In the earliest days of Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, my gaming group relied on the descriptions of the DM and the players to track positions in combat. During intense moments, a character sheet would be flipped over and rough sketches would outline positions (and, over time, provide a record of battles gone by). You knew where you were, and where your allies were, or you paid the price for it. If you snoozed through the fighter and the ranger charging into hand to hand combat and decided to throw a fireball at the orc patrol, you’d better be sure you killed the fighter and ranger as well because there was going to be hell to pay if they lived… Put another way, there were no “take-backs.” You were responsible for knowing what was going on.
Movement and range was expressed in inches, a holdover from the game’s roots as a tabletop wargame, but these became 10’s of feet or yards, depending on whether the party was indoors or outside. As I recall, we eventually did away with the yards, treating everything as feet. After all, nothing really changed mechanically because you were supposed to keep spell effects in feet whether you were inside or out. I’m getting mad just thinking about the math so, rest assured, I’m glad we were all about feet.
At some point, though, we opted for more complexity in combat. While intended to do away with the occasional dispute over who was standing where, it also ushered in a new layer of tactical thinking in combat. (And my early D&D group was extremely tactically minded.) I believe the solution came in the form of a grid drawn on a wooden board with a sheet of Plexiglas or clear plastic placed over it for using colored markers on. This, combined with a handful of lead figures and a box of wooden “barrels” became the foundation of our combats.
The wooden barrels were available, cheaply, from a local craft store and were sized perfectly to fit in the gridlines of our battle board. They represented everything from kobolds to hell hounds. A few of them were stained a different color to represent leaders, NPCs, and other exceptional troops. Despite the proxy-like nature of the barrels, I don’t recall ever being unable to imagine my foes’ appearances in my head. I never felt like I was fighting barrels and when I pointed to one I’d say, “I’m attacking this gnoll” without any sort of disconnect occurring. As a tool, they worked exceedingly well.
Some foes, however, got the royal treatment. The worst villains and most dangerous foes often got a special figure. It was an important moment when a particular miniature was placed on the battle board because it signified a turning point or even the climax of an adventure. One could argue that it was meta-gaming to see a special figure and know that the ensuing fight would likely call for the majority of your resources. But I would add that every fight was potentially life-threatening and every single one received the party’s full effort. Casualties were high enough before the special figures came out.
By the time later editions made tactical movement part of the rules, I had unfortunately moved away from my original group. Other than during all-too-infrequent visits, I never got to see later iterations of the rules put into play there. But, in my own experience, the mechanics played out in a very similar fashion to what we had been doing all along. While there were no attacks of opportunity, we ruled that disengaging from melee allowed your foe a “free hack” against you. If an ally was adjacent to you, he could cover your retreat, preventing the parting shot, if you spent your full round moving away from your opponent.
There’s a part of me that considers tactical movement a fundamental aspect of the game, but as one that developed through house rules. The battle board was a tool to play a game, not the game itself. It was a means to continuously and collectively agree on positions as the rounds progressed but the action still took place in my imagination. If someone removed the board from the table, I could still carry on with combat as if nothing had changed and, to a point, could picture the battle even clearer in my mind (even if what I imagined wasn’t precisely the same as the players around me).
I recently had the opportunity to return home and play some D&D with my old group. They’re playing Pathfinder these days and tactical movement is as important as ever. The battle board has been taken to a new level with a ring of numbers surrounding the grid for tracking initiatives and spell durations. There’s a box on hand filled with the D&D figures put out by WotC over the years. But when there aren’t enough of a particular creature in the box (or when there’s just too much digging going on to find the right monster) out come the barrels. I never realized how much I missed them.