Pathfinder Action Economy

One thing I’ve learnt quite a lot about over my year or so of GMing is the action economy. When running the Rise of the Runelords campaign, I’ve noticed that there are several BBEGs (that stands for Big Bad Evil Guy, as I found out eventually!) who generally face off against the PCs alone, or with one or two guards.

Imagine my surprise when the powerful baddie (dragon, wizard, whatever) went down in just a few rounds, despite being seriously powerful. Why was this? The action economy was working against him (or her). Let’s first look at what a round of combat looks like:

In Pathfinder, a round of combat lasts 6 seconds. That’s not much time, so any character’s actions are severely limited.

Actions in Combat

In a round of combat, you can:

  • 1 Full-round action (usually taking multiple attacks such as a monk’s flurry of blows) OR
  • 1 Standard action (a single attack or spell cast) plus 1 Move action (moving up to your speed or standing up after being knocked down, etc.) (in any order) OR
  • 2 Move actions (effectively trading your Standard action for a Move action)

Plus a combination of :

A few special cases

The 5 ft step
Provided you don’t take any other action that actually involves using a move speed (walking/running/flying…) during the same round, you can take a 5′ step as a free action that does not provoke attacks of opportunity once per round.

While most spells have a casting time of 1 Standard action, others can take a Swift action, a Full-round Action or more. For those spells that take longer to cast, you’re effectively using up a Full-round action each round for the duration of the casting.

Much of this information was found at a discussion here.

For a complete breakdown of everything that can be done in combat, check out d20pfsrd.

I also came across this nifty diagram made by someone on Reddit. It summarises all the actions one can take in combat into one page.

The Problem that Enemies (and GMs) Face

This brings us to the problem that your BBEG faces. He’s super powerful and super scary. But he still only gets to act once in a round. An average adventuring party might have 4 members, or even as many as 6. That means, for every turn the BBEG takes, 4-6 turns happen against him before he can act again. So even if he can incapacitate the party’s fighter on his first turn, he’s still going to get him 3 more times before he can take out the next party member. Even with a couple of peons to support him, the BBEG is probably going to go down disappointingly quickly.

What this has meant for me as a GM is that I’ve had to adjust the encounters with important enemies to make them exciting and memorable. This includes adding more powerful allies to support the boss, and making enemies smarter (though this is a difficult task as all the enemies effectively share one brain – mine – while my players have 4 brains among them).

Something that worked rather well in our last session was having powerful enemies attack at once (in this case it was a group of assassins), and not making it obvious who the boss was. The PCs then divided their attention between all the enemies instead of focussing on what they thought was the biggest threat. 

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