Tuesday, February 28, 2012

The Articles of Dragon: "Realistic Vital Statistics"

I am nothing if not tedious and repetitive, so, when turning to issue #91 of Dragon (November 1984), it was pretty much a given that I'd talking about the article "Realistic Vital Statistics" by Stephen Inniss. The article is a near-perfect exemplar of the Silver Age of D&D, with its concern for providing referees with the tools needed to inject "realism" into their adventures and campaigns. In this case, the author's concern is for the fact that, according to their descriptions in the Monster Manual and Players Handbook, dwarves are implausibly heavy, standing only 4 feet tall and yet weighing 150 pounds (on average). According to Mr Inniss, if one extrapolated this weight for a 6-foot tall human male, he'd weigh over 500 pounds! This, he says, violates a fundamental rule of physics -- the square-cube law, which states that "the weight (or volume) of an object is proportional to the product of its linear dimensions (height, length, and width)." Using a realistic model, a 4-foot dwarf should weigh only about a third the weight listed in the AD&D books.

The article thus provides a series of tables for generating more plausible vital statistics to replace those in the Dungeon Masters Guide. For what it is, the system is pretty easy to use: the tables are clear and the variables aren't difficult to keep track of. But, ultimately, I find myself wondering why anyone would care about such a system. Mr Inniss notes that giants in D&D show no signs of appropriate adaptation to their height and (presumed) weight, meaning they're not very plausible as typically presented. Having said that, he then dismisses the concern by saying
Fortunately, their world is a magical one. They are probably supported by some permanent variant of the levitate spell, with bone-strengthening magic thrown in for good measure. Interestingly, the larger giants (storm and cloud giants), like the equally huge titans, have true levitation powers perhaps a natural extension of the talents of their lesser brethren.
It's, in my opinion, a perfectly valid solution to this "problem" of the height and weight of giants, but, if one can accept this when dealing with giants, why is the weight of dwarves an issue? Once you admit that the world is magical and therefore exempt from inconvenient physical laws that would get in the way of fantasy, where does on draw the line? Mr Inniss anticipated this line of thought and attempted to counter it.
Since this is after all a fantasy game, it might be argued that it doesn't matter how much dwarves are defined as weighing. However, it is just such realistic-looking details as a character's height and weight that make for a more willing suspension of disbelief during a game session. Otherwise, why bother with such statistics in the first place? Plausibility, or "realism" as it is sometimes called, is definitely a factor in the enjoyment of even a fantasy game; the more so where the game makes a relatively close approach to reality.
I'm far from convinced by Mr Inniss's rejoinder, but, leaving that aside, when was the last time that a character's precise weight mattered in a game? I can't recall its ever mattering in any games that I've run. Height is a little more useful, though, even there, I can probably count on one hand the number of times I ever allowed or disallowed a character action based on height. For me, knowing that a dwarf weighs 152 or merely 52 pounds is about as vital as knowing whether he has brown hair or red.

But that's just me.

36 comments:

  1. What a depressing reminder of the "realism" of the silver age. And he's not even right about the dwarven weight issue, since dwarves as depicted in the game's art are hardly proportional to men. Relative to their height, they have enormous heads, broad shoulders and hips, deep chests, and thick limbs, with hypertrophic musculature all over.

    I couldn't agree with you more about the schizophrenia regarding magical explanations. But as I've argued before, this schizophrenia was hard-coded into AD&D from day one by Gygax. On one page of the DMG, one finds absurdities waved away with a nod to fantasy and magic; on the next page, Gygax upbraids silly DMs for allowing physical impossibilities to occur in their games. And it's not just the magic/realism split, either: I was just re-reading my 1e DMG the other night and I ran across two passages that made me scratch my head in juxtaposition, namely the section on the meaning of the 1-minute combat round and the passage on helmets. In the first passage, Gygax tells us that a round of combat is a full minute comprising numerous feints, attacks, parries, jockeying for strategic position, withdrawal and pursuit, etc, and that hit point damage only begins to represent actual physical wounds in the last few points before death. It was actually much more lucid and sensible than I remembered, to the point where I wondered if I had ever read that passage before. In the next passage, he tells us that "1 in 3 attacks to a person without a helmet will be to the head at AC 10".

    It strikes me that the second approach -- what one might call the micromanaging approach -- was the one that came to predominate in the published AD&D materials, and came to be the prevailing wisdom in the silver age generally. It was the impulse that gave rise to the ever-more-fiddly combat resolution mechanics of RPGs over the next 15 years.

    I wonder, James, if you'd care to weigh in on when this trend first started to reverse itself? When did the gaming public start to get tired of d1000 hit location charts and millisecond-scale simulation in their games? And what form did the backlash take?

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  2. RuneQuest dwarves are made of stone. That solves the problem of implausibly heavy 4-foot dwarves :)

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  3. I can see where weight would come into play if, for example, a player is knocked out cold and needs to be carried out of the dungeon. If the strongest fighter is already carrying 500 pounds of gold and treasure, he might have some difficulty stacking the dwarf on top too.

    That's all only if you're keeping track of encumbrance, though. Still, this Dragon article strikes me as making my game more complex, which I don't want.

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  4. While I don't think they're at all necessary I don't mind "realistic" height weight charts. I don't think it's inconveivable one might want to wrap their head around the physicality of a dwarf or giant or whatever. I think realistic measures help that a bit in the same way seeing a life-size sculpture of a dinosaur is more profound than seeing a scaleless illustration. Maybe that's just observational scientist in me and most folks are content with vaguer notions--or perhaps they're just more strictly utilitarian.

    Anyway, Like Picador says: he's did wrong about dwarves, though. I'd suspect they'd come in more at a chimpanzee-ish 110-115 lbs.

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  5. I guess you might need to establish a character's weight if, say, you were writing an adventure where they were crossing a rickety bridge. And given the down-to-the-last-gp-weight concerns of AD&D, it would certainly be done in pounds.

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  6. It comes into play for "will the rickety rope bridge support character X" too.

    My group lost a dwarf that way a few months ago.

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  7. The first time I actually played through a D&D game, more than once or twice that is, I was given a fighter. He was almost 7 feet tall and weighed around 130 pounds. We had fun with the visual image. Apart from that, I think height has come into play far more than weight. Only a couple times has weight mattered (a certain trap is triggered if more than X is on it). But why worry? Somewhere in the DMG, doesn't Gary Gygax write that if we concede a world with dragons...?

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  8. Not unlike the "how big are coins" debates, I'm perplexed at how the whole concept of realism play out here: We know how much a dwarf weighs. We know how volume works. We know the average density of a human. At this point, it's really not a problem of realism to say that the average density of dwarves is simply greater than that of humans: Realism isn't throwing out any premise that implies that the game-world is different than the real world; it's trying to deal with the implications of the game-world's premises.

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  9. Just got to know if they can swim or not really.

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  10. I've been using these height and weight tables for years, when I want to know how tall & heavy a character is, and in preference to the tables in the DMG (and no, I don't like the way dwarves tend to be depicted in a lot of game art either). But, of course, it is a bit of fluff, like hair and eye colour and not something desperately important to the game in any event. Just view it as another random table, one of many that you can use if you want to, and you'll be fine.

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  11. I always assumed that fantasy dwarves had a greater physical density than other demi-humans. It made sense to me.

    As for giants and giant monsters, the physical laws of the fantasy world where they exist are simply different. That's sort of what makes it fantasy.

    I can understand that one may want an accurate height-weight chart for humans and animals and their nearest equivalents (it is useful), but worrying about how real world physical laws render giants impossible is simply not a worthwhile concern for fantasy. For science fiction? Yes, absolutely. For fantasy? Pointless.

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  12. Knowing the correct weight of the dwarf is, of course, not really that useful. But, having decided to write on this pointless subject, the author has completely bogus calculations, thus making it a useless article on a pointless subject :-)

    The desire for "realism" often leads to long debates, complicated rules, and no extra level of realism - slowing the game down and gives you no benefit in return.

    This didn't start in the Silver Age however. Read again the spell "Enlarge" in the PHB. I think that nicely explains how the spells section alone is roughly 60 pages. At approx 3 times as many words per page as the OD&D books, so that's nearly as long as OD&D + Greyhawk + Blackmoor! (less the Temple)...

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  13. Dwarf weight is important when you're trying to haul your dead/dying buddy out the dungeon!

    I tend to keep the demihuman weights and increase their heights, which IMO don't fit how the races are actually portrayed so - IMCs halflings ca 3'10"-4', dwarves ca 4'6"-4'8". A 6' dwarf would indeed be 400-500 lbs though!

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  14. The question of the relative density of dwarves and humans reminds me of the joke from Joel Rosenberg's books: "How do you make a dwarf float?" "One dwarf, two scoops of ice cream, and a gallon of root beer." (This is right after a dwarf's inability to float is of direct relevance to the plot, of course.)

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  15. Brand me a heretic to the OSR, but I do like some of the "realist" articles that appeared in Dragon over the late 70s and into the 80s; I like a bit of crunch in my games, and many added a nice "texture," for lack of a better word. Still, I recall reading this article at the time and wondering why the author bothered, and why the editor accepted it.

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  16. Just in case people wonder why I said the maths was wrong...

    Dwarves are commonly portrayed as being as broad as a human, thus their cross sectional area would be the same, so a 4' Dwarf would be 2/3 the weight of a 6' Human.

    Humans get less broad as they get smaller, and BMI reckons this as being proportional to the square of their height. So if a 4' Dwarf weighed the same as a 4' human you'd expect it to be 4/9 of the weight of a 6' human.

    Thus if a 6' human weighed 180lbs, these two estimates would give a Dwarf weight of 120lbs or 80lbs respectively. Split the difference and call it 100 ;-)

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    1. But dwarves are tougher, that could translate to harder (and denser) bones and also a more sturdy flesh and completion.

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  17. In Tunnels & Trolls fairies are apparently denser than titanium.

    On the other hand fairies are obviously magic in a way that dwarves aren't.

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  18. To me, knowing whether a dwarf has brown hair or red is more 'useful'.

    Firstly, answering the question doesn't make the game collapse.

    Secondly, it gives you a clear idea of the character's appearance in a way that weight doesn't.

    Although my real issue isn't with weight as such, it's with having an exact number, as if 175 pounds has to be distinguished from 180. If character's weight/build was expressed as 'thin', 'average', 'muscular' or 'fat' then (to me) that would be fine.

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    1. "Although my real issue isn't with weight as such, it's with having an exact number, as if 175 pounds has to be distinguished from 180."

      It's almost like there should be more convenient units, like "stone", in which to measure body weight or something. :-)

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  19. Looking back, I appreciate the emphasis on realism in D&D and other role-playing games. My pursuit of a more realistic D&D world led me to a lot of places that taught me a lot about real world history, physics, etc., in much the same way that reading all that Gygaxian prose expanded my vocabulary. Almost none of it ever proved useful in actual play, but that game was a major catalyst in my education.

    Additionally, I do appreciate realism in a game. Granted, many of the realism-oriented articles that appeared in sources like Dragon were questionably researched and would have been clumsy to put into actual play, but that doesn't undermine the value of what the authors were trying to do. You can make a fun game that is completely made up without any attempt to reflect the way physics, biology, economics and so forth work in real life; but I think the very best fantasy is the stuff that is meticulously researched and is faithful to reality except for where the creator has made a deliberate decision to inject fantastical elements.

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    1. @w2 I second everything you said.

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    2. I am in agreement with what w2 has said. It is fun to think about how something works. Take for instance the question, "How could dragons fly?"

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    3. I can also agree with that.

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    4. Yeah but according to physics, bees are not supposed to be able to fly either, so take it all with a pinch of salt.

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    5. "...according to physics, bees are not supposed to be able to fly..."

      That's just a common misconception based on an old misapplication of fixed-wing aerodynamic theory. See here:

      http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bee#Flight

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    6. From the linked article... "...that their flight is explained by other mechanics, such as those used by helicopters."

      They are really stretching with this nonsense. They probably should just admit that they don't really know how it works and leave it at that, instead of pretending they do by likening bees to helicopters. But that's just my opinion ;-)

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    7. "They are really stretching with this nonsense. They probably should just admit that they don't really know how it works and leave it at that, instead of pretending they do by likening bees to helicopters."

      You're making the all too common mistake of assuming that, if you don't understand it, then it must not make sense.

      Did you even bother to read the other two paragraphs?

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  20. There are cases where an attempt to inject "realism", via a new subsystem that is unwieldy or intractable (e.g., DMG initiative or unarmed combat, or Greyhawk boxed-set weather) has been a great tragedy.

    There are other cases where a certain replacement would make some people happier, the system being of no change in complexity (like here, or with coins), and those who truly don't care wouldn't notice the difference.

    As far as I can tell. Personally, I wouldn't even mind if such things were put up to a vote so we can be sure.

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  21. How did no one bring up the Lord of the Rings films? Of course weight would be a factor in tossing a dwarf!

    I'll go ahead a apologize now.

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  22. It matters for spells like teleport that can allow to teleport some amount of weight. also, ropes can resist only a specific weight before snap.
    In fact, I can't imagine when you could use height at all.

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    1. An axe trap that flies out of the wall 5 feet from the ground dealing 2d6 damage to anyone that it hits.

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  23. Weight mattered in a Dark Sun campaign I ran once where my brother was a psionic thri-kreen (giant grasshopper type thing). He had a psionic ability that allowed him to change size as I recall. He asked me if this would change his weight too. Foolishly, thinking he was trying to increase the power of the ability, I replied in the negative. "Excellent" he replied, shrank himself to a tiny incredibly dense insect and went round jumping on peoples' chests as they slept...

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    1. That there is some grade A munchkinism.

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  24. Are we as adherents of the OSR supposed to handwave or even disregard everything save that which can be represented by "M-U1 S9 I14 W10 D12 C13 Ch9 hp 3?"

    Put another way, is knowing that the PC is or is not a dwarf really that important?

    My own 2 coppers of course.

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  25. At least in OAD&D "by the book," weight and height DO matter, since they can determine which weapons can and cannot be used (as defined in the PHB.)

    It's interesting to note that the Birthright campaign setting has dwarves which weigh almost twice the "standard" AD&D dwarves, and that's simply explained by the fact that their bodies have very high density (and this is reflected also in the fact that they take half damage from bludgeoning weapons.)

    I think verisimilitude is interesting to have in a game, but it need not coincide with realism.

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