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Action Economy

Gwenevere Rothwell

Apr 7, 2023

Before we begin, if you’re really new you might be wondering what an action economy even is. An action economy is a set of limited tasks that you can perform during combat...

Image by Kiwihug

Before we begin, if you’re really new you might be wondering what an action economy even is. An action economy is a set of limited tasks that you can perform during combat. Many TTRPGs use some form of an action economy. One of the most common economies has to do with some sort of attack or ability action, a move action, some sort of smaller action that lets you perform something a little extra, and sometimes you also get some room to perform something that requires no effort, and sometimes you might also get the ability to react to certain things.

One of Pathfinder 2nd Edition’s biggest draws is its introduction of a new and much simpler action economy. During combat, players get three general actions which can be used for attacking, casting spells, moving, using special abilities, interacting with objects or people, etc. If it exists, odds are it’s an action. Players also have free actions that might involve specific kinds of abilities or very minute actions like talking. There are also reactions that let players react to certain changes in the battle—an enemy moving away from them, using some sort of tool or casting certain spells, staying up after being reduced to 0 hit points, etc.

From there, players have what are called Activities that consume more than one action. For example, Casting a Spell is almost always a 2 action activity, but some can be three actions and some can be one action.

Keep in mind that if you’ve used all three of your actions your turn isn’t necessarily over. Take, for example, Summoning. Summoning spells are a 3 action activity that lets you summon a monster on the map. Once your creature is summoned you immediately have control of that monster, which you have two additional actions to control it with. You can use these actions only to control the monster, and can use any action or activity listed in their stat block that takes two or fewer actions to complete. They can also do any other action that any other character can do, within reason. For example, an Animated Broom could trip someone, but whether or not it can grapple is up to the GM due to it lacking arms.

Multiple Attack Penalty

With the three action economy, you can, in fact, attack with all three of your actions. The drawback to this is that each iterative attack takes a negative to the attack roll. This negative depends on the type of weapon you’re using and can be influenced by some class abilities. Most weapons will apply a -5 penalty on the second attack and a -10 penalty on the third attack, but an agile weapon only applies a -4 penalty on the second attack and a -8 on the third attack. Rangers with the Flurry Hunter’s Edge can reduce this penalty even further when attacking their Hunted Prey where the penalty becomes -3/-6 for standard weapons or -2/-4 with agile weapons, and this negative is reduced even further when they hit 17th level!

You should always keep track of how many attacks you’ve taken. You could keep track of this with d6s where after your first attack you grab a d6 and put it on your character sheet, then when you attack again, you grab a 2nd die and put that on your character sheet as well. Keeping track of the penalty number isn’t too important because it is based on the current weapon you are about to use, rather than the one you used before. So, if you’re attacking first with an Agile weapon, then with a standard weapon, the standard weapon would have a -10 to hit still, even though the agile attack had a -4.  To further explain, think of it as the agile weapon reducing the penalty of your current attack, so if you attack with a standard weapon twice, and then an agile weapon once, the multiple attack penalty would be 0/-5/-8. If you attacked with the standard weapon once, the agile weapon once, then went back to the standard weapon it would be 0/-4/-10.

Now, obviously attacking multiple times isn’t the only way to play, in fact Pathfinder 2nd Edition encourages movement and teamwork. Not every enemy in the game has an Attack of Opportunity, which is an ability that a monster can use as a reaction that lets it attack you when you move or use actions with the manipulate trait. So, with that in mind, movement is far less restrictive and easier to do. You’ll want to be in a flanking position with teammates, you could use the Aid action to assist your allies and give them a bonus on their attack roll with Aid costing 1 action and a reaction on your ally’s turn. You could trip, grapple, and shove your opponent, but keep in mind that this does have the attack trait, so it is susceptible to your multiple attack penalty. You could also use abilities, go for demoralising your foes, or raise your shield. The choices are nearly limitless.

Spells and Spell Components

The latter is what confuses a lot of people. Keep in mind the term “for most spells” here. Nowhere does it explicitly state that removing a spell component reduces the cast time of a spell. We can see this further with some very specific examples of spells, specifically the variable spells Heal, Harm, and Magic Missile. They state that you can increase the number of actions, from 1 action to 3 actions, to cast the spell, but beside the actions, it states that it costs a somatic component and a verbal component. Nowhere in the spell does it state that you increase the number of spell components when you increase the action cost of the spell, and it still uses two spell components if you cast the spell as a single action. In other words, the second quote is not an instance of causality and is instead a meta guide for if you want to build your own spells as it tells you their own calculations and rule of thumb for determining spell components.

Sustaining Spells and Minions

When you cast a spell, sometimes it will state that the spell is sustained. This means that on your next turn you can continue the effects of the spell by spending an action sustaining it. With summon spells, when you sustain the spell you also take control of your summon. For the price of one of your actions, your summon can use two actions, but it cannot use reactions unless you have something that specifically states otherwise. Otherwise does not include reaction-based abilities that the monster has.

If you have an animal companion or a familiar you can also use an action to command them. These work just like Summons, as they both have the minion trait, so one action spent commanding your animal companion or familiar gives that animal companion or familiar two actions. Keep in mind that your minion’s multiple attack penalty does not apply to your multiple attack penalty and vice versa. Also keep in mind that some abilities allow for more minion flexibility with their action economy, from acting without your command to gaining more actions from you spending more actions on them.

Taking Advantage of Your Actions

Some abilities might seem odd to you. Double Slice, for example, is a two action activity that lets you attack twice. So, what’s the difference between that and just attacking twice? Well, the difference is in the fact that Double Slice doesn’t have a multiple attack penalty until after both strikes have been made, and it uses your current multiple attack penalty (which could be 0 if you haven’t attacked yet this turn). Your third attack will still have the usual -10 (or -8 if it’s an agile weapon), so keep that in mind. Additionally, you combine the two attacks’ damage into one pool of damage for the sake of resistances, but also for precision damage. You also take a -2 penalty with the second attack if it’s not an agile weapon, but a -2 is better than a -5.

With spells, you should always keep in mind how many people they hit, how long they last, how it works if the target succeeds their save or avoids the attack, and not only your location on the map but also your allies’ location on the map. You don’t want to accidentally hit your friends with an area of effect. The reason why I say all this is because a spell usually costs two actions to cast and it costs a spell slot if it’s not a cantrip. That’s a pretty big investment of your turn and resources, so you should make sure the spells you have available are ones that can make it count. Spells that have an effect if they don’t fully connect (such as the target succeeding at their save) are excellent spells because even if it didn’t work out as you had hoped, it still did something. Also keep in mind that spells that do not have the attack trait don’t add to your multiple attack penalty. This might seem like a no brainer, but, for example, Fireball doesn’t have the attack trait, so a Fireball followed up by a ranged attack would not impose the Multiple Attack Penalty on the ranged attack. 

Utility spells that last a long time are also handy to have. Spells like Mage Armour last a long time so it should be cast outside of combat, potentially even at the beginning of the day. As long as the spell isn’t dispelled it will last until its duration expires, so keep that in mind to measure when a utility spell should be cast. Some are good to cast at the start of the day, others are better to cast once you’re at your destination and you know there will be combat.

This is all of course subjective and doesn’t account for every ability nor every spell in the game, but as a rule of thumb, you want to make sure that your actions are spent wisely.

Wrapping Up

The action economy is one of the biggest draws to Pathfinder 2nd Edition, but don’t fall into the trap of thinking you need to spend every action attacking—there are always other options at your disposal. Think of your class and feat selection as a kit that you can pick and choose exactly what you need for your current situation. If you find yourself in a specific situation a lot of the time, then it’s certainly fine to gear yourself towards that, and if you just want to pick actions that are fun and cool, that’s alright too. Just remember that you’re never under an illusion of choice.

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