SARN-FU 3: Knots in the Fray

This is my third article on SARN-FU, a system I created to allow people to play D&D without a battlemat, if they so choose. The previous articles in this series are: 

SARN-FU 2: When to SARN-FU

This article introduces an optional mechanic that makes combat a little more manageable from a narrative standpoint, but also makes it a bit more imprecise. I call this mechanic “knots”.  Credit for this idea has to go to AlexandraErin who, in her blog, devised a similar concept for her ACME system, with clusters

When many characters are engaged in melee combat with one another, everybody seems to be essentially adjacent to one another. With a battlemat, it is easy to determine who is actually adjacent, who reachable, and who is only near. But without a mat, the responsibility for keeping all the combatants straight falls onto the DM, and it can quickly become a logistical nightmare.


The solution is to group the combatants into “knots”. A knot is a group of up to 8 combatants who are all engaged in melee combat with one another. If more than 8 creatures are grouped together, divide the group into two or more knots.

Knot Rules

The rules for a knot are as follows:

  • Adjacency: All creatures in a knot are deemed to be adjacent to all other creatures in the knot.
  • Blast/burst: A blast or burst that targets any single member of a knot will target all eligible targets in the knot.
  • Combat Advantage: At the beginning of a character’s turn, a character within the knot may target one enemy in the knot. Unless the enemy has an applicable ability, and as long as both the character and enemy are in the same knot, that enemy grants combat advantage to the character until the beginning of the character’s next turn. However, if, on the enemy’s turn, the enemy takes an action that allows it to shift one or more squares, the combat advantage ends.
  • Entering a Knot: If four or more characters are adjacent to one another, group them in a knot.  Anybody who moves adjacent to a knot joins the knot (which may require the DM to divide the knot in two).
  • Exiting a Knot: Leaving a knot requires the expenditure of movement or teleportation equal to the diameter of the knot. If the move would normally provoke opportunity actions from adjacent enemies, it provokes opportunity actions from all enemies in the knot.  A character that uses a standard action to exit a knot does not provoke opportunity actions.
  • Flanking: Creatures in a knot cannot flank.
  • Melee: Any creature in the knot can target any other creature in the knot with a melee attack.
  • Opportunity Actions: Any creature that takes an action that would trigger an opportunity action from adjacent enemies triggers opportunity actions from all enemies in the knot.
  • Ranged: Creatures outside the knot targeted individuals in the knot with ranged attacks, but at a -2 to attack due to the cover provided by the knot.
  • Size: A knot is considered one size larger than the largest creature in the knot for spacing issues (including leaving a knot).  Gargantuan creatures cannot be in a knot.

Although the rules may seem complicated, they are actually quite intuitive once you start using them. They also save the DM the trouble of remembering precise locations for all creatures in a combat. Now, most of the attackers will be in a knot, and then remember where everybody else in relation to the knot. This is particularly useful if you intend to use a lot of minions.

Advice on Knots

Knots, however, do have their perils. I will describe some of them below:

  • Inhibiting Effects: A lot of effects restrict movement. The knot already does that. Players who specialize in inhibiting movement may feel a it obsolete if everybody is being dragged into knots. Try to make sure you have a few foes to challenge these players who will not be caught in knots.
  • Defenders: Defenders love knots. They can mark all the people in knots and easily keep them in the knot for the duration of the combat. Keep this in mind when designing encounters. A party with few defenders will find knots more difficult; a party with many defenders will find knots less challenging.
  • Skirmishers: Skirmishers, obviously, are not designed for knots. Creatures that have short shift powers are also going to be trapped an effectively immobile once in a knot. (Kobolds, particularly, lose most of their advantages in knots.) Review your creatures carefully and possibly redesign some of their powers if they look like they might get caught up in knots.
  • Static Combat: Once people get into knots, combat can become a slog because other factors, like terrain and zones cease to matter. If this becomes a problem, introduce terrain or other elements that can split a knot up. Perhaps something can fall into the knot, forcing people to get away, or monsters outside the knot might have forced movement powers that drag people out of the knot.

Read the entire series on SARN-FU:
SARN-FU 3: Knots in the Fray

Well, that's it for now.  I hope you find this useful!

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