Gridless Movement

Posted: 2024-02-04
Last Modified: 2024-02-07
Word Count: 2611
Tags: d20 nimble5e rpg

Table of Contents

D&D 5e assumes players and GMs run combats with miniatures or tokens and a grid of 5’ squares or movement measured in inches. This becomes inconvenient if you want to run a game without a slick VTT or perhaps entirely over Discord or voice chat.

Below are some ideas to remove the 5’ grid from D&D 5e – or any other game – without sacrificing all the tactical elements of gameplay.

Engaged and Disengaged

In all these systems, the DM may choose to introduce the concept of being engaged in melee combat.

A character is Engaged in combat if they and an Opponent are able to make melee attacks against each other. A character becomes Engaged when they state they are making a melee attack against another character

To withdraw from melee combat a character can explicitly take the Disengage action, which does not provoke an Attack of Opportunity (AoO) but gives the previous Opponent the option to re-Engage the character (if they are able to fight). Alternatively, a character can implicitly Withdraw by taking another movement action, which gives the previous Opponent an AoO.

Many people find that Attacks of Opportunity slow down the game, so the DM may simply ignore these rules. In that case, when a character moves out of range of an Opponent they simply move away, full stop.

Fate Zones

Instead of using squares or hexes, Fate breaks up its battle maps into Zones. Zones can be any size, but conventionally they are large enough to hold several combatants but small enough that each combatant can reach any other combatant with a turn’s worth of movement.

Entering a new Zone normally requires only a one-turn Move, since it’s usually as simple as walking across the floor. (But see Engaged and Disengaged, above.) However, a zone may be Bounded by a low fence, hedge, or other easily surmounted terrain, in which case crossing that boundary requires the equivalent of a Dash on one turn. One can cross the boundary on two successive turns, but until the second turn the character will be on the boundary, e.g. a low wall or an incline.

Zone Benefits

Zone movement removes the false exactitude of 30’ (or 25’ or 40’) movement in favor of a more abstract cinematic view. A character is no longer on a specific square but “on the forecastle” or “near the mizzenmast” if on a ship, “near the door” or “in the southwest corner” in a dungeon room, and so forth. The zone map still provides characters a rough idea of who is where and how far characters and objects are from each other, but they no longer need to count off squares.

Zone Drawbacks

Fate-style Zones, ultimately, depend on a map. It takes out some of the delay of counting out 5’ squares (or inches), but ultimately the players and GM still place tokens on a map to represent approximate locations.

Ultimate Dungeon Terrain

Professor Dungeon Master promotes the idea of Ultimate Dungeon Terrain, a universal stage upon which to play out all battles. UDT may be as simple as three concentric circles or as detailed as this:

Universal Dungeon Terrain

The innermost circle represents melee combat range, within which any figure can attack any other figure. The ring beyond that represents ranged combat range, where figures can’t engage in melee combat but can attack with ranged weapons if they have them. The outermost circle contains figures who are too far away to become part of the action, but who might leap in at any time.

In 5e, crossing from one circle to the next costs on Move. Fleeing from the inner circle to the outer circle therefore costs two Moves or one Dash. (But see Engaged and Disengaged, above.)

UDT Benefits

The UDT presents a compelling, simple model: PCs mostly in the center, surrounded by enemies, with ranged PCs and NPCs taking potshots and optionally a few characters outside the general brawl. UDTs can be decorated with props to note how many doors there are, what other fixed furniture there may be, and other things characters can stand on, improvise a weapon from, or otherwise use. Yet despite the set dressing the movement principle remains: center stage, further from center, off in the wings.

UDT Drawbacks

The UDT still requires some sort of shared whiteboard if not a full UDT. It’s also possible for smaller scrums to break out in a long or complex battle, which means small “coasters” in addition to the main “pizza” where most of the PCs are.

The UDT also feels like a waste of a VTT’s capabilities.

Theater of the Mind Ranges

Both the above approaches assume some sort of graphical representation, even if it doesn’t involve counting out grid squares or measuring with rulers. This last option uses abstract distance measurements, based on the Index Card RPG and Cypher System.

Moving between Close, Near, and Far typically costs one Move. Moving between Far, Very Far, and Away typically costs a full Dash. This does not take into account walls, terrain, or other obstructions, which may impose an additional Move or two. Especially slow or fast creatures may require fewer or more Moves to change ranges.

Each move may change the distance between multiple other characters. For example, Charlie is Near to Alice and Bob, and Alice and Bob are also Close to each other. When Charlie moves Close to Alice he also moves Close to Bob. If he insteads moves Far from Bob he also moves Far from Alice. DMs and players should use common sense when determining how movement affects distances between characters.

One can conceive as characters belonging to sets based on proximity. While one can track the distances between characters in a similar way to Zones or UTD, one can also use a textual representation, for example:

#1 - CLOSE: "Alice" "Bob" "Orc 1" "Orc 2";
#2 - CLOSE: "Charlie" "Orc 3";
#3 - CLOSE: "Orc Chieftain" "Orc Shaman";
#4 - NEAR:  "GROUP #1" "GROUP #2";
#5 - FAR:   "GROUP #3" "GROUP #4" "Sharpshooter Dan";
#6 - AWAY:  "ALL" "Cowardly Eve";

Or maybe something better.

The DM may keep a graphical representation on his side for convenience, but the players need only ask what their CLOSE targets are and how far away the other potential targets are. From the author’s experience, most combats don’t get as complicated as the sets above; the PCs usually stay clustered together, and their opponents likewise.

Sets with Circles

TotM Benefits

Unlike the other methods, the DM need not present a graphical representation of any kind to the players. Players may simply ask the distance to an Opponent or Ally, and the DM will (theoretically) have a ready answer based on their own mental map. This method is therefore ideal for voice chat, text chat, a walk in the woods, etc. where presenting a map is difficult or impossible.

TotM Drawbacks

The DM must keep a mental map of where all the PCs and NPCs are in relation to each other, which can get complicated and confusing as the number of characters increases or as they start to intermingle. A rough map scrawled on a piece of paper usually suffices to keep everyone’s positions straight, but even that can get messy and confused on occasion.

Another technique I’ve seen is to use miniatures and place glass beads between them to denote distance increments. (No beads = close, one bead = near, etc.) This, however, brings us back to a VTT, or at least Google Drawing and similar shared whiteboards.

Special Situations

ADDED 2024-02-05

Certain tactical situations are trivial to represent with miniatures on a grid or table, but less obvious in the more abstract representations above. Below are a few examples.

Polearms and Weapon Reach

A polearm can reach up to 10’ (in D&D 5e at least) to attack characters out of range of a sword or axe. How do we handle that situation?

A simple solution allows all 5e weapons with the “reach” property to strike at adjacent Zones / middle circle Near range with the GM’s approval. This requires the GM to either make judgement calls or define another range, Very Near, for targets within glaive or halberd range. On the UDT this could be indicated by placing those targets right up to the edge of the inner circle.

Another solution is to assign each weapon a Reach of Short, Medium, or Long:

If the target of a melee attack has a weapon with a longer reach than the attacker, the attack is at Disadvantage2 unless the attacker also has a shield or other weapon in their other hand. The attacker must first close the distance between the end of the target’s weapon and the effective range of their own, either by deflecting the attacker’s weapon with a shield or second weapon or through fancy footwork (which is more difficult).

In some circumstances, e.g. a polearm user behind a shield wall, the GM may rule that opponents simply can’t attack the polearm wielder without going through a shield wielder first.

Area of Effect Attacks

Another common problem revolves around the range of Area of Effect spells and effects without a map or exact measurements.

A solution requires two compromises:

  1. Reduce all measurements to abstract measurements in terms of Zones, UDT ranges, or TotM abstract ranges.

  2. Reduce all areas and volumes to vague areas defined in abstract measurements:

    • Circles and squares affect all characters within Close or Near range of the center of the effect.
    • Cones can affect one or more characters within Close range of each other and Near or Far range of the source.
    • Lines can affect 1d6 characters within Far range.

So, for example, a Fireball bloom anywhere within Far range of the caster and it affects anyone within Near range of the point of origin. This alters its effective area – 20’ radius vs. 50’-ish diameter – but in practice most enemies don’t pack themselves into a sphere for maximum Fireball damage.

Terrain Features

TODO: Review for readability.

Often battles use the terrain to one of the combatants’ advantage: swampy ground that restricts movement (as in Agincourt), a narrow passage from which a few defenders can fend off a horde, cliff edges over which someone may fall to their death, or (theoretically) unbreakable walls that keep the enemy from retreating. Abstract measures of position and distance can represent these terrain features with only a few rules or rulings.

Special Terrain Zones

Using Fate-Style Zones one can define “impassable” walls through which characters may not pass, and doors or passages through those walls through which one must pass to get to the other side. These Zones serve as choke points, e.g. if a group of player characters plant themselves in front of a door or just inside a passage they can keep others from entering. If a passage is narrow enough the players can also restrict the number of enemies they face at any one time, typically between one and three.

One can also include Zones of unusual terrain: swampy Zones, sticky Zones, shadowed Zones, foggy Zones, etc. The GM can give those Zones special properties, such as:

UDT Terrain

On a UDT the GM will simply put down door and corner miniatures (or markers), and ask the players to imagine the stone walls extending from them. Egress is only possible through a door, movement stops at a wall, etc.

TotM Landmarks

Measurements aren’t just for characters but objects, including “landmarks”, fixed points of the imaginary terrain. Doors and walls are the most common landmarks, but landmarks may include windows, pillars, trees, rocks, cliff faces, cliff edges, etc.

A Landmark may serve to restrict movement through or past it, but it also provides a reference point by which to describe a character’s position. E.g. a character may be Close to Pillar #9, and other characters’ positions can be defined with reference to that pillar (or the other 8). Taken to the extreme this is essentially Fate-style Zones, but a few Landmarks can help orient players in the Theater of the Mind.

Summary

All of these methods share similar concepts. Most of the differences lay in how one represents position and movement logically.

The table below summarizes these similarities and relates them to 5e movement. In Nimble 5e, each Move takes 1 Action Point; each “Full Action” takes 2 Action Points. Convert to other games’ turn structure as appropriate.

Action Zones UDT TotM
Move Enter Normal Zone Change Circle Close ↔ Near
Near ↔ Far
Near ↔ Away (DM judgement)
Full Enter Bounded Zone Change Two Circles Far ↔ Very Far
Far ↔ Away (DM judgement)
Very Far ↔ Away

Zones require a map and tokens, but they allow DMs to be a bit more flexible about distances.

UDT provides a technique for the typical battle of a core of player characters beset by enemies. It does still rely on a graphical represenation of the battle, but one can abstract this to a large degree. It does not handle battles in a large space or sparse pockets of fighting as well.

The “Theater of the Mind” system I propose combines some of the best ideas from other games to present a system not dependent on a map or abstract “zones” and extensible enough to handle even outdoor battles. Its one drawback is that increases the DM’s burden to maintain and accurately describe a mental or paper map of all characters’ relative positions.

Of the three choices above I prefer the TotM Ranges, since it’s most familiar to me from Cypher System. In practice it’s not as complicated as the examples above make it. However, it does require the DM/GM to communicate clearly and often with players as to how far they are from potential targets. Understandably some may prefer a more visual representation like UDT or Fate Zones.


  1. These weapons might be considered “Medium Long”: longer than Medium but with less reach than the rest of the Long weapons. ↩︎ ↩︎

  2. In other systems besides 5e, the GM will assess another penalty. ↩︎