Sunday, May 26, 2019

The Action Economy is a Bad Concept

I was watching a video on YouTube where a guy was evaluating the 5E classes from worst to best, as he saw them. I may watch it again and write down some comments/criticisms of it, as he has some rather vague criteria and his reasoning for why certain classes are good is also cited as a reason why at least one class is bad in his opinion. I won't link the video yet. If I do critique it, of course I'll link it then.

As I was watching it, I was trying to figure out how he was rating each class. And really, it boils down to three things: how versatile is the class, how "cool" did he find it to role play, and how well did it take advantage of the "action economy."

The concept of the action economy is a relatively new one in D&D, but it's been around in games like the Palladium system for a long time. If you pretty much stick to OSR blogs/forums, you may not be familiar with the term. The action economy is the idea that characters can take X actions in a turn, and if they don't take full advantage of these actions each round in combat, they are letting the side down by being inefficient.

In 5E, on your turn each round you can move your speed, perform one "action" and possibly perform one "bonus action." I think you can get one "free" object interaction as part of the move and/or attack, like drawing a weapon or opening a door. And during other players' or the monsters' turns, you can get one "reaction" per round.

5E of course has a predefined list of possible "actions" one can take. And yes, scare quotes because you can't just do any old action you can think of. Well, you can, but whatever it is it will fit into one of the predefined categories of action in the book. That list is: Attack, Cast a Spell, Dash, Disengage, Dodge, Help, Hide, Ready, Search, Use an Object. (Higher level warrior types get an ability called Extra Attack which lets them make more than one attack when they take the Attack action but it counts as just one "action" for the action economy.)

Bonus actions are not to my knowledge ever listed out precisely, because they are basically exceptions to the normal rule. If a class ability, racial ability, or spell grants you a bonus action you can take it. Otherwise, you get no bonus action. Monks, for example, can always make an unarmed strike as a bonus action IF they take the Attack action. At 2nd level, Rogues can always choose to use a bonus action to Hide, Disengage, or Dash. Clerics who cast Spiritual Weapon use a bonus action to make the hammer attack.

Reactions take the place of "attacks of opportunity" in 3E. And they aren't always just attacks, although some are. Many are class abilities that let you avoid or reduce damage (Monks can deflect arrows, Rogues can reduce damage from one attack, Wizards and Sorcerers can cast the shield spell).

In good old D&D/AD&D, you don't have to worry about all this. Everyone can move and do one thing on their turn. Much simpler. And in a fight, not every character in the party was expected to do something each round.

The action economy does add a layer of tactical complexity that many people enjoy. I understand its appeal. The problem is that the action economy seems to be one of the main considerations people like the guy who made the video I referenced above have for rating both the classes of 5E but also how people play the game.

If you don't take full advantage of the action economy, if you don't take a class that makes use of bonus actions and reactions, if you squander your turn, it's seen as letting down the side. Not pulling your weight. Being lame and useless. Totally sucking at the game.

It all comes back around to the fault WotC had when they created the game. It's all about combat.

The by the book primary source of XP awards are for combat. Most character abilities are designed to help you in combat. Most spells are designed to help you in combat. The action economy is designed to help you optimize combat.

Computer RPGs are all about combat because it's still difficult to program into a game the sort of freedom you get with a tabletop RPG. Why WotC decided to limit their design of 5E to mimicking a computer RPG is beyond me. I mean, shouldn't they have learned their lesson from doing that with 4E?

OK, I feel like I"m starting to ramble. It's getting late. Let me wrap this up.

The concept of an action economy is fine in and of itself. It does add a level of tactical variety to the game, which many people like. And yes, it can be fun to take advantage of it. But what started as a tool to add variety and fun has become a yardstick or straight jacket on the game. Too many people are looking at and evaluating game mechanics and more importantly game play based primarily on how well a class or build takes advantage of the action economy. Bonus actions are not seen as a bonus, they're seen as a necessity. And the attitude I'm seeing more and more is that if your character isn't taking advantage of bonus actions and reactions as often as possible, you did something wrong or are playing wrong.

It's valuing system mastery over immersion and creativity, prioritizing optimal combat efficiency over playing your character. That's why it's bad for the game.


  1. When I was breaking out of the shell of AD&D, I chafed at the restrictive nature of how combat was expressed. However, upon many years of reflection, the original spirit of Chainmail-based combat (60 second rounds where lethality is rather high until you have a few levels/HD under your belt) has completely been lost.

    Combat in O/A-D&D was an abstracted, grueling melee contest, where one side or the other was bested. In 3rd+ editions, they are playing a different game entirely.

  2. Whatever happened to the simple "everyone gets one 'go' per round...what do you want to do?"

    It might be that the need to make combat more interesting comes from the fact that combat LACKS interest due to the lack of tension and intensity. If battle were a more risky proposition, people would be more interested in the roll of the D20 and damage roll than on what particular maneuver is being tried. Maybe.

  3. I wonder what classes this guy likes the least? Being a bit of a contrarian, I'd be sore tested to invite him to play in a 5e campaign built around the idea that his 3-4 least favorite classes were the only ones available. Maybe he'd see the value of the game outside action economy...

    JB: In my experience, 5e combat can be very lethal, especially at lower levels. Monsters hit hard. The first character I ever played died in his first combat...

    1. Does lethal equal interesting?

      D&D in all its incarnations are among my least favorite games, one reason being combat. It is the focus of the game and as noted in the post, mostly a question of rules mastery and luck.

      At the same time it only feels, hmmm, 'mechanically deadly'. Does your PC fight or act any differently at 10 hp than they do at 100? Are the weakened? Any penalties or adjustments that make you the PC feel the atmosphere of their injuries?

      It just comes off as distant and removed. Combat is a tactical exercise more then an intense, visceral engagement with the game and ones fellow players. Creativity is put to the side and people worry whether they have the 'right move' for a particular instance.

    2. Does lethal equal Interesting?

      In a word: Yes. Fear is a powerful emotion and lethality taps into that fear, especially when there is an atmosphere that has been established to feed that fear. Some of the best moments I have ever had playing RPGs are in D&D in combat because of the dread that comes with knowing what happens right here right now determines the life and death of these characters. This has happened across systems and with wildly different play groups. There is nothing like seeing an entire table on their feet celebrating survival, not just success. That is what I call immersion and emotional investment.

      BTW creativity in combat is a thing. I have had utility casters do wonderful things with spells in combat. I have also seen a party creatively use terrain to stop an entire army in its tracks.

  4. I think that in some systems, like Palladium games, they actually make an action economy work. Yes, there are some silly things, like EVERYONE and the mothers know Boxing since it grants one extra attack per round. How many people do you actually know who box?

    But in Palladium, the fact that each round you need to make a choice between how many actions to use for attacks or other actions, and how many to keep in reserve for potential parry/dodge reactions makes it work. No one will fault you for keeping a few unused actions because you never can be sure how many you may need.

    In 5E, your potential actions are fixed, so players (this is something I've witnessed firsthand) sometimes feel that they NEED to use them all. And classes that don't get bonus actions as a rule are worse than those that do.

    FrDave - he put the Fighter/Champion at the very bottom, other Fighter and Barbarian types low down. Anything with spells was high on the list.

    1. So, a campaign with all mundane classes, no magic and no healing spells? Sounds fun to me...

    2. I could get into that, too.

    3. FrDave (and anyone else interested), here's the response to the video ranking the classes:

  5. I object to the characterization that pre-3e D&D didn't have an action economy. It did. It was merely a very simple economy. Of course, there is much to recommend a simple action economy!

    "Action economy" is is less a rule than a particular way of analyzing rules.

    1. True, it is an action economy. But since the choices are limited to act/don't act, old school D&D was never analyzed that way.

      And you're also right that action economy is a way to analyze the rules and performance. Nothing in the rules of 5E states that you must try to use every possible action every round. That would be silly. But people analyze the rules, and come to the realization that optimal efficiency means attempting to optimize every turn by not wasting an opportunity to act.

      But sometimes, for tactical (practical) purposes or for in character (role play) purposes, it can be better to hold certain options in a particular combat round.

      And, considering the analysis of classes in the video I was watching, sometimes having a simple class without a ton of options to sort through every round can be a positive as well. The game can slow down when a spellcaster has to analyze their spell slots remaining, spell lists, and special abilities every round to try and maximize getting an action/bonus action/reaction every round.

      The title of this post is a bit click-baity, isn't it? :D Action economy analysis will exist whether I like it or not.

    2. Thanks for the thoughtful reply. I share your concerns about the over-emphasis on this form of analysis in 5e, and most certainly agree with the virtue of providing classes (or other options, however specified) that are simple to play.

      To further complicate things, I would say that real analysis of the action economy of D&D across versions must engage with Haste, which, in most cases, allows you to in effect move twice and do two things, but not two of all of the things you could do when you could do one thing. Nonetheless, the ability to do two things is so powerful when you could previously do one thing that it could be said to have driven the entire rest of the development of the action economy of later editions.

    3. Actually, consider this: the action economy PCs in pre-3e D&D is based on their Charisma, ranging in ordinary circumstances from 2-8 actions per round, with most of their capability represented by their retinue.

    4. Ah, I like that train of thought (the Charisma factor). I need to consider it a bit more. Thanks for sharing that.