Saturday, July 24, 2021

The One-Minute Combat Round

Over at Donjon Lands, Stephen Wendell has written a lengthy blog post about the Chainmail-derived one-minute combat round of OD&D that I found quite compelling. Stephen argues, based on his reading of Chainmail, that man-to-man combat takes place at a different scale from mass combat. Consequently, the common assumption – and assumption it is, since OD&D never explicitly states this – that OD&D melee rounds are one minute in length is mistaken. 

Not being well versed in the mechanics of Chainmail, it's difficult for me to say whether Stephen is correct in his interpretation, but, by my lights, I think the points he raises are persuasive and worthy of further consideration. That said, I can think of one possible objection, namely that AD&D, unlike OD&D, is quite explicit about the length of its melee rounds, which are one minute in length. For all its deviations from the 1974 original, Advanced Dungeons & Dragons isn't that different. More to the point, Gary Gygax was involved in the creation of both (as well as Chainmail). Why include a one-minute melee round in AD&D if he hadn't intended OD&D to have the same? 

Now, I think it possible, if unlikely, that Gygax simply forgot how Chainmail's combat sequence was intended to work and thus perpetuated a misunderstanding through derivative rules. Whether that's actually the case, I couldn't say, which is why I'm curious what others with more knowledge of Chaimail might have to say on the matter. Regardless, I think Stephen raises some interesting questions. I'm frequently amazed by how often I discover that some "rule" is, in fact, no rule at all but merely a widely held interpretation. Could this be another example of that? 

Correction: Stephen does talk about AD&D in footnote 9 of his post.

Update: Stephen has a follow up to this here. Thanks to Zenopus Archives for the help in sorting out where the misunderstanding lay. 


  1. The base Chainmail rules assume that one figure represents “numerous men.” The rules change in the section called Man-to-Man Combat where one figure = one man. One of those changes is that each die roll represents a single blow. Thus, each combat round consists of a single blow by each combatant. Note how Holmes describes combat in his Basic Rules:

    “Melee is the most exciting part of the game, but it must be imagined as if it were occurring in slow motion so that the effect of each blow can be worked out” [my emphasis].

    Holmes puts combat rounds at 10 seconds.

    Note, however, that Book I of 0e says nothing about the Man-to-Man Combat section when describing how to use the Chainmail rules:

    “Fighting Capability: This is a key to use in conjunction with the CHAINMAIL fantasy rule, as modified in various places herein.” [my emphasis]

    I wonder if Gygax saw the “alternate combat system” as an alternate for only the Fantasy Supplement rather than a combination of the Fantasy Supplement + Man-to-Man Combat.

  2. The analysis on Donjonlands doesn't appear to address the section in OD&D Vol 3 called "The Move/Turn in the Underworld", where turns are described as being 10 minutes long, and then followed with an explicit statement that "Melee is fast and furious. There are ten rounds of combat per turn." This is the main reason that the combat round is typically interpreted as 1 minute long in OD&D. Any argument to the contrary should address those statements. There is a line of argument that "move turns" should not be equated with "combat turns" that has been discussed in great detail on the ODD74 forums.

    1. Thanks for pointing this out. I don't know Chainmail very well at all, so this is quite helpful.

    2. Thanks for pointing that out, Zenopus. I retract the conclusions here:

      I have a join request in at ODD74 since early yesterday. I was hoping to bounce the article off you guys before it got around to a certain well-read venue…

    3. Stephen, I just approved your join request (I am one of the moderators). We'd love to have you join in some of the discussions. I actually posted a link to your first blog post earlier today in the thread you cited in it. I think the issue of whether Chainmail MTM rounds were intended to be shorter in length than the mass combat rounds is still open for discussion.

      As I wrote on ODD74, Warriors of Mars by Gygax and Blume, which was published later in 1974 (after D&D), includes systems clearly derived from Chainmail, and has two separate scales that "are not mixed on the table":

      1:50, in which "1 turn = 1 min" and "1" = 10 yards"
      1:1, in which "1 turn = 10 sec" and "1" = 6 feet"

      The 1:1 "individual combat" system is described on pages 16-17 and appears modified from Chainmail MTM, and "has two rounds of melee each turn", and thus here rounds are clearly 5 sec each.

      Now, whether this type of split time scale was ever used with Chainmail Mass Combat/MTM is up to interpretation, but the Warriors of Mars systems almost appear to be written in recognition of the ambiguity of Chainmail.

    4. See, I've always seen OD&D having THREE Turn structures: The 10 minute Underworld Exploration Turn, the 24 hour Wilderness Exploration Turn, and the 1 minute Combat Turn. There are 10 melee rounds per combat turn (6-seconds each) - making melee "fast and furious". I got this because Chainmail has an unlimited number of melee rounds in a 1-minute combat turn.

    5. ThrorII, the "Chainmail has an unlimited number of melee rounds in a 1-minute combat turn" is part of the line of argument I referenced above. In the modern internet era, it's certainly been a popular interpretation of how Chainmail mass combat is conducted. But it is debatable whether the game was actually played that way in the 1970s. Earlier this year, a 1975 article by Gygax with an example of a Chainmail mass combat suggests that there is only one round of combat per Chainmail turn. See the thread on ODD74 linked in the first Dunjon Lands post.

  3. The length of combat rounds in most skirmish (i.e. man-to-man) wargaming rules are pretty bogus anyway.

    Usually they are based on some assumed movement speed, vs how far a figure can move on the table. That results in the length of one round. You can play around with these variables to achieve a desired result.

    But then there's also combat to be done. What does it mean in terms of a swordfight to have a combat round of 10 seconds? Of 1 minute? Of 10 minutes? At best you can aggregate the combat results over that time period, but then many rules assume that within 1 round you can strike 1 blow.

    The combination of these variables often leads to confusion around the gaming table :-)

  4. Besides the statement in OD&D that a turn is 10 minutes and there are 10 rounds to a turn, there's also Eldritch Wizardry. While Sup 3 of OD&D doesn't say how long a round is, the optional "segment of action system" presented there divides a round into six segments. This strongly suggests the round was something that could be divided by six. Given no hints of anything other than 60 or 10 second rounds in the OD&D->Holmes Basic->AD&D line, this strongly suggests that the round was 60 seconds.

  5. One of the jumps Runequest made away from D&D was stating explicitly that an attack roll represented more than one strike attempt. It was a series or sequence of blows and parries.

  6. Ranged combat during the 1 minute turn always seemed forced and not abstract. Has anyone tried to tackle how many arrows can be abstractly fired in 1 minute.
    Firing into melee is a bad move of course unless you don't care what you hit.
    Wonder what is out there.

  7. I have played a ton of both Chainmail and continue to turn to it as a skirmish and mass-combat system for various roleplaying games. I think it is important to recognize that, while Chainmail is described as the default combat system in OD&D, I'm not aware of anyone involved in ca. 1974 D&D who confirms it was used for this purpose at the table, and several people who were part of that community have stated in online forums that it definitely wasn't. I'm increasingly convinced the whole idea of Chainmail-based combat in the published version of OD&D is effectively an unplaytested suggestion, and the people who have experimented with it in this context know more about how it could work than did the author.

  8. There's definitely a disconnect between the 1-minute round and the idea that an archer should keep track of his arrows. Either you're saying that the archer fires only 2 arrows per minute, which borders on the ridiculous, or you must address the question of ammunition. I think that 1 minute is fine in general if you're doing mass melee, but it's rather odd if you're trying to represent duels between individual combatants.

    1. It is one of the great failings of D&D and nearly all other fantasy roleplaying games that their combat systems are grossly inappropriate for playing out duels. D&D in particular, in all its editions and forms, is simply dull in this context, despite its strengths as an engine for skirmish combats. Even most of the more tactically nuanced and granular combat systems are bad for classic one-on-one duels. It is pretty weird that this is the case; duels are an absolute staple of the genre, so we should expect our games to effectively support them.