Games Culture Three: Freedom of Movement

Encumbrance and movement go hand in hand in my book, one is the far more important cousin of the other. Where, in the spirit of emulation, one is almost irrelevant (encumbrance), the other (movement) is critical – but maybe not in the way we think. Let’s deal with the baggage issue first?

Encumbrance is irrelevant

“I can’t carry it [the One Ring] for you, but I can carry you!”

That’s it. That’s the scene when encumbrance matters. Samwise and Frodo on Mount Doom. Can Sam carry Frodo and the One Ring? And the answer is, of course, he can, but slowly. OK, there are other scenes – the soldier struggling to carry the fallen comrade to the evac helicopter, or the heist where the robber has to choose between the heavy bags of loot or escape. The point is, these are dramatic moments of tension. They are not a case of them carrying one small item too many to reach an arbitrary breakpoint that suddenly reduces their speed to a crawl.

That heavily modeled version of encumbrance might serve a board game well, but in my eyes, it has no place in a roleplaying game. If we have already dispensed with itemised tracked equipment, then its weight becomes irrelevant.

“So they can carry hundreds of swords and it’s ok then?”

Of course not and here is where everyone just needs to understand that we’re playing with principles, not black and white rules here. No, of course, your hero cannot carry hundreds of swords, but they could carry two – maybe even three. Just be sensible about it. Most debates about encumbrance end up with people trying to find edge cases or rule loopholes to allow some ludicrous example. If you’re doing that, you’re just not playing the game right.

And of course, the real kicker out of all of this is that encumbrance only matters because of movement – which leads us nicely onto…

All movement is relevant

Blame Dungeons and Dragons 4th Edition.

That is the game that taught me that movement matters. The emphasis on ‘the grid’ initially put me off, when I embraced it I saw what we had missed from other versions of D&D. Range, something that had always been there on the page, mattered. Positioning, relative to every other actor in the scene, mattered. Terrain mattered, cover mattered, those AoE templates that have been in every version of games since Gygax was a lad, mattered! And above all, movement mattered.

Suddenly being a slow-ass dwarf with 25′ movement instead of a swift elf with 35′ movement made a tangible difference to the game. Previously, this had been lost in the so-called ‘Theatre of the Mind’ combat that we had done. It was a narrative crutch used outside of combat, for sure, but in combat suddenly the two speeds were normalised to ‘I rush to the next orc, screaming my warcry’ without any concept of ‘…and can’t quite get there before they let fly another arrow because I am a slow ass dwarf in clunky armour.’

When you use a grid for a D&D-style game, more of the actual rules come into play. I was running a game online in 2021 and unplanned combat happened. I didn’t have a battle map prepared and thus reverted to a sort of zone set-up on-screen and a more abstract movement system. When the fight concluded, the player of the sorcerer asked that we avoid doing that again, as it robbed his character of a ton of tricks and strategy that gridded combat gave it. And he was 100% right. If your rules are built around these things – and most modern fantasy systems are – then bloody well use them!

“But doesn’t that turn it into a board game?”

To which I would simply say you’re not trying hard enough. You don’t have to divorce movement and positioning from roleplay. Take these examples?

“I walk forwards, purposefully, beating my warhammer against my shield, challenging the orc to single combat” [moves forward five squares in a straight line towards the orc]

“I jump gracefully from table to table, swing off the hanging light, and land deftly before my foe, sword raised – en garde!” [Moves across a tavern navigating the tables to get to the enemy]

“I spring up the rocks, taking the higher ground, and then nock an arrow, ready to take the eye of the beast” [Moves up difficult terrain and foreshadows a ranged attack]

It’s not hard.

Oh, and if you are looking at the second one and thinking some sort of DEX/Acrobatics check is needed, or the last one and think ‘But a Climb/Athletics roll, surely?’ then give your head a sharp wobble. When a PC acts within the parameters of their concept, to embellish that concept, and you enforce failure steps on them, you’re encouraging them to just not bother. Why swing across the bar for no advantage other than to be cool, if you stand a chance of falling flat on your face and putting yourself at a disadvantage? Why would you bother? And what harm does it do to let them do it?

“So do all games have a grid now?”

No, absolutely not. There are loads of games that have no need for grids or tokens or whatever. However these games have rules that aren’t built around those assumptions. A lot of them allow the player more scope to narrate the effect of their spells or abilities, or treat conflict in a more abstract manner.

The rule of thumb I take is ‘If the game uses rules for movement to enhance tactical play, use them. If it doesn’t, then don’t’ – simple. So D&D gets a grid. Monsterhearts does not. Savage Worlds? Grid. Duty & Honour? No grid. Simple.

“You said ALL movement?”

I did, because I want to mention the other sort of movement – travel times. In my games, unless it is (a) dramatically important or (b) the players make it dramatically important, travel takes place at the Speed of Plot.

You will arrive when you need to, at a point that makes dramatic sense within the game. If you’re going to a volcano to stop an impending eruption, you’ll arrive just as it’s starting – not weeks beforehand, or after it’s too late – UNLESS getting their on time is the conflict within the story and then you get to something more involved.

And in many of my games, how you get from A to B is irrelevant too. In a game with precious little use for money, any feasible explanation of travel is good enough for me. In no fiction ever has the hero said ‘Well, I needed to get to Tokyo to stop the summoning of the Hellspawn, but I couldn’t afford the airfare, and the next flight was full anyway…’

Whether it’s a Star Wars-style screen wipe or an Indiana Jones red line going across the map, you just get to the action!

So what’s the emergent play?

I’ve never seen anyone miss encumberance, ever. Stupid bloody rules.

Once you make movement in combat important, it changes the way people view their choices. They start to think about it like a battlefield. This might not be for everyone, but done properly I think it really enhances some character play. When you embrace the narrative freedom of movement, how your characters move suddenly becomes as important as how they speak or fight. It adds another dimension to the character.

Speed of plot travel is just amazing. It takes a huge chunk of coincidental play out of games. No wandering monsters, no wilderness encounters, no travel-shopping trips. So much time is saved! And that in turn means you can get to the meat of the game faster and get on with the story.

Which leads me to my next topic – what happens when you get there:

Next Up: Dungeons and why I hate them

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