More interactive battles in 3.5?

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I'm planning a new 3.5 ed campaigns. One of the complaints I often get from my players is that combat is a little static. I'm trying to figure out a way to restructure the combats to make them more realistic and allow my players to react to eachothers and the enemy's actions. Ofcourse this also counts for the enemy.

Since a round typically lasts six seconds, I came up with the idea to split all actions in three phases. One for preparation (taking material components from a spell component pouch) one for implementation (actually casting the spell) and one for effect (doesn't need much more explanation.)

Initiative also needs to be restructured in order for this to work. I figured I'd use the square grid (since it s on the table already). To visualise things; a round also uses three ("two second") squares. Highest initiative goes first, second follows after two seconds, third after four etcetera. This means that the actions can, in a sense, overlap. A fighter can draw his sword while the wizard casts his fireball etcetera. This also provides players with the opportunity to recognize and possibly interact with the actions an enemy might take (since rounds overlap). Delaying could be as little as two seconds or as much as a player wants to delay for him or her to get an advantageous point in the initiative order.

I am aware this might make combat slower (especially in the phase of "getting used to this new idea"), but aside from that it might be more realistic, more dynamic.... or am I missing something crucial? I'd like to hear some opinions.
I have to say, your houserule sounds unnecessarily complicated.  How often will it actually matter that the fighter draws his sword while the mage casts his fireball, as opposed to a few seconds later?  More importantly, how often will the game end up totally bogged down in questions of who took which part of their turn when, and who went first, and how many devas can dance on the head of a pin?

I think I understand what you're trying to do; you're trying to get rid of the "stand face to face and take turns hitting each other" dynamic that's long plagued D&D.  It's a worthy goal--I salute you for it--but extra complexity isn't going to fix your problem.

The only way to make your combats more dynamic is to create situations where dynamism is to the characters' advantage.  See, the number-one reason PCs and monsters tend to stand in one place while they fight is that it's almost always the best tactic.  If you move away from your opponent, not only will you suffer attacks of opportunity, but you won't be able to make your full attack.  This leads to, well, static combat.  If you want dynamism, find ways to make "stand still and full attack" a suboptimal choice.

The easiest way to do that, in my opinion, is to switch to 4e.  4e was designed with dynamism in mind, and it performs admirably.  PCs and monsters shift, teleport, and get hurled all over the battlefield, and there are so many things you can do out-of-turn that everybody keeps their eyes glued to the action at all times.  Then again, if you're playing 3.5 in this day and age you're either not a fan of 4e (and that's cool, 4e isn't for everyone) or you're looking for a change of pace.  Either way, you can disregard this last paragraph.

The next easiest thing you can do is to set up encounters that strongly encourage movement and creativity.  There are tons of ways to do this, but in the end they all come down to two things: limitations and options

Limitations take the players out of their comfort zone and force them to make hard choices and look for unorthodox solutions.  We're over here, but the enemies we want to kill are over there.  We're fighting in this spot, and if we go to that spot we'll die.  This is our goal, but so is this and this and also this.  We're stuck in a fight, but we don't have any weapons. 

Options are the aforementioned unorthodox solutions.  If we can get our enemy over there, we can use that terrain feature to destroy him.  If we don't attack right now, we'll strike with extra potency later.  If we can't win in these circumstances, we can try to change the nature of the conflict.

In general, this is the trick to making good encounters.  Apply limitations with one hand, and options with the other.  Mix them up from combat to combat, adding new features on the fly whenever things get boring.

For example: The PCs' airship has come under attack by sky pirates!  They can halt and fight the boarders hand to hand, draw the pirates into a chase and pelt them with spells, or pretend to surrender and take the pirates by surprise.  Once the fight begins, they could stand and hack away with weapons, or they could push pirates off the side, set fire to the rigging, or take the helm and sideswipe the enemy ship.  The battlefield is limited and full of obstacles: you can't leave the ships, and there are ropes and walls and hatches all over the place that can trip you up.  A complication arises halfway through the fight: the NPC cabin boy, not much of a fighter, comes under attack from two pirates at once, and will surely die if the PCs don't rescue him.  The fight might end with the PCs killing most of the pirates, with the pirates' ship being disabled and falling behind, or with a one-on-one duel between a PC and the pirate captain.

That's kind of a complex example, but you get the point.  Add limitations and options to change the nature of the encounter, and your players will adapt to the changing situation.  You don't have to make them huge and intricate if you don't want to; just don't put your fights in a series of identical bare rooms.  If you want a quick shortcut to dynamic combat, it's this: make your locations busy.  Don't put fights in empty rooms, put them in bedchambers full of antique furniture and sewers heaped with garbage.  Make the terrain not just a background, but an integral and active part of the encounter.

The third thing you can do is to get your players to change their styles.  Are they big optimizers?  Optimized 3.5 can get pretty samey after a while.  A powerful character gets attached to a couple of unbeatable tactics, and then repeats them over and over each battle.  There are ways to mitigate that, but in the end the more you have to think about countering PC tactics, the less you get to make the encounters that you want to make.  And the more they feel they can rely on their favorite combos, the less they'll bother to look for creative things to do in combat.

So ask your players to tone it down.  Build for fun, not power.  Feel free to arbitrarily veto or modify anything that seems like it might be too good.  If, during the game, they pull out a really nasty trick, congratulate them on their cleverness and tell them that it won't work a second time.  Be reasonable, of course, but make sure that your players understand fully that you're aiming at a lower power level for this campaign.

If your players aren't big optimizers, on the other hand, you should recommend to them the spells, feats and classes that most encourage a dynamic playstyle.  Tome of Battle and psionics are great for this, but there are lots of other ways to get immediate actions or wacky attacks of opportunity or more movement than you can handle.  A lot of this material is really good, which is why I wouldn't suggest it for optimizers, but in the hands of casual players it shouldn't cause trouble.
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The last thing you can do is houserule.  This needs to be applied with a very light touch, lest you accidentally make the game unplayable.  Focus more on subtle changes that you can easily slot in or out of the system as you go.  A few ideas you might consider:
  • You can always take your free 5-foot step, even if you moved this turn.

  • Every successful melee attack pushes the target back 5 feet or more.  You'll have to keep closing with the enemy if you want to keep him engaged.

  • Increase the attack bonus for higher ground to +2, and maybe add a defensive bonus as well (-2 to be hit?).  This makes maneuvering more important.

  • Give players access to action points, on the condition that they have to be doing something cool to use them.

  • If a character makes iterative attacks, the full penalty applies to every attack. This discourages full attacks.


Use any or all of them, but remember that these are completely untested and may have unexpected consequences.


Wow, this got longer than I expected.  Hope it helps!
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