Monday, May 1, 2017

Traditions of Real-World Statistics in Naval Games

So, I'm a naval-game junky. The first wargame I ever picked up as a kid was Avalon Hill's Bismark. Among the first video games I got hooked on was Sid Meiers' Pirates!. I'm always looking for the perfect D&D naval experience but haven't found it yet. The naval combat rules in OD&D Vol-3 (p. 28-35) are as close as I've found to date, but they have issues -- like (a) the move rates being scaled to around 2 or 3 feet per turn (so that ships zip across the board space in just a single turn), (b) the reference that melee be done by "Man-to-Man rules as found in CHAINMAIL" (so every individual man needs to be moved and rolled for attacks separately), etc.

As part of my continuing search, I recently, at long last, acquired a copy of the rules to Gygax & Arneson's first-ever game collaboration, Don't Give Up the Ship (DGUTS below). This is the 2nd Edition (1975), with added optional rules from Mike Carr (designer of Fight in the Skies, referenced in OD&D as inspiration for its detailed aerial combat rules). It's a great read, obviously made with a ton of love and affection to the milieu of fighting ships of the American Revolutionary period; and in very much the same style as a book like Chainmail. In some sense it has about what you'd expect: a Basic Game, optional Advanced Rules, super-detailed Single-Ship Action Rules, more abstracted Fleet Action Rules, rosters of possible ship-to-ship engagements (all historically based), a Bibliography of over a dozen historical texts, etc. The play involves tracking gun weights, wind direction & force (reminiscent of many tables in D&D), sailing points and gunnery with a protractor, and so forth. Boarding is entirely abstracted, with the mechanic based purely on opposed morale checks (and without any men being lost from such actions in the standard rule). Some of the DNA can even be detected in Swords & Spells; like, the overall format of the record sheet, and the percentage-based damage adjustments that likely require a calculator (e.g., the last ship-to-ship optional rule notes that "Various tests made have proved beyond reasonable doubt that U.S. shot was lighter than it should be", and so should do a proportional 7% less damage; whereas French shot was 10% heavier and therefore will do 10% more damage).

It's not immediately clear how this can benefit your D&D game, however. One thing I noticed is that the scale is wisely chosen: 1" = 100 yards, 1 turn = 5 minutes. It recommends ship models close 1: 1200 scale (note this varies from the surface equivalent to scale of 1: 3600, but by less than an order of magnitude). This is quite different from the D&D scale officially 1" = 10 yards, or arguably what should have been 1" = 5 feet to match the size of miniatures in Man-to-Man action. Yet despite this, OD&D recommends the same 1: 1200 scale for ships as DGUTS (Vol-3, p. 30), which is either 3 or 20 times too small depending on how you count that. (As an aside, we can reflect here how much earlier wargaming relied on the player to acquire or build their own materials from other products, as the rules were designed expecting toys like that to be commercially available; this is long before consolidated brands in which wargame rules are part of a company selling their own boxed products.)

The really startling thing (to modern eyes) is none of that, however. First let me observe that DGUTS seems to owe a rather large inspiration and debt to a halfway famous older game, Fletcher Pratt's Naval War Game (published in 1943, but developed and played for more than a decade before that). Pratt's game simulates fighting ships contemporaneous to its play in the era between the World Wars. The intriguing thing that Pratt did with it is to rely on the real-world publication of Jane's Fighting Ships for its ship statistics. I wouldn't know much about Pratt's game it weren't for Jon Peterson's sublime Playing at the World. Peterson writes (p. 280):

Pratt borrowed Jane's method of classifying ships, especially his notation for measuring arms and armor. The thickness of armor and the size of guns are quantified and compounded in an elaborate mathematical formula, to which additional figures are added for amenities like torpedoes or the ability to carry aircraft. This sum is multiplied by the speed of the vessel in knots, and finally the tonnage is added to determine a "value" for the ship. Ship values tend to be large; one example boat given in the rules has a value of 23,034. Guns, when they score a hit with a shell, inflict a certain number of points of damage depending on their size; the weakest 37mm guns might inflict 23 points of damage, the standard 4.7" cannon hits for 244 damage, while the implausibly large 16" cannon deals a whopping 10,550 points of damage. As a ship suffers points of damage, it begins to lose capabilities, including movement speed and the use of its guns. For the convenience of players, a "ship card" typically lists all of these attributes and details exactly which capacities are sacrificed at the various levels of disrepair. When it has taken damage greater than or equal to its value, a ship is sunk. 

Gygax & Arneson's (and Carr's) Don't Give Up the Ship uses the same basic idiom, somewhat simplified, for its ship statistics. Two types of damage are tracked: high (sails & masts) and low (deck and hull). The high damage score is simply half the real-world ship's actual tonnage, with these points split proportionally among each individual sail and mast on the actual vessel -- lose a sufficient number of points, and sails/masts are lost, reducing speed appropriately. The low damage is equal to the real-world ship's tonnage -- when damage scored is over 70%, the vessel may possibly sink slowly, while at 100% the vessel sinks automatically; in addition, crewmen are lost proportionally following any low damage scored. Specifically: "crew factors" (CF) are tracked where a ship has one CF for every 21 men on the real-world ship (a seemingly odd conversion rate, but this comes from an estimated 7 men to operate a gun, times 3 guns per fire unit; see p. 17 and below).

Likewise, guns are based on whatever guns the real-world ship was known to have. For example: Ship A in the simple "Training Game" scenario has 12 24-pound guns, 15 12-pound guns, and 3 9-pound guns (denoted 12-24#, 15-12#, 3-9#). Every 3 guns of a given type allows one "fire factor", that is, one d6 roll on the very simple combat table per turn (which can result in either a high or low hit or a miss, depending on range). Damage is simply equal to the poundage of the gun type firing -- for example, one hit from a trio of of 12-pound guns does 12 points of damage. In its way, a breathtakingly elegant mechanic!

The thing that I like about these systems is that by making an explicit connection/formula between real-world entities and game entities, the designers have immediately populated their game world with everything (of the appropriate category) in one fell swoop. Pratt doesn't need to include rosters of ships; he can just direct the reader to Jane's Fighting Ships, or other reference works. The ship rosters in Gygax & Arneson's DGUTS aren't really game statistics, they're just real-life profiles of historical ships (in terms of real tonnage, guns, crew, etc.). The designer doesn't have to spend time laboring over individual game-piece statistics. One's game is enriched by, and stands on the shoulders of, the amount of attention and detail given by military scientists tracking and documenting the things in the real world. If any balancing or revisions are needed, they are only in the game rules themselves (perhaps tweaking the mathematical formulae that simulate ships in the game).

Note how briskly this tacks against the fantasy gaming headwind that attention to simulating concrete, real-world elements cannot have any benefit (link). And how synchronized it is with our long-running observation that real-world solutions almost always give the most elegant in-game mechanics (link). In fact, by making the link explicit and mathematically precise, we instantly profit by the whole universe of whatever real-world thing we have simulated.

Of course, this assumes that there is a pre-existing compendium of measurable information compiled about our topic of inquiry, which we have in abundance for fighting ships -- and much less so for individual people, arms, creatures, or of course fantasy creatures. But I am tempted to think about what other quantitative fields of study exist that we can port semi-immediately, and connect explicitly, into our D&D games to their benefit. Let's be on the lookout for that in the next few weeks.

Can you think of any such field of study that we can mathematically connect to our D&D games in order to enrich them?


43 comments:

  1. I could see firearms being a great place for a similar approach. I have seen a bunch of modern RPG get bogged down in pages of guns. I could see a "here is a quick list of basic guns" and if you are an enthusiast, here is how to convert your favorite real world firearms.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. IIRC Cyberpunk's Friday Night Firefight had rules for doing just this.

      Delete
    2. Top Secret was probably the first game with rules for doing just this. BTRC had an entire supplement on doing that, called Guns, Guns, Guns or "3G", and both GDW and Steve Jackson Games developed similar weapon design sequences. The GDW one traveled (ha!) along with the Traveller game system to Marc Miller's Traveller (aka "T4") from Imperium Games, and a greatly simplified method was written into Traveller5.

      Delete
    3. I've done something similar for vehicles in GDW's Fire, Fusion & Steel, using a vehicle's real-world armor thickness, speed, and horsepower to just calculate its game stats rather than build it from the ground up.

      Delete
  2. I remember with their WWII series of books, GURPS took this approach to vehicles (as opposed to their original, gear-head-intensive approach) - they created a way to stat out vehicles just by knowing some basic, real-world stats. It was helpful.

    The main problem I can see applying this to fantasy gaming is the lack of detailed technical data about... well, just about anything. I mean, what tech data would we draw from? I'm literally asking - I'm wracking my brains trying to think of something, because I really want to use this principle of game design somehow.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I agree, of course, that may be an unattainable peak. I recall an old Dragon on using (inexpensive) real-world cartography from the U.S. Geological Survey for gaming purposes ("Map Hazard, Not Haphazard") which concluding by suggesting the use of air traffic control charts for dragon flights. That always seemed like a far overreach to me, however (mostly a rationalization of how one might use any category of product from the USGS).

      Delete
  3. It always baffled me that people see realism in gaming as anything but good, until I realized that people think that realistic and detailed are the same thing, or at least that realism requires detail.

    I heartily applaud your efforts at using real data to make smooth, simple mechanics, proving that realism is a good thing.

    I wrote about that phenomenon (realistic vs detailed) a while back:
    http://spellsandsteel.blogspot.ca/2013/08/on-realism-realistic-vs-detailed.html?m=0

    And an example of using that principle:
    http://spellsandsteel.blogspot.ca/2013/12/castle-cost-calculator.html?m=0

    I used a historical paper about castle building to calibrate a spreadsheet that calculates the materials, labour, cost, etc. of building a medieval castle.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. That's a great way of phrasing that! I was totally walking around last night thinking that at some point I've got to explicitly start writing "more realistic (which is not the same thing as more detailed)" every time this comes up. Thank you for the reminder and links -- your blog articles are excellent and I totally agree with them!

      Delete
    2. I think of "realism" as, more or less, "tends to produce results more or less in accord with real-world expectations." (Which of course opens up a whole 'nother can of worms when you're looking at fantasy.)

      Another source of problems when you're trying to make things more "detailed" is that the effects you're interesting in modeling may be below the resolution of your system. Like, your gun might be "more accurate" in some sense, like the distribution of shots at a known target/range is smaller than for another weapon. But if that only results in, say, a 1% increase in the likelihood of a hit, and your resolution system is a d20 that can only discriminate between probabilities at the 5% level, you really can't model that effect without actually getting LESS realistic results.

      BTW, Delta, have you looked at Mark Campbell's Close Action Age of Sail wargame? It's quite good; its biggest drawback is that for it to really shine, you need a group of players, mainly because a lot of the fun is in coordinating squadrons using the very limited communication bandwidth available at the time, which is modeled by written signals of very limited word length, delivered a turn after they are written. Wow, looking back at that last sentence I'm not sure it's really a sentence as opposed to a string of clauses; but editing in this little entry box is painful enough I'm going to leave it be.

      Delete
    3. Leland, I haven't seen that game date... it sounds really cool. I've long entertained the idea off a massive online wargame where communication delay effects were imposed. That's one of the very few times I've heard of someone simulating something like that.

      Delete
    4. It's not quite historical, but GDW's Fifth Frontier War incorporated communications delays into its orders systems. Admirals were also rated for individual initiative, which could exacerbate the issue of coordination.

      Delete
    5. The granddaddy of them all, the source of the hobby, Kriegspiel, had order delays, iirc. The referee would accept orders from the players and put them in a slot describing which upcoming turn the order was to be received on.

      Delete
    6. GDW was very fond of the idea of modeling communications delays. The first edition of Striker also incorporated detailed rules for how long it would take orders to travel from commanders to troops (which, as they noted, was where battlefield computers were most valuable), and also modeled the effects of individual initiative in units.

      Delete
    7. That's pretty great. Re: Kriegspiel, the only info I have is from Peterson's Playing at the World, and my impression was that it very subjective on the part of the referee, like it didn't have specific mechanics attached.

      Delete
    8. In the past I've wanted a space-based MMO which simulated slower-than-light travel times and communications delays in a galactic empire. But then I think that players can just use real-world means to short-circuit that and coordinate, and I lose motivation for the project.

      Delete
  4. I have to dig out my copy of Victor Davis Hanson's Wars of the Ancient Greeks, a decent overview of Bronze Age warfare.

    One of the appendices has some interesting tables I've long wanted to incorporate into gaming somehow. One is a table of common weapons with some interesting stats: weight, length, area of impact, etc. Another quantified costs of governance and warfare (illustrating how costly and ruinous the Athenian campaigns were).

    When I find the book I'll scan or type out the pages and their original references. It's in storage but I think I have an idea of where it is.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Oh, I think I might need that!

      Delete
    2. Grr, the book is buried deeper in my closet than I thought (it's horrendous right now...books and CDs stacked floor to ceiling for want of shelving). And no Kindle edition, grr.

      I'll turn it up, promise! The economic stuff was especially eye-opening, used it for an aborted attempt at designing an empire-building game in the vein of King of Kings or Barbarian, Kingdom and Empire.

      Delete
    3. HAHA! I knew I had typed it up years ago...

      Shared here:

      https://drive.google.com/open?id=0B8PIqzJnstSkNThnSVM1MXRKRW8

      Delete
    4. Apologies for the multiple replies, but...there wasn't too much explanatory text around these tables. I've pretty much given what's there.

      The tables aren't Hanson's work; he referenced two other works for them. If I can find the book soon I'll post those sources for those interested in deeper research.

      The melee weapon info is really interesting but I was never sure how to apply it to a game...someone who knows physics better than I might have fun.

      Delete
    5. That's a great source, Ken!

      At some point, I need to try to integrate that into my collated data on Diocletian's Edict on Maximum Prices (https://docs.google.com/spreadsheets/d/19ezxSrggK0X122X5j9EVbwHQkZ_qKvJ0zJJOaevLbjk/edit?usp=sharing), because many of those items listed are exactly the sorts of things I'd like to have relative prices for, and I think there are just enough calibration points shared to make it work.

      Delete
    6. Thanks for sharing this spreadsheet, Joshua!

      Delete
    7. Those are both great resources. Thanks so much for sharing them!

      Delete
  5. Alexis (http://tao-dnd.blogspot.com/) very often looks to the real world as a guide for his game. For example:
    - hit points based on the weight of the creature.
    http://tao-of-dnd.wikispaces.com/Hit+Points+per+Die
    http://tao-of-dnd.wikispaces.com/Hit+Points
    - real life clothing insulation data to work out clothing and protection from the elements.
    http://tao-of-dnd.wikispaces.com/Clothing+%28protection+against+elements%29
    http://tao-of-dnd.wikispaces.com/Clothing+Insulation+Calculator

    He has also based his world, as others have, on the Earth. So cities, cultures and climates are directly transferable. He used encyclopedias to determine what resources are available. It depends how far you want to go!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. That's interesting, thanks for the link. In the past I've also looked at real-life "clo" ratings to measure clothing worn vs. environmental heat.

      Although nowadays I would want a lot fewer categories (maybe ~6) for everything to be memorable with table lookups. In the past I tried to use heavy-duty weather systems and they were among the biggest breakdowns in my games.

      Delete
    2. See also: Next week's posts on wilderness adventuring. :-)

      Delete
  6. If adapting real-world animals as monsters, a look at the Wikipedia article often gives useful trivia and information (e.g. rats' subvocal communication; mandrills use tools; the pack range of the creature can be used to lay out its range in a hexcrawl map; pack size = number encountered; etc.)

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Yes, this is good. I've also used information on body weight and carrying capacity (see next week).

      Delete
  7. See Joe Nuttal's blog about his home-grown RPG system at http://explorebeneathandbeyond.blogspot.co.uk/ ; especially his posts on allometry (Squaring the Cube from 13 May 2015) and maybe The Cat Test (25 November 2015) which was inspired by a Delta post. He's been tweaking his system for both realism and playability for quite a while, and has some interesting ideas. (I _really_ like the die roll system he calls "open dice" (first mention 26 March 2015) because it has some very nice statistical properties.)

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. That's a super nice blog with lots of stuff that would go well here -- missile analysis, etc. I totally got sucked into the allometry posts, they're fascinating. Thanks for suggesting that!

      Delete
  8. I agree wholeheartedly that we can and should use real-world data to build up our game systems. I think a critical concern is that the result achieves the intended goal without bogging down the game. It's great to have these numbers and details and all that jazz, but if we can't get anyone to use them during the game, what's the point? (Unless, of course, it's more of a behind-the-scenes kind of work, in which case go nuts.)

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Sure, I agree that playability has priority; and that often this will be behind-the-scenes work, or at least prior-to-play work.

      Delete
  9. ==Jon Peterson's sublime Playing at the World.

    Can you say a few words about why this is so good?

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Crikey, it's enormous and there's practically not a paragraph where I don't learn something new and fascinating. The chapter on wargaming and miniatures traditions is all kinds of stuff I needed to know but was previously blind to. Plus his writing is sophisticated and clever (itself a bit in the pulp Vancian tradition).

      Delete
  10. On a related note, I've often found myself turning back to Autarch's early blog posts on economic and demographic models of late antiquity and the middle ages when thinking about settlements and domains.

    I'm excited that your new acquisition might entice you to revisit the Cosairs of Modero scenario!

    ReplyDelete
  11. Mike Carr still enthusiastically runs this game at Gary Con every year. When I met him the night before at the Horticultural Hall he tried to recruit me to play in it. I had another game (playing Dungeon with Dave Megarry...!) but was able to watch for a few minutes. He sits in the middle of the "sea" (blue carpet) with the players surrounding the sea sitting on chairs. He moves the ships around according to their written orders.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Damn, what a dilemma that must have been! I don't do a lot of conventions, but I've been convinced that I must attend Gary Con next year. This will be one of the game I'll be looking for.

      Delete
    2. I'm really just grinning stupidly from ear to ear even thinking about it. :-)

      Delete
  12. I keep on falling back on linking things to real life for very similar reasons to those you outline. I dislike making arbitrary decisions as I find they lead to inconsistencies, and find that grounding them in the real world makes them more consistent and interesting.

    The areas I've applied this to so far are projectiles (range, accuracy, damage), physical prowess (running, jumping, lifting, encumbrance), and effects of size/allometry (height, weight, lifting, damage).

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Totally agree, esp., the inconsistencies that show up in long-term play.

      Similar to a lesson I've learn teaching math: any time I take a shortcut or try to gloss over a detail it bites me in the ass later on. Maybe not this semester, but a later one...

      Delete