a new schooler reads Chainmail

Wednesday, June 6th, 2012
This entry is part 2 of 18 in the series New Schooler Reads OD&D

As a new-school D&D player, there’s a lot of D&D history I’ve missed. Editing Cheers Gary, gaming with Mike Mornard, and illustrating the AD&D Dungeon Generator have helped, but there’s a lot in D&D that I still don’t understand. I’m going back to the OD&D texts to see whether they can help my new-school game.

I decided to start with the original fantasy roleplaying game: Chainmail!

I’m not a war-gamer, so I expected to get bogged down in pages of elliptical rules that only made sense to other wargamers. I have to say, it was much more readable than I thought!

For the most part, Chain Mail uses a simple system, and most of the rules seem like rulings – fairly logical rulings – on corner cases, mostly involving how awesome awesome Swiss and Landsknechte pikemen are.

Double all penalties for poorly trained troops, and half for Swiss/Landsknechte and horse.

Only Swiss and Landsknechte pikemen can form a hedgehog. If ten or more of these troops are in a square-type formation, pikes or pole arms facing outwards in all four directions, a “hedgehog” has been constituted.

Swiss/Landsknechte Pike Charge: Because of the reputation and ferocity of these troops, an enemy charged by Swiss or Landsknechte pikemen (other than like troops) must roll two dice and consult the Loss Table, just as if they had suffered excess casualties.

Swiss and Landsknechte armed with pikes or pole arms facing the enemy automatically stand any charges.

Swiss/Landsknechte attacking in close formation ( 5 x 2 figures minimum) fight as Armored Foot, with extra die for weapons. For every two men so attacking as additional “mass shock” die is added.

At the Battle of Marignano, Swiss pikemen actually fought Landsknecht mercenaries. Because it was impossible for either side to lose, THE BATTLE IS STILL GOING ON.

There are a handful of charts in the back, but the basic melee mechanic seems to be to to convert your soldiers into a d6 dice pool, roll all the dice, and score kills for every success. 6 is always a success, and for better troop types, 5’s and 4’s can be a success as well. It’s all very… White Wolf.

The 45-page book manages to find room for rules for sieges, and … jousting! Not to mention the 13-page Fantasy Supplement that kicked off this whole D&D thing.

There are a few rules that make me scared to play. For instance:

Continued activity brings on weariness:
1. Moving 5 consecutive turns.
2. Moving 2 consecutive turns, charging, then meleeing.
3. Moving 1 turn, charging, then meleeing 2 rounds.
4. Meleeing three rounds.

(Except of course that Swiss/Landsknechte can go twice as long in every category before getting fatigued. OF COURSE they can.)

When I read these fatigue rules, I realized how much recordkeeping is involved in this game. Every turn, you have to write down every unit’s move – even if you’re not using the optional “written orders” rule variation. Not only that, you have to look back through your notes to see if each of your units have rested in the past 5 turns, etc. I’d think this would slow the pace way down. How are you going to get through Waterloo in one day at this rate?

There’s also a bunch of stuff you have to reevaluate at the half-move (after the unit has moved half its movement rate). Melee and archery can take place at the half-move and at the end of the move. I wondered why every unit’s movement rate wasn’t just cut in half and one turn cut into two. I’m sure there’s a reason, though.

I’m kind of surprised to say this, but I would… play… Chainmail. I’m just throwing that out there, guys. Any beardos in New York with a sand table?

dungeons and dowels

Wednesday, June 13th, 2012
This entry is part 1 of 18 in the series New Schooler Reads OD&D

I guess Gary Gygax must have had a bunch of spare dowels in his house, because there are some great dowel-based rules in the Chainmail booklet.

The first rule is for determining the efficacy of cannon fire.

The length of a firing dowel will correspond to the maximum range of the cannon which it represents. Each is colored alternately white and black to represent the flight and bounces of a cannon ball. BEFORE PLACING THE DOWEL THE PLAYER FIRING MUST STATE WHETHER HE IS FIRING SHORT (white) OR LONG (black) AT THE TARGET. All figures that are touched by the named color on the dowell are eliminated.

This is a beautiful, elegant rule. I love the way it simulates the random bouncing of high- and low-ranged cannonballs, both on the same dowel, each using the other’s negative space. It’s like the yin and yang of shooting pretend people.

I Photoshopped this dowel image based on the measurements in the book for a cannon with a range of 36″.

Dowel Rule 2 is in the Fantasy Supplement:

If any number of figures are airborne at one time, it becomes difficult to maintain a side record of their height and course. It is recommended that a number of 36″ dowels be set firmly into 2″ x 4″ bases, and flying figures be secured at the proper height in the dowel by use of a rubber band.

Recording flying creatures’ positions is a bit of a problem in D&D. We’ve used stacks of dice, notes on scraps of paper, and, most frequently, ignoring positioning altogether. I’m not going to rush out and buy dowels, but I recognize that perhaps I SHOULD.

D&D is old-school, Chainmail is new-school

Monday, July 9th, 2012
This entry is part 3 of 18 in the series New Schooler Reads OD&D

OD&D? Pah! The REAL Fantasy game is Chainmail. And it is way ahead of its time. Here’s why.

As a new-school D&D player, there’s a lot of D&D history I’ve missed. Editing Cheers Gary, gaming with Mike Mornard, and illustrating the AD&D Dungeon Generator have helped, but there’s a lot in D&D that I still don’t understand. I’m going back to the OD&D texts to see whether they can help my new-school game. Right now, I’m reading Chainmail.

Chainmail has Dice Pools. When you attack some Light Foot with your Medium Horse, you roll 2d6 per horseman, and you get a success (kill) on a 5 or a 6. The dice pool mechanic wouldn’t be seen again until Shadowrun in ’89.

Chainmail has ascending Armor Class. Sort of. Chainmail man-to-man combat is run by crossindexing things on matrixes. On the melee table, there are headings for the different types of armor (No Armor through Plate Mail and Shield). On the Missile Fire table, the armor types are replaced with ascending numbers: 1 for No Armor, 2 for Leather, up to 8 for Plate Armor and Shield.

Chainmail has at-will spells. There are no spellpoints or rules for Vancian casting in Chainmail. A wizard can throw a fireball once a turn, if he likes.

Chainmail has rules for counterspells – and they’re simple: when an enemy wizard casts a spell, roll a target number on 2d6 to counter it. D&D 3e had counterspell rules that no one ever used because they involved readying an action. I don’t think any other edition has counterspells as part of the core rules.

Chainmail has rules for spell failure. A weak wizard (a seer) can try to cast a difficult spell – they just have a chance of failure. This was taken out of D&D, and generations of fans have tried to houserule it back in.

OD&D: tax paradise

Wednesday, July 25th, 2012
This entry is part 4 of 18 in the series New Schooler Reads OD&D

Now that I’ve read Chainmail, I thought I’d go back to the OD&D books and see if I had a new perspective on them.

Chainmail was, for the most part, a historical simulation. It tried to produce results that were as plausible as possible given Earth’s military history. One of the inspiring things about OD&D is that it tries, in as few pages as possible, to provide an alternate world to simulate.

As a new-school D&D player, there’s a lot of D&D history I’ve missed. Editing Cheers Gary, gaming with Mike Mornard, and illustrating the AD&D Dungeon Generator have helped, but there’s a lot in D&D that I still don’t understand. I’m going back to the OD&D texts to see whether they can help my new-school game.

The few details on baronies and castles are tantalizingly incomplete if you consider D&D a stand-alone product, but make a lot more sense when you consider them as add-ons to the Chainmail Fantasy Supplement.

On my read-through of the OD&D rules, I was struck by the fantasy world simulated by the taxation rules:

“Top-level fighters (Lords and above) who build castles are considered “Barons”, and as such they may invest in their holdings in order to increase their income (see the INVESTMENTS section of Volume III). Base income for a Baron is a tax rate of 10 Gold Pieces/inhabitant of the barony/game year.”

On the other hand, “Clerics with castles of their own will have control of a territory similar to the “Barony” of fighters, and they will receive “tithes” equal to 20 Gold Pieces/inhabitant/year.”

Without much economic information to go on, the fighter’s 10 GP/year sounds like a pretty good profit from each peasant. But then we find out that the cleric’s “tithe” is 20 GP! Since a tithe is 10% of an income, that means that barons are levying a 5% tax on their peasants.

From the section “Relatives”, we learn that “the relative would inherit the estate of the character, paying a 10% tax on all goods and monies.” Estate tax is 10%!

Note to tax-hating libertarians: move to OD&DLand! Taxes are astonishingly low there. And no central government to speak of. But you might be eaten by a White Ape!

odnd encumbrance

Tuesday, September 4th, 2012
This entry is part 5 of 18 in the series New Schooler Reads OD&D

The rule for Encumbrance seems to be that you should always arbitrarily divide gear up into two tables. In 1e, weapon encumbrance was listed in the weapons table, while encumbrance for eveyrthing else was hidden in a table in the back of the book.

As a new-school D&D player, there’s a lot of D&D history I’ve missed. Editing Cheers Gary, gaming with Mike Mornard, and illustrating the AD&D Dungeon Generator have helped, but there’s a lot in D&D that I still don’t understand. I’m going back to the OD&D texts to see whether they can help my new-school game.

In OD&D, it’s a similar story. On page 15 of Men and Magic, there’s an “Encumberance” table, which mashes together entries for equipment items (“helmet”, 50 GP weight; “shield”, 150; “weight of a man”, 1750; “miscellaneous equipment” (rope, spikes, bags, etc)”, 80) with values for maximum load (“load in Gold Pieces equal to light foot movement (12″)”, 750).

Then there’s an example of encumbrance in action. A plate-armored guy on foot has equipment that makes him move at the speed of an Armored Footman. Makes sense.

Then, there’s another table, “Weights and Equivalents”, which mixes up carrying capacities (“one small sack holds” 50) with the weights of different pieces of equipment than the ones on Table 1 (“1 flagon or chalice”, 50). Well, fine. But how much does a ewer weigh?

There must be some sort of conceptual difference between the items on Table 1 and Table 2. The stuff on Table 1 is more likely to be the type of stuff you start out with, and the stuff on table two is more likely to be treasure that you pick up in the dungeon. But it’s a fuzzy line.

In my game, encumbrance is an unsolved problem. No one really wants to add up the weight of all their gear. Taking a tip from the OD&D “Encumbrance” and “Weights and Equivalents” table, I can imagine splitting up encumbrance into two areas on the character sheet:

1) Equipment. Anything, within reason, that players write in the Gear section is considered to be weightless. Only the armor type matters for movement rate.

2) Treasure. Everything you write in the “Coins, Gems, and other treasure” section has weight. If you’re running the kind of game where you can find 500 pounds of copper coins, you’ll need to figure out how to carry it. You can carry 10 pounds of treasure per Strength point without being encumbered.

It doesn’t matter what kind of armor you wear: if you have a strength of 10, 101 pounds of treasure slows you down a notch.

I’d consider using 5e’s Disadvantage here for encumbered characters: while you’re laboring under the weight of all those treasure sacks, you’re at disadvantage, meaning you’re worse at jumping over pits, noticing people sneaking up behind you, and fighting. When a monster pops out, you’d better drop the treasure.

when inches are inches

Wednesday, November 21st, 2012
This entry is part 7 of 18 in the series New Schooler Reads OD&D

OD&D follows the Chainmail convention of using “inches” as a measure meaning 10 feet (in a dungeon) or 10 yards (outside). This isn’t explained up front: in Book 1, Men and Magic, measurements are just given in inches and you have to deal with it. I like to imagine the sad sap who didn’t have Chainmail and was figuring things out as he read. “Lightly-armored troops can travel 12 inches every ten minutes? Huh. Seems a little slow, but OK.” “The Light spell casts light in a 3 inch diameter? Wow. If it was radius, that would at least be something.”

The actual inches-to-distance conversions are somewhere in book 3. Underground movement is on page 8, in the Move/Turn in the Underworld section: “In the underworld all distances are in feet, so wherever distances are given convert them to tens of feet.” Outside movement is defined (inside parentheses) on page 17, under “Sighting Monsters”: “Players will see monsters at from 40-240 yards (inches convert to tens of yards for the wilderness) unless the monster has surprised the characters involved.”

The poor first-time OD&D reader won’t be skipping around to find this information either, because the Introduction admonishes the reader that volume 3 is presented last “in order to allow the reader to gain the perspective necessary – the understanding of the previous two booklets. Read through the entire work in the order presented before you attempt to play.”

My absolute favorite measurement-related section is the descriptions of the Wall of Stone and Wall of Iron spells (in Book 1, long before the meanings of “inch” are given), where inches (meaning tens of feet) interacts with feet (meaning feet), and also with inches meaning inches:

Wall of Stone: The creation of a stone wall two feet thick with a maximum length and height equalling 10 square inches. The wall will last until dispelled, broken down or battered through as a regular stone wall. Duration: 12 turns. Range: 6″.

Wall of Iron:: Like a Wall of Stone, but the thickness of the wall is three inches and its maximum area 5 square inches. Duration: 12 turns. Range: 6″.

“Huh. Wall of Iron produces 15 cubic inches of iron? Well, since my light footman moves a foot every 10 minutes, I guess it’s useful. How high do you think he can jump?”

berserk men

Wednesday, December 19th, 2012
This entry is part 8 of 18 in the series New Schooler Reads OD&D

Monsters and Treasure P 6:

“Berserkers are simply mad men with battle lust.”

Gygax Hated Hobbits

Wednesday, January 2nd, 2013
This entry is part 6 of 18 in the series New Schooler Reads OD&D

From Men and Magic:

Dwarves: Dwarves may opt only for the fighting class, and they may never progress beyond the 6th level (Myrmidon)…

Elves: Elves can begin as either Fighting-Men or Magic-Users and freely switch class whenever they choose…

Hobbits: Should any player wish to be one, he will be limited to the Fighting-Man class as a hobbit.


From Men and Magic, page 33:

Raise Dead: The Cleric simply points his finger, utters the incantation, and the dead person is raised. This spell works with men, elves, and dwarves only.


od&d staves

Wednesday, January 9th, 2013
This entry is part 9 of 18 in the series New Schooler Reads OD&D

The standout magic items from OD&D are the staves. They seem like they’re much more powerful than everything else.

Compare the best magic sword with a Staff of Fireballs:

Magic sword: +3 to hit, +0 to damage (so, 1d6 damage).

Staff of Fireballs: Shoots fireballs that do 8d6 damage (save for half). 8d6 is a lot of damage in a game in which the strongest monsters have 12d6 HP. The Purple Worm is the outlier, with 15 Hit Dice, but it will still die in two hits.

And the Staff of Fireball has 100 CHARGES.

Compare that to the equivalent item, Wand of Fireballs, from 3rd edition: it throws 6d6 fireballs and has 50 charges. Furthermore, in 3rd edition, monsters have d8 Hit Dice, and they have more of them. (For instance, dragons have 5-38 HD instead of 5-12 HD.)

Not only that, the Staff of Power is like a Staff of Fireballs with a bunch of other abilities. The Staff of Wizardry is like a Staff of Power with a bunch of other abilities. Between these 3 items, about 10% of staves have the ability to fire 8-die fireballs. You only have a 2% chance of getting the sword +3.

The Staff of Fireballs family might not even be the most game-changing staves in the game. The staff I’d want is “Staff of Secret Doors and Trap Detection.” It has 100% chance of detecting both; it works within 20 feet; and it doesn’t have charges. It’s operational as long as it’s being held. It’s SO MUCH better than having a thief in your party, guys.

Traps (and secret doors) are such a major part of OD&D-style dungeon crawling that I can hardly imagine them removed. Imagine a campaign where that entire aspect of the game was thrown away. I think the DM would have to resort to semi-cheating in order to downplay the staff’s power: “Well technically the lever that turned you all into insects was a TRICK, not a TRAP.” “You detect a trap in the corridor which is THE ONLY WAY OUT OF THE DUNGEON.” “I know you can detect secret doors, but the treasure was hidden behind a CONCEALED DOOR.”

cursing the thoroughness of the caller

Wednesday, January 16th, 2013
This entry is part 10 of 18 in the series New Schooler Reads OD&D

REFEREE: The chest with the poison needle is full of copper pieces – appears to be about 2,000 of them.
CALLER: Empty out all the copper pieces and check the trunk for secret drawers or a false bottom, and do the same with the empty one. Also, do there seem to be any old boots or cloaks among the old clothes in the rubbish pile?
REFEREE: (Cursing the thoroughness of the caller!) The seemingly empty trunk has a false bottom…

OD&D, as described in the sample of play, is unique in that the DM seems to be TRYING TO HIDE HIS CONTENT FROM THE PLAYERS. It’s not just adversarial, it’s gnostic. The DM gets some kind of joy if they miss the treasure – but he still places the treasure.

I’m not convinced that this is really what OD&D game was like. When I played with Mike Mornard, I never got the feeling that Mike was rooting for us to ignore treasure. He might have created lots of treasure we never saw, but but he’d be happy if we were smart enough to earn it.

Trying to twist this example around into something I can understand, I can see playing OD&D as a game more like the Descent boardgame than the D&D I’m used to: the DM is bound by certain rules of fair play, but is actually in competition with the players. If the PCs find more than half of the treasure, the players win. If the DM manages to outsmart the players by concealing more than half of the treasure, he wins.

Naturally, at the end of such a game, the DM would reveal all the hiding places of treasure, and cackle. “There was an onyx in that desk in the Gnoll room, but you walked right by it. (cackle). The pile of discarded rubbish contained Elven Boots, guess you should have checked that out. (cackle)”

Onwards, friends, to more and better loot!