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Understanding the Economy of Actions

by Mike on 22 November 2010

We're going to get a little gamey in today's article, putting on our lab coats and drawing equations out on a chalk board. Today we're going to talk about the economy of actions in D&D 4e and how knowing about it helps you keep the challenge high in your paragon and epic-tier games.

What is the economy of actions?

The economy of actions is the sum total of actions a group of PCs have compared to that of the monsters they face. Early on in your D&D game the economy doesn't matter too much. PCs use move actions to move around, minor actions to draw weapons or use a potion or other minor things, and a standard to hit things with spells or swords. Monsters, likewise, have a similar economy.

At low levels, the action economy isn't really important. It only becomes important when the PC's economy of actions begins to grow, and then skyrockets, as they get closer to level 30.

At paragon, the disparity of the economy of actions between PCs and monsters becomes a lot more visible. A stunned solo monster loses all its actions while PCs begin to use minors and move actions to gain extra attacks and use powerful magic items. They also start to get a lot of triggered actions or extra ways to take opportunity attacks. Now the economy begins to sway heavily in favor of the PCs. It's not uncommon to see paragon characters taking four or five actions a turn with two to three attacks. Adding in action points and it gets even higher.

Monsters don't really get much of an improvement to their economy of actions. Elites and solos start to get minor actions and triggered actions that hinder the party but this doesn't compare to the amount PCs get.

The economy of actions in high epic

At the high epic tier, the economy of actions can get totally out of control. This is likely due to tactical warlords who give out a huge number of free action basic attacks on top of all the other actions other PCs get. Where high paragon characters might get five or six possible actions a turn, now they might get twelve.

Even if your powerful solo monsters activated twice a round and included a large number of interrupts, they will never match up to the amount of attacks of a high epic group.

Matching the economy of actions

So how do you match up against the number of actions a group might have? There are two easy ways: Auras and environmental effects.

As discussed previously, auras have the advantage of scaling perfectly well with the number of PCs in your group. They activate as PCs activate, inflicting automatic damage or status effects with no action taken by your monsters.

Likewise, environmental effects scale with PCs. They happen automatically as PCs enter zoned areas or when PCs already in a zone activate.

But what about the above-mentioned tactical warlord boosts? What happens when you're seeing thirty or forty attacks in a single round? Even an aura or environmental effect can't keep up with that. Well, here's a high-level secret for you: bring back the fire shield.


Back in the early days of D&D, some characters had a fire shield that damaged attackers every time they attacked. There's even a level 6 wizard spell that does basically the same thing. Take this idea and add it to your powerful solos or elite monsters. Every time they are struck with an attack, they take damage back.

These work better than immediate interrupts or reactions because immediates still only happen once a round. If your group is attacking 30 times a round, it will only trigger once. A no-action counterattack however, will activate every time a monster is hit.

Here are three example counterattacks:

Psychic Riposte

When struck with a ranged or melee attack, the attacker takes 10 psychic damage per tier.

Fire Shield

When struck with a melee attack, the attacker takes (75% normal level damage) in fire damage.

Shield of the Dead

When struck with a melee or ranged attack, the attacker takes 10 necrotic damage per tier and ongoing 5 necrotic damage per tier (save ends).

These are very powerful examples that should be reserved for your most dangerous monsters. You should also consider including an in-battle skill challenge to remove such shields. For example, three minor action arcana checks (only one success per round) can dispel a fire shield. This helps slow down your group from simply destroying a high-level solo monster but doesn't force them to take all that damage for the entire combat.

Considering the economy of actions

If you're running a low or mid-level heroic tier game, likely this isn't much of a worry for you. As your group gets higher in level, however, you'll want to consider the economy of actions you'll find in your battles. If you begin to see it swaying far over to the side of the PCs, consider using environmental effects, auras, and counterattacks to bring the economy of actions back in favor of your monsters to keep the challenge your PCs face high.

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