Action is how things happen.
Since there are opposite reactions, conflict arises and story develops.
This is especially true for tabletop roleplaying games. What a player has their character do (and the mechanical resolution to opposing reactions) is the core of these kinds of games.
I’ve been wrestling with actions in the BITS TTRPG system for awhile. I think I have it, but what do you think? Here’s my analysis:
First Things First
I’m going to avoid talking in depth about who goes when or in what order things happen (aka initiative). No rolling, no going clockwise, no group or simultaneous happenings.
Today’s focus is all about the action!
A person cannot discuss TTRPGs without invoking the name of Dungeons & Dragons.
D&D uses a two-action system that really comes down to this: You can move, and you can do anything else (attack, prepare, prepare, move again, etc.).
The two-action economy is classic, in use all over the gaming landscape. You move, you act (and perhaps you get a free action of speaking or dropping whatever’s in your hand).
In all honesty, that sounds like one-action, with movement as a passive condition every character has regardless of any other action.
The only explicit limitation D&D places on action is that a character can only attack once without other special rules affecting that. To paraphrase D&D‘s terms, “you can always move but you may only attack once.”
BITS can reimagine the “twofer” as Free, Automatic, and Focused actions.
Free actions are like those in D&D – letting go and shouting. Can be used anytime!
Automatic actions are muscle memory – moving, drawing, reloading, speaking, etc.
Focused actions require just that: focus. Anything requiring attention or caution, such as attacking, giving detailed information, doing something delicate like sneaking, etc.
Take two actions a turn, with exceptions: one and only one free action doesn’t count, and one and only one focused action at most per turn.
Free-Automatic-Focused is nice. It liberates the options of a player with distinct language and increase flexibility over D&D.
But what can a player do? There are examples above, examples that don’t do justice to actual expectations in gameplay.
Whether swooning lovers, bartering goods, or stabbing robbers, BITS seeks to bring action to everything that can fail a player’s intention.
BITS divides conflicts into Environmental (passive bodily danger), Combative (active bodily danger), and Social (“sticks and stones” but words always can hurt). The same mechanics for action and resolution apply to each.
We’re not talking about conflict types here, but keep in mind how actions can apply to any of the conflicts above.
Kinds of Actions
Other than Free actions (which almost exclusively are shouting and dropping), I have found four kinds of action that fits any action a player could take: Move, Attack, Defend, Prepare. MADP.
Move actions see a player character walking, running (might need to take some caution), sneaking (definitely needs caution), jumping, crawling, swimming, or getting up. A social action would “move” the conversation on to another topic or point.
Attack actions slash, smash, stab, throw, cast spells, grapple, or commit other acts of aggression and violence. Social intimidation, charm, and deception apply.
Defend actions help others, escape from another, prevent others from passing, or stop the consequences of personal or potential violence. Social defense proves a point or deflects blame and provides excuses.
Prepare actions increase the probability a future action is successful, pick up or get out equipment, operate machinery, build up, tear down, search, or ready a future response. Social preparedness means keeping silent only to improve the next action taken in conversation.
Wow! That’s a lot!
But its utility is limited – MADP only applies when a ruleset takes it into effect.
What could use this method?
No Two of a Kind
Instead of Free-Automatic-Focused actions, up to two actions of any kind (Move-Attack-Defend-Prepare) can happen in a player’s turn.
Attack-then-Move, Move-then-Attack, Defend-then-Prepare, Prepare-only, Attack-and-Attack, etc. Whatever happens, the player must declare what they intend to do in their turn before they do it.
However, if the second action is the same as the first, both actions have disadvantage in their rolls.
If there is only one action taken (not two of the same kind), that single action has advantage.
MADP adds a little more realism to the actions of play. As a reflection of Free-Automatic-Focused, actions that get the complete focus of the player character get a boon while dividing attention or being speedy-but-reckless give progressively worse boons.
Does a fighter focus all effort into one strong attack, duel with an opponent while defending against future attacks, or flail strikes with multiple attacks at once?
A curated and concise set of choices are offered to the player, enabling them to weigh pros and cons to make their own decision. If working with a two-action economy, this seems to be the best bet!
We’re back at the start: have two or kinda-two actions in a turn.
Whatever the case, having multiple actions in a turn – even if in name only – slows play down.
Heck, in BITS critical success rolls, an extra action comes as a reward, exacerbating the problem. And it is a system meant to be quick!
So what can be done?
Call of Cthulhu
The most popular tabletop roleplaying game in Japan, Call of Cthulhu gives a character five possible kinds of actions on their turn (I paraphrase): Attack (harm another), Maneuver (attack without harming), Flee (run away!), Other (healing, investigating), and Spell (use Eldritch terribleness).
A character can only do one of these on their turn. Any movement is implied in the action being taken within the area of engagement.
While having a concise list of actions, removing the tactical tediousness of movment and exact positioning, and limiting the number of actions-per-turn to one, CoC does well to speed up play.
Where CoC stumbles is how many times the dice need to be rolled for any action. Further, the action list may be too concise – it tends to rob creativity as any in-game act must be shoehorned into one of the five kinds specified, regardless of context.
Another game though takes the metacontext into consideration:
Powered By the Apocalypse is a game system lauded for its ease of play. A major mechanic contributing to that are the “Moves” it uses.
Every player has a common set of Moves they can use on their turn, along with Moves unique to the kind of character they chose. Every Move is meant to feed back into whatever “vibe” or “feel” the game means to convey.
During a turn, a player can pick a Move and do it (rolling dice dependent on context). One turn, one action, fast play.
While PBtA has streamlined action, it has also railroaded what players can do. Moves are extremely specific to the context of the game being played, further niched to the character role a player has.
Yes, PBtA characters can adopt the Move talents of other characters as they advance in skill. Yes, PBtA players can work with each other to “hack” or introduce new Moves or do something outside the guardrails of the game.
Yet, this does not address allowing players freedom to act in the ways they see fit depending on the situation they find themselves in.
Can it be better?
Freedom to Act
I think it can be better.
BITS adopts the one-action turn of PBtA but opens up the possible actions of a player to whatever they can and want to do.
Shoot a bow or gun? Throw a rock? Climb a tree? Balance on a wall? Socialize with the bartender? BITS handles that with a unified resolution system.
However, exact positioning is not required with the BITS system. If needing to attack someone but a few steps would be needed to get there, that attack happens. If a potion needs to be unloaded from a bag, do it and be ready to act again on the next turn.
Games like D&D act as “simulations-as-games” and would care about the exact distances and contexts of the simulation in progress. With BITS one-action, so long as a declared action doesn’t blend together seemingly different actions too much, BITS cares more about the consequences of intention rather than the consequences of inches.
This rewards players with carrying out their intention for their turn, keeps turns flowing quickly because beans need not be counted, and offers extra actions as a prize (i.e. critical successes in rolls).
Conclusions About Actions
There are improvements available for the current two-action system in use by the most popular roleplaying games.
Despite those improvements, the more actions a player takes, the slower the game goes.
The more actions are tied to the meta-narrative of the game and not the context of the player’s current situation, the more agency is taken away from the player. Game context should provide actions and other verbs as inspiration to what might be done, but cannot dictate what a player may or may not do.
Like Captain Barbossa put it in Pirates of the Caribbean:
The code is more what you’d call ‘guidelines’ than actual rules.
Therefore, to increase agency and reduce time taken on a turn, a single action-per-player-per-turn that focuses more on intention than precision is the best gameplay option for rules about actions.
Phew – this was a long one. I wanted to bring forward multiple analyses for popular game systems’ action-economies.
Though I’ve clearly looked over games like Lasers & Feelings or any of the Blades games, the principles remain the same: more actions taken slows the game, but reducing the actions ever able to be taken (i.e. PBtA) comes with its own consequences.
Therefore, for BITS, one-action is the way to go. Further, one-action breeds an economic scarcity, forcing players to think critically of what’s possible to get them closer to their goals.
And adding an extra action for a critical success is something I’ve not come across in my studies – what I feel is a sharp improvement as “critical success” has been so far relegated to either extra damage (not always applicable) or an allowance for narrative dictation by a player for just that moment. I’m not much a fan of keeping player participation in the narrative sequestered away as a reward for play 🙂
OK – enough about actions for now! If you think a one-action economy is not the optimal, why? I must know! Cheers to when we get to talk it out.