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How should I handle movement when one character isn't engaged in combat yet?

Our house rule is that if you're not in combat or if the DM isn't having you move at your character's speed (like in a dungeon, on a trapped floor), then you can move freely and speed doesn't come into account.

I feel like many if not all people do this. Its easier to say, "I'm going to head to the blacksmith," and assume you've walked there than it is to say, "I'm going to the market," and have to calculate how many turns it will take to get there with a 30-foot move speed.

I've had a few instances where one or more players are in the middle of combat but one character will not have joined, opting to move around the battle (like 3-6 squares (15-30 feet) away and clearly in sight), but there are no enemies free to attack them yet. This character has no hiding skills or abilities that would keep them from being seen. One time, I had the enemy spot them outright, but since the enemy couldn't break away to pursue them, the character didn't see why they needed to enter the fight.

Now while everyone else must stick to their move speeds or abilities that move them around and only on their turns, this player says she isn't part of combat so she isn't restricted to those rules.

I like letting some changes to core rules happen when everyone agrees on them because different interpretations of the rules can happen, but this one always stops the game and causes a disagreement.

How should I handle this?

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  • \$\begingroup\$ Welcome to RPG.SE! Take the tour, and check out the help center for more guidance. \$\endgroup\$ – V2Blast Feb 7 at 6:40
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    \$\begingroup\$ There seems to be some misconceptions here. A character's speed applies only during an encounter. It is not something that can (or should!) be tracked through the entire adventure day. Could it be that the fact that both your players and you believe this to be a house rule is changing expectations? \$\endgroup\$ – Alex Millette Feb 7 at 12:52
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You can't freely change time and space for only one player

I never GM'ed, but as a player I fully agree with Kyle Doyle's and Novak's answers. Your player shouldn't move freely.

If you're looking at it logically, moving freely (even by your rules) means that your player can act several turns at once (and then you calculate how many etc...). But if only one player is able to do this while others are "restricted" because of combat, that would mean that following your player's logic her/him could play several turns while others can only do one, which is illogical. If your player wants to move while others are in combat and monsters as you said can't attack her/him or anything in touch with the combat would affect her/him, I would follow the suggest of Novak, which is to say "Okay, but this will take you N turns to get here" and state her actual position each turn (maybe she can't move a bit further than someone actually fighting as it's her/him only action, it's up to you).

In RP I already played, displacements are like in yours (but we don't really care about rounds/turns when we're in town for example, without combat we're more speaking about time spent). And if the party's split and one part is engaged in combat, if the rest of the group is aware of that and wants to join them, then our GM tells us how many turns we'll have to wait before actually being in combat (sometimes with dice rolls if there are particular conditions to join them, like lots of people in a town or things like that).

Malacandrian posted a new answer while I was writing mine, but I also fully agree with this one. This answer's approach to explain how turns work could be helpful to you to argue with your player that she/he can't do it.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Welcome to RPG.SE! Take the tour if you haven't already, and check out the help center for more guidance. \$\endgroup\$ – V2Blast Feb 7 at 10:40
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As soon as combat starts, everyone needs to abide by the movement rules

I would suggest telling them that as soon as combat starts, everyone needs to abide by the movement rules, regardless of whether they're engaged with an enemy. Make it clear that the reason you gloss over movement out of combat is because movement is not generally important at that point. As soon as initiative is rolled, it becomes very important for everybody remotely in the vicinity, and should be tracked. Trying to move around unrestricted because you're not technically engaged is a blatant abuse of that ruling. If necessary you might remind the player that if they can do so, there should be no reason their enemies can't as well, and I'm sure that they would not be happy if the group of enemy reinforcements who were 500 feet away arrived to the battle in a single turn because they "weren't engaged" and thus didn't have to abide by normal movement rules.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Might be worth pointing out that "remotely in the vicinity" and "within longbow range" are probably equivalent values... and a longbow can shoot 600'. \$\endgroup\$ – T.J.L. Feb 7 at 15:50
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    \$\begingroup\$ Instead of "in the vicinity", I would say "capable of affecting". If someone across the continent is scrying on, communicating with, or teleporting to a combatant, they probably need to abide by turn rules too. \$\endgroup\$ – Luke Feb 7 at 17:24
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This is not a player decision. This is a GM decision.

It simply isn't up to the player to determine what rules he or she is bound by at what time. That's the job of the GM. I understand your willingness to compromise and be flexible on rules, but this is a situation where the objectivity of solid rules is extremely helpful.

How I handle things is like this:

  1. First, I don't allow players to opt-in and opt-out of rules, like this. If there is an exception to be made, I will allow that exception at my choosing and for my reasons.

  2. Some times, for narrative purposes, it's impossible or impractical to have everyone on grid. (For instance, a fight starts in a spread out bazaar, where the players had already split up. They can see and hear each other, but it is impractical to grid everyone out.) In these cases, I'll set up the battle map for the characters clearly in combat, and resort to a more theater-of-the-mind approach for the others. My goal in those cases is to keep it as simple as possible-- if possible, figure out a number of rounds until entry to combat, and a location. ("It'll take you three rounds at a dead run, barreling customers out of the way, and you come in here.")

I really do not enjoy those exceptions (in a detail-oriented game like any of the D&D games) because usually the players want to start doing more complicated things than I prefer-- trying to cast spells, use special abilities, magic items, etc, that are best used in conjunction with a map. I discourage them whenever possible.

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A useful way to think about this is that combat rules represent "Zooming in" to a closer level of detail.

They do not exist diegetically as a form of chivalry for turn-based combat that allows everyone to have an even chance, nor do they represent how a player's movement is restricted by being threated by other combatants (that's the job of opportunity attacks). One round of combat represents 6 seconds of functionally simultaneous action, broken into individual turns so as not to make it utterly miserable to play.

If a player is not engaged by an enemy, is able to avoid joining the fray, is not interfering with the combat, and does not want to move according to movement rules - that is fine. Ask her what her character wants to spend the next 5-10 minutes doing, then come back to her after 50-100 rounds of combat and see if anything has changed.

I'd recommend not awarding her any XP for the combat encounter as she opted out of it, and it might cause conflict with the party as to why she gets the benefit of membership without contributing in combat. Neither of these are punishments, just natural in-world consequences of her character's decisions.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Welcome to RPG.SE! Take the tour if you haven't already, and check out the help center for more guidance. \$\endgroup\$ – V2Blast Feb 7 at 10:37
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    \$\begingroup\$ Excellent first response. Welcome to the site. +1 all around and especially for pointing out xp consequence. \$\endgroup\$ – lightcat Feb 7 at 11:30
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    \$\begingroup\$ Needs to be written in 20 foot high flaming letters: One round of combat represents 6 seconds of functionally simultaneous action, broken into individual turns so as not to make it utterly miserable to play Yes, yes, yes. \$\endgroup\$ – KorvinStarmast Feb 8 at 14:02
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A player's movement speed is just how fast they can move in the 6 seconds it takes for a round of combat. They still move at that speed normally, but you don't normally check what they're doing every 6 seconds.

So once combat starts you are checking what's going on every round. So every character is limited to only be able to do what they could in a round and must use their speed(ground, flight, swim, etc.) to move.

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    \$\begingroup\$ (Technically, movement speed also governs how many miles per day someone can move overland per the Chapter 8 section on adventuring and movement, but for this case the way you present movement is correct). See Basic Rules p 66-67 \$\endgroup\$ – KorvinStarmast Feb 8 at 14:04
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This is a generalization of the rule "Don't make your players roll unless there is a consequence to failure and a reward for success." You need to consider the effect of the character moving outside of combat, and whether their movements are reasonably likely to affect the combat. Luke's comment that "If someone across the continent is scrying on, communicating with, or teleporting to a combatant, they probably need to abide by turn rules too." is spot on.

The answer, then, is that this has nothing to do with combat per se but about how important the exact flow of time is to the situation. If the PCs are camped out in the middle of nowhere with no apparent hostiles, but they need to do X, Y, and Z within ten minutes or else their food will spoil, then time matters as much as if they were exchanging blows with orcs.

Let's consider the effect of this outside of apparent, immediate combat scenarios.

  • Scenario 1: The PCs are in town, and they decide to visit the butcher, the baker, and the candlestick maker for various reasons because story. The Big Bad is sitting in his castle's study gloating about how invincible he is and drinking goblets of mead, and nothing is likely to change with regards to that in the next few hours. There's no apparent consequence for taking one route around town or another, or lingering in Town Square for an extra few minutes gawking at locals, so there's no need to track things turn-by-turn. We assume that any reasonable shopping trip will conclude before future world-shaking events transpire.

  • Scenario 2: The PCs are in town, and they decide to visit the butcher, the baker, and the candlestick maker for various reasons because story. They are being hunted down by the Town Guard, invading orcs, "enforcers" from the local Thieves' Guild, blink dogs, drunken thugs, their family, whatever (take your pick). In this case, even though combat is not happening, you need to understand where people are going and how fast they are going in order to determine when or if they will meet.

  • Scenario 3: The PCs are in town, and they decide to visit the butcher, the baker, and the candlestick maker in order to gather the supplies necessary to repair the local dam, which will burst in five minutes. In this case, you probably do need to track the PCs around town (maybe they can hire a cab, or try a Knowledge check to determine if they know of any back-alley routes?) and determine how many turns it takes to complete the transactions. You could even have fun with this - do the PCs want to pay "sticker price" now, or spend precious turns trying to haggle the merchant down, or even trying to steal? Time is of the essence, but not paying full price is still awesome...

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    \$\begingroup\$ This is some darned good DM advice, right here. +1 Applies to a lot of situations and transition situations. \$\endgroup\$ – KorvinStarmast Feb 9 at 18:42

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