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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.
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.