We generally accept that what’s happening on the game board isn’t necessarily exactly the same as what’s happening in the game. The most common example of this in my games is usually when minis stand in for other minis, but there are several examples enshrined in the rules: creatures aren’t actually five feet wide, they’re moving around their space looking for positioning; monsters have reach based on their size, regardless of how long the arms on their figures are; attacks that deal hit point damage don’t always draw blood, etc. In our games we’ve added a principle to this pantheon to remind us of how the narrative is playing out and encourage more interesting, dynamic play.
We call this principle “static representation of constant motion”. During battle, everybody is moving at once, even if the technique we use for representing that battle (miniatures, software, maps, and the rules in general) can only handle one creature moving at a time. Consider this fight between a group of blue square player characters and red circle monsters:
Player A moves to attack monster B:
Player B disengages to cast a spell:
Monster A gives chase:
This all makes sense, but it’s not what happened. Rounds in D&D takes six seconds. During that time, every creature or effect on the battlefield acts. Each action or set of actions also takes six seconds, so everybody is acting for the entire turn. Regardless of what the tokens show, combat isn’t player A dashing forward and swinging her sword while everybody else stands still, then player B running back and shooting fire while everybody else stands still, and so on. The combat itself has everybody acting at once instead of standing around, waiting to compress an entire turn into a violent flurry.
What actually happened is that monster B probably dug in its heels, either out of surprise or tenacity. Players A and B moved together, trading places so the melee characters could fight while the caster retreated. Monster A and player A passed each other en route, and player B probably just barely got off a spell before being attacked. That’s interesting, it’s chaotic, and it’s how you’d picture a fight like that in your head.
It’s also impossible to adjudicate. Technically, if player A and monster A passed each other, shouldn’t they get attacks of opportunity? They cross paths, so do they collide and stop each other, or does one of them wait and let the other charge their ally? What if player A wanted to intercept monster A? And think about player B’s spell. In the pictures above, he could cast an area spell that hits both monsters. If everybody is moving at once, player A is between the monsters by the time the spell happens, so she gets caught in an area effect. Does monster A get an attack of opportunity for being so close to player B when the spell goes off? Is monster B allowed to use a full attack if player A wasn’t close for its entire turn? What if player A wants to use a swift action in the middle of that full attack?
This is for a single round of a two-on-two combat. Imagine extrapolating this to a typical battle with four or five players and however many monsters it takes to keep them entertained. Now add in moving terrain, different player and monster speeds, spell effects like acid clouds that do damage at the end of a turn (whether you were in them for only an instant or for the whole six seconds), spell durations that can technically expire mid-round…it’s a mess. The only way to know these answers for sure is to track everything at once, but that’s beyond the capacity of a few people who just want a little story while they slay princesses and save dragons. So instead we use the typical round system as an acceptable break from reality.
Why, then, do we even have static representation of constant motion? Originally one of my players coined the phrase as a way to explain why another player’s tactics wouldn’t work. She wanted to draw her (very expensive) crossbow from a glove of storing as a free action at the beginning of her turn, use it for the round, then sheathe it as another free action at the end of her turn. Thus it would be available for her whole round but unavailable for everybody else’s turn so it couldn’t be stolen or sundered. This is legal in the rules and a valid strategy in a round-based combat system, but in the narrative everybody is technically going at once and turns follow on from each other without delay. In-story, the player would draw her crossbow, use it for her entire turn, put it away, immediately draw it again, and go from there. The crossbow is in play for five point eight seconds of a six-second round, and sheathing it for everybody else’s turn amounted to gaming the system for a mechanical advantage. We ruled against it.
Later instances of this principle have gone both for and against the players. Consider my most recent session, where a drake ran out of movement while flying over a player’s head. Before its next turn, it was killed. Based on positioning it should have fallen directly onto that player with all the comedic damage that entailed, but since it was in the process of moving we decided it had momentum that carried it forward, barely missing the player and falling elsewhere. So I don’t want to give the impression that we only use it to shut down player strategies. It works both ways.
But looking at it from an advantage/disadvantage perspective is missing the point. Static representation of constant motion has become a descriptive tool that occasionally bleeds into mechanics more than the other way around. Consider a chase sequence where a player pursues a monster through a maze of alleys. The monster makes a double move, then the player makes a double move. The player is slightly faster than the monster, so every round he catches up a little more, and eventually he only needs a single move to reach the monster. Then he can make an attack with his remaining action. But they’re not actually rubber-banding their way through the city. It’s a tense race where the player is slowly gaining ground, perhaps taking a few (narrative, ineffectual, but flavorful) swings at the monster when he’s barely out of reach, culminating in the monster making that one tiny slip that allows a decisive blow. That’s several times more interesting than “I move, then you move, then I move”. We still use the rules to determine how long it takes the player to catch the monster and how the attack itself goes, but we’re not beholden to them as it relates to the distance between the racers at any given time.
This isn’t some fundamental building block of our play style, so it’s not a law. It’s a tool we use to better picture combat in our minds when that combat diverges from what the minis tell us and justify in-character actions and consequences in places the rules leave either ambiguous or frustratingly rigid. It also lets us stick with the static representation as a concept; we never feel like we need to track things second-by-second or abandon the round system entirely because “this is a concession for tabletop play” is built right in. As such, we tend to pick and choose when we apply it based on what makes the most sense at the time, and we’ve used it both to stop and facilitate wacky player turns. It’s not even something I would necessarily recommend to all groups, because some people like that they don’t have to think of games like a physics simulator.
But I do think it has to be in the back of a DM’s mind during any and all combat, even if they choose not to leverage it in rules and dice rolls. It’s a basic assumption of the game that a character is constantly moving, in everything from the structure of initiative to a creature’s size to the fact that AC starts at 10. Treating a character as though they’re standing still, performing an idle animation during any turn that isn’t theirs, does a disservice to the character and to the game itself. Combat is supposed to be fast, frenetic, and terrifying, and you can’t get that without acknowledging all the motion and positioning you don’t physically see.