If you’ve ever run a game where your ultimate villain got annihilated in two rounds because they were simply overwhelmed by the PCs before they could really do much of anything, then you’ve experienced being on the losing end of the Action Economy in, well… action. Simply put, more actions per round means you get more done, or you accomplish a goal in a shorter span of time. Whatever the objective, “more actions” tends to equate to more success – or at least more chances for success. And so, as the GM it falls to you to manage the Action Economy, as it can have large consequences on the game.
For simplicity’s sake, I’ll be sticking to D&D terminology for my examples in this article, but obviously this issue is larger than any one game system.
Even the smallest of events can be affected by Action Economy. Consider something as minor as a Perception check. The GM calls for a player to roll the check and almost inevitably other players will want to make it as well – particularly if Lug the Barbarian has low ranks in the skill or doesn’t roll a success. “I was looking around too! Can’t I roll?”, “What about me? I’m not sitting around doing nothing.”, “My check is a 25! What do I see?”.
Now, maybe it doesn’t matter if everyone makes the check; But maybe it does. The point is, the players are seeking to get more chances at success by putting more rolls toward the objective. They aren’t concerning themselves with WHY only Lug was called to make the roll. They merely want to spot whatever there is to be spotted, or avoid whatever there is to be avoided. If one roll isn’t good enough, then the party needs more, and they’ll fight to get them if they can.
In this sort of lesser scenario, managing things is pretty easy, and really comes down to the specific circumstances surrounding the situation. If you called on Lug to make the check because he was first in the marching order, letting the others roll and try to see the goblin hiding up around the bend as well isn’t too game breaking. If on the other hand, you called on Lug to make the roll because he just stepped on the pressure plate underneath the carpet, he’s really the only one with a chance to notice before he lifts his foot and sets the trap off.
Generally however, combat scenarios are where Action Economy plays the biggest roll, and it is here that you must keep a closer eye on things. The classic example of the lone boss against the party of players highlights this very well. Unless the boss is extraordinarily powerful in relation to the PCs, or has the means to prevent the party from getting their full complement of actions, Action Economy will just about win the battle on its own in many cases. If the party has 5 players, then for every action the boss takes, 5 are being taken against them.
The methods by which you can combat this problem are many, but each has the potential to alter the game in their own way. Adding in minions to help the lone boss for example alleviates the issue of Action Economy by forcing the party to divide their efforts, but changes the overall feel of the battle. No longer is your boss the solo powerhouse, he’s a master of minions at the center of the swarm. If you add in additional items to give the boss new or more capabilities instead, then you have to be ready for the players to gain those items once the boss is defeated – which could potentially alter the power scale of the game.
How you manage the Action Economy of such an encounter can steer the game in directions you had not originally anticipated, or impact the experience of some or all of the players. Suppose you decide to reduce the number of effective actions taken against the boss by making them immune to magic. Suddenly, your players running spell casting characters are all-but nullified and cannot contribute much to the outcome of the battle – if anything at all.
Scaling is another area that should be kept in mind when thinking about Action Economy. If the party normally consists of 5 players and 2 are absent, you can’t exactly run the encounters as originally planned. The same holds true in the other direction as well. If the party is normally 4 players and 3 friends come into town for the weekend and want to play, you need to be able to scale the encounters to match the new party composition.
While this sounds easy enough on the surface, you could end up with odd situations that damage the credibility of the setting or the suspension of disbelief. Taking the 4 man group made 7 for example. Suppose they are to battle large size hill giants who have taken over a human castle. Simply doubling the number of enemies can lead to some pretty silly situations, as you try to jam all of those giants into the rooms and corridors of the castle.
In such a case, you would be staying fairly close on number of actions per side while still scaling the encounter, but at the cost of the players chuckling at the notion of 6 giants stuffed into a 20 foot by 20 foot room. Realistically, it’s probably better to consider other alternatives rather than turn the game into a crazy funhouse.
Ultimately, each GM will need to manage the Action Economy of their game in their own way, while keeping in mind the players, the setting, game balance and the feel of the game as a whole. As far as myself, I like to (at least for D&D style games) utilize extra attacks of opportunity, add a mixture of extra opponents and a few more class levels, and sneak in fifth edition legendary actions (even when I’m not playing 5th ed). How about you? What sort of tricks do you use? Any horror stories to share?