Welcome to the third installment of Everyman Gaming’s GM’s Guide articles. In this GM’s Guide, we’ll be talking about the application of the action economy to Pathfinder gaming.
Welcome to part two of Miniseries March! Today we’ll continue our look at the action economy with a focus on using the action economy to game better and provide more difficult challenges to our PCs. So without further adieu, the action economy: how can it be used to create a better gaming experience both for players and GMs.
Back in GM’s Guide 3, we defined the action economy as the production, distribution, or consumption of actions in a Pathfinder Roleplaying Game combat by PCs or NPCs on the battlefield. We discussed the ways actions are produced, distributed, and consumed in combat and we used mathematics to determine that in most boss encounters (an encounter fought against a single, powerful villain) the PCs hold the advantage despite any gulfs in CR because a villain effectively has 25% of a PC party’s action resources.
Altering the Economy
One of the notes that we ended on last week was the idea that a character cannot generate more actions for his use. Well, that isn’t entirely true. Although a character cannot produce more actions in the sense of gaining additional swift, move, or standard actions during a round, there are ways to effectively generate “free” actions throughout the course of a combat. In most cases, these abilities require the expenditure of actions in order to create additional actions, increasing the net number of actions that the PC has access to. These abilities vary and as we go through the list, you’ll likely notice that many of these abilities are considered powerful, desirable options for players and NPCs alike. Let’s take a look at see which abilities alter the action economy significantly.
- Charge: Did you expect the first ability that we’d talk about to be a default action in the game? When you take a charge action, you are permitted to move up to double your speed (a full-round action) and make an attack at the end of your movement (a standard action). In effect, charging generates one bonus standard action for your use with the restriction that your movement is in a straight line. There’s also the +2 on attack rolls/–2 to AC bit, but those adjustments effectively cancel each other out. Mathematically speaking, charging is an excellent option that is only made better by special abilities such as…
- Pounce: The very first ability that we’re going to talk about is by far one of the most powerful: pounce. Pounce is a universal monster ability that allows the character to make a full attack action at the end of a charge attack. As we noted, charging already provides an action economy bonus, but pounce allows characters to upgrade that free standard action into a full-attack action (a full-round action). If you charge with the pounce ability, you effectively end up with two additional actions during your turn; this is why players love looking for ways to grab this potent ability.
- Animal Companion/Mount/Eidolon: If you take the time to outfit your companion with abilities that supplement yours in a meaningful way, you basically double your actions during a round. This can be anything from an eidolon attacking while its summoner buffs his allies or an animal companion providing flanking and an additional full-attack action for its ranger or cavalier.
- Summon Monster/Summon Nature’s Ally: Because you can reasonably command creatures you summon, you effectively trade one round’s worth of actions casting the spell for additional actions on subsequent turns. Of course, the question is whether or not your creatures will survive long enough for those actions to matter.
- Combat Reflexes: In a way, every time your opponent provokes an attack of opportunity, you get a standard action (one attack) against them. For this reason, Combat Reflexes is extremely powerful if you can assure that you have a way to provoke attacks of opportunity from your opponent on your terms. Greater Bull Rush, Greater Overrun, and Greater Trip are all excellent examples of feats that, when combined with Combat Reflexes, will swing the action economy in your favor.
- Have Friend, Will Battle: Although it might seem obvious, many GMs forget that the easiest way to generate actions for the villain is to make sure that the villain doesn’t fight the challenge alone. Having allies strong enough to weather an attack or two from the PCs will go a long way towards swinging the action economy out of the PCs’ favor. This is one reason I did not recommend massive single-enemy boss monsters when planning CR +4 encounters back in GM’s Guide 2; even at CR +4, the players have the action economy in their corner as an advantage. Truly challenging encounters usually involve multiple combatants on both sides of the engagement as described in the Linear Guild scenarios or soul-crushingly difficult boss monsters such as a balor vs. a APL 16 party or Great Cthulhu versus an APL 25 party.
Cheating the Action Economy
As you can see, there aren’t many ways to generation additional actions in the game; the options are few enough that I felt warranted in making a blanket, “none” generalization in Action Economics 101. That said, you can (and should) make the action economy work for you. The true “game” behind the action economy isn’t generating more actions from yourself, but denying actions from your enemies. Here’s a sample scenario for you to enjoy:
Kyr’shin Yilenzo is battling a Cyclops alone; his allies have all fallen unconscious and are slowly bleeding out. Kyr’shin has taken a few hits before and he knows from experience that one good blow from the cylcops could knock him unconscious, so he buckles down and relies on his Greater Trip and Combat Reflexes feat to keep the Cyclops on his bottom while subsequently making multiple attacks against it. It is a hard-fought battle that takes longer than a standard DPS barrage, but the Cylcops goes down with minimal damage done to Kyr’shin.
In the true story above, Kyr’shin relied on tripping his opponent to deny it the opportunity to effectively utilize its actions in combat. The cylcops needed to stand up from prone in order to remove the –4 penalty to AC it was suffering from being prone and effectively attack Kyr’shin. Kyr’shin, on the other hand, received an attack of opportunity against the Cyclops when it fell prone and when it tried to stand back up, causing the tactic to net Kyr’shin two standard actions and cost the Cyclops one move action (the action required to stand up).
The first major way that characters deny actions from one another is through the affliction of conditions. The following conditions deny actions from characters in some way, shape, or form.
- The confused condition has a anywhere from a 50% to 75% chance to deny the target his actions for the turn depending upon his placement on the battlefield.
- The dazed, cowering, paralyzed, petrified, and stunned conditions flat-out deny the target of his actions for the turn. Some of these conditions has something that makes it additionally nasty: for example, a stunned creature drops all held items, requiring it to spend a move action to pick up its weapon if it dropped one while a cowering creature is denied its Dexterity bonus to AC with an additional –2 penalty on top of it.
- The entangled and exhausted conditions prevent the target from charging (which we know is one of the few ways to generate additional actions during a combat) and the entangled condition can flat-out deny movement if the source f the entangled condition is anchored to something.
- The frightened and panicked condition forces your target to spend its actions acting in a specific, generally unhelpful manner (running directly away from combat) and in the case of panicked, the target drops its weapon and must spend an additional move action picking it up.
- The grappled and pinned conditions make certain actions difficult unless the grappled creature uses a standard action to try and escape, which wastes the action.
- The nauseated condition denies the target its swift action and its standard action as well as any move actions that would require concentration.
- While the prone condition does not deny the target any actions, it makes attacking extremely difficult and gives melee attacks a bonus to hit the prone target. Removing the condition requires most creatures to waste their move action for the turn and provokes attacks of opportunity, which effectively grants a standard action to nearby creatures.
- The staggered condition forces the target to lose either his standard action or his move action each turn.
Generally speaking, its easier for spellcasters to use conditions against opponents than martial characters, but some notable choices for martials on this list are grappled and pinned, prone, dazed (with Dazing Assault at high levels) and stunned (with Stunning Assault at high levels). Furthermore, a high-level monk can inflict many of these conditions onto opponents using the Stunning Fist feat. But this isn’t the only way to swing the action economy in your favor: we haven’t even looked at the martial’s best friend, combat maneuvers!
- Dirty Trick: Dirty trick can be used to inflict the entangled condition onto your opponents, which denies or reduces the effectiveness of move actions. Furthermore, if your opponent tries to remove the condition early they waste a move action doing so (or a standard action if the martial character has Greater Dirty Trick).
- Disarm: Disarming your opponent of his weapon will often force that opponent to spend a move action to pick it up. Doing so provokes an attack of opportunity, so this combat maneuver can effectively net a martial two actions over his opponent.
- Grapple: See the notes on the grapple and pinned conditions above.
- Trip: The trip condition is the master of knocking people prone. Like disarm, your opponent provokes an attack of opportunity from you if it tries to undo the condition. Unlike disarm, trip can net you a whopping three actions if you take Greater Trip and have Combat Reflexes; you get two attacks of opportunity in all plus your opponent needs to stand up from prone to undo the condition’s penalties.
Although not for PCs, the final way to cheat the action economy is through the use of environmental conditions, namely difficult terrain. Difficult terrain cuts the effectiveness of movement in half and prevents the charge action; its like being entangled, but the two conditions stack. Note that difficult terrain isn’t difficult to overcome, but it is important enough that we’ll be spending more than one GM’s Guide talking about terrain in the future.
Action Economy in Encounter Design
So we’ve discussed and defined the action economy and talked about ways players and GMs can work the action economy to suit their needs. But this is a GM’s Guide article first and foremost, so you’re probably wondering, “What does all of this information mean for me, the GM?”
Simply put, when you are designing and running encounters, be mindful of how your NPCs use their actions. Here are some general tips to utilize action economy against your players. Do what you can to come up with scenarios where your PCs aren’t able to pull off full attacks or high-powered damage strikes against your characters whenever they please. Deny them actions in any way you can; generally speaking, it is easier to hit a PC with a combat maneuver than a spell that targets their best saving throw. Take a preference for abilities that target CMD or require opposed skill checks over saving throws; players often focus on increase their AC and saving throws but neglect the nasty things you can do to them through feinting or demoralizing.
That about wraps up my 100-level series on the Action Economy. I want to talk more about the action economy in the future, but there isn’t a whole lot of specific advice I can give without knowing exactly what sort of advice my readers are looking for. What sort of questions do you have about the action economy? What topic would you like to see elaborated on in the future? Do you have any stories about how you’ve used the action economy against your PCs? Leave your comments and questions below and I’ll see you next week for a new installment of the GM’s Guide!
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 fighter (lore warden), and his favorite pastime is tripping all of the Cyclops. Yes, all of them. ALL. OF. THEM.