Pre-D&D: How Dave, Gary, Phil and the original grognards played

To me, going back to the roots of our hobby means one teaching moment after another. For instance, did Dave Arneson and Gary Gygax use the Original D&D rules? In public, yes, or at least houseruled versions of them. But in private? After doing quite some research and after private communication with players who were there at the dawn of roleplaying games, I think it’s safe to say that they used a completely different set of rules – in fact, a much earlier version, before levels and before fancy dice. 

They played a version that avoided the pitfall of using Chainmail as one-on-one combat system in roleplaying because it was way too deadly and thus, simply no fun. (In fact, Bob Meyer, one of the earliest players of Dave, complained after one of the first games because his character died after just one blow – that was one of the reasons Dave introduced “hits” or “hit points” into the game).

So how did the roleplaying game that came before D&D really work?

In a nutshell:

  • write down a few things about your character
  • one special power that allows you to do things others can’t
  • no stats
  • no hit points; but you have to screw up real bad to die 
  • saves: roll 2d6; high=good; middling=does not change the situation; low=bad
  • combat: we both roll 2d6; if I’m higher, I say what happens, if you’re higher, you say what happens; if we’re close, we negotiate

Variations included 3d6 or d100 instead of 2d6, but the above is the complete game system. 
A like this a lot.

Still, I’ll change a few things because Klint Finley’s 2017 article is still darn impressive , and because I love mass combat in my rpg sessions.

Character Creation

  • write down a few things about your character
  • one special power that allows you to do things others can’t
  • no stats, but you might write down “strong”, “agile”, “tough”, “charming”, “smart” or “wise”. If this helps you in a situation, add +1 to the roll
  • 5 hit points; or the referee handwaves and you die when you screw up real bad
  • roll 2d6; high=good; middling=does not change the situation; low=bad
One-on-one Combat
  • we both roll 2d6; if I’m higher, I hit; if you’re higher, you hit; if we’re close, we negotiate; rolling a 12 deals +1 hit
  • 1-handed weapons deal 1 hit, 2-handed weapons deal 2 hits
  • shields add 1 hp, light armor adds 1 hp, medium armor adds 2 hp, heavy armor adds 3 hp
Mass Combat
  • each player character rolls 1d6 for every two people in their group; 5 or 6 is a hit
  • 1 hit kills a normal being; monsters and npcs can take a number of hits depending on how many humans they’re equivalent to. A bear that’s as powerful as 4 humans can take 4 hits in combat.
  • hirelings die first; player characters only start taking damage after their hirelings have died

So let’s put this beauty to the test.

The silver-colored fighter on the left is Korkonn, warrior of the Alligator Clan. He is strong and can cling to giant opponents. He has 5 hit points (in mass combat, this gives him 2.5, or 3, d6 to roll). With him are 6 other fighters. They also get 3d6 in total. So Korkonn rolls 6d6 in this melee.

The giant dark monster on the right is a Gorgolyth. It is as strong as 10 men and thus fights with 5d6 and has 10 hit points.

Round 1: Korkonn rolls 6d6 and gets one 5 and two 6s, the rest of the dice show lower numbers. The Gorgolyth loses 3 hit points. Gorgo rolls 5d6 and scores three 5s which means three of Korkonn’s fighters die, and Korkonn loses 2 dice. 

Korkonn and his remaining 3 fighters launch another attack, rolling a 5 and a 6, which costs Gorgo another 2 hit points (he now has 5 hp left). Gorgo scores a 5 and two , and Korkonn loses another man. Korkonn is now down to two men and 4d6.

Another round of combat, and Korkonn has lost his last two fighters. Only now Korkonn can get hurt, and we switch from group combat to one-on-one combat. Gorgo deals 2 hits with each successful attack, Korkonn deals 1, but also wears  medium armor, giving him 2 more hit points. Korkonn starts with a total of 7 hit points, Gorgo with 5. Korkonn adds +1 to each roll because he’s strong, Gorgo adds +2 because it’s fucking strong.

First round: Korkonn loses 2 hit points. Now he’s down to 5.
Second round: again, Korkonn loses 2 hp and is now down to 2.
Third round: Gorgo gets hit (Korkonn rolls a 12, which means 2 hits) is down to 3 hp.
Fourth round: Korkonn gets hit again and is now down to zero hp. 

Poor Korkonn.


Special powers are defined before play by the ref and the player.  
Armor, in the simple version, is not accounted for. If you want to get more detailed, you have several options:
simply reduce the opponent’s “kill numbers”, so for instance, they score a kill with a 6 only.
Fighting power:  
For instance, instead of 1d6 for every 2 men, you get 1d6 for each single one.

6 thoughts on “Pre-D&D: How Dave, Gary, Phil and the original grognards played

  1. Hi Scott, thank you :)Yes, Blackmoor style gaming requires trust and a fair referee (not gamemaster, \”referee\” implies more). I hope you're enjoying my blog – I'm headed over to yours!


  2. Interesting. I'm a little concerned at this being presented as the answer to, \”So how did the roleplaying game that came before D&D really work?\”. Finley's linked system is pretty clearly a custom new work merely inspired by older gaming. He writes, \”Reproducing the original rules and encounters would be impossible\”, notes that the one-attribute-per-PC is taken from Pits & Perils (2013), etc. Right?


  3. Thanks for your comment, Dan! You're absolutely right, of course, every set of rules trying to emulate what Dave did is only an approximation, at best.Bob Meyer, one of Dave's players who's now the official Blackmoor referee, told me that even he doesn't know what rules Dave used – back in the days, players were deliberately kept in the dark.


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