This post is ad hoc. it is a response to the L&L column, What Can You Do. Rather than having my comments lost in the forum without discussion, I'm posting them here to ensure they are easily found later.
Among the comments below the article, other games have been mentioned with a different perspective on action economy during combat scenes. One example is Arcanis and its clock-tick initiative. It gives the impression of a ticking clock exposing the various elements of a combat. I imagine it allows combat to shift into slow-motion as each player can only carry-out one action at a time, but will get to act again in short order as the timer returns to their clock number again. Thus, everyone gets little turns repeatedly during a round and each can be spent as desired.
Thusfar, I had seen no one mention Burning Wheel or Mouse Guard to describe the action economy and conflict scenes. It is a far different system for playing through scenes. I'll expose some of it here, but I encourage any readers to learn the BW or MG systems. First, each scene exists only if there is a reason to engage in some conflicting goals or intentions; this can include conflicts against weather, environments, and seemingly unimportant NPCs if these elements of the narrative have a reason to oppose the PCs' proactive intents and goals. It also means that the PCs might leap in to oppose the proactive intents and goals of an NPC, weather event, or environmental effect.
One method by which these opposing actions can be resolved is through a single die roll and application of the "let it ride" rule. Under this scene economy, the opposing sides are allowed to take action, but perhaps are not deeply invested in the outcome. One die roll or a small set of die rolls serves as the binding rule over the actions. In this way, the PCs could limit the risk they are exposed to by not engaging in more than a simple attempt or at the most a complex task requiring a few skills to be employed.
A second method exists by which the opposing sides engage in a conflict scene which allows each to establish a disposition. The disposition (dispo) is far more abstract than hit points as it represents not just the physical and mental toughness, but also the interest in the outcome falling in one's own favor before they will reach a compromise. There are tools in-game to help a players maximize their dispo if the conflict seems to be very integral to their PC's beliefs, goals, or instincts. Using the brief action economy of the confict rules, a PC or a group of PCs can work toward their stated goal--each conflict scene has a goal, even random encounters.
I'll leave it to readers to explore more about how these systems funciton together. It is important to note that both systems operate on a different premise than D&D, in my opinion, to large degree.
So, as Monte wrote of a simplified action economy to speed up combat, I recalled Mearls' earlier columns extolling a modular system. Early on I began to think of the existing examples of combat through more than one catch-all scene made up of rounds and initiative. Imagine if the future of D&D embraced not a modular combat system, but a tiered combat system. The system could illustrate three tiers for combat (or more) which a DM should employ to best illustrtate a scene.
My Suggestion: Tier 1
The first tier of combat would be for the small skirmishes that matter little to the full extent of the narrative; this would be similar to the conflict system of BW ro MG. It would allow a group of PCs to engage a group of NPCs without concerning itself with tactical combat, movement, effect duration, hit points, or action economy. Under this model of the combat system, the players invest a number of healing surges, perhaps action points, and use combat powers to limit their investment in absolutely winning the battle hands down. As their pool of allowable resources is exhausted, they must permit some compromise with the DM about which enemies are killed or incapacitated, which may have fled, which are still standing, and whether the party has been able to pass the opposition or retreat or worse, surrender. The scene would only require the resources they are willing to "pay in" in order to seek success. The compromise would be binding and may lead to a wholly new adventure.
My Suggestion: Tier 2
The second tier of combat would be fighting side versus side. This would be much like the description of Rule of Three's description of 2e side battles. The PCs and NPCs would simply act on their own turn as a whole side or at least teams of slightly broken up sides. Each could synergize within their own team. This could provide tactical movement, use of hit points, action points, effect duration, and extensive options in combat powers and utility powers. I've played through various initiative orders that already create a de facto side battle as PCs and NPCs all seem to roll initiative of nearly the same numbers; in these battles I tell the group to act in any order as long as they allow for the break between PCs' initiatives and NPCs' initiatives. It would allow for a group that wants to invest more in a combat scene to get more involved. The battle would take more time, but allow for tactical combat choices to best maximize potential for a win. The scene might draw on more resources than the team initially wanted to muster, but shows how much they dedicate to accomplishment of success.
My Suggestion: Tier 3
The third tier of combat would be the initiative clock. This would be nearly identical to the existing 4e and earlier forms of intiative combat. The largest difference would be that it can be implemented when the desire to absolutely control combat actions is needed to express a slow-motion combat with high granularity. Otherwise, it would not have much of a difference from the current standard. Personally, I'd prefer to remove the intiiative modifier altogether and let each player roll an exact number for initiative. Improved initiative can still exist as well as other feats or items that provide such a bonus. It would be more like the current saving throw mechanic; this would allow the initiative count to rely less on PC abilities and more on the dice and the player investment (i.e. feats and items that benefit). unnecessary commentary Show
A possible other tier could implement the ticking clock similar to Arcanis which would allow for multiple actions during a round ot ticks, but each action would have to stand independently. I can see a benefit to a defender that takes a moment to move into position shortly before an enemy who was intending to move: the defender's presence might spur a new choice or provoke the OA.
This tiered approach would need to be taught to a DM and to players in such a way that they see how each tier of combat can be used in different moments of the narrative to allow several profitable choices for players. First, they can choose the level of investment they have in a combat scene. Second, they can choose the resources they wish to risk in pursuit of success or a near success. Third, the incidence of TPK over unimportant combat could be reduced. Additionally, combat scenes of little meaning could be sped up, yet still included. Fewer maps and grids would be required to handle combat scenes (more combat scenes per session, only one or two on-grid). The party can act with high or low synergy based on tier of combat. The overall survivability that has been built into 4e could be rehashed to increase the risk of a full combat. Okay, I can feel more on the tip of my fingers, but can't identify them in my mind.
I think that it is by no means a perfect system. As Rule of Three mentioned, 2e had different systems, but one seemed to become the de facto standard. If three or more methods of playing out combat existed in a future D&D, it might lead to the same failure of players to realize that different scenes are best employed in different combat methods.Tell me what you think. Have you read Burning Wheel or Mouse Guard? Have you read the Arcanis model? Do you miss full-round or multi-round spells? Do you believe that combat could be sped up with a simpler conflict resolution system?