Unlocking the Gygax Code, the game hidden inside of AD&D

FREE-FORM KRIEGSPIEL is the system which the designers took for granted that you knew. All wargaming systems have the same basic rules to function. When variant designers, such as Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson, published their changes they didn't really focus on the basics. Not only did the people who bought these books not want them, but, honestly, wargame players become blind to them. They are just there.

There is actually enough basic wargaming rationale in the AD&D system that it makes it fairly easy to understand the more complex processes of kriegspiel and how to get a game on a tactical level to function, and I recommend that you do! There are principles and theories that can be carried over to the D&D table which will greatly help the DM understand the art of war. Understanding is key to running Free-form Wargame scenarios.

When one thinks about wargamers, there is an image in your head which features men standing around a highly detailed battlefield moving finely painted miniatures, determining combat through highly complex rules; this game exists, but it isn't native to AD&D. Folks have incorporated that game into the system, and it can function! If you want to see how a specific large scale war will affect the world, this probably is your best bet, but it isn't necessary, and there are some serious flaws with it that make it incompatible with the D&D system.



This is the image that comes to mind for most people. Those who have incorporated it into their games had to deal with pounding a square block into a round hole; it is a bad fit, and since it is a bad fit you have to alter the game until it does fit. It can be done, but it is clunky and awkward for one simple reason, the figure representing the player does not follow the same rules as the rest of the units. Elaborate rules have been introduced in an attempt to fix this, but only serve to extend an already long game into something even more tedious.

Another problem is the players themselves. Anyone who is interested in strict kriegspiel can tell you, we are rare breeds. Buying or creating these games, learning the complex rules, modifying them to your own specs, painting figures- this is the easy part. The difficult part is finding opponents.

Just because you build it, doesn't mean that players will come. Your players don't want to learn these new, very specific rules, and even if they did, strict kriegspiel is a long game that they probably don't care about and are not interested in. While not scientific in any way, I estimate that about 1-10 players of tabletop RPGs are even interested in experimenting with this system, those that find it fascinating and discover enjoyment from it, maybe 1-50.


There is also another glaring problem with the strict wargame format, it is a 2 person game. You can break up into teams, and have fun, but this is not D&D. At its heart, strict kriegspiel is nothing but a complex and heavily modified game of chess. While two players can enjoy it, a DM expecting to challenge the entire table to a strategy game is going to get destroyed. This removes the need to simulate the event and makes the act pointless.

Another problem with 4+ players as powerful as D&D characters is that it takes longer to set up the board than it takes for advanced players to destroy the enemy. This was built into the system by the designers on purpose, that purpose being to eliminate the need for strict kriegspiel altogether.

Kriegsspiel was originally invented by the Prussian military, it was not designed to be entertaining, it was designed to run thousands of scenarios which allowed the small German army to resist the overwhelming might of the French; a feat that (I believe) was successful!

The game was also used to train officers, and strict kriegspiel had the same problems with accomplishing this as we D&D players do; the participant has the ability to see the entire battlefield from an unrealistic position, overhead. This position also makes it too easy to study and accurately predict the strategies of your opponent.

To fix this, and make the game more realistic, the referees concealed the board. The participants didn't get to see it, they had to ask questions and command their troops through written messages which the referee would take into the room with the board and they would interpret the commands of the player. Commanding Officers would apply the changes to the board and decide what happens, and then update the player.

This sounds exactly like Dungeons & Dragons, and this is exactly how the game was intended to be played. This style is called Free-form Kriegspiel, and the benefits are obvious; namely that the players don't need to know the rules at all. 
via Pinterest
Studying the mechanics of D&D itself, and comparing them to kriegspiel, you gain an appreciation for the true genius of Gygax and how his invention was designed to limit the number of dice rolled, while not limiting the game in scope in any way.

Free-form Kriegspiel applied to the rules which govern Dungeons & Dragons eliminate the necessity of an actual board completely. Often, the results of a player's commands to his units can be compared to the tactics which were defined by the DM prior to play, and logic will dictate if an entire battle was successful or not.


Advanced players have known for years that you don't need to kill them all, you just need to figure out ways to trigger a morale check as quickly as possible. In this way, a party of 4-6 high-level adventurers can easily defeat small to medium sized armies. Even mid-level PCs can overwhelm entire armies on the field of battle if the players are skilled enough. They don't even need followers or an army to do this.

The Morale system is the key. This is the tool that makes Free-form Kriegspiel function without the need of a board. When we use this tool, even if a battle doesn't go well for the players or we want more involvement from the participants, we can update the players to the situation and use the morale system to quickly determine the actions of NPCs with very little fuss and just a few die rolls. The play doesn't stop because we have to move a bunch of little pieces and determine combat on a tactical level.

Speed and playability are always desired over specifics and realism.

Applying followers and allied soldiers to the game is made practical once we understand the mechanisms in place to govern their actions. Gygax could take the players into the midst of a full-scale battle, and decide how the player's choices interacted with the event taking place around them without ever having to set up a single miniature soldier. The only person who had to understand the inner-workings of these mechanics was the Dungeon Master.

The DM can alter the challenge of a battle and the players level of involvement by using the Morale System, Enemy morale can be high or low, the higher the level of enemy morale, the more actions and involvement will be needed on the part of the player.

The Language of Free-Form Kriegspiel

Now the folks who played in Gygax's campaign and helped him play-test the designs were all avid wargamers, this is where it can come in handy to do some study, just to acquire some common concepts and the vocabulary. The player need not write down his commands as the rules of kriegspiel were applied to soldiers, we are doing this for entertainment. You can give leeway and continue the standard D&D guideline of trying to error in the favor of the PCs, but the more specific and precise the command, the better.

Once the DM has these vocabulary words, the players will pick them up. A Unit, for instance, represents a number of people, “You see a couple of units of cavalry riding in your direction.” is a good description. The players don't know exactly how many men on horseback are approaching, but it is fair to say that it is more than 10. The statement above is enough to start a dialog, the players have time to ask specifics and come to a conclusion as to what course of action would be best depending upon the information that they were able to get before either side enters each other's range of attack. Exactly how much time and information being dictated by the DM, as always.

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It is also helpful to study the old rules of CHAINMAIL, you don't necessarily need to use CHAINMAIL during the game, but it will greatly help you determine results without actually having to run them, Free-form Kriegspiel relies heavily upon the laws of averages, for example: if equal numbers of infantry attack an equal number of cavalry, the cavalry are going to win. Both sides may suffer casualties, but the infantry will be routed. 
CHAINMAIL even has the mathematical principals behind exactly how many cavalry units may be lost before the infantry are slain. The actual results may vary if the scenario is physically run on a board with dice, but we want to eliminate that step, thus the averages add to playability and speed of the game.


Once the DM understands the rules and logic of Free-form kriegspiel, many of the strange or obscure rules and mechanics will finally make perfect sense; the hidden wargame is revealed and the genius of the design is exposed. The system becomes neat and tidy and we discover that we were over-complicating things.

Art by Giuseppe Rava via Pinterest
Art by Giuseppe Rava
It can be difficult to find a DM who will allow followers, but now fighters can enjoy the full ability to gain and use their troops as they were intended to be used. Followers are loyal, can guard treasure and property, keep night watch at camp, search large areas so the players don't have to, their uses are very functional; besides, when the fighter walks into town with a military escort it is awesome!

An unlimited number of NPC actions can be determined with very little work, it enforces the separation between player skill and character skill in a balanced way that truly has to be experienced to be appreciated. CHA matters to this game, it is not a drop stat; an enemy with a high charisma is going to be much more dangerous than a wizard with high intelligence.

This doesn't mean that we can't make complicated tactical battles if we want to, this just means that we have the ability to run them, keeping all of the players involved, and preserving the DM's ability to challenge them. If you need to keep a tactical map secret from the players, do it. If you want to play the CHAINMAIL system or the BATTLESYSTEM rules, you can do that too, but Free-form is what was intended.


Unknown said...

I always liked the idea of mass-combat, but I've never been able to wrap my head around a way to make it engaging for the players and myself. In my last session the players were fighting of an invasion, but I played it out by giving the party different skrimishes they could choose to do (defend a point, shut down a tactical advantage) and so they were always engaging in smaller bands of enemies - an encounter like any other, except it was part of a much larger fight.

I drawed up an overview of the area (2-story houses, hedges and streets) and let the players spot the objective and approach it tactically. They were caught out - seperated - by the enemies scouts and while the battle was lenthy and features many foes, they really liked how everyone's position was clear and they used it very engagingly ("I jump back through the window to cover from their archers","I yell to the fighter that two are approaching from the front-door")

Making a more detailed visualization and having the battle spand a larger area really encouraged the tactical aspect of moving around and covering each other than fighting 2-3 enemies in a smaller contained area of a dungeon.

RipperX said...

That sounds exactly like something that I would do, Martin. Did you use miniatures or did you free-form it?

I still like to use miniatures, a couple of my players try to get sneaky with movement. Not on purpose, it just happens. I go back to town real quick, for example. There is no real quick.

I'm not as good as describing things as Gygax was, and my players aren't as skilled at visualizing the scene as his table was. When I get too many repeated questions asking me for position or describing the room, it's time to break out the miniatures.

Everybody is engaged in scenes like that. I think players also enjoy the flirtation of wargaming.

Unknown said...

We have no models or miniatures of the sort. I've thought about bringing in small pieces from other board-games and such, just to have a moveable marker, but usually I just up the area on an A4 sheet of paper and draw/re-draw everyone's position as needed, and it also helps the players to pin-point to me, where they want to go.

I'd love to have a set of miniatures. I know each character is unique, but even with just a set of the arch-types, I think it would help my players identify themselves on the battlefield.

Some of my players sit and sketch the places as I describe them - I discovered this by accident during one of our breaks. Nothing detailed, but it's enough to get a glimpse on how they see my world and how they see the journey. The same player also wrote down what she thought was key-notes. Fun to see what she put weight on compared to my own notes.

RipperX said...

My wife got me into painting miniatures, her and her Dad would spend time together painting them, it is a really nice part of the hobby.

Expensive and hard to take care of, we display them in our living room LOL You can use anything, I tend to do drawings as well, but from time to time I will write a scenario specifically so that we can use them. I enjoy the logistics of movement, and the precision involved in a scene. It is basically me showing off, but this way we can track movements and locations, usually for missile attacks. It offers a change of pace, but people do get caught up on what the figures look like.

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