D&D Alumni Archive | 3/21/2014
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Dungeoneering & The Art of War
Shannon Appelcline

F antasy literature is full of mighty armies marching across medieval landscapes. In The Lord of the Rings (1954–1955), ents assaulted Isengard and orcs besieged Lórien, while in Robert E. Howard’s Conan stories (1932–1936), armies advanced across the Hyborian lands.

Meanwhile, D&D has usually focused on more personal adventures … but from time to time, it too has crossed over into the great battles of epic fantasy.

Chainmail Beginnings: 1974–1983

In the beginning, D&D was a wargame. It evolved directly from Jeff Perren & Gary Gygax’s Chainmail (1972), a tactical combat game for medieval miniatures. In Chainmail, each miniature represented 10 or 20 men, but some “man-to-man” variants suggested rules for a 1:1 scale. Here a figure could represent a single person—perhaps a wizard or a hero!

Dave Arneson used modified Chainmail rules in his Blackmoor games, allowing individual characters to fight armies and to adventure in dungeons, which in turn helped lead to creation of the original Dungeons & Dragons (1974) game. In its earliest days, OD&D even used the Chainmail combat rules, which theoretically meant that early OD&D allowed for an easy integration of man-to-man and army combat—but most players used OD&D’s “alternate” combat rules because the Chainmail connection was a bit vague.

As OD&D evolved through supplements such as Greyhawk (1975) and Blackmoor (1975), it truly became its own game—and less compatible with Chainmail. This resulted in the release of Gary Gygax’s Swords & Spells (1976), a successor to Chainmail’s mass-combat rules that used some of the same movement and formation mechanics, but which adapted combat more directly from D&D.

However, D&D’s first warfare system proved short-lived. After its publication, OD&D was reincarnated as AD&D (1977–1979) and Basic D&D (1981). These newer games embraced the individual characters that made D&D unique, leaving behind the armies and warfare that were D&D’s ancestral heritage; D&D wouldn’t return to these battle grounds until it had fully become its own game, a decade after its creation.

The War Machine & The First Battle System: 1984–1988

Basic D&D was TSR’s bestselling line in the late 1970s and early 1980s, but shortly thereafter AD&D eclipsed it. This gave Basic D&D the opportunity to explore more innovative styles of gameplay, beginning with Frank Mentzer’s D&D Companion Set (1984). These Companion Rules allowed players to rule their own “domains” and also contained D&D’s first major mass-combat system of the 1980s: “War Machine.”

The War Machine rules operated at a strategic level. It took weeks to gather armies, which were then moved around large maps, where hexes represented 6 miles each. It was an interesting variant to the tactical warfare that had been the heart of D&D warfare in Chainmail and Swords & Spells.

However, War Machine was soon eclipsed by AD&D’s own mass-combat system. Though Douglas Niles’ wargame began life under the name “Bloodstone Pass,” it was released as Battlesystem (1985). Unlike Games Workshop’s Warhammer Fantasy Battle (1983), Battlesystem didn’t require players to have miniatures. Instead it was a box packed with cardboard counters that represented a wide variety of fantasy units.

Much like Swords & Spells, Battlesystem’s mass combat rules were extrapolated from the core AD&D rules. Designer Niles said that they tried “to maintain the spirit and, as much as possible, the letter of the AD&D game rules throughout.” In fact, Battlesystem was sold as an AD&D game expansion, not a standalone game. This emphasis allowed for the best-ever integration of tactical level warfare into the D&D game.

Though TSR had planned to support Battlesystem with optional miniatures produced by miniatures great Duke Seifried, TSR’s miniatures manufacture shut down just as Battlesystem was released. Nonetheless, TSR supported it strongly during the rest of the AD&D 1st Edition era by featuring it in numerous modules.

TSR reused the original name of the game system for the first Battlesystem adventure: Bloodstone Pass (1985). Mines of Bloodstone (1986) and Bloodstone Wars (1987), some of TSR’s most famous epic adventures, soon followed.

Meanwhile, TSR was already telling an epic story of warfare in their Dragonlance adventures, so the rules in Battlesystem were a natural addition to that module line. Dragons of War (1985) included a battle to hold a pass, while Dragons of Deceit (1985) introduced aerial warfare. Dragons of Faith (1986) and Dragons of Triumph (1986) also included Battlesystem material.

Finally, the rules from Battlesystem appeared in a few other places, among them Swords of the Iron Legion (1988), The Book of Lairs (1986) and Red Arrow, Black Shield (1985). The last adventure was notable because it was a Basic D&D adventure that featured an epic war that encompassed much of the Known World; it included stats to support both War Machine and the rules in Battlesystem—showing how Battlesystem’s rules were overshadowing the original innovation of the War Machine game.

From Battlesystem to War World: 1989–1995

When David “Zeb” Cook revised AD&D 2nd Edition (1989), he cleaned up and streamlined the game system. Douglas Niles did the same thing when he revamped AD&D’s mass combat rules as the Battlesystem Miniatures Rules (1989). As the name reveals, the newer rules also focused on miniatures; though TSR still wasn’t producing their own miniatures, an ever-growing line was available from Ral Partha.

Unfortunately, the second edition of Battlesystem never got as much attention as the first. AD&D crossover books were now less frequent and more scattered. Still, you could find Battlesystem stats in books like Dragonlance’s Time of the Dragon (1989), The Castle Guide (1990), and the Castles boxed set (1990). A war sphere of magic linked to Battlesystem was even introduced in Tome of Magic (1991).

TSR made their last big push for Battlesystem in 1991 with three major releases.

  • Horde Campaign (1991) revisited Forgotten Realms’ Empires event (1990), where a Mongol-like horde had invaded civilized lands. It detailed all of the major battles of the event with Battlesystem stats.

  • Battlesystem Skirmishes (1991) presented a third iteration of the rules seen in the Battlesystem book, but it reduced the scale so that each figure now represented one character, not ten. This effectively transitioned Battlesystem into a simplified AD&D skirmish system, rather than a mass combat system.

  • Finally, TSR released a new campaign setting that was intended to focus on Battlesystem, and so continually support it. The setting was originally called “War World,” but it was eventually released as Dark Sun (1991).

The idea of Dark Sun as a world constantly at war carried through its first few releases. In Freedom (1991), Battlesystem was used for riots, while in Road to Urik (1992) it helped to detail an actual war between cities. Finally, Dragon Kings (1992) gave high-level fighters the opportunity to recruit Battlesystem troops. After that, Battlesystem slowly faded from both Dark Sun and from the rest of the AD&D line.

Hordes of Dragonspear Castle (1992) was one of the last major releases that supported Battlesystem, though it continued to be mentioned in Dragon magazine through Dragon 217 (May 1995).

During its heyday, the rules from Battlesystem offered tight integration of epic battles with AD&D gameplay. However, TSR was never satisfied with the system’s level of success. By the time Player’s Option: Combat & Tactics (1995) was published, TSR had clearly decided that the system had reached its end, since the variant rulebook featured mass combat rules of its own.

The World of Birthright: 1995–2000

Though the death of the tactical Battlesystem iterations marked the end of an era for epic battles in AD&D, it also opened the door for other takes on warfare. War Machine had previously proved that D&D warfare could be played out at the strategic level, and this was what TSR returned to in its waning days in the world of Birthright.

The Birthright Campaign Setting (1995) was quite innovative for the fact that its PCs weren’t just heroes; instead they were kings who ruled their own domains. Birthright’s simulation system provided players with a variety of “domain actions” that they could use to influence the future of their realm—and one of those actions was to “Declare War.”

This allowed for a different sort of integration between a warfare system and D&D. Where Battlesystem allowed players to influence battles, Birthright instead focused on the battles that influenced the domains that the players ruled. Units represented about 200 soldiers, not just ten, and turns took a week each! Though players could interact with the battles, it was only in groups. Birthright was mostly about the kingdoms—and so it matched the sort of epic battles found in most fantasy literature.

Birthright was supported through 1997 with about thirty supplements and novels. It then returned with some final PDFs through 2000. Throughout, it was lauded as one of D&D’s most innovative takes ever on warfare.

Miniatures Days: 2001–Present

In the 21st century, Wizards of the Coast has produced several skirmish-level fantasy wargames. Chainmail (2001) was based on the 3rd Edition rules. It was revamped as D&D Miniatures (2003), which offered more streamlined 3rd Edition play. With the advent of 4th Edition (2008), D&D Miniatures was revised with a new edition of its rules (2008). After the Miniatures line ended in 2011, Dungeon Command (2012) replaced it to offer yet another take on skirmish play. Each game was supported with miniatures: unpainted miniatures for Chainmail and prepainted miniatures for all the rest.

Despite these games’ use of streamlined D&D rules, they weren’t integrated into regular D&D play like War Machine, Battlesystem, and Birthright. Instead, these were different games with a more warlike focus. There was one attempt at crossover: The Miniatures Handbook (2003), which included some rules for war leader classes in 3.5 Edition D&D and some rules for converting D&D monsters to D&D Miniatures. It was still a pretty limited integration; in the 21st century, epic battles have focused on miniatures battles rather than roleplaying adjuncts.

For forty years now, D&D has been playing with the art of war. The wide variety of warfare systems suggests that there are a lot of ways to simulate the wars of epic fantasy—and that there’s a continuing interest in doing so. Some of these warfare supplements are now available from DnDClassics.com, prime among them the Dark Sun and Birthright lines, which offer two distinct visions of D&D’s epic battles of the 1990s.

About the Author

Shannon Appelcline has been roleplaying since his dad taught him Basic D&D in the early '80s. He's the editor-in-chief of RPGnet and the author of Designers & Dragons—a four-volume history of the roleplaying industry told one company at a time. Shannon thanks the folks at RPGnet for suggesting some of Dragon’s best articles and giving other insights into the magazine's history.

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