Dungeons & Football Fields

The football field is my favorite (informal) unit of measuring length. At least, over here, we compare everything to the length of a football field. The Titanic was almost three football fields long. The Empire State Building is just over four football fields tall. You can fit about three blue whales lengthwise across a football field. And so on. Many of us went to public schools with football fields, or went to college at a super sportsy university where football games were the main event of the fall. So, they're quite familiar.

Yet more than being a handy frame of reference, the football field is also just an extremely handy unit of measure for long distances. The field is 100 yards long, with every 10 (and 5) yards demarcated with white paint on the turf. That's equal to 300 feet. When you include the endzones, that's an additional 60 feet or 20 yards. It might be a huge distance when you think about it, but in person it's not really that big of a deal.

I was thinking about movement rates in Dungeons & Dragons, across multiple editions. In the old line, rates were given as imaginary scales of one ruler, i.e. 1 foot or 12 inches. If you are doing some outdoor combat, using the Chainmail rules you would read the ruler as each inch representing 10 yards. If you are exploring the Underworld, you read the ruler as each inch representing 10 feet. Characters would thus make moves of 120 feet (whether this is once or twice per 10-minute-turn depends on if you're reading the original D&D or one of its immediate successors).

Movement rates in DnDNext were originally a compromise between the expectations of old-style D&D and those of post-2000 editions (Third and Fourth). Characters could move 30 feet per 6-second combat round, in increments of 5 feet. This rate was multipled by 10 for 5-minute dungeon exploration turns, but the party could also decide to go faster or slower in order to increase their awareness of their surroundings (later replaced by passive Perception scores).

In Fifth Edition as published, though, the 5-minute dungeon turn was replaced with 1 minute increments of exploration time. Well, as written, it's wonky about this. Movement and most other tasks take 1 minute, but most spells take 10 minutes to expire, and it still takes 10 minutes to explore a room. Even worse is that torches still last an entire hour, and random encounters are checked every hour as well. What gives? Anyway, since there are 10 combat rounds per minute, it seems to make more sense to multiply combat movement rates by 10. Thus, a character who moves 30 feet per combat round can move 300 feet per minute of exploration. That's a whole football field!

So, to me, Fifth Edition represents the opposite end of old-style D&D with respect to character speed. Are characters moving really moving 12 or 24 feet per minute (or spending just 1/10 of their time walking versus other tasks), or are they so unbothered by their environment that they really do just walk the length of a football field every minute? Does the rendition in earlier version of D&D Next make more sense, even if it's inconvenient to keep track of 5-minute turns? Isn't 300 or 360 feet still a long distance indoors? Wouldn't maps have to be huge for such a scale to matter? That's like a whole city block.

My hunch is that distance traveled should matter way less while exploring than space covered. That doesn't mean that we should think of the party as navigating each room like a snake game, slithering from 10-foot square to 10-foot square (that’s 480 squares!). But if a room is large enough to be full of all kinds of things, especially things that can kill you, then it totally makes sense that you would spend 10 minutes poking around there. Besides, if a typical room is 30 feet by 30 feet (nine 10-foot squares), your first hunch might be that you could traverse 4 of those rooms per turn in old D&D, or 10 of those rooms in Fifth Edition. But that makes no sense! You are exploring a three-dimensional space. If you really snaked your way across each of the squares in that room, you would have snaked 90 feet total (and there’s about 50 such rooms in the space of a football field). That's nothing to scoff at for 10 minutes, since you're basically spending each minute investigating a ninth of the room (10 feet by 10 feet).

So, what about those football fields? Are they good for anything besides visualizing giant outdoor battles? Well, if you partitioned a football field into 50 rooms with random entrances and exits, I know for sure that I could not navigate that in 10 minutes, much less in 1 minute. As much as I'd like to measure exploration in football fields, it is just not made to be. It's neither realistic nor practical.

For Chainmail, though, football fields are totally fair game. I guess.

The photo above is by Xyzzy n on the Wikimedia Commons!


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