Thursday, November 11, 2010

A Chainmail Oddity

I've been re-reading Chainmail lately, though mostly for flavor purposes, because I'm largely of the opinion that Dungeons & Dragons without the "alternative combat system" is a very different game than the one I'm interested in playing. Still, there are many interesting ideas to be gleaned from Chainmail, some of which I might add into my OD&D campaign.

One that I am not sure I will add but is worthy of comment nonetheless concerns magic weapons. When I was looking at a section entitled "General Line-Up," which divides creatures into the categories of "Law," "Neutral," and "Chaos," I noticed something peculiar. Under the heading for "Law," after such obvious entries as hobbits, dwarves, gnomes, heroes, super heroes, wizards, and ents, there's an entry for "magic weapons."

At first I thought this might be an allusion to the fact that some magic weapons, particularly swords, could be intelligent, an impression supported to a limited degree by a statement earlier in the rulebook about magic swords: "Because these weapons are almost entities in themselves, they accrue real advantage to the figure so armed." There's a mention of Elric in the rules and Stormbringer, though not named, is referenced as an example of a magic sword.

Interestingly, "magic weapons" are not listed under "Chaos" in the General Line-Up. I'm not really sure what to make of this, particularly since, as already noted, Stormbringer is alluded to in the rulebook. I suppose it's possible that it was a mere oversight, but I'm not wholly convinced by that, since Gygax establishes several examples of entries found in multiple columns in the General Line-Up. On the other hand, it was deliberate, how are we to interpret this, especially in light of a weapon like Stormbringer?

There are lots of little wrinkles like this in Chainmail. I'm sure individuals more knowledgeable than I can step forward and offer explanations of why magic weapons are presented in such a fashion and, if you do know, I'd be glad to hear your thoughts. But, on some level, I don't really care. I see this as an opportunity to try and puzzle out a solution of my own, no matter how untenable it might be from a purist perspective. That's why I like the LBBs as well: you can build entire worlds out of lacunae.


  1. Like ents, it's a relic of LOTR in which all magic weapons are good, having been forged by elves.

  2. Per Rob Kuntz, the "alternative" system was the system that they used from the start. They never used the Chainmail system to play D&D. Same with miniatures being referenced, they never used them. See Rob's posts in this thread:

  3. Your reference to "build[ing] entire worlds out of lacunae" strikes me as very much like the process of biblical exegesis--I don't mean to make a theological point at all, but look at the pseudepigrapha associated with Enoch for a good example. Now, not to jump ahead, but using the nine-point alignment system, wouldn't Stormbringer be considered lawful evil? I suspect that Mr. Gygax would have thought of all intelligent weapons as lawful because they adhered to codes and the like--but I am often very wrong. And I look forward to hearing why! Thank you.

  4. KBowman said: "Like ents, it's a relic of LOTR in which all magic weapons are good, having been forged by elves."

    Ha -- And, like, everything else, too. :) Thanks for that.

    LCM: "Now, not to jump ahead, but using the nine-point alignment system, wouldn't Stormbringer be considered lawful evil?"

    No, the AD&D Deities Demigods book sets both Elric & his sword as Chaotic Evil. ("This huge black rune-carved blade is actually a chaotic evil sentient being from another plane...", DDG p. 87). OD&D Sup-IV sets it at Chaotic, too ("STORMBRINGER: Chaotic in nature...", Sup-IV, p. 52).

  5. Well, first off, let's not confuse playing d&d with the 'alternate' combat system (d20 attack roll) with playing with mass combat rules on a 1:1 scale. This doesn't mean they weren't using the 2d6 attack roll in man-to-man combat, indeed d&d predates polyhedral dice, so it was self evidently man to man combat from chainmail that was being used, just not the mass combat rules used Mano a Mano.

    To your initial post? Well evil always had numbers on it's side. From the 10,000 strong goblin horde vs some 2000 in the battle of the five armies in the hobbit, to soviet Russia with it's legions poised on the border to blanket the west. What good has always had was, sting, glamdril, and nuclear weapons! Oh yeah, and orcs don't make magic, elves do.

  6. This reminds me of a story my father told me about his old gaming days at MSU in the 70s.
    In the local campaign, the Lawful Good faction had "build better mousetraps" as thier motto, and source of many magic items and artifacts. Opposed by the Chaotic Evil faction whose motto "build better mice" was the explanation for gargoyles and dragons unkillable by non-magic weapons, and the million different kinds of goblinoids and abberations
    Well, one way to explain it is

  7. UWS guy said: "Well, first off, let's not confuse playing d&d with the 'alternate' combat system (d20 attack roll) with playing with mass combat rules on a 1:1 scale. This doesn't mean they weren't using the 2d6 attack roll in man-to-man combat, indeed d&d predates polyhedral dice..."

    That's not true, and it's distinctly the opposite of what Kuntz says in the linked post (same as Gygax said at other times):

    "The 20 sided-die system was used during the playtests and written into the drafts mailed by EGG to others. Corollary: Tractics (1970-71 playtests) that used 20 poker chips with attached numbers 1-20 and pulled from a can for adjudicating attacks)..."

  8. Delta--D'oh. I totally forgot Deities & Demigods. I still think my broader point stands, but I am duly chastened.

  9. It is self evident that gygax and others were using the chainmail "man to man" rules for individual play, by the time they were playtesting d&d for production they were using d20, but there can be no doubt they started with the 2d6 attack roll.

    When people say, "they didn't use chainmail". What they should say is they didn't use "mass combat" rules for 1:1.

    The 2d6 vs. D20 man to man rules are interchangeable and therefore James can't mean what he says, as there would be no appreciable change to his play if he took the man to man rules as written and played d&d.

  10. Is there any instance in fantasy where it wasn't the protagonist who wielded the magic weapons? Despite Elric being evil, he is the protagonist. He's evil, but less evil than those he's fighting, ergo the protagonist.

    Even the one ring was always in the hands of the good forces through out the books. Indeed magic items seem to be the mcguffins that the good forces are tasked with keeping the hands out of evil do-ers. Dragonlances and dragon orbs being another example. Or look at Gord the rogue who's keeping the shards of whatever from thasdurian.

  11. I figure you can almost certainly find evil magic items depending on how close to the modern day you get as you go. I can't think of one prior to the creation of D&D, and goodness knows it's become a bit of a running gag how monsters never use the magic items they're guarding. Now, after D&D... I can think of one in 1982, but it was really an informed attribute. The sword never really did anything magical. Can anyone top that?

  12. LCM: I'll count it as making my day that someone actually thought about what I wrote. Kudos! :)

  13. James bond movies. The evil guys get a powerful weapon and threaten to destroy the world. Every scenario of the "ticking time bomb" fits this milieu.

  14. Joseph Campbel and the mythic hero who quests for a magic item that helps overcome the terrible foe. Wether that foe is the medusa, a dragon, or other. Part of the heroes journey is becoming so equipped.

  15. KBowman said...
    Like ents, it's a relic of LOTR in which all magic weapons are good, having been forged by elves.

    "Briefly Strider told of the attack on their camp under Weathertop, and of the deadly knife. He drew out the hilt, which he had kept, and handed it to the Elf. Glorfindel shuddered as he took it, but he looked intently at it.
    "'There are evil things written on this hilt,' he said; 'though maybe your eyes cannot see them. Keep it, Aragorn, till we reach the house of Elrond! But be wary, and handle it as little as you may! Alas! The wounds of this weapon are beyond my skill to heal. I will do what I can--but all the more do I urge you now to go on without rest.'"

    Word verification: Thordin. The Thunderer thunders...

  16. The problem with how we are looking at this is that we assume lawful immediately means good. The way I look at the magic weapons being lawful is that even if they are evil they have a set goal provided from their creation. Your magic sword might be intelligent and want to destroy all that is good in the world but the sword Always wants that. Chaos does not make things, it destroys things. Creation of an item is something that requires a set of steps to do and not just a random series of actions.

    I can hit iron with a hammer all day but that wont make a sword let alone a Damascus steel blade.

  17. There are examples of Chaotic magic weapons from almost the beginning of D&D, so I tend to think this was indeed an oversight rather than a reflection of some concrete idea Gygax had.

  18. Magic = technology ;law = creation. Lawful societies create tech/magic and chaos is the opposite of all of those. Chaos destroys and warps. What magic or technology chaos has is stolen and then twisted to their ends, hence the "evil runes" etched on the nazguls blade?

  19. Uws guy: Early on TSR and Gygax choose to not got into detail regarding the design and development of D&D, and subsequent events have created something of history vacuum that is all to easy to fill with supposition and “self evident facts”. The narrative most consistent with the memories of those involved and various verifiable info is that Arneson began with some kind of combat method – From Greg Svensons adventure account it could quite possibly have been a version of Jeff Perrens mass combat system from the Domesday letters, but adapted to allow monsters in combat – but he soon incorporated other concepts, hit points being one. This apparently occurred in and soon after Christmas of 1970 – about 3-4 months before CHAINMAIL was published. That’s significant because the fantasy supplement did not appear until CHAINMAIL hit the stores. Arneson attempted to use the fantasy combat table in his “proto D&D”, but did so by adding monsters to the table and found it too unwieldy, (although Dave Megarry seems to have continued to use something like this for his Dungeon game) so Arneson adapted the new CHAINMAIL info into a system he had originally developed for a civil war ironclads game in which “armor class” played a central roll. We don’t know how his “to hit” table worked, but from a number of statements, we are told that it was quite similar to the level vs AC table of the “alternate” system in D&D. In other words, it was a level vs something table and that something was either Hit Dice/level, or Armor Class. The table may only have had 3 levels, 6 AC’s and used percentiles instead of the d20, but the basics were there. The point here is that Arneson flirted with the fantasy and the mass combat tables initially and then created something else. When he and Dave Megarry went to Lake Geneva in November of ’72 and taught the game to Gygax and company, it wasn’t CHAINMAIL man to man he was using. Gygax had “something else” to work with from the start. He seems to have reworked Arnesons concept into the familiar d20 table very quickly, perhaps for his very first game. In any case, when Mr. Kuntz tells us that Gary used the “alternate” system from the start – something echoed by Mike Mornard – there’s no reason to doubt him.
    Also, as it happens, use of the d20 die does indeed predate D&D as does the use of chits and other methods of getting around the d6.


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