Pre-History of D&D: Chainmail

When I get into something, I like to find out all about where it came from, and how it got to be what it is today. So it was inevitable that I would get stuck into the history of Dungeons & Dragons. As usual, I have to take a moment to refer you to Kent David Kelly’s series Hawk & Moor, which is a very thorough history of the game.

Likely as not, there would be no Dungeons & Dragons without miniature war games. These are niche games of military strategy and tactics. The players act as commanders of armies, either using miniature figures or perhaps coloured tokens to represent their troops. Actual game play often takes place on a sand table, which can be sculpted to represent virtually any kind of terrain. The rulebooks for these games are intended to simulate historically accurate combat, so the players may test their actual strategic ability.

You would think there would be war game rule sets for just about any era of military history, but this wasn’t the case. The Napoleonic wars were (and, as far as I know, remain) the most popular period for wargamers.

Gary Gygax became hooked on these games when he received a copy of the game Gettysburg, a simplified wargame based on the US Civil War (and published by Avalon Hill, which is now owned by Wizards of the Coast) as a birthday present. Gary Gygax loved games. He loved strategy. He loved history, including military history. He used to run a local chapter of an international wargaming society and host massive gaming sessions in his basement (much to his put-upon wife’s dismay).

It was at one such session that Gary Gygax met Jeff Perren, fellow gamer and fellow Medieval and Ancient warfare enthusiast. They got to talking about how there was no ruleset for Medieval wargames, and Jeff mentioned that he had adapted an existing ruleset to represent medieval combat for his own use. Gary suggested they expand the rules and co-publish them. Jeff agreed, and the game Chainmail was born.

You can buy a pdf of Chainmail from the DMs Guild. Tracking down a physical copy will be harder and more expensive. I used to have a free (and almost certainly illegal) pdf of it, but I have gone legit and purchased the pdf, and it will be referring to that legal copy for the rest of this post.

In the above list of things Gary Gygax was enthusiastic about, I left out one very important thing: fantasy. Especially pulp fantasy. And while the Chainmail rules were still in preparation, it occurred to him that combat in fantasy literature resembled medieval combat more than any other period of military history, and therefore it would be possible to add rules for magic, monsters (especially dragons), fantasy “races”, and super-powered humans. But when he suggested this to his co-author, Jeff Perren gave an emphatic no.

Why? Because most wargamers saw their hobby as a branch of “serious military history”. To add in magical spells and fantastic beasts would be to cheapen it, in their opinion. But Gary eventually convinced Jeff to consent to including an appendix of optional fantasy rules, which became the famous “Fantasy Supplement”. And that is basically the very beginning of what would later become Dungeons & Dragons, a game whose popularity and appeal dwarfs (ha!) that of “serious” war games. In fact, the only miniature war game that comes close to D&D in popularity is, wait for it: Warhammer. So suck it, Jeff!

The “Fantasy Supplement” and rules for single combat notwithstanding, Chainmail is first and foremost a set of rules for combat between armies. Mass combat. The suggested ratio is 1:20, meaning that every figure or token on the sand table represents 20 similar figures. So it was never really intended to resolve the kind of four-on-one combat that occurs when a party of adventures fights a troll. Also, neither Gary nor anyone else in the gaming community had discovered the rainbow of various polyhedral dice that have since become emblematic of RPGs, so any time a die roll is used in Chainmail, they mean a d6, and not even the Arabic-numeral RPG d6s we use today, but traditional “board game” dice, numbered with dots (or “pips” as the rules refer to them).

Using Chainmail in D&D

I have no interest in running the kind of mass combat for which Chainmail was designed. The only reason I got a copy was to attempt to run combat according to the OD&D (Original Dungeons & Dragons) rules from 1974, which seem to require Chainmail. This turns out to be a misconception, but it’s an easy one to make. OD&D lists Chainmail among the “Recommended Equipment”; the descriptions of elves and halflings refer to abilities they have in Chainmail, and the class progression tables give “Fighting Capability” for use “in conjunction with” Chainmail. The more familiar combat system, in which you roll a d20 to hit, is labelled as the “Alternative Combat System”. So you can see why people would think they need to use Chainmail to play D&D. The game basically says you do.

So how do you go run D&D combat using Chainmail?

The first thing you need to do is decode the language. Just as Jeff Perren underestimated the appeal of fantasy gaming, Gary Gygax mistakenly assumed that the principal audience for D&D would come from established wargamers. This meant he loaded the D&D rules with a load of jargon that only wargamers would understand, and assumed they would grasp or be familiar with certain concepts that are actually alien.

The first thing that confused me is that, in Chainmail, “die”, and “man” meant the same thing. Each human soldier was assigned one six-sided die, which they would roll to attack in melee combat, provided they were attacking opponents who were armoured similarly to them. Heavy footsoldiers would get one die roll per “man” (yes, the rulebooks used the non-inclusive term), provided they were in melee with a troop of Heavy footsoldiers. If they were fighting fully armoured footsoldiers, the attackers would only get one die per two “men”. (I assume that’s per two men on the attacking side, but to be honest, the rules don’t clarify this.)

This “man”/”die” correspondence carries over to the Fighting Capability in the D&D ruleset, were a level 1 fighter fights as “Man +1”, meaning he would roll 1d6 and add 1 to the result, as long as he (or she, because it’s the effing 21st Century) was attacking a creature who also fights as “1 man”. In D&D, this is also equivalent to “1 hit die” creatures. So “man”, “die”, and “hit die” all basically mean the same thing. This is important, because it suggest that, under Chainmail rules, a troll (6 +3 hit dice) would fight as six “men”, and get six attacks against a level 1 PC, adding 3 to one of the attacks. Harsh!

Another thing about Chainmail is that it doesn’t use a numeric armour class system. Instead, troops are given a descriptive armour class: Light Foot, Heavy Foot, Armoured Foot, Heavy Horse, etc. Because the D&D rules give instructions for calculating numeric armour class based on what armour you purchase, to run Chainmail combat, you would have to “translate” these descriptive terms into an AC value.

I decided, when I tried to run it, that Light Foot mean either leather armour and no shield, or shield and no armour. Heavy foot meant either leather and shield or chainmail and no shield. Armoured foot was full plate, and obviously adding a shield would raise the AC (or, technically, lower it) by one.

Movement in Chainmail is given in inches, and is pretty much identical to movement in the OD&D rules. This is because Chainmail used a scale for distance, with 1 inch equal to ten yards. You would calculate how many yards your troops could move on their turn, convert to inches, and then measure the inches on the sand table. In D&D, this scale would change to 1 inch = ten feet (or one square of graph paper), and would primarily be used in mapping out the dungeon, but the movement rates remained the same. In the Wilderness section of the D&D rules, the scale reverts to 1 inch = ten yards. This movement in inches would actually last into AD&D, and is still used in some retroclones.

The “Man-to-Man” combat rules in Chainmail were basically grafted onto the mass combat rules. The fit isn’t great, and in any case, the rules are copious, confusing, and full of special cases and exceptions, because the aim was realism. In addition to familiar concerns such as armour and hit dice, there was also Weapon Class, and rules for whether or not the attacker struck the first blow, based on weapon class. Basically, if you close into melee with an opponent, but they’re holding a spear and you just have a dagger, they still get to attack first. Because a spear is longer than a dagger. And whereas in mass combat, there is one die per attacker, individual combat used 2d6 for “to hit” rolls. This is assuming the attacker and defender are on equal hit dice, but armour class only affects the number required to hit. Wherever Chainmail indicates a “kill”, translate that to a “hit”.

There are no rules for initiative in OD&D, so you have to use the Chainmail rules: each side rolls a d6, highest goes first, roll again each round (this is basically the rule for initiative in every edition of D&D until 2nd Edition AD&D, which rolled initiative on a d10, lowest going first). However, Chainmail also includes some rather complex and convoluted rules for what actions can occur and in what order. The “basic” version is: movement, including split-moves comes first; then missile fire; then melee. These rules are found in the “normal” section of Chainmail, so they don’t include spells, but check out Matt Finch’s Swords of Jordoba game, where he includes spells with missile fire (though he is using a version of Holmes Basic initiative).

Where it gets complicated is that split-moves can attract “pass through fire” (kind of like a ranged version of an Attack of Opportunity), and melee attacks generally receive a “return blow”, meaning the person you just hit gets to hit back on your turn. (You will probably get a return blow on their turn, if you’re still alive.) Combined with the rules about weapon class, including which weapons can parry, and some even more complex rules about bow ranges, angles, “indirect fire”, etc, this section is quite a daunting read. However, much of it wouldn’t be relevant for your average D&D combat, and the DM (or Referee) has, as always, permission to simplify it as necessary.

I eventually came up with this, my proposed method for running Chainmail combat in a game of Original D&D:

  1. Roll initiative: each side rolls a d6, Highest goes first.
  2. Each combatant can take one action, resolved in the following order: delay (choose to go last); move or split move (see below; missile fire is resolved later; attacks of opportunity are possible); missile fire; melee (see below); spells (spells can be “readied” during the movement phase, but won’t “go off” until the spell phase.
  3. Repeat for the losing side. Any number of other actions are possible, including Parley or fleeing.
  4. Check monster morale if necessary (roll 2d6 under the monster’s morale score to keep fighting).
  5. Roll initiative and repeat as necessary.

Split moves: elves are capable of taking half their movement, firing missiles, then taking the rest of their movement. In this case, the half move is taken first, missile fire is resolved in the missile phase, and the remaining move immediately follows, preceding any melee. If either move brings the attacker within 10 feet of an enemy melee combatant, an attack of opportunity is immediately resolved (I ignored “pass through” fire, as I judged it was highly unlikely that the party would face a band of archers).

Missile fire: mass missile fire is resolved using 1d6 per attacker, as per Chainmail (p11). Each group of attackers must choose targets of the same armour class, scoring the number of hits indicated by the table. Hits are divided as evenly as possible between the targets.

E.g. 6 goblin archers take aim at a party in which a fighter and a cleric are both wearing plate armour and carrying shields (fully armoured), whom they choose as targets. They require a roll of 5 or 6 to inflict even 1 hit. They will gain bonus of +1 to their roll at short range, and a penalty -1 at long range. If the targets were lightly armoured, they would inflict 2 hits regardless of the roll.
Individual missile fire (one attacker and one target) is as in Chainmail (appendix B), with individual targets (rolling 2d6 with the “to hit” number determined by armour class).

Melee: mass melee is not appropriate to first-level PCs or monsters with 1 or fewer hit dice/fighting capability, so the individual combat tables are used (appendices B or E as appropriate). Mass combat (in the case of large numbers of humanoid monsters) is preferably restricted to missiles.
In the first round of combat, the side with the initiative (including the non-surprised party) may charge into melee range, gaining a +1 to hit, but defending at one armour class lower until the start of their next turn. Otherwise it is not permitted to move and attack in the same turn.
Melee combat is resolved according to the Chainmail tables (2d6 to hit, with required number determined by target’s AC).
The attacker will strike first unless the defender is wielding a weapon two or more classes higher or has the higher ground. If the defender survives the attack, they immediately return the blow before their turn in initiative order. A return blow is always one attack, regardless of hit dice or character level (so a troll would only get one attack, not six, as a return blow against a first level fighter).
A defender wielding a weapon 3 classes lower to 1 class higher than the attacker may attempt to parry the attack, subtracting 2 from the attack roll, but forfeiting a return blow.
If the defender’s weapon is 4-7 classes lower than the attacker’s, they may either strike first or parry without forfeiting a return blow, but if the attacker still scores a hit, the defender’s weapon breaks. If the attacker’s weapon is 4-7 classes lower, they get 2 attacks even at first level, provided they are on equal hit dice with the defender.
If the defender’s weapon is 8 or more classes lower, they may parry (-1 only to the attack roll) and strike first without forfeiting a return blow, but if the attacker still hits, they will break the weapon defender’s weapon. If the attacker’s weapon is 8 or more classes lower, they may attack three times, even at first level, provided they are on equal hit dice with the defender.

All of this sounds very complicated. And it is. Normally I’m not one for extra rules and extra complexity, certainly not in the name of “realism”, but I confess I kind of like the Weapon Class rules, because it adds an extra consideration to combat. Truth be told, I find 5e combat boring. Everyone takes turns rolling a d20 until the other side is dead. Weapon class, and the effect it has on the exchange of blows, provides more situations in which the players may have to re-think their standard attack routines.

However, these rules are so cumbersome that I can’t imagine running them in-game without thoroughly preparing each combat, including making notes of how the monsters’ weapon class will affect the turn order.

The only time I actually ran Chainmail combat, it went like this.

A party of three first-level PCs (fighter, magic-user, and cleric), were exploring a total mind-f**k of a dungeon. They entered a room and found six kobolds. Neither side was surprised, and parley broke down (the party didn’t speak Kobold), so we rolled initiative. The kobolds went first. They had leather armour and daggers, so they had to close to melee. They outnumbered the PCs two to one, so they charged, killing the cleric, and wounding the fighter. The fighter’s return blow missed, and the survivors decided to flee. The kobolds did not pursue.

No one had a spear or ranged weapons, so most of those complicated rules never came into play. Perhaps if we had continued to play using Chainmail for combat, more of the intricate mechanics would have come up. But before I could run another session of OD&D, I read this in the second issue of The Strategic Review (from 1975):

CHAINMAIL is primarily a system for 1:20 combat, although
it provides a basic understanding for man-to-man fighting also. The
“Man-To-Man” and “Fantasy Supplement” sections of Chainmail provide
systems for table-top actions of small size. The regular CHAINMAIL
system is for larger actions where man-like types are mainly involved,
i.e. kobolds, goblins, dwarves, orcs, elves, men, hobgoblins, etc. It
is suggested that the alternate system in D & D be used to resolve the
important melees where principal figures are concerned, as well as
those involving the stronger monsters. [emphasis mine]

What follows is then a long description of a combat between a single fighter and some orcs, which plays out more or less like any D&D combat you or I have ever run: attackers roll a d20 to hit, higher is better, roll damage on a success.

So what the f**k did I bother with all that Chainmail BS for?

Joking aside, I did actually learn several things from my experimentation with Chainmail. I learned, in a fairly hands-on way, some of the history and background of my favourite game. I was exposed to some tactical combat considerations which have been lost in the modern editions of the game. And I learned that there is nothing “wrong” with simply rolling a d20 to hit. In fact, Gary Gygax always intended that you do so, unless your players will commanding large armies of “man-types” (by which he meant “humanoids”; Gary Gygax was many things, but he was not a feminist, at least not back then).

Anyway, I hope this examination of Chainmail hasn’t been tl;dr. In the near future I will be writing an in-depth post on the original Dungeons & Dragons rules (the first three booklets), and there were certain basic concepts from Chainmail that I wanted to address separately, before I started on that post. So trust me: this is going somewhere.

And, seriously, don’t use Chainmail for D&D.


Author: Robert

I'm a freelance editor and stay-at-home dad. I've been running Dungeons & Dragons for my daughter, son, and their cousins for about two years.

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