Monday, August 17, 2020

Arneson's Battle In The Skies

I was informed/reminded by folks on the ODD74 forums that a year ago at GaryCon, the Secrets of Blackmoor folks displayed and ran a game with Dave Arneson's original "Battle In The Skies" rules for D&D-style aerial combat (inspired by Mike Carr's "Fight in the Skies" WWI aerial game, which I played with Skip Williams et. al. at GaryCon the prior year). Some documentation on Reddit here.

This caught my attention, because for a few years I've been wrestling with the cut-down version in OD&D Vol-3 and not finding it inherently playable. Apparently Arneson's draft was 18 full-sized pages, but the Vol-3 version only has about 3½ digest-sized pages (including two illustrations). For some time I've wondered, "could this have ever been playtested?", and this seems to give evidence that the version seen in Vol-3 was likely not -- inasmuch as Gygax likely took major shears to it with the interest of fitting it in the book on a deadline. But maybe Arneson's really was? Maybe, that's not a given, either. (In my experience, he also commonly wrote what I call "aspirational rules", really more a thought-experiment than something run in play.)

Even though we only see some hand-notes and the top page of the typewritten rules there, even from that a whole lot of interesting stuff jumps out:

First, from the hand-notes, it seems that Arneson had a specific roster of possible maneuvers in mind (even if the exact details of those maneuvers are unclear), similar to the hyper-detailed Fight In The Skies. In contrast the Vol-3 version has (really murky) turns, climbs, dives, and then "Any other maneuvers are optional at the discretion of the campaign referee". 

Second, from the typewritten page, we have a very nice roster of aerial creatures that serves as something of a "Rosetta Stone" for Arnesonian creatures when we compare it to the OD&D Vol-2 monster list. In particular:

  • The "Point to KIA", is basically the OD&D hit points. If we convert the given range back to d6's (take the first number; or, divide the second number by 6), in most cases we get the OD&D hit dice, or maybe one pip off in some cases. 
  • But note some creatures that don't get full detail in OD&D: The "Small Insects" have 6 hit dice (same as a Griffon here)! And the "Large Insects" have 10 hit dice (same as a Balrog)! That is not remotely something I'd ever guess in all my years -- but it's on-brand for Arneson with his commonly insane size for basic animal stats (see also giant beetles and aquatic creatures in OD&D Sup-II). Also we get stats for the Tarn, mentioned in his First Fantasy Campaign, but missing from OD&D (either 12 or 14 hit dice, bigger than any OD&D book monster)
  • Note that the "to Hit" numbers are actually what we'd now identify as "Ascending Armor Class". (!) It looks like they've got to be target numbers on a d20 (clearly none of them are achievable in 2d6, say). If we take those numbers and subtract from 20, then in most cases we get the standard one-digit AC number seen in OD&D Vol-2 (compare to: Target 20).
  • Movement is both given in "sqs" (squares shown on the handwritten page) and feet per turn, which allows us to decode the scale he intended: 1 square = 50 feet. I feel that's important, because the scale was struck out of the rules in OD&D Vol-3 (also: naval rules), which causes a lot of problems (e.g., I think aerial & naval rules are at different scales), and something I've struggled to back-fill in the past. For some reason Gygax really resisted clearly specifying scale in a lot of places -- same as the Chainmail Man-to-Man rules, which to my thinking was the root of the greatest mischief in all of classic D&D. 
  • Note that the OD&D move rates in inches are all the movements in squares shown here, multiplied by 3. Hence one might want to say that one square/space here represent 3 D&D inches; this is likewise stated on AD&D DMG p. 53. (But is that then 15, 30, 50, or 90 feet?). 
  • The "Radius Turn" is, I'm guessing, mapping to maneuverability classes like we see in OD&D in AD&D texts. We see 6 classes here; OD&D has 7. It seems like maybe the classes here are basically reversed compared to OD&D/AD&D? E.g.: Dragons are in class "I" here, while in Vol-3 they're near the end of the list, with among the worst move rates; the Sprite is class "VI", while in OD&D they're in the first category, with the best turning rates (in AD&D, class "A"). 
  • Note that OD&D has two statistics per maneuver class; "number of turns per move", and "number of spaces between turns". Based on the phrasing of the "Radius Turn" column, might it be that only the latter statistics is specified? That might be something I'd prefer; on the other hand, Arneson is not really known to be minimalist in his rules-writing, so I wouldn't bet on it.
  • The "Special Characteristics" column seems to have mostly attack bonuses for frontal attacks (added "pips"). 

Third, we see some missile weapons at the bottom of the page. Again, their rate-of-fire basically matches that of Chainmail, and the ranges are about one-third the standard D&D ranges (e.g.: in Chainmail, OD&D Sup-I, etc.), including for the magical fireball and lightning bolts.  

Boy, I wish I had a full copy of these rules to playtest!


  1. Inspired by your post, I compared those BITS HD/AC equivalents to the stats in the earlier "Guidon" draft, and they match exactly in almost every case where the monsters are present in both lists. It's pretty clear that Arneson was working with the same list as in Guidon. Full details over at ODD74 in the "Guidon" thread.

    1. Oh, that's awesome. Thanks for checking that!

  2. "For some reason Gygax really resisted clearly specifying scale in a lot of places -- same as the Chainmail Man-to-Man rules, which to my thinking was the root of the greatest mischief in all of classic D&D. "

    What are you alluding to here? Sounds interesting!

    1. Ha, apologies if that was cryptic, I've written so much about it that I assume everyone knows what I'm talking about.

      Gygax's Chainmail (1971) was primarily a mass-combat game at 1:20 miniature scale, 1" = 10 yards, 1 turn = 1 minute. It had a Man-to-Man addendum where the miniatures represented one man (1:1 scale), but it simply had no word on how time/distance scale was changed. A comment argument is that by default it still intended 1" = 10 yards, and 1 turn = 1 minute, and in fact that was carried through to AD&D, even tough it makes no sense.

  3. Clearly aerial adventures are on the brain these days, as I was just sitting down to writing a blog post on the subject (prompted by another blogger's musings) when I saw this.

    Jeez, this world.

    1. No kidding! Good with your blog, look forward to that. :-)

  4. Aerial adventures is one of the things I'm sad D&D didn't try to stick with more. It's an exciting avenue of play, alongside things like the underground, wilderness, and seafaring, but it rarely gets talked about as much. I'd guess the reason for it is probably the aspects of momentum/speed being a large thing, as well as the empty 3d space of the sky, however but I don't think those are insurmountable issues.

    The rules presented in Vol 3 and later the DMG aren't unusable, although the latter I would say needed more diagrams to help explain it. It even avoids the temptation to put in complex "maneuvers" that complicate movement, which a lot of other games fall into the trap of (dammit car wars).

    Momentum itself is something that's quite relevant to any kind of mount or vehicle. However getting two creatures to collide in a 3d space when they're both at speed is always going to be a bit of an issue when melee is the primary form of combat. Doubly so when you work gridless and have to describe someone's position as a reference to someone else's position, which change every turn.

    1. Totally agreed, I also wish the aerial tactical game had been retained and refined as a core element of the game and not-quasi abandoned (same, even moreso, for naval combat rules).

      Feeling the "dammit car wars" so much!