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General Breaking Out of "Default Actions"

MarkB

Legend
I feel like folks are getting hung up on the examples. :/

In this case, it was a drow ambush. We were trapped inside a cave by darkness / black tentacles, and the enemy casters were on the far side. The options were "hit low level mooks," "try your luck charging through the black tentacles," or "prevent your buddy from getting strangled to death."

My point is that defaulting to the best case scenario can often be a mistake in strategic thinking.
One issue is that it's hard to quantify the effectiveness of non-standard actions, because they rely upon (a) the player having a sufficient grasp of the imaginary situation to picture the existence of the option, (b) the DM agreeing that such an option is something the character is able to attempt, within the bounds of their available actions, and (c) the DM not deciding that it's going to require the use of a skill or ability with which the character has no aptitude. If the warlock blows his action on dragging his buddy out of those tentacles, and winds up having to make an untrained Athletics check using his dump-stat Strength score, it's probably not going to go well.
 

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NaturalZero

Adventurer
One issue is that it's hard to quantify the effectiveness of non-standard actions, because they rely upon (a) the player having a sufficient grasp of the imaginary situation to picture the existence of the option, (b) the DM agreeing that such an option is something the character is able to attempt, within the bounds of their available actions, and (c) the DM not deciding that it's going to require the use of a skill or ability with which the character has no aptitude. If the warlock blows his action on dragging his buddy out of those tentacles, and winds up having to make an untrained Athletics check using his dump-stat Strength score, it's probably not going to go well.
Yeah. I'm never going to spend my action trying to drag someone with my Cha character instead of dealing damage and removing threats. The big part of the issue is that i know EXACTLY how the mechanics of my attack works - I roll to attack, deal damage, and move closer to a point where the enemy can't attack. When it comes to dragging someone out of some kind spell effect, the mechanical play of the scenario is less well defined and is potentially completely ineffective. It makes more sense to default to the mechanic that has a guaranteed chance of being useful.
 

Fenris-77

Small God of the Dozens
Supporter
The mechanics in D&D are the main culprit here IMO. D&D has pretty great combat mechanics - they're clear, reliable and they do what it says on the tin. Once you step outside that box things can get a little muddled. The rules involved in 'other actions' aren't nearly as well defined and a whole lot rests on the style of the DM for the game and how he tends to adjudicate those actions. Personally, I tend to encourage those other actions by making them punchy and effective and reliable enough that they seem like a reasonable option when set next to whatever combat action the character is good at.

If you don't incentivize those actions to a certain extent the rules of D&D will disincline players form attempting them, either though fuzzy outcomes, or lack of specificity in the rules. If the player can't picture what pulling their comrade out of the tentacles looks like, if they can't gauge their chance of success, or even what resolution mechanics will be in play, then they aren't nearly as likely to make the attempt.
 

iserith

Magic Wordsmith
I find a lot of these concerns about less defined actions having poor adjudication go away when the player is clear about his or her goal (what the character wants to achieve) and approach (what the character does to achieve it), particularly if the DM is willing to negotiate a bit to get to a fair adjudication or result. It's when the player isn't clear about the goal and approach or the DM just adjudicates in a black box or requires players to commit to an action before the DC or relevant check (if any) is announced that things can get problematic. Transparency on the part of the DM can make a big difference in terms of how comfortable players are in trying these "nonstandard" actions.
 

MichaelSomething

Adventurer
You also have to take into account time. Won't combats a lot longer if every turn was required an extra minute to calculate and negotiate non standard maneuvers?? I thought people wanted good pacing and flow??
 

iserith

Magic Wordsmith
You also have to take into account time. Won't combats a lot longer if every turn was required an extra minute to calculate and negotiate non standard maneuvers?? I thought people wanted good pacing and flow??
My experience suggests that there is no impact on pacing. I give a DC, a check, and what failure looks like (if it's not obvious). My game's still faster than every other game I've played in or observed. The speed or pacing of a game being slowed down comes from other areas, not this.
 

Sadras

Hero
When you want to have player consider non-standard actions, you have to make them worthwhile. In one adventure, the party was fighting in a torture chamber. I had fully described the room before combat began, and one of the players remembered me mentioning an Iron Maiden. He pushed the torturer into the Iron Maiden, then shut the door. I ruled an amount of damage that was maybe slightly higher than normal. The next player in the initiative went up to the Iron Maiden, opened it and then slammed it shut again. This repeated by each PC, and the torture was quickly slain without spending resources.
Be Quick or Be Dead
 

Sabathius42

Bree-Yark
As a player: I will sometimes be the "wizard that steps up and calls out the ogre" as in the article when I find my fellow players are being much too cautious or spending too much time optimizing or planning against an easy encounter just to move things along. If I die doing it...oh well.

As a GM: I try to encourage playrs doing things out-of-the-routine occasionaly in and out of combat by giving generous bonuses or extra rewards when its attempted. I don't want combat to degenerate in to every round being 5 different goofball environment interactions, but if each player does one or two per combat I find it breaks up the monotony of Eldritch blasting, arrow shooting, and attack-move-hiding.
 

jgsugden

Legend
When I teach the game, I don't teach mechanics until the second session. I tell them a description of the character I built for them in plain English, and then tell them to tell me what they're doing in the story. We add mechanics over a few sessions, and the resulting role players tend to think less in terms of "their action menu" and more in terms of "story elements". It obviously does not work like that all the time, but it does enough of the time to convince me it is the best way to go.

As we play, the best way to encourage this type of thinking is to create the obvious "off the menu" situations and let them trigger those. Setting off an avalanche, burning the rope bridge, etc... are things that are easy to set up vernally for the players to capitalize upon.
 

Dausuul

Legend
To me, this is where the 'help' action can shine a bit: "I push the bookshelf over onto the enemy" is a nice description for a 'help' action. No roll needed - unless, of course, there's some kind of interesting consequence for failure. But that chance of failure often discourages players from being creative.
See, this also illustrates the problem: The Help action, in most scenarios, is terrible tactics. There are rare cases where it is worthwhile, but mostly you will accomplish far less than if you just swung a sword or cast a spell yourself.

This isn't really a flaw in the game design, per se. The Help action is not situational--it's usable pretty much all the time--so it has to be balanced conservatively to keep it from taking over combat. But there's no sense using unorthodox tactics if all they get you is a measly Help action. The DM has to encourage nonstandard tactics by providing nonstandard (and substantial) rewards.
 

Saelorn

Hero
Even if attacking isn't the best course of action, it's rarely so far behind that the difference in success rate won't make up for it. Because a character is built to succeed at their default action, which means they're much more likely to succeed at that, than they are to succeed with any other action they might take.

You'd have to be in a situation where the default action was actually detrimental, or where the non-standard action was pretty much guaranteed, before it was worth acting outside of your specialty. In any given situation, the most important thing is that you do something; finding the optimal action for that situation is a distant second.

Of course, there are other games where an improvised action isn't tantamount to wasting your turn, but D&D is not that sort of game; and it hasn't been, for at least two decades.
 

TaranTheWanderer

Adventurer
See, this also illustrates the problem: The Help action, in most scenarios, is terrible tactics. There are rare cases where it is worthwhile, but mostly you will accomplish far less than if you just swung a sword or cast a spell yourself.

This isn't really a flaw in the game design, per se. The Help action is not situational--it's usable pretty much all the time--so it has to be balanced conservatively to keep it from taking over combat. But there's no sense using unorthodox tactics if all they get you is a measly Help action. The DM has to encourage nonstandard tactics by providing nonstandard (and substantial) rewards.
Well, in some situations, the help action is better. I can knock someone prone and risk failure and now my goal of giving other melee combatants advantage is useless, or I can use the help action and guarantee success. But you're correct, in that situation, unless, for some reason my sword can't do damage, it's just better to attack.
 

I struggle with this one. I have a player of a wizard who oftend finished an entire adventuring day with the same spell slots they started with, having done nothing but firebolt. I'm honestly not sure how to deal with it, or even if I should be delaing with it.
 

billd91

Hobbit on Quest
I struggle with this one. I have a player of a wizard who oftend finished an entire adventuring day with the same spell slots they started with, having done nothing but firebolt. I'm honestly not sure how to deal with it, or even if I should be delaing with it.
I figure it’s their choice. If the other players disapprove, it’s up to them to express it.
 

I struggle with this one. I have a player of a wizard who oftend finished an entire adventuring day with the same spell slots they started with, having done nothing but firebolt. I'm honestly not sure how to deal with it, or even if I should be delaing with it.
Cantrips are technically your "0-MP" move or your "default weapon" ala the Martial character's basic melee weapon attack.

Penalizing them for it would be a negative.
 

TaranTheWanderer

Adventurer
I struggle with this one. I have a player of a wizard who oftend finished an entire adventuring day with the same spell slots they started with, having done nothing but firebolt. I'm honestly not sure how to deal with it, or even if I should be delaing with it.
I have a druid character and, in the game I play, I never really feel threatened enough to need to do anything other than cast cantrips. I feel the party can, mostly, handle most of the encounters we deal with.

Most of my spellcasting deals with out of combat issues or, occasionally, dispelling spell effects. In that game, I feel the DM could crank the game up a notch to make it more deadly. But I don't think this is the issue the OP is talking about but, maybe, that might be why your wizard never casts other spells.
 

Umbran

Mod Squad
Staff member
One issue is that it's hard to quantify the effectiveness of non-standard actions, because they rely upon (a) the player having a sufficient grasp of the imaginary situation to picture the existence of the option, (b) the DM agreeing that such an option is something the character is able to attempt, within the bounds of their available actions, and (c) the DM not deciding that it's going to require the use of a skill or ability with which the character has no aptitude.
I think this is a really major set of points here. We can unpack them a little bit, to see a bit more...

(a) The player having a sufficient grasp of the imaginary situation.
Has the GM given sufficient description of that situation?​
Does the player have any narrative control such that they can make a situation happen if the GM has given a blank slate?​

(b) the DM agreeing that such an option is something the character is able to attempt
Does the system work on "Yes, and..." principles?​

(c) The DM not deciding that it is going to require something with which the character has no aptitude
See previous not about narrative control.​
How precise are skill definitions in the system?​
What kind of resources does the player have to spend to cover gaps?​

D&D kind of flops on all of these. Games that allow players more narrative control, and/or have resources players can spend in a fairly broad manner will do better at this.

In Fate, a character can almost always find a way to at least create an advantage for someone - and this is the normal mode for addressing Big Bad Threats - rather than plink away with a bunch of small independent efforts that might hit or miss, like in D&D, you cooperate to create a great many advantages, and stack them up on one cinematic successful blow. Cortex+ has some similar mechanics for handing reliable and useful bennies to other players. Moves in Apocalypse World games have very broad definitions - so long as you can make a description within the bounds, an action has a chance.

Swords of the Serpentine has points a character can spend to assist cinematic actions in a way the player can expect will have impact, when in D&D, the player would have no expectation of success - I played in a game where the party was fighting a naga-like creature. It was devastating us. I would up in a situation where I looped a rope around its neck, and jumped out a window while holding the rope - there's no clear rule for this sort of nonsense in D&D.

There are things you can do with D&D to move it in this direction - allow characters to add proficiency bonus based on the action being within their general class shtick, or within their background, to cover when the character doesn't have skill - or just give everybody more skills! Allow characters to build up more than one Inspiration at a time, and spend them when they need them to try something risky.
 

Bohandas

Adventurer
I know some game systems give a bonus to dramatic actions. You could do something like that. It would encourage varied tactics bcause too much repetition causes things to stop being dramatic
 

As a DM?

Your best course of action is to include environmental things in encounters that can be interacted with.

Levers to pull. Statues to topple. Cauldrons to tip over. Vats of acid to shatter. Ropes to swing from. Platforms to leap from. Ritual books to activate. Strange potions to drink. Pits to activate or shove enemies into. Magic items linked to the BBEG that when messed with, weaken him. Horns to blow. Arbelests to man. Etc etc etc.

I love including these in big set piece battles (without over using them) and in smaller encounters as well.

I once staged a super deadly fight vs some vampires in a run down town (post apocalyptic style). The plumbing had broken leaving a river of water across the back third of the room, there was ruined debris everywhere, magical darkness and a hole in one wall that led to an adjoining house.

The PCs didnt think to use the water or the neighbouring house to their advantage vs the Vampires.
 

Li Shenron

Legend
So my question to the board is this: Have you seen another player fall into this trap? And if so, what's the best course of action? Should you offer advice and point out other options? Or is it not worth the risk of activating the old, "Dude, let me play my own character?"
Well as I player my favourite class is Wizard, and my favourite Fighter subclass is Battlemaster, so I don't think that's my own style of playing. But as a DM I let players play the way they want. Of course if they start complaining they haven't much else to do, or if they seem to be getting bored, I can point out what other actions they can try.
 

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