*This topic was originally covered in an article from Kotaku. (11 Oct 2021)
The map is laid out on the table, and everyone is gathered around it making notes as their characters advance into the unknown depths. The dimly lit corridors are incrementally exposed as the field of vision from the characters reveal more and more of the labyrinth. However, players often hear things measured using the Imperial System.
“Each block on the grid represents xx feet on the map.”
What’s important here is not the phrase itself, rather the unit of measurement. This kind of statement has been codified in gaming manuals for as long as the games themselves have existed. Why? Because the biggest most popular game of all was invented in the United States, one of the only countries on the planet to NOT use the metric system.
The argument is perfectly rational. Most people use the metric system, why not just make the switch? Because the metric system is also exclusive, or that is to say, not everyone uses it.
At the bare minimum, couldn’t Wizards of the Coast just put both systems in their content? For example, “The hallway is about 20 feet (6 meters) from door to door…” would be a very easy way to do it. Then everyone is happy. Best of both worlds.
The Kotaku article explains, accurately, that most people that run games create their own material, but it also puts the burden squarely on their shoulders to make adjustments for things like systems of measurement. For my own part, when I create material, I tend to simply refer back to whatever is in the rulebooks I’m citing. Often, it’s the imperial system of measurement. It really is just easier to because everyone that has a seat at the table will be referencing the same rule book, even if it means everyone is referencing something that they don’t immediately relate to.
Then there’s the part of me that wants games to simply do away with formal systems of measurement. Recently, I wrote a review for the Talisman RPG. In that system, there is no real world system for weight, and no scale for measurement on the map. Sounds weird, right? Weight is handled in abstract units called “Load”. A suit of armor is equivalent to “X” load points. At varying thresholds, characters will feel negative effects if they endeavor to carry too much stuff, and this is articulated in units of load. Very useful, and relatable. The lack of scale for distance on a map means that it can be anything. People could chart miles, kilometers, or even “cubits“.
(There is a history of systems of measurement. Definitely the kind of thing gamers should look into!)
The bottom line here is that Wizards of the Coast is reaching at this point not to at least begin incorporating the metric system into their rules. While it is true that the preponderance of human civilization uses the metric system, the fact that there are other people using the imperial system means they should be included as well. Inclusive gaming matters, even when it comes to measuring things. Just do the easy thing, and implement metric and imperial systems, WotC! Then again, it’s hard to imagine hearing players saying, “OK, I’m at the tavern and I order a half-liter of ale at the bar.” Maybe some things are better left alone.