Old School Dungeons & Dragons measures distances – in inches, directly from moving minis around on a tabletop in Chainmail. But what do these inches represent in the wild?
The question just came up during the defense of a couple of farmhouses from goblin archers, with magic users and defending archers all over the place hundreds of feet this way or that. Without the actual situation I would not have thought much about it, honestly, I personally don’t found it crucial until now. However, it is pretty crucial now, for players who try to defend their farmhouses without getting skewered by a hail of arrows from the wild forest.
So they do a lot of pacing between the houses and the forest edge, prepare fires and zones for the enemy to pass through, and ask detailed questions about how many feet it is from A to B to C and from X to Y to Z, how much of which region is lit by what sort of fire, etc.
Modern warfare, basically, as opposed to standard gaming devil-may-care melee.
OD&D is not written with such a level of detail in mind.
Trying to answer those questions in a useful manner I went down the rabbit hole and found … well … a hole.
A real one.
1 man: feet. 20 men: yards. But not for everything.
If we are talking about individuals sneaking through the dungeon, we are talking about feet. If we are talking about units of 20 men on an open field of battle, they spill right out of the feet measurement, so we turn to yards.
But we run into issues almost immediately when we think about travel distances, because groups don’t travel faster than individuals. Shooting arrows is difficult in tight surroundings, but what if you are in the underground equivalent of the Royal Albert Hall? Casting spells should not be easier outside than inside. Or should it? Why? It cannot be the proximity to the gods, because we are talking arcane magic right now
Early D&D tells us to look to Chainmail for shooting ranges. Alas, Chainmail does not waste much breath on ranges. There is just the one range, the maximum effective range per weapon. Only the Arquebuse takes the time to wonder if targets may become easier or harder to hit depending if they are 20 feet in front of you or 300 yards.
So what do we find in Chainmail?
We find inches.
Cannons have a range of 30 inches.
Bombards shoot 42 inches.
The fire-weapons I mentioned hit very well (and kill even better) up to 6 inches, do okay up to 12 inches, are still passable up to 18 inches – and are silent about the beyond.
The light catapult maxes out at 30 inches, or 48 inches in case of the heavy one.
Fast troops move 12, heavy move 9, and heavily armored dudes move 6 in a round.
Light horse does 24, heavy horse 12, keeping pace with the feat spear levies.
Missile ranges are a single number: 18 for crossbows. 21 for longbows.
It is abstract because we talk statistics here with volleys of arrow fire from one larger body of men at another, all business, nothing personal.
Inches are great for a kitchen table, where we work in the abstract, but they fail to satisfy when we ask about people in an imaginary space. So we must translate the inches into feets or yards, something that Chainmail never needed to do.
Let us check the (0e) rules:
This is the core of the matter: The game is OD&D played with the 3LBB, so these booklets are the baseline.
Sighting Monsters in the wilderness is normal outside forested terrain. There you will see monsters at 40 to 240 yards, except if they surprise a party that failed to stay alert; in that case they pop out of the shrubbery within 10 and 30 yards and the situation goes from zero to tense.
10 yards is melee distance.
In book 3 though it says that 30 yards is melee distance, but that is in air combat, where melee is probably nothing one would like to experience.
Movement for a light foot is 12”: 120 yards in a round. Load him up with armor and shield and he goes down to 9” = 90 yards.
A spell example speaks of “ : Range: 6” + 1“/level of the Magic-User. That is inches again, chainmail inches. Chainmail is a wargame with groups of men, so we are speaking about yards.
Hold Person goes for 12 inches = 120 yards, and flying speed is 12 inches / turn [let us ignore the terminology of turn for now, that is a whole different beast to tame], which is clearly also 120 yards. Not very fast, to be sure: The flyer is just as fast as a lightly armored spearman on the ground. [again, its own topic: Flying speeds.]
But range of infravision is 40 to 60’, which is clearly feet.
Protection from evil works in a 10’ radius.
An exception: the famous Fireball explodes with a 2” radius (“slightly larger than specified in Chainmail”) – we are back to inches = 10s of yards. The lightning bolt too goes for a 6 inches and is ¾ of an inch wide. So 60 yards, and about 7 yards wide, enough to get two individual men side by side in a formation.
The range of spells seems to be in yards/10s of yards, the area of effect in feet, with the exception of Fireball.
Shooting arrows is divided in short, medium and long range, something that Chainmail did not do. But it does not go into it. What is short range, apart from the fact that short range is at +2 to hit, medium range at +1, and long range at the standard +/- 0? [Keep that in mind, it will be changing in future editions]
Let us say, 21 inches for the longbow would be 210 yards. It would follow that 70 yards would be short range, 140 medium range, and 210 long range. However, there is the possibility for arched fire, and arched shots are generally what the Chainmailers do. So arched fire goes for 210 yards. Where does that leave us with short, medium, and long range as opposed to the indirect shots?
Now let’s go B/X.
B/X has a turn movement in feet, 120’ for light foot, 90’ for heavy, 60’ for someone seriously armored, and a combat round movement, also in feet, which is a third of that: 40, 30, or 20 feet, respectively.
[Again with the turns. I must quickly dip into that, in 0e it says that a party moves its movement range TWICE in a turn,so that’s 240 feet, while in B/X we slow down to 120. Much to unpack, but for another time.]
And what does it say about shooting ranges?
Moldvay goes ahead and says “Feet”. And he says, for the longbow:
70 feet short range (which is more believable than 70 yards), then 140 feet medium range, and 210 feet long range.
+1 at short, 0 at medium, -1 at long range.
But then things get serious in the Xpert part, where Time, Scale and Movement are clarified as follows:
Unlike dungeons, the basic measure of distances in the wilderness
is yards instead of feet. In the wilderness it is easier to move great
distances. There is more open terrain, the lighting is better and
there are fewer uncertainties in general. To calculate how far a
character may move in the wilderness in one day, convert the
number of feet he or she may move in a turn to miles by dividing
by 5. The result is then read as miles. A man who moves 90′ a turn
in the dungeon will move 18 miles in a day (90/5 — 18).
The distance a character may move in a 10 minute turn is equal to
the distance moved in the dungeon read as yards. Therefore, a
man who moves 90′ a turn in the dungeon will move 90 yards
(270′) in the wilderness. The distance moved in a combat round is
also read as yards.
Missile and spell ranges are also read as yards in the wilderness.
IMPORTANT NOTE: THE AREA AFFECTED BY A SPELL
IS NOT READ AS YARDS. Thus, a fire ball spell cast in the
wilderness would have a range of 240 yards, but still affect an area
40 feet in diameter.
Pursuit speed in the wilderness is equal to 3 times the combat
speed of the character. The same man given in the example above
(who moves 90′ per turn in the dungeon) would be able to move
90 yards or 270′ in one round if he was being chased or chasing
something. Such speed may only be maintained for short periods
of time and requires rest immediately after.
Does that make sense?
Better lighting makes for longer range for spells that project a physical effect.
But consider “Charm Person”.
120 feet are 40 yards; it is believeable that someone could be charmed – a social effect – at 40 yards. But could someone be charmed at 120 yards under an open sky?
Charming someone is a pretty personal affair, and 120 yards would mean that you could charm someone who is not even aware of you.
Floating Disc follows you around like a mule. 6 feet distance is logical. 6 yards? Not so much.
So it makes sense for some spells — maybe attack spells like Fireball and vision-based spells like Detect Invisible or Locate Object — not for others, like Hold Portal or Water Breathing.
It takes some guesswork. Roleplaying games are still more of an Art than a Science.
AD&D is a complicated body of work – I hope even the most avid fans will not claim it stands out for simplicity.
It loves details, so there is a pretty good chance it will go into detail on the range issue as well.
It tells us the difference in length between the Guisarme and the Guisarme-Voulge or Glaive-Guisarme, for starters, and in feet. So, optimistic, we start to look for ranges.
Longbow: We find our classic inch numbers 7, 14, and 21, although without reference to any units of measurement.
0 at short range, -2 at medium and -5 at long range.
And a fine paragraph about ranges.
For purposes of the game distances are basically one-third with respect to spell
and missile range from outdoors to indoors/underground situations. Thus most
ranges are shown as inches by means of the symbol “, i.e. 1”, etc. Outdoors, 1”
equals 10 yards. Indoors 1” equals 10 feet. Such a ratio is justifiable, to some
extent, regardless of game considerations.
Actual effective range of an arrow shot from a longbow is around 210 yards
maximum, in clear light and open terrain. Underground, with little light and low
ceilings overhead, a bowshot of 210 feet is about maximum. Archery implies
arching arrows. Slings are in this category as are hurled darts and javelins, all
arching in flight to achieve distance. Crossbows are a notable exception, but
under the visibility conditions of a dungeon setting, a yards to feet conversion is
Magic and spells are, 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.
Movement scale is kept as flexible as possible in order to deal with the
multitude of applications it has, i.e. dungeon movement (exploring and
otherwise), city travel, treks through the outdoors, and combat situations arising
during the course of any such movements. Your referee will have information
which will enable him or her to adjust the movement rate to the applicable time
scale for any situation.
Is that so?
Anyway, B/X and 1e are in complete agreement there. Good light and open terrain triple ranges for missiles and spells.
Delving Deeper says: An inchrepresents a real distance according to the scale of play. At the dungeon combat scale 1″ represents 10 feet. At the wilderness combat scale 1″represents 10 yards. At the overland and ocean exploration scale 1″ of movement represents 1 mile per day.
Likewise Full Metal Plate Mail: Triple every distance if outside in daylight.
Original Edition Delta makes it a formula, but also gives us ranges. Let us focus on the formula foremost.
Generally, OED uses the Target 20 system, which is the same thing as Descending Armor Class, only switch around to say “plus”. In other words, we try to hit a target number of 20, adding the target AC to our roll, instead of subtracting AC from a Thac0.
D20 plus Attack Bonus (that would be 1 at Level 1, bridging the gap between Thac0 19 and Target 20) plus Dex Bonus plus target AC = 20+
Then we apply a Range modifier of -1 for every 10 feet. (because OED only ever speaks about feet, never about yards)
At this point, I assume, the stated ranges per weapon come in, because 1) otherwise we would not need them, and 2) they make a difference between different sorts of bow and otherwise they would all be the same.
So there we are, with a L1 fighter with average dex shooting a longbow at a distance of 200 yards.
The longbow has a range of 105 feet. That would be 495 feet short. Target AC is 5.
D20+1+5-49 must be 20 or more.
Rolling an 11 means we miss by 32. We can never hit, no matter what we roll.
But we will get better when we level up. If we are at level 20, that’s merely a miss by 13.
Now the same thing for 0e, outside, in daylight.
Long range is +-0. 19-5 AC is 14.
We roll 11 and miss by 3.
B/X: Long range is -1. We miss our mark by 4.
A very different situation.
How does it come to these differences?
Why are Delta’s bows so much less accurate than Gygaxes?
Delta has put some research into it, starting a very long time ago.
You can check out a selection of his blog posts here:
- https://deltasdnd.blogspot.com/2011/03/basic-d-on-archery.html (covering important basics)
He did the math that I can’t do:
And found a verdict:
The error is clearly that hitting a mass in formation with a mass of arrows is taken as similar to hitting one regular Joe with one arrow. Which it isn’t.
At first glance 20 archers shooting 20 arrows at 20 spearmen sounds very much like 1 archer shooting 1 arrow at 1 spearman, but in fact, as one of these archers, if you miss one of 20 you still very likely hit someone, while if you shoot at a loner you very likely just miss.
Carrying the accuracy of a cloud of arrows over to make it the accuracy of one bow, that is an error.
And based on that error, in an attempt to keep spellcasters relevant, their own range is tripled outside the dungeon as well. But why would magic work better out in daylight than within a dungeon? Why would evil wizards lair in dungeons, where their magic is stunted, and not on mountaintops, where their range is maximized?
Because they would do as my earliest D&D GM did, and try to get the players out of the sun and underground as fast as possible, and then the whole issue could be covered up.
The issues arise because there is a spot of wonky logic (too high accuracy) and instead of toning that down, D&D decided to boost up wilderness magic to match wilderness archery; to keep magic users on par with archers in matters of taking each other out.
Lamentations of the Flame Princess: Lamentations is not a game that tends toward dungeons. Most of the action in Lamentations games involves a lot of overland movement and aboveground structures. Here targets at short range are at +/- 0, medium range is -2 and long range -4. With old unrifled fire weapons we are even at -4 and -8 because the lead balls fly wonky without a spin. The ranges are quite, very, enormously different from those in original D&D: short range is 50 feet for the longbow, medium range is 600 feet! (200 yards, the maximum range we would expect from Chainmail), and long range makes that 900 feet yet. Catapults shoot a maximum of 300 yards – which is exactly as far as the long bow reaches.
Despite these longer ranges for missiles, the ranges of magic are rather tame in this game, staying at a range of several dozen feet. James Raggi did not have that same impulse that Gygax described, that he wanted to keep archers and spellslingers on an even footing. LotFP is comfortable with short range spells versus long range guns.
And does the game suffer for it?
It does not.
On the contrary!
Arcane magic does not need to compete directly with archers.
It is, and should be, a matter of brains and clever application rather than playing artillery.
The way forward
Playing OD&D following the 3 Little Brown Books of 1974 is an exercise in filling in the gaps. And we shall continue with that: For now, in the game that spawned this rabbit-holery, we shall take hints from Delta, keep the archery ranges in feet and spoil the aim step by step with every 10 feet beyond that, and we shall keep magic the same, in feet, regardless if it is cast indoors or outdoors.
We shall see how that goes and adjust where we stumble – feeling our way from one error to the next.
Trial and error.
Which embodies, after all, the true Old School Way.
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