Spending the 80th Anniversary of the Hobbit Jotting Down More Notes on Yesterday’s Tolkien Thing

Okay, there have been lots of conversations going on that are conflating certain things and certain arguments as being one and the same, and this leads to a lot of goal-post moving, so I’m going to try to untangle stuff here.

  1. Dungeons & Dragons was not “Tolkien + a few other things”
  2. Dungeons & Dragons was “Lots of things, including some Tolkien”
  3. Elves in the Hobbit are substantially different from Elves in Lord of the Rings and later Tolkien Legendarium; they are not “Tolkienesque” in the way that the term is generally understood.
  4. “Dungeons & Dragons is a Tolkien/Middle Earth adventure game” is a false statement.
  5. Chainmail, however, does include significant elements from the Hobbit; saying that the fantasy portion of Chainmail is Tolkien-the Game, is not entirely ridiculous.
  6. The Hobbit was far more influential on Chainmail and Dungeons & Dragons than the Lord of the Rings proper.*
  7. Elves in Chainmail are not explicitly “Tolkien elves”; they bear little resemblance to Lord of the Rings elves, though they do resemble elves from the Hobbit or the Rankin & Bass cartoon.
    1. Do people consider the Rankin and Bass elves “Tolkienesque”?
    2. Chainmail elves are mechanically identical to Fairies and share an entry.
    3. Chainmail elves can turn invisible at will;
  8. Orcs in Chainmail ARE explicitly “Tolkien Orcs”; their tribes are described in terms of “Hand Orcs”, “Mordor Orcs”, etc.
  9. Elves as they appear in D&D are substantially different from Elves as they are depicted in either the Lord of the Rings or the Silmarillion. Though a case can be made that they bear similarities to the wood elves from The Hobbit, they bear a much stronger resemblance to humanoid fey races from Poul Anderson.
  10. PC Races in D&D do owe some to Tolkien, but only Halflings are explicitly Tolkienian
  11. Tolkien did not have a literary monopoly on stout and hardy dwarves who live in the mountains, mine for treasure, or craft fantastic weapons; it does not pass a reasonable-doubt check, but it’s not far-fetched to say they were, if they did not become, Tolkien dwarves.
  12. Shifts in D&D towards more Tolkienian/Tolkienesque/Tolkiengrotesque races and trappings are the result of Tolkien becoming the “Goto” name in fantasy from the late 70s on as Tolkien Clones and Branded Gaming Fiction began to dominate the market and public conscious and therefore the minds of the people playing and later the people developing the game; this was not by design.

Note that all of the above is completely separate from the original discussion that:

  1. I hypothesize that The Hobbit had little/no impact on the 1st and 2nd waves of 20th Century Fantasy, though I remain open to and will look for evidence to the contrary.
  2. The Lord of the Rings’ influence on fantasy in the 70s and beyond is undeniable; its influence on fantasy prior to the mid-60s highly suspect
  3. Questioning Tolkien’s influence on literature from periods immediately contemporary with him and the intervening years between the Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings or the latter’s eventual paperback release =/= dismissing Tolkien’s work or his subsequent influence or denigrating it ala Michael Moorcock.

Lastly, if I’d remembered that this was the 80th Anniversary of the Hobbit, I probably would’ve avoided the topic entirely.

*:This one definitely needs citation, and I am looking for it, but it came from an interview with Gary where he pretty much comes out and says something along these lines.

B&B Dev Update

Combat involves a LOT of dice rolling. Like Yahtzee or Farkle, so it might be fun, and I don’t really see any reason to change it.  Just roll a fist full of six-siders, pick out any kills and knock down some minis/scratch off your unit HP.

combat matrix

Morale rules are less fun and may be fairly incompatible with standard monster morale ratings from basic games.

morale check

I feel like a failure as a technical writer because I haven’t figured out how to better explain and simplify the morale rules yet. I want to at least include a faithful recreation of the base mechanics of Chainmail, even if I intend to leave out the historical flavoring optional rules, like ‘Swiss just murder everyone’ and ‘all Polish troops are elite’.  But Morale and Cannon fire are doozies.

Anyway, to accommodate using morale from basic games for the S3M, I’ll probably need to make some major changes in how retreat and end of melee works.

I’m almost done with the core mechanics, but I find myself doubting the usefulness of B&B as a product.  I’m hoping that the S3M & Unit Cost Guide will justify and validate its existence in the OSR.  Unlike HALLS, though, I intend to see this through, because if S3M works it will actually be a functional cross-system module/mini-game that any group can use for platoon to company level fantasy combat.

That Devil Forrest

In the most recent spat of erasure of southern heritage, the mayor of Memphis has made the rather ghoulish proposition to dig up the body of Nathan Bedford Forrest and, I don’t know, toss him in the delta or something?

We’re always told that Forrest was the scum of the earth because he was the founder or head of Ku Klux Klan depending on who you ask.  His involvement with the group was brief and when he saw where things were headed he resigned and called for its dismantling.

What I did not know about Forrest, however, was that he was not only forward thinking on race, he was an open advocate of civil rights and equality between the races.

Ladies and Gentlemen I accept the flowers as a memento of reconciliation between the white and colored races of the southern states. I accept it more particularly as it comes from a colored lady, for if there is any one on God’s earth who loves the ladies I believe it is myself. ( Immense applause and laughter.) I came here with the jeers of some white people, who think that I am doing wrong. I believe I can exert some influence, and do much to assist the people in strengthening fraternal relations, and shall do all in my power to elevate every man to depress none. (Applause.) I want to elevate you to take positions in law offices, in stores, on farms, and wherever you are capable of going. I have not said anything about politics today. I don’t propose to say anything about politics. You have a right to elect whom you please; vote for the man you think best, and I think, when that is done, you and I are freemen. Do as you consider right and honest in electing men for office. I did not come here to make you a long speech, although invited to do so by you. I am not much of a speaker, and my business prevented me from preparing myself. I came to meet you as friends, and welcome you to the white people. I want you to come nearer to us. When I can serve you I will do so. We have but one flag, one country; let us stand together. We may differ in color, but not in sentiment. Many things have been said about me which are wrong, and which white and black persons here, who stood by me through the war, can contradict. Go to work, be industrious, live honestly and act truly, and when you are oppressed I’ll come to your relief. I thank you, ladies and gentlemen, for this opportunity you have afforded me to be with you, and to assure you that I am with you in heart and in hand. (Prolonged applause.) – N.B.F. in an address to the Independent Order of Pole-Bearers Association (a Memphis-based Civil Rights Group)

Yeah, that’s the guy they want to dig up.  Oh well…

Forrest

Nathan Bedford Forrest: ex-Klansman, Civil Rights Advocate, Lover of Women, 2*2 Cavalry General

As we’re upon the anniversary of Gettysburg, here’s something to think about:

At the 50th anniversary of one of the biggest battles of the Civil War, the PEOPLE WHO HAD ACTUALLY BEEN SHOOTING AT EACH OTHER were able to come together as friends and brothers, shake hands, tell stories, and eat thousands of pies and gallons of ice cream together under BOTH the Union and Confederate battleflags!  If the people who were shot at by people who’d held high the Southern Cross were able to meet with their ex-rebel brothers and eat apple cobbler and fried chicken, who are we to whine and complain?

In unrelated news, I think Cannons may be out of Battlefields & Broadswords.  The Chainmail rules for them suck and I don’t anticipate many groups using them in their Basic games.  Cannons aside, I’m just about done with the core mechanics.  After that will come incorporation of the Fantasy Rules and distilling rules for the S3M.  I have a few ways to go about it, but I think i’m going to try to treat units as characters with their own character sheets, with each mook representing the equivalent of 1 HP.  Where it gets tricky is how I’ll incorporate leveled leader characters; hopefully the rules on Heroic Leaders will give me some ideas.  At first I was worried about how to handle ranks, but I think it will work out like the two headed bifurcated snake boss fight.

Battlefields & BroadswordsTM

Battlefields & BroadswordsTM is an attempt to take a look at Old School fantasy miniatures rules and find a way to effectively bring them back into play as part of an Old School RPG campaign.

One of my biggest complaints about OD&D is that it is very poorly presented and rather messy. My biggest praise for Basic is that it took the workable mechanical ideas strewn across over half a dozen booklets and put them into something that was much more player friendly. I can’t help but wonder if some of the needless complexity as a result of organizational sloppiness sprang from the limitations of how many pages Gary could saddle stitch into a single booklet. Would the information have been presented better if Volumes 1-3 could’ve been perfect bound? Who knows.

In any case, Chainmail is a much easier to pick up and better presented system, though being complete in a single booklet definitely helps. The version I have has additions and various rules for incorporating elements from Dungeons & Dragons into the game. The base game needs very little work done to it because it works as-is. I may clean up the formatting a bit and make it look nice, but aside from removing certain historical reference elements. For my purposes, I don’t feel the need to have a specific unit of “Swiss” with their own mechanics, and though defining where assorted Turks, Janissaries, and Flems fall into in terms of units may be interesting, I’m content to let that be an exciting artifact of the Chainmail for those who discover it.   I think defining units based on their equipment or natural abilities, in the case of monsters, is more appropriate to my purposes. As such, I’ll be also changing a few terms: while “Light” troops remain “Light”, “Heavy” troops become “Medium” and “Armored” troops become “Heavy”, with these values corresponding to typical fantasy RPG armor ranges based on the described equipment).

Where is the value add in Battlefields & Broadswords?

Chainmail is great is if you’ve got a giant playing area and hundreds of miniatures. What it’s not great for is your typical gaming group who has limited space and only a handful of minis.

What I want to do with Battlefields & Broadswords is bring the mechanical simplicity of the Chainmail system to a scale small enough that players with only a few minis can still engage in medium scale battles. Personally, I find the War Machine mechanics from BECMI to be a dismal number crunch where one tediously feeds in a bunch of information and gets a battle result spat out. As a wargamer, I love the thrill of high level tactical combat, which is all but missing from most tabletop RPG experiences simply as a matter of complexity.

I hope to accomplish the following goals with something I’m calling S3M or the Simplified System for Single Miniatures:

  • Scale Old School miniature rules to a scope where groups with just a few minis and a board or hex-map can work mid-sized tactical combat into their games.
  • Provide an easy tracking system for units; players may wish to have mini-character sheets for their troops, though GMs can treat troops as stat-blocks as necessary.
  • Provide quick ways for players to figure out the cost to create, equip and maintain different unit types based on commonly used prices from old school gaming sources.
  • Adapt certain elements which generally require multiple miniatures to adjudicate (such as blast areas from siege engines) to use simple results tables.

I have my work cut out for me, but I’ve got to admit, I’m really excited about this!

Make it a Table

That’s my modus operandi here.  If I can take stuff that’s embedded in text and make a table out of it, I can’t help but feel like I’m making improvements.

Fire Rates

Luckily, the version of Chainmail I have is the 3rd edition, at which point fantasy rules WERE being incorporated, including mechanics for various monsters and spells which wound up in the more well known versions of D&D.

So, my job is going to be taking what’s there, figuring out how to make it make a little more sense and provide some play examples.  I’m going to use the monster sections from both Moldvay and Cook to translate the monster mechanics, with an focus on what GMs will typically want to use (stuff like greenskin, undead, and some iconic larger monsters).  Like with OD&D, I’ll provide certain options for leader vs. leader combat and leader vs. monster combat that can be used if players want to break off for a round and take a few swings before the chaos of battle whisks them out of range again.  Kind of like how the old Dynasty Warriors games would sometimes cut to one-on-one fighting-game mode when two generals start dueling.

I really want to play this.

Bar-Lev Take 2: Conclusion

It may have been a near run thing, but once the tables turned in my favor, they turned hard.

Had I lost one or two more tanks in Syria, the Jordanians would’ve been able to punch through to my artillery and force me off the map. Things were a bit better in Egypt by sheer virtue of the fact that I simply could NOT be dislodged from El Shatt which gave me both the village and the Bar-Lev defensive bonus. Still, I only had a few troops screening for three or four times as much artillery.

The Israeli double fire rules combined with Arab morale break made all of the difference. I had nearly 100 strength points of artillery fire on both sides of the board and was able to distribute it effectively against the heavy tanks that I couldn’t get ground odds on. Any tanks that weren’t destroyed by the first barrage would easily be insta-killed by the second.

With the ground situation in Egypt slightly more under control, I made sure that I had enough bombers in Syria to keep the Jordanians from giving the Syrians any meaningful advantage. So while my tanks and planes dealt with the Jordanians to the south, my artillery blew away what was left of the Syrian center.

The Egyptians finally lost their last best bet to beat me when the armored corps bearing down from the north and wearing away at my defenders in the hills were annihilated by boatloads of artillery fire. I even freed up enough that I was able to start taking out the short range artillery that had been shelling me from Suez. With the last southern bridge blown, I was able to start pressing north again, extending my forces out in strength and numbers I hadn’t had at all until this final point.

My dad surrendered, when we assessed the situation in Syria. Though Egypt would probably be kept to a draw (I don’t know that I could actually push across the canal with anything but heli-troopers, since the Egyptians were going to start blowing their own bridges), almost all of the units left in Syria were artillery. I could’ve spent the next two turns picking apart the remains of the Syrian army with bombers and self-propelled artillery. The only reinforcements Syria had left were militia that would only activate if I came within two hexes of any Syrian village, and eliminating all units on either map grants an instant victory, we decided it was just a matter of time.

My original air strategy changed by early mid-game. Once one side had shown a bit of weakness, it really did just make sense to keep flying against it. I split my forces some, but ultimately I spent way more time pounding the Syrians than the Egyptians. The Egyptian bombers couldn’t do much because I was concentrated in such a small area that I was fully covered by AA missiles until late game. With the Syrians so easily broken, air combat turned into a snowballing massacre with each turn.

The biggest difference in how our two games turned out was that I kept my artillery alive. As the Arabs, I would not suffer the presence of any Israeli artillery and would blitz past any other targets to make sure that the long range self-propelled artillery was taken out ASAP. MOST of the Israeli strength points are out there as Artillery, so keeping mine alive also meant that my Morale didn’t break as quickly, because I was able to recycle enough light troops to keep the churn going.

Anyway, I can’t recommend Bar-Lev enough if you’re into hex-and-chit style war gaming.

But speaking of wargaming, I’ve decided to make a go at doing a retroclone of Chainmail tweaked for use with Basic D&D. While D&D updated and incorporated stuff from Chainmail, I don’t know that there’s been an attempt to update Chainmail to incorporate stuff from D&D. I mean, I’m sure there has been, but I kind of want to rewrite Chainmail as a supplement to Basic. I hope it’s a good idea, because I’ve already sunk some money into a sweet cover.

The problem I’ve had with OD&D has always been that whatever rules are there are presented in a lousy format and are kind of confusing because of that more than anything wrong with the system itself.  I don’t think I can do the bangup job that Eric Holmes did with OD&D in his Basic edition, but I want to at least try to see if I can make something out of Chainmail that folks can pick up and use in their Basic games without a lot of headache.