The Noise Before Defeat

Sun Tzu once said, “Strategy without tactics is the slowest route to victory. Tactics without strategy is the noise before defeat.” I assume, then, that strategy with tactics is the quick, noisy way to victory, but I guess that wasn’t poetic enough for Sun Tzu to say directly.

Sun Tzu + Internet Meme = Bad Pun

Sun, I am disappoint.

I’m not going to try and improve on the Art of War, but you know what does need improving? The tactical positioning system used in D&D-style RPGs. Currently, D&D’s positioning system is plagued with legacy issues only a 2,500-year-old general could love. No disrespect to Mr. Sun, but this town deserves a better class of elf game, and it starts with updating one of the core fundamentals of the combat engine: the battle grid.

In principio erat Chainmail…

In the beginning, there was Chainmail, the table-top wargame which was adapted into the original Dungeons & Dragons rules. In ye olde days, you used a ruler or tape measure to find exact distances between figurines representing units; 1 inch of the table represented 10 yards of battlefield. Units could move a certain distance, ranged units and artillery could launch volleys or projectiles a certain distance, etc., etc. When D&D was born out of Chainmail’s womb, the bouncing baby RPG reflected its parentage in its rather stract combat engine. (“Stract?” you say. Yes, stract, as in, what the opposite of abstract would be called in a sane world. No, not concrete, I’m not making a sidewalk!)

Pictured: Stract

This is actually weird if you think about it; the early editions of D&D were a marriage between a pretty free-form narrative-based exploration game which then launched into a wall of statistics for weapon speed, range, and effectiveness against different kinds of armor, and for precise, measured movement, once you were foolish enough to get into battle. That’s unimportant, though; the key is that in battle every foot of characters’ movement was measured (eventually abstracted somewhat into 5-foot increments). This was great when everyone had minis and a big surface (later a grid), which everyone did, because this was a game by wargamers, for wargamers.

The Problem

It’s not 1974 anymore. Nixon is no longer president, skintight disco pants and sequins no longer make you a dance band, and people no longer play D&D just by sitting around a table. This little thing called the Internet happened, and for the past decade and a half it has become one of, if not the, primary mediums through which people role-play. “Theater of the Mind” play (aka the artist formerly known as “playing without minis or grids”) sounds like it could step in and smooth over the transition between mediums just by having you imagine the scene, but when the game assumes measurable 5′ increments and attacks of opportunity and the difference between a reach weapon and a non-reach weapon, TotM either becomes pretty cumbersome, because you have to make sure everyone has the same scene in their heads and double check every detail that would be obvious with a physical grid, or leads to simply abandoning some of the finer points of the positioning rules.

For example, two party members flank an enemy. They kill it, and one party member tells the DM she moves to another enemy in the room and attacks. The other does likewise, telling the DM he engages another foe in melee. Now, an enemy Wizard wants to cast Fireball on these two. Are they within 40 feet (the diameter of a fireball) of each other? How far did they move again? I dunno, were the enemies they each targeted adjacent or separated? Did they move in the same direction, or the opposite, or at right angles, or what? What if one player thought they had moved next to the other, but had gone the opposite direction in the DM’s imagining? Does the DM even remember just where all the monsters are? Of course he does! Oh, they probably would have had an attack of opportunity or two back there, wouldn’t they? Hmm…

A picture is worth a thousand words, and that’s a lot of game time.

At this point the poor DM is just going to forget trying to track down all the positioning information and go with what he thought was happening. This can obviously be confusing and at times frustrating for the player who didn’t think they were in the fireball‘s blast radius and maybe would have made a different choice if he had realized the DM saw it another way. What’s more, when positioning is decided by DM fiat in too many cases, or simply when a player doesn’t keep track of the entirety of the battle in their mind adequately (which would be trivial with minis), it cheapens or renders moot powers or attacks or effects that would normally allow you to exploit positioning situations. Did the enemy Barbarian charge past you? Even with your reach weapon? The answer depends on just how you imagine the battle’s physical setting, the prior position of all the combatants, and the path the Barbarian took. The odds that everyone does so the same way is pretty slim. Your reach weapon or your charge attack will be inconsistently useful compared to the objective nature of playing with minis.

Theater of the Mind play is a good concept, but can’t be achieved just by invoking its name in a fundamentally grid-based game.

The Fix

So what am I up to here? I’m going to take the tactics implied by D&D’s tactical positioning system and formalize it into a grid-less form. This new system can, IMO, replace the traditional grid of 5-foot squares in TotM games, allowing players to engage with all the other objects in the battle similarly to how they would in a game with a grid, just much easier cognitively. In addition, this idea streamlines some tactical positioning-related decisions, which both speeds up play in real-time and makes it easier to play-by-post with.

“‘Cause YOLO!!”


The battle takes place in zones, each roughly 30′ x 30′. Some zones have barriers between it and other zones which can make moving and/or making ranged attacks between those zones difficult or impossible. Within each zone there is no finer absolute positioning; however, there is relative positioning. Anything within a zone is within “short range” of anything else in the zone (so it roughly corresponds to how far you could traditionally move in a move action), but unless you engage with something else in the zone (see below), you’re not really in any one spot within the zone; rather, you’re moving around, observing or otherwise just getting into position to do what it is you want to do. You can use your move action to approach anything in the zone, or you can use it to move to an adjacent zone or further if you have enhanced movement.


Within a zone, you generally use your move action to approach fixtures/items, allies, or enemies. When you use your move action to approach a fixture such as a pillar (or an item like a treasure chest), you link yourself to its location and get whatever benefit being near it confers, whether it’s cover from enemy attacks or a ward against evil. You can then use your standard action to interact with it if you want, such as kicking down a door. If you use your move action to approach an ally in your zone, you link yourself to their location, and get whatever benefit being near them confers, be they magical or otherwise, and can use your move action to interact with them (e.g. healing by touch). Finally, if you use your move action to approach an enemy (“close to melee” or “engage” if you prefer), you link yourself to their location and get whatever penalty that might carry with it (magical auras, for instance), but perhaps more importantly, you can engage them in melee combat. You can also use a move action to disengage from any of these. Ranged attacks don’t require you to be engaged in melee; you can attack anyone within the range of your weapon, no matter where you are. However, if you make a ranged attack into a melee, you take the normal penalty to do so (-4 or Disadvantage, or whatever your edition recommends).


Now, where it gets interesting is in Reactions (née Immediate Actions). At the end of your turn, you set the Reaction you will take until your next turn begins. The reactions I have figured out so far are Interrupt, Evade, and Defend. Interrupt works much like an attack of opportunity; when an enemy you are engaged with either tries to disengage, make a ranged attack, cast a spell, use an item, or do something else that would normally trigger an attack of opportunity, you make a free attack on them. If your attack succeeds, however, instead of just doing damage, you cause their action to fail. Once in melee, it is easier to lock down opponents, though this is probably limited to just 1 per round. When you Evade, instead, anyone who tries to engage you on their turn must make a check against your 10 + your Reflex save (or your Dexterity defense or whatever is applicable in your edition/game). If they fail, then you evade them and keep them out of melee range. Defend, on the other hand, allows you to redirect towards yourself a certain number of attacks intended for an ally you are linked to. (Flank may also end up a Reaction, but I’m not sure yet)

Reactions help the combat move quicker by front-loading the “off-turn action” decision onto your turn. Instead of your enemy triggering an attack of opportunity and then deciding what to do about it on the enemy’s turn, you’ve already decided what you will do, and the DM can just resolve it on his own if he wanted to, without breaking the flow of the turn. That’s true on play-by-post, too; everyone’s Reactions would be set, the DM need just glance over them on the monsters’ turns and resolve any that are triggered. It preserves the tactical value of off-turn actions without needing to wait for someone to actually show up to post to take an action between their turns.

Odds and Ends (read “Reach” and “Charge”)

Reach weapons allow you to engage others in “reach melee” range. In reach melee, you can attack them as if in melee range (including interrupting them for your Reaction), but they are not considered in melee range to attack you (unless they are also using a reach weapon). If an enemy moves to melee range, though, you cannot use a reach weapon to attack them. When you charge, using up both your move and standard actions, you can attack with the usual bonus to attack anyone in your zone that you are not in any melee with or anyone in an adjacent zone, but you cannot charge anyone who is engaged in melee, linked to an item that gives them some kind of cover, linked to a patch of difficult terrain, or who is defended by others. IOW, if they are linked to anything, you cannot charge them. You cannot charge if you are linked to anything, either.

“SQUEEE!” – Boar for “charge”

Ceterum censeo…

So, a quasi-history lesson, a few lame puns, some fun with Latin headings, and an abstract tactical positioning system later, and here we are. I think this will prove a useful alternative in games that aren’t using a battle grid and minis (the tactical positioning stuff, not so much the Latin), unless it’s a 4e game, then sorry, this won’t work at all and it would break a bunch of powers. But for 3.5 (and from what I can see of it 5e), it adequately corresponds to what it is intended to replace, and it even streamlines parts of it. What’s more, with interrupts actually foiling an action at melee range, it creates new tactical possibilities; a high accuracy, low damage character is now a strong interrupter, a niche that the system didn’t support well before. The interactions between the Reactions and the tactical movement options open up all kinds of tactical decisions. As I continue to polish and create new Reactions, those interactions should only get richer.

Is this a good idea? Something you’d use? Can you think of a new/better Reaction? Is there some aspect of D&D movement this leaves out? Sound off below, give a like, and/or follow!

3 thoughts on “The Noise Before Defeat

  1. It’s an awesome idea. Seems influenced by Fate ( and with just enough added layers of crunch to make tactics with bite for theater of the mind style play.

  2. This is a really good and useful idea you’ve got here. I might even be inspired to use it in my own game, once it’s fleshed out a little more.

  3. Nice work on creating TotG (Theatre of the Grid).Also all the history is nice but true TotM RPing with D&D has been around pretty much as long as the game itself.

    I’m all for hacking games to fit your style so keep it up.

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