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I was playing with AutoREALM the other day and noticed a lack of a five-foot-unit of measurement. There are inches, feet, yards, meters and then fathoms (apparently, six feet). This tool seems fairly old, but the wiki says it was published in 2006.

At any rate, my question is as follows - when did the five foot square/hex become the standard unit of measurement in Dungeons and Dragons? Or, has it always been that? Call me a sucker for accuracy, but I've considered switching to meters more times than just for AutoREALM measurements.

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3 Answers 3

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The 5-foot square is the standard measurement in every edition of D&D published by Wizards of the Coast, starting with 3rd Edition in 2000.

In editions prior to WotC taking over publication, there was no standard. Mapping of constructed areas was typically in 10-foot squares, and the ubiquitous gridded battle mat was almost unknown to D&D players. The 5-foot square and gridded combat made an appearance in the TSR-published Player's Option: Combat & Tactics in 1995, and this might have influenced later 3e design, but it wasn't widely adopted and can't be said to have made the 5-foot square a standard.

Prior to moving to a visually-focused, grid-based design, D&D editions typically simply gave limits to how many combatants could fight abreast in a given corridor width. The most common rule across editions (I believe) is that three combatants can fight side-by-side in a 10-foot corridor. This 3-foot-wide clearance wasn't intended to describe how much space a character occupied or controlled in combat though – it was exactly and only a statement about how close friendly forces could pack together while still being able to fight.

Because earlier editions had a heavy dose of simulationism, abstractions were either avoided and whatever non-standard measurement that was appropriate was given directly, or the abstractions were at a more more granular level than anything that could be consistently gridded. Measurements were also were very context-dependent. In other circumstances than combat, the space occupied by characters was described differently – for example, when squeezing through narrow caves, the Dungeoneer's Survival Guide (1986) gives a table of minimum tunnel widths by race, listing humans as requiring at least 2 feet of width to pass and elves needing 1½ feet, as well as variations in minimum height clearance.

As a general rule, TSR editions of D&D (and games based on them) can be assumed to use continuous real-world measurement systems for everything, while WotC editions can be assumed to use a discrete 5-foot square. This continuous/discrete paradigm difference is fairly fundamental in their respective designs, with the measurement style coming first, with rules built on top and referring back to the measurement paradigm. For example, D&D 3e and later mostly bases movement rules on the 5-foot square and on manipulations of whole or part squares, while 2e and earlier deal in yards, feet, and inches and modifications to those continuous measurements.

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"As a general rule, TSR editions of D&D (and games based on them) can be assumed to use continuous real-world measurement systems for everything" - except for AD&D1, that referred to everything in Inches... –  YogoZuno Jan 31 '13 at 3:22
@YogoZuno Only combat range and movement rate was measured in table-inches—everything else was real-world measurements (such as climbing distances, or the mentioned tunnel-squeezing table). And a table-inch was used so that it could be flexibly translated to a foot (inside) or a yard (outdoors), so it still holds. –  SevenSidedDie Jan 31 '13 at 3:33
My point still stands - 3e also specifies ranges and movement rates in feet, which then get translated into squares on the tabletop. Not much different to the aforementioned inches. Really, it's only 4e that forced the square as the unit of measure. –  YogoZuno Jan 31 '13 at 6:41
3.5e made the transition to squares and grids explicit (I might be able to dig up the dev commentary on that) but it was in the base design of 3e too—everything is in 5' increments. Underneath, it's a discrete grid system even in 3e, but it just had feet painted on top to make it comfortable for AD&D players. AD&D is the other way around: underneath it's continuous yards/feet, but it had table-inches painted on top to make it more familiar to wargamers. –  SevenSidedDie Jan 31 '13 at 18:19
I could edit the answer to state this stuff more precisely, but I don't feel like these nuances belong in the answer. The bit about differing design fundamentals is interesting background, but it's already a tangent with as much detail as is already in the answer. Adding these details won't change the actual meat of the answer either, since it doesn't bear on when the 5-foot square became the standard. They are fair nits to pick, but I think the brief treatment in the answer is enough to be appropriate while giving some perspective on why any standard at all is new. –  SevenSidedDie Jan 31 '13 at 18:27

As far as I can tell, the idea of a character occupying a 5' by 5' area started in 3rd ed D&D.

Neither Holmes nor Mentzer Basic mention the idea of facing or area occupied at all (I have no Moldvay Basic for comparison). There is mention in Holmes Basic of D&D often using a scale of 1"=10' for miniatures, but that's about it.

AD&D 2nd edition DMG mentions how many attackers can engage a single enemy (p57 - 6, by the way), but no amount of area occupied. Creatures in the Monstrous Compendium have a Size listed, and often list a specific length or height (e.g. Carrion Crawler is L (9' long), while a Hill Giant is H(16' tall). Still, no mention of grids, or use of squares or area occupied.

3rd ed D&D PHB, on p130 and 131, lists the Standard Scale as "One inch = 5 feet", and "A human-size creature occupies an area 1 inch (5 feet) across)". So, I would count this as the first real mainstream use of the 5'x5' area. Bear in mind, though, that even in 3.0, you could play without a battlegrid.

4th ed D&D standardised on using squares as the unit of measure.

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You can trace the origins of this 5' tactical based sizing to well before A&D 3rd and back in the days of AD&D Basic and 1e AD&D. Many of the maps produced had overlays, but crucially for me were GW's dungeon floorplans and the like that we would lovingly piece together into maps and dungeons in careful reproductions of the maps that were produced.

These early editions of AD&D didn't have the idea of square by square movement, but certainly the floorplans and maps were the seed that created it.

Once 3rd Ed hit this 5' became codified into a more tactical aspect with ideas such as the 5' step and movement broken down into 5' chunks.

(This was a bit too big for a comment and I wanted to post the link for the floorplans!)

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