Saturday, July 9, 2022

Seiges & Sappers: the D&D from a parallel universe without Gygax

A little while ago, someone posted this blog post asking this question:
"A game designer from a parallel dimension with no D&D nor Gygax is tasked with designing a game supporting common OSR principles. What would such a game look like?"
The original intent of the question was to remove deadweight mechanics form the game. Ideas that started with Gygax and early versions of D&D, that no longer make sense, but that have stuck around because of their historical inertia.

As an example, clerics as PCs and wizards who can't heal. It would make sense for wizards to have healing magic, and the only reason they don't seems to be to stop them from intruding on the cleric's space. But why is there a cleric in the adventure to begin with? Because one of Arneson's friends wanted to play Van Helsing from the Hammer movies while they were fighting a vampire named Sir Fang (yes, that was really the vampire's name) . That's why there is a cleric class in D&D, and it continues to exist because of inertia.

Remove that history and re-make the game again, and you'd probably drop clerics and give wizards healing spells.

But I was actually more intrigued by the literal wording of the prompt. A parallel dimension with neither D&D nor Gary Gygax. What is this dimension, and what kind of game can come out of it? Let's imagine a universe where we are making the first roleplaying game, where D&D has never existed, and where Gygax also doesn't exist. What does the first roleplaying game out of this universe look like?

What About Arneson?

The first and obvious answer is that this would be Arneson's Braunstein game. The history of D&D has many sad turns, and one of those is how Arneson was pushed out of the game he co-founded. Braunstein was the earliest role-playing game. It was still mostly a wargame and played with wargaming rules, but had a focus on individual soldier units who persisted from battle to battle. Arneson used a collection of house rules and pointed referee calls to adjudicate the entire game, cribbing notes from various sources. But one of those sources was Chainmail, a set of rules for miniature wargames with medieval and fantasy armies, written in part by... Gary Gygax.

Because there is no Gygax, there is no Chainmail, and Braunstein as Arneson once played it can't exist. A very similar game can, but not the exact game.

We can see from this example how the lack of Gygax has more implications than just the lack of the original DMG.

The Wargame Roots of the Hobby

The challenge now, in this world without Gygax, is to task a "game designer" with creating a version of D&D. But what even is a "game designer"? To do this thought experiment right, I think we have to first explain how we choose a person to be a "game designer", and how the designer even knows what is it they're being asked to design.

Historically, D&D developed out of wargames. What began as games played on a table with hundreds of tiny tin soldiers rolling dice to fire at one another, gradually began to focus on a few hero units. Soon it was only about those pieces. One battle took them through some underground dungeons of a castle, and the players enjoyed exploring it so much that it became its own thing. However, that doesn't mean that's how role-playing games have to develop in every universe. Let's think of some alternatives.

One alternative would be a board game designer. This gets at the mechanical side of RPGs. There are many board games today rivaling the complexity of D&D or war games in terms of mechanics. But board games at the time of D&D are things like Candyland and Monopoly. There is a board game called Dungeon! that was made with inspiration from Arneson's games and is probably the closest look at what a D&D based on board games would look like without Gygax. The board represents rooms in a dungeon with each space a flagstone, and players move their meeples through the dungeon opening doors and fighting monsters. Treasures and spells are represented by cards or tokens, you roll a die to move in the dungeon, and you draw an encounter card at each room. It might eventually evolve into something like HeroQuest.

Another alternative could be actors from a radio show. This gets at the narrative/simulation side of RPGs. We ask the radio show actors to improv, pretending to be knights in a dungeon. Keep in mind, the concept of "knights in a dungeon" makes no sense at this point, as D&D has not been invented. Mechanics would not be the same, because rolling to hit isn't acting. Tracking initiative isn't acting. You could introduce a random element, but it would more likely be drawing situations out of a hat. Not rolling for damage. It would be a "game" in the sense the players would be "playing" and otherwise engaging imagination. A referee could be introduced to judge if the imaginary situations were resolved suitably, to add a "winning" element. But this is nothing really like D&D.

I think the only pre-existing concept that combines the mechanics of a game while having the freedom needed for narratives, is going to be wargaming.

The Pitch

There is no Gygax, so there is no Chainmail, so there are no printed rules for fantasy wargaming. Wargaming at this stage is about reenacting the battles of Napoleon or Roman conflicts or naval skirmishes. Wargamers take historicity very seriously, and consider their game very high-mindedly as a mix of historical pursuit and practical strategy. The armies are supposed to represent historical army sizes, and the goal is to explore how the battle might have gone differently. The soldiers are fighting on fields of battle, against other humans, with possibly some camels or elephants in the mix. No trolls, no dungeons, no dragons.

To get this game off the ground, you have to anchor it in elements of real historical battles taking place in the medieval era.

There are also usually only two players, representing "generals" of the opposing sides, as in chess. They aren't joined together fighting forces of darkness. To make this more like an RPG, you'd need a reason to remove the "general" element to focus on individual initiative more than central command.

My idea is to ask the wargame designer to create a campaign scenario focusing on just a few individual soldiers who are sent on some kind of recon or sabotage mission taking them through underground tunnels. These pieces are part of an army laying siege to a castle, and have been sent in through a discovered secret entrance that should bring them up inside the castle. The battles will use the usual war game rules, but scaled down for smaller numbers of individual troops.

This is anchored directly to real medieval battle simulation, and also provides an excuse to remove the element of a general sending instructions to troops. Each player can be a single soldier, or a small squadron of soldiers.

This game would be extremely deadly. Individual soldiers in a traditional war game are one-hit-wonders. Most of the game would be about sneaking and avoiding confrontation while in the tunnels.

The only characters would be soldiers. The idea of a priest going down into a dungeon to infiltrate a castle is actually really stupid. There are no wizards because there were never any real wizards in historic medieval battles. The only other PC class that might join would be akin to a thief, based on the engineers in wargames who traditionally man the siege engines. These engineers are there to help remove rubble, open doors, or otherwise undermine inside the castle, but are basically worthless in a fight.

You and your fellow soldiers were given the instructions to explore these tunnels for a way inside the castle, and once inside to open the gate from within. You will not be able to communicate with any commanding officer while inside, and you do not know what awaits you within the tunnels. You have with you a team of engineers. It is your duty to guard them to the inside of the enemy castle, so they can sabotage once inside.

This game will be called...

Seiges & Sappers

Let's look at what the game mechanics would be.

The Base Ruleset

Arneson began Braunstein with some inspiration from Chainmail. While Chainmail was the first printed ruleset to describe medieval fantasy battles, it was not the first printed ruleset for medieval battles. It was actually not even the first set of fantasy rules.

On the "Playing at the World" blog , the author has posted a magazine spread from before Chainmail, showing fantasy battle rules by Leonard Patt of the NEWA, which lays out most of the same principles that Gygax adapted in his fantasy supplement. This supplement referred to itself as based on the NEWA Ancient rules, which, as far as I can tell, are the WRG Ancient rules . The 6th printing, which is apparently the most famous, is available for sale here via print-on-demand. I own a pting copy of 6th edition, as well as their fantasy ruleset, "Hordes of the Things," which post-dates D&D by several years.


from Playing at the World

Chainmail was originally published in 1971. Sometime after this, Arneson began using some of the rules in his Braunstein games. He later contacted Gygax to explain his new concept, and he and Gygax codified his game notes into the game that would be published as Dungeons and Dragons in 1974.

The first edition WRG Ancient rules are the ones closest to this time frame that I have seen, published in 1969. These are available for free on the WRG website, in the history section. Our parallel-universe Arneson would have had access to these before beginning Braunstein, so I will take these as the wargame rules he starts with as he begins adapting to individual soldiers.

The WRG rules are written assuming two players (or at least two teams) in competition. In this game, several players may be on the sabotaging team, and at most one will play the soldiers of the castellan. In this case they will have separate, identical maps and sit at separate tables, while an impartial Referee coordinates all battle between the two as they explore the tunnels. The lone castellan has the advantage of far, far more soldiers than the saboteurs. However, it would probably be simpler to also have the Referee play as the castellan, to avoid a second map and table.

These rules are incredibly crunchy. They are supposed to span a time period from pre-Roman to the Islamic conquest, including territory from India to northwest Europe. There are tons of stipulations for all the different soldier types represented, with rules to go with them. The 6th Edition massively simplified the rules around soldier types to a few basic rules that are easier to keep track of. But beginning with the 1st Edition rules, we will need to make some simplifications.

The WRG Rules Adapted to PCs

Pages 2 and 3 discuss army creation. To begin, each player has some amount of points with which to make a squadron. While competition games suggest 800 points, this scenario allows only 20 points per player. Each player can choose to be regular or barbarian. Whichever picked, all soldiers must be of that type; this choice has an impact on troop morale and discipline that can impact combat. The options for soldiers are limited to: Soldier Prices
Regular Barbarian
light war engine 15 --
super heavy cavalry 12 15
heavy infantry 8 9
medium infantry 4 3
light infantry 4 3

as they appear on page 3, however with some explanatory notes. This designation of type is called the soldier's class.

It's important to note, the designation of "barbarian" is used here in a historical sense, not in terms of pulp fiction stories from the 1930s. It refers to people living mostly in tribal or village collectives who have been called to war by a cheiftain. As opposed to regular standing armies paid for with levied taxes gathered by an empire or other complex government. The main advantage of barbarians is that they have a larger variance of results in reaction and combat results.

As detailed on page 2, light war engines are assumed to have a crew of 2. So this option actually means a team of two engineers, who will have special thief-like skills to be described later. Note barbarians cannot have engineers, and only have fighting units.

As also detailed on page 2, superheavy cavalry are armored cavalry whose horses are also clad in heavy armor. In the game world, these are knights, who have the social rank to afford all of this war gear. They cannot bring their horses into the passages with them, but they do have many benefits to fighting not given to other classes, including the highest AC.

Heavy infantry wear metal armor over their torso and either have a larger shield or are more skilled in using the shield, so start with higher AC than light infantry.

The light infantry wear leather jerkins and possibly light shields. These soldiers are trained to fight as skirmishers, so have some additional speed over heavy infantry and are best suited to scouting ahead in the tunnels. Medium infantry are armed like light infantry, but fight in close ranks like heavy infantry and have slightly better shields.

This game is still a wargame, so miniature figurines are still important. Each figurine represents a PC, and a given player may have several PCs. The PCs are armed with whatever their figurines are armed with, and should correspond visually to the class each figurine represents. In the rules on page 2 it is stated that each figure represents 20 men, but here in the tunnels it is 1:1, where each figurine is a single soldier.

On page 1 it is explained that soldiers armed with only a sword are assumed to also have some sort of throwing weapon. Soldiers armed with only a bow are assumed to be carrying a side-arm in case of melee charges.

So we now have something like class. Your class is your literal class of soldier: cavalry, infantry, engineer. You can be a trained regular, or a barbarian taking up arms. There are no magic users or priests down here, because why would there be. There are soldiers and undermining engineers, and that's what we need for the sabotage mission.

On page 6 there is an additional sort of "class," this referring to the quality of the soldier.

A Guard and Household troops of the highest calibre
B Elite regulars, personal followings of barbarian war leaders
C The great bulk of trained troops other than those above
D Levies, barbarians, etc. of known fighting value, but not highly organized or disciplined
E Levies, peasants, etc. loosely organized, and of doubtful fighting value

This classification impacts response to both battlefield instructions and charging attacks, similar to morale rolls in D&D, and will be called the morale stat. Different classes will have different starting morale stats.

Each figurine represents a single soldier. However, in the WRG rules it is assumed that a single figurine stands in for as many as 20 soldiers. That figurine then has a certain number of casualties it can suffer, corresponding to the number of men in that battallion, as described on page 16. All soldiers will start with 1 casuality, but as they level they will be able to gain even more casualties. This is how we get hitpoints.

Not only that, but the number of soldiers in a battallion also impacts the number of casualities the battalion inflicts in combat, as detailed on the combat table on page 16. Each figurine represents a single soldier, so will only roll from the first column of that table. However, as the PCs fight more, they will become more adept, so could end up counting as multiple men in combat.

So we now have PCs with class, level, and stats. As you explore the ruins, you gain experience, which can later cause your stats to increase. Let's turn these into classes.

Player Character Classes

There will be five classes. The cavalry option becomes the Knight, the heavy infantry and medium infantry options become the Guard (differing only in their starting equipment), the light infantry becomes the Scout, and the war engine becomes a set of two Engineers.

Soldier Type Price (Regular) Price (Barbarian) Corresponding Class
Light war engine 15 -- Engineers (2)
Super heavy cavalry 12 15 Knight
Heavy infantry 8 9 Guard
Medium infantry 4 3 Guard
Light infantry 4 3 Scout

Below are details for the classes. The armor class corresponds to the column header on the table on page 13, the weapon class to the row on the same table. The weapon class given to each class is regardless of whatever they have in their hand. Movement per turn is taken from the table on page 11. The # Own Figures corresponds to the column headers on page 15, and the Casualties to the number of casualties this figure can suffer before being removed.  The Distance Detected refers to the ability to move silently, and how far away castle troops can hear the soldier moving, under assumptions of deliberately trying to be stealthful and hide in the dark.

The Knight

Unit Price
Armor class
Plate (as SHC)
Weapon class
Morale score
# Own Figures
Movement per turn
40 yards
Distance detected
30 yards

The knight is the only unit capable of fighting from horseback. In the underground passages, that is not likely to come up. The knight has superior arms and weaponry to other classes, as reflected in the armor and weapon classes and corresponding factors.

The Guard

Unit Price
8/9 (for HI) or 4/3 (for MI)
Armor class
Plate (as HI) or Leather (as MI)
Weapon class
Morale score
# Own Figures
Movement per turn
40 yards (as HI) or 60 yards (as MI)
Distance detected
20 yards (as HI) or 10 yards (as MI)

The guards can be more or less armored, with corresponding price difference. A MI who finds plate armor during the adventure could advance to HI, if desired.

The Scout

Unit Price
Armor class
Leather (as LI)
Weapon class
Morale score
# Own Figures
Movement per turn
80 yards
Distance detected
3 yards

These figures might be archers. If archers, use Weapon Class 11.

The Engineer

Unit Price
15/- (for 2)
Armor class
Leather (as LI)
Weapon class
Morale score
# Own Figures
Movement per turn
60 yards
Distance detected
10 yards
Engineers are capable of several important skill actions, including
  • Pick lock
  • Disable trap
  • Set trap
  • Remove rubble
  • Controlled burn or material
These are resolved similar to combat. For each, the Referee sets a casualty rating (CR) for the skill to succeed, the Engineer rolls for the random factors, the Referee applies any pertinent tactical factors, and the casualty table on page 15 is consulted for success.

Orders and Reaction Rolls

Orders (page 4-9) in the WRG Ancient rules are of prime importance. This introduces an element of confusion, where troops will not necessarily behave the way you want them to. This makes sense ofr a General (C in C) giving commands from afar through messengers, but does not make sense for controlling individual units. Every PC will always be exactly aware of what the player wants it to do. However, pending Reaction Tests, the PC may be overwhelmed with fear or overboldened with courage, and not behave as desired.

The Reaction Test on page 7 is to be implemented as described. These are situations where a player wishes to move a PC into some form of harm, or the PC has been suffering harm. Failing the reaction roll means the troops are frightened by combat and do not respond as instructed to an order, or over-succeeding means they start charging the enemy, disregarding orders. The procedure in item 5 describes how to roll the dice to determine success. Possible factors impacting this test are given on page 8. Then page 9 gives two tables to consult; first roll on table 1, then continue rolling on table 2 until the PC is no longer fleeing/advancing.


Combat is governed by the Casualty Calculation matrix on page 15. The columns correspond to the number of soldiers in the battalion. In these rules, use the # Own Figures stat corresponds to the columns to use.

First consult the weapon factors table. For ranged attacks these are on page 12, and for melee on page 13. Look at corresponding weapon class (the numbered rows), and search over to the armor class of the attacked figured (eg. SHC, HI, MI, etc.)

Next consult the tactical factors on page 14.

Next generate the random factor. This is the difference of two dice, labeld red and black. For barbarians, the black die is a normal d6. For a regular, the black die is an averaged die numbered 2,3,3,4,4,5. The red die is an averaged die for both types. The black die minus red die is the random factor.

The disorganization factors seem to be irrelevant.

Add the weapon, tacitcal, and random factors together for the total factor. On page 15, consult the corresponding row and column in the Casualty Calculation table for the number of casualties inflicted on the unit. Remove figurines as necessary.

The Castellan

If the Castellan is not simply the Referee, then he is limited to an army of 50xN points, where N is the number of saboteur players. He can buy any units, but with the obvious restriction that elephants and horses will have difficulty fitting in the tunnels. Each figurine of the Castellan represents five soldiers, but otherwise follows the usual WRG rules for figures.

The Castellan has prior knowledge of the tunnels, but not of the location of the saboteurs. He will only be made aware of the saboteurs when a unit in his control encounters them in the tunnels. Likewise, the saboteurs will only be shown the part of the tunnel their figurines can see, and have no idea where Castellan figures might be located.

If the saboteurs plan and successfully execute a sneak attack to subdue a Castellan figure before the figure can sound an alarm, the Referee should not tell the Castellan this until it becomes discoveredby another piece, and move that figurine as normal as though it still responded.


So that's my game idea.

The result is something very much like OD&D, and can begin expanding in similar directions. I have not included any fantasy, but there are definitely inroads for it as players start exploring deep into underground ruins beneath castles. A troll, for instance, might have stats like an elephant figure, or an orc like a barbarian heavy infantry.

If there were to be wizards, they would be introduced largely in-line with their original role to serve as artillery in a fantasy battle. I don't think Vancian magic would ever get invented a second time. I think wizards' spells would operate similar to soldiers' weapons, being rolled on specialized tables.

I don't think clerics would get introduced.

As the PCs progressed across missions, they would gain battle experience, becoming hardier and deadlier warriors. They would see increases to the Casualties, # Own Figures, Morale score. As they discovered new items in the underground ruins, they would improve their weapon or armor class.

I think as people began to grow to this idea, players would want more customization options to increase the realism of exploring the underground. More soldier classes would be invented. People would start publishing dungeon tunnel plans for others to use.

This game is deadly, will have a focus on player skill over PC ability, and will be driven by exploration rather than combat, as combat can be so deadly. I think it would count as an OSR.

What do you think?

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