The Problem with the Endgame

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.)


  1. Interesting observations.

    For what it’s worth, I never really saw the endgame as consisting of many battles. More politics, development, management, business, sending lower-level adventurers on quests, etc.

  2. As Robert posted: I think the "endgame" is much more than simply mass combat, regardless of what Mentzer's Companion rules might say (the only way to become a viscount or duke is by conquest? what about political marriages, usurpation, and assassination?).

    That being said, I agree with your observations and ask, well what do you want your game to be about? I prefer PCs to be "killable" by squads of nameless pikemen...that is the reality of field warfare. PCs may be "superheroic" but they are not superhuman; at least not in MY games.

    I find the Swords and Spells approach to be the closest thing to a workable mass combat system that is INTERNALLY CONSISTENT with D&D rules as written. Unfortunately, the attempt to match it with the clunkier chainmail and the addition of chunkier tactics rules makes the thing a miasma, difficult to penetrate. I find the "seek out foes of your own station" rules in S&S to be excellent...allow your Theoden and Eowyn characters to LEAD the Rohirrim, but then FIGHT the Nazgul king. That's really the only way to make PCs heroic without being "superhuman."

    (and nope, not a fan of Mr. Niles)

  3. A fascinating post. I hope you continue your investigations on this score.

  4. I never put much stock into the 'endgame'. It is something in over 15 years of gaming I have done exactly once and only when we wanted to revisit old characters or change up the landscape of our world.

    To be honest I found it to be a separate game than D&D and was not very thrilled with the results. It may work for some but not me.

  5. Let me be clear that I consider the mass combat to be only half of the reputed D&D endgame. I do fucus on it here (it's important), but a full treatment would also require a discussion of "managing castles, baronies" as I refer to in the first sentence.

  6. "I prefer PCs to be "killable" by squads of nameless pikemen...that is the reality of field warfare. PCs may be "superheroic" but they are not superhuman; at least not in MY games."

    That's fine and I agree in principle. The problem is that they die really, really fast. So fast if you blink you'll miss them entirely.

    For example: Let's say your mass-turn is equal to 3 rounds of standard D&D (somewhat as per Swords & Spells, etc.). If your 8th-level fighter gets in it with just simple swordsmen (to say NOTHING of a row of pikes), then he will take 3 hits per turn and be dead in 2 turns flat (see prior posts on HD vs. hits taken).

    It's hard to qualify that as "super" in any way. You might as well not even bother having the figure in the game, at that rate. The rules I mention above aren't making the heroes unkillable, they're munging things so they don't automatically die in the very first turn of any combat.

    It would be nice if that were explicit in S&S (for example) and not just something you discover by accident.

  7. This is really good stuff! I haven't played Chainmail or S&S to discover the things you've found in that game. I'm curious if you've played HOTT/DBA? I have been kicking around how to make it adaptable to including D&D characters.

    I'm really curious about your thoughts about the second part of the end-game. I'm looking forward to reading about it.

  8. Chgowiz, thanks for the kind words. Can't say as I've played HOTT/DBA yet to date.

  9. This is a fantastic post which obliquely touches on the "what to do with high level characters" issue that comes up in long running campaigns. In 26 years, only two of my campaigns got to that point.

    For the first one, the end game involved nations colliding, so we decided to wrap it up with mass combat rules. (I think it was Battlesystem... not sure though... been a while.) What actually happened was quite amusing. These heroes who had wrought miracles throughout the lands simply got mowed down by the nameless masses. I panicked and began to scale the numbers back... almost to the point where a unit was just a handful of opponents rather than tens of... but it still didn't help, and it became ridiculous fast. Might as well have just fielded one on one units.

    After promising the players to count it all as a big mistake and offer a do-over in something more sane, we continued the scenario as it stood. The party prevailed by pulling the surviving heroes out of the fray and sending their own footmen, sans leaders, after the opposing villains. As predicted, the villains also went down fast under the weight of low level masses, and so the heroes won the day... sort of.

    We ended up redoing it with some custom rules... basically inflating the heroes relative to the troops, but my long winded point here is that Delta is spot on with post.

  10. Very interesting case study, Jerry.

  11. Keen observations sure, but I think its a question that boils down to a fantasy worldview. Before anything can be changed, you have to ask yourself some very fundamental questions:

    1) A D&D hero gets mired in a grand melee of scale... exactly how long is he expected to survive?
    2) Is a D&D superhero as invincible against 20 men as he is 1?

    You could take what I call the "Dynasty Warriors" approach to the world view, in that 8th level characters truly are champions, with no worry of ever falling in battle, lest they meet an opponent of skill in the slog. That's certainly how it works in many kinds of fiction... from the Dynasty Warriors video game I mention to something like the movies Gladiator or Gangs of New York, or the Lord of the Rings stories. They fight their way through crowds like the untouchable avatar/main characters they are... singlehandedly making sizable impact on the battle.

    The opposite rationale is likewise reasonable and backed up in myth... that no man, regardless of strength, size or magical aptitude, would ever be able to beat hundreds of men singlehandedly. He'd beat many, sure, but eventually the law of averages will work against him. He'll tire. He'll run out of magic. He'll be dogpiled... overwhelmed and torn to bits. In real history, its almost unheard of for authority figures to participate in the battle directly. They sit in camp, strategizing and figuring in their tents with their advisors, while their loyal subjects go toe-to-toe in epic battles lasting days or months.

    As always, I would suggest first deciding on what you want to model, and then choosing a model that best fits your game world. To keep the ancient China romantics comparison going, it was not uncommon for generals to duel each other during a battle for the sake of honor and their troops' morale, but when it came time for the grand melee or siege they would never take the field.

    Personally, I think the single-man-acting-as-a-unit model makes little sense. I would more think something that even the mightiest hero would be in command of a unit... his personal guard, his best armored cavalry, what have you. His unit fights as any other (or perhaps better, as they are elite/under direct command) and as long as the unit survives, he does. What happens to the leader... is he killed, captured, executed? Does he die with his men in the field? Any of these things could be possible. That's how glory is won in battle... having the enemy commander at your feet. I think a system that takes that as its primary consideration would be a good place to start as any.

  12. I am not sure this is an accurate observation, to be honest. Perhaps it might be worth taking a look at the conversion for the Battle of Five Armies to Chain Mail rules in Dragon #1. The issue of scale seems to be addressed there in some manner.

  13. Could we save our Superhero through strict use of morale rules? While he might be killed in a matter of a few rounds, he should be able to take a lot of enemies down with him. Like 40. How much of a good soldeir do you have to be to throw your life away just to be part of the critical mass? Even the low-level commander would be loathe to give an order that would only risk his own life but compromise his leadership. (Who would want to work for the guy who sacrafices his men to take down superheroes).

    Another approach, that others have alluded to, is to say that in order for the players to direct their armies requires that their characters are in a position to see what's going on and to relay orders to the front. So, if you're in the battle, you can't run the battle.

  14. Have you seen the Domain at War rules by Autarch. A rule set for ACKS domain play, including mass battles.
    I was wondering how you felt about these rules.

    1. I have seen those, and I got to participate in at least one afternoon's play with those rules by one of the designers. It's a little complicated for my tastes; even in the one playtest I was in the person running it seemed to find it challenging to run in practice. That's just one data point, but I much prefer my Book of War rules (which got published after this post was initially made), and if I get a chance to present domain rules it will also be a lot more streamlined and immediately playable (as a goal).