Critiques of Chainmail

Okay, so I just mentioned Chainmail as part of my post on finding workable naval-combat rules within early D&D. So yes, I'm now digging into the original medieval/fantasy miniature rules. (I've had them for a while, but this is the first time I'm commenting on them.) Looking at Chainmail and OD&D is helpful because there's a lot of "aha!" moments in which you realize where certain puzzling or awkward D&D elements originally came from.

Here's some critiques about that old battle-axe, Chainmail, and how it affected what came afterwards:

(1) First of all, Gary had a wargaming table that was way too freaking big! Chainmail specifies a game board width of 4-7 feet, and a minimum length of at least 8 feet. Holy smoke, I don't have that, nobody I know has that. I can't fit that on a dining-room table. The move rates in Chainmail & all of AD&D are therefore really huge (12" base, etc.), pretty much moving across your whole table in one round. It pops up again in OD&D where he specifies at least a 6x6 foot space for aerial and naval encounters.

(2) Secondly, I think that the distance scale is off. 1" = 30 feet is close but not great; the problem comes when you try to apply it to enclosed spaces like a castle or a ship. Then, the miniatures don't quite fit in your scale model. What I've found is that if you make models at scale 1" = 20 feet, then your standard miniature figures fit very nicely on the boat, round tower, courtyard, etc.

Similarly, at the smaller indoor scale of D&D, 1" = 10 feet, miniatures again don't fit in the space allocated. You see the 1E DMG having to suggest using 1" = 3 feet for miniature placement. "If you do so, be certain to remember that ground scale differs from figure scale, and when dealing with length, two man-sized figures per square is quite possible, as the space is actually 6 scale feet with respect to length." (1E DMG p. 10). Hunh-what!? He really should have simply set indoor scale at the same size as the 30mm figures he was using (which is very close to 1" = 5 feet).

In short, Gary picked these convenient round numbers for scale size (1" = 10 yards, 1" = 10 feet) without thinking through how the figures really sat on the table (especially in enclosed spaces of any sort). If he'd done so, we would have been saved a lot of scaling awkwardness that existed throughout the AD&D era.

(3) Thirdly, I think the time scale is off for man-to-man combat. Okay, Chainmail mass-combat is 1 turn = 1 minute, I've got no problem with that. But in the man-to-man combat (which you're then thrown back to in OD&D), you should've cut the turn size down the same way you did the figure and distance scale. Say 1 turn = 10 seconds (ideally, imo) or something. It would've been sensible to do so, and not spend so much time in the 80's defending the really awkward 1 minute round time in AD&D, the many-blows-but-just-one-arrow paradox, the oddly slow encounter move rates, etc. This should've been revisited at some point in either OD&D or AD&D, and not simply carried through from the Chainmail mass-combat time scale. That was a mistake.

(4) Fourth, the turn structure of Chainmail assumes that movement occurs in halves. There's two different options, but either way, a player is going to move his armies a half-move, do something, and thereafter perform the other half-move. This pops up again in Swords & Spells later on.

Well, geez, why didn't you publish the move rates in half-turn increments in the first place, then? Every single turn, every single move, I've got to halve the move rates in my head to see how far to push my forces? And why'd you make the increments at 3", so that 30% of them are odd numbers and don't halve evenly? And since archery fire can occur at each split-move, that's why AD&D bows wind up with a rate-of-fire of "2" to recreate that. Arghh!

This drives me nearly bonkers (much like any RPG that tries to use written orders each turn). If it's so important to resolve actions at that granularity, then just cut everything in half and call it a day. Turns are 30 seconds; halve the move rates; archery fires once per new-turn. Or cut this down further to whatever granularity you think you need. And then in AD&D you've got a top move rate of 6", which is more reasonable and doesn't run across your kitchen table in one round... and also happens to be the same as where 3E wound up.

(5) Catapult fire range dice are way screwy. There's an option for catapult fire (and hence the all-important fireballs, which use the same rules) to roll 2d6 different colors for distance off the called range. Pick the higher one and you're off that many inches in the given direction (maybe red=long, white=short). This reappears in the Holmes Basic rules for giant rock-throwing.

But if you look at a distribution picking the higher die, it is waaay funky. It's like 6 chances in 36 to be right on the money; no chances to be 1" off; 1 chance to be +/-2" off, 2 chances to be +/-3" off... increasing to 5 chances to be +/-6" off. That's wacky, I don't even know what to call that probability distribution shape.

Consider instead picking the smaller die. Then you've got 6 chances to be right on the money, smoothly dropping down in a nice bell curve as you go further out: 5 chances at +/-1, 4 chances at +/-2, etc. And its mathematically the same as (but computationally simpler than) the OD&D Bombing rule where you roll 2d6, subtract 7, and use the result as the number of inches over/under the target (OD&D Vol. 3 p. 27-28). So maybe that's what they were really trying to communicate.

(6) Finally, fantasy heroes don't scale properly in man-to-man combat. You may have read elsewhere how much it aggravates me in D&D when your chances of winning at 1:1 scale radically transmogrify when you use a new set of rules for another scale, like mass combat. Well, that's baked into Chainmail/OD&D right from the get-go.

Now, it's important to realize that we're dealing with two separate, both optional side-systems, that maybe Gary never thought about when you plugged them in together. But notice this: In normal Chainmail mass-combat, a fantasy Hero can take on 4 normal figures. He attacks as 4 figures, he requires 4 hits to kill (and he's a 4th-level fighter in D&D). So that's 80 men that he's taking on at even or better odds. (Superheroes are all that but more so: 8 attacks/hits/levels, worth 160 men.)

At man-to-man scale, all the mechanics work the same. The Hero still takes on 4 figures, 4 attacks, 4 hits-to-kill. But now those figures are only representing one normal man each! So the Hero who wiped out 80 men in large-scale is now in a desperate fight for his life against just 4 normal men when you zoom in to man-to-man scale. Whoops. So that's where you get these wierd patches later on, with AD&D adding the lots-of-hits-versus-1HD-types rule, and Swords & Spells being equivalently funky, when trying to interact a Hero-type with mobs of normal men.

Not totally sure how that could've been fixed. Maybe Gary went a bit "wahoo" on that one, and should have had a Hero be one guy with a morale bonus equivalent to one normal figure (10 men), a Superhero equivalent to some larger number of figures, and scaling equivalently more powerful in the man-to-man (nee D&D) rules.


In summary, most of this stuff is scaling issues (in table size, distance, time, movement, and number of men represented). If Gary had spent some more time and care thinking about it in advance, he would have saved us all a lot of frustration. But maybe that kind of technical attention was just not his strong suit; maybe no one would have had the foresight to see what the Chainmail man-to-man rules would explode into. But he really should have revisited it in either OD&D or AD&D, I believe. We were (and still are) all supporting a legacy system from Chainmail on that score.


  1. Great article! Now allow me to kibitz. ^_^

    First, according to Gary, Chainmail was really Perren’s baby. Most of Gary’s contributions were additions to it. IIRC.

    As for his table, he had a basement. Having lived in TX all my life, I really envy that.

    I think a lot of these scale issues just go to show that Gary never actually used minis with D&D. The D&D sessions were played in the living room instead of the basement.

    I won’t pretend to understand it, but from what grognards say there was a real tactical difference from the split-move thing.

    My two big issues with Chainmail:

    It confuses the terms “man” and “figure”. This seems like a really nit-picky point because the reader can just figure it out from context. Except for the fact that I’ve had different Chainmail grognards give me very different interpretations of the same rule because of it.

    Gary ensured me that the fantasy supplement was written only to be used with the man-to-man rules, but when I read it, it sure looks to me like the fantasy supplement was written to apply to the main rules.

    Maybe for publication it was tweaked to apply directly to the main rules, and Gary never thought of it except the way he’d used it.

    So, to use the fantasy supplement with man-to-man is kind of a two-step process. Apply the fantasy rules to the main rules, then apply the man-to-man modifications to that.

    Likewise, it’s weird how D&D seems to give stats for the 20:1 Chainmail rules instead of in the man-to-man terms. Just more evidence that Gary never actually used Chainmail and miniatures with D&D, I guess.

  2. "Gary ensured me that the fantasy supplement was written only to be used with the man-to-man rules, but when I read it, it sure looks to me like the fantasy supplement was written to apply to the main rules."

    Robert, that's a fascinating assertion! It certainly does make me re-interpret the entire fantasy section if I consider it through that lens.

    But have to agree with you, and disagree with Gary's recollection on that score. (1) The introduction provides an intent to "refight the epic struggles related by J.R.R. Tolkien, Robert E. Howard, and other fantasy writers", and I find it hard to interpret "epic struggles" as man-to-man combat. (2) The Superheroes are described as "Few and far between, these fellows are one-man armies!," which sounds a lot more like the equal of 160 normal men than just 8 men.

    And finally, (3) he did the same thing all over again in Swords & Spells, jacking up heroes in what is definitely a 1:10 scale game ("the hero will inflict .40 of the damage shown for a 4th level creature on the combat tables", p. 1, 24). So you get an exponential boost for being a Hero; using both the higher-level combat table and then multiplying *that* by 4 (times 1/10) after the fact as well.

    So EGG seems pretty consistent about churning our mass combat rules where he expects Heroes to mow down hundreds (not just 4 or 8) of normal men in a mob. And in so doing, the results are different if you're at the 1:10 scale than if you zoom into to special 1:1 scale (for OD&D at that time).

  3. "So the Hero who wiped out 80 men in large-scale is now in a desperate fight for his life against just 4 normal men when you zoom in to man-to-man scale."

    Doesn't it say the Hero has to take those 4 hits simultaneously?

  4. "Doesn't it say the Hero has to take those 4 hits simultaneously?"

    Yes, and it's the same in both systems, so the scaling disconnect still applies.

  5. Except he's not "desperately fighting for his life" against 4 single men at all; they have no real chance of defeating him, I doubt 20 would.

    Sure things are different at man-to-man scale. I doubt the idea was that you would play out a mass battle at 1:1 and get the same results as 1:20; it's a special system for special scenarios, and really, what game has mass battle rules that match the 1:1 rules? There is also the question of how likely is the hero to face massed attacks at 1:20 than at 1:1.

    No doubt you've played more mass combat than I have, I just don't see your point made. Unless you're talking about the entire idea of hit dice, but in that case I don't quite get why pick on the Chainmail Hero who I think was weakened much more by the Chainmail => D&D transition of hits into hit dice.

  6. "Sure things are different at man-to-man scale... really, what game has mass battle rules that match the 1:1 rules?"

    Yes, that's the point.. I consider that to be an unacceptable flaw in any such system.

    If no such system has yet achieved that consistency, then it seems like a golden opportunity for an advancement in game design. As I've said before, I'd argue that Niles' Battlesystem II came a lot closer than other products.

  7. P.S. I did see a post from Gygax, I believe in the last year or two, suggesting just using a computer simulation of 1:1 rules in order to adjudicate mass combat, which would also (in theory) fit the bill. I'd have other game-design critiques of that, but I share EGG's late-era motivation there.

  8. With the hero issue, I think it still comes back to—as written—both the man-to-man and fantasy supplements are supplements to the main rules. I think it is reasonable that additional adjustments might be made when trying to combine them.