Chainmail (1971) is correctly regarded as the first commercially-available fantasy wargame system. The Fantasy Supplement that Gary Gygax and Jeff Perren tacked on to the end of Chainmail inspired Dave Arneson as he created the Blackmoor setting, and formed the basis for the original set of monsters and spells underlying Dungeons & Dragons. Something has been forgotten, however, in the forty-five years since Chainmail was published. Chainmail itself drew on a two-page set of rules developed for a late 1970 game run by the New England Wargamers Association (NEWA), which were designed by one Leonard Patt. Patt’s system shows us the first fantasy game with heroes, dragons, orcs, ents, and wizards who cast fireballs at enemies, though his contribution today goes entirely unacknowledged. The picture above shows this system in play at a Miniature Figure Collectors of America convention in October 1970 representing the Battle of the Pelennor Fields, a demonstration that won a “Best in Show” award.
[Updated: Now read Jon's conversation with Len Patt about these rules!]
[Updated: Now read Jon's conversation with Len Patt about these rules!]
I was aware of the existence of Patt’s game when I wrote Playing at the World; in fact, I speculated in a footnote that, “It is certainly possible that news of the positive reception of NEWA’s Tolkien game influenced Gygax’s decision to include fantasy rules in Chainmail” (pg44). Fantasy rules were, at the time, virtually unheard of. But until now, I had erroneously supposed that NEWA “opted not to publish their system,” when in fact it simply appeared in a place I hadn’t yet been able to unearth.
Patt's rules appeared in the NEWA magazine The Courier, which would briefly merge with TSR's Little Wars later in the 1970s. Because early issues of the Courier are quite scarce, this relationship has escaped the attention of posterity until now: even the New England Wargamers Association’s web timeline, which presents a somewhat overgenerous account of NEWA's role in the history of gaming, does not at the time of this writing mention Patt or the publication of his rules - though it does note the MFCA award for the Philadelphia convention game, which were widely written up in places like the MFCA’s Guidon:
Like the Fantasy Supplement of Chainmail, Patt structured his fantasy rules as a modular adjunct that he “set up to fit within most Ancient or Medieval rules and were simply an addendum.” Broadly, the system in first edition Chainmail reflects an expansion and an edit of the Patt rules. Patt covers Wizards, Heroes, Antiheroes, dragons, ents, and orcs; he also alludes to dwarves, elves, hobbits, and trolls. Chainmail significantly expands this list, as Chainmail considers a scope of fantasy simulation beyond that of Tolkien.
Nonetheless, in the overlapping components of the system, we find many elements in Chainmail that unmistakably derive from Patt. Patt’s naming of his fighter units as “Heroes” and “Antiheroes” alone should immediately alert us to a potential influence on Chainmail. While Patt does not include the “Super-Hero” of Chainmail, intriguingly he does say of Heroes that “they had fighting power that approached that of supermen,” which may have influenced the later naming of the rank above them. Patt explains of Heroes and Antiheroes that “they are the last man to be killed in any melee;” Chainmail similarly says of them that “they are the last figure in a unit that will be killed by regular missile fire or melee.” Most strikingly, however, Patt’s rules contain a system that is a clear precursor to the hit point mechanic of Chainmail. Patt’s Heroes are equivalent to 5 men, and “hits against them are not cumulative” so “it takes a melee kill by the enemy of 10 points [i.e. 5 men] in one melee throw” to kill them. Famously, in Chainmail a Hero fights as four men, so they are slightly less powerful than their ancestors in Patt. The precedent that hits against Heroes must be “not cumulative” and occur in the same round is followed by Chainmail; in Chainmail “four simultaneous kills must be scored against Heroes (or Anti-Heroes) to eliminate them. Otherwise, there is no effect upon them.” Elsewhere in Chainmail, we see the term “cumulative” hits used as an antonym for “simultaneous” hits.
Chaimail’s Wizards, the precursor to the Magic-user class of Dungeons & Dragons, draw significantly on Patt’s rules as well. Where in Chainmail Wizards “are themselves impervious to normal missile weapons,” in Patt, “Wizards cannot be killed by missile fire.” But by far Chainmail's most historically-significant borrowing from Patt is how Wizards “can cast a fire ball.” Fireball, which is indeed given as “fire ball” in first edition Chainmail, is one of the signature mechanisms of fantasy gaming, and to find it articulated prior to Chainmail is a stunning revelation. As in Chainmail, the “fire ball” of Patt is a burst effect which a Wizard casts at up to a distance of 24” in game; the burst area of effect is however an inch larger in Chainmail than in Patt. And as they later would in Chainmail, Heroes and Anti-heroes get a saving throw against a fireball in Patt: they “are saved by a throw of 5 or 6.” While saving throws were not an uncommon element in games of the time, the notion that making a saving throw against spells originated prior to Chainmail is also a significant revision to our historical understanding. Chainmail would dramatically expand the capabilities of Wizards, in its first edition adding a “lightning bolt” as a damage spell and eight utility spells, but “fire ball” is not altered in any significant particular from how it appears in Patt.
We can find also various relationships between the language on monsters in Patt and Chainmail. We see combat against monsters resolved by rolling two six-sided dice: after prospective dragon-slayers fire missile weapons at their target they “cast two dice,” on which “a roll of 11 or 12 will kill the dragon”; whereas in Chainmail, arrow fire at a dragon “kills it on a two dice roll of 10 or better.” But one of the starkest points of appropriation from Patt in the Chainmail rules is in how fireballs interact with dragons. In both systems, dragons do not roll a saving throw against the spell. In Patt, “a dragon hit by a fire ball is driven away and will not attack the wizard’s side for one turn.” In Chainmail, the table for fireball effects reads for the dragon: “drives dragon back 1 move.” It is by looking at these details, where beyond the mere presence in Patt of dragons and Wizards who cast fireballs, we have this “driving” language and the single turn penalty, that we see commonalities far too specific to be a coincidence: it must be a direct borrowing.
With this introduction on the linkage of Chainmail to Patt, take a look for yourself at his original two page rules from the Courier:
Readers may detect other, subtler points of connection between Patt and Chainmail. For example, the orcs depicted in Patt are divided into two groups, the Orcs of the Red Eye and the Orcs of the White Hand. Chainmail has five groups listed, of which those two appear as the first and fourth group; Chainmail calls the former the “Orcs of the (Red) Eye,” where that parenthetical tentativeness perhaps reflects lukewarm adoption of Patt’s nomenclature. Patt explains that “Orcs were basically very obnoxious and disagreeable even to each other” and thus when they “approach within four inches of one another, 1 die is thrown to see how they react.” On a roll of 1, the orcs will fall on each other. In Chainmail, “if Orcs of different kinds approach within a charge move of each other, and they are not meleed by the enemy, they will attack each other unless a score of 4 or better is rolled on an ‘obedience die.’” The common “approach within” terminology there shows vestiges of Patt’s original language. I will leave finding further chestnuts along these lines as an exercise to the reader: but detectives should remember that Chainmail differed substantially in its first, second and third editions, and thus many mechanisms in the grey-covered third edition, most notoriously “spell complexity,” did not manifest in the earliest form of the system, where the borrowing from Patt is clearest.
Recognizing Leonard Patt
It thus appears that we have owed an unacknowledged debt to an obscure author for decades – so who was he? Leonard Patt was a miniature wargamer affiliated with the New England Wargamers Association who wrote largely about ancient rules: in 1970, he also penned an article for the Courier on the “Arms & Equipment of the Roman Soldier.” However, Patt seems to have had only a fleeting interest in wargames, as his name drops out of fanzines of the time within a year. Patt, should he still be with us, would surely be unaware of how Chainmail followed his work, let alone the profound influence that concepts like “fire ball” and saving versus spells have had on numberless games over the decades that followed.
If these rules were so obscure it took me this long to find them, how do we know for sure that the authors of Chainmail saw them, and saw them during the time Chainmail was in development? Because they subscribed to that newsletter and even contributed to it. Handily, the very issue of the Courier carrying these fantasy rules also contains an article by S. Manganiello on “French Uniforms of the Seven Years War” which, in the following issue of the Courier, Jeff Perren attacks in a letter. This proves that at least one of the two authors of Chainmail received and studied the very issue of the Courier containing these fantasy rules at the time, and surely could have shared it with his co-designer. Although these rules came out not long before Chainmail, we know from Gygax’s own account that the Fantasy Supplement was a last-minute addition to Chainmail: he later called it an “afterthought.”
In the early, pre-commercial days of miniature wargaming, the environment was very loose and collaborative, and these kinds of borrowings were not uncommon - but attribution was still an assumed courtesy. Gary Gygax has something of a reputation for adapting and expanding on the work of the gaming community without always attributing his original sources. The case of the Thief class is probably the most famous: the first draft of Gary’s rules do note their debt to the Aero Hobbies crowd, but as the published version of the rules in Greyhawk (1975) did not, the obligation of the Thief rules to Gary Switzer and the others at Aero Hobbies long went unacknowledged. Regarding Chainmail, Gary in late interviews says nothing to suggest that concepts like fireball were not of his own invention; Patt’s rules compel us to reevaluate those claims. Nonetheless, we must acknowledge that Gary had a singular gift for streamlining, augmenting and popularizing rules originally devised by others: certainly we wouldn’t say that Patt’s original rules could have inspired Blackmoor, and thus Dungeons & Dragons, without Gary’s magic touch and the elaboration we find in the Chainmail Fantasy Supplement.
But if you ever vanquished an enemy with a fireball in Dungeons & Dragons, or Magic: the Gathering, or Dragon Age, and especially if you ever made a saving throw against a fireball, thank Leonard Patt!