Being in the Main the Mouth of Olde House Rules

Tuesday, May 7, 2024

Teasing Out the Wargame...

OK, so I apologize in advance for what might seem a pedantic post about the little things residing within our various inspirations. Longtime readers know Robyn and I appreciate rules-light gaming, exchanging complex mechanics for complex narratives. Roleplaying doesn't require minimalism; but it almost certainly benefits from getting out from behind the rules and re-engaging with players and their unvarnished decisions, which brings us to this month's offering: teasing a simple roleplaying game out of wargaming rules...

So sometime back in the days of manual type, the New England Wargamer's Association published some LOTR-themed rules, provided below with apologies to your collectives eyes, click the image to enlarge. It's made the rounds in gaming circles, and I've just now gotten around to mining this bit of inspiration for ideas. These are evolutionary ancestors to modern roleplaying, and maybe we can (reverse) engineer something useful from them.   

So first, dragons. There's talk of triangular cones (surviving into modern play); but I'm more interested in the idea that dragons crush their targets, and that said targets can save and subsequently escape on a 5 or better. This probably isn't a direct ancestor to saving throws; but it shows the concept was kicking around the hobby. More importantly, and for present purposes, it suggests an alternative to the typical "hit point" approach...

Next, we have wizards (dragons and wizards are a great starting point). There's talk of fireballs, a staple of magic, and special immunities (as opposed to spellcraft); but I'm more interested in the idea that it takes 20 non-cumulative hits in a single round to defeat one owing to their abiding power. Non-cumulative. In a hypothetical roleplaying situation, Gandalf can take 19 hits without succumbing and bounces back the next round renewed.  


Finally, and I'm lumping the rest together, there's ents, orcs, and men to complete the fantastical battlefield. Ents defeat orcs on a roll of 3 or better, men (humans) with a 4 or more in an early version of armor class. Heroes (including anti-heroes) endure some 10 non-cumulative hits, akin to wizards, before succumbing to death. Now is this enough to cobble together a simplified combat mechanic? You bet your splintered shields...

Let's say characters can take 6 non-cumulative hits in a round of combat before dying, with attacks dealing one (or sometimes two) dice in damage. Less than 6, you live to the next round, refreshed in whole; but suffer 6 or more, roll to save (5 or better) with armor granting an appropriate bonus: light (+1), heavy (+2), shields (+1), such that a character in heavy armor and shield only dies on a 1. No attack rolls, just rolled damage against foes.

DISCLAIMER: I started playing in 1978; D&D, not wargames. I don't pretend to be an expert on wargames or the specific inspirations for particular mechanics, welcoming (warmly) the expertise of better heads. The point of this isn't forensic, but a desire to construct an original system from a wargaming source, especially one we might not fully understand (however intriguing it may otherwise be) and to demonstrate just how little is needed...

The above could be a simple, no-magic game of men vs. monsters. Everything else, whether money and equipment and/or the specifics of individual foes (and why shouldn't these be exclusive to the setting), falls to the referee. The earliest campaigns did just that. Dave had his game, Gary had another. Only with D&D as a commercial, for-profit enterprise did this paradigm overturn, and it wasn't always smooth going. Anyway, the best thing about gaming just might be the pleasure of creating our own, and that's an empowering thought.


  1. Very interesting! A couple of things stand out.

    First, I'm always struck by how early gamers were able to cleave much more closely to Tolkien's text without the accrual of fannish 'folklore' in later decades. For instance, here, Orcs are just Orcs, without power gradations (Uruks as elites, etc). That's in line with The Lord of the Rings, which makes plain that the Orcish armies of Mordor and Isengard consist largely of Uruks - and, in the case of Mordor, have done for around 500 years (since the sack of Osgiliath). Later Tolkien-inspired wargames have a tendency to assume that the Uruks are a small minority of Orcish armies, which isn't what LotR indicates at all. And note that Orcs are less formidable than Men, which again is what Tolkien's writings indicate (Gimli is happier fighting the "hugest Orcs" of Isengard than the "over-sized" Dunlendings).

    Second, it's interesting that the "Orcish animosity" rule here is essentially the same as that in games like Mordheim decades later. A roll of 1 on a D6, and your Orcs are going to misbehave!

    In a similar vein to the first point, it's interesting that wizards are so formidable here. That's true to Tolkien, but also probably true to a lot of fantasy literature and legend. There's no concept that magical powers must be balanced by physical weakness (as in D&D). That's quite refreshing!

  2. Interesting find!
    "Orcs were basically very obnoxious and disagreeable even to one another" LOL
    "Wizards are great fighters" Interesting angle.