These rules are as simple and straightforward as I could devise for a game system which involves "magical" and fantastic factors. The FANTASY SUPPLEMENT written for CHAINMAIL assumed a man-for-man situation. While it is fine for such actions, it soon became obvious that something for large-scale battles was needed.
- Gary Gygax, "Swords & Spells" Introduction, 1976
As old-school D&D'ers, I think that many of us share the intuition that there is an "endgame" in which high-level PCs wind up managing castles, baronies, and leading fantasy armies in battle. It seems a little frustrating that the endgame seems to have been "lost" somehow over time.
For probably 30 years I've been trying to scratch this itch and find the proper solution to the reputed endgame. Once again I've been attacking the problem recently, having had an opportunity in the last year to become familiar with Chainmail, OD&D, re-reading Swords & Spells and Battlesystem, etc. Personally, I need my mass-war system to have the same statistical expectations as if you actually played the RPG rules out man-to-man (i.e., it's no good to have X beat Y in RPG rules, but Y beat X in mass-war rules; I'm looking at you, War Machine.)
Here's my new observation: The endgame never actually existed in original D&D. It was sort of an illusion all along, which caused a lot of personal frustration.
Let me be specific: In neither Chainmail nor OD&D is there any provision for handling fantasy battles between opposing armies of hundreds of men (or monsters). It looks like there is, but there really isn't. Consider the quote at the top of this post (emphasis mine). Indeed, the Chainmail fantasy rules were in their entirety only meant to work on a 1:1 scale, not a mass scale, i.e., they're a continuation of the "Man-to-Man Combat" section that immediately precedes them. In other words, OD&D is in some sense just a somewhat revised edition of the Chainmail Fantasy Man-to-Man rules, not a totally different game.
Let's think about this a little more, because you get conflicting signals/ advertising from Chainmail itself. Conflicts would include: (1) Chainmail in general is at a 1:20 mass scale, and the Fantasy section never says explicitly that anything has changed in that regard. (2) The opening to Chainmail Fantasy says that it can be used to "refight the epic struggles related by J.R.R. Tolkien, Robert E. Howard, and other fantasy writers," which is not truly the case at 1:1 scale. (3) The language for Super Heroes asserts that, "these fellows are one-man armies!", when in fact they are only able to counter 8 normal men, not a whole army. (4) Combat chances between fantasy creatures and men refer back to the standard (mass) Combat Tables, not the Mam-to-Man Melee Table.
So, these assertions in the past led me to think that Chainmail Fantasy was at 1:20 scale, which caused all kinds of collisions with the standard D&D rules. I would think, "How can Super Heroes be worth an army in Chainmail (8x20 = 160 men), but only 8 men in D&D?" (Or, "Is every individual catapult/ giant boulder/ fireball really killing 100-300 men per shot?") Furthermore, you would have all these situations in D&D indicating the action of hundreds of men or monsters (such as [a] monster number appearing stats, [b] guards in castles, [c] clerical faithful followers, [d] crew numbers on naval ships, etc.) And let's pile it on one more time with OD&D Vol. 3, p. 25, which has a very brief (as always) reference to "Land Combat" which says this:
The basic system is that from CHAINMAIL, with one figure representing one man or creature. Melee can be conducted with the combat table given in Volume I or by the CHAINMAIL system, with losses equalling a drive back or kill equal only to a hit. Battles involving large numbers of figures can be fought at a 20:1 ratio, with single fantastic types fighting at 1:1 or otherwise against but a single 20:1 figure.
Now, we can see that the first part of this is an honest description of the Chainmail rules (man-to-man). The second part is not so honest, making it sound like Chainmail has the capacity to handle a 1:20 fantasy scale, when the truth is it really doesn't. As much as we'd all like it to, Gygax included. The last sentence with its waffle-y "or otherwise" is really more of a thought-experiment or a proposal than an actual rules reference. The fact is, we really have no pre-planned way in either Chainmail or OD&D to deal with those hundreds of wandering orcs, castle guards, faithful soldiers, or ship crews. (Nor the hundreds of guards in the barracks of Sup-II's Temple of the Frog.)
The conjoined problem is that any single hero-type will, if we honestly look at the statistics in OD&D, get chewed to pieces by dozens or hundreds of 1st-level opponents. Even a D&D Superhero in plate & shield (HD8, AC2) will get hit by normal men 20% on each strike (req. 17+ on d20). Surrounded by just 5 normal men at a time -- ignoring flank/rear bonuses -- the Superhero can be expected to take 1 hit per round and go down in 8 standard rounds (or less). Even with their fearsome number of attacks and morale effects from Chainmail, the Superhero will be dead in just a few minutes of standard D&D combat. (In OD&D it requires AC -2 to become immune to the attacks of normal men; of course, this immunity is taken away by the AD&D combat tables with their repeating 20's.)
So, I find that for the first time in 30 years I fully understand Gygax's Introduction to Swords & Spells. It's a fascinating read. He knows that there's a problem with mass Land Combat in D&D and he's trying to provide a solution. He knows that the presented ruleset is only a partial solution at best (using all expected-value hit point calculations, with no dice or randomization of combat results whatsoever.) In fact, having recently drafted a forward for my own similar work, I find that Gygax anticipated most of my initial comments 33 years ago, working on an equivalent project.
Some extra-curricular way must be added to allow our D&D heroes to survive on the battlefield, when they really shouldn't according to the stock rules of D&D. Gygax writes in Swords & Spells, "The admonition regarding single creatures is important: If they meet, or are simply near each other, they should seek combat with each other rather than inferior opponents, and this combat should be fought at 1:1 in the normal D&D manner". Yep, that's one way to keep them alive (i.e., force them to avoid masses of normal men whenever possible).
Likewise, Doug Niles writes in the Battlesystem 2E book p. 106: "From a mathematical perspective, the attributes of heroes in a BATTLESYSTEM scenario are inflated beyond those of the creatures in the units surrounding them. However, the conversion is based on the assumption that there is an intangible quality to heroism that exceeds in importance the hero's worth as a fighting machine." Yep, that's another way -- just arbitrarily boost the hero's stats on the battlefield to keep them alive.
An interesting problem, and some highly interesting reads when you lay out the entire sequence of mass-land combat in D&D. The truth is, there were no rules even intended for mass combat in fantasy D&D until Swords & Spells, and later Battlesystem, and these were only limited successes at best. OD&D hinted at an endgame that wasn't really ever there in the first place.
(Special thanks to James & Jervis for recently getting the 1972 Gygax letter on fantasy wargaming posted on Grognardia, which jogged my thought process a bit more on this subject.)