Chainmail: Massacre in the Blackwood

Chainmail: The granddaddy of Mass Combat in Roleplaying Games, directly referenced in Original D&D.

This is a test run of this mass combat system, Chainmail 3rd Edition, by Gary Gygax. It is not the oldest mass battle rules set, its relevance stems from the fact that D&D was conceived from it.

And now we use it in a completely unbalanced encounter that is part of a setting backstory.

The setting

On orders of a powerful wizard, the Ranger Gareth of the Shell leads 80 men south towards the eastern Titan Peaks. 60 heavy foot with polearms and 20 archers have marched south into unruly wilderness all day, in an attempt to find a safe passage to an old dwarven mine. A secret mission: They are relatively few to go so far south, but the advantage of such a small number is that they can move relatively fast and quiet.

What they don’t know: They have already been spotted, and are being shadowed by goblin scouts.

As evening encroaches, Gareth picks a small ravine in the forested hills where they can camp with some shelter and light fires without much risk of getting spotted from distant higher ground.

In the dark, the Goblins move in on them with polearms, 60 from the west, 60 from the east, to skewer them.

But the humans are lucky: goblins move only 60 feet per round, and that is just not enough for a realized ambush. Forested hills are difficult terrain and prevent charges. Cries of alarm sound, and the humans win initiative before the goblins can attack.

Round 1

Gareth sees his men outnumbered as two long lines of goblin fighters close in on them, one on either side. And he knows they have not enough time to form up in defensive squares. On impulse, he orders a full attack against the attacking party from the east.

His archers shower the western groups with arrows. They will not kill enough to trigger a morale roll, but they will at least sell their hide well.

Let us call the western goblin groups 1, 2, and 3, the eastern A, B, and C.

Group 1 loses 3, Group 2 loses 2, Group 3 loses 3: 7 out of 60 goblins fall.

In the east, we see melee. Goblins defend as light foot. Group 1 rolls 20 dice, 5 or 6 kill.

Group A loses 10 out of 20 attackers right off the bat.
Group B loses 14. Group C loses 8.

Our hero, Gareth, fights as 4 men, and with a +1 to hit. Gareth falls on group C and lays about, alas, too hasty: he inflicts no casualties.

Round 2

Alas, for round 2 the goblins succeed in their morale check and strike back.

They attack as heavy foot, but against heavy foot. Only a 6 kills.
Group A fails to kill any humans.
Group B likewise.
Group C strikes down 3 human warriors.

In the west, the drawn-out line of goblins cannot bring everyone at once to bear on the archers. Only 24 of the 53 goblins strike at the archers. They kill 10 of them…. for the last 10 everything is clear. They fail their morale check, throw down their bows and run like hell, fleeing north, back along the path they came from, to save themselves from the horde of monsters.

The goblins manage to win initiative in round two though. That spells doom for the humans.
Group 1, 2, and 3 move on and strike at the humans from the rear.
Group A, B, and C strike first and kill 2 more human fighters.
But now the rear groups, which enjoy an considerable advantage due to their position, attack. They strike down 14 humans from behind.

“Keep your wits and slay them!” yells Gareth of the Shell and swings his fast blade again. This time, he stabs two of the enemy. And his men, roaring defiance, strike down 13 more… the eastern goblin detachment looks quite frayed at the edges now, only 14 out of 60 remain shaking in their boots.

Still, uncharacteristically, their morale holds; probably heartened by seeing their friends slice and dice the humans from their rear.

Round 3

With courage born from desperation, Gareth yells for his troops to turn about and kill the western goblins. He strikes yelling bloody murder and fells two foes. His men follow suit and the goblins of group 3 lose 8 more. Group 2 loses 4, Group 1 loses 11! Terrible losses for the goblins, who return the compliment with 5 hits. The relieved eastern group attacks the human rear and kills 2 more.

Goblin Morale:

The goblins have lost 79 of 120 so far. The eastern group has held, but the western group must roll morale now. Again, they make it. These goblins are a hateful bunch and are not about to give in.


Both sides are fatigued now, and fight at one level lower. That balances out pretty well.

Round 4

Initiative goes to the humans for round four, and Gareth keeps pressing the attack, as he knows that defense is the goblins’ weak spot. But only 6 goblins fall now to the men. Gareth adds three more to that tally.

6 humans fall to the defending goblins, 6 more to wicked stabs in the back.

22 out of 60 heavy foot are still active, surrounded by 32 goblins, out of originally 120.

Human Morale is good despite those losses.

Round 5

“Kill them all, kill them all!” yells Gareth of the Shell, cutting down 2 more goblins, for again, the humans win initiative.

Lost in battle-frenzy, blade meets blade. Six more goblins go down in the west, leaving only 10 in battle. 2 humans fall. From the human’s rear, more stabs slay six more, and only 14 humans remain with their commander, everything forgotten but the eternal hatred against the vile foe.

Round 6

Now the goblins win initiative, and strike down 11 humans. A heart-wrenching turn of events, as bloodied heroes sink into the mud, clawing and biting, and stabbing three more goblins. Blinded by tears, Gareth turns against the eastern attackers and slays three of them.

But it is no use. The defenders had some lucky breaks, but the greater numbers of the goblins finally pay off.

It is now 3 human foot soldiers and their hoarse commander against 18 enemies.

The humans fight back to back, tired, wounded, and barely able to lift their shields.

Round 7

The humans win initiative and slay four goblins. Those retaliate, but fail to kill any humans!

Round 8

Again, and they fell five goblins.
This time the three last men who stood with Gareth till the end, they fall at his feet. He himself gets hit twice, but it takes four simultaneous hits to take down a hero, so he stands. One man against nine goblins.

Round 9

Gareth slays one foe, and they manage only three hits. The hero keeps standing.

Round 10

He slays two, and they manage two hits.

Round 11

He slays one, and finally! Finally he is struck four times in one round, and sinks down among the men he failed, sighing his last.

The six surviving goblins don’t feel like celebrating. 6 warriors left standing, out of 120 who came down the hill.

Lots of dice

Chainmail uses figures that represent 20 men, but the players roll per man in combat. Usually that should be lower amounts of dice, because when in formation, only the front one or two lines can engage. In our example, the goblins came down the hill in one long line on either side, and the humans were out of formation. A special case, where it was good to have lots and lots of six-siders at hand. (Edit: Feedback from Delta pointing to a 2005 interview with Gary Gygax clarifies that he often used the words “man” and “figure” rather loosely as the fancy took him, and when he said 1 die per man he actually meant 1 die per figure. See here, at the end of this Chainmail vs. Book of War comparative experiment)

A lot of bookkeeping, that’s for sure, and long!
Usually one would expect more failing morale rolls, but these particular fighters would not back down.
The result was dramatic, a horrific tragedy that only ever became known thanks to the accounts of the ten archers who ran.


Main Image by Lukasz Szmigiel on Unsplash

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