Monday, November 12, 2012

Gygax on Scale

It's possible that issues of scale in D&D (distance, time, figures, etc.) are the single most commonly discussed topic on this blog. In this regard, we should pay close attention to when Gygax wrote a whole article on the subject, its legacy, and evolution, in the Dragon #15 Sorcerer's Scroll: "D&D Ground and Spell Area Scale" (June 1978). I've excerpted the whole article at the end of this post and highly recommend that you read the whole thing -- and yet I also want to highlight some particular parts of it. This article was the original source for the somewhat shrieky, all-caps note on distance scale in AD&D PHB p. 39 (which you'll see at the very conclusion of the article). Otherwise, Gygax has many observations the same as what I've posted here many times, although his ultimate "fixes" I think are not the best possible ones (and in fact they really haven't stood the test of time, being discarded by D&D and most other RPG's in the intervening years).

Gygax starts by recapping the historical mass-combat Chainmail rules which used a scale of 1 turn = 1 minute, 1 figure = 20 men, and 1 inch = 30 feet,which I have no problem with and seems both gameable and realistic (really, the gold-standard for game design). Then he says:
When Dave Arneson took this concept into the “dungeons” of his Castle & Crusade Society medieval campaign castle, Blackmoor, he used a one-third smaller ground scale. This change was quite logical, and it was retained when I wrote D&D.
A nice credit that Arneson was initially responsible for the 1" = 10 feet D&D tradition. Or really maybe that's not so generous, since there's no reason why you couldn't have made ground scale equal to figure scale (approx. 1" = 5 feet) and avoid all the attendant distortions and problems, as done by almost all games post-D&D. So while the new 1" = 10 feet system will be used indoors/underground, Gygax attempted to stick with the old Chainmail mass scale of 1" = 10 yards for outdoor action (OD&D Vol-3 p. 8, vs. p. 17). I might call these the first and second fundamental missteps. These led to the following realization:
Len Lakofka was kind enough to point out to me what happens if the yards of effect of a spell are converted to feet in a game where a 1:1 ratio is used, viz. 1" equals 6 scale feet. A huge area can be covered with webs from a lowly magic-user’s second level spell. Of course this is ridiculous... If one scale is tampered with, all of the others must be adjusted accordingly in order to retain a reasonable, balanced, and playable game.
So it was Len Lakofka that had to point out the first problem with trying to hand-wave a sliding scale system, and needing to make sure that if the value of an "inch" changes for movement, then it must do the same thing for spell ranges and areas, or else the action becomes imbalanced. Or rather, since it's basically inexplicable to have areas changing value outdoors vs. indoors (as opposed to bowfire being partly limited by ceiling height), then they'll need to permanently fix the spell areas at the lower 1" = 10 feet value.
The “Fantasy Supplement” was an outgrowth of the medieval rules and the “Man-to-Man Combat” (1 figure to 1 actual combatant) section I also devised for conducting battles of several different campaigns I ran for the LGTSA... As D&D grew from CHAINMAIL, it too used the same scale assumptions as its basis. Changes had to be made, however, in order to meet the 1:1 figure ratio and the underground setting. Movement was adjusted to a period ten times longer than a CHAINMAIL turn of 1 minute, as exploring and mapping in an underground dungeon is slow work. Combat, however, stayed at the CHAINMAIL norm and was renamed a melee round or simply round. 
Now, the first part of this passage once again reiterates the point that the Chainmail Fantasy Supplement was intended to be an outgrowth of the Man-to-Man rules, at 1:1 scale --  which is actually one of the few facts that Gygax was completely consistent regarding in all of his writings from the very earliest years to the end of his life (and also one of the more virulently contentious observations that I ever make on this blog).

But the conclusion of that paragraph is, I think, where the third and perhaps most egregious mistake occurred. Gygax just wrote in the immediately preceding paragraph, "If one scale is tampered with, all of the others must be adjusted accordingly in order to retain a reasonable, balanced, and playable game", and yet here he neglects to fix the time scale (as it should be adjusted downward, jointly with the figure and distance scale), leaving it at the same 1 turn = 1 minute that was originally fit for a mass-scale wargame. Leaving this unfixed is what locked him into the infamous and rather absurd defense of the scale as highly abstracted action, taking up lots of dense argumentation on DMG p. 61 ("...many attacks are made, but some are mere feints..."), even though it makes no sense in terms of first-strike capability, ammunition shots used, etc. It's even worse when you note that mass Chainmail already has a notion of the combat "round" as subsection of the 1-minute turn, which only needed to be followed up on.

Approaching the end of the article, there is this:
For about two years D&D was played without benefit of any visual aids by the majority of enthusiasts. They held literally that it was a paper and pencil game, and if some particular situation arose which demanded more than verbalization, they would draw or place dice as tokens in order to picture the conditions. In 1976 a movement began among D&Ders to portray characters with actual miniature figurines... Because of the return of miniatures to D&D, the game is tending to come full circle; back to table top battles not unlike those which were first fought with D&D’s parent, CHAINMAIL’s “Fantasy Supplement”, now occurring quite regularly. Unfortunately, the majority of D&D enthusiasts did not grow up playing military miniatures, so even the most obvious precepts of table top play are arcane to them. Distorting the area of effect of a spell seems to be an excellent idea to players with magic-user characters, and many referees do not know how to handle these individuals when they wave the rule book under their nose and prate that scale outdoors is 1” equals 10” yards.
The first part -- that at the outset, D&D was played without miniatures -- is again consistent with other times that Gygax spoke on the same issue. (and explains why the quality of the scaling rules degenerated, because they had become vestigial and not actually playtested with miniatures).

But the second part is truly fascinating and delightful, because remember: this "game [which] is tending to come full circle" in regards to miniature usage (or least their promotion as a business case) was being observed as early as 1978. At this point -- 2012 -- we've gone through so many similar cycles of miniatures/not-minatures that I think I've personally lost count of them. It's like the Eternal Recurrence as simulated in-world by the mechanics of our metagame. And at the end of this passage, we see Gygax being aware of the problems if one is oblivious to matters of scale, and expressing some amount of contempt for those players who seek to gain an advantage through such slipperiness (much like those who think that D&D heroes can function identically at either 1:1 scale or 1:20 scale).

Finally, from the last paragraph of the article:
More unfortunately, the blame for the possible ignorance of player and Dungeon Master alike rests squarely on my shoulders. It would have been a small matter to explain to everyone that the outdoor scale must be used for range only, never for area of effect, unless a figure ratio of 1:20, or 1:10, is used, and constructions (siege equipment, buildings, castles, etc.) are scaled to figures rather than to ground scale! If ground scale is changed, movement distances must be adjusted. If time scales are changed, both movement and missile fire/spell casting must be altered. Furthermore, if 30 mm or 25 mm figures and scale buildings and terrain are not used, then the area of effect must be adjusted proportionately. 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. Despite distortions, each meshes with the other to make the game an enjoyable one.
Now, the emphasized portion above was basically transcribed identically to the all-caps rule in PHB p. 39. But what really made me sit up straight when I read this passage was Gygax expressing acknowledgment for a mistake in the system, personal blame, and asking "collective pardon for this neglect", which is not something that I'm accustomed to ever reading from his pen. It seems very much out of personal character for Gygax (or at least as his official TSR/D&D writings of the time), and should serve as a flag that this issue deserves possibly unique attention, much as I've tried to give it in this blog over the last few years.

So, in summary -- This article shows us a Gygax who is fairly aware of issues of scale and the problems, imbalances, and cheats that can occur if they are ignored. He is aware that mistakes had been made and is personally penitent for them (!). Yet he seems to not have actually driven the precise changes that occurred in D&D, as he reports that the alteration in scale was first suggested to him by Arneson, and then a later correction by Lakofka. He still admits to important "distortions" in the last two sentences, which, I maintain, would have been much more easily fixed by doing the following:
  1. Setting ground scale to the same as figure scale (i.e., about 1"=5 feet), 
  2. Decreasing time scale in proportion to distance scale (i.e., about 1 round=10 sec), 
  3. Abandoning the different outdoor scale for man-to-man action, and 
  4. Actually playtesting the rules if he's going to bother publishing them.
Below is the rest of this fascinating and enlightening article. Highly recommended reading.



26 comments:

  1. I have to defend Arneson's decision here. He played pretty fast as loose with position of particular enemies. Consider his damage overflow rules where if did 20 points of damage (hit dice were damage dice back then) against orcs with 3 hp ea, you would kill 6 orcs.

    A 10' square is a nice easy means of tracking the parties location; it's big enough for the entire party to fit within. The party moves from space to space as a unit, fighting whatever enemy appears in front of them. It's only modern games that you get the idea of each individual party member zipping here and there doing their own thing.

    Judging by the game Dungeon, fireballs back then were a clear-the-room type spell to be used before melee was actually engaged.

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  2. I had never realized that the Chainmail Fantasy Supplement was designed specifically for use with the Man to Man rules. Fascinating.

    I recently started using a 1" = 10' scale and 1 round = 20 seconds scale in my OD&D campaign. Previously I was using this blog's recommended 1" = 5' and 1 round = 10 seconds scale. The change was made so that larger scale combats could be conducted using the player characters' many hired mercenaries.

    The area of effect bugaboo has not yet been resolved in my campaign, since packing more combatants into a single 10' square space greatly increases the number of combatants which can be affected by spells and other area attacks such as dragon breath (as my players recently discovered, to their horror, when a single "fen dragon" inflicted a TPK in one round by using its cone-shaped breath weapon, despite the presence of an entire company of mercenaries which the PCs had hired for their protection).

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  3. I understand the importance of breaking up periods of actions into sensible time blocks, half a day for overland travel; 10 minutes for screwing around in a dungeon; 1 minute for life-or-death tense actions (not a reasonable time block but just for completeness’s sake) and describing what can be attempted during that time block, but what I don’t understand is why these guys made scale an official part of the game rules. Why didn’t they just give distances and rates in real units: exploratory movement: 120 feet per turn (10 minutes); combat movement: 40 feet per round (1 minute); bow and fireball range is 120 feet in a dungeon and 120 yards above ground; a fireball lights an area on fire that is 30 feet to a side (or whatever it is)? It seems like that would have gotten rid of all the problems as well. Did they not give enough credit to the purchasers of their product?

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    1. Legacy. Action in Chainmail was on a real tabletop with rulers and minis, and some argue that "real" scale there is irrelevant. In D&D/1E they tried to get away with just copy-pasting the same. It took a couple editions before they made the switch you speak of.

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  4. And perhaps I should add: When I speak of 1", I mean one-actual-real-inch-measured-on-a-table with miniatures. (Not the inch-of-account as in 1E that just symbolizes a magic scaling unit.)

    For those of you using 1"=10', let me ask: Are you using 1:1 scale miniatures on a table at that scale? Because I've always found that they can't physically fit in that space.

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    1. Frake again...

      When we played 2ed, we drew battle maps at 1" = 10' and just crowded our 25mm figures inside and around the squares. We counted distances from the center of the squares though and made our guys move in zig-zag fashion to avoid the trouble of keeping track of leftover feet from going diagonally (really though, this was our DM's prefernce becuase that's how he always plaed with his older brother and friends). The few games I DM'ed I tried to use 1" = 5' for the battle maps, but the maps just got too big for our table space.

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    3. Oh and yes, we were using 1:1 PCs and NPCs.

      But the last time we played 2ed we did so on the computer using RP Tools, and all the DMs used 1" = 5' scale grid. So, I guess was no loyalty to 10' or no-diagonal movement either; it was just a matter of convenience.

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    4. There's an obvious mis-match between figure and ground scale when using 1"=10'. My move to this scale was motivated by the need to fit more combatants onto the tabletop since the PCs in my campaign were fighting battles with over 100 combatants to a side. The "solution" to the mis-match between figure and ground scale is as follows: 1 figure equals 10 men for normal men and other 0-level combatants, while monsters and heroes use a 1:1 scale. I give the PCs the option to "squeeze" into one square and fight in tight formation should they wish, in which case the squad of up to 10 PCs and henchmen is represented by a single figure. Incidentally, for the lesser combatants, each figure (rather than each combatant) receives a single attack roll and a single damage roll; in case of a hit, the damage rolled is multiplied by the number of surviving combatants in that squad. However, each squad of normal men requires a separate roster detailing current members and hit point totals. Heroes and monsters always receive their own attack and damage rolls, however (and they even receive a number of attacks equal to their hit dice when fighting against normal men).

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    5. Frake: Interesting, yes, it's that 25mm "squeezing" figures that wound up really irritating me that I had to avoid. (It's even worse for Gygax in the DMG: recommendation there is miniature play with 3" = 10' on the table).

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    6. Jonathan: Right, that makes more sense if you're playing at a quasi-higher than 1:1 scale. In some ways that's quite similar to my Book-of-War rules (1:10 figures, 1:1 heroes for level 10+, 1"=20'), although I'm pretty sure the statistical results would be smoother in BOW (e.g., no damage rolls, that's abstracted out).

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  5. "there's no reason why you couldn't have made ground scale equal to figure scale (approx. 1" = 5 feet) and avoid all the attendant distortions and problems"

    What distortions and problems. 1 square equals 1 unit. How hard is that?

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    1. One prime example is how supposedly 3 men fit in 10', but 3 miniatures do not physically fit in 1".

      So what do you think Gygax meant when he wrote in the article above that "There are distortions of scales in D&D and ADVANCED DUNGEONS & DRAGONS as well"?

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  6. Never used miniatures, likely never will, so no scale/distortion problems. Huzzah!

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  7. This is an old post and I'm uncertain if you'll notice any comments made on this subject. But, the notion that Gygax wrote the Fantasy Supplement of Chainmail with only 1:1 scale in mind is bunk. Most refuse to acknowledge that Gygax mixed scale and combat systems with it. He differentiated between "normal" and "fantastic" troop types and, interestingly, included troop-type equivalents from the mass combat system in the Fantasy Supplement's descriptions (though it was supposedly based on the M2M rules). For example, why would you insist on saying a Wight melees as LH and defends as HH if using M2M at 1:1 scale? Why would point values for "normal" troops in the Fantasy Supplement match values given for troop types in the mass combat rules?

    This Sorcerer's Scroll article doesn't go far enough in acknowledging his brush off of these issues and allowing them to carry through into D&D with the illusion of backwards compatibility. Chainmail will continue to frustrate many future players that attempt to reconcile these deficiencies (especially if they are attempting to port over PC's to Chainmail's mass combat rules).

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    1. I agree that there are many scaling deficiencies in Chainmail (e.g., man-to-man distance scale and missile fire, etc.). But just because Gygax used the core adjudication mechanics for the fantasy supplement doesn't mean the figures were used to represent many creatures. EGG was unusually consistent on this point throughout all the years, and it makes sense. So "bunk", no.

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  8. Why else would the 3LBB's contain fighting capabilities for PC's? It gives the impression that you can use Chainmail for large scale battles with them (at a scale of 1:10 or 1:20). You have no need of Chainmail for 1:1 because you already have the ACS.

    The most noteable quote is found in volume 3 of U&WA. On page 25 of Land Combat it says, "Battles involving large numbers of figures can be fought at 20:1 ratio, with single fantastic types fighting seperately at 1:1 or otherwise against but a single 20:1 figure." Here's Gary actually suggesting mixing scale with the mass combat system of Chainmail. So I say "bunk".

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    1. Well, I read the latter passage with the word "separately" as you have to run the 1:1 engagement as a separate action, because they don't mix directly. (Which is consistent and expanded on in stuff like Swords & Spells, "Special Melee", p. 18, etc.)

      The ACS is, after all, an "Alternative". The core "Fighting Capability" in the LBB's is given in reference to Chainmail Fantasy parameters (p. 16-18), while "An alternative system will be given later for those who prefer a different method." (p. 18).

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    2. It seems you are entrenched in your view point that Gary was not a regular practitioner of double speak in this case. Obviously, I'm simply expressing my own opinion and I don't want to take too much liberty in debating this on your blog, since I'm unlikely to change your opinion. But your reference to the ACS being the "Alternative" has interesting implications. Have you ever attempted to use Chainmail's combat systems for your game of D&D? It often has people scratching their heads. I realize that there are a few that have invested the time and energy to make it work. Even for these people, It was not a simple matter of reading through the rules and rolling some dice though. Furthermore, If you read any of the early accounts of people that were there when D&D first developed, the common statement you encounter is that NO ONE used Chainmail's combat system once the ACS was instituted. This seemed to be the case even before the 3LBB's were published. So, I'd simply ask you to re-read the quote I referenced above in light of that and ask why else would there be references to Chainmail in the 3LBB's with the idea that there is backwards compatability. The obvious answer is mass combat at a larger scale then 1:1.

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    3. I'm glad that you're posting, and I agree with 95% of everything that you just wrote. Sure, the "Alternative" combat system quickly took over because it's easier to manage & modify. The fact that Fantasy Chainmail used some parts of the man-to-man mechanics, and some parts of the mass combat mechanics, was an awkward fit. If you need to run mass land combat for a stronghold (Vol-3, p. 25), then using the Chainmail mass 20:1 rules is a natural solution.

      It's just that heroic fantasy PCs can't be adjudicated at the same scale and time, and they must be run "separately at 1:1" just like it literally says in that passage.

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    4. I'm unclear how you are rationalizing the second part of that passage that says, "or otherwise against but a single 20:1 figure"?

      Yes, individual heroic or fantastic figures may fight seperately at 1:1. That's self evident and functions quite well no matter what combat system you use. Just for the record, I believe you can use any of Chainmails combat systems at any straight scale and they will perform equally well as far as the game mechanics are concerned (whether 1:1, 1:10, or 1:20). Where conflict arises (and what I feel the second part of this passage is suggesting) is when you mix scale (a 1:1 figure with a fighting ability of ? entering melee with a "normal" 1:20 figure). This is also the illusion that the Fantasy Supplement supports. I find it odd that Gygax never explicitly says in the Supplement that they are intended for any particular scale considering the game was originally intended for 1:20. You don't find that odd? It's not really odd because he didn't write it only for 1:1.

      As for Swords & Spells, I view it as Gary's convoluted attempt to further justify these errors he made with Chainmail.

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    5. I think that if you used Chainmail for heroes vs. mundanes, then you'd have to fight one hero figure against 20 man-to-man (1:1) figures to see precisely what happened. The game mechanics "perform" fine at any scale, but their interpretive "results" are vastly different (did 20 men die or just 1?), so you have to pick one and not the others to avoid insane contradictions.

      I agree that Gygax was sloppy with scale in Chainmail, and needed to clarify it later. His later comments were (a) always consistent, and (b) also the only thing that makes sense.

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    6. "I think that if you used Chainmail for heroes vs. mundanes, then you'd have to fight one hero figure against 20 man-to-man (1:1) figures to see precisely what happened."

      I see you are sticking to your guns. Unfortunately, that is not what that passage is saying. But, if we were to do it your way and parse out a 1:20 figure for the sake of Man-to-Man combat with a 1:1 Hero, what do we do with our 1:20 figure if it sustains 25% losses yet kills the Hero? Now we no longer have a 1:20 figure, we have a 1:15 figure lol. Doesn't work.

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  9. Thanks for letting me express my frustration with the Fantasy Supplement on your blog. You have been gracious with your replies. I hope you keep up with the interesting posts, such as this one, in the future.

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    1. Good discussion, and I appreciate your attention to detail -- I agree that some things needed to get ironed out, just not exactly the same things, it appears. :-)

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