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What Can You Do?
Legends and Lore
Monte Cook

O ne of the most important aspects of the game doesn't get a lot of discussion: What can you do on your turn?


This is a far more complex question than it sounds. It involves not only how the game organizes action types (action, standard action, move, move action, move equivalent action, minor action, free action, swift action, etc.) but what can be accomplished in a round, and even how long a round lasts. These considerations impact the complexity of the game, the abstractness of the game, and even the speed at which play proceeds around the table.

Things got complicated toward the end of 2nd edition and into 3rd edition when everything got codified. Funny how that works. But it's true, at least from a certain point of view. Breaking things down in a concrete manner makes things more manageable but also takes away from the fluidity of a more general system.

In 3rd edition, the round got significantly shorter (one minute to six seconds, although in various alternate rules versions the round was already short). This reduced the abstraction of the game, as it allowed each stated action by a player to be directly represented in the game. If a player said he was making an attack, that's what his character did. In earlier editions, with a one minute round, it was just the most significant thing he did in a longer, more abstract period of time. Such abstraction also covered up problems, as the DM had more flexibility within that larger timeframe to hand wave away troublesome issues. It also resulted in likely more realistic total combat lengths, with typical fights lasting a few minutes as opposed to a few seconds.

Although they handle it somewhat differently, both 3rd edition and 4th edition break the round (or rather, what one character can do on his turn within a round) down into a big action and a small action. You do something and you move, or you do something and then do something else that the designers have equated to a move, plus some number of free actions. How much simpler it would be if you just did one thing on your turn. If things worked that way, there would be no need to categorize actions. You would attack or move or cast a spell. The game could then be generous with stuff that "didn't count," like drawing a weapon or item, opening a door, and so on. Rounds would likely cycle faster as people moved through their turns faster. Not only would each player be doing less, but more importantly, you wouldn't have players searching for extra actions to squeeze every last bit of value out of their turn. This kind of simplification breaks with game history, so older players might balk. But to a new player, the statement "you can do one action on your turn" makes a lot of sense. And it makes individual turns shorter and faster.

With the "you can do one action on your turn" approach, some players would feel like they wasted their turn if they didn't do something significant like make an attack or cast a spell. People wouldn't want to move or do anything else. This, however, would be less true if play moved a lot faster. In later editions of the game, a combat round might take twenty minutes to resolve, and so if all you did was move around, that's not a lot of fun. If you cut that down to just a couple of minutes or less, however, then it's not that big a deal. I think there's something to be said for doing less more often than doing a lot of different things on your turn but only getting a few turns.

If rounds move a lot faster, the impact of having something happen to you that takes you out of the game for a round or two (stun or hold, for example) is greatly lessened—not so much from a character point of view, but from a player point of view. Faster play engages players in the game, because there is less time spent waiting for one's turn. However, this one change isn't probably going to speed up play enough to make the kind of dramatic difference I'm talking about. If readers find this line of investigation interesting, I'll discuss other possibilities to speeding up play in future columns. Let me know.



This Week's Polls

On a scale of 1 to 5, with 1 being "not at all" and 5 being "very much," I agree with the following statements about D&D rules:

 Speeding up play is a good thing.  
1
2
3
4
5

 Breaking the round down into categorized components (the status quo) is a good thing.  
1
2
3
4
5

 Characters should take just one action per round.  
1
2
3
4
5

Last Week's Polls

Rules should be presented only when needed.
1 516 22.5%
2 439 19.2%
3 589 25.7%
4 405 17.7%
5 343 15.0%
Total 2292 100.0%

Complexity should equate to PC level.
1 684 29.7%
2 468 20.3%
3 505 21.9%
4 407 17.7%
5 239 10.4%
Total 2303 100.0%

The ability for a game group to determine its own level of complexity is important.
1 121 4.8%
2 139 5.6%
3 467 18.7%
4 765 30.6%
5 1006 40.3%
Total 2498 100.0%

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