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?
- 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.
- 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."
- Men & Magic, page 19, states "All attacks which score hits do 1-6 points damage unless otherwise noted."
- 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.)
- 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."
- 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."
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.)