Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Justifying Exploration Movement

I seem to spend a lot of my idle cycles (too many maybe?) thinking about D&D, and one topic I keep coming back to with some regularity is movement rates. I started this post with the goal of doing something about the atrociously slow pace of D&D character in those dark and deadly dungeons we all love. Of course it turned into something a bit more involved: A historical survey (at least for the versions of D&D I care about) of the player-facing differences regarding movement. I focused on movement in the dungeon, and I ignored whatever differences there are between player characters and monsters. (My friend Delta has written a wonderful post about wilderness movement in AD&D/OD&D that you'll want to check out as well.) So without further ado:

  • OD&D gives movement rates primarily in inches which makes sense considering its wargaming roots. In the section on encumbrance (volume 1, page 15) we find that player characters move 12", 9", or 6" depending on how much they carry. Somewhat confusingly the same page also gives an example of a fully armored character moving at 6"/turn. Why is that confusing? In the section on underworld exploration (volume 3, page 8) we first learn that 1" equals 10' in a dungeon. But then we find that there are actually two moves in one turn of approximately 10 minutes. The fully armored character from the previous example is therefore given a rate of 120'/turn, not 60'/turn. The rules note further that movement is doubled for flight/pursuit so the same character can "run" 240'/turn. By the same rationale an unarmored character should be able to explore 240'/turn and "run" 480'/turn.
  • Holmes Basic gives movement rates primarily in feet which makes sense because it's more accessible and we're dealing only with dungeons anyway. On page 9 of the rules we find the same 120'/turn for the fully armored character and the same 240'/turn for an unarmored character. The good doctor characterizes this as a "cautious walk" and agrees with OD&D that it's the appropriate movement rate for "exploring/mapping." However, he then introduces "normal movement" as well, at twice that speed. This notion is never explicitly explained, but it's presumably there to cover movement through areas that have already been explored/mapped. The obvious "problem" here is that OD&D uses this "normal movement" speed for "flight/pursuit" which implies "running" and not just a regular walk. Holmes then introduces an explicit "running" movement rate at three times the exploration rate. So a fully armored character can now "move cautiously" at 120'/turn, "move normally" at 240'/turn, or "run" at 360'/turn.
  • AD&D gives movement rates in inches again, presumably because Gygax just cannot stop himself. Page 101 of the Player's Handbook lists out the basic 12", 9", 6", and 3" movement rates for various levels of encumbrance. On page 102 we find the same 1" = 10' dungeon scale as in OD&D, however gone are the two moves per 10-minute turn. So now our fully armored character can only move 60'/turn while exploring/mapping a dungeon! But of course it doesn't stop there: What Holmes called "normal movement" now seems to happen at five times the "exploration/mapping" rate so 300'/turn for our fully armored character whereas "flight" or "running" happens at ten times that rate, so 600'/turn.
  • B/X D&D gives movement rates in feet again, doh. On page B20 of the Basic Rulebook we find that characters move at 120'/turn, 90'/turn, 60'/turn, or 30'/turn depending on encumbrance. The fully armored character now moves at the AD&D rate of 60'/turn. On page B19 we are told that this "assumes that the players [sic] are mapping carefully, searching, and trying to be quiet" so this is once again the "exploring/mapping" speed. There are no concrete guidelines for "moving normally" through already explored territory. Running speed is given as the same number of feet per round. Turns out that B/X keeps the 10-second rounds Holmes introduced, however those are now given an explicit relation to the 10-minute turn: there are 60 rounds per turn. So the running speed for a fully armored character would be 60*60'/turn = 3600'/turn! (Page B24 comes to the rescue by stating that running speed can only be maintained for 30 rounds before requiring a rest of 3 turns, but that doesn't change the fact that B/X characters run a lot faster than characters in any other version of D&D considered here.)

I think I can leave it at that, neither BECMI nor the Rules Cyclopedia do anything different from B/X regarding basic movement. (Well, the encumbrance tables are slightly different, but hey.) We should probably conclude with a table summarizing all of the above? I want to keep things simple, so I'll use an unencumbered character for this:

Exploring 240'240'120'120'
Walking -480'600'-
Running 480'720'1200'7200'

This level of variation is moderately scary. Not that it matters in practice: You always just play one system after all. But it's still a little bizarre that closely related versions of D&D come down that far apart on this simple question. So what's the basis in "reality" if there is such a thing?

The average human walking speed seems to be around 3 miles/hour. There are 5,280 feet in a mile, so that's 15,840 feet/hour. There are 60 minutes in an hour, so that's 2,640 feet/turn. Wow, even those versions of D&D that have a notion of "moving normally" are really far off from that.

Jogging seems to happen at about 6 miles/hour, maybe a little less. If we assume that D&D characters are not highly-trained sprinters, only joggers, that still leaves us with a "running speed" of 5,280 feet/turn and only one out of four versions of D&D is even in the right ballpark.

Or look at it the other way: Those 120'/turn (from AD&D or B/X) for an unencumbered character exploring/mapping translate to 720'/hour or 12'/minute or 2'/round (in B/X terms). Two feet in ten seconds? Two feet is less than a single step for an adult!

I can already hear half the OSR shouting "It's a game, just play it!" in my direction. Sorry, not good enough, things are simply too far off to sweep under the rug. So let me propose a strawman that I'll shoot down again in a few paragraphs.

Start with that average walking speed of 2,640 feet/turn. Round off to get a nicer number, let's say 2,400 feet/turn. Set that as the movement rate for an unencumbered player character walking normally, for example down one of the few paved city streets in your favorite fantasy metropolis.

Now let's "weigh them down" with encumbrance. In the versions of D&D that deal with encumbrance at all, movement rate goes down by about one-fourth per encumbrance category. Alright, so we'll get 2,400 feet/turn, 1,800 feet/turn, 1,200 feet/turn, and 600 feet/turn. For running we'll double those (but we'll assume a pretty short duration for runs just like B/X does). For exploring on the other hand we'll divide by two for each complication we can think of. Let's see, there's mapping (its own reward), searching (presumably for treasure), being quiet (presumably to avoid random encounters), being cautious (presumably to avoid traps), and that's about it. So we'll divide by 16!

That leaves us with 150 feet/turn, 112.5 feet/turn, 75 feet/turn, and 37.5 feet/turn for four levels of encumbrance. Pretty close to the (slightly slower) 120 feet/turn, 90 feet/turn, 60 feet/turn, and 30 feet/turn in the existing rules! In fact, it's close enough to simply round off again and use the existing movement rates. (Maybe it would be slightly better to use 150 feet/turn, 120 feet/turn, 90 feet/turn, and 60 feet/turn instead? See below for reasons not to.) However, let's remember how we got here: We took a realistic version of "normal walking speed" and divided by 16. That's a huge decrease and probably overestimates things quite a bit. But to keep things simple, let's forget about the 16 and just say that from the usual movement rates we get back to "normal walking" if we multiply by 10: So 1,200 feet/turn, 900 feet/turn, 600 feet/turn, and 300 feet/turn. Seems reasonable enough, what's not to like?

I shall tell you what's not to like. Suddenly armored parties move 60 squares per turn in my dungeons instead of 6 or 12 squares. Among other things that destroys a lot of the fun that can be had when parties desperately try to escape from a dungeon after an encounter that left them almost dead. I either have to make all my dungeons a lot bigger, or I have to turn up the frequency of wandering monster checks. It requires that I rework lots and lots of stuff, especially monsters who (presumably) are familiar with the dungeon and move at "normal walking" speed instead of "exploration speed" now. Overall, I'd much rather find a fix that let's me keep things as they are numerically, but that offers a better deal to the players nevertheless.

So here is my actual proposal (remember the above was a strawman): If the ridiculously slow movement is in fact because the party is ridiculously cautious, careful, quiet, etc. then the reward should be that they have a chance (only a chance!) to notice interesting things without having to explicitly ask for them:

  • When they approach a trap, they automatically have the usual 1 in 6 chance to spot it.
  • When they pass a secret door, they automatically have the usual 1 in 6 chance to spot it.
  • Before they open a door, they automatically have the usual 1 in 6 chance to hear some interesting noise.

And so on, and so forth. Yes, in a very roundabout way I am arguing for "passive perception" as I believe 5th edition calls it. Seems like a very fair deal to me: If the explanation for why the player characters crawl like snails is their meticulous dungeon delving expertise, why the heck would players have to poke the DM about those things?

Of course this might not feel like D&D to you anymore, but it still feels like D&D to me. And since it's just a chance, I really don't think I am giving too much away. In fact, I am probably adding a 1 in 6 chance for magic-users to spot magic as well as a 1 in 6 chance for clerics to spot evil. And you know? I'd much rather make a few more rolls for them than have my players miss fun things in my dungeons just because they never asked.

Update 2015/11/11: Turns out I got my initial math wrong, sorry. Thanks to Todd Haynes for spotting it! I fixed the numbers and things are less extreme now in the strawman proposal. (Sadly I had to cut my Traveller/Star Frontiers quip as well.) I stand by my actual proposal in any case: A reduction by a factor of 16 should have more benefits for the players than what is given by the rules as written.


  1. Great writeup, and I've gone down that exact same analysis. My primary argument these days is that the distance & time scales was not thought through (and is fundamentally incorrect) at the man-to-man level of D&D . If you look at Chainmail mass scale the turns are 1 minute, and unarmored men move 12" (120 yards), which is a very reasonable rate (it's about 4 miles per hour). Round are some undefined smaller unit (see p. 11 under "Fatigue").

    So when you switch to Man-to-Man scale, all the pieces are in place for a smooth scaling; say combat occurs at the round scale, and distance or more zoomed-in, by say a shared factor of 6 each -- so combat rounds would be 10 seconds, and distance is 5 feet per inch. But this was not done; in the Man-to-Man addition scale was left totally undefined and in limbo, up for argument by anyone.

    When switching to OD&D, there's no update to scale in Vol-1 or Vol-2. In Vol-3 you get the redefinition of "turn" from the former 1 minute to 10 minutes, which is dumb beyond all belief, and where all the problems start. It doesn't even make sense in relation to Vol-1 where a bunch of instant spells are given "1 turn" durations. The resulting movement is so crazy that anyone who looks at it, as we do, immediately tries to fix it, and so you get different systems in all the different editions. Meanwhile Gygax sticks doubles down on the crazy and does his "abstract combat" argument in the DMG, so we have to listen to people parroting that ever since.

    Gygax in '78: "I ask your collective pardon for this neglect, and I trust that the foregoing will now make the matter clear. There are distortions of scales in D&D and ADVANCED DUNGEONS & DRAGONS as well..." (

    See also the various links under "Scale" on my Primary House Rules page (

    1. Ah, going back to Chainmail nails the root cause of the ailment, we're all just fixing symptoms down here in B/X land. Thanks for the reminders, I need to re-read like 2/3rds of your blog! :-)

    2. Yep. Delta beat me to the punch. Though I'd also like to note that, when measuring movement for war-game minis, 12" is nice and easy (a standard ruler's length) and thus you see that become the standard for movement (running is "double ruler" (24"), difficult terrain is "half ruler" (6"), etc.).

      RE Holmes (I've been doing a lot of work on Holmes lately) might be that the Running/3X rate is for the "charging and short sprints" mentioned in the final paragraph of the first column.
      : )

  2. My main issue with the slow movements speeds is that if the main reason they are so slow is that the party is moving extremely cautiously, then the movement rate shouldn't be affected by encumbrance. Perhaps the players can decide their own movement rate (slow, medium, fast) and have wandering monster and perception checks based on how fast they are traveling. So moving fast you have 0 chance to notice something, medium is 1 in 6, whereas slow is 2 in 6. (doubled for elves naturally)

    1. That's a fun idea as well, and I sort of imply that a party switching to "normal walking" will not get those automatic chances anymore. But if I were to write up the "rule" for this, I'd probably have to say so explicitly. I agree that maybe encumbrance is less relevant for exploration speed, but it probably should be relevant for combat or running speed? Certainly for overland speed.

  3. I think this misses out the fact that characters are in life or death situations and are moving no where near as quickly as a normal person can or could walk.

    Mapping requires using a ten foot pole, or counting paces, which slows you down. People are looking for traps that might instantly kill them, which really slows you down (think Indiana Jones in the first movie). People are being quiet and stealthy (which is why light, not wearing plate armor, ruins your chance at surprising monsters).

    The chance in B/X of triggering a trap at exploration speed is only 1-2 on a d6. It's implied (and flatly stated in some modules) that moving faster increases this chance. It's also implied that moving faster/less quietly increases wandering monster chances, but how to handle that is never explicit.

    I guess what I am saying is that the slow movement isn't as ridiculous as some people accuse it of being when you take these things into consideration. Though I still agree the double move should remain, and when it's safe to move normal speed should be clearer!

    1. Just riffing on the "chance to trigger trap" thing: It didn't occur to me that the rules might include that as a "bonus" to compensate for the slow exploration speed. It always seemed to me that the mechanic was there to say "some people just get lucky and walk right past a trap" or maybe "these traps are not very reliable" or whatnot. As a player, I'd much rather have a chance to spot the trap than to not trigger it because then I might still trigger it next time. But it's a reasonable interpretation I guess.

  4. Eek, apparently my math is off and not even Delta noticed! Thanks to Todd Haynes over on G+ for pointing it out. I am reworking the math right now! The conclusions about "realism" (and therefore my strawman proposal) will be slightly different, but my actual proposal for how to "compensate the players" will stand.

  5. I like the Holmes method the best of the existing rules. But what is the justification for slow round speed in OD&D (1/3 of turn speed, instead of 1/10)?

  6. One thing that I haven't seen commenters address is the issue of lighting. Delta has brought up some of the dumbness in converting from chainmail, but if we take into account lighting in a dungeon, I.e., none at all save what the players bring themselves, then we can go a long way toward justifying it: uneven cobbles in the dark, flickering shadows of a torch or three (cleric can't be holding a torch AND weapon AND shield AND holy symbol, Mage can't be holding a torch and all those large scrolls they somehow have at the ready every round, and so on). Trying not to trip over, searching for traps, measuring for mapping, drawing the map, all in very shaky and even dim light with plenty of shadows.

    1. True. Although I believe hiring two torchbearers is going to help? I don't know if it's true, but I'd like to believe that more of this "hirelings" business was going on back then. These days most DMs seem to dislike the idea of PCs running around with lots of hirelings, don't even get me started... :-) On the other hand you do have a point, I ignored light. But if I divide by two one more time we're crawling even more slowly. To me the "Two feet in ten seconds?" line sums it up, it's just too darn slow already. If we were talking about walking up steep sand dunes or hiking up a steep trail, hey, I am with you. But a relatively even corridor? Nope, nothing is going to convince me. Not even Gary parting the clouds and waving a stone tablet with some holy writ on it...