Saturday, 29 November 2014

Mass Combat 2 - A Question of Scale

Miniature figures can challenge
even the greatest minds
Scale is something that has to be grappled with, or at least decided on when dealing with mass combat - scale of time as well as distances. D&D and then AD&D used a multi-purpose system based on ignoring the gameworld measurements and instead concentrating on the size of things on the table in front of the players, measured in literal inches as measured with a ruler or tape-measure by the DM. Sounds good, but somehow it all became a little tricky...

One of my most common arguments with other D&Ders is the question of whether one increases the size of area effect spells when using the outdoor ground scale or not. Basically, I say you do and everyone else says you don't. Luckily for me, they're wrong. Which is also lucky for you if you're interested in mass combat with D&D monsters and spells because it eliminates a load of pointless calculations.

The main cause of the arguments is the badly worded section in the PHB on the topic (p39):

Magic and spells ore, most certainly, devices of the game. In order to make them fit the constrictions of the underground labyrinth, a one for three reduction is necessary. It would be folly, after all, to try to have such as effective attack modes if feet were not converted to yards outdoors, where visibility, movement, and conventional weapons attack ranges are based on actual fact. (See MOVEMENT.)

Distance scale and areas of effect for spells (and missiles) are designed to fit the game, The tripling of range outdoors is reasonable, as it allows for recreation of actual ranges for hurled javelins, arrows fired from longbows, or whatever. In order to keep magic spells on a par, their range is also tripled. IT IS IMPERATIVE THAT OUTDOOR SCALE BE USED FOR RANGE ONLY, NEVER FOR SPELL AREA OF EFFECT (which is kept at 1” = 10’) UNLESS A FIGURE RATIO OF 1 :10 OR 1 :20 (1 casting equals 10 or 20 actual creatures or things in most cases) IS USED, AND CONSTRUCTIONS SUCH AS BUILDINGS, CASTLES, WALLS, ETC. ARE SCALED TO FIGURES RATHER THAN TO GROUND SCALE. Note that the foregoing assumes that a ground scale of 1” to 10 yards is used.

Of course, sometimes the players
will enjoy using the wrong scale
The text is, in fact, a slightly modified extract from an extended piece on the subject in issue #15 of The Dragon where Gygax ponders the question of scales in June of '78, a couple of years after the publication of the final D&D supplement: Swords & Spells, which was a mass-combat system

He rightly puts his finger on the fact that for mass combat, ground scale is the most important issue as the players will be constrained by physical space and that time scale is affected by ground scale insofar that movement must be noticeable. He does make some assumptions about what the reader already understands, however, and never fully explains the reason behind the use of "inches" and D&D.

He also assumes a rather generous 5'x10' playing surface—much larger than most people have today—and picks a scale that makes that equal to 600 yards by 1200 which he takes as a typical battlefield for mediƦval combat. Now, when one inch on the table represents 10 yards in the game world (1:360 scale), then a round must be a minute to give reasonable movement rates, where "reasonable" means easily handled by a typical ruler of 12" length. Since the ruler and the table are taken to be fixed sizes, there is a direct relationship between ground scale and time scale; double one and you must double the other or units will be making tiny movements.

Taking the outdoor ground and time scales to be 1":30' and 1rnd=60 seconds this means that the indoor ground scale of 1"=10 feet (1:120 scale), requires a round of 20s to give reasonable open-air movement rates. The important thing is that a fighter makes an attack every round and everyone can only make a charge movement once in ten rounds and so on, all while a combat can be contained on the table in front of the players.

Now, an underground round is not 20s long, of course, it is in fact still a full minute. There's two reasons for that and one of them is the question of moving about in dark corridors with slippery or rotten floors with the chance of sudden ambush around every bend. The other reason—magic— is more problematical and I'll deal with it below.

A significant presence
Next we enter the rabbit hole as Gygax raises the issue of figure scale. If 1"=10yards, then you can get a lot of people into that. With spears or other thrusting weapons, a 10 yard line might take 16 men standing shoulder to shoulder and each being backed by another 16, for 256 men in that one inch. This is very dense packing of the sort probably only encountered in special formations like Alexandrian pike phalanxes or Roman shield tortoises, but that's okay, really. Most figures have slightly smaller bases than that but then they are normally taken as representing 20 men. Except, this is fantasy and a single person can be a massively significant presence on the field of battle and therefore require their own figure.

Life being what it is, the figures used in D&D, Chainmail and other table-top games are all a certain size, and don't come with tiny versions to represent individuals. So, the idea was introduced of using some figures to represent player characters and important NPCs while some other figures the same size represent 10, 20, or 100 people. This was not a good move at all and led directly to the text in the PHB quoted above.

In short, the problem becomes one of spell effects. A spell effect is given in inches as normal for movement and weapon range. So long as the target(s) are/is in the same scale, that's fine. But what happens if the spell, say fireball or flame strike, or even bless land on a group of six figures that represent, not 120 orcs but 6 PCs. Well, Fig-1 shows how this plays out - first the party in marching order (each grid line is 1"), then a fireball is "called" and lands on the Reverend Bill's head.

At first glance, it doesn't look too bad for the party - Villa's safe and Corry and Fred will be saving for half or no damage as they are mostly outside of the fireball's area.

But this is all wrong. That fireball is 4" wide, as required by the PHB, but that's 40 yards wide. On the scale of these figures that... Well, actually it's hard to know what that is. A figure base of 1" is typical of 25-30mm figures, which is roughly 1"=6' (1:72 scale) or 1"=5' (1:60 scale). Taking the latter, as that's currently popular and it's easy to work with, the fireball is now a measly 20' wide in relation to the party. That's not right. The book says that the fireball even in indoor mode should be 40' wide, or twice the size it is here. Villa should be fried with the rest of them.

Well, okay, then, we'll stick with that. But what if the party are near some troops? Now the scale only works part way (fig-2) and we have a problem: if the party's figure/indoor scale is used (i.e., an 8" fireball on the tabletop, the outer circle) then not only the party but all the 120 goblins are turned into leather armour pop-tarts. But a fireball scaled to the goblin's outdoor scale (the inner circle) would have, if centred on the cleric, completely missed them all. And neither circle is even the "official" indoor scale of 1"=10', which would be a third circle bid-way between the other two, again affecting the goblins incorrectly. What a mess.

Transferring the indoor scale to the battlefield leads to the problem which Gygax says in the Dragon article was pointed out by none other than Len Lakofka:

"A huge area can be covered with webs from a lowly magic-user’s second level spell. Of course this is ridiculous, as the 1" = 10 yards scale only applies in cases where all other scales are in proportion."

Which is what we see here with the fireball. This quote sums the problem up but also gives the correct answer at the same time - keep all the scales in proportion. Don't use a separate figure scale in the first place! If you do, you will have headaches; no one wants to have to deal with this crap during a game.

The text in the Players Handbook tries to say this, but fluffs it. It should, for clarity, instead read (my addition in bold): "IT IS IMPERATIVE THAT OUTDOOR SCALE BE USED FOR RANGE ONLY, NEVER FOR SPELL AREA OF EFFECT UNLESS A FIGURE RATIO OF 1 :10 OR 1 :20  IS USED FOR ALL FIGURES".

This means that a single figure or counter is used for a group of PCs, just as it is for a group of orcs, goblins, or knights. This allows us to represent the area of effects consistently as shown as the still unnumbered fig-3 at left where we can clearly see that no goblins were harmed in the production of this diagram.

The crucial factor in all this is that miniature figures are three-dimensional and therefore very hard to overlap. In fact, instead of replacing the party with a single token, we could mostly solve the problem by allowing units to stack.

Stacking also allows us to eliminate the need for different sized tokens for different sized creatures—Swords and Spells uses ⅝" wide stands for humans and 1⅜" wide ones for ogres, trolls, and some horse units. We can instead simply adjust the maximum number of individuals represented by a token or counter. So, if a 1" counter could normally represent 100 men, it can only represent up to 45 horses, say.

Since an individual counter can represent from 1 to 100 or more individuals, it may seem that the DM must have a system for judging the actual placement of those individuals within the area covered by the counter. I personally have never found this necessary and the normal D&D 1" melee-range fuzziness generally covers all rationalizations, at least when the counters are 1" or less in size.

A New Type of Encumbrance (goody).

If the DM keeps an idea of a "stacking limit" in their head, things start to work quite smoothly. Taking 100 men as the normal limit in a 1" square, we can count a centaur as 2 men and say that a counter of 25 men and one of 37 centaurs can stack together and still move normally (other issues, such as facing and formation will have to wait for a future post); if we allow over-stacking to, say, 250 men in a square then we can penalize them for movement as they are perforce moving in a tight formation. The DM can regulate this as s/he sees fit, but it means that it's allowable to have working units of mixed fire giants and hell-hounds, for example.

"This is all jolly interesting, isn't it, Frodo?"
"Strictly's on soon; can we go?"
Magic Problems
I said that magic is one of the things that undermines the idea of completely abstract ground scale adjustments. The reason is that such ground scale adjustments logically require time scale adjustments, as mentioned above. But the players are told in the PHB that a casting time of one round represents a minute and a segment 6 seconds and this runs counter to the intent of the system.

That intent is that a game can be played in a balanced way regardless of how much space the players have to work with. A fireball's width is always a third of an unencumbered human's move rate; walls of force and thorns always represent the same level of obstacle, and charging units are always exposed to ranged fire for the same number of turns. Realism is completely ignored for the same of playability at scales other than 1:360.

Of course, you can scale a fireball up too far
This even works for fighters because we know that to-hit rolls are not made for every single blow; with a different time scale we just gloss over the fact that by the clock the combatants are getting more rolls, the important thing is that they get the same number of rolls per round.

Same for spell-like powers...can you see the problem? If spellcasters are taking a set time to cast spells, then the abstraction breaks and spell-like powers become disproportionately strong compared to real spells. This can, obviously, be fixed by simply ignoring the casting-time to real-time linkage, and that can be fun, but many players will find this hard to swallow, I have found.

There is a further problem, and that is missile (and spell) ranges which have to be "topped out" so that at large scales thieves are not throwing daggers half a mile, but that's much easier to accept than fiddling with time for various reasons.

In the next post I'll put up some software for making double-sided counters (one side is full strength, the other half strength).

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