Tabletop games Wargaming

Chainmail - game

Rules for medieval miniatures
Cover for the first edition of Chainmail (1971). Artwork by Don Lowry
Years active 1971-1985
Players 2 - 10
Age range 12 and up
Playing time six hours

Chainmail is a medieval miniature wargame created by Gary Gygax and Jeff Perren. Gygax developed the core medieval system of the game by expanding on rules authored by his fellow Lake Geneva Tactical Studies Association (LGTSA) member Perren, a hobby-shop owner with whom he had become friendly. Guidon Games released the first edition of Chainmail in 1971 as its first miniature wargame and one of its three debut products. Chainmail was the first game designed by Gygax that was available for sale as a professional product. It included a heavily Tolkien-influenced "Fantasy Supplement", which made Chainmail the first commercially available set of rules for fantasy wargaming, though it follows many hobbyist efforts from the previous decade. Dungeons & Dragons began as a Chainmail variant, and Chainmail pioneered many concepts later used in Dungeons & Dragons, including armor class and levels, as well as various spells, monsters and magical powers.

Early history

Gary Gygax's personal interest in medieval wargaming rules was sparked after witnessing a game of the Siege of Bodenburg, at the first Lake Geneva Wargames Convention (Gen Con) in 1968. Bodenburg was serialized in the wargaming magazine Strategy & Tactics the previous year, and required various 40 mm Elastolin miniatures, including a large castle setpiece. Gygax first inquired publicly about purchasing these figures early in 1969. Gygax furthermore began work on a medieval board wargame called Arsouf, based on the Battle of Arsuf, which he serialized in Panzerfaust between April and July 1969 (later, the game was repackaged under the title Crusader). Moreover, Gygax wrote a series of articles about ancient and medieval wargaming in the International Wargamer starting in October 1969 in which he repeatedly acknowledged his appreciation for Tony Bath's medieval wargaming rules. Eventually, his interest drove Gygax to form the Castle & Crusade Society of the International Federation of Wargaming as a Society dedicated particularly to the exploration of the medieval wargames setting.

Early in 1970, the LGTSA purchased a considerable number of Elastolin figures, which motivated Jeff Perren to develop four pages of his own rules for these miniatures which focused on mass combat. He introduced the rules to Gary Gygax and the LGTSA. Gygax initially adapted the rules with slight modifications for publication in Panzerfaust (Vol. 5 No. 1, pg.4-8) as the "Geneva Medieval Rules." Just three months later, Gygax had expanded them further still, and published them in the fifth issue of the Domesday Book, the newsletter of the Castle & Crusade Society. Nearly simultaneously, Gygax republished these extended rules in the August 1970 issue of the Spartan International Monthly. Relatively few medieval miniature wargame systems were in circulation at the time, and these rules attracted much interest to the Castle & Crusade Society. In subsequent issues of the Domesday Book, further rules for medieval wargames appeared, covering jousting and individual combat.

Gygax and Perren's set of medieval miniatures rules from The Domesday Book brought Gygax to the attention of Guidon Games, who hired him to product a "Wargaming with Miniatures" series of games. Towards the end of 1970, Gygax worked with Don Lowry to develop the first three products for the new Guidon Games wargames line. Among the three was a pamphlet of medieval rules entitled Chainmail which adapted much of the medieval rules published in the Domesday Book. Late in the development process - Gygax would later call it "an afterthought" - Gygax added to the end of Chainmail fourteen pages of a "Fantasy Supplement" which detailed the behavior of Heroes, Wizards, dragons, elves and various other fantastic creatures and people.

First edition Chainmail saw print in March 1971. It quickly became Guidon Games's biggest hit, selling one hundred copies per month. A second edition would follow in July 1972, with several expansions and revisions to the original game. The January 1972 issue of the International Wargamer initially published the most significant of these changes, including the splitting of the "Wizard" type into four distinct levels of spell casters.

The cover art of Chainmail is a swipe of a Jack Coggins illustration from The Fighting Man.

The Rules

Chainmail effectively comprises four distinct wargame systems:

Famously, Chainmail also contains a set of castle siege rules which deals with mines and countermines. It suggests that underground wargames "are only possible to conduct on paper". Moreover, they require a third-party judge to supervise mining operations as players must not know the direction or extent of opposing mines. These rules created a precedent for a referee managing secret information about underground spaces on graph paper that would be followed by Dungeons & Dragons.

The Fantasy Supplement

For his "afterthought" about fantasy in Chainmail, Gygax wanted to capture the sort of swashbuckling action of Robert E. Howard's Conan the Barbarian books in a wargame. The fantasy creatures and spells exploited the contemporary popularity of The Lord of the Rings and helped make Chainmail Guidon's best seller. Gygax had long been a fan of the fantasy setting: as early as the end of 1968, he had already expressed interest in fantasy Diplomacy variants, and from 1969 to 1970, he serialized in the Diplomacy fanzine Thangorodrim a fictional series describing various colors of dragons, including red, blue, white, green and black dragons with abilities later familiar from Dungeons & Dragons. Shortly before the publication of Chainmail, Gygax wrote to Wargamer's Newsletter describing his intention to add "rules for Tolkien fantasy games" to his medieval miniatures rules, including rules for balrogs, hobbits, trolls, giants and the aforementioned dragons. In a 2001 interview, Gygax recalled that the members began to get tired of medieval games, and I wasn't, I decided to add fantasy elements to the mix, such as a dragon that had a fire-breath weapon, a hero that was worth four normal warriors, a wizard who could cast fireballs, [which had] the range and hit diameter of a large catapult, and lightning bolts, [which had] the range and hit area of a cannon, and so forth. I converted a plastic stegosaurus into a pretty fair dragon, as there were no models of them around in those days. A 70 mm Elastolin Viking figure, with doll's hair glued to its head, and a club made from a kitchen match and auto body putty, and painted in shades of blue for skin color made a fearsome giant figure. I haunted the dime stores looking for potential additions and eventually found figures to represent ogres, elementals, etc. The players loved the new game, and soon we had twenty or more players showing up for every session.

The first edition Chainmail Fantasy Supplement added such concepts as elementals, magic swords, and archetypical spells such as "Fireball", "Lightning Bolt" and six other spells. Borrowing a concept from Tony Bath, some figure types may make saving throws to resist spell effects; a stronger wizard can cancel the spell of a weaker wizard by rolling a seven or higher with two six-sided dice. Creatures were divided between Law and Chaos, drawing on the alignment philosophies of Poul Anderson, as popularized by Michael Moorcock's Elric series. When fighting mundane units, each of the fantasy creatures is treated as one of the six basic troop types. For example, hobbits are treated as light foot and elves are treated as heavy foot. Heroes are treated as four heavy footmen, and require four simultaneous hits to kill; Super-Heroes are twice as powerful.

As of its second edition, Chainmail added two Wizard spells, new magic items including the first magic armor and several new monsters. Giants, which were accidentally omitted from the first edition of the rules, are treated as twelve heavy footmen, and require twelve cumulative hits to kill.

Use with Dungeons & Dragons

Dave Arneson used Chainmail in his Blackmoor campaign, and many elements of Chainmail were carried over wholesale into Dungeons & Dragons (D&D) in 1974. In fact, the original edition of D&D required that the reader own a copy of Chainmail (as well as the Avalon Hill game Outdoor Survival). The first edition of Dungeons & Dragons frequently defers to Chainmail, for example in the rules for elves and hobbits, in the "Invisibility" and "Conjure Elemental" spells, for the special abilities of monsters, specifically for the text of many monsters including goblins and ghouls, in the magic items descriptions (e.g. "Horn of Blasting") and in the naval combat rules.

Despite these references, it is unclear how commonly players incorporated Chainmail into first-edition D&D games, however. The authors intended the Chainmail combat rules to be used in D&D, but they provided an alternative d20 attack option which eventually became standard. Early D&D players could fall back to the Chainmail rules when conducting battles between armies, a situation where the D&D rules would be cumbersome, but early campaigns more frequently focused on smaller groups of characters and dungeon exploration than on mass combat.

Advanced Dungeons & Dragons eliminated dependencies on Chainmail entirely.

Later products

In 1975, TSR, Inc. acquired the rights to several Guidon Games titles including Chainmail; TSR published the 3rd edition of the game, which remained in print as late as 1979. The third edition of Chainmail doubled the list of Wizard spells and added an explicit "spell complexity" factor to the game. Following intellectual property complaints about the use of Tolkien's concepts in TSR games, Chainmail swapped out "hobbits" for "halflings", "ents" for "treants" and removed the "balrog" from the game. In 1976, Gygax released a successor fantasy miniature wargame ruleset called Swords & Spells, ostensibly to render the aging Chainmail obsolete, which copied many system elements from D&D and introduced a dice-free approach for large battles, averaging each monster's D&D statistics.

TSR then concentrated on role-playing games, leaving space for competition such as Warhammer by Games Workshop. In 1985, TSR released another successor to Chainmail called Battlesystem; it went through two editions.

A game based on the d20 System was available under the Chainmail name in 2002. It was replaced the following year by the Dungeons & Dragons Miniatures Game, which made the switch from metal figures to pre-painted plastics, following the trend of competitors such as Mage Knight.

Tabletop games: Rules and Strategy