In the 23 years that I’ve been playing RPGs, I played more Dungeons & Dragons 3rd edition than anything else combined. And then Pathfinder might be on spot two. And perhaps the most annoying issue I had with the system the entire time was how much combat can drag out. By going from one initiative count to the next, the game has a build-in Feedback Loop of Inattention.
Player 1 takes a while deciding on the action for the current turn. Player 3 knows it will still be quite a while until 1 and 2 have made their turns, and there will be monsters acting inbetween as well. By the time it’s Player 3’s turn, the tactical situation will have changed so much that it’s pointless to decide what action to take yet. So Player 3 get’s bored, stops paying attention, gets distracted. And suddenly it’s Player 3’s turn, and the surprised Player 3 needs a minute or two to take in the current situation in the fight, and then a bit more to consider all the possible actions that the PC could take.
Player 4 knows this will happen. So player 4 gets bored, stops paying attention, …
And this is why a single round of combat can take 15 to 20 minutes. Not to resolve the actions. Most of it is surprised players trying to figure out what has changed since their last turn and considering all the actions they could take on their turn, while it is their turn.
One way games can deal with this is by having a group initiative system. All the PCs act on the same turn, in whatever order they are ready to announce their action. All the players can think simultaneously about the action they are taking right now, and those who need less time to think don’t have to wait for those who take longer. And when it is the monsters’ turn, the players know that the new situation that is taking shape is the one they will actually have to react to on their turn. Unfortunately, the d20 game engine has lots of mechanics build on the assumption of an initiative order, and switching to group initiative isn’t quite seamlessly. Andnif you want to play the game online, when you can’t see where everyone is looking right now and can’t gesture to indicate things, which makes talking over each other a bigger issue, having an initiative order really does have some positive sides.
I think a lot of GMs have entertained the thought of giving players a time limit to take their turns, but it seems fairly obvious that this probably would be a bad idea that only adds pressure and tension and won’t make the game more fun for anyone in it. But it just occured to me that the d20 system already includes a mechanic for players taking their turn at a later point in the round.
By choosing to delay, you take no action and then act normally on whatever initiative count you decide to act. When you delay, you voluntarily reduce your own initiative result for the rest of the combat. When your new, lower initiative count comes up later in the same round, you can act normally. You can specify this new initiative result or just wait until some time later in the round and act then, thus fixing your new initiative count at that point.
Delaying is useful if you need to see what your friends or opponents are going to do before deciding what to do yourself.
When there’s nothing really useful you could do with your action on your turn, you can just wait for some more things changing in the fight that hopefully will create opportunities to do something efficient and interesting. But there is no reason why you can’t delay for any out of game reasons when you’re not quite ready for your turn yet and not make the next player wait unneccesarily. And you can easily make this a rule: When it’s your turn, and you don’t have a plan yet what to do, let the next player or the GM skip ahead in line.
If you have questions for the GM before committing to the action, that’s fine. If you still need to figure out how to move or where to best aim your spell, that’s fine. You don’t need to be able to execute your full turn instantly the moment your number is up. But you should have a plan what you want to do when it is your turn. If the PC’s or enemy’s turn right before yours changes the situation significantly and your plan is now obsolete, you can have a minute to adjust. Maybe choose a different target for your spell, or fall back to making a regular melee attack against the enemy next to you. But when you’re not ready to make a choice yet, let the next player go ahead. You probably just move down one or two positions in the initiative sequence. It’s no big deal.
But I think the potential payoff in reducing slack could be huge, if this is applied consistently by the GM. Not only can you fit more combat encounters within a given amount of play time, it also makes the encounters a lot more fun for everyone when you don’t have to sit around for ages watching a person looking at a map, a character sheet, or spell descriptions.