Tuesday, March 20, 2012

The Articles of Dragon: "An Army Travels on its Stomach"

Though I continued reading Dragon for sometime longer, issue #94 (February 1985) marked one of several turning points in my feelings toward the magazine. From its feathered-hair-and-fringed-leather ranger on the cover by Clyde Caldwell to Gary's overly complex clarifications regarding the ranger class to the uncharacteristically banal "Ares Section," this issue contributed further to my growing sense that the magazine's own Golden Age was long since at an end. As I've noted before, by this time, I was already growing dissatisfied with the direction of D&D and reading articles like Katharine Kerr's "An Army Travels on its Stomach" did little to dissuade me of this perspective. The article is a lengthy discussion of how "to role-play wars and troop movements properly" (emphasis mine), thus revealing the twin obsessions of the Silver Age: realism and narrative verisimilitude.

To be fair to Kerr, her article isn't rules heavy. Indeed, there's scarcely a rule to be found anywhere in its many pages. And unlike many other Silver Age Dragon articles, this one doesn't focus on how D&D's rules are wrong so much as how the reasoning behind them is unclear and needs to be teased out so that gamers can understand them and thus be able to roleplay them better. Looking back in hindsight, I think it says a lot that this article was written and published. Most fundamentally, it reveals that, by 1985 at least (though probably much earlier), the hobby had fewer and fewer participants in it who knew much about wargaming or medieval warfare. When I entered the hobby in late 1979, I was on the young side and had only the barest minimum education in wargaming, thanks in large part to teenagers and older guys who'd been roleplaying for several years beforehand. I suspect that those who entered the hobby after me had even less of an education in these matters, hence articles like Kerr's.

The other thing the article suggests to me is that the Silver Age's drive toward ever greater "realism" was in fact fueled by a desire for greater dramatic coherence rather than the mere anal retentiveness toward which so many gamers seem prone. That is, the need to know about how many calories a warrior needs to consume each day to stay in fighting trim or how much grain a given acreage of land can produce in a year isn't driven by a desire to know these things for their own sake but rather to present adventures that allow for more "realistic" and believable roleplay. What's interesting, too, is that articles like this confirm my feeling that the early Silver Age began, at least in part, by ruthlessly applying the logic of Gygaxian naturalism to a wide variety of topics, all in the effort to make settings and adventures that provided greater scope for roleplaying. As Kerr herself puts it in this article:
Including logistics in a campaign does more than add a certain sour note of realism to play. Gamers forced to operate within the limits of their armies will have to make fascinating strategic decisions, while gamemasters can add those extra touches that keep campaigns dangerous to the overbold and rewarding to the clever.
I find this perspective fascinating, even though I've never found it particularly compelling. It's not far removed from the argument made by some that "realistic" falling damage actually leads to better roleplaying because it forces players to make decisions based on real world considerations of life and death. I can certainly see the logic of it, but it's not something that's ever mattered much to me.


  1. James, what do you find non-compelling about that? It sounds like it's essentially resource management in the context of a military campaign. Since we've seen how important resource management is to a dungeon crawl, it seems reasonable to suggest that some of the benefits of play it evokes would show up in other arenas.

    1. Mostly it's that military matters are things I generally prefer to hand wave. I don't have much interest in them myself, so it'd take a lot to get me to change that and this article didn't do that. That's not a criticism, just an admission on my part that Kerr didn't convince me that my games would gain much by caring about military logistics.

    2. I tend to agree with Allandaros in this instance. Then again, I DO have an interest in military matters, as have most of my players over the years. This just comes down to personal preference.

      (I do agree with your overall assessment that Dragon was going downhill by this time - I mean, modelling falling damage? Really?!? Why not model heart rates for combat vs. exploration and then derive the effects on fatigue and hit points?)

  2. One of the problems is that Dragon needs to add rules as a standard feature in their content. And the topics in the world that are interesting to adapt for a rule are a finite resource; they will start to take nonsense topics sooner or later.
    In fact, that is one of the issues of the game, and the reason of the new editions; to get a new mechanic treatment to age old topics.

  3. This article probably makes a good example of what I love about the so-called "Silver Age". I love the coherence that came about in the 80's and 90's, as I could not, and still cannot, apply such real-world knowledge on my own with much ease. But of course, there are times when too much becomes too much, and the 'anal retentiveness' creeps in. I, for one, don't give a flying flumph that "1d6 damage per 10' fallen" is unrealistic. In any event, if someone jumps off the proverbial mountain, I wont even use any falling damage rules, I'll just say they died. :P

  4. I have had different opinions on these kinds of articles over the years. At the time I thought it was cool to read a practical consideration of warfare in D&D. Even then, however, I was aware that like a lot of the "realism" articles that were showing up in Dragon, the presence of magic completely disrupts how things would work in comparison to reality, Clerical creation of food and water, magical items that do the same, magical storage, magical transportation, summoned creatures, undead - all of these things can radically alter the game world in comparison to the real world. It's nice to have a baseline idea of how these things work in the real world but there's a question as to how useful it is in an actual game session, even if you are running a war in the game at the time.

  5. I rather like the covers as well and while Elmore could be a bit modelish at times, his work always had a pleasing air.

    As for the article at hand, Katherine Kerr was one of my favorites. She knew her stuff and was good in fiction, gaming and history a rare combo that allowed her to add the verisimilitude that the editors and readers back than craved without forgetting it was a game and a silly one at that.

    I can't say that was the case with a lot of other authors to be honest.

  6. I often enjoyed the "realism" articles, because they helped make the world-setting seem more "grounded," and the fantasy elements more fantastic by comparison. I think there's more than a bit of the "Silver Age" in me, even though I started well before.

    Oh, and I like the cover. :)

  7. I tend to agree with Blacksteel.

    A Fantasy army would have all sorts of low level wizards and clerics present, making food, purifying water, curing trenchfoot and blisters, and generally performing all sorts of logistical tasks. The mainline battle wizards and clerics would probably be exempt from such duty, reserving their spells for sudden ambushes, scouting, etc.

    Detailed logistics based, often incorrectly, upon supposed historical sources are of dubious value for a fantasy game. And up until the Napoleonic period (even here military provided food supply is more a novelty than a common occurrence) most historic armies lived by foraging and raiding as they passed through the countryside rather than on rations provided by an established supply line. Those were reserved for ammunition and other such supplies, not food.

  8. I'm another who enjoyed articles like this. Far more than the ones presenting yet another variety of undead or another subclass of warrior.
    I'm not interested in the bean-counting stuff and I might not ever run an overt military campaign, but the PCs might at some point be enlisted to disrupt some invaders' supply line or to help protect a weak link in one belonging to their own countrymen and an article like this might give me good ideas.

    I don't like the cover but her little (honey glider?) partner is a nice touch.

  9. IIRC, this was about the same time when the letter pages became bogged down with arguments about whether illusion spells should and could deal actual physical damage. Seriously?!?!? It's a f*cking fantasy game.

  10. "To be fair to Kerr, her article isn't rules heavy. Indeed, there's scarcely a rule to be found anywhere in its many pages."

    This right here is the black mark for me on articles of the era (and same for books like the AD&D WSG). If there's no specific in-game effects, then there's pretty much no use for it. I much prefer the falling articles that have new game-mechanics, plus discursive justification/development for the mechanic (whether or not one opts to use it).

    On the issue of "magic changes army logistics"; one has to prioritize if (a) rules trump setting, or (b) setting trumps rules. Many of us would choose (b) and tweak magic and wizard-frequency to make our desired milieu operate correctly (perhaps pretty closely quasi-Medieval). That decision is certainly not pre-ordained in either direction.

  11. Do you think that ranger girl has a fat comb in her back pocket? ;-)

    Lots of art crimes from the 80s that you rarely see now:

    - someone's girlfriend, and drawn/painted from a photo
    - someone famous, made up as an alien (lots of FASA art like that, Sean Connery as a Klingon, Deforest Kelly as a Romulan, etc)
    - dopey fashion that shouldn't exist, like mullets and future Member's Only jackets in Star Wars d6 books (70s hair and sideburns being more appropriate)

  12. This was actually one of my favorite articles in Dragon from back in the day. I referenced it a few times at the table, and frequently as I pursued my bachelors degree.

  13. Obviously, somebody like Elizabeth Moon has a lot of fun thinking about fantasy logistics. Other parties, not so much.

  14. "...it forces players to make decisions based on real world considerations of life and death."

    In which case they wouldn't enter an uncharted labyrinth full of monsters, traps, and magical hazards at all. Realistically, there are easier ways to make a few gold pieces.

  15. Obviously, somebody like Elizabeth Moon has a lot of fun thinking about fantasy logistics.

    Oh, absolutely. I believe this is the same Katherine Kerr who wrote the Deverry books, which are very much in the Moon school of fantasy fiction. Kerr also wrote an article called "The Real Barbarians" which was on the culture of Bronze Age Celts. Again, very Silver Age, but if you swing that way, really fun.