Thursday, May 26, 2011

Checking Out Chainmail, Part 2

Moving forward in my reading of the Chainmail rules, this time we reach the "Chainmail rules for medieval miniatures" section of the book. The section starts with some notes about the purpose of the rules, the scale for the game and ratio of figures, as well as what is now a fairly typical suggestion about the game rules.

In regards to the scale and ratio, the rules were developed for 40mm scale figures, which were probably the most common scale miniatures in the authors’ collections or that they saw as being the most commonly available. They note that they will work equally well with any scale, including the 25mm plastic figures that were produced by Airfix back in the day. The recommended figure to man ratio is 1:20 for larger figures (30mm or larger) and 1:10 for smaller figures.

I collected quite a few sets of the 1/72 scale figures when I was a kid, and I'm thinking that may be the best way to get some figures to test out the rules. They're available in reasonably large quantities for much cheaper than any of the traditional plastic and metal miniatures, and I've seen examples of figures from just about every time period and place. As much as I love higher quality minis, I'm just not that interested in spending a fortune to play.

I'm not really sure about the figure ratios suggested. My first thought is that it really doesn't matter. The only real determinant for which to use is how many troops you have on each side and the appropriate ratio required to make that look good on the table. I agree that miniature wargaming should produce spectacle, so I'm going to use that as my main criterion for what ratio to use. I’ll see how it actually works out in play before I really decide how I like it.

The ground scale is static, specifically 1" to 10 yards, and each turn is about one minute of scale time. There is no flexibility in these categories. Interestingly, these same scales will carry through almost all of the derivatives of Chainmail, especially Dungeons & Dragons.

Another thing that will carry forward from these rules is the suggestion that they be house-ruled:

Although the rules have been thoroughly play-tested over a period of many months, it is likely that you will eventually find some part that seems ambiguous, unanswered, or unsatisfactory. When such a situation arises settle it among yourselves, record the decision in the rules book, and abide by it from then on. These rules may be treated as guide lines around which you form a game that suits you. It is always a good idea to amend the rules to allow for historical precedence or common sense — follow the spirit of the rules rather than the letter. (p. 8)

Because of the variety of options available in the rules, some interpretation is always required. Also, no matter how clear a particular set of rules is, there will always be arguments about how particular things work during a game. There will also be times when the rules produce conflicting situations. This is pretty common in all of the wargames and derivatives I’ve played.

Something that stands out to me in this particular statement of the “have it your way” paragraph, though is the last two sentences. In most games, the wording of this sentiment is much stronger. The designers want you to use their rules their way and only adjudicate rules arguments when things conflict. That isn’t the case here. Gygax and Perren want you to use the rules as guidelines to create the game you want to play. Chainmail is the skeleton that you can flesh out to suit your own particular tastes.

This particular sentiment may be the spirit of the times. In the late 60s and early 70s, the wargaming community was experimenting with a lot of different rules ideas and game mechanics and styles. Game clubs exchanged ideas and tweaked rules, often creating entire systems of home-brewed rules for tournaments and events. Part of this was due to necessity (there were not a lot of different rules sets to draw from) but part was the do-it-yourself nature of the hobby at the time. If a set of rules could approximate more than one period or style of game with just a few modifications, it makes more sense to develop a few house rules than try to reinvent the wheel and create a whole new system.

On the other hand, though, my interpretation of these lines may be simply based on hindsight and my preferred understanding of some history of the game. Knowing that it was the framework that D&D was built on, specifically through the process described by these two lines, probably colors my thinking. I like to see intention where it may not be appropriate.

Regardless of which is true, though, the fact that these lines appear in the second paragraph of the rules definitely encourages us to work with them and make them useful for our own particular games.


  1. The inch to yards conversion is unique to Chainmail. By even the first print of the LBBs, the standard cooversion was inch to foot, see Vol. 3 page 8.

    The turn length of one minute is one of the factors that added so much confusion to early D&D. Here it say 1 min per turn. D&D stays with one minute combat turns, but breaks them up into 6 second combat rounds and adds a different 10 min equals one turn of movement to boot.

    If you had each player roll a d6 for initiative that went down to 1 second combat segments. Even ADD confuses this whole situation with terrible wording.

  2. I think the 40ml figure scale was or the actual metal toy soldiers that were commonly available then. I saw lots of these still available at the Tower of London gift shop a few years back, and man are they spendy little pieces.

  3. Good catch on the scale issue. This is one of the most confusing issues starting with Chainmail and running through all of the various editions of D&D.

    OD&D does indeed stress that the scale in the underground is 1" to 10' in terms of ranges, areas, and so on. Lots of other ratios come to play in terms of indoor vs. outdoor, "mapped" ranges vs. "board" ranges, and different figure scales.

    What I was thinking of when I wrote about the range above was that the 1" to 10 yards outdoor ranges seems to carry through, despite being different than the indoor ranges, and thus producing one of the quirkier holdout rules from Chainmail.

    Good catch!