Tuesday, February 8, 2022

Dungeons and Dragons, Chainmail & Outdoor Survival - The Intersection of Wargame, Boardgame and the RPG Ur-Text

When one reads the Three Little Brown Booklets (3LBB) which constituted the first publication of the Original Dungeons and Dragons rules, several issues become apparent.  The first issue is that they are a product of their time, written by people who were charting a course into something new and whose potential they had yet to fully grasp.  The second thing is that the authors were not masters of explication, with many assumptions made of the reader which turned out to be unwarranted in many instances.  The third is that the original release of D&D does not stray far from its wargaming roots, it is said to require a copy of Chainmail to play. 

In this blog article, we will examine how much of a requirement this turned out to be and how the Chainmail rules could have and likely may have been incorporated into early D&D combat and other procedures.  At the end we will also consider how well Outdoor Survival, also mentioned in the 3LBBs, is incorporated into D&D.  Hopefully one can impart some of the challenges in trying to understand a ruleset from almost fifty years ago and how interpretation informed by experience is vital to understanding the development of the Role Playing Game.

A Very Brief Summary of how Chainmail Evolved into D&D

When Dungeons and Dragons was originally released in 1974, it was developed as an extension of an existing set of fantasy wargaming rules.  The subtitle of the D&D game is "Rules for Fantastic Medieval Wargames: Campaigns Playable with Paper and Pencil and Miniature Figures."  In a typical wargame, one "unit" could represent a squad, a company, a regiment or even a division but generally not a single combatant.  Fantasy gaming tends to emphasize the individual champion or a small band of warriors over a mass of troops, and combat with scores of ogres and hippogriffs and wizards alongside men at arms tends to be a rather difficult affair to manage.  E. Gary Gygax and Jeff Perren published a set of rules for medieval miniature wargaming in a book entitled Chainmail in 1971 and included a fantasy supplement which tried to detail combat with mighty super heroes and terrible dragons and other monsters.  

Fights between a heroic group of combatants and a evil lord and his minions was just not well-suited for mass combat rules.  Moreover, as Dave Arneson presumably found, rules for mass combat really did not work well when heroes were descending into dank caves and foul dungeons.  Chainmail did not really allow for much in the way of individual characterization, development or specialization.  He took inspiration from the Chainmail fantasy supplement and developed his wargames into an ongoing proto-RPG campaign called Blackmoor.  Gygax invited Arneson to his home to see how his campaign worked.  Gygax liked what he saw and the two men collaborated on a set of rules to simulate one on one combat with miniatures and exploration in the underworld and the wilderness which would be published as Dungeons and Dragons by a new company, Tactical Studies Rules (TSR).

Combat, OD&D and Chainmail

With the brief history overview over, let us turn to content of the 3LBBs.  (As OD&D encompasses the later released Supplements I-IV, which greatly expand and modify the game, I choose to use the term 3LBBs to refer to the rules included in the original D&D box).  As in any edition of D&D, a player's first task is to create a character: rolling ability scores, choosing a race/class, picking an alignment, rolling for starting gold and buying equipment.  Once all the players have made their characters, the party can begin the adventure, typically exploring a dungeon, ruined tower, cave complex or other place where unsavory beings may lurk and fabulous treasures may be won.  Sooner or later the party will encounter hostile non-player characters, a.k.a. monsters, and will have to fight them.  

As for how combat was to be resolved, the 3LBBs gave the "referee" (soon to be known as the Dungeon Master) two options to handle combat.  The first was referencing the Chainmail rules, the second was the "Alternative Combat System."  The Alternative Combat System (ACS) should be familiar to anyone who ever played Classic D&D or 1st Edition AD&D, it uses a table of to-hit rolls against armor class and the player must roll equal or above that number next to the armor class to score a hit.  The ACS uses a d20 for a hit roll and d4s, d8s, d12s and d6s for other rolls while Chainmail only uses d6s.  The ACS would very quickly become the standard for D&D and would be the only option for AD&D and Classic D&D.  Gygax acknowledges that it would be the standard for one on one combat as early in TSR's newsletter The Strategic Review (SR), #2, in the summer of 1975:

Combat: 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.

If one analogizes to reading historical fiction, it could be said that reading AD&D's principal rulebooks or Holmes Basic is like reading Swift or Defoe, the 3LBBs Shakespeare, but trying to make sense of Chainmail without a wargaming background is like reading Chaucer in his original Middle English.  A newcomer to wargaming may find that a more inscrutable rulebook has scarcely been written by man.  When reading the 3LBBs in 2022 with a near omniscient store of knowledge available, we can safely ignore Chainmail unless we want to reenact the Battles of Helm's Deep or the Pelennor Fields as might have been done in the mid-1970s.  Even then you can also choose to use Swords & Spells, which was written after Supplement IV by Gygax to use as an alternative to Chainmail for mass fantasy combat in D&D.  In 1974-75, guidance from experienced players could be very difficult to come by unless they lived in near Lake Geneva (Wisconsin/Gygax) or the Twin Cities (of Minneapolis & St. Paul, Minnesota/Arneson), knew about and subscribed to The Strategic Review or its successor, The Dungeon Magazine, or received a reply to a letter requesting rules clarifications.  

For this exercise, I will assume that someone is trying to figure out how to run combat using the Chainmail and D&D rules as written.  First. let's take the Fighting Man class and look at its level progression:

Magic-Users and Clerics start out with just "Man" as their Fighting Capability and eventually the Magic User gets "Wizard" Fighting Capability.  In Supplement I: Greyhawk, Thieves would get their own table, as would Druids in Supplement III: Eldritch Wizary, but Supplement II: Blackhawk does not include these designations for the Monk and Assassin classes.  This suggests that the Chainmail rules were already deprecated in Arneson's campaign (as he wrote Supplement II) but still had some currency in Gygax's Greyhawk campaign (he co-wrote Supplements I and III.) 

So what do these various designations mean?  In Chainmail, combat ability is designated by two things, the type of unit that is fighting and, for the fantasy supplement, the number of men a designation represents.  So, Heroes are worth 4 Men and Superheroes are worth 8 Men in Chainmail.  What kind of "Men" Heroes and Superheroes represent will depend on their armor and weaponry and mounts.  Men for this purpose come in three categories, Light Foot, Heavy Foot and Armored Foot and if mounted, Light Horse, Medium Horse and Heavy Horse.  Heroes fighting as Armored Foot would typically be wearing plate armor, Heavy Foot with chain mail and Light Foot with leather armor.  Wizards fight as two Medium Foot or two Medium Horse (if mounted) even though Magic-Users cannot normally wear armor or use any weapons other than a dagger.

When dealing with men-type opponents, you compare your "unit" to the enemy "unit" on in Chainmail  Appendix A - Combat Tables.  Let us take a Superhero against eight Orcs.  The Superhero fights as Eight Men, so we could assume he can attack each Orc (this is stated as such in SR #2).  The Superhero is armed with a Magical Sword and is wearing Plate Mail, so he is deemed Armored Foot.  The Orcs are defend as Heavy Foot according to Chainmail Appendix D - Fantasy Reference Table.  The Superhero gets 8 die + 1 die for the Magic Sword to attack the Orcs.  

The Combat Table indicates that the Superhero needs to roll a 5 or a 6 on a d6 to "kill" an Orc.  He rolls the following : 5, 6, 1, 6, 4, 3, 4, 4, 2.  Here the 3LBB rules state that a Chainmail "drive back" or a "kill" is a hit in 3LBB, so then you roll for damage (1d6 + 1 for the Magic Sword) and subtract that amount from the defenders hit points.  So in this round the Superhero has hit three Orcs.  Any surviving Orcs get to roll to hit the Superhero.  

If this is not complex enough, there is another system in Chainmail for combat against more monstrous or unusual opponents.  Appendix E - Fantasy Combat Table lists to-hit rolls for Balrogs, Dragons, Elementals, Ents & Trees, Giants, Heroes, Lycanthropes, Rocs, Super Heroes, Trolls & Ogres, Wight & Ghouls, Wizards and Wraiths & Nazgul.  This seems to be the intended method when titans and undead of the fantasy world clash.  On this table, the attacker has to roll 2d6 and compare it with the number assigned to the defending opponent, and if he rolls at or over the number, the defender is driven back or killed (either counts as a hit in the 3LBBs).  A magic sword adds +1 to the attacker's roll, magic armor -1 to the attacker's roll.  The 3LBBs have many other fantastic monsters like Purple Worms, Gargoyles, Medusae and Black Puddings which have no corresponding entry in Chainmail, so the referee must analogize these monsters to an existing Chainmail monster or craft new hit rolls for them based on their relative power in the 3LBBs.  

There is also a third system described in Chainmail for resolving combat which Gygax references in the quotation above.  This is the Man to Man Combat Rules, and they are explicitly intended for one on one combat. The weapon is compared to the attacker's armor and 2d6 is rolled, if the number is greater than or equal to the number in Appendix B - Man to Man Melee Table, then the defender is killed.  There is some balance among the weapons, attacks and armor, for example an attacker wearing leather armor armed with a dagger requires a 12 to kill a defender wearing plate armor, but when the defender attacks, wielding a halberd, he needs only an 8 to kill. A defender with a lower class weapon has certain advantages versus a higher class weapon like multiple attacks per round.  Nothing in these rules mention "Light Foot" or "Medium Horse" or multiple Men. There is a second table for missile weapons against armor with three range values indicating the roll required to hit. The 3LBBs mention the Man-to-Man rules in the section dealing with naval combat, where they are used once a ship is boarded and melee is undertaken.  This could get a little cumbersome with dozens of attackers attempting to board and capture a ship with an equal number of defenders.

Other Significant Contexts in Which Chainmail is Evoked in D&D

One rather glaring omission from the 3LBBs is any rule for determining who goes first in combat, what would later be described as initiative.  There is a suggestion regarding initiative in the description of Dexterity, but that is all Gxgax and Arneson wrote in the 3LBBs on the subject.  Chainmail has two options for movement.  In the first option, each side rolls a die and the opponent with the highest die chooses to move first or last at his option.  With the second, each side performs have their moves simultaneously, resolves any missile fire and melee contact, and then completes their move.  The Man-to-Man Combat rules in Chainmail have further nuance about whose blow strikes first depending on many factors but really need some interpretation to resolve the issue of who is the initial attacker (by the movement roll it seems).  In SR #2, Gygax indicates that initiative is checked by rolling 2d6 per side every round adjusted by high Dexterity.  As Gygax does not say how Dexterity adjustments work in this instance, it is assumed that the missile fire adjustment from the 3LBBs is used.

Chainmail is referenced in other places in the 3LBBs other than dealing with typical combat.  Chainmail can be used for follower/retainer morale checks.  The method outlined in the 3LBBs is not a model of clarity of explanation, but if a certain amount of interpretation is applied it can work.  Morale in Chainmail is checked after melee combat and after taking excessive casualties, but post melee combat morale checks assume more numbers than a typical D&D battle, so it does not work well without modification.  Chainmail morale checks due to losses is more adaptable for humanoid-type enemies, but for more fantastical or larger creatures it does not really work.

Chainmail is also referred to for jousting.  Jousting in Chainmail is kind of a rock-scissors-paper affair where each contestant chooses which part of the opponent's shield to target and which defensive position to adopt.  Appendix C - Jousting Matrix (no Chainmail Appendix is left unreferenced in the 3LBBs) determines the result of a pass by comparing the attacking point to what happens for each defensive posture.  The defender can be unhorsed, the attacker can miss, knock the defender's helm off, the lance can glance off the defender's shield or break or the defender can be unhorsed or injured.  These either gain or lose a side points or have consequences for the next pass.  It is assumed that for combinations with more than one result that a die must be rolled to see what happens.  The system is curious but does not take into account Fighting Men of different ability, so modifying the ACS slightly would work better for D&D.

Chainmail is referenced in the descriptions of Elves and Hobbits/Halflings in the Men and Magic book.  Elves get bonuses to attack certain creatures as outlined in Chainmail and Hobbits/Halflings have "deadly accuracy" with missiles as stated in Chainmail.  Elves have better chances to attack Goblins, Orcs, Heroes, Superheroes, Wizards, Wraiths, Wights and Lycanthropes as indicated in Chainmail.  One can either use the Chainmail attack rules or make something up like a + 1 to hit when using the ACS.  Similarly Hobbits/Halflings are 1.5x as effective as their actual numbers for missile fire in Chainmail.  However, as this is unlikely to be something that is routinely encountered in D&D, I think it is likely a +1 to hit bonus would have been applied using the ACS for these characters.  

Outdoor Survival & OD&D

Like Chainmail, the game Outdoor Survival (OD) is listed in the Equipment list (along with dice, graph paper, notebooks etc.) for D&D, but is not referenced until the third of the 3LBBs, The Underworld and Wilderness Adventures.  OD is one of the myriad Bookshelf games published by Avalon Hill from the 1960s to the 1980s.  The game comes with a board of the "wilderness" in three sections  that are placed together side by side due to the size of the boardgame.  The board has hex tiles of various types of terrain, mountains, woods, desert, marsh, clear terrain, rivers, fords and trails.  The 3LBBs indicate that the buildings on the OD map indicate towns (9 in total) and the ponds or catch basins represent castles (26 in total).  Hexes with animals on them were not given any special designation, but it would be very fitting if the authors of D&D designated such hexes as a goblin or orc camp.  OD would never be referred to again after the 3LBBs.

The map is intended to be used for off-hand adventures in the wilderness, not for finding lands to build castles and strongholds.  The game also instructs that the referee should make a private map of the area around the dungeon's location or a potential area for a player's castle.  Using the ideas and concepts of OD, one could construct a completely new map for use with D&D.  

Movement penalties across terrain is stated as the rules used in OD, but the movement rates are given in the 3LBBs.  In one instance, the 3LBBs contradicts OD as the 3LBBs says it takes three movement points to move through swamp but OD gives four movement points.  Also, an unmounted man can cross three hexes per day, but as mountains, swamps and rivers cost three movement points, a strict reading of the rules suggests that these constitute impenetrable barriers for foot travel.  OD has a life level index chart which indicates how much strength you character has to move across terrain and can go up or down over time.  I would think that common sense would come into play here to suggest that despite any movement penalty, an unmounted player could travel at least one hex per day.  

The final invocation of the OD rules is for getting lost in the wilderness.  The 3LBBs state that there is a chance that one can become lost while traveling through the wilderness.  If the players become lost, then they must roll a d6 to determine their Direction Ability from the Random Direction Chart printed on the OD gameboard and may only make one change in the direction once moving.  It does not indicate how that chance is determined.  I believe the chance should be determined by the rules given in the Lost Scenario, Scenario 1, of OD.  These rules state a roll of 1 means that one take the random path in a straight line, 2 & 3 allows for one change in movement after the random path is determined and 4-6 allows the player to choose the direction in a straight line.  As these OD rules result in too high a likelihood of being lost, I think that most people who actually had a copy of OD to employ used the Direction Ability given in the Survival Scenario, Scenario 2, where only a 1 indicates lost with a change permitted.  This seems closer in line to what the designers of D&D intended.  


  1. I have, of course, seen references to 3LBB, but this is the first time that I have seen them analyzed in depth. I have played AD&D 1st edition rules (mid-1980s) and a little bit with 3rd(?) edition more recently, but I have no knowledge of the earlier editions or versions.

    This post was really interesting, thank-you.