Action Economics 101

Welcome to the third installment of Everyman Gaming’s GM’s Guide articles. In this GM’s Guide, we’ll be talking about the concept of action economy.

How often has this scenario happen to you? You designed an awesome boss encounter, built up the villain to your PCs, laid out your breadcrumbs, wove stories to get your PCs to truly despise the villain, and when the final encounter finally takes place … the PCs thrash him. They spank him so hard, he cries like a baby before bleeding out. Now, you’ll often hear that these are the encounters that PCs remember; one-sided smack downs on boss villains that leave nothing behind but gooey chunks, treasure, and a water cooler story. PCs love to talk about these sorts of victories, but you know what? Utter annihilation is not fun for the GM. Not when a gargantuan amount effort has gone into the villain. GMs want tough encounters. They want memorable encounters. They want encounters that make PCs sweat, encounters that are remembered as triumphs earned with blood and loss. And if they’re honest with themselves, PCs crave these sorts of encounters too. But at times, the dream of a truly epic boss battle seems utterly impossible to pull off. But what if I told you it isn’t?

For today’s topic, the action economy: what is it and why is it important?


Back in GM’s Guide 1, we talked about the inner workings of the Challenging Rating (CR) system. We recognized that a 0-HD creature’s CR is equal to its character level – 1 and learned that we can adjust a character’s CR to equal its unmodified character level simply by giving it access to PC-appropriate wealth. We also used mathematical calculation to prove that an encounter is not “fair” to both the PCs and their opponents unless the encounter’s CR is equal to the party’s combined CR (against a group of four PCs, its Average Party Level (APL) + 4). In GM’s Guide 2, we discussed the connection between XP rewards and CR and learned how to use XP sums as a benchmark for encounter design alongside CR. I also created a handy table that you can use as a reference tool for encounter design.

Judge a Man Not by His Words, but His Actions

You might have heard the term “action economy” before. Perhaps I’ve even unknowingly mentioned this mythical beast in earlier installments of the GM’s Guide; you can bet that this concept will be appearing often in future installments. So, let’s get right down to business; what is the action economy? I’ll tell you this: it has absolutely nothing to do with your character’s net gp worth!

Many people would define an economy as an exchange of money. That’s a misconception. The definition of an economy is a system of production, distribution, or consumption of limited goods and services by agents in a given geographical location. Let’s dissect this definition and apply it to the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game.

  • The “system” in the action economy is combat, the heart of the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game. (Again, combat rules make up 90% of Paizo’s rulebook line; arguing that combat is not the heart of the game is futile.)
  • The “agents” who produce, distribute, or consume goods or services in the combat system are PCs, NPCs, and monsters.  The geographical location is the field of battle.
  • The “limited goods” being produced, distributed, or consumed are actions in combat. (Services are not applicable in the action economy.) 

In short, we can define the action economy as the production, distribution, or consumption of actions in a Pathfinder Roleplaying Game combat by PCs or NPCs on the battlefield. A definition like that almost makes you forget that you’re playing a game, eh?

Dissecting the Beast

Defining a system does little good unless you understand how it works, however. In a monetary economy, the production, distribution, or consumption of goods and services can be simplified to how people buy, trade, and sell goods and services. In the action economy, however, the “goods” are the actions that combatants take in combat, so let’s talk about how actions are produced, distributed, and consumed.

  • Produced: All combatants receive one turn during a round. At the start of its turn, a combatant receives three actions: a move action, a standard action, and a swift/immediate action.
  • Distributed: Combatants choose how to distribute their actions; it is an essential part of playing the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game. The system’s core actions are move actions and standard actions, which together account for most of the actions in the game. Move and standard actions can be spent independently of one another, such as moving 30 feet (a move action) and then making a melee attack (a standard action), or they can be spend together, such as making a double move, running, or making a full attack (a full-round action). The third type of action is swift/immediate actions. These are essentially the same; the swift/immediate tag simply tells the combatant when the action can be used. Swift actions are limited to the combatant’s turn while immediate actions can be used during any turn. Finally, free actions exist in the game, but typically they are actions that are not part of the action economy; combatants are allowed as many free actions during a round as the GM finds appropriate.
  • Consumption: Once an action is used, it is gone. The combatant cannot use that action against until the start of its next turn when it produces more actions. This is an excellent way to think of the swift/immediate action, which I often see confusing players. Once a swift action or an immediate action is used it is not refreshed until that combatant’s next turn, so if I use a swift action on my turn to cast a quickened spell, I cannot use any more swift actions until the start of my next turn, nor can I use any immediate actions during other combatants’ turns. Likewise, I can use an immediate action during my turn and if I did not use a swift action or an immediate action during my turn, I have the ability to make an immediate action during other combatants’ turns as well. At the start of a new turn, all expended actions are replenished, but unspent actions are not carried over to the new turn. 

Action Equality

We’ve defined action economy and looked at how it functions, so now comes the burning question: why should I care about this as a GM? Assume a traditional party of four (cleric, fighter, rogue, wizard) against a typical villain. We’ll even go as far to say that the encounter is a CR + 4 encounter in the villain’s favor. He’s a tough villain all right, and by virtue of the CR system, the two sides are balanced in this combat. Right? Wrong. The combat may be balanced in terms of resources, but the PCs have a huge advantage. Roughly a 4-to-1 advantage as a matter of fact. Why? Action economy. Let’s look at the following breakdown:

  • Cleric PC (3 actions): 1 swift/immediate, 1 move, 1 standard.
  • Fighter PC (3 actions): 1 swift/immediate, 1 move, 1 standard.
  • Rogue PC (3 actions): 1 swift/immediate, 1 move, 1 standard.
  • Wizard PC (3 actions): 1 swift/immediate, 1 move, 1 standard.
  • Villain NPC (3 actions): 1 swift/immediate, 1 move, 1 standard. 

Are you starting to see the problem? Even though the NPC’s CR equals the combined CR of the adventuring party, a whooping +4 above the character level of each PC (or +5 if said PC isn’t properly equipped), the NPC is at a huge disadvantage; let’s math this out even further.

  • Swift/Immediate Actions: PCs 4/Villain 1; Villain has 25% of party’s actions.
  • Move Actions: PCs 4/Villain 1; Villain has 25% of party’s actions.
  • Standard Actions: PCs 4/Villain 1; Villain has 25% of party’s actions. 

In all aspects of combat, the villain only gets to act one time for every four times that the party gets to act. Even if the villain’s attacks are as strong as all four party members’ attacks combined, its debuffs four times as debilitating, or its buffs four times as potent, the fact remembers that the villain can only use that ability once per round while the PC party gets to use its members’ attacks, spells, and special abilities multiple times in a single round. Going back to our economy references, think of the action economy as a bank. You have three friends, two of whom are married and share a joint account at the same bank. Each friend deposits $20 into his account each week: who is going to accumulate money faster? Without surprise, the answer is the married couple; even though each friend deposits the same amount, the married couple’s account is being fed by two separate entities; it is impossible for the single friend’s account to catch up without increasing the amount of money he deposits into his account each week. The problem is, in the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game, your villain can’t generate more actions for himself so he’s stuck lagging behind the PCs’ party.

Or is he? Next week, we’ll be talking more about the action economy and how PCs and GMs manipulate the action economy to suit their needs. Until then, how do you handle action inequality between your players and your villains? Do you design encounters with many members to beat the PCs at their own game? Do you use terrain to your advantage? Buffs and Debuffs? Leave your answers and comments below!

Alexander “Alex” Augunas has been playing roleplaying games since 2007, which isn’t nearly as long over 90% of his colleagues. Affectionately called a “budding game designer” by his partner at Radiance House, Alexander is the author of the Pact Magic Unbound series (Radiance House) and a handful of other Third-Party Products. Before founding the Everyman Gaming blog, Alexander gained notoriety for writing the GM’s Guide to Challenging Encounters, which remains accessible to this day. His favorite color is blue, his favorite Pathfinder Race/Class combination is kitsune rogue, and his favorite pastime is coming up with snazzy lingo to make his gaming profession sound more suave then it actually is.


6 thoughts on “Action Economics 101

  1. The issue of economy of actions isn’t limited to Pathfinder, naturally. It’s something that was addressed early on in the development of 4th-edition D&D, and they came up with an interesting way to handle it for creatures that are meant to be faced alone.
    In that system, solo creatures tend to have five times as many hit points as a normal creature of the same level, giving it the staying power of an entire encounter’s worth of critters. They also tend to have slightly higher defenses, making them last just a little bit longer.
    In addition, all of them have some way to break the usual rules for creatures. They might get more attacks with their one turn, or a responsive move that comes into play frequently. They might get something that affects the entire party, able to be used on a regular basis.
    Most importantly, however, all of these solo creatures have something that triggers one of their best attacks the instant they are reduced to half their hit points. This is triggered as soon as the attack is resolved, and almost always results in something that harms the entire group. In addition a lot of these creatures gain something that makes them just a bit tougher after reaching this point. They might gain a stronger attack, or more mobility, or tougher defenses. It’s a lot like the boss-fights in JRPGs, where the enemy ‘turns red’ and gets even harder to fight.
    In Pathfinder, action economy can be helped some by allowing major antagonists to break the rules a little. If the PCs have a unique advantage (such as Hero Points), give the villain the same benefit. Maybe allow the villain an extra move action, allowing him to move and take a full attack. If the villain is a spellcaster, he might have something that lets him cast one of his lower-level spells once a round without spending his turn.
    In any case, the players need to be told ahead of time that major opponents will get this sort of rule-bending as a way to keep them challenging. Players are a lot less likely to call foul if this is established as a rule, and it is made clear when such an opponent appears.

  2. Why would you have your primary villain face the party alone? One should be accompanied by bodyguards and lieutenants, while employing tactics which take advantage of the battlefield (which the villain should have ostensibly chosen). Of course they’re going to get gibbed.

    Lone foe combats should be limited to dragons (which are designed to take multiple actions) or monsters who are +4 CR greater than the party’s APL and optimized for either Attacks of Opportunity or multiple foes through mechanical or encounter design.

  3. In addition to what’s mentioned above, a solo boss can really benefit from layered defenses, particularly against spells like Suggestion, and also unusual attacks that bypass *typical* party defense measures and field tactics, since presumably the creature has thought about its foes over the years and survived. I say typical to not punish creative PCs. Finally I suggest creating some solo / boss templates for Pathfinder villains. Eg, the drow queen is a level 15 witch, or a level 13 witch with a +2 level boss template. Yeah, I level of spells is lost, but she will benefit more against a party.

  4. Another Great article
    Action Economy is so apparent in any RPG with major combats, and im sure you will go over what will help all GMs make the encounters more balanced for action economy.
    Everytime I think I have a boss and BBG that doesnt need any help they get their ass handed to them so I should learn my lesson.

  5. Excellent article
    Love the blog thus far, though I’ve got a bit of catching up to do to get current. I do have one issue, pathfinder rules state that “using an immediate action before your turn is equivalent to using your swift action for the coming turn” where as this article would have you believe that you could only use a immediate action if you hadn’t used a swift action on your previous turn. If I may make a suggestion, perhaps it is better to think of swift/immediate actions being ‘produced’ at the end of ones turn, as it would be more in line with the rules of pathfinder as they are written.

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