Sometimes a “Tank” is NOT a guy in heavy armor

A sample chapter about a surprising root of the game of D&D.


Another one of the games we played a lot was TRACICS, a WW2 miniatures wargame. Wargamers being wargamers, WW2 wargames means tanks. And much like CHAINMAIL influenced D&D and how we played it, TRACTICS also influenced how we played D&D.

If you do any research at all on armored combat, one thing you find out very quickly is how limited visibility is inside a tank. From the first World War One experiments right up until today, observation has been extremely important to tanks. It’s not surprising that wargames based on tanks would have rules about observation. Virtually every WW2 game I’ve ever played uses some sort of observation rule, whether it’s dummy markers, or dice rolls to spot, or a variety of other methods. What TRACTICS uses is an “observation path.”

In TRACTICS, a single vehicle can observe a path 4” wide, from the center of the vehicle to the edge of the board. Anything in that path is seen, unless it is behind trees, behind a hill, or similarly concealed. This may sound like a lot. We played TRACTICS on a 5 by 8 foot table, though. Go measure out a 5 by 8 foot area, pick a random spot, and measure a 4” path. You’ll see that a LOT of area is NOT being observed.

You can only shoot at what you see, and the other side can only shoot at you if they see you. It doesn’t take much to figure out how vital observation is in this sort of game, and that is exactly the case; learning where to look to anticipate enemy units, how to look with various units to maximize coverage, and how to take advantage of concealment, were major portions of the play of the game.

This carried over into D&D in a couple of ways. First, we were used to being very careful about where we were looking, and specifying it exactly. Even though we weren’t limited to a 4” wide path, we assumed that observation was important. Possibly the most famous instance of this is Terry Kuntz, who, every time he stepped through an opening, would announce “I look up and down and all around.” Opening a door and then saying “We look around before we enter” was second nature. If you just went blundering in, you deserved whatever happened to you. (Note that this is not the same as the referee saying “You didn’t say that you were looking specifically for a black dragon on top of a pile of gold, so you didn’t see it and it kills you.” The technical term for that is “the referee is an asshole.”)

The other major effect that TRACTICS had on us was that “you can’t anticipate everything.” When you only have a 4” wide path to observe on a 40 square foot board, there WILL be areas that are not under observation. Sometimes, the first clue you would have that there were enemy forces around is when your lead tank blew up. Not only that, but unless one of the surviving units was observing the right place, you had no guarantee of seeing the enemy even after they opened fire. Nothing like spending two or three turns of frantic scrambling as your tanks are getting picked off, trying to figure out where the HELL the enemy is!

Also, one thing you learn about tank combat is that armor does not make you invulnerable. It increases the difficulty of the enemy destroying a unit, but no matter what vehicle you have – yes, even a Tiger II or Jagdtiger – if the enemy wants it destroyed badly enough, they will destroy it. So when we were down in the dungeon, the notion that, for instance, poison could kill you no matter what didn’t seem out of line to us. Nothing was certain; everything carried some modicum of risk.

This meant that in D&D we had a certain bit of fatalism in our attitude. There were precautions you could take, and nobody wanted to die by being a dolt – like Goose says in “Top Gun,” “The Department of Defense regrets to inform you that your sons have been killed because they were stupid.” But ultimately we knew that, no matter how careful we were, no matter what precautions we took, there was always a chance that the first clue we would have that there was something dangerous would be the referee’s words of “Roll a saving throw.”

Sometimes, you don’t know the enemy is there until the lead unit dies.


Beer, out.