In the early 1970s, starting a role playing campaign required considerably more effort than it does today. Manuals had to be ordered by snail mail, gamers made their own miniatures instead of buying them off the shelf, and players often tinkered with rules to create ingenious variations.
Chainmail, an obscure game created in part by legendary Dungeons & Dragons designer Gary Gygax in 1971, was the foundation for what many call the world's greatest role playing game. What did Gygax and fellow Dungeons & Dragons creator Dave Arneson learn from Chainmail and how did the duo flesh out its rules?
Photo by Mrtopp
Tinkering with a tired system
Hobbyists and gamers, playing around on nights and weekends, often tweaked existing games to breathe life into old favorites or create completely new experiences. In the early 1970s, Gary Gygax worked for Guidon Games as an editor, and he co-authored the rules for the game Chainmail with Jeff Perren.
Chainmail took place in a medieval context, using miniature figures to serve as proxies in combat. Each figure proxies for twenty of a certain type of soldier, whether it be armored foot soldiers or a low class horse rider. This system allowed for large battles between mixed classes based on the outcome of six-sided dice rolls with minimal "on table" confusion.
The first edition of Chainmail was just 62 pages long with a 15 page fantasy supplement. Indeed, one of their big innovations was the idea of including a fantasy supplement with a game of medieval army combat.
Personalizing the experience
One key element that makes Chainmail the spiritual predecessor of Dungeons & Dragons is the transition of the miniature into an avatar for the player. While miniatures are not necessary to play D&D, the figures helped personalize the experience. Gygax made note of co-creator Dave Arnenson's use of the miniatures in a different way to play Chainmail:
It was Dave Arnenson, though, who started playing a Chainmail game where each of his players had just one figure on the table. That was the impetus for me (to put together what eventually became Dungeons & Dragons).
Instead of pitting proxy army against proxy army, Arnenson's playing setup lent itself to players joining together against fantasy elements. Gygax would officially team up with Dave Arneson on 1972's Don't Give Up the Ship!, a Napoleon-era naval strategy game produced by Guidon, two full years before the duo would co-create Dungeons & Dragons.
Gygax noticed himself and other players becoming bored with the strictly medieval fighting context of Chainmail, so he added rules for jousting events, single combat, and fantasy elements. Some of these fantasy elements, like spell casting and dragons, would crossover into Dungeons & Dragons world. Already, the spells phantasmal forces, conjure elemental, and lightning bolt were available in the first edition of Chainmail.
Gygax, an avid fan of miniatures, kitbashed a number of miniatures to create fantasy creatures. He crafted a kitchen match and putty into an Ogre's club and turned plastic dinosaurs into dragons.
Speaking of a pivotal playing session with Arneson, Gygax said:
I thought that this usage was quite interesting and a few months later when Dave came to visit me we played a game of his amended Chainmail fantasy campaign. A few weeks after his visit, I received 18 or so handwritten pages of rules and notes pertaining to his campaign and I immediately began work on a brand new manuscript. About three weeks later, I had some 100 typewritten pages, and we began serious play testing... Dungeons & Dragons had been born.
It is likely that the handwritten rules by Arneson contained the basis for an early Dungeons & Dragons supplement, Blackmoor. While Gygax and Arneson often disagreed with the role the fantasy elements played in the creation of Dungeons & Dragons, there's no doubt that Chainmail was a key influence. The original 1974 version of Dungeons & Dragons goes so far as to recommend that the owner also have a copy of Chainmail on hand. The recommendation is made in order to better handle skirmishes between large armies, harkening back to days when a six-sided die could solve most battles.
A first edition Chainmail rule book sells for upwards of $2,000 in pristine condition when they appear for sale. The slightly easier to find, but quite rare second edition goes for close to $400. The Chainmail rulebook is no longer in print.
Images courtesy of Guidon Games and TSR/Wizards of the Coast.