Thursday, August 20, 2015

Towards a History of RPG Mechanics - Part One: Chainmail

If you've ever played tabletop RPGs at all, you probably have some familiarity with D&D. Indeed, the tropes it codified have spread into computer games and become part of the cultural zeitgeist of fantasy in general, so that even those who have never played a tabletop RPG at all often know the basic concepts of character classes, levels, wizards who don't wear armor, healing priests, and so forth.

However, D&D itself evolved very quickly in its early years. And so, the purpose of this installment of the Towards a History of RPG Mechanics series is to go over Chainmail, the precursor to D&D, in some detail.

Chainmail began as a brief set of miniatures rules for playing medieval battles, written by Jeff Perren early in 1970. He introduced them to the Lake Geneva Tactical Studies Association, of which Gary Gygax was a leading figure. Gygax revised them, publishing the expanded version as the "Geneva Medieval Rules" in the wargaming magazine Panzerfaust. A few months later, with the rules expanded still further, they were published again in the Domesday Book, the newsletter of the Castle & Crusade Society.

There were very few medieval miniature wargames available at the time, and Gygax & Perren's rules generated considerable interest, resulting in further expansions for them being submitted to Domesday Book. By the end of the year (still 1970!), Gygax was developing the rules into a game to be called Chainmail for Guidon Games. The first edition was published in March of 1971, and became Guidon Games' biggest seller... and included in it was 14 pages on how to add wizards, heroes, dragons, and other fantasy elements to your medieval battles: the "Fantasy Supplement", which would inspire Dave Arneson to create the Blackmoor campaign which would spawn D&D.

From a mechanical standpoint, Chainmail had four systems, three of which interacted with each other:

  1. The original core game - a mass-combat miniatures game with a 20:1 or 10:1 figure scale (i.e., one figure representing 10 or 20 people on the battlefield). This occupied most of the rules, and included rules for melee, missile weapons, siege weapons (catapults, bombards, cannon), morale, terrain, weather, and sieges. Basic resolution was through rolling six-sided dice for the attacking figures: a 6 on a die always resulted in a kill, 5-6 sometimes did, and 4-6 did in a few instances. Mounted troops sometimes got to roll multiple dice. The basic concepts of this system are quite similar to modern miniatures games; while it's vastly simpler than, say, Warhammer, a Warhammer player reading the rules would be nodding along at a lot of what's in them.
  2. The Man-to-Man combat system - used for 1:1 scale combat. This was intended for smaller battles and small actions within a siege - for example, a group of elite troops attempting to steal into a castle and open the main gates. Each figure was assigned an individual weapon and armor, and the chance to kill an opponent was determined by cross-referencing your figure's weapon vs. their armor on a table, then rolling two six-sided dice (2d6) against the difficulty shown there. This also had a subsystem for missile combat at the individual level. It's this system that Dungeons & Dragons recommended using for combat.
  3. A "Fantasy Combat Table" (also referred to in the rules as the "Fantastic Combat Table"), which was used for "heroes", "super heroes", "wizards", and various monster types (e.g., dragons, elementals, giants, trolls) when fighting against each other. This worked similarly to the Man-to-Man system, but with the character types being used on attack and defense instead of weapons and armor, and with the addition that a roll exactly equaling the number required was a "push back" instead of a kill. These character types also were given equivalencies to various numbers of figures in the core game, with modifications - for example, the rules for an Air Elemental say that it attacks as four Light Horse, is impervious to normal attacks, and adds two to its dice roll against airborne opponents. These equivalencies were used when interacting with 'normal' units.
  4. A jousting system, which was really something of a "bonus minigame". The complete jousting system would fit on a single page quite easily, and it was very much a rock-paper-scissors sort of game, with no dice used. Instead, the two players each chose their aiming point and defensive stance (for example, one might aim for the opponent's helm and defend with shield high, while the other chose to aim at the base of their opponent's shield and lean right). These choices were cross-referenced on a table, which gave the results. This was supposed to be done as part of a tournament scenario, where knights would ride against each other three times or until one (or both - simultaneous 'kills' could happen) were unhorsed. A point system was presented as well, counting points for such things as breaking lances, having your helm knocked off, and injuring an opponent, as well as for unhorsing. Thus, players could play multiple knights against each other, or form 'teams'.
The jousting system had no means of interacting with the other three - indeed, the rules specified that it was only to be used for "friendly" tournament combat. (Which makes a good deal of sense - tournament lances had special, blunted tips instead of spear-type tips, making it much easier to unhorse a foe without killing them.)

The Man-to-Man combat system shows an increase in detail - and also shows Gygax's fascination with authentic medieval weaponry and armor, which will crop up again in D&D and AD&D. With the different interacting systems, we also see Gygax's fondness for unique subsystems to handle different aspects of the game, which will also continue forward.

With the Wizards of Chainmail, several of the spells that became D&D standards appear: fireball (here still 'fire ball', lightning bolt, phantasmal forces, and others). Oddly, Clerics make no appearance in Chainmail.

We also see in Chainmail something else that will be typical of Gygax's output for D&D and AD&D... namely, badly organized rules. For example, in the version I have (3rd edition, published by TSR, after they'd acquired the game from Guidon Games), the "Trolls (and Ogres)" entry states that what are commonly called Trolls are actually Ogres, and that True Trolls are much more dangerous. It then proceeds to give the rolls needed for various fantasy types to kill a True Troll. However, the Fantasy Combat Table only gives a single entry for Trolls and Ogres, meaning that someone playing the game needs to remember that the distinction exists, and to go look up the True Troll in the text instead of using the table when one is involved in combat. For additional fun, the entry says that True Trolls "fight as Giants on the Fantasy Combat Table"... but this is apparently merely supposed to mean that they attack as giants, since their listed defenses against various opponents in the text are different from those of Giants.

Another major source of unclearness is how the different subsystems interact. For example, the Man-to-Man and Mass Combat systems use completely different methods for determining initiative... but you may have both sorts of combat happening on the same battlefield. For another, the fatigue system says that a fatigued troop should "attack at the next lower value (heavy foot = light foot)". But what's the "next lower value" for, say, a troll when fighting a treant?

None of this is a serious obstacle, of course, and gamers can and did work out their own ways of handling such obscure points. However, this does become a problem when dealing with tournaments and such, which we'll talk about more when we get to discussing AD&D.

Next time, we'll dig into the Man-to-Man rules of Chainmail a bit more, and start into D&D itself!


Appelcline, Shannon, Designers & Dragons: the 70s. 2nd edition, Evil Hat Productions, 2015.
Gygax, Gary and Arneson, David, Dungeons & Dragons. 1st edition, Tactical Studies Rules, 1974.
Gygax, Gary and Perren, Jeff, Chainmail, 3rd edition, Tactical Studies Rules, 1975.
Schick, Lawrence, Heroic Worlds, 1st edition, Prometheus Books, 1990.

1 comment:

  1. Nice overview of an interesting artifact of gaming. Looking forward to the rest.


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