Wednesday, July 22, 2015

The Incomprehensible Mystery of Human Development

Earlier today, following some page views of this blog to their source, I stumbled across this page from stackexchange - five years old and still sending visitors to me.  Once again, it links the Fall Out! post I wrote so long ago.

That one really got stuck in people's craw.  Apparently, it is nearly a criminal offense to suggest that players should be so put upon as to suggest they're not shoulder-to-shoulder at the moment of an encounter.  I find it funny and a bit sad . . . but there we are.

The deeper issue, the one that inspired this post, can be found about 2/5ths down the page, where one of the commenters makes this argument to defend parties sticking together:
"Most hunting parties, on the other hand, stick close together, at least until the prey is spotted. This is to reduce the risks from the prey, from one another's weapons, and from other predators. Generally, such a group stays within a couple yards of each other, staying clearly within one another's sight ranges. Many use hand signals once prey is spotted, reinforcing the need for short ranges.
"A military unit moves much the same, maintaining similar paces by long hours together, and by having it drilled repeatedly into them. Patrols don't tend to bunch up, but also tend to stay between single and double interval (2.5-5 feet; roughly 0.75-1.5m) in a single file until encounter, and then bunch up for instructions if time, or spread to line abreast if no time, but again, tending to stay single to triple interval (2.5-7.5'). 
There is something deliciously dissonant about this argument that, I've found, almost never obtains its most obvious rebuttal: the world in which fantasy proposes to take place comes at a time when the above described military training hasn't been invented yet.  One might just as well argue that four passengers in a car don't wander from one another either during a trip - since both the gas-powered vehicle and the above described patrol patterns were invented together and at the same time.

But this rarely occurs to the military fanatic, who fervently believes that Colonel Washington's men at Fort Wilderness performed the fist or the two-finger hand signal that has become so common in films this last decade, mostly because it is such a great way for directors to show that this group of dorks are really brilliantly trained commandos.  Of course, as they move around they fuck up in about a hundred other ways, showing that they're not that brilliant, but that's not important; the guy pressed his index and middle finger together and waved it - yay, film.

It is very, very hard for these military types to accept that prior to modern warfare, there was far less reason to standardize arm and hand signals for use between individual soldiers on the battlefield.  The practice didn't come into use until long after army discipline was developed - the late 17th century - following certain practical developments in speedily reloading and firing the new rifles of that period.  It took 150 years after that just to develop the most basic structures of a modern combat unit, much less the sort of developments and adaptations proposed by military writers throughout the 19th century.  When the Civil War began, most of the 'tactics' consisted of reloading as fast as possible, massing the men under command and rushing them at the enemy . . . because this modern commando vision of men perfectly communicating with each other through hand signals hadn't been invented yet.

Nevertheless, any argument that proposes "sight ranges" as being relevant to D&D character movement is worth posting.  The world needs humour.

I feel compelled to point out that most Medieval depictions of 'hunting' tend to show their subjects scattered higgledy-piggledy within the frame, as this Unicorn Tapestry, circa 1495-1515:

Note the lack of effort each hunter takes in remaining out of
each other's sight ranges.
Or take this 14th century depiction of an urban fight between Guelfs and Ghibellines in Bologna:

Hand signals are a bitch when every hand is filled with a
weapon or a shield.
Even in the midst of battle, these men do not seem to be "standing abreast" . . . rather, they seem smashed together without much rhyme or reason, except that there's enough room for the fellow on the left to load his crossbow.

While we do know that Romans marched in time and as a group, we have no contemporary examples of what this actually looked like.  Everything we imagine about Roman soldiers marching has been recreated in our heads, first in Renaissance painting and later in film.  Here's a Roman depiction of soldiers, from Trajan's Column

Not exactly lockstep
Here's another:

Not quite the discipline we've been led to expect

Once upon a time, soldiers really did not act like modern trained regulars.  That's a recent development.  Somehow, to some people, it doesn't seem like that's possible.  It seems to them like our neanderthal forebears must have been slashing brilliant commandos, simply because they hunted all the time and had not yet learned how to speak.  They MUST have developed some clever way to talk to each other, right?

Somehow, it never occurs that it's possible that they just didn't.


James Clark said...

I think the problem with they way this argument has gone, like so many internet arguments, is it's being posed as binary in nature. Either it is or it isn't. Either parties are spread out and straggling or they are in phalanx formation. In spite of your valid points about late-developing small squad tactics, isn't it human nature to stay close to your tribe when you feel threatened? I've been out of eyesight and even earshot form my friends in the deep woods and felt uncomfortable enough to slow down or speed up to have them around me, without the threat of goblins and bandits. There are neighborhoods I've walked through, especially strange or new ones, where I wouldn't think about being more than a few steps ahead of or behind a friend. Isn't it both reasonable and desirable for game functionality to offer a game-able moment or a choice in this?

It seems reasonable to me that a complacent party, undertaking a full day of travel by foot, will be strung out along the trail like thru-hikers often do. But either through your fighter sage abilities or other mechanisms, its just as reasonable to assume that a fearful or expecting party will draw a little closer for safety. The only questions that remain to me are which mechanisms will heighten awareness and caution and how long is reasonable for the heightened awareness and caution to be maintained? At what point will the discipline lag and the party become strung out and complacent again? I haven't figured it out yet for myself other than the unsatisfactory modified die roll.

If the party is traversing a wood known to harbor goblins, is that enough? What if they were ambushed the day before? Last month? What if they find signs of a battle? What if they are in the wood specifically for the purposes of hunting down and destroying a known monster?

Alexis Smolensk said...

All valid points, James, and I agree wholeheartedly. A DM should keep these things in mind. If something looks strange about the road, if it looks like a good place for an ambush, if some of the party are injured, then yes, drawing closer is the logical response.

I tend to have my parties grouped together, within sight, often separated by no more than thirty or forty feet. I don't want to press the point too hard or take over-advantage of a party's separation. I will spread them out more if the terrain is rough, particularly if there is no road and they're clambering over rocks, deadfall, etc.; even then, members can call for help and be heard.

All I really want is to occasionally put someone in a hard situation now and then; just as a part of an army can get into a hard situation now and then. Chamberlain on Little Round Top lost a whole company of trained, experienced men on the second day of Gettysburg. It happens.

James Clark said...

We are in agreement both in principle and practice. I have had my parties similarly strung out based on circumstance and have made what is essentially a surprise roll in a number of different and ultimately discarded manners to add some randomness. The players haven't complained too loudly when caught both flat-footed and dispersed but lacking a solid system here still bugs me.

Coincidentally I've been working on this one again myself. Hopping to a new game system recently has me re-working many already established sub-systems, and I'm on encounters now.

Matt said...

I think that the major opposition to this idea stems from the fear that the DM will be a dick. Especially in reading the stackexchange page that you linked, it seems that people are less interested in the reality that the game is modeling, and more interested in the systems and subsystems that check and balance the DMs powers. There seems to be a focus about "fun" and "what the game is about," ignoring that the game can very well be about realistic travel through wilderness and non-wilderness outdoor regions.

Further, the stackexchange page is addressing the 4e community specifically. In my experience the 4e community is very focused on the game as written. There is an ideal of balance between all player options. It is expected that the DM will "play fair" in the construction of encounters. Treasure will be distributed in a number of discreet parcels as decreed by the book. Player builds often depend on items, and as such a 'good' 4e DM will either adhere to wishlists presented by the players, or will give free item tickets and access to a magic item market where players can get what they 'need'. Splitting the party arbitrarily in 4e is a breach of the unspoken contract that players and DMs enter when playing the game. From DMing those games, I can tell you, the unspoken part is troublesome. Players get angry when things aren't played by the books. There is yelling, and fighting. I do not think that my experience in this regard is at all atypical.

I don't think the problem at all is a misunderstanding of history. That gives far too much credit. I think the people arguing against you are people looking for any shred of proof to support not changing their game, or at least not changing until the next new, shiny, corporate model of the game comes out.

Alexis Smolensk said...


Yet someone from the community felt that my post had merit.

I've seen the 4e mindset you describe and I've seen it carried into 5e. However, I don't think it has anything to do with the editions; I think it is because the company, perpetrating itself through public gaming, imposes a threat of denying players & DMs the freedom to play if they DON'T play by the rules.

The DMs running WOTC-backed weekly gaming at my local gaming store receive $18 of store credit per session (it might be per month, can't remember), but only IF they follow strict, standardized WOTC-gaming practices. Essentially, they're being bribed to be drones; and naturally, they don't see anything wrong with that.

Matt said...

Agreed. I do think that, especially in the 4e era, there was a big focus on the public gaming arena. I think that Hasbro's marketing wanted to standardize and market D&D like they were marketing Magic: The Gathering. I think that WOTC very much preyed upon those who did not have access to a regular game table, and a stable campaign to spread their game.

I personally make a distinction between "people who play 4e" and "The 4e community." It's a distinction born entirely of my own experiences. I considered myself part of the latter, until the point when I turned to the WOTC forums for advice on running a lower-magic campaign. In fact, it was less about low-magic, and more about making the magic that the party encountered meaningful to the players. It is hard to do when the party is literally handed 4 magic items per level of play for 30 levels of the game. That is to say, a normal 4e party should be encountering 120 different magic items over their careers, and have the chance to buy more. The advice I was given was more or less "You are playing wrong. Players deserve the items in the book. They should get the exact things they want, because they need them for their build. This game isn't about you. Stop trying to kill the fun."

So, I personally consider people who want to play D&D using the 4th edition rules (or any rule set) as distinct from the people who tow the rule-as-written-company-line of a specific product line.

Alexis Smolensk said...


I have no words.

William Jones said...

I do wonder if these players who are so determined that they constantly travel strictly in perfect modern military squad formation also accept that when moving through the woods, or where-ever, being bunched up also carries significant disadvantages too - like all the noise they are each producing being focused into one place, a massive loss of simultaneous visibility etc etc.

Charles Taylor (Charles Angus) said...

I agree that it's pretty silly to think the party would always have really, really tight intervals. The party isn't soldiers (usually), and isn't in a military setting.

I disagree that there's any reason to think that military discipline, communication, or small-unit tactics didn't exist until the 17th century, or that the sum total of civil war tactics was reloading as fast as possible and throwing masses of men at the enemy.

Certainly as far back as the Romans, skirmishers were an important part of military formations. This persisted until about WWI.

Skirmishers have always fought similarly to more modern soldiers - loose, flexible tactical formations, highly mobile, using cover and concealment, spread out over large distances.

Similarly, scouts have always been a critical part of military formations - again, small, flexible detached units operating independently.

Lastly, as far back as the Romans and up to today, there were lots of professional soldiers who had the time and motivation to think about tactics, techniques, and so on.

To suggest that hand signals (which predate speech) were unknown and unused until the modern era is absurd. There are any number of tactical scenarios where they would have been useful, and almost certainly would have been used.

I also think you know better than to use medieval and classical art as if it was a photograph of real events. The artist who depicted those things was almost certainly not present at the events in question, and was definitely not interested in the kind of lifelike portrayal we wish they had made.

In short, it's inadmissible to think that sensible tactics (like hand signals, or keeping formation when appropriate) were unavailable to thousands of years of professional soldiers.

Alexis Smolensk said...


I know that you mean well, but your position is based on modern interpretations by modern historians of periods of history hundreds of years ago.

The post was directed exactly towards this sort of thinking; this completely stubborn insistence that men in battle have always acted the same, have always had the same motivations, have always seen war in the same light, etcetera. But it - and your reply - is nothing more than an insistence, based upon extraordinarily vague contemporary sources that can be interpreted hundreds of ways. It is a convenient insistence and a popular insistence, but it only the building of a conclusion towards a prefabricated hypothesis.

We could argue all day and all night about it; but those arguments are best had over beer and not over the internet. So if you ever find yourself in Calgary, or if I am ever in the city where you live, let's go for it. That will be fun.

My position remains, however, that in the 17th century there was no such thing as a "military setting" in the way we understand it. Just as 17th century science was nothing like we understand it, or 17th politics, or 17th century religion, or 17th century prose, or 17th century engineering or 17th century philosophy or 17th century anything.

I cannot understand why, when these other things have so conspicuously changed so much and are so easily understood in our minds as DIFFERENT, the common soldier's perspective of the world remains stubbornly anachronistic.

I suppose it is because a modern day soldier cannot help but dream of being on the battlefield with Lee, Napoleon, Kosciusko, Akbar, Jenghis, Julius or Alexander.

If it could happen, I doubt any modern soldier would find it the least familiar.

Charles Taylor (Charles Angus) said...

Definitely look me up next time you're in Toronto! I was out of town last time you were here, unfortunately.