Which actions should take a turn?

Pretty simple question here. I never payed much attention to turn count, and now I’m not sure how it’s usually handled. Generally speaking, which player actions should take a turn to complete?

  • Should “look” ever take a turn? What about “examine something?” I’d guess not.

  • I assume successful travel always takes a turn. Same for other various interactions, like picking stuff up or putting it down.

  • In cases where successful actions should take a turn, should unsuccessful actions not take a turn? For example “you can’t go that direction.”

  • Anything I forgot here?

I realize this may have different default behavior across various engines, and may be overridden in any given game; just looking for general guidelines here.

My general feeling is that interacting with items, NPCs, or the environment should take a turn, but only when successful, and looking at stuff should not, since it’s probably mostly for narrative purposes and happens very quickly in terms of game time. Does that sound typical, or no? If not typical, does this sound undesirable?

(Sorry if this is miscategorized, not really sure where to put it.)

You may want to check out this thread: "Free" moves

Thanks, good discussion there. I definitely agree that implicit actions should take as many turns as all the individual actions would take.

I guess I’m really wondering about when a turn should not be taken. I feel like this should roughly correspond to whether a non-negligible amount of game-time passes when performing some action.

Right now I have a system where first intents are formed, and then actions are taken if the intents aren’t intercepted by something else. So when you type “w”, first you want to go west, then you try to go west, then you actually go west. It seems like a good place to generalize things… if an intent is cancelled (“that wouldn’t be productive” or “you can’t go west from here”) then no time passes, so no turn is taken. If an action is cancelled (“you blunder around in the dark”) then a turn is taken.

The only thing that doesn’t fit here is looking at things. I feel like it should happen almost instantly and not take a turn. For example if I type x watch three times in a row, I’d expect “you glance at your watch; it’s 2:45” each time, so no time passed and no turns were taken.

I’m just not sure how much of this is standard, or if any of it is unacceptable for some reason I haven’t considered.

I think of “look” and “examine” as two completely different things. Look happens instantaneously - it first happens when the player arrives in the location, and then the player looking again (i.e. “remind me what the room description was again?”) is equivalent to the pc “glancing around” so agreed, the amount of time taken is negligible.

But actually examining something is different. I imagine the pc examining the item in detail, and thinking about it, which is why it’s fair for the description of, say, a walking stick to include details such as “The tip has lost its ferrule and is heavily worn down.” So in normal circumstances “examine” should take a noticeable amount of time, i.e. a turn.

However, this really only matters in time-critical moments, such as combat or disarming a time-bomb. In those cases I would expect the game to educate me with regard to which actions are “free” and which use up a move.

Huh, I wondered about that, but wasn’t sure. I guess if you x watch and get a detailed description of the watch, and recollect the fond memories of your grandfather giving you the watch on your Nth birthday, and by the way it’s 2:45, that’d pass a turn.

What if you x rock and “you don’t see anything special about it?”

What I’m leaning toward now is counting a turn whenever the player tries to do anything, as opposed to wanting to, and then having everything that doesn’t pass time go straight from intent to realization, skipping the “trying” step. But I need to make sure it’s easy to override on a case by case basis. You’ve got me convinced that examining at least some things should take a turn, but maybe not everything (and maybe only the first time certain things are examined).

Well, you could argue that the reason the pc “doesn’t see anything special” about the rock is because of the time taken to carefully examine it. :slight_smile:

But I think all of this “clock watching” is missing the point. I unconsciously expect games to use “Hollywood Time” - i.e. whenever the hero/ine arrives, the situation will be desperate, and time (at least implied) to be short, but there will be enough time to succeed. I’m quite happy with the portcullis slamming down so close behind me that it skins my heels regardless of whether I got out of the Flooding Room in seven turns or seventeen.

I was originally going to say “seventy seven” but actually I think a well designed game would notice that the player was no longer having fun and cheat in his favor by offering hints or suchlike. As you can probably tell from this, I’m not a fan of the classic “puzzle” games: I quickly become irritated when things are made difficult by the author simply for the purpose of being difficult. I prefer games which emphasize exploration and observation.

So while I’d say there are some actions (Inform calls them “actions out of world”) which should take no game time, I think that all of the rest is fuzzy, and best summed up as “whatever helps players to enjoy the game better” is the correct result.


For what it’s worth, the system I settled on for Dialog works as follows: If parsing fails, no time passes. Otherwise, the player’s input is understood as a series of actions. Every action passes through a couple of predefined stages.

The first stage involves refuse rules. By default, an action is refused if it involves an unreachable or unseen object. This can be overridden, of course: Examining does not require reachability. But in general, the story author doesn’t have to worry about refuse rules, since the default behaviour is adequate for most verbs.

The second stage involves prevent rules. These usually model trying and failing to do something, but not always. By default, they are tailor-made for a verb (you can’t take what you already have), or a verb in combination with a class of objects (you can’t eat a non-edible object). When a prevent-rule interferes with an action, time passes.

Finally, when an action is carried out, time passes.

All of this can be overridden on a case-by-case basis; it is up to the story author whether to refuse or prevent eating the sun, and that decision affects whether time passes. It is also possible—but rarely needed—to define a prevent-rule that doesn’t advance time, or a refuse-rule that does.

One of my goals was to have a default behaviour that is simple and consistent, so the story author knows exactly when to override library defaults. But I think the end result makes sense from a gameplay point of view too.


So if I’ve got it straight, in your system if an action is refused, no time passes, but if it fails, time passes? This sounds similar to what I’m thinking about doing, so that’s reassuring (refusal would be cancelling an intent, and failure would be cancelling an attempt, more or less).

I’m curious how you handle things like “look” and maybe “inventory” that don’t take a turn, but are still actions (I’m assuming, anyway). Are things like this special-cased to not pass a turn?

And of course it’s not only about counting a turn or not, it’s about all scheduled events. E.g. if there is an npc walking around, one can argue that it should not be moved in a turn with the “save” command.

Possibly not completely relevant unless using Inform 7, but there is an extension in the Public Library for this type of thing if it helps anyone either outright or for study with aims toward rolling their own:

Variable Time Control by Eric Eve (Version 4). Allows individual actions to take a different number of seconds, or no time at all. Also allows the standard time taken per turn to be defined as so many seconds, which can be varied during the course of play.

(Alt link since the extensions on the original website are currently out of order)


(All I7 Extensions have their own thread, though there is currently no discussion in this particular one.)

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By default, they do advance time, with the typical result of printing flavour text (“A hungry wolf cries in the distance”). The default behaviour can be changed by the story author, although I realise now that there’s no step-by-step description in the manual of how it can be done.

As for looking around, an explicit “look” will advance time (by default), but observing a newly-entered room is considered part of the action of entering the room, and shares the same unit of time. In practice, this is implemented by having the room-entering rule redirect to the looking rule without first advancing time. So you could say that moving around is free, but looking takes time. This also ensures that the flavour messages appear after the room description.

Out-of-world commands like save and help don’t advance time.

I am going to give a very boring answer: It depends on the needs of your game.

tl;dr stuff to follow

More specifically–most IF games these days don’t have much in the way of timers. They may have atmospheric messages that happen every few turns or something, but mostly they’re on “Hollywood Time” as John calls it. For these games, there’s no reason not to have look and examine take a turn. There’s nothing particularly wrong with the atmospheric “You hear a crash of thunder!” message happening after the player has just examined something.

Some games have timed puzzles where you have to do something within a certain length of time. These games should… well, my opinion is that these games should not do that for the most part, but I’d also say that these games should probably not have “look” and “examine” take a turn. Often “look” and and “examine” are there to tell the player things they already know. It’s bad to have a situation where the player can lose because they type “look” to remind themselves of what’s in the room description, but they would’ve had enough time to complete the puzzle if they had just scrolled back and looked at the room description.

(Aside about what John said about examining–sometimes it definitely reveals something you can only see by looking closely, other times it’s just what you see by looking it, and it can even be something the PC knows very well but the player doesn’t. Consider this, from a famous My Apartment game:

x hyacinth
This plant is your one claim to actual responsibility. The hyacinth sits by the window, soaking up sunlight (when it’s not night) and managing to thrive despite your lack of gardening skill. Although it looks a little parched at the moment.

Except for the very last sentence, that’s all stuff the PC doesn’t even need to look at the plant to realize!)

Then there are games where something is happening on a loop and the player needs to coordinate with the loop. This may be rare but I can think of at least one. In that case it’s probably important to have every command take a turn, so the player can get in synch with what’s happening. It’ll be easier to learn “This happens every four turns” than “This happens every four turns, not counting looking and examining.”

You can even have simulationist stuff that uses Variable Time Control to make different things take different amounts of time. This should be handled very carefully and should be clearly explained to the player if it’s going to make a big difference! The most important thing for all of these, I guess, is that if it makes a big difference it should be explained to the player or at least should be intuitive for them to figure out.

OK, though I said I kind of hate timed puzzles and I’ve barely written anything, I realize I’ve managed to do all four kinds of timer (or maybe this doesn’t match up?) My rationales:

Variable Time Control: A game about making tea and toast before someone wakes up, which I don’t think puts a lot of pressure on the players (because it’s not like you lose horribly if they wake up while the toast is still in the toaster). Having examining take less time than the actual tea-and-toast making steps was partly about moving things along when it was necessary. (“Tea and Toast”)

Look/inventory as a free action–there’s a game about rescuing a bunch of astronauts before the Mercury sun comes up on them. Timing was important here but look and inventory were strictly about reminding yourself of information that was already available to the player, so it didn’t seem right to have it take a turn. (I may have forgotten to tell the player that they were free actions.) (“Terminator”)

Everything takes a turn because of a loop–well, this game has a complicated time thing going on that would be spoily to explain here, but it would’ve been really confusing to the player if every action didn’t go into the normal time sequence, and if you got killed because you examined or looked at the wrong time, you could always undo. (“Faithful Companion”)

Everything takes a turn for other reasons: There’s a puzzle that kills you after a short countdown, and you have to find the right (and reasonably obvious) action to turn off the countdown, but everything else gets blocked while this is going on–so it didn’t seem reasonable to let the player just examine any old thing during the countdown, almost none of which would be relevant to turning the countdown off. (The cloak on the porch in Cragne Manor, which is totally optional anyway)


Also, along the lines of what Linus said, in the systems I know parser errors and out-of-world commands don’t advance time, which seems right and intuitive!

I agree, and by this logic it would also take a while to take inventory of one’s possessions. Especially for the average kleptomaniac adventurer with deep pockets.

@lft, got it, that makes sense.

I’m hesitant to make inventory command ever take any time, because I can imagine an interface where the inventory is always shown, and player would have an “advantage” there. I guess what’s in-world and what’s out-of-world can be fuzzy.

I probably should have mentioned this up front. This is the only real reason I care about turns at this point. Basically I signal that “time passes” which increments turn count and also prompts NPCs to do their thing. Could get more granular, like tracking time down to the minute or second, but want to avoid that complexity if possible. So I’m really trying to figure out what takes long enough for NPCs to go about their business while you’re doing it.

Although reading Matt’s post, now I’m worried about lumping too much stuff together… but I’m hoping that keeping the core system simple, and making it easy to override, will be good enough.

For what you describe I really feel like (a) you don’t need anything too complicated and (b) it depends on the player’s relationship with the NPCs.

If the NPCs are basically friendly presences and the player isn’t going to get left in a difficult spot by having one do something when they’re not ready, it’s probably fine to have everything take a turn.

If it can be really inconvenient for the player if NPCs go on without them, then you probably don’t want to have some actions take a turn. The thing about “look” and “inventory” and sometimes “examine” is that they can be used for the player to remind themselves of what they’ve got. So if the player is going “Do I have the thing I’m supposed to give this character–inventory–aww, they walked off before I could give it to them” that’s annoying. (Which is why taking inventory is free action in roguelikes, for instance.)

It definitely doesn’t sound like you need to track minutes and seconds! Honestly the main reason I did that was because I had a snooze alarm, people know snooze alarms take about seven minutes, and I needed to give the player more than seven turns.

Thanks for all the help on this!

I think this seals it for me. Thinking about Dungeon Crawl Stone Soup, not only does listing your inventory take no time, you can carefully examine any of your items, any items on the ground around you, any creatures or terrain features nearby, and so on. You get detailed descriptions, up to a full page of text (or more), and no time passes.

Crawl has a rigorous and carefully documented design philosophy, and the reason given for this is that it’s not an action game, and the player should have as much time as they need to think before taking an action. Obviously text adventures are not dungeon crawlers, but I think the same theory can be applied. Taking inventory or examining things can be out-of-game actions because they’re just refreshing the player’s memory of things, and don’t actually represent an action by the player character, as already mentioned here.

I don’t mean this as a recommendation for what anyone else should do, but it’s helped me decide what to do as a baseline behavior.

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