The 4th Action: Standard, Move, Minor… Role-Playing

by Wimwick (Neil Ellis) on February 2, 2011

Combat in 4e D&D allows players to take three actions  on their turn: standard, move and minor. Different combinations of these actions are possible, but using these three actions are the basis for a round of combat.

Since the release of 4e many people have complained that combat is far too slow. The amount of options available and interupt powers just slow things down too much.

In a recent article Gamefiend from At-Will noted that “the speed of 4e is not a bug, rather it’s a feature.” I commend the full article to your attention (The Speed of Choice: the Real Reason your 4e Fights are so Damn Slow) as Gamefiend has hit on some very interesting points. Of course the speed of combat isn’t the true complaint that many have with 4e D&D. If this were the case the countless articles on speeding up combat that exist would be all that any gaming group would require.

However, the speed of combat isn’t the true issue with 4e D&D. Rather it is the cause of the issue which is a lack of time remaining to develop key role-playing opportunities. This is perhaps most prevalent in organized play where players only have four hours to finish an adventure, but it is also an issue for those playing with their home groups. If it takes approximately 10 encounters to gain a level and the average four hour session only has two or three combat encounters the pace of levelling and the game is very slow. If there is no room for role-playing in between combat encounters, D&D becomes more of a roll-playing game.

This is where the 4th action comes into play.

What is the 4th action?

The 4th action is a tool that can be used to add more role-playing opportunities into your game. During combat, a players turn consists of three actions. This fourth action is the player’s opportunity to do more than name the power they use and the actions they take. It is the opportunity for the player to get into their character and embellish their actions. After all what is more exciting jumping over difficult terrain or doing a back flip over difficult terrain while firing your bow?

The 4th action is not meant to take a great deal of time during the players turn, it is simply an extra action that allows the player to immerse themselves into their character. The theory being if the character becomes more immersed in their character during combat, then they’ll be more emmersed out of combat as well which should lead to enhanced role-playing situations.

Introducing the 4th action is one thing, having players make use of it is another. In order to accomplish this I suggest offering a reward. Players who successfully engage in the 4th action during combat are awarded an action point after every encounter. This means a player can to spend an action point in every encounter which increases the drama and sense of adventure experienced. Recently Ameron wrote an article about Putting More “Action” in Action Points. The article touches on how action points can make combat more dramatic through alternate uses of action points. If more action points are available, then every combat becomes an opportunity for greater drama and role-playing.

Yesterday RPG Musings added to the discussion of slow combat in 4e with a great article on Speeding up D&D 4E. In the article AlioTheFool writes “the key is to be able to show people how character progression can be made through role-playing, rather than just dungeon-delving, and put a system in place to do so.” I would argue that character progression only occurs through role-playing.

Combat and other encounters provide experience which is the mechanic that allows characters to gain levels. This allows for new powers and new monsters to be faced, but the character as a person doesn’t grow. That progression only occurs when a player actively role-plays their character. By using a tool like the 4th Action, DMs are asking players to role-play in a non-traditional way. Typically combat and role-playing are two separate yet vital parts of D&D. By merging the two together the traditional boundary is broken down with the hope of enhancing the role-playing experience for everyone involved.

Fair warning should be provided to DMs who are looking to increase the amount of role-playing at their table. Some players just aren’t interested. I can recall with clarity a situation years ago where Ameron introduced a role-playing element to a group of players who were more interested in rolling dice. One players response was very blunt, “We’ve been doing just fine without this role-playing crap until now. I don’t know why you needed to introduce it!” The player promptly had his character exit the role-playing situation awaiting the next combat opportunity. For the curious we were playing AD&D 2e.

In the recent Save My Game column of Dungeon, Stephen Radney-MacFarland discusses how to challenge players beyond combat and skill challenges. Essentially to create interesting and dynamic role-playing opportunities that characters are required to interact with. While this point might sound obvious I think many DMs miss this point or rely on their players to take the initiative when it comes to role-playing.

Unfortunately, many players choose to ignore or disregard role-playing situations as it distracts from combat which is where experience is earned. If this is the case for your group and you want to encourage more role-playing consider having your players level after fewer combats, but with more role-playing situations replacing those encounters.

Consider the situation in our article Screw Morals, Just Keep the Game Moving. To summarize the article the party sacrificed a great role-playing situation as the hour was late and there was a desire to finish combat. Had we instead focused on the role-playing aspects of the encounter the entire situation would have been more intense and threatening. We wouldn’t have finished that night, but the entire encounter would have been far more meaningful.

Many complain that 4e D&D runs too much like a MMO and that you can’t role-playing in 4e. Such arguments are nonsense and are made by those who haven’t attempted to role-play or who can’t get beyond the new mechanics for combat that 4e introduced. If you want to role-play you will, it’s as simple as that.

If as a DM you truly want to encourage role-playing you will eliminate experience. Characters will level when the story demands or makes sense that they advance. The story requires that the players interact with it, that your players role-play and immerse themselves in their characters. The 4th Action and using action points creatively are just tools that can be used to encourage your players to role-play. If your players buy in, suddenly combat isn’t too long, instead its tactical and creative. The moments in between combat are filled with players making decisions that make sense for their characters, not for what starts the next combat encounter quickest.

At Dungeon’s Master we have several posts in our archives that can assist with the goal of increased role-playing. Whether that is by encouraging role-playing or speeding up combat. I comend the following to your attention:

Running Combat

On Role-playing

What steps have you taken to increase the role-playing at your table? Has your continued experience with 4e allowed combat to run quicker allowing for more time to role-play? As a DM do you encourage role-playing inside of combat?

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1 Sully February 2, 2011 at 10:56 am

Great article Wimwick! Its true that 4e encounters can drag on, but encouraging players to get creative by awarding them action points for it can be a huge boost. It also encourages players to use those action points, rather than hoard them, which was what my group was doing. Thanks for the suggestion!

2 AlioTheFool February 2, 2011 at 11:52 am

Thanks for the mention! Great article. I kind of disagree with just hand-waving level advancement, but I really like the idea of offering more action points for a “4th Action.” Also, thanks for pushing the topic forward. I truly believe it’s an important one.

3 Ceti February 2, 2011 at 11:58 am

I award XP only for completing quests, and the XP awards for the quests are in no way affected by the number, type or difficulty of the encounters, which are planned to suit the given quest.

My players know that they can gain an edge in existing or uncover new quests, through roleplaying. We still spend the majority of time in combat (which everyone enjoys), but the layers are rewarded (by in game rewards) to roleplay.

4 mbeacom February 2, 2011 at 12:00 pm

You don’t have to “eliminate experience” to encourage role play. Rather, you need to AWARD experience for engaging in role play. I typically award role play experience based on rough amount of time. Our groups combats usually last about an hour. So, if you role play for an hours worth of time, my group will get a similar amount of experience. If the role play was light hearted and fun, with few skill checks, I’ll award experience similar to a combat of 2-3 levels below the party. If the role play was particularly challenging, or the solution was particularly creative, requiring lots of skill checks (bluff/diplomacy/history/religion etc) then I’ll award experience as if it was an encounter a level or two higher than the party. The end result is pretty good role play and back and forth, as well as, gaining a level every 4 or 5 get togethers. We generally have at least one combat and 1 or 2 RP events per evening. So my party levels up about ever 5 combat encounters. When you calculate that they’ve also had about 5 RP encounters, this makes sense to me as a DM who values RP as much as combat.

5 Paper & Plastic February 2, 2011 at 12:50 pm

“If you want to role-play you will, it’s as simple as that.”
Totally agree.
I’ve tryed so hard to explain that to some player…

6 mbeacom February 2, 2011 at 12:52 pm

Hey Ceti,

I have a pretty elaborate in-game reward system and I’m always looking for a new angle on it to keep it fresh. Mind giving me the low down on your in game rewards? Would love to hear now another DM handles it!

7 Alphastream February 2, 2011 at 12:56 pm

I was really pleased with the amount of role-playing in the Ashes of Athas adventures at D&DXP. We played with encounter design and eliminated XP budgets. That an an emphasis on sequential story and open choices helped create more RP than I have seen in two years. Similarly, the LFR adventures had new takes on encounter design and often had far more RP than previous LFR adventures.

This all confirms what we have been seeing in home games. It is all about encounter design, focusing on story, allowing player choices, and encouraging a culture of RP amongst the players.

8 Ceti February 2, 2011 at 1:14 pm

@mbeacom – What I meant is that through roleplaying they can gather intel on the threats, get more background, “unlock” additional quests.

Example: they ran into a dragon after a particularly draining combat with undead. Only 4 of the 6 players showed up that evening, so they were in a really bad situation. That’s when they decided to parley. By paying of the dragon, they gained a valuable contact.

9 Alton February 2, 2011 at 1:15 pm

Since I truly enjoy mixing up roleplaying with combat, elimination of XP seems not to be the right solution to go. I really think that the gaming group is where it’s at. Your players have to be willing to roleplay. If you punish some for not roleplaying, you will lose valuable players and have to find others.

I am currently trying to break my players from the rule playing to more of a role playing scenarios. Nothing upsets me more than trying to jump out of water using my long jumper feat (like Hancock leaping into the air), and being told that I cannot because it is difficult terrain and the RULES do not let me.

Getting into your character takes time and practice, just like becoming a Great DM takes time and practice.

There is a great article by David Gibson about things you can do to customize and make you get closer to being your character; stuff like reflavouring your powers and the 4th action like this article states.

Here is the URL cause I cannot create a link for a reason or another:

Good job again guys.

10 Toldain February 2, 2011 at 1:22 pm

If it’s taking 10 combats to gain a level, the combats are too low-level for the party. The tables in the DMG are worked out so that it takes exactly four encounters of the same level as the party to advance a level, assuming all characters are the same level.

Interestingly, one thing that seems to bog things down is if I make the combats too tough. They can handle stuff a couple levels higher than themselves, but it slows things down, just as gamefiend predicts. Many choices plus lots of pressure equals paralysis.

So, as a gm, I see one of my jobs is that of a trainer. I need to increase the pressure gradually, so that they have an incentive to get better without freezing up.

11 Thorynn February 2, 2011 at 1:36 pm

I think a lot of it stems from good character creation. If you only look at the mechanics of race/class combos when creating a character, its hard to imagine how to roleplay that PC unless you give them a few quirks and mannerisms. I’m in a game made up of a dwarven clan. All the PCs had to be dwarves (we all know they’re the best race anyway) and one guy wanted to be a bard so he created a orphaned gnome bard with a fake beard who was raised by dwarves. Thats a character with… well… character.

As to speeding up 4e combat, use clothespins with PCs names on the DM screen showing initiative order. Once a player has gone we tap the clothespin to the side so you can tell who is up when. That helps you plan your turn, so when you’re up, there is much less flipping thru pages of powers and more rolling of dice!

12 Camelot February 2, 2011 at 1:51 pm

I’ve been searching for a way to implement a roleplaying mechanic for a while now. When I saw the title of this article, I got excited. But I don’t see anything here that isn’t in how the game already works. Basically, if the player decides to roleplay, great for them, maybe the DM will give them an action point, but that just goes back to combat, making roleplaying just a tool to be good in combat. And if a player doesn’t want to roleplay, this 4th Action concept doesn’t seem to encourage it. Am I missing something? If so, could someone provide an example of how this is different than regular 4e suggestions for roleplaying?

I don’t mean to be rude, I’m just really interested in getting players to think about the game more as a story than a game.

13 Wimwick February 2, 2011 at 1:57 pm

@ Sully
I am all in favour of more action points. WotC removed the magic item daily limit, why not open up the action point system?

@ AlioTheFool
No worries at all. I enjoyed your article a great deal and it has given me a few things to think about. The discussion is one that I believe needs to take place within the community. WotC is listening and the feedback from the community is how the game grows and becomes better.

@ Ceti
Using quests as the only way to earn xp is interesting. Do you award enough xp per quest that characters are levelling approximately every ten encounters?

@ mbeacom
My idea about removing xp is certainly only a suggestion. It is one that our home group is currently experimenting with. Obviously it wouldn’t work with organized play, but creates an interesting dynamic for a home group. Your idea of awarding xp for roleplaying makes sense, my worry would be about having players level too quickly. Have you had any issues with this?

@ Paper & Plastic

@ Alphastream
That is encouraging news about organized play. You are correct that encounter design will determine the level of emersion and roleplaying that occurs. If players have more to do than just kill monsters then the game becomes more vibrant and engaging.

@ Alton
I agree you have to be very careful not to upset one player in order to encourage roleplaying. It’s all about finding balance at the gaming table and creating varied encounters that will cater to your groups preferences.

14 Grokkit February 2, 2011 at 1:59 pm

I have eliminated XP from my ongoing campaign with much success. The characters have progressed from Lvl 7 to Lvl 15 quite nicely. All of which is determined by reaching story points.

Granted my players are already inclined towards roleplaying, but with the removal of xp they are now more invested in driving the story rather than attempting to grind out combats.

Good article, keep them coming!

15 mbeacom February 2, 2011 at 2:12 pm


Gotcha, totally felt like you were saying that if you want to juice RP, you “need” to eliminate XP.

“If as a DM you truly want to encourage role-playing you will eliminate experience. ”

But yeah, I can see where that would be something worth trying.

As for the “leveling too fast” concern, it really just comes down to setup by the DM. I assume you know your players and your campaign well enough that you have both an estimate of when your player WILL level and when you WANT them to level based on what you have planned.

That being said, you simply design your RP encounters much like how you now design your combat encounters. Have a difficulty in mind. Have a rough idea of how much time you’ll spend that night on the RP elements. Just like combat, leave yourself open to allowing your players the ability to be ingenious enough to make it go a bit easier/faster or just the opposite.

If you tackle your game design with this in mind, I think your players will still level at the rate you want them too. Personally, we play 3-4 hours weekly and I like my players to level once every month. That feels right for my group based on the pace of the campaign, as well as the sense of reward that comes from leveling. If you play more or less frequently, or if you want your players to level more or less frequently, this will effect how much XP you reward for RP, much the way I assume those goals would influence how much and how difficult your combats are.

16 Wimwick February 2, 2011 at 2:17 pm

@ Toldain
I should clarify that I mean 10 encounters, combat and skill challenges combined. I like to have three skill challenges and seven combat encounters. This number can vary based on the difficulty of the challenges. If the party is on their game they are levelling every three weeks which I think is a good rate of advancement.

@ Thorynn
You are right, things do come down to good character creation. However, not all characters are created equal. Some players invest more time in min/maxing or optimizing their players. Others create elaberate backstories and some do both. As a DM your job is to work with what you have to create an enjoyable experience for everyone involved, not always an easy task.

@ Camelot
There is not requirement for a player to describe his players actions in great detail during combat. Many players do the following: I move, attacking using power ‘x’, here is my to hit number and damage. . This is boring. The 4th action says if you describe your action you get awarded more action points, so you can do more on your turns. I’ll be honest and say I don’t know if a mechanic will ever encourage those who don’t want to roleplay to roleplay. As a DM you need to look at your players and decide on a course of action that will motivate them.

17 Alphastream February 2, 2011 at 2:23 pm

Most WotC staff and prominent bloggers don’t track the XP PCs earn. It is actually hard to find one that does. They use the level of an encounter to determine difficulty (XP of monsters so you have a level+2 fight, for example) but just tell players when to level up PCs. The reason for doing this:

– XP and difficulty are seldom correlated. Take a look at the first level 1 encounter from the Dark Sun Encounters season. That level 1 fight is probably harder than anything else in the season, including level 4+ combats for when the PCs are 3rd level. Similarly, you can take any level of XP and make it hard or easy based on tactics, composition, and how carefully you pick the monsters for the situation and party.

– Leveling can feel better when it takes place after big fights and at the end of story chapters. Leveling during a dungeon crawl is far less dramatic/rewarding than after you stop the ritual that would destroy all the NPCs you have come to love.

– XP counting is time-consuming, especially if you have targets for when the PCs will level. You can spend that time on something else.

– XP counting won’t include terrain, great XP, cool things the PCs did, etc. Adding these things is time consuming and subjective. It is much easier to go by feel.

Many of us are DMs because we like to direct and manage the game. Thus, we tend to want to count the XP. I do suggest you try it sometime. Set a target for when the PCs should next level and don’t count the XP. just let them level if they do a good job.

On a related note, I’m not a huge fan of trying to force RP mechanically, such as through RP rewards or action points. Instead, I focus on creating situations that are evocative and feeding off of RP hooks. They need the info to attack the templar’s lair, and here is a half-giant that switches personalities to match the person speaking to them. That is a really evocative scene because it reflects what the PC/player puts into it. It provides instant feedback to them and the more they RP the more fun everyone has. Feeding off of PC backstory is equally critical. Find what the PC cares about and include that in the adventure. We all love our PCs and when the story is about us for a bit we then tend to respond with RP.

18 mbeacom February 2, 2011 at 2:24 pm

You make a good point, but I think you’re looking at this column with too specific a need. Think of this column as a metaphor for your own group. Perhaps the action point won’t work exactly the same with your group, but try to envision what WOULD.

I’ll give some more details based on my own success in evoking more roleplay from my PCs, something I’ve endeavored to do more over time.

1. YOU as the DM need to make RP a priority in how you present your story. Lead by example. CREATE RP opportunities. If you’re already doing this to the best of your ability, then perhaps we do need some kickers, like the action point.
2. Kickers. First, this is the carrot idea behind behavior management. But carrots only work if your players like carrots (action points). My players are not really big on action points so I wouldn’t make a huge deal of that.

But, what DO your PCs really enjoy?
If your PCs enjoy combat, it’s easy right? Just give them bonuses for doing cool things IN character. I have “awesome” cards that I printed up and I hand them out any time someone does something particularly fun, entertaining, or in-character. This gets their noses out of their character sheets and into the story.

I have one PC in particular who really enjoys the story. So when they give me more RP performance, I’ll allow the story to involve them more directly. That is THEIR carrot. It’s what they like. It also allows me to do #1, lead by example. As the PCs see myself and this other player RP, they get more comfortable with it and want to give it a try.

Another one of my PCs, is HUGE into being “tricky”. He LOVES to bluff and lie to everyone he meets. Once I realized this, I started setting him up to succeed. I would create RP encounters that focused on tricking somebody or allowing him to pretend to be somebody he’s not. Once he smells one of these coming, he totally responds with great RP.

Basically, to make a long story short, reward your characters when they do what YOU enjoy by giving them something THEY enjoy. That way everyone comes out a winner.

19 Ceti February 2, 2011 at 2:32 pm

@Wimwick – I had to go back and check 🙂

For the first act (three levels) – it worked out that way (combat + skill challenge) – though most of my combat encounters are hard based on the XP value. But this was not intentional, just worked out that way.

For the next two levels, it’s closer to15 / level. But the players asked to spend more time in the mid-Heroic tier, which we find a lot of fun.

Note that my quests are intertwined. For example each act features some sort of “bounty” quest (e.g. find me 10 types of undead or hunt 10 beasts).

20 mbeacom February 2, 2011 at 2:46 pm


Love the bounty quests and have totally ignored them due to forgetting about them. Thank you for bringing them back to my attention!

Also, on point, bounty quests are a great opportunity to bring in certain players. Simply make the bounty something that interests them. Also, bounties don’t have to be just “7 orc skulls” or “10 wolf pelts” like what you see in modern RPG video games. A bounty might be to cheat at gambling at every casino owned by the villain, or to locate all the mistresses of a cleric who you think is actually evil, or to bribe every guard on the night watch etc.

21 anarkeith February 2, 2011 at 3:20 pm

One trick I use to make RP a priority is to, as often as possible, give an npc or monster a name. And a tic, an action they resort to like a habit. Personalization seems to make it personal for my players.

Lately, I’ve been deliberately setting up situations rather than encounters. By knowing what my npcs want, I can better play them. Especially if their motivations turn out to be opposed to the party’s.

22 hbunny February 3, 2011 at 1:24 am

@mbeacon: totally agree with many of your points. I reward XP for improvised RP and clever moves by the player. Removing XP takes away a huge lever for creating player agency. All very well said!

23 Greg February 4, 2011 at 12:40 pm

Wow. Fantastic post and great comments. This has given me a lot to think about and try, and I just wanted to let you know how much I’ve enjoyed the article.

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