splash weapons (under particular circumstances) which might make this an even more appealing route. Even if you're just dipping for something like an alchemist/rogue.

Additionally, never underestimate the usefulness of your attacks of opportunity. While very few players will take Combat Reflexes, unless they're using a reach weapon, it can make certain abilities significantly more powerful. A swashbuckler, for example, uses attacks of opportunity to make parries. That ability becomes significantly more powerful when he can try to parry 4 or 5 attacks in a round, instead of just one. The barbarian rage power Come and Get Me means your enemies get a bonus to attack you, but for every attack that comes your way, you get an attack of opportunity. And, lest you forget, attacks of opportunity are resolved first. So if you cold-cock your opponent, or use your AOO to trip them, then you've put them at a significant disadvantage.

I covered several other unique strategies in How To Make Your Attacks of Opportunity More Effective (In Pathfinder), if you're interested in other tricks.

At the end of the day, though, the key to action economy is to accomplish your tasks with the fewest number of actions possible. Sometimes it's easy... but sometimes you need to get clever.

That's all for this week's Crunch topic. Hopefully you all enjoyed, and I've given you some material to chew over. If you want to help support Improved Initiative, check out The Literary Mercenary's Patreon page. All it takes is $1 a month to earn some sweet swag, and my everlasting gratitude. Lastly, if you haven't followed me on Facebook, Tumblr, or Twitter yet, what's stopping you?


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. You can draw a weapon while charging if your BAB is +1 or greater.

    Movement During a Charge: You must move before your attack, not after. You must move at least 10 feet (2 squares) and may move up to double your speed directly toward the designated opponent. If you move a distance equal to your speed or less, you can also draw a weapon during a charge attack if your base attack bonus is at least +1.

  3. To break it down further, D&D, Pathfinder, and all their clones, essentially are using a low-resolution action point system. You essentially have 2AP per turn to spend - a full round action takes 2AP, while a move or standard action takes 1AP, hence why you can perform two move actions in a turn if you don't use a standard action for instance.

    So long as you have an action point system, you have an action economy as you put it - some actions will be faster or slower than others. Even at the very low resolution setting of only 2AP to work with, this still is a fairly immutable fact. If there is any difference at all, if actions even CAN ever take more or less than the same time, then you're guaranteed for there to be a difference between them, otherwise there wouldn't even be a point behind having the mechanic in the first place.

    The bigger issue is that by having a very low resolution (think of it like the resolution on a monitor or a TV), you can't go into finer detail over how valuable an action is. If we were to make a tiny change to Pathfinder, as your example, changing it from a 2AP system to a 4AP system, this doubles the resolution we have to work with, allowing for more fine-tuned specific details.

    Where previously, going from a 2AP action (full round) to a 1AP action (standard action) meant literally cutting the AP cost in half, which's a rather large difference when you think about it, you could instead have a full round action require 4AP, and standard actions requiring 2AP, swift actions 1AP. In such a manner, you open up a lot of new possibilities, such as being able to squeeze in a swift action with a full round action in a way that makes sense by reducing the full round action to 3AP from 4AP. This gives it stages of quality, where reducing the cost a little isn't inherently going to massively break the game's balance. You can also make your first swift action cost 0AP in a turn, but others still cost 1AP apiece, allowing for a character to perform up to 5 swift actions, but still only do 1 standard, 1 move, 1 swift as exists now.

    As you increase the resolution, you can see finer differences between the actions, but it also means individual pixels, in this case pixels being slivers of time, matter less on a per-unit basis. If we upped it further, all the way to an 8AP system, we get more fine-tuned nuance available again, but it starts getting difficult to keep track of the cost of actions, and we start needing to make sure there are small actions that can be used for when you reduce a full round action from 8AP to 7AP, because now you have 1AP left over. You might want a variety of options at that point. A "move" action, for example, may not be a full 4AP anymore, but rather you can move 1 square for 1AP, allowing for more control by the players. Essentially, the 5-foot step comes into play as a reasonable action instead of having to mess with 0AP moves.

    (Rawr, to be continued due to character limit.)


    1. Sure, you start being able to make more nuanced decisions, where the power of an ability is able to be more strictly balanced. Reloading a crossbow now takes 2AP. A standard action 3AP. You could fire twice and reload, yay! But that also makes it harder to balance actions as well. If you were to give a feat that allowed a character +1 AP total per turn... suddenly they now have 9 AP total, they could use 3 standard actions per turn. Or a full round action and reload, or two standard actions and three movement actions at 1AP apiece. This grows actually harder to balance in that you no longer know exactly what a character will do, and even small increases, like that seemingly insignificant +1AP out of a 8AP total, added a whole extra attack possible per turn.

      By keeping a low resolution, you can more easily balance the power in terms of how much fits into 1AP, but you also get stuck with a harder time making up for actions that really aren't sufficient to fit into 1AP. This's why you get stuck with characters being able to move absurdly large distances in D&D and Pathfinder - they can't reduce their movement any further and still have it be worth 1AP. If the resolution were greater, it'd be more reasonable to adjust movement speeds as a whole, but it'd also make it more of a nuisance to control variations in such as well.

      Anyway, I guess the point I'm trying to make, is that your action economy exists as an Action Point system. Higher resolutions allow for greater nuance and control, but can also be more unwieldy to balance. You get more control over balancing individual actions, but that can make it harder to balance multiple actions in a turn. It's something to keep in mind when designing your own system.