About half a year back I mused on handling distance in tabletop games, settling on the notion of juggling exact precision with appropriate vagueness depending on the type of scene. While I still stand by that model, I’ve since had more time to play in a third option that does a remarkable job of spanning the distance between too much exactness and two little without all the mess of going back and forth between styles: 13th Age’s Gridless Combat system.
For those who haven’t yet had the pleasure, the Gridless Combat system handles vague but consistent distances by making them relative between characters on the field. All distances fall into one of three categories:
- Engaged (within immediate reach of)
- Nearby (within one move action)
- Far away (two move actions away)
The exact distance of “nearby” or “far away” is irrelevant – what matters is what category it falls into. It gives a GM a great deal of narrative freedom (and less numerical stress of calculating hypotenuses) while still giving everyone a feeling of standardized distances that make it easy to know what to expect and plan accordingly.
By default, everyone starts Nearby, and you can move to Engaged and attack if you want to get into melee combat. Bows, pistols and the like can be used from Nearby or even Far Away, letting wizards and archers stay on the fringe where it’s slightly safer while the more durable sorts mix it up in the fray. Those options and more are located in the 13th Age SRD under Combat Actions.
Several powers and abilities in 13th Age naturally rely on this interplay, with many mages having “close-quarters” spells that they can cast when Engaged (where they would otherwise draw attacks of opportunity), or acrobatic maneuvers that might let one break Engagement without catching an axe in the teeth for your troubles. There’s also the option to intercept someone changing states, so long as your Nearby them and their target, and aren’t Engaged with someone else at the time. Lots of options to toy with.
Chases in any setting can be handled the same way. The fleeing party takes a round to get Far Away. If no one pursues, they vanish at the start of the next round, darting around a corner or otherwise getting out of sight. If anyone pursues, they can close the distance in a round to make it a proper chase, but if they use all their actions to pursue, they can’t attack. If the pursuer stops to attack, they can’t completely catch up. And so on.
And while a lot of (admittedly legit) comparisons have been made between 13th Age and settings like D&D or Pathfinder, I’ve found that their handling of combat movement, like so many of the elements that make 13th Age unique, works in nearly every other system I’ve found with only slight modifications required.
Reskinned for Shadowrun, movement simply becomes its own Simple Action. Since ranged combat is more or less the default in SR, characters are typically taking the same actions in a round without having to worry so much about run multipliers or doing meters-to-feet conversions in their heads. Weapons like sniper rifles can function just fine at Far Away range, while Pistols might need to be Nearby to be used without penalty. Shotguns or tasers might even need to go up to Engaged, if you’re so inclined.
Applying the same notion to a World of Darkness game greatly simplifies the math involved, but may remove some of the complexity. If your group wants to keep it, I recommend turning the three categories into four: Engaged, A Walk Away, A Jog Away, A Sprint Away. The rest of the rules can be left as-is from there.
Gridless combat seems to favor the vague “somewhere over there” method, and while that’s true, there’s a surprising consistency in the tiered mechanic once it’s applied to the system you’re using that a lot of positioning strategists can appreciate and work happily in. Paired with a similarly stratified cover model to handle corners, barriers and the classic chest-high walls, you often wind up with just enough to satisfy the strategists without alienating or frustrating the narrators in the process.
If nothing else, the relative-distance method can make for a great transitional step if you’re looking to change up how your group handles distances for a given game to help satisfy the group members who have been frustrated previously. It can serve as a good bridge to get players on either side of the line into the mindset of the other without making as jarring a move all the way to the opposite extreme.
And that gets everyone Nearby where they need to be.