Thursday, May 17, 2012

Chainmail Combat: Kicking It Really Old-School

I got an email from a friend (Leadjunkie on the NRPGCon forums) in which he posed some questions about the Chainmail combat system. Questions indeed! Anyone who's tried to use Chainmail as the basis for D&D combat has run head-first into enough questions to paper the walls of Paris.

I don't pretend to have the answers. I doubt that anyone could, including Gary Gygax or Dave Arneson, if they were still around to ask. What I can offer are the solutions that my friends and I came up with in the '70s. Why bother with something that's 40 years past its prime? For the same reason we did back then--Chainmail combat is an interesting artifact from D&D's birth. Understanding it builds appreciation for where the game came from and where it went.

I should confess that we latched onto the alternative combat system or ACS (the d20-based combat system that's now synonymous with D&D) as quickly as everyone else, because it wasn't plagued by all of these questions and contradictions. We still experimented with Chainmail because, darn it, Gary said it worked, and we wanted to understand how!

The first thing to grasp is that Chainmail contains not one but three distinct combat systems: man-to-man combat (M2M), 20:1 combat (20:1), and the Fantasy Combat Table (FCT). References to them in the OD&D books were never very clear about which one (or two, or all three) were being called up. Combined with the ACS, you had four very different ways to resolve combat. The fact that they sometimes used overlapping jargon only stirred the mud even more.

Our first assumption, and the only one we could be 100% sure about, was that where OD&D and Chainmail conflicted, OD&D took precedence. Even that isn't as easy to put into practice as it sounds; sometimes the house just falls apart unless you let Chainmail take over.

So, how does it work?

One thing you can do is ignore D&D entirely and play a game of exploration, puzzle-solving, combat, and negotiation using Chainmail's man-to-man combat and fantasy supplement as written. That works pretty well. It probably delivers an experience closer to the earliest proto-RPG sessions than anything else. It clearly isn't D&D, however, and it doesn't resolve the question of the day.

Let's assume we've already done that and want to move on to a bigger challenge. What does OD&D actually state about how combat works?
  1. D&D's advancement tables contain an entry for the Fighting Capability of characters at each level. These are expressed in terms of "# men (+#)." For example, a 1st-level magic-user fights as 1 man, a 2nd-level warrior fights as 2 men +1, and a 5th-level fighting man fights as a Hero +1 or 5 men.
  2. Men & Magic, page 18, states "Fighting Capability ... is a key to use in conjunction with the Chainmail fantasy rules, as modified in various places herein."
  3. Men & Magic, page 19, states "All attacks which score hits do 1-6 points damage unless otherwise noted."
  4. Monsters & Treasure, page 5, contains a vital sentence: "Attack/Defense capabilities versus normal men are simply a matter of allowing one roll as a man-type for every hit die, with any bonuses being given to only one of the attacks, i.e. a Troll [6+3 hit dice] would attack six times, once with a +3 added to the die roll." (This raises the question of what OD&D meant by "normal men." Men & Magic, page 19, states "Normal men equal 1st level fighters." We decided that went for all characters at all levels; i.e., "4th level fighter" and "4 men" are in all ways equivalent.) 
  5. Monsters & Treasure, page 31, states "Armor proper subtracts its bonus from the hit dice of the opponents of its wearer. If the shield's bonus is greater than that of the armor there is a one third chance that the blow will be caught by the shield, thus giving the additional subtraction."
  6. The Underworld & Wilderness Adventures, page 25, contains another big key: "The basic system is that from Chainmail, with one figure representing one man or creature. Melee can be conducted with the combat table given in Volume 1 [the ACS] or by the Chainmail system, with scores equaling a drive back or kill equal only to a hit. Battles involving large numbers of figures can be fought at a 20:1 ratio, with single fantastic types fighting separately at 1:1 or otherwise against but a single 20:1 figure."
These six points are pretty much everything the OD&D rulebooks have to say about how Chainmail-based combat works. The ACS section adds four more sentences describing how to use the "Men Attacking" and "Monsters Attacking" tables. Things have changed a lot since then.

With all of that under our belts, the basics are pretty simple ... but the specifics vary depending on whether you're using the Man-to-Man table, the 20:1 rules, or the Fantasy Combat Table.

In an upcoming post, I'll examine the three combat systems point by point. (Actually, I already wrote all of it as part of this post, but Blogger somehow flushed a few thousand words down the toilet, so I get to rewrite all of it. Yeah, I know, do you want some cheese with your whine? But nothing hacks me off more than having to do the same work twice. Thanks for listening.)


  1. There was an understanding among my original group of gaming friends that OD&D (and even AD&D 1e) were fundamentally broken. I can see now how we came to that conclusion.

  2. How did this confirm an impression of fundamental brokenness?

  3. This is very cool, thanks. Coming to white box D&D after AD&D left me completely confused about how to actually play combat. Some of the seemingly extraneous bits being Chainmail didn't occur to me until later, and it's nice to see someone pull it together like this.

  4. Awesome. It's always interesting to see new perspectives on integrating CHAINMAIL combat with OD&D - an endlessly fascinating subject. For those who might be interested, The Champions of ZED retroclone is built aound these methods of combat

  5. You must have a later printing of Men and Magic than I do; the text cited in points 3 and 4 doesn't appear in my 4th printing. Lacking that 1d6 rule made deciphering combat rather difficult, and probably provided the impetus to go to the Greyhawk system very early in my case. A 1st level fighter appears in the level chart in mine as a "Man + 1", which would have made the normal man comment cited in 4 contradictory (probably not the only place the three LBBs...)

  6. I love Chainmail combat and its various refinements. I would prefer to use the refined Chainmail systems since they tend to speed up combats.

  7. Marshall (Leadjunkie) is running two Chainmail sessions at the 4th Annual NTRPG Con in June (a con that Steve is also attending) so probably is looking for clarification on a few points. I missed the Chainmail game last year which apparently ran into some interesting rules glitches, so I cannot wait until this year to see what has evolved from last year's session! (and if it works!)

  8. My wife and I are trying to play a Chain Mail scenario at the moment, it is interesting and occasionally baffling. Here is a link to the discussion thread: [CM] A Greyhawk Scenario

  9. @kesher I didn't mean to say that this post confirmed my suspicions that the game was broken, just that I really understand why the twelve year old version of myself thought that way.

  10. Thanks for taking the time to post your thoughts after I bugged you via e-mail. So far I am on track with you. I look forward to the remainder of the post that got munched, where I hope to see your thoughts on monster armor class as used on the M2M combat chart.