Tuesday, July 5, 2022

First Foray into Chainmail

Cavalry Clash in my first Chainmail Game using Roll20
 This past week I had a golden opportunity to play the 3rd Edition of Chainmail with Wargame Culture. Ultimately, we were only experimenting with an extremely small skirmish, but it was enlightening.

If you aren't familiar, Chainmail: Rules for Medieval Miniatures is a war game by Gary Gygax and Dan Perrin in 1971 through Guidon Games. It was designed to allow players to simulate medieval warfare (Napoleonic and Modern warfare were the common war game milieu at the time.) An early supplement added in fantasy and Sword & Sorcery ideas such as elves, wizards, magic weapons, giants,  dragons, etc. Many of the rules concepts that were used in D&D were first described in Chainmail

You can by the 3rd edition of Chainmail at DriveThruRPG.

Dave Arneson combined the rules for fantasy Chainmail with the ideas of role-driven single-character wargaming that had been introduced with the Braunstein campaign by David Wesley.  Arneson's Braunstein and Chainmail Fusion, Blackmoor, became the conceptual foundation for the board game Dungeon! and for Dungeons & Dragons itself.

It is definitely interesting to go back and see where D&D started. Chainmail is designed for large scale combat, you field the large numbers of troops broken into light, heavy, or armored and infantry or cavalry. Characters can be modified by classing them as peasants or mercenaries, and adjusting their equipment.

In melee, the difference between the kind of units offers a ratio of six-sided dice to roll and a variable target number. For example, heavy Cavalry gets four dice per unit when it's attacking light infantry, while the light infantry gets only one die. For every roll over the target number, the opposing side loses one soldier. 

In ranged combat, the number of shooters and the weight of the target's armor are cross referenced on a table. That table will then determine how many units are killed by the barrage via a a single d6 roll. Range is determined by unit type, and the number of times a unit can fire per round is determined by the weapon type. Firearms ignore armor weight, and use a different table from bows and arrows.

The most important factor in play, however, is morale. Once a troop fails morale, it automatically attempts to turn and run from the battlefield or surrenders. Cavalry Charges of force a unit to make a test or run for their lives, which may or may not still lead to melee combat. After melee, a formula is used to test whether the unit that took the heavier casualties breaks and runs or surrenders. And, after a certain threshold, every time units take losses, a morale check must be made. This theoretically makes it possible for things like Cavalry Charges to result in up to three different morale checks, all using different systems.

Chainmail 3rd Ed. Cover
TSR, 1975
Peasants have a morale system it has to be rolled to make them follow orders. Knights have a loyalty system that has to be rolled to determine whether they will move in a cautious and circumspect manner, or whether they will simply charge the nearest unit of preference. Mercenaries must check to determine whether they will remain in the battle. All of which use different subsystems as well.

And that's perhaps one of the most interesting things about Chainmail: the system was built piecemeal the handle all manner of situations in a piecemeal fashion put together on the fly and codified into repeatable rules. It is a kludge with little consistency, although each system has its own logic and charm. The reason Chainmail was successful was that it captured a kind of play that hadn't been covered that people were hungry for, and had a assortment of cool ideas that could be stolen or adapted.

If I have any complaint about Chainmail, it is that the after melee morale check is incredibly complicated. I'm sure once you get used to calculating it, it gets easier, but Wargame Culture found it simpler to just build a spreadsheet so that we could enter in the appropriate values and let the computer do the heavy lifting. A convenience that wasn't available in 1971.

Much of the evening evolved into a discussion about what rules we would replace post-melee morale with that are more modernized, but catch all the important factors. The goal would be to have a similar outcome with our simplified rules as compared to much you would get playing RAW Chainmail.  

That kind of discussion is very much in the spirit of tabletop war games of the era: rules were negotiable as long as you use them consistently from skirmish to skirmish over the course of the campaign. Nobody played rules exactly as written. Wargames were created as the game was played based on what both players agreed was fair after debate.

It's also worth noting that much of the structure and system of newer more popular war games such as Warhammer Fantasy Battles and Mantic Games' Kings of War are very much built to follow a similar set of procedures and order of play as Chainmail, but using more abstracted and streamlined rules.

I'm hooked. At least a little. Right now, I am building up roll20 terrain assets and figures to have another shot at Wargame Culture where we actually build our own armies and aim for victory rather than making him aim to teach. I will be sure to tell you how badly I get my ass kicked.

If you are curious, I would recommend looking at Grognard, which, aside from some terminological tweaks and not including modified stats for real-world historical armies, it is a pretty faithful retroclone. And elegantly translated from High Gygaxian to English

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