Lights, Camera, Action Point!

Posted on March 14, 2013 by

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In order to really appreciate 4th Edition Dungeons and Dragons, a certain suspension of disbelief is required, a talent for rationalization if you will.  Healing surges represent just how much magical healing a person’s body can physically handle before it exhausts itself, encounter and daily powers are just things too cool for your character to cinematically do every single turn, and magical item usage…  Okay, I don’t have a way to rationalize the way that daily magic items work, but we’ll work on that one later.

So when my first 4th Ed Dungeon Master told me that Action Points were a mechanic that allowed players to feel like heroic badasses, I was entirely on board.  Of course, a slightly more accurate description would be:

Action Point: A mechanic which allows heroes to give themselves an extra attack every other encounter.

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Now I’ll be the first to admit that sometimes the above sentence does manage to translate itself into the occasional epic moment of awesomeness or storytelling, but I’d say that for every time this is the case, the are ten others where it just means more damage.  Have you ever spent an action point to take an extra move action, or to spend your second wind?  It feels downright dirty, like the stare of a distant teacher as you fail to live up to your potential.

In reality, the action point mechanic does nothing more than create situations in which the player can deal large amounts of spike damage. Some of you may not be familiar with spike damage, but it is a combat tactic in which players take advantage of a vulnerable moment by unloading as much damage as possible in the shortest time frame.  In video games this usually takes form as a phase of combat in which the enemy drops their guard and the heroes pop their cooldowns, drain their mana bars, and burn down as many hit points as possible before that shield comes back up.

Dungeons and Dragons though, is not a video game.  You do not get to play the same encounter over and over until you figure it out.  The rhythm and tactics of a boss encounter need to be taken in and understood by the players on the first (and only) playthrough, and these encounters need to be built with that in mind.  So when the dungeon master chooses to give the players roughly four rounds worth of hit points to get to the bloodied marker (at which point the battle changes or becomes more difficult), that time should be spent getting a feel for the encounter.  Opening the fight with a turn of action points and dailies does nothing but tear the learning phase of a fight to shreds, and your players will always use their high-damage tricks as early as possible.

Now I know that this isn’t a dynamic unique to players.  There are monsters and enemies which have action points as well, and the dungeon master is encouraged to use these as they see fit.  And there is nothing that players like more than hearing “oh damn, you must be almost dead…  the evil warlock uses an action point and blows your ass into unconsciousness.”  A good encounter is part fight, part puzzle, and using action points on your players deprives them of opportunities to “solve” your encounters.

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So what are we going to do about Action Points?  Not only is the game balanced around them, but our feats are tied into them, we have no replacement mechanic for awesome moments, and some of our classes (looking at you Warlord) have it hard-coded into their function.  So we cannot remove them from the game entirely.  Instead I propose a new way to use the action point, one which maintains the ability to have heroic moments without creating opportunities for spike damage.

First of all, because we’re going to be weakening the action point, I recommend giving them to your players every encounter instead of every other.  As before, they are spent as a free action, but I would allow players to spend more than one per encounter if they have them saved up (but still only one each round).

Hit with an attack: Spend an action point before making an attack roll.  That roll is considered to be an automatic hit.  It does not count as rolling a 20, and cannot in fact critically hit (as there is no roll).  This use of an action point allows a player to really land that super important blow, that daily power which will make or break a fight.

Move it: Spend an action point before taking your movement for the turn.  This turn you may move up to twice your speed as part of a single move action.  This allows a player to have the “oh no, I have to get there before it’s too late” moment without giving them any extra actions to spend on other stuff.

Grant a reroll: Spend an action point as a free action when an ally fails a roll (saving, attack, or even skill).  That ally is allowed to reroll, but must use the new result.  This represents those last minute saves, where you give a teammate good advice, distract an enemy, or even just yell “get the hell back up!”

– Break free: Give yourself a +5 bonus to your next saving throw, or choose to make a saving throw at the beginning of your turn instead of the end.  There’s nothing more heroic than shrugging off what should be an inescapable holding spell and punching the evil mage in his face.  This lets you do that.

So there you have it, a few simple ways in which action points could be used for more heroic purposes.  True, it’s hard to give up the stupidly powerful double-daily beatdown that we currently have at our disposal as players, but in the end I feel that action points and their spike damage hurt the game more than they help it.  After all, if it doesn’t make you feel like a hero, then why keep it around?

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Posted in: Game Talk, Metagame