Ask Angry: Simultaneous Actions and Downtime Activities

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Rob asks:

I occasionally have players who want to perform simultaneous or combined actions in combat. Something like, “I have no ranged attacks, so I want to throw the halfling at the flying thing I can’t reach,” or “We want to link arms and clothesline the big guy together.” I want my players to feel free to use these kinds of things, mostly because it’s fun and makes for memorable encounters when a player’s crazy idea works out.

That said, though, I’m never quite sure how to adjudicate it when it comes up mid-encounter, especially if, say, when using the ol’ Fastball Special maneuver, the hurler is on initiative count 20 and the hurlee is on initiative count 3, with a bunch of other participants between them. I may be putting too much importance on it, but I’m leery of accidentally opening the door for savvy or clever players to wreck the initiative system.

How do you handle it when players want to perform a two-person (or more) maneuver during combat?

What the f$&% is it with halflings and people throwing them, carrying them, and swinging them like f$&%ing weapons. I mean, holy mother of f$&%, they are people. Small people, but people. And I’m not saying this from a moral standpoint. I mean, people aren’t meant to take that kind of abuse. Imagine you throw a toddler at an armored ogre, for instance, or a flying dragon. First of all, toddlers are soft and bouncy. Even a heavy toddler, like a 30 pound halfling, is a floppy bouncy ball of flesh. It isn’t going to have the impact you think it will against anything with a modicum of combat protection. Second of all, that toddler is coming out the worse for it. And that’s even assuming you can get any real power or distance behind that toddler. Throwing something like that isn’t just a matter of strength, it’s a matter of leverage. A bulky, floppy toddler, even one that is cooperating, is hard to throw with sufficient speed, force, and trajectory to actually hit a target. And that’s assuming your target just doesn’t swat the sobbing ball of flesh out of the air. I mean, think about it. Have you ever noticed that no one hefts 50 pound cannonballs and throws them at an enemy? I mean, when the enemy closes and the cannon is no longer useful, you don’t see the pirates be like “well, let’s just throw these motherloving cannonballs.” No, they draw their swords and fight for realsies. And they certainly don’t start throwing the cabin boy.

You know a shotput is only like 16 pounds, right? And it doesn’t flail around and it isn’t made of flesh.

But I digress. Sorry: the halfling thing is just really starting to get to me. Every f$&%ing time there’s a halfling in the party, he’s eventually going to be riding in a backpack or swung like a screaming, flailing mace or tossed like a sack of hairy potatoes. And then I have to rule that the halfling takes twice as much damage as he deals just to convince people it’s a stupid f$&%ing idea.

Sorry.

As neat as the initiative system is for keeping things organized and making sure everyone gets a turn, it tends to create this step-by-step view of combat. But, when you think about it, a combat round is between six and ten seconds long depending on the edition and system you’re playing. And that isn’t a hell of a lot of time for turn taking. And it doesn’t matter how many foes are in that combat. Six to ten seconds is six to ten seconds. And that means a lot of actions are just going to stack up or happen on top of each other. I mean, if you were watching the fight actually play out, a lot of people would be going almost simultaneously. The difference between starting an action in initiative count 10 and starting one on initiative count 5 is on the order of a fraction of a second given both of those actions have to be finished in less than six seconds.

And the turn-taking business can drive you crazy when you’ve played Chrono Trigger and seen dual and triple techs and really love that crap and wish you could do more synergy style stuff. I mean, hell, realistically, you could create a whole series of cantrips in 5E centered around enhancing an attack in progress without throwing off the balance. I mean, you figure a wizard’s damage output and a fighter’s damage output are about the same between cantrips and sword swings (give or take a bit). So, if the wizard can just stack that damage output onto a sword swing, you’re not breaking the game. But you can’t do that without simultaneous actions.

But there IS an easy way in 3.5, Pathfinder, 4th Edition, and 5th Edition to allow for simultaneous actions. It’s called “Readying.” Readying an action allows a character to declare an action that will take place in the future based on a triggering condition. For example: when the flying dragon comes into my reach, I will attack. Basically, the character has to declare the action to take and the condition that will cause it to happen. When the triggering condition occurs, the character can take the action. The specifics vary a little bit from system to system, but the basics are all the same. For example, in 3.5 and Pathfinder, the character then changes their initiative count forever after to reflect when their action took place. In 5th Edition, you can move before or after (or both) readying an action, but your initiative count doesn’t actually change.

So, let’s suppose you have two characters who want to stretch a rope between them and trip up an ogre. The character who goes first readies an action with something like “when Bob signals he’s ready, I’ll toss him the rope and pull hard.” Then, when Bob’s turn comes up, he readies an action and says “after Alice tosses me the rope, I’ll pull hard.” Bob’s action triggers Alice’s, Alice’s triggers Bob’s. Done and done.

Now, you might have to fudge in some instances to allow for things like necessary movement as part of the action. For example, in the above case, I would definitely allow Alice and Bob to take their movement simultaneously once the rope was in place even though it’s technically not a part of readying (you usually can’t move when your readied action goes off by the strict rules). Similarly, the characters could both use Delay actions in some systems. Again, by a strict reading, that doesn’t allow for simultaneous actions.

But honestly, that interpretation is useful if you’re a by-the-book quibbling rules lawyer who doesn’t let his common sense and ability to imagine how a world might function get in the way of the letter of the law. If you want a simpler approach, just rule that any two characters can take simultaneous actions as long as the faster player waits for the slower player’s turn. So, if Alice has a 15 initiative and Bob has a 6 initiative, they can act simultaneously if they wait until count 6. That won’t actually break anything.

Meanwhile, I’m going to work out a neat idea for channeling spells into other actions that capitalize on simultaneous actions. I want my Chrono Trigger dual techs, dammit.

Oniguma on Twitter asks:

Thanks to your awesome advice, I’ve run a nice adventure after a long hiatus. my group can only play 1-2 times a month, and I’m facing a dilemma: the players want to do some downtime activities, but I fear that they will spend so much time d$&%ing around that it will screw up the pacing of the next adventure. Worst: if I start the next session with a scene of downtime activities, then I have to place my opening scene AFTER that.

So, what is the place for downtime activities in an adventure?

Yeah, you wouldn’t want the players screwing up YOUR game with things THEY want to do, right?

Sorry, I couldn’t resist. Seriously, though, you’re right. The “dicking around” problem is one that will seriously kill the pace of any adventure, let alone the only adventure you get in a month. You need to stay the hell away from it.

Honestly, this is the sort of question I would actually ask for MORE information about before I tried to answer. But I sure as hell don’t want to get engaged in actually talking to people. F$&% that. It’s bad enough I let you people e-mail me. See, downtime activities generally fall into two categories and I’m curious which ones your players are interested in. But, again, I’m not engaging with you so I’ll just have to talk about both.

First of all, downtime activities are activities not related directly to the goal of an adventure. They happen between adventures when the party isn’t being driven forward by some motive. For that reason, they tend to be player driven. And, because of that, they are paced horribly and often suck a lot of time out of the game for very little payoff. As you’ve observed.

Downtime activities generally fall into two categories. Some people would say three categories. But I’m going to show you why the third category doesn’t count in a second. In fact, let’s do that now. The third category is “advancing personal goals.” Some players like to give their character’s goals like “find my father’s killer” or “become a member of the Secret Order of Really Awesome Mages” or whatever. And they think that that sort of s$&% belongs between adventures. And so do lots of GMs. Good GMs know that they should actually weave that stuff into the rest of the campaign as plot threads. Of course, you can allow some advancement of personal plots during downtime. But that is only if you have table-time to spare. And you don’t.

See, the number one thing that is going to dictate the structure of your game is not what you want, it’s not what your players want, it’s how much game time you have to fill and how often. If you can only meet for four hours once every one or two months, your game is necessarily simple and episodic. Every adventure should fit into a single session and every minute of game time is too valuable to waste. Your game just can’t handle lots of personal plots and side missions. And you need to explain that to your players.

The second class of downtime activities is “interacting with the world.” Also called “dicking around.” The bard wants to perform at the local tavern. The fighter wants to hang out in the arena and fight monsters. The rogue wants to hang out at the black market. The players basically want to make friends and play in the world. Now, that sort of s$&% is fine in small doses. Again, if you have the table time. But honestly, if your players are looking for a lot of that, maybe you need to focus more time in your adventures to scenes that allow for world interaction. Maybe, in the next adventure, the fighter can win the information the PCs need by joining a pit fight. The rogue can get information for each adventure from their contacts. The bard hanging out at the local tavern gets drawn into a conversation that leads to the next adventure.

Again, though, you don’t have the table time for the time sink that is dicking around in the world. You need to find ways to make world interaction more a part of your games. It doesn’t have to take too long. Such scenes are usually pretty short. Just include sources of information that fit the sort of world interactions the players like and then hint at pursuing those. “I don’t know too much about that, sorry. That’s the sort of thing only criminals might know.”

The third type of downtime activity is the “improvement and advancement” type of downtime activity. That’s where you get your crafting better weapons and magical items, trying to earn money, researching new spells, and that sort of thing. Technically, that’s also where you get activities meant to establish contacts and build reputation or glory or fame. These activities have some sort of payoff for the character. By investing downtime, the character ends up with a better weapon, a neat piece of gear, a valuable contact, money, or an enhanced reputation. And those are resources that can be used in future games.

Except D&D doesn’t handle that s$&%. Like, at all. There is only one way to advance your character: adventure. And only two vectors for character improvement: level abilities and equipment. Level abilities include class features and feats, all of which come at prescribed levels no matter what. If you want a new feat or an improved proficiency bonus or more spells, go out and gain some experience to gain a level. As for equipment, once you’ve hit about level 3, you’ve got the best mundane equipment you can have. And you can’t buy or make magic items in most versions of D&D. 3.5 experimented with a crafting system, but it was an utter mess and no one ever used it. So, magical items are the only source of improvement and you can only get those by adventuring. The funny thing is, that also means that, in the system, money itself is kind of useless beyond about 3rd level. The only way to advance in D&D is to kill monsters and steal their stuff.

But, let’s imagine for a moment, how the world might be different. Or specifically, how D&D could be different. Imagine if, for example, a bunch of stuff were actually available outside of level of advancement. Imagine if, for example, feats, ability score improvements, and new spells weren’t part of level advancement. Imagine if they instead came from training or research. And imagine a few other resources existed too. Like reputation and contacts. And imagine if weapons and armor could be incrementally improved, either with money or with crafting time. Those +1 and +2 and +3 weapons and armor? They aren’t magical. Just better quality.

In that world, imagine that, between adventures, the GM gave a certain amount of downtime. Imagine it was mostly prescribed based on a table that told the GM about how much to give. It was a resource. Hours. And you could spend those hours on a variety of actions: making money with a profession, crafting, building reputation, making contacts, earning a feat, learning new spells, and so on. In addition, natural healing, recovering from illness, fixing critical injuries, lifting curses, and gathering material components also eat up time as a resource. Between adventures and – MOST IMPORTANTLY – away from the table, the players decide how to spend their downtime hours. No die rolls are involved. The downtime is just automatic. Spend X number of hours honing the sword, it eventually earns a +1. Spend X number of hours, you earn a henchman or contact or whatever. And the benefits of that stuff is spelled out. Of course, for every day of downtime, the players have to spend some of their hard-earned gold on living expenses. And the more they spend (the more comfortable they are), the more valuable those downtime hours are. Someone living on the street, for example, can’t craft at all. They don’t have the tools or the space.

Of course, you can also have a simplified system for players who don’t want to deal with that micromanagement. They just pick a specific thing to work toward (like a specific feat) and they mark off their downtime until it’s finished. It works the same way, but it helps players who don’t want to deal with it live with the system without being daunted.

And, if you give each improvement an XP cost, you can simply have the GM hand out extra XP instead of downtime if they don’t want to do the downtime thing. That is, one GM says “okay, you have 4 days of downtime, that’s 32 hours,” and players figure out how to allocate it or just have it automatically go to a preselected improvement. Another GM says “okay, you earned an extra 3,200 XP you can spend on incremental improvements.”

It’s a little rough, but with some work, you could make a pretty cool system out of it that works for different levels of engagement.

See, the thing is, there are a lot of players out there who look for ways to play with their characters away from the table. And allowing them to decide what their character does in their off time is a great way to do it. The problem is you need a system that has room for incremental improvements. Or, more importantly, one that has those already built in. D&D only has one way to advance. And that hurts the idea of “downtime for improvement” and it also hurts a lot of the sense of customization through advancement. Sure, players do select which feats and class abilities they earn, but that isn’t enough customization for a lot of people. They need more.

The biggest thing to take away, though, is that downtime activities belong in the downtime. Not just for the characters, but for the players. They aren’t a part of the game, they are a part of bookkeeping. Now, if your players really do want downtime activities like that, you can handle it like this.

Let the players know how much time will pass before the next adventure and ask them to decide one thing their characters definitely want to get done between adventures. Do they want to meet with a specific person, perform a specific job, research a specific topic, or whatever. At the start of your next session, AFTER the recap but BEFORE you start the adventure proper, resolve each player’s downtime activity. Don’t use any die rolls. Don’t play out any scene for longer than about five minutes. In fact, just narrate the results if you can. Just let them know they did the thing and it had results. Make that your pattern.

But – and this is the important part – you want to move this sort of interactive crap into the game itself. So, for all of that little downtime crap, give a minor bonus or useful thing that can come up later in the adventure. The rogue makes a contact that agrees to give them information in the future (which will come up during the session), the warrior earns a blessing from the war god for winning in the arena (expend it to gain advantage on any attack roll, but then the warrior has to sacrifice the fallen foe at the shrine in the god’s name), and so on. That way, you get the rogue to talk to his contacts and the warrior to visit the shrine during the game (while the kill is fresh). That way, you can scratch the world interaction itch for the players without having to spend non-game time on your game.

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24 thoughts on “Ask Angry: Simultaneous Actions and Downtime Activities

  1. Thanks for the answer. I will try your suggestion to tell players beforehand how much time has passed between adventures, ask what they want to do, and adjudicate them, or use it as hooks for the next session. That should keep the flow of the adventure.

    Also, I really liked your insight about the “offscreen character development” that players often do. And 5ed really don’t handle that well. I will try to come up to “solo side missions” or some other minigame that allow the players to Interact with the world between adventures.

    As usual, great advice. Thanks!

  2. I really like the ideas related to downtime. Some set out rules and tables like that would be extremely helpful when I’m handling large groups of players.

  3. We’ve always just use email for this sort of thing. Similar once a month situation as the questioner, all of that book keeping that’s fine in between sessions like that. Heck, in kingmaker ruling the kingdom takes place over email.

  4. On the first thing, I’m definitely one for attempting consistency. Usually those same players who try to rope someone or toss something will try it again on different enemies, trying to see where and how far they can cross the line. I once had a player able to outmaneuver a creature, so he kept picking up large rocks to toss at the enemy. The enemy couldn’t do anything about it, so I had to improvise, or at least skip forward a few turns.

    Our group does a LOT of off-screen play. We, or rather I, basically home-brew everything. My players like to rip teeth from giant wolves, claws from dragons, thorns from sentient trees, etc. Then they’ll usually go to their favorite blacksmith and say, “I want a ___” at which point, I/the blacksmith will say “Sounds good. Here’s an estimate of cost, and an estimate of time it will take.” Estimate goes for in-game days. Then between sessions I make up a card for that new item, and they receive it the next time they play. They’ll have to come pick the item up from the blacksmith or have paid an extra fee to get it delivered. The latter can make for all sorts of fun and weird situations if a courier or magic delivery is involved.

      • In this particular instance, the creature was wedged and trapped under something that basically gave appropriate use of the “fish in the barrel” adage xD I was making rolls to get the damned thing out, but it wasn’t having a good day. I was going somewhere with that story and simply never got there. Point was: if you decide on a rule, then use it again, it should probably be the rule. Just be consistent.

  5. We used to use our halfling in The Lost Caverns of Tsojcanth to check for traps by tossing him into rooms ahead of us – of course accuracy and force were not priorities just getting him in there was goal. If I remember correctly he wasn’t keen on it.

    • Let’s hypothesize a basic Double Tech: Ice Sword, created by a wizard wrapping a fighter’s sword in magical ice, thus combining the fighter’s basic sword attack with a Ray of Frost cantrip. I agree that both “techs” need to stack their damage atop each other without any reduction, as one of the biggest disincentives for using Double/Triple Techs in CT was that certain combinations of multiple techs ultimately did more damage than combining them (Triple Techs suffered greatly from this; a Double Tech + a Single Tech from the third character almost always out-damaged them.)

      However, there has to be more to the attack to make it worth delaying one character’s initiative. (Otherwise, why didn’t the two characters just take their separate turns?) Beyond just dealing the damage from both attacks at the same time, here are some ideas I’ve had:

      1. The combo attack receives an extra bonus to hit. Not only does it represent the second character aiding the other, it also makes the super-cool attack that you’re setting up more likely to succeed. (Remember how much it sucked in 4e when your Encounter or Daily Powers would miss? It hurt, didn’t it?) Obviously simply combining the two character’s attack bonuses is overkill, so perhaps the fighter would add a part of the wizard’s attack bonus, like, say, only their casting stat’s mod.

      2. All the damage from the attack is considered magical. This is a great way for low-level characters to get around a monster’s resistance to non-magical weapon damage. On the flip side, there could be combos where a wizard enhances a martial character’s attacks (likely with non-damaging spells), which could be very useful against creatures with crazy resistance to magic but are otherwise vulnerable to mundane weapons. In both cases, characters who otherwise couldn’t participate as much in the combat against this particular enemy now can contribute in cool and meaningful ways.

      3. The combo attack produces effects that neither “tech” could do on their own. Remember how when Marle and Lucca combined their ice and fire magic, and somehow converted it in “shadow” damage? Or perhaps the combo adds new effects on top of the expected damage. A thundering hammer could stun enemies, for example.

  6. For a Chrono Trigger-like mechanic without inventing something completely new you could borrow the Ready an Action mechanic. Each PC wanting to contribute to a Combination Attack would have to ready an action, and then on either the lowest initiative PC (or the triggering event) they all act.

    Each PC makes an attack (weapon, spell – doesn’t matter). The attacking PC with the lowest BaB is considered making the “base attack”, and each PC’s attach that would hit normally instead adds +2 to the Base Attack.

    If it Base Attack hits then the CA succeeds; all damage rolls are rolled normally but are then added together and treated as if it were a single attack, with any special effects from any single attack still counting. For example, if one of the attacks treated half the physical damage as Holy damage, the whole Combined Attack would count half the physical damage as Holy damage.

    If the Base Attack misses then the CA fails and each attack is treated as a normal separate attack (hitting or missing appropriately). This could keep a CA from being too powerful, but also preventing one bad roll from causing everyone to miss.

  7. The halfling rant is really funny to me. We were guilty of this too. I don’t know why we must hurl tiny people at our enemies, but we must. Give them a ring of regeneration and a cast stone skin on them and they’re good to go.

  8. My mind immediately went to improving a character in Dark Souls.

    Want a point of strength? Give souls.

    Want to improve a weapon? Give souls.

    Want to learn a spell? Give souls.

    I admit that, though I love the video game Dark Souls, I’m not sure I would like to play a tabletop RPG in that world. The mechanics of DS, however, I would die for those.

    • I started a game set in the dark souls universe for some casual players. I figured it would be great since, if they’re undead, since they’re brand new they can just get hollowed and penalized instead of actually dying the first time.

      I spent a lot of time on the world before the game sputtered out from lack of players. It was set in the ancient prehistory, during the first war with the dragons, when the world was much more alive with the first flame.

      Jeez i miss that one.

      • I wouldn’t necessarily want to run a DS-based world, but I do like the idea of playing with that mechanic. I was about to say something silly like, “but then you’d have to track all that,” then verbally slapped my self in the face, as players ALREADY do that. It’s on their character sheets. I’d just need to decide on what the mechanics for each soul “purchase” would entail.

        Had you done something like that? Thoughts?

        • Actually, since I have yet to actually buy any real gaming resources since we all play very rarely, my self-built simplified system would probably have little to help you in terms of context. I did try to get a feel for the price of things by looking up gold costs and stuff, but it’s… Different.

          Also, it’s at a time in that world where money is still relevant. Anor Londo is a real flourishing city of men and deities, the Bed of Chaos hasn’t been created (yet), and basically the players are uniting the Lord Soul holders against the dragons to start the war rolling. It’s basically still a normal medieval fantasy world at the moment.

          So I’m still using money.

          • I’m more interested specifically in how you handle soul-related buys, if at all that way, then. Wish there was a PM system here.

            Often, people complain that there’s no good reason to hand out gold at higher levels in DnD. But all my players are interested in buying airships and castles and the like. And while magic items aren’t rare, those who can custom make them are a rare commodity. So I can pass around 10 thousand gold in a session between 4 or 5 people, and they’re begging for more, because it will al go somewhere eventually. My players sit on their gold like others, sure, but it DOES get used. All the potions in our games are wholly home-brewed with few exceptions, and they’re all quite expensive, but useful. That’s the trade off. Getting off topic here, i suppose, but everyone else (not saying you) I come across complains of “money agency”… Le sigh.

    • Yeah, But my question was more on WHEN or WHERE to put them in an adventure. Also, most of the PHB and DMG suggestion are kind of lame.

      • What exactly are you asking? Are your WHEN and WHERE sort of the same thing in this instance? That’s going to be wholly dependent on what kind of downtime your players are asking for. If one PC is searching for the lost monk of their tribe to give him the scrolls of good knowing, then is he located on top of a mountain or in a city? How much time do you even want to give that player to look for that thing? Personal quests sort of have to be woven into the full-on ones. Sometimes it’s okay to do this mid-world-saving, and other times it’s more appropriate as a solo-adventure or a small session between bigger ones.

        As for a PC shopping spree, it’s gonna have to be done in a city, obviously. But as far as timing goes, that again sort of relies on what else is going on in your world and how to go about it.

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