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Worlds of Design: Gun vs. Sword

Lanchester’s Power [Linear and Square] Laws mean that combat in science fiction RPGs will usually be fundamentally different than combat in fantasy RPGs. Or the designer will have to somehow compensate, as in Star Wars.

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Image by Andrea Wierer from Pixabay

F. W. Lanchester, a polymath, inventor, and co-founder of operations research (a subfield of applied mathematics), examined before and during World War I the effects of melee and firepower in attritional combat. This examination was part of Lanchester’s Power Laws. Here we’re discussing how these differences mean that combat in fantasy RPGs, as compared with science fiction RPGs, will usually be fundamentally different unless the designer somehow compensates, as in Star Wars.

Lanchester calculated that in attritional melee the strength of a force is proportional to its number, because there is no action at a distance (“Lanchester’s Linear Law”). It amounts to a 1 vs. 1 environment. In an era of firepower, where military units can act at a distance, the strength of a force in attritional combat is proportional to the square of its numbers. (Hence, “Lanchester’s Square Law.”)

For example, in a melee of 5 vs 10 (or 5,000 vs 10,000), in the time it takes the 5 to inflict one damage, the 10 will inflict two damage (or 1,000 and 2,000 damage). In a firepower situation, the 5 have a relative strength of 25, while the 10 have a relative strength of 100, or 1 to 4. So in the time it takes the 5 to inflict one damage, the 10 will inflict four.

Thinking in immediately practical terms, imagine a typical sword/axe/club melee in an RPG versus a typical pistol and rifle and grenade fight today, and more in a future of blasters. (Keep in mind, the monsters we often fight are also melee weapons, in effect.) Without the effects of fantasy superheroes, the melee is man-against-man, and even a great swordsman cannot dominate a big melee. In the fight of today or the future, a man with a ranged weapon, especially an automatic weapon or an explosive-projecting weapon, can kill dozens in a short time.

A designer of a science fiction RPG faces a problem; firepower-based combat must be very different from melee combat, and probably less satisfying for the players. What can the author/designer do to solve this problem plausibly?

Star Wars compensates for this with the Jedi and light sabers. An adequately trained Jedi with a light saber can block huge numbers of blaster bolts without fail (even though it’s physically impossible if three shots are on target at the same time). He/she can use their light saber to overcome opposing armor and other factors associated with advanced weapons technology, right down to cutting through steel bulkheads. The more or less artificial scarcity of light sabers assures that few soldiers have these advantages, quite apart from the Jedi’s Force powers. Of course, Star Wars Stormtroopers can’t hit the broad side of a barn, either, nor do they use automatic weapons and explosives much.

In many ways, you can think of melee vs firepower as the difference between knife fights and automatic/semi-automatic gunfights. The movie Starship Troopers just ignores tanks and aircraft in order to provide a more visceral melee-like experience as troops fight monsters at short range and hand-to-hand. “Let’s ignore our invulnerable stuff and only bring a knife to the knife fight.” Duh. I think of E. R. Burroughs’ Barsoom stories, where many melees took place in a land with very long-range rifles and explosive bullets, because of “honor” - it was dishonorable to escalate a swordfight to a gunfight. This is one way that an author or designer can compensate for firepower: just don’t use it (except for ship-to-ship combat).

Back to fantasy. What about archery? Standard archery is much closer to melee than firepower, owing to short range, slow action (crossbows), and ammunition limitations. When English longbowmen dominated battles in the Hundred Years War*, they used a weapon that could be fired rapidly by skilled archers, yet use a large supply of ammunition because England was mobilized to mass produce (and transport) arrows. After the development of muskets, longbows would still have been a better weapon given skilled archers and a massive supply of arrows; but musket ammunition was far more compact and easily produced, and it was far easier to train a man to fire a musket adequately, than to fire a longbow rapidly.

Where fantasy moves into the realms of firepower is magic-users using fireballs, lightning bolts, and similar area effect damage spells. Which may help us understand why spellcasters can be the “ace in the hole” and can dominate a battle. Dragon fire may have similar effects.

In other words, there’s rarely a pure melee or pure firepower skirmish situation in games. Yet the higher you move on the spectrum from tactical to strategic, the more Lanchester’s Linear and Square Laws take effect, even though his mathematics only applied to a specific kind of battle. I have simplified the specific circumstances of the Laws for this short piece. You can get more detail from the Wikipedia article cited above.

I’m sure readers can provide many other examples of ways authors and designers have returned science fiction skirmishes to melee parameters.

*Reference: Bernard Cornwell’s excellent historical novels about the battles of Crecy and Agincourt. The protagonist is an English longbowman.
 
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Lewis Pulsipher

Comments

S'mon

Legend
I don't think that that is true. Virtually all armies in the world act like this to the best of their abilities. You don't leave wounded on the field, and you do your best to save the wounded. Otherwise, your soldiers would pretty quickly decide that you aren't really worth fighting for.
Prioritisation and the amount of effort per soldier varies hugely, and this has been the case for a long time.
 

Hussar

Legend
Prioritisation and the amount of effort per soldier varies hugely, and this has been the case for a long time.
Well, yes, of course. Mostly due to the actual capabilities of the army in question. I would think that a, say, US soldier could expect a different level of care than, say, a Somali one, simply because of economics. That's fair.

But, the idea that different militaries prioritize the recovery and protection of wounded differently isn't really accurate. Every military gives it virtually the highest priority they are able to. Again, not doing so is a very quick way to seeing your military discipline go straight down the toilet in a serious hurry.

There are other reasons besides concern for well being that engender both desire to not kill and to not leave wounded.

Not the least of which is that a live captive in need of medical attention has a real strong lever for coercion... the withholding of pain meds of post-op patients has a history of being used to coerce information. Likewise, it's not hard to get them addicted to pain meds, and then use withdrawl as a sanctionable form of torture.

And then, there's the reuse of issue gear. If you recover the soldier, you usually recover much of his gear, too.

Plus, even your dead have value - the psychology of heroism... burying the dead at home is leverage for coopting new soldiers to want revenge.
That's just not how this works. It really isn't. You don't prioritize patching up enemy soldiers over your own. No military ever does that. And, frankly, coercing information by withholding pain medication? Ummm, never minding the fact that that's a great way to commit war crimes (we do hang people for that), you also generally wouldn't count on that as being a particularly effective means of gaining information.

Recovering gear is an issue, but, again, the value of the gear is so minimal compared to the value of that soldier. Do you have any idea the cost of a modern soldier? How many hundreds of thousands of dollars in training that goes into a modern combat soldier? The price of a rifle and some kit is so minor that it's largely a rounding error compared to the cost of that soldier. There are very solid economic reasons to bring that soldier home and get him or her healthy again. Recovering kit is so low on the list of priorities that it might as well not even be there.
 

S'mon

Legend
Well, yes, of course. Mostly due to the actual capabilities of the army in question. I would think that a, say, US soldier could expect a different level of care than, say, a Somali one, simply because of economics. That's fair.

But, the idea that different militaries prioritize the recovery and protection of wounded differently isn't really accurate. Every military gives it virtually the highest priority they are able to. Again, not doing so is a very quick way to seeing your military discipline go straight down the toilet in a serious hurry.
I guess it depends what you mean by "are able to", but overall I think your perspective feels a bit skewed and US-centric or Western-centric. I remember in the British Territorial Army Reserve in the late '90s being scoffed at when I asked what we did during an attack/assault on position if one of our men was wounded, the answer being "ignore it and keep attacking". Recently though I have seen talk like yours about care of wounded being 'highest priority' in UK too. Standard Russian tactics emphasise fire-on-target over NATO style fire-and-maneuver, accepting higher casualties in return for deciding the engagement quickly.

Edit: I also remember watching Saving Private Ryan around the same time and being gobsmacked by the extreme individualism displayed by the US soldiers, willingness to disobey a (competent) leader in order to maximise their own survival chances. And the whole Vietnam Movie thing where a sniper wounds one guy and the whole platoon gets sucked into saving him, often taking more losses.
 
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billd91

Hobbit on Quest
And the whole Vietnam Movie thing where a sniper wounds one guy and the whole platoon gets sucked into saving him, often taking more losses.
An even better (and more thoroughly documented) example - the Battle of Mogadishu - portrayed in Black Hawk Down.

I've done a little looking around and while there have been units espousing the "No one gets left behind" ethos in the US since the French and Indian War (so - pre-US technically), the issue really takes strongest hold in the Vietnam War and probably for a few reasons.
  • It could be more credibly accomplished with helicopter extraction than in previous wars.
  • Vietnam wasn't a war of territory acquisition in the first place - meaning that most wounded and dead on patrol or strikes were certainly going to be lost in enemy territory if not recovered.
  • Despite the controversies of the draft, the Vietnam war was fought mostly by volunteers (75% to 25%). Doing their best to get you back out was something of a social contract between the volunteers and the armed forces.

The extent to which this has spread to other US allies may have something to do with 2 of these factors - extractability and volunteerism in a democracy.
 

John Dallman

Villager
Most dungeons you'll see are anti-fortresses designed to make it impossible for the inhabitants to defend themselves from the attacks of a small group of commandos such as the PCs, and in the context of the article to overturn Lanchester's Power Laws. Specifically, dungeons are designed to make reinforcement difficult, to allow large forces to be defeated in detail by spreading out defending forces piecemeal, to make retreat by an attacking force easy, and to force all engagements to occur at close range such that generally melee can be reached in the first moment of battle.
The groups I learned to play amongst did not run dungeons that way. If the inhabitants were actually allied, they would reinforce each other, and use decent tactics. This probably accounts for why the example PCs in the Giants modules seemed so under-powered to us; they were only capable of doing the scenario if the inhabitants played dumb. We worked hard at infiltration tactics, and found Silence spells invaluable.

I have had the experience of a whole dungeon turning out to fight the PCs in one prolonged fight. It was quite messy.
 

Celebrim

Hero
I have had the experience of a whole dungeon turning out to fight the PCs in one prolonged fight. It was quite messy.
Even if they had done so, they typically would have been better off had their not been a dungeon at all. If you mobilize the entire dungeon against the PC's, then the PC's can at least find choke points where the full numbers of the opposing force can't be brought to bear against them and they cannot be easily outflanked and attacked on all sides.

As for playing dumb, the real question I'm putting forward is not a question of how efficiently or inefficiently the DM plays the opposing force. I presume that different DMs played monsters with different degrees of competency, for a variety of different reasons, varying from differences in personal tactical aptitude, to different perceptions of how much fog of war the monsters would experience, to different perceptions of how much they should metagame to challenge or not challenge the players. But the real issue I was trying to highlight in that post was just how much aid the dungeon was actually providing to its inhabitants regardless of how tactically adept and organized the DM played them. What features actually made the dungeon defensible?

Gygax has a section in the DMG on how organized different sorts of monsters should be, and had a tendency to like generating fights where practically the whole dungeon turned out to fight the PC's in one prolonged fight. But he doesn't actually ever create dungeons that really help those inhabitants defend themselves in a particularly clever way. Even the gaurdposts in B1 only serve to help turn the whole dungeon out to fight the PC's in one prolonged fight while at the same time only serve to ensure that monsters won't be able to take advantage of their numerical superiority.
 

dragoner

Dying in Chargen
Standard Russian tactics emphasise ...
... маскировка. Soviet policy towards the end of WW2, was to have the surrendering fascists strip the uniforms of dead troops, and be put in the van of the attack to absorb fire, expose concealed positions, etc.. The medical personnel would care little for these dead and wounded.
 

Celebrim

Hero
The medical personnel would care little for these dead and wounded.
Over 20 million dead suggests the Soviet army cared little for the wounded and the living as well. Few armies have ever poured flesh into a meat grinder as thoughtlessly as the WWII Soviet army. Don't even get me started on the operational analysis of weapon platforms like the Ilyushin Il-2.
 

dragoner

Dying in Chargen
Over 20 million dead suggests the Soviet army cared little for the wounded and the living as well. Few armies have ever poured flesh into a meat grinder as thoughtlessly as the WWII Soviet army. Don't even get me started on the operational analysis of weapon platforms like the Ilyushin Il-2.
Subtract those captured and killed in concentration camps, and one finds combat casualties to be somewhat less; around 3-2. The Germans also murdered 20-30 million civilians. The RKKA, destroyed 85% of the fascist military power, no small feat in that it had defeated everyone else. Another thing to consider, beyond western propaganda, is that Slavic culture is alien to the west, where men are more manly and back woods; I remember my ROTC commander asking me if I could tell him how to say "I surrender" in Russian, and I and told him, "Mir, druzhba" should work.
 

Sacrosanct

Slayer of Keraptis
A few things to respond to in the past couple days, so I apologize for not quoting all of the relative posts.

1. Getting shot doesn't make your body get thrown back. Doesn't happen.
2. Automatic weapons in modern use are meant for suppressing, not necessarily killing. They are highly inaccurate. If you kill the enemy, great. But they are meant for suppressing while the rest of your squad flanks into position.
3. the military moved from heavy caliber like 7.62 (M60s) to lighter caliber 5.56 (M249) for squad based automatic weapons because you can carry more rounds (I think Hussar mentioned this) and you have a universal round type for every soldier
4. It was official army training that the reason you used a 5.56 round for your M16 was because hitting an enemy took 3 out of combat (the wounded one, and 2 men to carry them out). I.e., the 5.56 was meant to wound and not kill (even if we were trained to kill) Regardless of how true that is in practical application of combat, that's how the army officially trained it. At least when I was in in the early 90s.
 

S'mon

Legend
4. It was official army training that the reason you used a 5.56 round for your M16 was because hitting an enemy took 3 out of combat (the wounded one, and 2 men to carry them out). I.e., the 5.56 was meant to wound and not kill (even if we were trained to kill) Regardless of how true that is in practical application of combat, that's how the army officially trained it. At least when I was in in the early 90s.
Yeah, I feel it was a bit of an ex post facto rationalisation calculated to keep the grunts happy.
 

S'mon

Legend
Even if they had done so, they typically would have been better off had their not been a dungeon at all.
I feel this is true, but somewhat explainable if the main threat is rival tribes, soldiers, and large numbers of weak enemies, not adventurer Spec Ops teams.

That said, if I want to keep my Goblins safe I just put them in 3' high burrows!
 

Ratskinner

Adventurer
SLA Marshall's work is highly controversial in part because no evidence exists that the raw data his book was supposedly based on actually exists. He has records of interviewing soldiers for example, but no records of asking questions that could be used to back his claims regarding the reluctance of soldiers to fire their weapon in anger, much less the answers to those questions. Much of the research purporting to show this instinctive aversion has similar problems, and the whole idea seems to fly in the face of the historical record which is filled with massacres of many sorts. So the question then becomes is there an aversion to killing that may or may not be cultural, or is there a cultural aversion to believing that we are the sort of species that enjoys or at least has little instinctive aversion to committing homicide.
Specifically regarding the idea of a human aversion to killing: I think there's sufficient research from other areas to support the idea. I think the common reactions (among westerners, anyway) to the "fat man" version of the trolley problem points to it. Similarly, there is a pronounced bias in the cultures and history we study more (mostly due to historical accident/reason). For instance, the patterns of hunter-gatherer warfare you mention appear to only function in areas of high population density, and coincidentally(?) have a long "training" periods for young males in the form of war-play. Are they being "desensitized" or something? AFAIK, its not well-studied enough to know, but at least one researcher I've read noted that none of his subjects seem to experience anything like PTSD. Areas with low population density are far less studied, but all the indications I've seen indicate that organized violence are either rare or nonsensical to them, even when they maintain tribal or familial relationships that would permit it. (The general presumption seems to be along the lines of "When resources are scarce, its far better to have a friend who might share than an enemy who wouldn't.")

As far as massacres and things go, there are definite patterns of dehumanization that almost always precede them. Perhaps most famously painting the target group as vermin of some sort (cockroaches or rats are very popular) that need to be exterminated. So, while humans are obviously capable of doing violence to each other in a "warfare"* like manner, it seems to me that it usually takes some work to get there.

just my $.02

As far as the rest goes, I was just relating a conversation I had that seemed relevant.

*Individual or personal violence seems to be a different matter entirely.
 

Hussar

Legend
Well, to be fair, another reason for the switch to 5.56 was effective range. Sure, a 7.62 round will go much, much further, but, very few engagements actually begin at further out than a few hundred meters. It might happen, but, it's very rare. So, why bother having a round with an effective range of nearly a kilometer when the majority of engagements are under 300 meters?

But, S'mon, I don't think it's a rationalization at all. Economic warfare has dominated modern combat for the better part of a century. There's a reason that mines are designed to wound rather than kill. It wouldn't be hard to make mines much more lethal than they are ("bouncing betty" mines jump up to waist high in order to wound, jump them up another 30 cm and they become much, much more lethal, just as an example).
 

dragoner

Dying in Chargen
The 5.56 is more flat trajectory with less recoil, as they found towards the end of ww2, that lighter carbine style weapons were better in the hands of inexperienced soldiers.
 

Beleriphon

Totally Awesome Pirate Brain
Well, whatever the justifications, I know I would much rather have an SLR (7.62mm) than the 5.56mm SA80 they issued me!
I see the problem. You were using an SA80. The M16 when first introduced was well loved by American soldiers in Vietnam, although the next iteration had to switch to burst-fire rather than full selective fire options given the propensity of American troops let loose in full "rock-n-roll" mode at nothing but shadows.

Mind you, the 5.56mm NATO has another benefit: you can carry lots of it compared to heavy ammo like the 7.62mm. Plus, as a NATO standard you don't have worry about that weird Belgian guy not having a compatible magazine when the Soviets invaded in Germany.
 

Sacrosanct

Slayer of Keraptis
I see the problem. You were using an SA80. The M16 when first introduced was well loved by American soldiers in Vietnam, although the next iteration had to switch to burst-fire rather than full selective fire options given the propensity of American troops let loose in full "rock-n-roll" mode at nothing but shadows.

Mind you, the 5.56mm NATO has another benefit: you can carry lots of it compared to heavy ammo like the 7.62mm. Plus, as a NATO standard you don't have worry about that weird Belgian guy not having a compatible magazine when the Soviets invaded in Germany.
There’s...a lot wrong here. Firstly, Americans HATED the m16A1 when it came out in Vietnam. It was garbage. Not only because it rusted like hell (troops weren’t issued cleaning kits because it was touted as maintenance free and it wasn’t by a mile), but powder in the early rounds was awful and caused misfires all the time. There are many an interview of spec ops soldiers saying how they ditched the M16 for the AK as soon as possible.

Secondly, the reasons the M16A2 came out wasn’t because troops tended to let loose. The A1 was in service for decades before the A2 came out, and it was a collection of improvements. Better handguards, thicker barrel, adjustable sights, etc. the reason they went to burst is because anything after 3 rounds is so inaccurate it won’t hit. It was a natural enhancement.

Also, both 5.56 and 7.62 are NATO standard. So that’s not a reason. You can carry more rounds, but not lots of it compared to 7.62

—me, a veteran who used an A1 in basic, was issued an A2 for years, and have fired hundreds of thousands of rounds in dozens of weapons of both 5.56 and 7.62 caliber. (And others, like .50 cal, 9mm, .38, .40 cal, 40mm grenade, and others, but that’s a different topic)
 

aramis erak

Explorer
That's just not how this works. It really isn't. You don't prioritize patching up enemy soldiers over your own. No military ever does that. And, frankly, coercing information by withholding pain medication? Ummm, never minding the fact that that's a great way to commit war crimes (we do hang people for that), you also generally wouldn't count on that as being a particularly effective means of gaining information.

Recovering gear is an issue, but, again, the value of the gear is so minimal compared to the value of that soldier. Do you have any idea the cost of a modern soldier? How many hundreds of thousands of dollars in training that goes into a modern combat soldier? The price of a rifle and some kit is so minor that it's largely a rounding error compared to the cost of that soldier. There are very solid economic reasons to bring that soldier home and get him or her healthy again. Recovering kit is so low on the list of priorities that it might as well not even be there.
I've seen primary source documentation of denial of pain meds to prisoners to coerce cooperation. Both Korean and Vietnam era.

The files are still under army jurisdiction, but are stored in the US National Archives. (where I worked 20+ years ago, so my NDA is expired.)

I've spoken with defectors who saw the Soviet Army do so during WW 2. And Ukrainians who lived through it after WW2.

There are no shortage of folks who will interrogate captives who are injured. If you hold the field, you can interrogate the surviving wounded of the enemy who were unable to be removed by their side in retreat. The US Army did so repeatedly in the US Civil War. And interrogators have only been limited by the Geneva Convention since 1949... The GC says you cannot withhold needed medications, but analgesia isn't medically needed. It's useful, but not essential. So, you can't cut the post-surgical antibiotics, but you can withhold the pain meds.

And if you think people aren't that cold, just check out what's been released of the abuses at Abu Ghraib. Withholding pain meds pales by comparison. The reason War Crimes exist in l;aw is because people DO ignore morality and ethicality during war, and even the threat of life in prison is remote enough not to stop them.,

Further, current "enemy powers" are mostly non-state actors - Taliban, ISIL/ISIS, Somali Pirates, extremist groups. They do take captives and try to keep them alive - at least long enough to then publicly execute them, or ransom them, or in some cases, brainwash them and use them for propaganda. This is all stuff that's been in the news in the last 8 years or so.

It's very easy for people to dehumanize the enemy. It's almost like it's a survival adaptation...

And then there's the RFP for the Stoner Weapon System...

All an infantryman needs to do to the enemy is stop his combat effectiveness. Anything more is wasted effort.
 
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S'mon

Legend
There’s...a lot wrong here. Firstly, Americans HATED the m16A1 when it came out in Vietnam. It was garbage.
That certainly fits with what I heard.

One issue re psychology - it seems that the bigger the weapon, the more soldiers use it, and the more they fire for effect. Crew served weapons are best, but even SAW type support LMGs benefit from this psychology. I suspect the same effect between light and heavy assault rifles.
 

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