Chainmail and OD&D magic systems

There are two obvious ways to handle the magic system in a Chainmail/D&D hybrid:  the CM system with concessions to D&D, or the D&D system with concessions to CM.  This is complicated by the fact that both systems are incomplete and ambiguous.

The mainly-CM way gives each magic-user a “spell capability” category.  In 3rd edition CM, the categories are seer-magician-warlock-sorcerer-wizard.  In early CM, the seer category hadn’t yet been added, and I think having “magician” as the lowest level is probably correct for D&D purposes, as seers are very likely to fuck up even low complexity spells.

Depending on your wizard’s spell capability, he has a better or worse chance on 2d6 of casting a spell of a given complexity, and of it “going off” on the round he casts it rather than the next round.  There’s a nebulous rule about “the number of spells [a wizard] is able to manage” but it’s not defined further and there wasn’t any widely available contemporary clarification until someone recently dug up “The Battle of the Brown Hills,” which now sheds a little light outside of the text on the way Gygax did it.  “Manage” might mean  the number of spells you can memorize and can cast once each in a battle, or the number you can memorize and cast however many times you can roll successfully to do so.

In D&D, it’s explicitly stated that your magic-user could cast a memorized spell only once in a day.  It’s not so stated in CM.

In CM, your wizard, regardless of his spell capability, can”manage” and attempt to cast a spell of high complexity — a magician-level wizard can attempt to cast up to a level 6 complexity spell, albeit with a very small likelihood of success.  Again, this is explicitly not the case in D&D.

If adapting the CM system, I think the way to go is to put a character-level-based entry for “spell capability” on the D&D magic-user class table (levels 1-6 = magician, 7-8 = warlock, 9-10 = sorcerer, 11+ = wizard).  The spell slots listed on the D&D table are the number and complexity of the spells that can be memorized, just like “normal” D&D.  However, the D&D “fire and forget” rule would be discarded in favor of the interpretation of the CM rule that allows repeated casting of a memorized spell.  (Although it’s invariably desirable to emulate Vance in atmospheric matters, we’re not mechanically beholden to the Mazirian magic system.)

Thus, a 1st level magic-user can potentially cast a sleep spell multiple times on a delve, but he’d have to roll 7+ each time he wanted to.  This is obviously good for the magic-user on one hand and bad on the other.

(You’d need analogous spell capability entries on the cleric table, from say “adept” to “patriarch.”)

The next issue that immediately springs to mind is the matter of saving throws.  I think you have to decide whether to use CM rolls for success or D&D saving throws.  The former focuses on the level of the caster, the second focuses on the level of the target.

The way saving throws against spells work in D&D is, again, ambiguous, but you can infer that characters and monsters are meant to have saving throws against spells.  There’s an entire saving throw category for “spells,” and the “wands” category explicitly provides that it includes “polymorph” wands, which implies that other polymorph effects are in a different category, presumably spells.  Some spells explicitly mention saving throws (hold person, confusion, feeblemind, disintegrate, the finger of death).

As your character goes up in level, you have a correspondingly better chance of saving vs. a spell.  This rewards advancement and gives the illusion of control over the success or failure of a roll.  These are good things from a player’s perspective, and it makes sense that an experienced fighting man or wizard would be better at saving vs. spells.

Then again, it also makes sense that a high-level wizard would have a better chance of making his spells effective.

If you generally base the likelihood of success on the wizard’s level rather than on the target’s, you probably have to do that instead of allowing saving throws against most spells, as forcing/allowing both would nerf magic-users pretty hard.  BUT basing the success on a roll by a non-player character wizard gives the sense that the result is somehow less in the target’s hands, even if the probabilities end up exactly the same.  For some reason, the attacker rolling to hit instead of the defender rolling to dodge seems OK, but the attacker rolling to cast instead of the defender rolling to save does not.  Maybe it’s just me, or it’s an ingrained thing.

(Note that the only “spells” that can be saved against in CM arefire ball and lightning bolt, and then only by heroes, super heroes, and certain fantastical creatures.  However, they’re repeatable abilities in CM and didn’t become spells until D&D.)

If you pick the CM way to do things, you really have to junk saving throws vs. spells to some degree, probably almost thoroughly.  I’d definitely keep saving throws in place for other effects, and for fire ball and lightning bolt and maybe a few others as well.

So, in deciding how to proceed, I think there are two practical considerations:

1.  Do you want magic-users to cast a spell a limited number of times with guaranteed success, or an unlimited number of times without the guarantee?

2.  Do you want the success or failure of a spell to depend on the caster’s skill or the target’s?

(One interesting avenue that the CM method opens up is an allowance for the efficacy of a wizard’s magic wand or staff, which could add a +1 to the casting roll or whatever.)

Anyway, I apologize for being all over the place, this wasn’t a planned post and I’m thinking it through as I type.  I’m actually leaning towards the CM method just for the sake of trying out something different from traditional D&D, but doing so undoubtedly has implications I haven’t teased out.

Going back

I spent one more evening working on the “Chainmail only” concept.  Well, that and re-reading The Dying Earth, also known as “the Platonic ideal from which I throw my idiot shadows.”

The problem, which I now believe is insurmountable, is that Chainmail is a wargame.  If you want to play Chainmail, you play a wargame.  If you don’t want to play a wargame, well, Chainmail is not for you.

I want to play Chainmail.  I want to play a wargame.  Unfortunately, I can’t play a wargame online because you just can’t, and in real life I can’t realistically scramble enough people to regularly play a heavily kitbashed version of a kind of shitty 1971 game.  By “enough people,” I mean “one people.”  Once or twice, sure, but not regularly.

So I have what I think are some good ideas and literally no way to play the game I want to make, so I need to recalibrate what I want.

Obviously, OD&D plus Chainmail is doable because other people have done it.  The degree to which to integrate Chainmail is a matter of taste; it was developed for 1:20 gaming with fungible units, so if you’re moving to a model where man-to-man combat with distinct “characters” is the default, you have to make some sacrifices on one end or the other.

I believe I’ve adequately wrapped my head around Chainmail enough to use it as the combat system for OD&D.  I actually prefer the 2d6 man-to-man melee table to the alternative combat system; for one thing, the “armor protective types” ascending from 1 through 8 make much more sense in the context of, say, +1 magic armor, than the descending “armor classes” of 9 through 2.  So it’s a good thing that forward-thinking gamers discovered that 30 years after Chainmail.

For another, it integrates “weapon type vs. armor type” on one table with one roll, which is operationally less of a pain in the ass than say the later Greyhawk system.  I had a unified matrix for that sort of thing, the idea of which I stole from the Ryth Chronicle, but that did not exist during the initial OD&D era.

“Fighting capability” actually wraps seamlessly into both the mass combat system, which is very usable even at a small scale (it works out kind of like Tunnels & Trolls with initiative), and the man-to-man system, which probably becomes the default.  If you want to at least preserve the possibility of using the mass combat system — probably a good idea — you’d want to provide armor protective type and troop type ratings for your monsters and an eyeball method for assigning it to characters based on current arms and armor.

Hit dice function as both man-to-man fighting capability for monsters and accumulative hits for everyone so the “1 hit = 1 kill” and “simultaneous hits” concepts fall by the wayside.  I think the Fantasy Combat Table is probably another casualty of an “update” to OD&D because of a) the adoption of hit dice and weapon damage and b) it’s not designed for a mid-level world where multiple combatants on each side in every combat are “fantastics.”

The spell complexity system from Chainmail is another casualty, primarily because of the move to a constrained battle environment and 1:1 scale.  If your wizard is tossing lightning bolts, casting darkness, and shifting terrain on a battlefield-wide scale, potentially affecting hundreds of troops, there needs to be some limiting mechanism on the casting itself or the game devolves into blowing the points on a wizard and unerringly spamming the most powerful spells until you run out.  This is not as much of an issue in 1:1 gaming when you mainly want to charm one guy or open a locked door to a flagstone cubicle.  Chainmail does have a predecessor to the level-based Vancian system in that lower-level wizards can only “manage” a certain number of spells and can’t effectively cast spells too high for their level, it’s just more explicitly codified in OD&D.  (Some otherwise puzzling spell inclusions like massmorph do make a lot more sense if they’re understood as Chainmail legacies intended for use with mass combat.)

The point is that a very large percentage of the concepts in Chainmail can be integrated with OD&D to the extent that they haven’t been already in a modified form.  Obviously, some parts of the first three books assume that’s what you’re doing.

When and if I distribute my fantasy campaign rules, I’d like to include some of my “just Chainmail” ideas as a short appendix or whatever.  But for the main Faz system, I think I probably have to go back to 1974 OD&D + Chainmail as the foundation, and I will probably retain 1:1 “traditional” adventuring in the Underworld as the primary scenario model.

Anyway, this and G+ are my sounding boards for puzzling out potential projects, so thanks for enduring that.

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.

Chainmail fantasy campaign game

For years now, OD&D has been my preferred ruleset for kitbashing.  (If I had to sit down and play on short notice or wanted to play an “old school” game without frontloading a lot of labor, I’d use B/X.)  Lately, I’ve been integrating more and more Chainmail to fill the famous gaps in the original 1974 rules, to the point that my Faz rules were turning into “OD&D&C” rather than a D&D game in the normal sense.

A couple people have brought up the idea of dropping the OD&D entirely and just working on a Chainmail game.  I like this idea.  One problem with running the sort of deliberately naive OD&D game I prefer is that it’s so tough to strip out the cruft of 42 years of D&D-isms.  With a Chainmail-only game, that problem disappears to a great degree: there are countless OD&D games, including mine, that use Chainmail to some degree, but they all have an unavoidable D&D resonance.  That problem doesn’t exist with Chainmail because few people alive have played it enough to have internalized any preconceptions.

Also, it seems fun to start at the beginning and see where things could have, under different circumstances, turned out differently.  You can see the seeds of D&D in Chainmail but it’s a completely different game and there’s not much pushing it down the particular path that Arneson took for his Blackmoor game.

I’ve already got a lunch hour and part of an evening invested in going back through Chainmail with an eye towards using it as a stand-alone fantasy game and it looks challenging, entertaining, and doable, which is the perfect combination.

The goal:  Use Chainmail, and the materials available at the time, to develop a fantasy campaign game.

The obvious questions that have to be unpacked and answered to do that:

  1.  How the fuck do I play Chainmail?
  2. What materials were available at the time?
  3. How do I make this into a playable fantasy game?
  4. How do I integrate campaign play?

Not “Chainmail + D&D.”  Not “Blackmoor emulation.”  Not “use Chainmail to emulate what Chainmail turned into.”  There is no “what Chainmail turned into” because D&D doesn’t exist.  The idea is to turn Chainmail into what I’d end up with if I opened it in March 1971, looked at the Fantasy Supplement, and thought (as others did) “this is the actual cool part, what do I do with it?”

That doesn’t necessarily involve dungeon adventuring, and it probably doesn’t with any centrality.  I’d wonder who looked at a Middle-Earthy wargame and thought the obvious thing to do with it was run around in perpetuity through endless 10′ x 10′ corridors, except I already know.

Unfortunately, the version of Chainmail I have is 3rd edition, 7th printing, which differs in some particulars from the original Chainmail.  I don’t have access to the original Chainmail because it’s expensive as fuck.  However, I do have a pretty good idea of what little changed between editions and can easily backslide to the original rules.

Also unfortunately, finding people to playtest an insanely niche version of an insanely niche 1970s wargame may be difficult, and the mass combat system obviously does not lend itself to online play.

(For anyone wondering about Dwarf-Land, I’ve got a few more gazetteer entries written but nothing worth posting yet.)

“Naive” OD&D Underworld design

When I do anything with or to older rulesets, I often affect a naive approach in which I try to work within the constraints of the period when the ruleset came out.  If I’m working with B/X, I try to stick to 1981 source material, trade dress, etc.  I’m sure this sort of hipster artisanal fauxstalgic “Method” bullshit is insufferable to some folks, especially when it’s nostalgia for an age I didn’t game through, as with OD&D.  All the same, I do it because it’s fun for me.

Messing around with the ever-protean OD&D ruleset and setting iterations I’ve been messing around with since about 2007, I try to work within 1973 period constraints, OD&D having been released in January of 1974.  I even use period materials when possible, and I’ve developed a taste for abstract, relatively distanced “wargamey-ness.”

Poring over the 3LB is fun — it’s amazing how much more interesting exegesis becomes when the author’s organizational and expository functions are the apparent product of faulty brain partitioning.  This time, I focused on the disconnect between the descriptions of What Dungeons Are (“This sounds pretty cool!  Like Gormenghast + ‘The Hour of the Dragon'”!) and the sample dungeon (“This isn’t like that at all! This is fucking retarded!”).

The description of the Underworld is pretty cool:  “monsters of various horrid aspect”; “mazey dungeons”; “the dungeons beneath the ‘huge ruined pile, a vast castle built by generations of mad wizards and insane geniuses'”; the overall sense that the Underworld is a weird place that loves its monsters and hates your guts.  The mandate that dungeons need about a billion cutaway levels, each nastier than the last, is neat (“Moria!”).  But then there’s that boring griefy sample level, which is nothing like the fantasy stories, comic books, and horror movies that a kid in the 1970s would have grown up on.  Maybe a movie entirely about pulling books to open secret doors.

I suddenly felt like I’m sure many teen non-wargamers felt in 1974 when they picked up the 3LB:  OK, this is not very fantastic.  I’m not doing things this way.

The question then becomes, of course, what other way is there to do it?  We know now that there are a lot of other ways to do it, and we have decades of examples.  The problem for someone like me is that when you’ve been gaming for 35 years, it’s difficult to strip away the accreted preconceptions and brainbugs you’ve picked up.  It’s tough to put yourself in the shoes of a guy in 1974 when it’s 2016 and you’ve seen top-view grid maps since 1981, when you opened the Moldvay box and learned that Castle Rodemus and the Caves of Chaos were What Dungeons Are.

I’m now thinking of an initial Underworld with that forced naive mindset:  Since I don’t like the kind of dungeon they showed me, how the hell do I make one?

An obvious starting point is the literary and pop culture corpus available to a non-wargamer in January of 1974.  By then, there are lots of examples of “underworlds,” including the various Underworlds.  I’ll be flipping through some of those over the next few days and trying to figure out how I, as a person who likes those things, would have made “my dungeon.”  Then I’ll decide if that sort of project is an iron worth leaving in the fire.

OD&D with 1/32 scale plastics

NOTE:  There are what seem like some very good, thorough examinations of this topic in various forums and on at least one blog, but I like to figure things out for myself so I glanced at them, closed them, and commenced reinventing the wheel.

If you’re old, you may remember the Marx Toys playsets of little plastic “Army men” guys.  I had the cavemen.

Marx Neanderthals

It so happens that my girlfriend’s dad is into the vintage Marx figures (as well as other cool stuff like horror comics and Hammer Films).  There was a Marx Toys museum a few hours away and it was closing at the end of June, so I took him there for Father’s Day.  I knew virtually nothing about the company so it was a fascinating journey of discovery.  (Marx also did the Big Wheel, Rock’em Sock’em Robots, and the Inchworm.)  They produced figures and playsets in every genre from Westerns to medievals to contemporary figures.  In case, you know, you needed that Barry Goldwater figure.

Marx Barry Goldwater

Other than having a pleasant afternoon learning about and looking at all these cool toys whose popularity only slightly overlapped with my life, I didn’t really think much about it other than that I liked the Universal Monsters figures and I wished the “Haunted Castle” prototype had gone into production because it was total tits.

Last night, while I was flipping through Chainmail as one does, I noticed the section about miniatures.  As I’ve got a thing for period simulation when I’m working with old games, I immediately started thinking about what sort of “miniatures” would have been available to the mass market picking up Chainmail in 1971 or D&D in 1974.  Most people had no way of getting Airfix or Elastolin historicals, so if they wanted to use miniatures, what could they get?  Army men, Marx Toys, available cheap in the Sears Wish Book every Christmas.

It turns out that the bulk of the Marx Toys figure lines were in 1/32 scale, also known to wargamers as 54mm.  This scale was never in widespread use for fantasy wargaming but it’s not hard to find even today.  Marx made a few medievals and a couple playsets that would have been of use, but as with everything else in those days, there was a limited selection that worked for fantasy.  If you wanted to play fantasy wargames, you had to DIY things into shape a bit, or sacrifice fidelity to the source material, or (almost certainly) both.

Marx Knights

Famously, there was another source of fantasy-appropriate toys:  cheap-ass Hong Kong and Chinese dinosauroids, or “Chinasaurs.”

Chinasaurs Original

So.  I decided to look into what sort of 54mm plastics are actually out there for that genuine old-timey feel.  It turns out there are quite a few, mostly historicals.  (There’s a Russian company doing 54mm fantasy but they’re chunky and GW-ish, which renders them unsuitable for OD&D.)

Expeditionary Forces in particular has a lot of great historicals.

You’d have to mess around a bit but between the various modern companies, there’s enough for a Western European medieval baseline to cover the usual fighting men and clerics, and you could tinker with scales and troop types to approximate elves, orcs, and other humanoids.

Obviously, with historicals, there’s a dearth of wizardy types and other common fantasy requirements.  But Toys R Us has a “True Legends” line that fills in some of the gaps nicely.  The Pirates set even has skeletons.

Marx had 6″ cavemen who’d be great as giants.

Marx 6 inch Neanderthal

There are also the usual weird-ass Chinasaurs available on eBay.

Finally, a company called Safari Ltd. makes these little plastic animals.  They’re at a larger scale than 1/32 (sometimes actual size), which makes them great for the giant animals one encounters in dungeons.

Some of the shit is potentially pretty cool/weird, like that jellyfish.

Most of these figures are pretty affordable as long as you don’t dip into the vintage well (Marx recasts are common and cheap but the originals often aren’t).

So that’s what I thought about last night while I couldn’t sleep.  How to play OD&D with Army men.  It’s doable.