Sunday, February 8, 2009

You Can’t Kill a Whale

It’s never been clear to me how a whale can have 36 hit dice. This would seem to suggest that a fighter, given the chance to swing repeatedly at a whale, would be able to kill it with a sword or a trident—whereas this is completely ridiculous, if you know anything about whales.

First of all, if the whale is in a position where you can swing at it with a sword more than once, the whale is laying on dry land. In which case, the whale has effectively NO hit dice. It can’t fight or move…and regardless of how long you hit it with your sword, it’s the monster’s own weight that will kill it. You’re an afterthought.

If the whale is in the water, and assuming you have some way of swimming as fast as it does, long before you can kill it the whale will go deep; the pressure will end the combat before it gets a tenth of a way to even harming the whale. If you think that little stick in your hand is doing any damage, go read something about blubber. It has no nerve endings.

The only effective tactic to kill a whale has always been the same that is still used today: let the whale kill itself.

A ship moves up to where a harpoon can be hand thrown (thrust, really) or mechanically fired into the side of the whale. The harpoon’s head expands inside the whale’s body so that it cannot be pulled out…and if the harpoon has hit clean, the whale is a goner. It’s only tactic, to go deep, is countered by the ship being a bubble of air which cannot be pulled under the water. This helps explain why Ahab never lost faith in his certainty of the eventual kill—the thought that a whale could be big enough to actually pull a ship under the water was crazier than him. But that is the genius of Melville’s book.

The ship/bob forces the whale to expend huge amounts of energy to tear itself apart fighting physics. Effectively, the whale kills itself.

The title is of course inaccurate. Yes, you “kill” the whale, but certainly not by ordinary combat.

So how exactly does the application of “hit dice” apply to a whale?

Possibly, there might be some even larger monster which could combat a whale, eat part of it in a large chomp and thus give the hit dice meaning. But that isn’t human being; it isn’t even a storm giant, which would have to kill it the same way as we do. Because a whale weighs a hundred tons…1,000 times as much as a human being.

Yet strangely the books suggest that it has the same chance of survival as four 9th level lords. Uh…yeah.

I ended my last post with the question, why should a hit die equal 1 to 8 hit points. Other than that it always has. The number is arbitrary, of course—and being arbitrary, when it ceases to be useful, another arbitrary number deserves to be put in its place.

I realized a week ago that the best system I could devise would be to ascribe different hit point rolls to the “hit dice” given in the Monster Manual. And so that won’t be hard to follow, I’ll start at the bottom end. Follow my reasoning on this.

A kobald is listed in the book as a half-hit dice creature, with 1-4 hit points. A kobald, I will point out, fights on the same table as a human first level thief, which is rated at 1 hit dice. Let me add, as a last piece of useful information, that I estimate a kobald’s average mass, at 4’ tall, at 52 lbs.

What if we, instead of supposing the kobald’s hit dice to be one-half, that instead the kobald’s hit dice is actually “1”…and that the number of hit points per hit die is 1 to 4? Why don’t we further assume that all creatures weighing in and about the mass of a kobald have 1-4 hp per die? This would solve an nagging problem that I have wondered about for some time.

Why does a brownie have 9th level magic spell use if it only has half-a-hit die? That would seem excessive. But it wouldn’t be if the brownie, being 2’ tall with an average weight of 6 lbs. had only 1 hp per die! This would justify the brownie fighting as a 9 hit dice creature without actually having the hit points of a stone giant.

I know. Too much math.

The logic, however, follows beautifully in the other direction, also. A gnoll, average seven and a half feet tall, weighs an average of 342 lbs. This is almost twice an average human male; the tendency is to think, okay, that explains why 2 hit dice. But it doesn’t—a human doesn’t have twice the hit dice of an elf or of a goblin (which has only 1 hp less). Which means that the extra 167 lbs. is a lot more of an addition than just twice the human’s fighting strength. Remember that a gnoll has a strength of 17, which is seventeen times the human average (trust me, it is…the chance of a human having a 10-11 strength is 52 in 216, and the chance of having a 17 strength is only 3 in 216).

There has to be something that accounts for that. My suggestion is that the gnoll has 2d6 hp per hit die; this is an average of 7 per hit die.

Thus, the hit point designation in the monster manual isn’t so much a recognition of the creature’s power (the dimension/mass of the creature does that) but of the creature’s effective fighting power. A 1 hit dice 7 and a half foot tall creature would still have 2-12 hp and would fight as a 1 HD creature—but it would still be markedly taller than a human being and the system would account for that.

And that’s what I want. Accountability.

Next: massive, very dangerous mastodons.

Update: My error. A halfling is only 18" tall. And crap, kobalds are only 3' tall. A goblin mass would be about 52 lbs. It has been a long time since I've looked at a monster manual.

Well, please read between the lines above. I don't want to rewrite everything.


  1. Remember that a gnoll has a strength of 17, which is seventeen times the human average (trust me, it is…the chance of a human having a 10-11 strength is 52 in 216, and the chance of having a 17 strength is only 3 in 216).

    That doesn't make any sense at all. I see where you got your numbers, but the 17:1 ratio is a measure of probability, not degree. Here's a real-world analogy: at 5'10", I can bench press about 200 pounds (not many times, but nevermind.) The world bench-press record is 1075 pounds, which is five times more than me and which probably represents the strongest a man can be (which is 18/00, right?) A person (or gnoll, as it were) who was seventeen times stronger than me could bench press 3400 pounds, or ten times the weight of the gnoll himself.

  2. Matt,

    Your point is well taken. I suppose I have a tendency to compare probabilities and apply it to the game in place of legitimate physics--since I can't measure the dead pulling weight of an actual gnoll.

    I still consider, whatever the false logic of the statement that you quoted, that a gnoll ought to have more than double the overall power (endurance value) of a human of ordinary strength. Perhaps not 17:1, but certainly more than 2:1. Take it for what you will.

  3. I can't think of a real-world analog to a 9th level fighter.

    Elves and hobgoblins aside, what kind of person is a 9th level fighter? Charlamagne? Ghengis Khan? Muhammad Ali? Bruce Lee? A 9th level fighter is badass in AD&D. They should have about 68 hit points not including CON bonuses, and hit an AC0 with an 11 right? Should four someone's like that be able to take down a whale in a sword fight? Maybe? :-)

    I think at levels above 5, you're getting dangerously close to folklore. Once you go past 10, you're in legendary hero land.

    What do you think, Alexis? What level was Bruce Lee?

  4. Carl, for a number of reasons I'll have to go further into sometime, I can't buy the argument that a 9th level fighter is a "legendary hero."

    First off, its too easy to get there. A party does a few extraordinary things for a few years, nothing that an ordinary soldier of fortune isn't expected to do...getting to be 9th is something you can do before you're 25.

    That makes a "lord" about the equivalent of a CEO. Better, the lowest level of lord is a baron. At the battle of Crecy, in 1337, the French army lost something like 6,000 "lords" of name and property. The nations of France, England, Spain, Italy and Germany have literally thousands of castles, keeps and fortresses. If you have to be a "lord" in order to build a castle, then obviously there must be a hell of a lot of lords running about.

    Bruce Lee? Mohammed Ali? Generally presumed to be the greatest fighters of their time...therefore, they'd have to be maximum level, wouldn't they? Genghis Khan? Even if he only received 1% of the spoils of his campaign--and certainly he must of for the many cities he pillaged--we're talking millions and millions of gold pieces in equipment, jewelry, property, slaves and whatever else you name. If he wasn't 15th level when he started, he was certainly 30th by the time he reached Turkey. The same must be said of Charlemagne once all the riches in Europe were laid at his feet after his conquests.

    My question again: how do you fight a whale in a sword fight?

  5. >>My question again: how do you fight a whale in a sword fight?

    You carve out his eye, crawl in the cavity, and keep carving til you hit brainpan.

    Or maybe that magical sword works like a whalefat machete, and every round the party should be mapping where exactly in the whale's body they've tunneled to now.

  6. Jim,

    Then it's going to help if the whale has lots of hit points, isn't it?

  7. 162 average hit points (assuming 36d8) isn't a lot?

    (remembering that hit points, and especially character hit points, are an abstraction and aren't at all a measure of their physical well-being)

  8. "character hit points, are an abstraction..."

    I know, so the story goes. But I disagree. First off, everything is an "abstraction," including the words I'm using to write this sentence. Second, I'm of the school that says damage is done with exhaustion, manageable cuts, etc.

    Which makes my position different.

  9. Your "level" position, as I understand it, is that the accumulated power of a PC in martial, financial and filial (as in the acquistion of Oaths of Fealty -- I couldn't find another word) areas constitutes their level. I think this is a great definition, but I think that AD&D while hinting that this is the case does a poor job of representing that.

    AD&D recognizes mainly the accumulation of martial power as a contributor toward and result of leveling. You level up and you can hit stuff easier, take more hits from others, cast more spells, pick locks and pockets better, et cetera. Not all of that is martial, but it all appears to be skill-based so I'm lumping it together. When you level you become more of a badass and are able to kick more and bigger asses with less effort because of it.

    I think that there's a point in this levelling process where a character exceeds the limits of humankind. I think this occurs somewhere between 5th and 10th level. This is why I asked what level Bruce Lee was. He was at about the top end of human physical development and martial prowess before he died. I think that AD&D, especially at levels over 10, begins to represent characters as more than human. They are too strong, too stealthy, too powerful. They last too long in a fight. But they're supposed to. They are super-heroes.

    Should a super-hero be able to kill a whale with a sword? I say yes, and once I've said yes, my questions turn to how that would be done, and there in the monster manual are listed the hit points and armor class for a whale.

  10. Can't you people just all listen to Yes and Not Kill The Whale?


  11. As an extension of Carl's reasoning, consider this:
    Magic weapons, spells, absurdly powerful punches.

    Just take those into account (I felt the punches deserved their own mention, I'm talking 20th-level monk punches here)

  12. A couple of sessions ago, one of my players killed a giant animated iron statue with a rapier.What are ya gonna do?

    I think level 2 is actually super-human. The difference between Bruce Lee and Adam Sandler is that while poor Mr. Sandler has ordinary stats of 10 (except in Charisma, where he has a 2), Mr. Lee has STR, CON, and DEX 18. That makes him a zillion times more effective as a combatant. You don't even need to use levels.

    In my world levels are supernatural enhancements. So the fact that 9th level fighters can fall out of planes and stab whales to death is really ok - they're supernatural heroes. Real skill, training, and muscle are represented by attributes; levels are just magic.

  13. Sorry for the post necromancy (I'm reading the backposts at the moment), but After considering this post, I'm doing a little math on the strength of gnolls.

    A gnoll is 7.5 feet tall, while a human is 6. That's 1.25 times human height. If you figure gnolls are proportionally built, that means your average gnoll (speaking from a position of pure physics, as muscles have lifting power stronger proportional to their cross-sectional area) ought to be 1.25^2, or 1.563 times as strong as your average man. If your Hit Dice are proportional to the mass of the gnoll, they should be about 1.25^3, or 1.953 times as tough as a man.

    The trouble with that being, of course, you can't follow the real-world line of reasoning too closely. If you do, you eventually reach that point where the creature can't lift itself off the ground anymore. Giants would be flat-out impossible, and your gnolls would certainly have serious trouble with their arches (Much like a human with gigantism). So it might be necessary to consider that the muscles of very large monsters are actually more efficient than those of humans. At that point, though, you are just talking about a fudge factor, so, you know, season to taste.

  14. Hey, Big McStrongmuscle,

    Pretty cool that you're reading through these back posts. Hope you're enjoying them.

    Giants ARE flat out impossible, for precisely the reasons you state (I wrote about them on another blog post, too, but I can't remember where). So are insects larger than six inches long. But if we can accept the existence of giants and huge insects, along with an abundance of other 'impossible' beings, I don't see why physics is the one condition we have to adhere to without question.

    Physics can be bent just as well as any other natural law - and therefore, if a giant does exist, it ought to be able to withstand the damage I suggest.

    I don't think you're wrong, not at all. I just don't think your rightness changes any aspect of D&D as I play it.

  15. Interesting it is. I don't agree with every opinions you've expressed in here, but I find your method of world-building (ironically, especially the math and statistics) absolutely fascinating. I don't know if I'd ever have the grit to take up a project of such scale, but the depth of simulation is frankly incredible.

    Oh, and I there's no reason at all to pay special attention to physics unless you want to - same with any other real-world referent, it may or may not hold true, according to the DM's thoughts on the matter. I just like it as rule of thumb for ballparking Strength scores.


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