The Alexandrian

The handling of distance in roleplaying games can be roughly broken down into two types: First, there are systems which calculate and manipulate the specific measurements of the game world (measured in feet or meters or whatever). Second, there are systems which handle movement and distance through some form of abstract mechanic.

Let’s refer to these as “precise” systems and “abstract” systems, respectively.

When executed properly, abstract distance systems are really just formalizing the way that people handle “precise” distance without using some form of visual reference.

For example, imagine that you’re playing D&D without a grid or battlemap and the GM says, “They’re about 20 feet away from you.” What’s the GM really saying there? There’s no tape measure. He imagined the scene, eyeballed the distance in his head, and gave a figure that’s basically in the right ballpark. He could have just as easily said 15 feet or 25 feet.

In general, the GM is going to make these decisions based on one of two criteria:

(1) A visualization of the game world (“they just came out of the tree line and that’s a fair distance away, let’s call it 150 ft.”); or

Numenera - Monte Cook Games(2) A mechanical assessment (“a typical PC should need to run for at least two rounds before reaching them; they can run 120 ft. per round, so let’s say it’s 150 ft. away”)

When using an abstract system, a GM should be able to use these exact same criteria.

Numenera, for example, breaks distance down into four categories: Immediate distance (anything up to about 10 ft.), Short distance (anything up to about 50 ft.), Long distance (anything up to about 100 ft.), and Extreme distance (anything beyond that).

So now the GM can use the same basic process:

(1) The archers came out of the tree line. The PCs are really far away from the tree line, so that’s an Extreme distance.

(2) The PCs shouldn’t be able to reach them in a single round, so they must be at an Extreme distance.


When not using a precise visual reference, the other thing a GM needs to keep track of is the relative position of the various characters in a combat scene. This is relatively easy if there are only a few characters, but as the number of characters grows it will eventually surpass the GM’s capacity unless (a) they’re some kind of savant, or (b) they figure out shortcuts. One of these shortcuts is to simply group characters together: You know that Gwen and Cassie are engaged in melee with the ogre, so all three of them are in one group. There are a couple of PC archers standing a few feet behind Gwen and Cassie, so that’s another group. And then you’ve got six goblins running towards the party from across the room. (This way you’re only tracking three groups instead of eleven characters.)

Infinity - Modiphius EntertainmentAnother common form of abstract distance mechanic are Zones. (We’re using those in Infinity.) And what zones basically do is formalize the mental process of grouping characters together: Gwen, Cassie, and the ogre are all standing near each other (they’re in the same zone). The two archers are a little bit off to one side (one zone away). And the goblins racing towards them are still a couple zones away.

One of the common problems people seem to run into with abstract distance systems, in my experience, is that they try to translate the abstract system back into specific measurements. Then they run the specific measurements back through whatever mental process they use for abstracting it in the theater of their mind, and then they try to translate it back into the abstract mechanic. The result tends to be like a drunk centipede trying to tap dance — they end up tripping over themselves a lot.

Okay, so if all these abstract mechanics are basically doing the same thing as the “theater of the mind”, what’s the point of them?

First, it gets away from the false deity of “precision”. Precision is great if that’s what you want and if you’re using a visual representation (usually miniatures) and mechanics which allow you to take advantage of that precision. But if you’re not, pretending that there’s any real difference between 125 feet and 130 feet is an illusion.

Second, it can eliminate irrelevant mathematical calculations by cutting directly to the mechanically relevant distinctions.

Third, these mechanics can also serve as a nice, flexible foundation for other mechanical features. For example, you can define zones with various effects that can make it easier to manage strategically interesting terrain without using battlemaps.

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9 Responses to “Thought of the Day – Abstract Distance Systems in RPGs”

  1. Michael says:

    I’m looking forward to find out more about this. Like Encumbrance I think “Range” can use a simplification that’s practically workable.

    So will zones in “Infinity” be like Marvel Super Hero zones? Odd sized divisions on the map?

    Or purely “Minds-eye” only?

    I still worry about how to deal with many PCs and NPCs in different relationships with each other physically though.

  2. Charlie says:

    I love the abstract distance mechanics, usually because I strongly believe there isn’t that much of a difference even in a rules-heavy system like Rolemaster to measure distances with that level of specificity. And in the effort of trying to be realistic, you’re actually getting away from reality. People in real life can’t measure precisely by eye, much less on the fly and in combat. Unless their are some sort of savant or an engineer or someone with a lot of practice.

    The other reason is that it saves me a lot of time converting everything to the metric system, when I can get the rulebook in spanish it already comes with everything in the metric system, but the majority of books aren’t translated. I can’t, and probably never will, get around that weird system english and americans use. You say 20 feet and I’m struggling to realize if it’s close or far, then I do the math and discover it’s 6 meters, so it’s actually really close, much closer that I would’ve imagined by intuition.

    So all in all, I prefer to use specific abstract terms, close, mid-range, far, really far, whatever. And in the end I’ll just tell the player “it’ll take two rounds to attack that enemy by melee” and get on with it. There are only specific moments when you do need a specific distance, and when it’s needed I’ll use specific measures. Like a specific combat situation when someone tries to cover someone about to get killed by a running enemy, for instance, and I need to determine exactly who gets there first. But unless those kind of situations aries, I rather just go with words.

  3. Warclam says:

    I favour abstract distance in theory, but there’s a particular shortcoming (for me) with the otherwise excellent concept of zones: weapon reach.

    If Mack and Bill are fighting in melee they’re clearly in the same zone. But suppose Mack has a knife and Bill has a polearm.

    Is there a way to remember whether they’re close-ish (Bill’s preference) or right in front of each other (Mack’s pick) without just plain remembering? I haven’t thought of one.

  4. Justin Alexander says:

    I’d want to keep it in the abstract: Mechanically model the effect of the long reach instead of tracking the position. In the 2d20 system I’d probably do something like:

    (1) If you’ve got a weapon with long reach, then you can make an attack as a reaction whenever someone without a long reach weapon closes to reach with you. On a successful attack, you can spend a Momentum to prevent them from entering reach.

    (2) Long reach weapons suffer a +1 difficulty to attack vs. opponents with shorter weapons who are within your reach

  5. Warclam says:

    That sounds entirely workable. The trouble is though that you need to remember who is inside whose reach. This could get really odd if you have more than two participants in the melee, especially.

    Perhaps I’m being overly pessimistic, but a two-way relation like that seems trickier to remember than a condition added independently; which can themselves slip memories sometimes.

    Of course, you’d have this problem anyway if you weren’t using a physical representation of the battlefield. Probably the solution would be to have a grid or other sub-zones within a zone, used only for relative distance between characters instead of trying to map it to precise distance. It lacks elegance, though.

  6. Randy Hammill says:

    First, let me say that these articles are great. Really make you think.

    For things like reach weapons, I’ve used the 5e feat rules to allow a character access to special maneuvers with certain weapons. For example, for Polearm Master I’ve added that they gain an opportunity attack when somebody tries to close within melee range (5 ft. of them). If their attack is successful, then they are able to keep their opponent from closing in on that turn.

    So it’s a similar approach to what Justin is recommending. I’m not currently penalizing use of a reach weapon within melee range, although in the 5e rules I’d probably just stick with disadvantage since it’s easy to implement. The reality is that they should probably drop the polearm and draw a sword, so disadvantage would encourage that. Of course, in eastern martial arts polearms of various sorts are used quite effectively at melee and reach ranges.

    I haven’t found it difficult to remember who is within whose reach. The players will remember who is within their reach individually and it’s not really any different than remembering who is in range of the archers, or in an area of effect spell, or tracking conditions, etc.

    Beyond that, combatants are always in motion. If you’re using a polearm you’re probably trying to back away from anybody without a weapon with reach, while at the same time they are trying to close within that reach to attack. So I don’t think it’s really a big deal if you do forget that somebody was within or not within another opponent’s reach.

    I’ve been tweaking my combat house rules since 5e came out, and I had already gotten rid of most of my miniatures a few years ago, so I’ve been sticking with TotM. A friend who I occasionally game with has a lot though and we use them when I run a game there.

    My current preference with minis is to use a map or terrain, but without squares on it. Even an empty tabletop is fine since you’re just trying to provide a visual aid as to where the groups are, but without getting hung up on counting squares and such.

    I was all for the added complexity as the 2nd edition added more tactical mini rules, which evolved into the 3rd and 4th editions. But now my preference for combat is for a more abstract approach, with or without minis. It’s faster and I feel can be more ‘realistic’ as well. For movement all we really need to know is whether they are within closing distance for melee or not, or if they are long or short range, and combat remains chaotic and fast. The flow of the session is better without the stark differentiation between the adventure and combat.

  7. Warclam says:

    Thanks, that makes a lot of sense. I now have multiple people telling me I’m worrying too much, so I’d better take their word(s?) for it.

    It’s possible, of course, to do what some low-crunch systems do and say a weapon is a weapon. I don’t like that though, because I want to model the fact that trucking a spear around is actually really inconvenient, so you’d better get a nice benefit for bothering because why else were they be seen on so many battlefields? Something that isn’t really in D&D I guess, but I’ve been on a “what CAN you take adventuring” thought process for a while.

  8. Randy Hammill says:

    Oh, I love the ‘what CAN you take’ angle, as well as why. For example, my players recently found themselves in a long tunnel they had to crawl through. They hadn’t thought it through and the two characters in the front weren’t armed with long piercing weapons.

    Now, my daughter (a druid) was in the front, and once she realized that the noisy creatures coming down the passage from the other direction were ghouls, she promptly changed into a spider and hurried back in the opposite direction. The rest of the party was relegated to crawling backwards as quickly as possible while trying to keep the ghouls at a distance with cantrips and what weapons they could pass up to the front. Great fun!

    My ranger has been lamenting that he hadn’t thought much beyond his awesome archery ability, so he’s not as well equipped for close combat, with only a rapier. No slashing or bludgeoning weapons of any sort, and he often wishes he had thought of that.

  9. Mengmoshu says:

    The Legend system is an interesting collection of ideas. It goes really whole hog on the grid, more so than D&D 3.5e which it’s loosely based on. And then it strips the weapon system down until an individual weapon is just a (small) bag of meaningful descriptors.

    Most of those descriptors are about contextual advantages. If you take the ‘reach’ advantage as an example it wouldn’t be an excessive thing to keep track of in an abstract distance system, assuming all weapons were just bags of feature descriptors. Resolving anything involving a Legend system weapon involves checking those descriptors, because it’s expected that most weapons among the multiple each character probably carries is going to be a unique combination.

    Also on the subject of reach weapons in general, the bladed end isn’t always the only useful part. And in the case of precise distance systems they’re not that often longer than the side of the “square” a character occupies. I’ve always favored the idea that a spear or guisarm turns into a semi-improvised fighting staff, doing blunt damage, and with the same dice as a the most similar staff. Weapon balance is the main issue, the weight of the bladed end might still require something like 5e’s disadvantage.

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