Putting More “Action” in Action Points

by Ameron (Derek Myers) on January 17, 2011

As D&D has evolved over the years many rules and mechanics have been tweaked and changed in order to make the game better. I think one of the greatest improvements was when actions points were introduced with the Eberron Campaign Setting back in 3e D&D. They began as bonus to your d20 roll. Expending an action point meant a good attack became a great attack. With 4e D&D the action point was changed and this good idea became a great idea. Now you actually got another action when you used an action point. Awesome!

Recently I’ve been thinking back to how Wizards of the Coast described the original action point mechanic. One of the reasons it was introduced was to add an extra level of excitement to encounters. This was your chance to have your character do something truly remarkable. You suddenly gave greater consideration to trying new things that were over the top and spectacular.

Knowing you had an action point in your back pocket, you weren’t just swinging from the rope (which you knew you could do easily enough with a very attainable skill check), you were willing to try it one-handed while you fired a crossbow. Sure it was going to need an exceptional roll to work like you imagined it, but with the action point there to give your roll a bump you were willing to give it a try. It may not have worked every time, but I saw a lot of players try a lot of heroic (crazy) things when we were still using 3e action points.

Then we moved to 4e D&D and the action point gave you another action. Don’t get me wrong, I like it. I like it a lot. In a game where everyone gets one attack action on their turn, making two attacks can be a truly decisive moment during combat. What I’ve come to realize is that the all of those really off the wall ideas that made 3e D&D adventures so awesome (because of the way action points used to work) have all but disappeared in 4e. Or at least that’s been my experience.

Players know how the mechanics of 4e D&D work and they rarely stray outside of their comfort zone. During games I’ve been part of, players seem a lot more reluctant to perform those heroic action they’re imagining when they know that they need a 19 or 20 to do so successfully. If only they had the reassurance that the old action points provided. And herein lays my disappointment with the way action points work now.

The very name action point sound exciting. When your character chooses to use his action point it should be a big deal. Something cool should happen. More importantly the players should have a lot of flexibility when they choose to use an action point. This is one of those instances where the rules as written should be more of a guideline than an absolute. If a player imagines a truly heroic scenario that is, perhaps, beyond their traditional abilities, the DM should be open to allowing it.

In my experience, I’ve learned that some of the most heroic behaviour doesn’t happen on your turn, but on someone else’s. With this in mind there are two immediate actions I allow players to undertake if they choose to use their action point: Take a Bullet and Last Second Grab.

  • Take a Bullet is when one PC is targeted with an attack and an adjacent PC chooses to take the hit for them. It’s usually played out in slow motion as the second PC screams “Nooooooo” and physically moves in front of the attack targeting the first PC. Mechanically it’s the same as the Paladin level 2 utility power, Martyrs Blessing.
  • Last Second Grab is when one PC is knocked off of a ledge and fails the save to catch the ledge, but before they fall and take an obscene amount of damage a second PC grabs them at the last possible second.

In both of these examples a player consciously decides to take action to save the life of a comrade. In my mind this is one of the most heroic actions any PCs can take. That’s why I allow any player to use an action point and take these actions. These actions aren’t technically allowed but as I said above when it comes to using action points I like to use a broad and generous interpretation of what can and cannot be done.

These are certainly not the only actions that I’ve allowed at my table when a PC uses an action point, but they are the ones that are used most often and with the greatest heroic effect. I like to let the rule of cool and, of course, the role-playing guide my hand when making a ruling on non-traditional uses of action points. When the players know that I’ll give them greater flexibility to try those truly heroic actions I mentioned at the beginning of this article, they’ll be a lot more likely to think imaginatively and try things outside of their comfort zone again.

What are you thoughts on action points? Do you think action points are fine as they are or do you allow for more liberal actions when players use them in combat? Am I being too liberal by allowing players to take immediate actions and expending an action point in the process? Do you think the 3e action point mechanic where players added to their d20 roll was better than the current 4e mechanic? Or do you think actions points in general are too powerful and should perhaps be curbed back?

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1 Tourq January 17, 2011 at 9:42 am

I wholeheartedly agree. Action points are great, but they could be greater. Personally, I’d like to see action points come into play more often, as opposed to other mechanics. The options are limitless. I think a +5 bonus to a physical action would be a great way to use it.

Now, normally I don’t advocate the use of house-rules (that has gone wrong way too often in our games), but I would definitely increase the number of ways an action point may be used the next time I run 4E.

2 Blinkey January 17, 2011 at 9:48 am

An interesting read! I have to say I like this idea. It’s certainly not something I see everyone adopting but in a relaxed group it gives the chance for exciting intercessions that are too wasteful (action-wise) to set up by application of the standard rules. (I guess to do this normally you’d need to ready an action with a fairly specific trigger and even then i’m not convinced the timing works out).

Tactically (and unless your action point does unusual things from PP features etc) if you plan to use an action point, its best to use it early and take out a monster completely. These options provide an incentive to hold onto it and not to merely spam attacks round 1 (this in a good thing).

I’m all for trying to open up game resource options. Allowing the action point to do other things feels similar to something I got my group trying with healing surges; expending them as level-scaling gold contributions towards some ritual categories or to slightly bump dice rolls.

I’ll certainly pitch this to my players and adopt it if there’s no objections.

Keep up the good work.


Blinkey 😉

3 Alton January 17, 2011 at 10:11 am

I think it is a superb article. When playing v3.5, we dabbled a little into the action point, but never used it long enough to really get familiar with it. This article put it into perspective.

I think using the action point as an immediate interrupt is a great idea. I would even go far enough to allow a character to bull rush the attacker, providing a -5 to the attack against your teammate and giving the attacker +2 to hit you. If successful in the bull rush attack, both you and the attacker are knocked prone. That would be cool.

I will be bringing this question of Action Point use up at our next session. Thanks for the information.

4 Sully January 17, 2011 at 10:50 am

Great article! Action points at my table are typically relegated to do-over status when somebody misses an attack. Boring! I’m thinking of making some powers that get bonuses to hit and damage when you expend an action point with them.

5 Camelot January 17, 2011 at 11:07 am

I already allow players to spend action points to take an action as if they had readied it, without having to had spent the standard action to ready it. It balances, since you could have used the action point to ready the action, and it lets you be a little more flexible when circumstances are dire. Of course, you have to move your initiative position to right before the triggering creature.

I’d also say that allowing an action point to grant a +5 bonus to any already rolled d20 roll is fair, especially when a player uses their daily as a last resort and misses, meaning they’re going to be killed next turn. It’s exciting and not gamebreaking, so it should be in the game!

Of course, you also have to remember that you can only spend one action point, for any reason, in a single encounter.

6 BrianLiberge January 17, 2011 at 11:26 am

This is something I already make practice of to an extent and I think it works great.

With my group, the players have a strong sense that an action point is really for that extra attack against that powerful enemy. They tend not to use it to be ‘spectacularly heroic’ because its a resource they might need.

However, in situations that need a bit of oompf, in that moment of ‘this could be really awesome if there were rules for it’ its almost always my answer.

Example: a character gets pushed off a ledge. I generally would give a difficult athletics roll to grab on instead of falling. The character fails and falls and wants to know if there are any smaller ledges or branches to try to grab on the way down. My answer: Do you have an action point?

7 Ragnarok January 17, 2011 at 12:12 pm

In my game we utilize FYGMIA points.
That stands for “F” You Game Master I’m Awesome.
We are rewarded these when we really roleplay.

We then get to use them in a variety of ways that we have established for our game. The majority of the time we use them 3E style. add a 1d4 to our d20 roll.

8 Jess January 17, 2011 at 12:58 pm

I’ve made some changes to how action points work in my 4e game. I wanted to encourage more cinematic and heroic actions. I come up with a list of things that the players can spend action points for, as well as made in clear that they are more than welcome to come up with others as well.
I played in the 3e Eberron setting with action points and love them, but didn’t love spending one and then rolling so low that the action point didn’t matter. Instead I’m allowing the players to spend it after the roll, so that they know they are using it to the best situation, rather than wasting it.
If they save up multiples, I let them regain the use of an encounter or daily power as well, which has worked out nicely since some of them are just expended if you miss.
Lastly, I pulled a page from White Wolf’s Exalted and implemented their stunt system. This has done wonders to encourage players towards more cinematic effects as being rewarded with a stunt gives them a bonus to the rolls necessary for it, as well as potentially regaining an action point. Between stunts and action point, we’ve had a very action packed game so far.

9 Jacob Dieffenbach January 17, 2011 at 1:45 pm

I’ve started allowing, encouraging, and suggesting action points for various off-the-wall behaviors like taking an action out of turn or the like.

But I do agree, I miss the 3.5 Eberronian Action Point. Every single encounter or roleplaying scenario, I would hear players gleefully spitting out “I use an action point!” to do some pretty ridiculous stuff. Likewise, if my players did something crazy-awesome, but they failed my DC, I would be able to lightly suggest “So…. gonna action point that?” and it was good times all around.

I don’t want to change the action point mechanic because, like you, I really like it where it is. What I’ve decided to do instead is a really simple house rule, it really gets the job done:

You can use healing surges after your d20 roll, but before I declare the result of the roll, to add 1d6 to your d20 result. You can only do this once per round. At level 11 you can roll 2d6 and drop the lower result; at level 21 you can roll 3d6 and drop the lowest two results.

Combined with some other house rules, including ‘dailies and healing surges are once per adventure, not once per day’, it can lead to some decent logistics of how many healing surges to use for healing and how many to save for dice bonuses… and I’m a fan of long-term logistics like that. But more importantly, it makes it so players have that option! Bringing back fond memories of rolling 1d6 to bring your roll just over the edge of the DC… or turning a natural 5 on an attack roll into a natural 6-11, maybe turning a miss to a hit…

Side benefit, roleplaying encounters now can use up healing surges, so DMs don’t feel like they’re being too easy going if they have a roleplaying-centric adventure.

10 Jeff Carlsen | Apathy Games January 17, 2011 at 1:48 pm

I’ve played different games with different systems for this. They’ve been called Karma, Bennies, and recently, Action points. It can be difficult to find the right balance of options for a game. Most games allow these to be spent on a reroll, but D&D 4e already has those options built into the class structure, so I wouldn’t go there. But, the idea of a whole extra action, as introduced, was unique and very cool.

I suggest the following uses for action points:

*Extra action as if the action were readied.
*+5 to any non-damage roll, added after the fact.
*Use your Second Wind ability. I would take away the ability to use it without an action point.

Then, I would award more action points. I’d give out three to each player at the beginning of each session, and award additional for good roleplaying and other things that impress me. I would stop giving them out after every other adventure, and I would remove the limitation on how many you can use per encounter.

11 Captain DM January 17, 2011 at 10:23 pm

Great post! To be honest, I haven’t thought about changing up Action Points for anything else. The group in the game I’m running just uses it as a mulligan when they fail a move during encounters. These ideas are good ways to actually put some more significance on the Action Point. I’m going to talk it over with the table and see what they think about this, but I’m sure they’d welcome some more options being on the table.

12 Ameron January 17, 2011 at 10:43 pm

I’ve been toying with the idea of letting action points be traded in for a bonus to a roll (in much the same way they were used in 3e). Where I expect resistance is that my group has become so comfortable with the idea that an action point grants another action they will likely balk at the suggestion to give that up, even for a plus to their d20. However, all it takes is one miss by a narrow margin during a critical fight and they’ll reconsider.

Thanks for the kind words. I first relaxed action points in my home game with great success. However, I found an unexpected willingness to try these modifications during public play at a con during an LFR game and it made for some of the most exciting and memorable parts of the entire adventure. Maybe I was just with a really good group that day but it made for a really fun time.

I absolutely agree, now that I’m playing almost exclusively at the paragon tier, that the action point is almost always used in the first round to maximize damage output and take advantage of paragon path special abilities that kick in with an action point. In my mind this isn’t how the designers intended for us to use action points, but that’s certainly how it’s progressed. Not a horrible thing, just a little off centre (in my opinion).

I’m glad you enjoyed this article. I’ve never considered adding other modifiers to the house ruled immediate actions granted by action points but I see no reason to disallow it. If it’s going to mean the players are more likely to try heroic things then go for it.

Action points as a do-over. I love it. I’m going to suggest this to my tables right away. It’s so simple. I can’t believe I hadn’t thought of that before. Thanks for the suggestion.

I actually let the players use more than one action point during each encounter for a couple of sessions just to see what would happen. BAD idea. PCs are already spectacular, giving them the chance to use more than one action point during an encounter gave them a HUGE advantage. After two weeks I admitted that it was a failed experiment and we went back to following the rules as written.

“Do you have an action point?” I like it. This practice really reminds players that the DM isn’t out to get them. Working together and finding ways to do fantastic things makes everyone’s gaming experience more enjoyable. Thanks for the suggestion.

This solution gives players a combination of both the 3e and 4e action points; best of both worlds. Good thinking.

It sounds like you and I are looking for the same outcome from our players. I kept calling it heroic actions in the article but cinematic is certainly another way to describe it. I haven’t made a formal list of what I’ll allow but the players have gotten a good feel for it and if it makes sense for the character given the circumstances and the role-playing supports it, I usually say yes.

@Jacob Dieffenbach
I really like your 4e interpretation of the 3e mechanics by allowing the players to use action points as bonus d6s on rolls. I think I’ll try this and see if my group is receptive to the idea. As for healing surges, that’s an entirely different discussion that I’m not even going to get into here. All I’m going to say is that if that works for your group then that’s great. I can easily get behind and house rules that make the game more enjoyable for everyone.

@Jeff Carlsen | Apathy Games
I’m a big believer that action points should be more plentiful. In fact I’ll often reward them for exceptional role-playing or creativity. Awarding action points only after every other encounter seems too restrictive. If players know I’m likely to give them more actions points more often they’re that much more likely to use them frequently and creatively.

13 Ben. January 18, 2011 at 9:01 am

I’d offer this article Action: The Skill Challenge that I wrote for Kobold Quarterly, but I’m biased.

There’s also a great section in John Wick’s Play Dirty where he talks about “Villain Points” versus “Hero Points,” which goes inline with Ragnarok’s comment about awarding the points for good RP.


14 Ragnarok January 18, 2011 at 2:43 pm

can’t take full credit because we stole the idea of FYGMIA points from somewhere but we tweaked them to really encourage RPing

15 QuackTape January 19, 2011 at 10:18 am

I’ve been thinking about this recently too. I’m starting up an Eberron game that will focus less on combat and more skill challenges in a very cloak and dagger sort of way. Combat will be made quick and deadly and an action point there will certainly turn the tide of battle, but I want to make use of them outside of combat too since “I spend an action point to make another thievery check on the locked door” seems unnecessary when time and pressure are already worked into the difficulty.

I’m going to try a lot of things, but here is one I think is note worthy. An action point will allow them to almost retcon something they did in preparation for the mission. A locked door and no lockbust chalk? Spend an action point to remember that you bought an ample supply during your last trip to market. This could be really useful as a player could materialize a scroll they wish they had, a climbers kit, an everlasting rose to give to a noble, or any number of other useful things (limited by creativity and quick wits mostly). It could even be useful in combat when the players, incapable of finishing off a Troll remember they bought some Alchemist’s Fire from that roving trader they met before. I might even demand that the characters tell a quick “flashback” story to when they acquired it to increase the RPing and have it fit in.

I do like giving a bonus to a roll, but I agree with others who say that sort of detracts from other abilities. Why play a Deva if you can add to a roll another way? … unless they stacked in which case the Deva suddenly can nearly ensure a hit on one power per combat (+5 to 14 easily). Rerolls would similarly detract from Elves, Halflings, or Avengers I’d be afraid and my one Elf player wouldn’t feel as cool anymore when he rerolls that missed daily.

16 Albert January 20, 2011 at 5:01 am

I never knew thats how action points were used back in 3ed! That sounds really cool and would really shake things up at the table! In our groups we tend to just use the action point to keep on hitting stuff. I like it but if we could use it to do some crazy risky action movie move as well then that would be like having ice cream with your cake. I like the way you think, Ameron.

17 Sunyaku January 22, 2011 at 7:16 pm

This is a great idea, although I think I’m going to give it some thought before implementing it into my home campaign. I don’t want to limit the types of actions players perform, but at the same time I don’t want games to focus too much on the “stack” of actions in play, with action points functioning like “interrupts”.

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