Review: Chain Reaction 3.0 and Swordplay

These are my go-to rules for skirmish wargaming, and as you’ve probably noticed, a lot of this blog deals with them and other rules from the THW stable. So you’ll probably guess my conclusion; do yourself a favour and grab the freebies right away. You’ll either hate it, or start collecting the genre-specific rules.

Two things make THW rules unique; first, their approach to the game turn; second, their unparalleled support for same-side or solitaire play. I’ll tackle those first, then move into the individual games.


One of the problems for a tabletop wargame is how to simulate the chaotic ebb and flow of combat with a clear and understandable turn sequence. Mainstream wargaming has historically tried several approaches to the problem.

The most popular, since the days of HG Wells’ Little Wars, is that of alternating turns. Side A moves, shoots, and engages in melee; then side B does likewise. The problem with this is that a fast-moving army (Blood Angels, I’m lookin’ at you) can move into charge range unopposed, shoot you to pieces, and then charge home and finish your troops off while they’re standing around like lemons waiting for your turn. Some games attempted to deal with this by introducing a reaction phase, when side B could react to side A’s moves partway through side A’s turn.

The second most popular is simultaneous movement to strict written orders. The problem with this is you spend too much time scribbling orders, and not enough time actually playing. This rose to prominence in the 1960s and 1970s and can still be found in some games today.

I noticed in the 1990s and 2000s that some rules sets were starting to use playing cards; each unit drew a card, and was then able to move, shoot and melee in the order the cards dictated. I haven’t really played many of these, so can’t really comment – I’ve used it in Savage Worlds, but typically there are only half-a-dozen figures per side in RPGs.

In a THW game, most figures move, shoot and melee based on reaction tests; some of them won’t do anything at all, and as you move each of those that are active in turn, it spins off its own subturn, of variable length, in which its actions and reactions are driven by reaction tests. You can’t rely on your troops, apart from one or two key figures, doing what you want; and you can’t predict what the opposition will do, or when. I can best summarise this with a quote from the rules themselves:

Our figures start on opposite sides of a building and are out of sight of each other.

  • I activate and I move first.
  • I move my figure around the corner and your figure can see me.
  • You take an In Sight Reaction test.
  • Maybe you shoot at me.
  • Maybe you shoot at me but rush your shot.
  • Maybe you don’t shoot at me.
  • If you shoot me either you hit me or miss.
  • If you hit me I see how bad the damage is.
  • Maybe I’m only stunned.
  • Or maybe I’m knocked out of the fight or worse.
  • But if you miss I take a Received Fire Reaction Test.
  • Maybe I shoot you.
  • Maybe I duck back for cover.
  • Or maybe I run away.
  • We continue to fire back and forth at each other until either one of us gets hit, runs out of ammo, ducks back behind cover, or runs away.
  • When all the reactions are finished it’s your turn.

The big thing is you get to react to what I do just like in real life.


As so many of the figures on the table move and fight according to reaction tests, it’s entirely feasible to have one side with no players on it at all. If playing solitaire, you take one side and the rules act as an "AI" to command the other; if playing with friends, you can very easily all be on the same side. I love this, because it means when my son and I play together, we can play co-operatively rather than against each other.

Don’t be fooled though; the non-player reaction tests are basic, but generate quite complex and credible situations. The game ruthlessly punishes poor tactics. I do not often beat it, and my son (who is a much better tactician than I am) gets a good run for his money.


This is the latest incarnation of the Chain Reaction rules, a 42-page Acrobat PDF file, and is available free to download from Two Hour Wargames. The primary mechanical differences from earlier editions are a more complex approach to melee, and expanded reaction tables.

  • Prologue and Introduction: 2 pages. These explain the history and core concepts of the game, including the difference between traditional and THW turn sequences.
  • Equipment Required: 1.5 pages. Dice (d6 only), figures or counters, something to represent buildings, and a playing surface – 3′ x 3′ and up. THW doesn’t mind what figures you use, if any; the rules are neutral as regards miniature suppliers.
  • Defining Characters: 2 pages. As befits a skirmish game, the figures can be treated as individual characters. Each must have a Rep; this ranges from 1 to 6 or more, the higher the better, and the average soldier has Rep 4. In addition, figures may (but need not) have other attributes which make them better or worse at various types of tests. The key differentiator is whether the figure is a Star (one that will usually obey the player’s intentions) or a Grunt (an NPC who does what the dice tell him).
  • Getting Started: 1.5 pages. How to recruit your force, and army lists. You can play what you feel like, or use random tables to determine what your Star commands. Army lists are provided for military, police, insurgent or gang forces – each of these uses a different table for reaction tests, reflecting their motivations and training. (In earlier versions, there were fewer variants of these tables.)
  • Organising Your Force: 1 page. How to divide your figures into groups, how to allocate leaders and what benefits they offer, how leaders are replaced if they fall in battle.
  • Rules of War: 11 pages. This is the mechanical meat of the game; how to determine who acts when in a turn, what actions you can order your figures to undertake, movement, reaction tests, shooting, melee, wounds and recovering wounded, and challenges – this last is a neat mechanic for resolving any weird or unusual ideas the players have. Want to hotwire a car? Want to jump from roof to roof? Want to defuse a bomb? They are all challenges.
  • Fighting the Battle: 2 pages. How to set up terrain for urban or rural games.
  • Vehicles: 2.5 pages. Entering and leaving them, driving them, ramming them into each other.
  • The Battles: 3.5 pages. A basic patrol scenario, including Probable Enemy Forces. PEFs are a mechanism for solo or same side play; a number are placed on the table at the start of the game, and move about according to reaction tests. Each of them may, or may not be, an enemy force – to find out, you have to get a figure close enough to see it.
  • Reaction Tables and other quick reference sheets. 4 pages. After a couple of games, you only need these sheets to play. After a couple of dozen games, you probably won’t need these either.

Straight off the printer, you could play any 20th century or early 21st century conflict of your choice.


This is the gun-free version of Chain Reaction, intended for ancient, mediaeval, and fantasy skirmishes. It is likewise free to download from the THW website. It’s extremely close to CR3 in mechanics and other content, so I’ll only talk here about the differences.

  • No guns. Unless you count the arquebus. There are thrown weapons, bows and crossbows.
  • Shields. These are added, as they are much more commonplace on mediaeval battlefields.
  • Army lists. These are replaced with more appropriate ones; Barbarians (ancient Germans), Empire (Rome), Eastern Empire (Fatimid Egypt etc), Feudal (mediaeval European), Nomad (Huns), Northmen (Vikings), Dwarves, Elves, Goblins and Orcs.
  • The Battles: The CR3 patrol scenario is replaced with two scenarios, the stand-up fight and the raid.
  • No magic, though. For that you need one of the other rules sets.

Straight off the printer, you could play pretty much any ancient or mediaeval battle, re-enact scenes from Lord of the Rings, or use your Warhammer Fantasy Battle figures for something a little different.


There are a variety of other rules sets. These use the same basic mechanics, although those released prior to 2009 use earlier editions, and as a rule THW doesn’t update rules sets for the sake of it.

You can buy them direct from THW as print or PDF versions, or from RPGNow as PDFs. They cost around $20 apiece, and most of them have supplements, many of which are available free on the web. Ones currently available include:

Ones I Have

  • All Things Zombie. Reproduce the zombie horror movie genre. These are the rules I use for the 28 Months Later campaign. They are probably the most popular of the THW rules sets.
  • Larger Than Life. Gaming the pulp fiction of the 1930s and 1940s. I used these for the latter part of The Arioniad, season 1; they’re very portable.
  • Warrior Heroes: Armies and Adventures. These are the rules I use for Talomir Nights.
  • 5150. Science Fiction. The core rules cover adventuring parties and small military units.
  • Legends of Araby. Out of print now; a precursor to WHAA, with similar rules but a setting much like the Arabian Nights.

Ones I Don’t Have. Yet.

  • Colonial Adventures. 19th century colonial.
  • FNG. The Vietnam war.
  • Nuts. World War II combat.
  • Red Sand, Blue Sky. Roman gladiators.
  • Six Gun Sound. WIld West gunfights.

There are also a number of sporting titles, but sport doesn’t really float my boat as a gaming topic, so I’m unlikely to get them.

Review: The Dust

This is another 7-page free downloadable supplement for Stars Without Number, which sheds light on lost Terran Mandate technology.

This partly fills the niche occupied by the Ancients and their artefacts in Classic Traveller; rare, possibly unique, devices which can no longer be built.

The titular Dust is a nanite communications and surveillance medium, formerly common on core Mandate worlds. The supplement first explains the final days of the Mandate, during which the Dust seemed like a good idea to those in power; then, the powers available to the Dust at various densities, ranging from haze, through fog and cloud, until finally it reaches storm proportions. Dust storms are capable of the same sorts of activities carried out by the nanite swarms in the recent remake of The Day The Earth Stood Still, or the smoke monster in Lost.

The document then moves on to a more general discussion of late Mandate technology, Tech 5 and up in the game. It begins this by explaining why such technology is so weird-looking, then provides random tables to determine its appearance, method of control, how it outputs data and manipulates matter, and some interesting side effects caused by age or improper use.

As an example, I created a late Mandate repair kit by this method. It’s a tube with a grip on one side, decorated with smooth, curved surfaces, which adjusts machinery using focalised sonics. It’s activated by pressing a button, presents its readouts as coloured dials, but the user bleeds slightly from all their pores after using it. That should worry the PCs.

A dozen examples of Mandate technology follow, with a brief discussion of the dangers of trying to sell it.

Another entertaining expansion for the Stars Without Number setting, and you can’t argue with the price.

Review: Red Tide

“Don’t prepare it unless it is fun to make it or you expect to need it for the next session.” Kevin Crawford, Red Tide

Red Tide: Adventure in a Crimson World is a sandbox campaign setting for Labyrinth Lord and other old school fantasy RPGs from Sine Nomine Publishing, home of Stars Without Number. I snagged the PDF version from DriveThruRPG for about $7, but you can also get hardback or softback versions. My version is 173 pages.

I have been wondering for a while what Kevin Crawford would do with a fantasy setting, but now I wonder no more, for this is it. I am not disappointed, it’s well worth the price of a couple of pints of beer.

Although aimed for Labyrinth Lord users, this would work with OD&D, AD&D 1st Edition, or any of the retroclones thereof with little effort on the GM’s part.


A Rising Tide (1 page)

This is a one-page summary of the setting premise. In short, 300 years ago the world was consumed by a red mist, infested by demons. A few survivors fled to the Sunset Isles, a former pirate haven, and huddle there in relative safety while the red mist roils a hundred miles offshore.

A Crimson Past (7 pages)

This is a more detailed history of the setting. The long-vanished Empire is not detailed, nor need it be; the history explains how the survivors escaped, how they landed on the Sunset Isles, their wars against the indigenous Shou, the age of prosperity, the revenge of the Shou, its aftermath, and the present situation. The chapter closes with a summary timeline.

People of the Isles (7 pages)

This works through the standard fantasy RPG races; dwarves, elves, halflings, and several distinct nationalities of humans – Eirengarders, Eshkanti, Gadal, Imperials, Kueh, Skandr. There’s a capsule description of each one, covering physical appearance, psychological and cultural traits, and any peculiarities of religion.

The chapter likewise explains the Shou, essentially the stock goblinoid races, each being one tribe of the Shou.

I especially enjoyed the dwarven and elven religions, or more accurately, the lack thereof and the impact this has.

The Lay of the Land (8 pages)

This describes the physical geography of the Sunset Isles; climate, travel by land or sea, random encounter tables for each terrain type, and a gazetteer of important places with capsule descriptions of cities and other points of interest.

There are also several different versions of a regional map: A hexmap marked with physical features and climate bands, a black and white labelled map with less detail (suitable for the adventurers to see), another physical geography one with a keyed hexgrid for the GM, and finally an unmarked full colour physical map. One for every taste.

State and Society (17 pages)

This chapter – for the GM’s eyes only -  opens with a political map of the largest island, showing the six human successor states, as well as dwarven and Shou lands.

Each state is then discussed in more detail; population, ruler, society, government, laws, clothing and cuisine. We have the dwarven holds, a vaguely German Imperialist state, two Chinese Imperial powers (one benevolent, one not so much), one Japanese, one lawless border kingdom area, and one patchwork of goblinoid tribes. The nice Chinese state, Xian, gets more coverage than the others; the nasty one, Tien Lung, has a variant spellcasting system powered by human sacrifice.

Next comes a section on institutions; slavery, coinage, gender roles, religion and the various pantheons.

Heroes of the Isles (7 pages)

Here, we find a discussion of how the adventuring classes fit into society, which expects them to provide:

  • Early warning of Something Wicked This Way Coming.
  • Cheap, disposable mercenaries.
  • A safety valve by which society can channel the overly violent and ambitious into hopefully useful tasks.

Each class in turn is then touched on, explaining how they are viewed by society and how, if at all, the Labyrinth Lord rules need to be adjusted to suit the setting.

Several new classes are introduced:

  • The Scion, an elven soul reincarnated in a human body (shades of Babylon 5!), which has variant rules for spellcasting.
  • The Shou Witch, an NPC class with variant spellcasting rules.
  • The Vowed class, which offers Monk-like and Assassin-like PCs. (The core Labyrinth Lord rules don’t have a number of the advanced classes such as these, although there is a supplement which includes them.)

The Vowed class is my favourite of these. I could see a whole campaign built around a group of Vowed PCs.

Red Sorcery (19 pages)

This chapter discusses the nature of magic in the setting; lists new spells for magic-users, clerics, Scions, and Shou witches; describes magic items unique to the setting, and how to reskin stock magic items to fit the campaign better.

Initially, the section speaks to gods, souls, and the afterlife for each of the sentient races. This underpins the explanation of magic as the interaction between the mana generated by the land and the caster’s soul; those races with level limits on magic use, or no magic use at all, do not have souls in the same way that men do.

Next, there is a discussion of the three main traditions of magic in the Isles: The High Path, Astromancy, and the Stitched Path. PCs will normally use the High Path. Clerical spells are gifts from the gods, and not learned in a formal arcane school.

Thirdly, there is a discussion of magic in society; how common spellcasters are, what they do for a living, how they are taught.

Then, into the meat of the section: The spell lists, which expand on those available in Labyrinth Lord itself. Ones that caught my eye in particular were:

  • Martyr’s Fury (4th level clerical). For the duration of the spell, the caster becomes an unstoppable killing machine in the service of his faith. At the end of it, the caster is permanently dead, forever. I could see this as the culmination of a lengthy campaign, it which it is the only way to stop the Big Bad.
  • The Scion Wyrds, a selection of spells which allow the Scion to twist probability around himself, selecting the best outcome from any of the parallel dimensions in which he exists. I could have a lot of fun with these.

Part five brings us to the setting’s unique magic items and materials, chief of which is Godbone, a black glossy stone offering protection from the effects of the Red Tide and its creations, and said to be the remains of the principal Shou god. Godbone can be used to craft armour or weapons, or be carried as a protective amulet.

I loved the idea of the Prayer-Wheel Hammer; a +1 warhammer whose every strike brings the wielder spiritual merit.

Finally, there is a section on styling magic items. When an item is found, the referee randomly determines which culture created it, and then looks up the relevant subsection to personalise its appearance and activation method. A potion, for example, might be in a thumb-sized jade bottle, a glass tablet inscribed with prayers, a resin-stoppered gourd, a stone flask, a barley-flour pasty, or take the form of a flower blossom.

A Bestiary of the Isles (10 pages)

More monsters for the GM to throw at his players. Here we find the Imperial constructs, abandoned for centuries, and which reminded me of EPT’s take on the same creatures; infernal demons of various ranks; variant lizardmen, ogres and goblinoids; and various flavours of Tidespawn, creatures serving the Red Tide, created either from the dead elsewhere or those cultists in the Isles who have been tricked into serving the Tide. The section on Tidespawn offers tantalising hints of how adventurers might free a land from the Red Tide – that would be an epic adventure for high-level PCs.

The Houses of the Lost (56 pages)

This chapter provides the GM with the tools for creating a sandbox campaign. First, then, it explains what that means – one where the focus is on what the players want to do at the moment, rather than one with an overarching plotline; one where the world is alive, and things happen in reaction to the efforts of PCs and NPCs even if the players aren’t there to see it. It also talks about the shared responsibility of the GM and the players to make things interesting, and the fact that the Plot Immunity and Sorting Algorithm of Evil tropes do not apply in a sandbox.

The referee is advised on what he needs to create, and how to organise and store it. In particular, he is encouraged not to do more than is absolutely necessary, and to recycle maps, NPCs and so forth, reskinning them for new adventures.

After this, we come to the first stand-out GM tool in the book; Sites. These are divided into Court, Urban, Borderland and Ruins. Random tables are provided for each, allowing the GM to choose or generate important features.

  • Courts have people of importance and the source of their power, a conflict which the PCs can become embroiled in resolving, and minor NPCs.
  • Borderland sites have tags, like worlds in Stars Without Number; they may be Dangerously Naive, have a Sinister Alliance, or suffer from Raiders. As in SWN, each tag brings with it a capsule description, and a selection of potential friends, enemies, complications, things and encounter locations. Simply put, this rocks.
  • City sites also have tags, but not a lot else – this is fine, they don’t need any more.
  • Ruin sites are more traditional dungeons. Having chosen or diced for what type of ruin it is, the GM uses a Borderland site tag or the site destruction table to determine how it became ruined, dices for the type of inhabitants.

The ruin sites section also explains the “diagram dungeon” technique, which trades accuracy and careful mapping for speed and ease of construction. Each type of inhabitant has its own page, with statistics for credible encounter groups of monsters, likely treasure, plot twists, and background information. We have ancient constructs, exiled nobles and their retinues (my personal favourite), evil cultists, hermit wizards with their apprentices and servants, lizardmen, kobolds, malign elves, necromancers, and more.

This is cracking stuff, easily transplanted to another setting.

Secrets of the Mists (6 pages)

This is intended for the GM, and provides the secret explanation of what the Red Tide actually is, how it operates, what it wants, and its purpose and use in the GM’s games. Likewise, it explains the secret origin and history of the Shou and the Sunset Isles themselves, and the role they are intended to play in the campaign. Finally, the Azure Ministry provides an explanation of Shou and half-Shou PCs, should the need arise.

Game Resources (27 pages)

This was the part I was most looking forward to, and rightly so as it turns out. There are tables for randomly creating an NPC or a blasphemous cult; pages on each race offering random name tables and descriptions of their clothing and cuisine; a table showing which businesses can be found where, and what services they can provide the adventurers; random purposes and dressing for rooms, including what treasures can be found there; and a selection of generic maps.

I’ll dwell on the maps for a moment, as I believe every game should have generic maps to reduce session prep time and help the busy GM. In the PDF version of the rules, layer controls can be used to select which map, text etc. you print – a nice touch.

The maps include a generic village, an underground temple, a shrine, an underground maze of passages, a border outpost keep, a monster’s burrow, hillside caves, a walled estate, a ruined village, a ruined keep, and both blank and example diagram dungeons.


As I began reading Red Tide, I thought “This is good work, but not so different from any of the other setting books on the market.” I warmed to the setting as I read on, though, and as usual Mr Crawford has created a tightly-integrated and consistent setting, with intriguing twists on the stock genre tropes.

I’m unlikely to use the setting as it stands, but the GM tools and resources are worth the price of admission on their own, and I expect to get extensive use out of them. Highly recommended.