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Nerdery! Size in D&D 4e

The physical scale of latter-day Dungeons & Dragons is screwed up, of course. The purpose of 'wandering monster' tables is to simulate (however imprecisely) the wide overlapping hunting/foraging/cavorting ranges of creatures the size of cheetahs, wildebeests, elephants, and whales (never mind humans). The idea that a dungeon would be 'stocked' with creatures is believable only because everything about the situation is fake: monsters, magic, and especially dungeons themselves.

Silly example: in the recent D&D 4e adventure Pyramid of Shadows (H3), the PCs encounter 'quickling runners,' creepy little gnomes with razor claws and big front-facing predators' eyes. In a single six-second turn a quickling can move 24 spaces (120 feet) and make two melee attacks, or move 60 feet and 'shift' (i.e. move untouchably, dodging all attacks) another 50. Quicklings can maintain this speed as long as combat lasts, i.e. they can go even faster in bursts - indeed a 'double run' moves a quickling 28 spaces or 140 feet per turn.
In the Pyramid of Shadows adventure, these creatures live, are always located, in a vine-filled square hedge maze roughly 80 feet on a side. Like hogs on a farm, or caged cheetahs. The terrain makes for interesting combat, no question, but jettisons even the barest pretense of 'naturalism.'

Of course the titular Pyramid is a diabolical interdimensional prison and not a nature preserve, so it's not meant to be a natural habitat, never mind a faithfully-rendered one. But the conceit extends to all D&D products. In our world, the greater a creature's footspeed, the more use it gets out of expanses of flat terrain, where distance between it and predators can grow (effectively) without bound. Not so in D&D.

Everything the adventurers fight, in nearly every published adventure, is effectively caged. It's a little...stupid.
D&D is in part a goofy pulp-fiction 'simulation' of medieval combat with a bit of magic thrown in, and as its reliance on chesslike tabletop miniatures movement has grown, it's grown less effective as a chase game. Well, that's a choice, maybe a smart one - and certainly necessary: the new edition places more premium than ever before on tactical maneuvers and precise battlefield positioning (it's got the most detailed D&D combat engine yet and to my eye the best - at once more complex and more streamlined than its predecessors). But the assumption that physical spaces in the game are primarily battlefields tends to limit the cinematic scope of the proceedings a little. Tabletop games don't handle scrolling terrain, I know; and yet who wants to fight a dragon with a 30-foot wingspan in a room fifty feet on a side? Cinema's greatest dragons appear in the recent film Reign of Fire, which nails the staging of human/dragon combat: vast open spaces, improbable speeds, the total absence of any comforting human scale. Combat might take the PCs miles away from one another on dragonback, etc.

That vastness is hard to simulate on a chessboard but it's one of the most important methods by which the awestruck 'zero-to-hero' feeling of low-level fantasy roleplay is achieved. Ever played the video game Shadow of the Colossus? Its chief innovation is to make the (few) monsters themselves into battlefields - the player must climb hundreds of feet into the sky on the legs, arms, back, shoulders, and head(s) of rampaging giants in order to find their weak spots. The feeling of dread and awe is overpowering. D&D should induce those same feelings. Its genre (pulp fantasy) demands all kinds of excess, which can easily be undercut by the mechanical comforts of movement and combat rules, or the physical boundaries of the game table. The D&D bestiary should be grand. It should be fantastic.

Size makes a difference. (Deny yourself the comfort of believing otherwise, kiddo.)

Simple notion: next time you play, use the entire game room as the battlefield. Shelves as rocky outcroppings, tables immense mesas, candles for geysers of inexplicable flame; chandeliers become great floating castles, books are house-sized standing stones leaning precariously against one another. Fling the characters to different sides of the room, so that the players are standing together but the characters are on opposite sides of town, and play out a single encounter, the camera following one piece of the action and then another, with all the PCs' energies devoted to meeting in the middle, right on your gaming table. Forcibly remind the PCs and their players just how small they are, just how big the world is. If the D&D 4e conceit of 'points of light' - outposts of civilization separated by vast wilderness - is to carry any weight, you can't be afraid of the 'vast' part. Nor the 'wild' bit. Give them monsters they can't possibly outrun or outfight, stone walls so high their tops can't even be seen, lakes that stretch to the horizon. (Oh, and a boat made of their friends' bones.)

Instead of abstracting out the hugeness of the fantasy world ('You cross the valley in two days, running into no trouble'), once in a while allow it to play directly into the square-by-square movement/combat engine of the game. Let the size be uncountable for a while; give the Bad Things room to take flight. One of the most nervewracking scenes in film history involves nothing more than an open field, a crop-duster, and a man in a suit. Give the folks that feeling. It might unsettle the simulation a bit, unmatch some numbers, flatten a battlefield or two. But it might also rekindle some of that feeling of humble awe that drew us to such fantasies as children. There are other ways, sure - always will be. Try 'em all, I say.


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