Initial thoughts on Chainmail fantasy game

I’ve had two or three days to think about the Chainmail fantasy game I’m considering, and it’s just about moved from “this might be neat” to “OK, let’s get started.”

The first and central thing to think about is what kind of things you, as the controller of military units or characters, would actually do in this game.  The most obvious answer would be refereed, two-sided scenarios in a fantasy setting, episodic at first and then on a campaign basis when and if I’m able to build some campaign rules I like — “wargames campaign,” not “RPG campaign” — from scratch or using Featherstone et al.

(My girlfriend got me Bath’s seminal ancient campaigning rules as a gift about six years ago, but unfortunately they didn’t come out until after Chainmail had been released so I’m leaving them alone for now.)

In other words, under a scenario model, the referee would, using points values, terrain rules, etc. as a rough yardstick, design two army lists, terrain, and victory conditions for a set-piece scenario involving two opposing players.  Depending on the army compositions and the needs of the scenario, it might be designed for mass (1:20 or other), man-to-man, or fantasy combat, or whatever combination thereof.  Even in episodic mode, the scenarios would all take place in the same setting (in my case, Faz) and “history.”

Victory conditions might include holding a pass, closing an otherworldly gate, defending a fortification against a vastly superior force for a given duration before succumbing, slaying a marauding horde of monsters, or just meeting on a plain and beating the fuck out of each other until retreat or rout.

I do not see serial dungeon adventuring as a natural outgrowth of a medieval-fantasy wargame.  There might be scenarios that take place in dungeon-like environments — sacking a temple, exploring a ruin, sending the Manazon High Guard to roust some rogue demons from the oubliettes below the Ministry of Mercy, etc. — but 1:1 traipsing down corridors is not what Chainmail is built for and it’s not what it’s particularly good at, at least straight from the tin.  It’s a fine place to go but it takes a leap to get there.

The decision about what kind of game or games to develop isn’t one I can really make overnight in the throes of an initial burst of enthusiasm, so I need to think on it for a bit before picking a direction.  I don’t know how much the end product would look like a character-based RPG.


— “Characters” are fragile in Chainmail.  In Chainmail, certain fantastic opponents sidestep the usual “1 hit = 1 kill” convention and require either a certain number of simultaneous or accumulated hits to kill.  Thus, Heroes, Super Heroes, Giants and the like are nearly impossible to take down in normal mass combat; Heroes and Super Heroes are, for practical purposes, impossible to kill in man-to-man combat.  But when fighting other such troops on the Fantasy Combat Table, a hit is a kill, period.  A Super Hero becomes the equivalent of a D&D character with a great AC and 1 hit point — one unlucky roll and he’s out of the campaign.

Accordingly, barring rules changes, there’s not much point to thinking of yourself as playing “your guy.”  It’s a wargame, every guy is literally fungible with other similar guys, and you’ll probably play different guys in the next scenario anyway.

— Speaking of those rules changes:  I don’t know if an experience mechanic is necessary or a good idea, especially at first.  Some campaign rulesets used them, most that I’ve seen did not.  Once you start giving figures “experience” and greater combat efficacy, you start down the road to playing a character.  You may want to do that, or not.

I’ve considered a simple experience mechanic whereby after any battle, you can start an index card for one surviving figure, whether a normal unit at whatever scale or a fantastic creature.  You mark a tally on the card along with the name of the battle.  In any subsequent battle, that figure can mark off the tally to either a) roll a saving throw against any 1 hit, negating it if the roll (9+, something like that) is successful, or b) pass a morale check that it would have otherwise failed.  There would be details to work out but it’s pretty simple and not overpowered in the way that “this unit gets a +1 to hit!” would be in a 2d6 system.

Again, not sure if that’s the sort of thing you would want.  Piling a couple tallies onto a Hero or Wizard gets you into player character territory and you can take it in that direction if you choose, perhaps running refereed scenarios in which multiple players cooperate on a 1:1 scale, potentially gaining more tallies in the process.  That’s more or less D&D.

— The Chainmail Fantasy Supplement was clearly developed to meet the nascent demand for a way to play out things like the Battle of Five Armies.  It’s thus Tolkien-heavy, and what isn’t Tolkien is traditional Western European.  If you don’t want to run that, you have to make your own stuff.

I don’t want to run that.  Faz is more orientalistic, decrepit, and weird, drawing from Vance’s Dying Earth, CAS’s Zothique, HPL’s Dreamlands, and Dunsany’s Pegana.  So it’d need different monsters, magical effects, and so on.

(Explicit inclusion of ERB’s Barsoom is a D&D-ism.  I love Barsoom but again, nothing in the game’s concepts really suggests throwing Warhoons into the mix unless you’re into that from the beginning.)

Luckily, it’s easy to develop new troop types, monsters, and magic items.  At the most basic level, you can just say “Lizardites = Heavy Foot.”  Or “this magic staff gives +1 on rolls against spell complexity.”  Or you can go more in-depth with it for more complex monsters like demons and the like.

— I don’t really care about accurate simulation of the primacy of disciplined polearm and missile troops in medieval warfare, so I can streamline or jettison any rules that obstruct the goal I do have, which is running a fantasy game.  Or rules that I get tired of trying to understand.  Like D&D, it’s easy to excise or graft on modular subsystems without unintended cascade effects like you might get in a more mechanically unified ruleset.

That’s all for now, will post updates.  Apologies for typos and incoherence, as I’m trying to knock this out before getting to work on actual worky things.


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