Having thought a lot about the miniatures wargaming heritage of Dungeons & Dragons lately, it was probably inevitable that I'd start to reminisce about 1985's Battle System supplement to AD&D. Designed by Douglas Niles, Battle System was an attempt to "go back to ... [the] roots" of D&D, according to the supplement's introduction. I vividly recall the appearance of this product, which I hoped would finally give me something I'd always wanted: a playable mass combat adjunct to D&D. In my opinion, this is something D&D hasn't had since the days of Chainmail and the continued lack of such a thing has played a big part in the loss of D&D's endgame by making it unnecessarily difficult for many referees to handle the large combats that are likely to occur once the PCs become rulers of their own domains.
I'm not sure that Battle System was written with these concerns in mind. Indeed, I'm not entirely sure why the product was released at all. My guess is that Douglas Niles, who was himself an avid wargamer, wanted to write it. Likewise, in 1985, D&D was in the midst of an identity crisis as it entered its Silver Age and was being buffeted by internal squabbles during Gygax's Cent-Jours (he was removed from TSR's board of directors in the fall of that year). Battle System thus comes across as a kind of schizophrenic love letter to the early days of the hobby, even as it embraces a lot of the esthetic shifts that would mark the post-Gygax era. Just take a look at that Jeff Easley cover art.
What I liked about Battle System was its seeming open-endedness. The rules were designed, according to editor Michael Dobson, to be "up to date with the full, current AD&D system ... [and] include all new magic spells, new character classes, and every monster in the entire system!" Likewise, the rules more or less required the use of a referee, since the sheer breadth of situations possible by integrating the entire AD&D system demanded that there be some living arbiter to handle unusual situations, particularly when magic was involved. This appealed to me greatly and reminded me of those guys I saw playing Napoleonics miniatures battles back in the 70s. Battle System made me feel as if I was "one of them" as I played it.
And play it I did. I've spoken before about my general lack of experience in miniatures wargaming. As intrigued by it as I've always been, I've never really had the fortitude to play any such games to any great extent. Battle System was the sole exception and I suspect it's because the rules were short (32 pages) yet comprehensive and because the boxed supplement gave me everything I need to play. There were close to 1000 cardboard counters included and this obviated the need for having huge numbers of metal minis. Granted, metal miniatures look so much better than counters, but I had neither the time nor the resources to assemble huge armies in lead, whereas it was a snap with all these counters. This enabled me to have the fantastic massed battles I expected of any battle system associated with D&D.
Over time, my enthusiasm for Battle System waned. I found the rules both too sketchy and too restrictive at times and, even as loose as they were, large battles still took many hours to play out and my friends and I simply had better ways to spend our time. I'm not at all certain that this is a flaw of Battle System itself so much as it is a statement about why miniatures gaming generally and why its connection to roleplaying have diminished over the years: time. Even in the late 80s when I was in high school, I simply wasn't willing to lavish the same attention to gaming as I once did. I wanted things to take less time and demand less of my attention than they had in the past and I suspect I wasn't the only one who felt this way.
I no longer own a copy of Battle System. I got rid of mine years ago and wish I hadn't. While I doubt I'd play it again, it'd be nice to reread it and see what memories it sparks in me. I think Douglas Niles is an underrated game designer in old school circles. His work on the Star Frontiers Knight Hawks starship combat rules was very innovative in many ways and his Against the Cult of the Reptile God is a cleverly done adventure module. Unlike a lot of more celebrated people in this hobby, Niles's work often gave me a lot of pleasure and that, in the end, is all that really matters.