I’ve been thinking a lot about the size of creatures lately, because it seems to me that size poses unexpected problems for the GM.

This is a subject that’s been at the back of my mind for years, ever since it was pointed out to me that Dragons are never as tough as they are made out to be because the PCs can easily surround the creature, spreading out to attack it multiple times in a round, while it can only target one or – at most – two PCs.

One player that I know of refers to them as Mobile Caches, and invested quite a lot of effort back in my second AD&D campaign keeping track of them so that if he ever got short of cash and magic, he could stop by and make a withdrawal.

My response to this particular problem has always been to enhance Dragons, making them a lot tougher. And, in terms of this specific problem, this solution works. But, a while back, it became clear that this was just part of a larger problem.

The Scales Of Giantism

Take a look at the illustration above, generated specifically for this article. It illustrates two scales of Giant.

The large standing figure is what most D&D / Pathfinder players will think of as a Giant. The PCs, at full stretch, might be able to reach it’s knees. The shoe illustrates a situation that arouse in an offshoot of my superhero campaign, in which a very large robot was attacking one of the PCs, triggering a conflict with all of them; in the actual game, I used an old boot to give scale to the enemy, but the running shoe illustrates the situation perfectly adequately. The PCs can’t even reach the top of the foot without climbing. This is the scale of the Giants in Gulliver’s Travels, the scale of Galactus in the Comic Marvel Universe (as opposed to the rather silly ‘cloud’ from the second Fantastic Four movie).

The more I contemplated these two situations, the more problems became apparent (even completely ignoring the cube-square law which says that the first is only marginally-plausible and the second completely impossible).

The show is also roughly the size of a whole Dragon, which is why this particular illustration is so useful as a discussion tool.

Not The Same As People Scaled Large

People are used to having a certain amount of space around them. When something invades that space, we get uncomfortable. The study of this and related phenomena is called Proxemics. The cultural anthropologist who coined the term described four zones of intimacy:

A chart depicting Edward T. Hall's interpersonal distances of man, showing radius in feet and meters, by WebHamster - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

A chart depicting Edward T. Hall’s interpersonal distances of man, showing radius in feet and meters, by WebHamster – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

  • Intimate distance: for embracing, touching or whispering
    • Close phase – less than 6 inches (15 cm)
    • Far phase – 6 to 18 inches (15 to 46 cm)
  • Personal distance: for interactions among good friends or family
    • Close phase – 1.5 to 2.5 feet (46 to 76 cm)
    • Far phase – 2.5 to 4 feet (76 to 122 cm)
  • Social distance: for interactions among acquaintances
    • Close phase – 4 to 7 feet (1.2 to 2.1 m)
    • Far phase – 7 to 12 feet (2.1 to 3.7 m)
  • Public distance: used for public speaking
    • Close phase – 12 to 25 feet (3.7 to 7.6 m)
    • Far phase – 25 feet (7.6 m) or more.

Even beyond personal contact, which is the context into which the diagram, and the definitions, have been framed, there are psychological effects of confinement, i.e. the removal of space. Prison Cells which invade the “personal space” are generally considered cruel and unusual punishment; invading the Intimate Distance is the equivalent of being confined in a coffin or torture device. Most two-person cells enable the inmates to be separated by Social Distances; anything less is believed to produce hostility and conflict in the long term.

Problems come when we scale these distances up with increased size for larger creatures, like Dragons and Giants. Not only does this require these creatures to inhabit extraordinarily size-y spaces, they provide ample room for that spread-out-and-surround tactic. It feels psychologically comfortable to us because we apply human perceptions to the scaled images. This is a huge mistake to make, if you’ll pardon the pun.

Take a look at animal enclosures at a well-run Zoo. You’ll find that each species has a different standard of personal space. Dogs, for example, have no problem living in a Kennel that would clearly intrude on personal space if it were scaled for a human – provided they are completely closed up within it. Domestic Housecats like to have a lot of space around themselves, but are fine in far tighter confinement. Lions, on the other hand, need a lot of space. Mice are happy in tighter confines again, as are some species of snake.

The lesson here is that humanoids are not human, and human scales of what is comfortable need not apply. As for Dragons, they aren’t even humanoid. They might be as comfortable, or even more comfortable in what would be a tightly-confined space for a human scaled to Dragon-sized. After all, head and tail are usually described as flexible, even sinewy, more like snakes than human arms and legs.

Does a dragon really need all that room? A hastily-sketched image but it illustrates the point.

Does a dragon really need all that room? A hastily-sketched image but it illustrates the point.

Part of the problem is that Dragons do need a lot of room to spread their wings, and providing that room comes reasonably close to the human comfort zone. Another is that the “hoard” has to take up an impressive amount of space. But Dragons are intelligent – is it really worth being left so vulnerable just to be able to spread your wings indoors? Any chamber with a doorway large enough for the Dragon to squeeze through is good enough.

Another element of the problem are those really impressive miniatures that you can buy these days. They really look fantastic – but they are immobile. To some extent, you get a better representation tactically by having a separate figure of some sort to represent the head and a long strand of licorice or “killer python” confectionery for the tail and neck. This gives them the mobility that they should have.

“Smaller” Giants

I often find it useful as a referee to convert things back to the human scale. If you were the giant, what might those lilliputians be able to do to you? With the smaller giants, the analogy would be of some species of animal that doesn’t leap very well, but that stands about a foot off the ground or thereabouts. A great cat – a small leopard or tiger – with something wrong with a hind leg (preventing the leap) is fairly close to a group of PCs with swords slashing away at the target. Unable to reach the vital torso area directly, it’s first combat objective has to be to get the target down to its level – to hamstring it. Once that happens, the vitals become accessible, and the target can be killed – but it would be extremely rare for this to be as a result of direct damage; instead it would be by blood loss.

I referee accordingly. I don’t care how much damage the PCs do, they aren’t going to kill a giant outright, critical hits perhaps excepted; instead, I translate the effects that their damage would do, and base my interpretations of the effects of their strikes accordingly. To a certain extent, this requires disregarding the number of hit points that the Giant might have. In theory, I’m apply scaling to the weaponry of the PCs. A sword that might penetrate a foot does in no more than an inch, probably less. If the giant is 30′ tall, that’s a scaling of about five times – so ten points of damage becomes the equivalent of 1/5th that, or about 2 points. But that’s too much work, a lot of the time, so I do it more by instinct than by maths.

After all , while “divide by five” is easy maths, “divide by 6.75” isn’t.

The reverse scaling should also apply – if the giant dishes out what would be ten points to another of its kind, that becomes more like 50 points when applied to a human-sized PC. That usually seems excessive, however, so I only half-scale it – 25 points. By ignoring the numbers and translating the rolls in this way, I sacrifice some mechanical verisimilitude and rules fidelity for a better look-and-feel to the game.

“Bigger” Giants

And so, to the really big giants. These don’t happen very often in fantasy gaming, but do come along from time to time in Superhero games – anything that’s more than ten times scale, or 50′ in height, becomes a candidate. Take that shoe on the accompanying illustration: Most figures are at roughly 5′ to the inch, i.e. a 5′ person would be represented by a figure that’s about an inch tall. Most shoes are roughly a foot in length, perhaps a little more or less. That’s 12 inches – so a shoe on the battlefield is representative of a creature of scale 12, or between 60 and 75′ tall.

How do creatures that are no more than an inch off the ground inflict serious, potentially lethal, damage to a human? Poisons, or burrowing into vitals, or swarming over like army ants. Anything less can inflict harm – perhaps even enough to knock a creature of this size off its footing.

Let’s contemplate a couple of weapons, and apply the scaling principle. A sword would be about half an inch in equivalent length – less than a nail, more than a thumbtack. But most strokes wouldn’t go all the way to the hilt, so the thumbtack is roughly right. How much damage does a thumbtack do when you drop one on your unprotected foot? Nothing. It takes the mass of the person to inflict the damage.

Should clothing thickness scale? Ordinary leather/cloth would be like tissue paper to a creature of this size. Something much thicker and toucher would be logical – say Rhinoceros Hide. That is, according to Wikipedia, somewhere between 1.5 and 5 cm thick – call it between six-tenths and two inches thick, or average it to a simple one-inch thick. This is going to be a LOT more protective than ordinary leather armor, and the sword has to get through that in order to do any damage to the flesh of the giant (it only gets worse when you’re talking giant robots).


The thickness – at it’s thinnest point – of a human leg is an inch or two above the ankles. Mine are about 3 1/4 inches thick, front to back, and about an inch-and-a-half across. Scaling that by twelve gives 3’3″ x 1’6″ across. The bone at that point is a little over an inch thick – scaled, that’s about 13″ thick.

That’s not a leg – it’s a tree-trunk with a stone column in the center, wrapped in an inch-thick sheet of foam rubber and leather, which in turn is wrapped in a foot of cured leather. A sword might pierce all the way through, but the right tool for this sort of job is an axe (or better yet, a chainsaw). Chop a hole in that foot-thick hardened rhinoceros hide. You’d be lucky to take less than ten minutes – that’s thicker than the logs they chop in competitive axe trials, and those guys are easily three times as fast as your ordinary tree-feller. And ignoring the possibility of having to get through battleship-plate metal armor. But, assuming that you do, without – miracle of miracles – blunting your axe, you then have to do it again to get through the giant’s flesh to reach the bone. At which point a sledgehammer (or jackhammer!) is the tool of choice for actually breaking that bone. All while the owner is fighting back.

Quite frankly, you’ve got as much chance as a been has of stinging through steel-capped work-boots – unless it manages to get itself INTO the boot, it’s not going to happen, not in time to do you any good.

Okay, so now you’re a PC, in charge of bringing this brute down – how to do it?

Step One: Ranged weapons and magic aimed at the eyes to blind it. Step two: when it can no longer see what you are doing, everyone grabs the heaviest rope that you can manhandle between you – the sort used to tie ships up to docks or anchors, about 3 inches thick, and weighing probably 60 pounds a foot – and, moving as fast as you can, wrap it around is feet while he is groping in the direction he thought you were. Step 3: Once you trip him, go for the underarms or neck and try to find a way inside the armor to a vital point – probably the neck, assuming something the equivalent of a jugular. If not, there are other, similar blood vessels – if you know where to find them. It won’t be easy – the equivalent of using an axe in a broom closet – but it should be doable. Then Step 4, back off, take cover, and wait for blood loss to do the job for you. Total elapsed time: probably ten minutes, game time.

Until you actually think of it in scale, you can’t appreciate the scale of the problem, or find the solutions. And that’s true of every really-big creature, or its robotic equivalent. But it makes a great story afterwards!

Content Bonus!

I thought people might be interested in the map that I generated for the main illustration that accompanies this article, minus the distortion caused by the 3D rotation, and the tiles that I created to build it from. So here they are:


Yes, the original version was a lot bigger – in fact, even the hexgrid tiles below are slightly reduced in size, and the original image was 7000 pixels tall. But it was just too slow to edit it – 5 minutes for each of the shadows? 5 minutes each time one of the figures had to be resized? Of necessity, I had to reduce the size, first to 2400 pixels, then to 1000, and finally to this 281×550 image.





Just right-click on the image you want to save it.

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