I’m hoping this is a short one, as I have to admit I don’t know exactly what I intend to say with this post. It comes back to my recent experience with the speed and density of combat in 1e. I have often looked at the heroic and action-packed images on the covers of the 5e core books and thought ‘why doesn’t the combat feel like these look.’ Well, simple enough, its a game and the mechanics are there for balance and your imagination is there to create these images, I have answered myself in the past. And yet, playing 1e it did feel like the action was real, like the heroes were stuck in against the enemy in a scrum of landing and taking blows. What made it feel so good?
So I’ve been paying more attention to how the systems I play more often (Mind Weave and D&D 5e) feel different. What makes it so hard to imagine the action in these systems when 1e was so vivid? Was it the quality of the DM? The quality of the players? The quality of the system itself?
Mind Weave suffers from the slog of parry and dodge rolls as defensive actions and the occasional long downtime as someone decides they need to invent a spell in combat (that’s my bad, I should tell them they don’t have time to be inventing spells), but in general it does really seem to flow with its time-based turn actions where the time can be used for whatever you want. This is especially true with seasoned players playing familiar characters who generally know their place in the fight. This is despite having a lot of options in your 2-second window each round.
5e, on the other hand, has the Armor Class system that so simplifies attack rolls over Mind Weave (where two intelligent fighters can go on seemingly forever in a futile back and forth of parries and dodges) and few reactions breaking up the action on others’ turns. When it is your turn, you have well-defined actions you can take: move, action, and bonus action. How long could your turn possibly take when you have exactly three things to do, even if some of these three have various options to choose from? Well, it feels like these turns take longer than even Mind Weave rounds with their ubiquitous counter-actions. They often include long pauses, sometimes long enough to have a side conversation sprout up. These are the same players that don’t allow such pauses in Mind Weave, an admittedly abysmal system for fast-paced action.
So what is the cause? I have seen it across three DMs in the group, and while none have pressed the players to hurry or condemned distractions, I theorize that it comes down to the mechanics. Yes, in my 1e experience Rick zipped through the initiative each round without dillydallying to see if anyone had something to add, the mechanics facilitated that. Let me explain.
In 5e each player has a turn allotted to them, in that turn they have been allowed exactly 3 things to do (okay, there’s the “free interaction” or whatever no one wants to talk about, as well, but we won’t talk about it either). As a DM in 5e, I feel like I haven’t given each player a fair shake in the action economy until they have had a chance to consider how to use each of their three actions (movement, action, bonus action). While in 1e, with no fixed turn and movement available during any segment, Rick could bump along giving everyone a chance to interject their attack or movement at the appropriate time, in 5e there is a time devoted to each player that is inviolate.
This has a few effects. First, the combat feels distinctly turn based. This is probably the greatest contributor to the sedentary feel as each character moves and shoots and then stands there while others act (and why I gave a simultaneous combat system the good college try in Mind Weave).
Second, players are engaged only on their turn. This contributes to losing the plot as discussed in my recent post on continuity, but it also means lots of lost time as they get caught up on who’s wounded, friend and foe (self), where people are, etc.
And finally, players perceive a need to maximize their profits in the action economy. This isn’t a big deal when a player knows exactly what they want to do with their move, action, and bonus action. However, the exactly three protected actions become a big speed bump when the player doesn’t have anything in particular to do with them. I myself am guilty of having a plan for my action and bonus action and then bringing the table to a grinding halt as I think ‘oh, I have movement. Do I want to be anywhere else right now? Is the anything I can do to be useful with this resource that is my right.’ I’ve been better lately, standing still if I don’t think of something immediately, helped by the fact that I know my current character wants to be closer to the danger than he should be.
This is where the concept of low-impact actions comes in. 5e has so many bonus actions that do so little and there are so many movement options available to the player that make no appreciable change to the battlefield, and these low-impact actions are where most of the time in combat is spent. If a player has something impactful to do, they usually know it and do it without hestitation. But when they’ve already done the impactful things and they’re struggling to think of anything at all they might want to do with their remaining, sacrosanct allotment of actions, that is where the combat really grinds.
That is the cost of the action economy.
We accept (pulling a number that feels right, no data) a 60% reduction in combat speed so we can pinch at pennies that so often turn out to be bottlecaps or little scraps of cardboard. Being willing to let those actions go doesn’t fix all the problems, but I think it is the biggest easy win in terms of making combat run smoother.
In my coming “Introduction to 1e” post, I’ll talk more about how the simultaneous turns and limited actions of 1e do away with the pressure of trying to use your precious movement each round. I was astonished at how rerolling initiative each round and allowing everyone to move at any time resulted in such a dynamic experience.