Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Understanding Man-to-Man Combat

For its little recognition, Chainmail, the wargaming forefather to the Dungeons & Dragons game, provides a remarkably robust and innovative combat system for small scale skirmishes. It achieves this in just under two pages, in a brief section entitled "Man-to-Man Combat," so short that one might have easily overlooked it. Yet, it was these rules, combined with the Fantasy Supplement, that initially inspired Dungeons & Dragons. To get an idea of what those early proto-D&D games may have looked like, we must take another look at the Chainmail system.

It is worth mentioning that many have tried to implement Chainmail into their games of D&D and have historically run into difficulties. Jason Vey offers the most concise method in his essay, "Forbidden Lore," although his focus on the mass battle rules is clearly contradictory to Gygax's own claim that they were never used with the Fantasy Supplement that inspired early D&D. In particular, players have always wrestled with the mysterious Fighting Capability statistic inDungeons & Dragons. Perhaps the most misunderstood aspect of the game, this single entry has doubtlessly contributed to the mass adoption of the "Alternative Combat System" that propelled the 20-sided die to its legendary status amongst gamers (well, that and perhaps those early roleplayers were too stingy to pick up Chainmail in the first place).

The crux of the issue, I argue, is the fact that the Chainmail system intended for D&D distinguishes between two categories of combat - normal combat and fantastic combat. The former involves regular combatants on at least one side, which includes non-heroic humans, goblins, orcs and the other "smaller creatures" (Chainmail 44) that loosely adumbrate a group which would eventually be known as 1 hit die creatures in later versions of D&D. The latter, on the other hand, involves fantastic opponents on both sides of the melee, including dragons, ogres and heroes alike (basically, combatants with two or more hit dice). While normal combat used the man-to-man combat system Chainmail, complete with armour classes and multiple attacks and wounds, fantastic combat featured a simple matrix, where powerful opponents are cross-referenced and a single dice roll determines who is slain outright.

Thus, entries like "3 Men or Hero - 1", which have always confused players, indicate the 3rd level Fighting Man fights off mundane foes with three attacks, but also has the grit to assail a fantastic enemy as a sub-hero (with a -1 to his roll on the Fantasy Combat Table) in an all-out attack. Unfortunately, this attempt to bring graduated degrees of fighting capability to Chainmail is an admittedly inelegant addition to that game's originally seamless mechanics. Moreover, the confusing decision to make fantastic strikes inflict a mere "hit" in Volume III further undermines the original heroics found in the Fantasy Supplement. This last rule I recommend ignoring or revising for those who want the true flavor of the original fantasy campaigns of Lake Geneva.

With the peculiarities of the D&D reference to Chainmail aside, it is worth looking at the rather innovative aspects of the Man-to-Man Combat rules, with the concession that these two pages are simply packed with ideas and a summary can hardly do justice to them.

What first stands out is the melee range - 3" or 30 yards. This goes to show that, even with miniatures on the table, positioning in these early games was rather relative. It was assumed that, within a game turn (1 minute), you could maneuver to engage any foe within 30 yards (making this a radius of influence around your combatant). This is incredibly liberating, especially when compared to the neurotic obsession with grid positioning in later versions of D&D.

Once engaged in melee, the order of blows begins with the attacker (thus likely by initiative order), unless the other side has a much longer weapon or higher ground. In later rounds, the order of strikes might switch to the opponent with a smaller (and thus faster) weapon, again as long as there is no terrain disadvantage. To this extent, all weapons fall into 12 classes, with the lighter and shorter weapons occupying the lower numbers. Smaller and faster weapons can be used to parry bigger ones, with chances for ripostes and disarming strikes. Additionally, the greater the difference in size between opposing weapons, the more attacks the lighter weapon will be able to inflict each round. While the bigger weapons have the advantage of reach and superior attack values versus armour, this choice is not an obvious one.

The final major area covered are the rules for mounted combat. These are probably the best rules for mounted combat available for D&D, and include offensive and defensive bonuses for the rider, attacks by the mount (according to quality), attacks made against the mount, attempts to unhorse the rider, rules for falling off the mount (and becoming stunned), remounting and of course the special attack values some weapons provide against prone foes. There is also a complete set of jousting rules, although this is a whole other system perhaps to be covered another day.

Overall, the man-to-man combat rules from Chainmail, in addition to the fantasy rules, provide a well thought out and engaging system. When combined with the three little books of the original game, one can clearly picture the early origins of Dungeons & Dragons, steeped in medieval wargaming and fantasy heroics. As I have commented before, this speaks to the traditional fantasy origins of a game that quickly became defined by the very different feel of uncompromisingly gritty survival horror.


  1. Really interesting write up. There's one bit that could be misleading though :
    "This last rule I recommend ignoring or revising for those who want the true flavor of the original fantasy campaigns of Lake Geneva."

    If you mean the miniatures battles played with Chainmail, then sure, but if you mean the original role playing, D&D "fantasy campaign" then you've got the wrong town. Gygax and company in Lake Geneva used his "aternate" combat system - the now familiar one - from the beginning. They never used Chainmail for combat in the games. That would be Arneson and his boys in the Twin Cities. It's largely from Arnesons experimentations and adaptations of Chainmail that the Chainmail references show up in the 3LBB's and in Supplement II.

    1. Evan just re-read this and still find it to be a dang fine blog entry. I'm sure it is what first clued me to the fantastic/non-fantastc distinction - and led to the use of that concept in the Champions of ZED rules.
      Anyway I wanted to comment on my own comment to say that I was wrong to attribute the 3lbb's CM references to "Arneson's Experimentations and adaptations". Turns out, most of those references in the 3lbb's were created by Gygax, regardless of what Arneson may or may not have been doing with CM.



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