Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Retrospective: Battle System

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.


  1. I've never read Battle System, but I have fiddled about on paper somewhat with Warmachine -the BECMI mass combat rules- I am told that once the initial numbers for troop strength, etc are crunched, it plays rather easily. I don't if that's so or not, as such battles have not come up in my games and we generally don't play BECMI.

  2. This is my favorite game I never played. The sheer number of tokens alone was a joy to an eleven year old. My mother bought us a huge piece of green felt to cover our ping pong table and my brother and I made kitty litter roads, plastic fish tank plant forests, and set up huge armies that never once clashed over the critical bridge or the ruined keep painstakingly constructed by gluing gravel to 1”x 2”s. I was inspired by the idea, and even today would love to run a mercenary based campaign evenly split between large pitched battles and side quests through traditional dungeons. Do we need the wizard to face the Orc horde mustering on the western marches or is he needed on the team searching for the lost artifact in the forgot temple?

  3. I've been tempted to use the GW LOTR or Warhammer rules for D&D mass combat. The great thing about those mass combat rules is that you have "units", but the attrition for each unit is gradual.

    The two systems (D&D and GW mass battle systems) are just too foreign to one another, and I ultimately decided it would require to much effort in the conversion.

  4. I played in an AD&D 1e/2e game that used Battle System a couple of times. I don't recall many details, but I do recall a battle in which my Elf F/T/MU somehow wound up leading units of Dwarves into large battle. We came up against some strong enemies, and one of my fellow party members said to me "Your guys look like they're in trouble."

    ME: "Don't worry. We Elves know Dwarves, and Dwarves never flee."

    GM (rolls dice): "The Dwarves break and rout!"

    ME: "I told you! I told you! You can never trust Dwarves for anything!"

    Hmm... I may have to look for a copy of this. :)

    Security word: "sesses." How a goblin tells a story: "So, da fat orc sesses to me, 'Go over dere!'"

  5. Bighara,

    Due to its level of abstraction, I think the Companion rules War Machine were nice for macro-conflicts - Risk or Axis & Allies level conflicts - rather than individual unit style battles one would usually see in miniature based war games.

    I think it did that kind of thing very well and ran quite smoothly and quickly after you had crunched the numbers to determine troop strengths.

  6. Had it, read it, liked it. But thought it might be a little too complex, too time-consuming, to actually use for a game. Never got around to trying it. Lost it, and would like to pick up a copy again some time. I think we really need a system for resolving battles at this scale.

  7. "The Underworld and Wilderness Adventures" suggests scaling up D&D for large battles, and I think this approach is drastically underappreciated. Things like area effect spells and dragon breath can be taken to affect only one unit, or a handful of units depending on what the scale is. PCs can be assumed to go to battle with a handpicked retinue that fights on the battlefield with the same stats they use in regular combat. I admit that if you really want to wheel and march in column and form pike squares this approach won't satisfy you, but I think it'd be a shame if people who aren't that finicky declined to run large battles just because of the shibboleth that "D&D doesn't have a mass combat system". (Maybe, though, I'm just talking to and about myself, and my D&D groups in the eighties-early nineties.)

  8. Like Bighara, I much prefer the Warmachine rules from the D&D Companion Rules (BECMI). OTOH, I have found that with my own group, we are much more interested in what happens to the PCs on the battle field than worrying about strategies and the outcome of the mass battles. This is just as easily decided by the DM, possibly modified by how well the PCs do in the middle of the whole thing. YMMV obviously. :)

  9. I have a copy of Battlesystem, obtained via Ebay, that I've opened, dug through a little, and largely forgotten. I keep meaning to sit down and absorb the rules, but my AD&D campaign is not yet in a place where mass combat is likely to occur.

    The cover art has, however, baffled my entire gaming group.
    "Is that...a triceratops?!"

  10. I always just considered units as each having an attack roll, and damage dealt would be multiplied by the attackers and divided among the defenders.

    Sure there are problems when you have a unit of people with different attack rolls. It works best with units made up of identical creatures. If not, you have to average the values. Example:

    Six figures. One has -1 to hit, two have +1, two have +2, and one has +3.
    That's -1/6, +2/6, +4/6, and +3/6. Total +8/6, or +1.3 to hit. Rounds to +1 for the unit.

    If you hit, everyone in the unit does damage. Again if you have a mixed unit you need to figure out the unit damage roll ahead of time.
    One does 1d4, two do 1d6+1, two do 1d6+2, and one does 1d8. That's an average of 2.5/6, 9/6, 11/6, and 4.5/6. Total 4.5 average damage. That's a d8. So you roll 1d8 for the unit if it hits and multiply that by 6 (because there are 6 people doing damage).

    Say you roll a 3.

    Against a target unit of one figure, that's 24 damage. Against a target unit of five figures, it's 24 damage divided by 5 (4.8 each, rounds to 5 each).

    If the attack would have dealt no damage to one figure (say one of them is a Gargoyle and needs a +1 magic weapon to hit it) then split up the damage as normal but don't apply the damage to the gargoyle.

    In our example above, only one of the +1 to hit guys had a magic weapon. So the unit effectively has a +1/6 magic weapon - not enough to harm a gargoyle. If a unit of 5 men had one with a +3 weapon, the unit would have a +0.6 weapon, which rounds to +1.

    It also ignores things like flanking, elevation, morale, etc unless you just use those rules from the game you're using. Average the morales of them men in a unit and roll once. They all flee or all stay.

    It just seemed like with a little common sense the standard D&D combat rules work.

    Now I'll admit it's a more complicated calculation. Probably thrice as much effort as a standard 1v1 combat. But if your combats are normally 6v12 or so, you could run a combat with 2v4 units with the same difficulty.

    And those are units of arbitrarily large size. If you just wanted to model a fight between two huge armies, roll attack and damage for both at the same time and apply. That just took half a day of in-game time. Want another exchange, or will your army change tactics?

    The DM is of course needed even more than in 1v1 combat because he needs to arbitrate things like spell effects and morale failures and fatigue.

  11. My favourite Niles work is the Dungeoneer's Survival Guide. It avoids the drift into simulation-fetishism that overwhelmed the Wilderness SG, and the campaign building advice is excellent (The Lands of Deepearth aren't bad too).

    I still use Niles's Open (Sandbox)vs Matrix vs Linear models for thinking about campaign building. His concept of the Matrix campaign in particular appeals to me a lot and I'm running one right now, Necromancer's Vault of Larin Karr.

    Plus, harem girls menaced by horned ogre, what's not to like? >:)

    As for Battlesystem - a good idea with serious flaws in execution. Your typical AD&D -5 AC high level PC takes something like 0.25 or even 0.05 hd/round damage, as I recall, with a round being 3 minutes, in which time he kills a squad of 10 men. There seemed to be a lot of fiddly bits like that. Plus it gave results like the PC IMC who killed 500 werewolves in 1 battle, solo.

    The only D&D mass battle system I've ever seen work really well in actual play was Mentzer's Companion Set War Machine, still my go-to rules set.

  12. I liked how they announced this as an AD&D set and then quickly rolled it out for Expert (Basic) D&D in X12, with tons of chits included in the module. It was a great time for d&d right then, with some cool things being tried out, lots of new product - no, not the same as 10 years earlier, but it was a great time to be a gamer...

    From what I recall of the mechanics your summation of it being rather broad but complicated at the same time rings true. Regardless, it was great to see something being done mechanically to address the dominion level combat that many of us got to in those days...

  13. Does anyone here have experience with Swords and Spells, TSR's first set of D&D-compatible miniatures rules?

  14. I only used this once; nearing the endgame of a long running campaign. I seem to recall the system did an ok job, but, as a previous commenter remarked, there were some wonky results.

  15. Am I the only one who remembers "City State Warfare" by Judges Guild? As far as I know, it was the only boxed set that JG came out with back in the day. It was a hex-and-counter generic wargame intended to allow battles of fantasy and history. And indeed the rules had scenarios for both historical battles and ones set specifically in the City State campaign. That was a neat little game; very playable, and probably would fill the hole you're looking for, James, between D&D and a full-blown minis game.

    The cover had a guy riding a triceratops, attacking a walled city.

    They also had a set of straight minis rules ("Way Cry"), but as I recall it was historical only.

  16. And by "Way cry" I mean, of course, "War Cry.

  17. I hate to suggest this, considering what James thinks of DL, but wasn't the Battle System developed alongside Dragonlance, to facilitate the recreation of the major battles of the War of the Lance? I know Doug Niles did work on a lot of those modules. Or did Battle System come first, and DL just incorporated its rules?

  18. James M wrote:

    "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."

    I'm wondering if this view is a bit turned around on itself. What I mean is that D&D has roots in wargaming but the vast majority of people who took up D&D were not wargamers. It takes a very special...dedication...interest, maybe? to be willing to stand around and move a bunch of small pieces a few centimeters each hour to hopefully resolve a conflict after a full day's worth of turns.

    So what I wonder is if the war gaming aspect of things didn't have trouble because people starting having less time so much as most people were never really wargamers to start with.

  19. "...and his Against the Cult of the Reptile God is a cleverly done adventure module."

    Actually, didn't Kevin Hendryx originally write that? My recollection is that it had a convoluted history. Kevin originally wrote it as part of an edit for L1, but when Len complained, it was pulled. Later, when Kevin went back to Metagaming, he took the notes with him, and proposed it as the Kanarvin Conspiracy (I think). When Metagaming went TU, that plan also went down the tubes. Finally, TSR revisted the original proposal and had Niles write it up.

    Of course, I might be mis-remembering...

    Word Verification: schtizes - almost a dirty word!

  20. James, have you looked at any of the old Dwarfstar Microgames from the eary 80's such as Demon Lord and Barbarian Prince? With the exception of one all are now free downloads. Check it out.

  21. I can remember Battlesystem 2E getting very good reviews in a British magazine called GamesMaster International. IIRC the magazine compared it to Fantasy Warriors by Grenadier and found Battlesystem to be the better system for fast and fun battles.

    I was never really into wargaming but I do own a copy of the 2E rules and played it a couple of times, which I enjoyed. Crap cover tho.

  22. WOW, Crow! Thanks for posting that link! I had completely forgotten about those Dwarfstar games until now. Man, I spent hours playing Goblin and Barbarian Prince...

    Now I know what I'll be doing this Sunday.

  23. I have Battle System 1e, I tried to use it for the Dragonlance modules which had battles designed for the system, but it did not work well at all. Actually, I might be tempted to sell it :)

    I strongly prefer Companion D&D when it comes to playing large scale battles; I think strategy works better than tactics at such levels.

  24. As you were using counters instead of actual figurines and model terrain, I think your problem with "time" was probably really just an issue of interest. Scenario design should take much less preparation than for an RPG. AD&D sessions tend in my experience to take 4-6 hours, which should be plenty for interesting table top battles (including set-up and take-down) with a bit of organization.

  25. James, you need to read the Dragon magazine articles that accompanied the release of Battle System. Douglas Niles gives a fairly candid description of its development. Basically it was passed around for years before being completed. The combat matrix was apparently designed by David Cook. It probably got pushed out the door for the same reasons as Unearthed Arcana, which is to say TSR's precarious financial situation.

  26. If you don't need everything to be precisely the same as in D&D, I recall Rules According to Ral as pretty nifty.

    Dave Sutherland's Legions of the Petal Throne is another fantasy rules set I have found quite handy.

    For really quick and dirty, there's HOTT (Hordes of the Things, a spinoff from "the other" Phil Barker's De Bellis Antiquitatus).

  27. Joseph,

    I keep hearing of this JG product, but I have never seen it. Guess I should keep my eye peeled.

  28. I hate to suggest this, considering what James thinks of DL, but wasn't the Battle System developed alongside Dragonlance, to facilitate the recreation of the major battles of the War of the Lance? I know Doug Niles did work on a lot of those modules. Or did Battle System come first, and DL just incorporated its rules?

    As I understand it, Battle System was an old project that had, in various forms, been kicked around the TSR offices for years. Originally, the "Bloodstone Pass" name was going to be used for a one-off minis-based product, but it eventually expanded beyond that and turned into what it eventually did. The DL connection is after the fact rather than something planned from the beginning (or so I believe).

  29. Actually, didn't Kevin Hendryx originally write that?

    You may be right. The story sounds familiar, but I can't recall all the details and I didn't think to ask Kevin Hendryx about it when I interviewed him. I suppose I could always drop him an email ...

  30. James, have you looked at any of the old Dwarfstar Microgames from the eary 80's such as Demon Lord and Barbarian Prince?

    I have and I even posted a link to that very page back in my review of Swordbearer a few months ago.

  31. As you were using counters instead of actual figurines and model terrain, I think your problem with "time" was probably really just an issue of interest.

    Quite possibly, but I should add that we did use minis side by side with the counters. We simply lacked enough minis to do the battles using only miniatures.

  32. I have always been fond of the battle system from the first edition of Legend of the Five Rings. It abstracted the actual combat to what was more or less a flowchart, and then involved the players in individual events, like a duel, or an attempt to capture the opposing army's standard, etc. The more successful the players were in the smaller events, the more the battle as a whole would go their way.

    I'm perhaps not describing it well, but it works really well, and I've modified it a number of times for other systems.

  33. You still want a copy of Battlesystem> I still have a copy
    AND I'm downsizing
    AND I live in Toronto (or rather Brampton)

    Drop me a line via my gmail ID ( and let me know where to send it to you

  34. A series of semi-related thoughts.

    (1) I have the Battlesystem boxed set, never played it, counters are spectacular, combat table is wonky. (2) Also have the 2nd edition book version, enormously better mechanics; if it weren't for one flaw I'd call it perfect and use it all the time. (3) Doug Niles is a genius with minis rules.

    (4) Swords & Spells is an enormous stinker (and unfortunately my first introduction to minis games). In short: Copy movement & formation rules verbatim from Chainmail, replace combat resolution thus -- when units meet, grab a calculator and crunch the average total D&D damage and remove figures appropriately. Way not fun. (Per Acaeum, "Swords & Spells is the fantasy-based successor to Chainmail, covering miniatures rules for D&D. It was hastily produced, and contains several glaring errors.")

    (5) Re: "D&D endgame", consider what a poor business case it make for the publisher. By necessity it has to be situated and fixed in some intimately personal campaign space. You can't publish drop-in modules that go "anywhere" for mobile PCs. In the BXCMI era, the Companion/Masters modules were notoriously difficult to use because they assumed some pre-established PC dominions "somewhere" in the enormous territory of Norworld.