How to kill a goblin in Chainmail

There were a couple of different combat systems that are said to be used in the first plays of what became Dungeons & Dragons, and it’s often noted that the first combat systems used—at least for a session or two!—were from Chainmail: Rules for Medieval Miniatures by Gary Gygax and Jeff Perren. Here I’ll be going through basic combat in Chainmail (and later OD&D) to see how it worked. I’m looking at a PDF of the 7th printing (April 1979) of the 3rd edition of the rules (copyright 1975).

These rules were developed to use Elastolin and Starlux 40mm miniatures, as well as Airfix Robin Hood and Sherriff of Nottingham (recently reissued by HaT) 25mm miniatures. They assume a ratio of 1:20 figures:men and a groundscale where 1 inch equals 10 yards. For smaller figures it is reduced to 1:10.

Interestingly, Chainmail allows both alternating turns and simultaneous turns (where players secretly write down orders before turns are resolved). A turn consists of initiative, the first move (including split-moves, missile fire, and taking any pass-through missile fire), the second move (including split-moves, missile fire, and taking any pass-through missile fire), artillery fire, missile fire, and resolving melee.

Here we’ll assume that, since this is “how to kill a goblin,” the humans are the aggressor.

Mass Combat
Vanilla Chainmail has no goblins—you’re thinking of the fantasy supplement!—so we’ll assume this initial melee concerns a band of human brigands rather than goblins. Fighting forces are categorized by unit type (Armored Foot, Landsknechte/Swiss, Arquibusiers/Crossbowmen, Heavy Horse, Medium Horse, Light Horse, &c), and armor level (Unarmored, 1/2 Armor or Shield, and Fully Armored). A contemporary experienced historical miniatures wargamer, should know what level of armor each troop type is supposed to have. It’s probably there in the Osprey Publishing books that you consulted when researching this era to accurately paint your miniatures. Chainmail has little to say about this directly, although it’s probably obvious which of the figures in your Elastolin collections are Vikings or Turks.

Brigands are possibly best represented in Chainmail as a unit of Light Foot/Archers (Move 9, Road Bonus —, Charge Move 12, Missile Range 15). Possibly the closest thing to the standard low-level D&D fighter in chainmail is Heavy Foot (Move 9, Road Bonus —, Charge Move 12, Missile Range 3*)—their ranged attack is equivalent to Viking or Saxon throwing axes and spears, while Armored Foot is much slower. Heavy Foot is later described to include Normans, Saxons, Turks, Vikings, Men-at-Arms, while Armored Foot includes Dismounted Knights, Sergeants, Italian City Levies, and Condottiere.

Chainmail Missile Fire

So, a single figure of Light Foot/Archers is atop a hill, to represent Team Brigand. A single figure of Heavy Foot (Team Adventurer) advances up the hill toward the brigands. They are armed with halberds. Team Brigand can attempt arrow fire against the advancing Heavy Foot, but the Missile Fire table is heavily oriented toward mass combat. The Missile Fire table uses a single d6 roll compared against the number of attacking missile troops and the armor level of the defenders—a single unit of archers can’t generate enough arrowfire to take down half-armored troops.

Team Adventurer can march up to Team Brigand. This is a mass combat game,and not designed for single figures: according to the Combat Tables, both Light Foot attacking Heavy Foot and Heavy Foot attacking Light Foot roll one less die than the number of figures attacking. Team Brigand would roll 0 attacking dice (d6), which kill on a 6. Team Adventurer is armed with halberds, however, and so gets one additional die when attacking, and kills Light Foot on a 5 or 6. Team Adventurer rolls a 2, so they do not kill Team Brigand. Both sides check morale by multiplying the number of surviving figures by a morale factor specific to their class (4 for Light Foot, 5 for Heavy Foot) and doubles the value since there are less than 20 figures per side. Since the total is less than 19, the melee simply continues (without the side with lower morale being forced to move back, retreat, rout, or surrender). On the next turn, Team Adventurer rolls a 5 and scores a kill on Team Brigand.

Man-To-Man Combat
The man-to-man combat rules are of course much more appropriate for this scenario. In man-to-man combat, the missile tables are identical to mass combat (so Team Brigand still can’t kill Team Adventurer with arrowfire). However, some things are a little different—attacker and defender simply trade blows until one is slain, and roll 2d6 for attacks rather than 1d6—and initiative is determined by what weapons are being used. Let’s say Adventurer is wearing chainmail and a shield, and fighting with a flail, while Brigand is wearing leather armor and fighting with a battle axe.

Chainmail Man-to-Man Melee Table

Adventurer is the attacker, so they would attack attack first, which is doubly true since a flail is two ranks higher than a battle axe. A figure with a flail must roll 7 or higher on 2d6 to kill a figure in leather armor, and Adventurer rolls an 8. Since the battle axe is ranked slightly lower than the flail, Brigand can elect to parry; this subtracts two from the attacker’s roll, making it a miss, but Brigand doesn’t get his counterblow on this round.

On the second round, the attacker would go first, except that a battle axe is ranked two lower than the flail, so instead Brigand goes first. A figure wielding a battleaxe needs to roll a 7 or higher to kill a figure in chain mail. Brigand rolls a 6 on 2d6, which is lucky for Adventurer, since a flail can’t be used to parry a battle axe. Adventurer gets his counterblow and rolls a 10, killing Brigand.

This is certainly more suitable for use as the combat system of an RPG—if you’re willing to tolerate extremely high levels of character death!

Fantasy Supplement
Reading the fantasy supplement is a fascinating look at original, implicit setting of D&D. Ogres are halfway between men and giants, whereas trolls are explicitly the regenerating monsters from Three Hearts and Three Lions. A fireball spell is equivalent to a catapult shot, whereas a lightning bolt is equivalent to an attack from a ballista. Many of the distinctive D&D spells and monsters are here, like cloudkill and phantasmal force.

But these are definitely mass combat rules. Goblin and kobold units have identical statistics (Move 6″, Ability to see in normal darkness as if it were light, Charge 9″, Fly —, Range —, Attack as Heavy Foot, Defend as Light Foot). Combat otherwise proceeds as in mass combat: the two combatants need to attack in a group to have a chance to score hits, unless they are armed with halberds. Heroes, however, are extremely powerful (Move 12″ (18″), Ability to raise morale of friendly troops, Charge 15″ (24″), Fly —, Range 18″, Attack and Defend as four men of the appropriate unit type depending on armor and situation). Thus a Hero in chainmail with ordinary weapons would roll three combat dice to attack, and would have to suffer four hits on a single turn to be destroyed. Superheroes are even better, since they attack and defend as eight men—they’re a one-man army.

Chainmail Fantasy Combat Table

However, certain monsters (Dragons, Elementals, Treants, Giants, Heroes, Lycanthropes, Rocs, Super Heroes, Trolls, Ogres, Wights, Ghouls, Wizards, and Wraiths) use a variant of the man-to-man combat rules when fighting each other. The attacker rolls 2d6 (instead of 1d6) for the attack, and the Fantasy Combat Table records what target they need to hit. For example, a Hero attacking a Troll or Ogre needs to roll a 9 or higher, whereas a Troll or Ogre fighting a Hero needs to roll an 8 or better. If the attacker rolls under, there is no effect; if they roll the target number exactly the defender must fall back back one move, and if they roll over, then the defender is killed. The creatures differ widely in power levels. A Hero cannot kill a Dragon (unless perhaps he has a magic sword), but a Super Hero has a small chance of it. The strongest monsters are Dragons, followed by Wizards and Giants, then Super Heroes and Elementals.

The Chainmail rules for jousts, in the man-to-man combat section, are amazing. This is essentially a mini-game that adjucates a jousting match in a single page and a half of rules, and which takes just moments. You could run a whole tourney in 15-20 minutes.

Chainmail Jousting Matrix

What’s great about these jousting rules is that it’s based on simultaneous action selection and wholly deterministic. Players secretly choose an aiming point and defensive position, and simultaneously reveal their choices. The results are given on the Jousting Matrix, and one or both players may break their lance, have their blow glance off, knock off their opponent’s helm, injure the opponent, miss outright, or unhorse their opponent—or some combination of them. The two opponents conduct rides until one or both are unhorsed or they complete three rides, and score the results.

So for example, say the Knight Errant is jousting the Goblin Knight. On the first ride, the Knight Errant aims for the sinister chief of the shield and sits shield low, while the Goblin Knight aims for the dexter chief of the shield and sits shield high—the Knight Errant deals a glancing blow and the Goblin Knight simply misses. On the second ride, the Knight Errant aims sinister chief and sits shield low, while the Goblin Knight aims dexter chief and sits leaning left—the Knight Errant breaks his lance and the Goblin Knight misses. On the third ride,the Knight Errant aims for the fess pale of the shield and must sit steady seat (since he broke his lance), while the Goblin Knight (knowing his opponent must sit steady seat) aims fess pale and sits shield high—the Knight Errant breaks his lance and is unhorsed, and the Goblin Knight breaks his lance and is unhorsed and injured. The Knight Errant scores 18 points (+20 for unhorsing the opponent, -2 for breaking his lance twice) and the Goblin Knight scores 9 points (+20 for unhorsing, -1 for breaking his lance, and -10 for being injured).

Overall, it’s extremely quick, thematic, and tells a story. It plays sort of like a baroque double game of rock-paper-scissors-lizard-Spock. This is a little awkward with just the tables, but would be awesome as a miniature card game.

Gary Gygax expanded this for AD&D in Dragon #17 with a one-page article describing how to account for the relative level of the jousters and any magic arms and armor. The aim points and sitting positions are the same, but are cross-referenced to generate a numeric modifier. The jousters add modifiers for magic lances and shields, a modifier based on their difference in level, and add these to the result of d20 rolls. Depending on the value, they may unhorse their opponent, break their lance, or deal a glancing blow; there is a percentage chance of injury, depending on whether the defender is unhorsed or loses his helm. This is a lot more complicated to resolve, and it appears to be the result of high-level AD&D players complaining about losing jousts ;)


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