Hard Choices: Leadership and the Action Economy
I will be the first to admit that most players eventually stumble on how they can help one another out just by working together for a while. Eventually, players get used to their teammates and begin to work out some very clever tricks and tactics. However, if you really want to find out whether your team is truly functioning as a team, ask someone to give up a standard action for you. This is the true test of teamwork. And from the number of complaints I’ve seen and heard about the action economy and how much it hurts to miss with a daily power, it’s one that many teams fail.
Let’s go back to the true leaders: clerics, warlords, shamans, bards, and the like. Apart from being tactically clever, these leaders bring a combination of bonuses (buffs), healing, and condition removal to the team. And you might suspect that this is where my argument that everyone is a leader will fall apart. But these things are not unique to leader classes. Every character in the game can bring these benefits to the table. It is just that most players forget that the options exist or feel they just aren’t worth the effort.
For example, the Heal skill lets you grant someone else their second wind or allow someone else to make an immediate saving throw. With training, the skill check is trivial even at first level, but the DC is not indexed by level. That means that every character can reliably use these skills once they have a few levels under their belt.
Another example is the aid action. With this action, you can grant an ally a +2 bonus to attacks or defenses with no chance of failure (under the updated rules) or with a trivial attack roll (under the original rules). Another +2 bonus to attacks can be had simply by flanking. And this is not even mentioning any other creative idea that you, as a player, can come up with thanks to the magic of Page 42.
However, apart from the flanking thing, you might notice that all of these things have one feature in common: they all cost a standard action and this is where the action economy comes into play. ‘Action economy’ refers to the rules that govern how many actions a character can take and the relative cost of each action in terms of what opportunities you give up when you use a given action. It comes down to something economists call ‘opportunity cost.’ If you use your standard action to take a second wind, you give up the opportunity to attack because they are both standard actions, so second wind ‘costs’ you an attack. Granting someone a saving throw with a heal check also ‘costs’ the healer an attack, as does aiding an ally. As a result of the action economy, many players and DMs have deemed those actions too expensive. Obviously, I disagree. Sometimes, those actions can be well worth the lost attack.
Consider a battle in which the party’s defender gets stunned (save ends) very early in the fight when a lot of monsters are still running around. Suppose, even worse, that the party cleric could grant a saving throw, but his turn ended immediately before the fighter got stunned. Now the party is facing a situation in which they have no defender for at least one full round of monster actions. Now, you, as the barbarian, get to take your turn. You know you could make the Heal skill check easily, but you can also dish out a high damage attack. It won’t kill anyone just yet, but it will definitely bloody someone. But, what’s really more important: dishing out the damage or getting the fighter back into the game before his turn comes up and he loses any chance at contributing for that round?
Or let’s say its late in the battle and the party is hurting. Many enemies are still running around and all of your allies are bloodied. The warden has his second wind available, but you (the cleric) are out of Healing Words and utilities that could heal him. The warden is still keeping a couple of baddies locked down, but just isn’t likely to survive it for much longer. Suddenly, that Heal check doesn’t seem so expensive.
Now, these are situational examples. But that is the point. In general, an attack is an expensive thing to give up. But there are times when the equation changes and the attack just isn’t as valuable as keeping your leader or defender in play, getting your striker out of a dangerous situation, or getting that daze off of the controller so that he won’t spend his entire next turn maintaining his wall of fire.
Of course, its easy to look at the Heal check as a way to mitigate a bad situation. But aiding an ally is different. Its tougher to build a case for giving up an attack just to grant someone a 2-point bonus to their next attack or to their defenses. Or is it? Let’s try some other examples.
You are playing the single-target striker. The party is badly outnumbered by weak opponents (perhaps even a 20-minion hoedown). Sure, you could eliminate one opponent per round easily, but the defender can’t control that entire army. Everyone is going to have a few face-huggers on them pretty quickly and, if the invoker goes down, the fight is going to take a long time even if the party hits on every attack. So, maybe you decide to stand next to the invoker and keep his AC up by aiding him so that he doesn’t have to worry about getting overwhelmed and whittled down while he clears the field. Once everyone has a little breathing room, you can help mop up the stragglers.
Or suppose you are the paladin and the party is facing a powerful melee-based solo monster. All you have to do to keep it marked (and focussed on you) is stay next to it. Your attacks could be useful, but it could also be useful to boost the AC or attack rolls of the rogue standing behind the dragon and repeatedly stabbing in the kidney-spleen.
Or suppose you and your ally have a tough monster flanked. You are down to your at-will powers, but your ally is sitting on a daily power that could quickly end the skirmish. It hurts to miss with a daily power, right? Flanked is nice, but flanked and aided means an 80% or better hit rate on average.
Again, these examples show obvious, easy choices. Sometimes things are not so cut and dry. If the wizard gets stunned during a fight against two elites, it might not be worth trying to unstun him in lieu of a standard action. Your attack might contribute more than the wizard could. With two defenders on the field, one can be taken out of the action for a little while if the enemies don’t outnumber the party. If all of the enemies are bloodied, the striker should be finishing them off because each attack reduces the number of incoming attacks. Maybe that’s more helpful than reviving the leader. Or maybe someone else can get the leader conscious.
But, tactically speaking, there will always be situations in which the best thing you can do is help someone else do their thing, even at the cost of an attack. So, why don’t more players use these options? If it hurts so much to miss with a daily power, why don’t players announce (in character or out, depending on personal preference) that they can do something awesome but they’d appreciate some assistance? If being stun-locked is so terrible that every player hates it, why don’t more allies give up a single attack to make sure it doesn’t last too long?
I Didn’t Get to Tackle Anyone!
Yes, that’s the reason. We’re back to hockeying. The fact is that it is far cooler and far more fun to dish out an attack than it is to ‘waste a round’ giving a bonus, granting a save, or stabilizing a dying friend. Spending a standard action on anything other than an attack (even, in some cases, a second wind) is just not fun because you’ve given up a round of being awesome. I admit that I understand this mentality. It is a simple truth that everyone would rather score home runs than protect the wicket. That is why we have to teach children about sportsmanship and teamwork in elementary school. Because everyone can’t be the hero every time, but everyone wants to be.
But I’ve also seen groups of players, after a particularly hard fight, handing out high fives and backslaps. My players, for example, had a great fight against a nasty black dragon a few months ago that ended that way. The fight was going badly for a while, but it turned around when the players engaged in a perfect series of actions, each shutting down one of the dragon’s defenses or setting the next player up for a powerful strike. Ultimately, there was no one action that was the turning point. Not one player did any one one thing that turned the battle around. Each action followed on the last and each action assisted the next.
In the end, when you choose to participate in a team sport (and D&D is definitely a team sport), you agree to give up some of your individual awesome in favor of helping the group be awesome. You might lose an occasional round of amazingly cool action, but there will always be more rounds of combat. But more importantly, when everyone at the table is playing the team game, you can count on getting help when you need your daily power to hit or when you get stunned or dominated or when you really need your standard action and can’t afford to take a second wind yourself.
When everyone is tripping over each other to be the hero, everyone ends up looking foolish and eventually you end up enjoying a whirlwind tour of a monster’s digestive tract. But when everyone is waiting for their own moment and helping everyone else sieze thiers, everyone gets to enjoy the spotlight and the team, as a whole, wins.