Strictly quantified movement

In what I consider to be “new school” D&D, movement outside of combat is often fluid and happens via negotiated narrative rather than explicit rules, whereas movement within combat is heavily systematized and makes use of explicit, quantified geometry using a grid. Options are strictly regulated by action type. Improvisation, based on referee ruling, is of course still possible, though the outcome of such ad hoc rulings must ultimately be represented within the geometric structure. Time is usually kept strictly within combat, but not outside of combat.

Old school D&D, in practice, often represents movement and action possibilities both inside and outside of combat via negotiated narrative and without much strict numerical quantification. PCs move through a hallway, into a room, enter combat, charge, retreat, and so forth, all without direct geometric reasoning. However, the older rulesets, as written, have a focus on logistics as seen in movement rates by armor type, chance of random encounter per turn of movement, light radii, escape, and other similar rules. This seems to gesture toward an almost inverted type of game geometry compared to the new school: heavily quantified movement outside of combat with narrative, fluid movement within combat.

Following this structure, old school D&D could be seen as more of a board game outside of encounters whereas new school D&D is more of a board game inside of encounters. Comparing aspects of RPGs to board games is often seen as pejorative, but such is not the intent here. Instead, I think it might be interesting to try taking this board game aspect of old school exploration movement more seriously. For example, a scouting, unarmored, stealthy thief, with a movement rate of 12 squares per turn, suddenly becomes hugely valuable in the sense of quantifiably being able to cover more ground per exploration turn. While this might be easier to do in person, with something like a dry-erase battle mat for dungeon movement, it might also be possible online using a shared whiteboard such as Twiddla or Awwapp. This approach could also be taken to wilderness exploration using an explicit player-facing hex map (which I have seen discussed before, but never seen in practice).

7 thoughts on “Strictly quantified movement

  1. Forrest Hudspeth

    I like where this line of thought is going. Having things out there visually can make players’ options much more understandable than relying on verbal descriptions. It could end up being a crutch, of course, if overused. More prep-time required than if you’re able to BS as you go. In theory boardgame-like elements would keep things moving at a quicker pace though, and since I don’t get more than a few hours at a time from a gaming session this is invaluable.

    1. Brendan Post author


      I don’t think I would enjoy refereeing a dungeon adventure without a predetermined map, so the amount of prep is about the same for me in either case, but I see what you are saying. It would definitely be harder to improvise a map if using these kind of formalized movement rules.

      Though you could always go the random dungeon or geomorph route and really embrace the procedural generation approach (creating overarching meaning and relationships only when it suits you). This does, of course, as a player make learning about areas that do not yet exist or foreshadowing more difficult.

  2. Aaron

    Whereas in combat, it isn’t critical for the party to remain together (given the complete lack of formation fighting rules), it would be suicide for the thief to use his superior movement to move up ahead of the party.

    I’ve been going in the opposite direction and trying to make movement outside of combat as non-quantified as possible. Often not even describing the distances between rooms. Whereas it might make sense for an armored fighter to move slower in combat situations, the glacial movement outside of combat is assumed to be a result of careful exploration and mapping and, thus, shouldn’t be impacted by a particular character’s running speed.

    1. Brendan Post author


      Yes, abstracting movement between zones has been how I have been running games in practice pretty much forever. I suspect this marginalizes or even completely elides the impact of some rules, however.

      I’m not sure I follow the second part of your first paragraph (“would be suicide for the thief …”).

  3. Ynas Midgard

    This is exactly what I did while running my groups through (parts of) Barrowmaze. Exploration was very much about bookkeeping regarding movement rates, torches, and random encounters (and resting every sixth turn). In combat, however, we hand-waved movement rates (like, slower characters couldn’t approach enemies further away), although fleeing was handled pretty strictly, as well.

    1. Brendan Post author


      Barrowmaze seems like a perfect dungeon for this kind of play. How long did it last? Were your players able to gain some levels during the game?

      1. Ynas Midgard

        We played half a dozen sessions or so, if I remember it right. There were two regular players with lots of hirelings and one or two henchmen. They were quite successful and managed to recover much treasure. They actually amassed such an amount of wealth that they rented the otherwise rather useless lands around the dungeon from the local lord and monopolised its riches.

        Maybe we return to it sometime; I still have the character sheets and related notes somewhere.

Leave a Reply