Part of the problem with addressing a single element of RPG combat (like the form and function of armor mechanics) is that you're messing with a complex system that's elements have been designed to work in tandem. At best, it's a "patch" that (often) causes other problems to raise their head, not the least of which might be an impact on that all important playability (making a system clunkier in play, reducing the overall "fun level"). At worse, a change in a single element might cause the whole system to fall apart, and/or wreck playability to a point where it's more fun to not play (or play something different).
"Ooo, how melodramatic, JB." Look, folks...I'm not saying you can't tinker. But I'd guess there are other folks out there (like myself) who have tried other RPGs and simply found they disliked their mechanics for one reason or another, and have set aside a system completely because of it. In fact, I know there are, judging by the blog posts I've read around the internet of people adapting specific game settings to their own favorite system rather than use the system intended by a game's designer. Sometimes a "patch" just doesn't work...and people have different preferences when it comes to the games they play. It happens.
ANYway...when it comes to a complex game system (like combat), tinkering with important elements of said system simply to match your "world view" can have problematic consequences. To really make your system work, sometimes you've got to go for a complete rebuild...if only to ensure that all the different interconnected elements are working together.
FOR EXAMPLE: say you're using the standard D&D combat chassis. You roll a D20 and compare the result to your probability of hitting based on two parts: your character's class/level, and the defender's "armor class." Simple enough, right? But if you restructure "armor" to act as a form of damage reduction (as many game systems do), then what are you rolling against? A reduced "AC" based solely on dexterity and/or magical bonuses? As the alternate rules in Dawn of the Emperors points out, this will result in "a lot more hitting" with less damage being inflicted (at least against armored types). Perhaps this will appeal to some folks ("hey, I whiff less often!"), but it feels like it would simply draw out a fairly simple (often uninteresting) combat system.
There are other alternatives: Saga Star Wars bases a target's AC (I think it might be called "defensive class") on the defender's level of experience (higher level characters are harder to hit), and something like that might be adapted. Games where combat rolls are unopposed skill checks (like Chaosium's base system) only tracks the attacker's proficiency ("If I roll under 75% I hit, and then your armor reduces damage!"), but doesn't account for the defensive ability of the opponent except as an additional system (parry skill, dodge skill) made to resist. Palladium kind of splits the difference: melee rolls use a D20 and any roll over 5 "hits" (yay!), but then needs to exceed a defender's defensive roll (parry/dodge) IF the defender chooses to do so, and THEN perhaps another roll to reduce damage (roll with blow), before finding out how armor reduces damage (which is dependent on the initial roll and the armor's Armor Rating and Structural Damage Capacity).
Palladium system's are over on the extreme side of granularity in combat (though I'd argue against them modeling any type of "reality") but they're certainly not the MOST granular. That distinction belongs to The Riddle of Steel, whose system I won't bother to detail here, as it's system mastery requirements are a bit outside the pay range of myself and most of the dudes I play with.
Instead, let's just stick with D&D for the moment. What's nice about D&D (for me) is it's ABSTRACT nature. In a ten second round, my mind's eye imagines two combatants attacking back and forth and the success of their attacks can all be boiled down to a couple D20 rolls. Still, though, there are aspects that bug me: should a 1st level cleric really have the same chance to damage a 3rd level fighter, given that they're both wearing plate-&-mail and they're weapons do D6 damage? Should a wizard really be wicked in a knife fight? I had the chance to watch a midnight showing of The Revenant last Friday (need to write about THAT), and the whole climactic battle I'm thinking, who the hell thought it was a good idea to make the dagger the go-to weapon of a spindly academic?
SO (just to keep going with the thought exercise), if we take armor out of the equation, and we decide we want to leave combat abstract (unlike the multiple maneuver monstrosity of TROS), how can we determine if a character's attack is successful? Well, just looking at man-to-man...er, human-to-human combat for the moment, let's consider perhaps the concept that (given both individuals are aware of each other and fight-worthy) the chance of inflicting mortal injury comes down to your own combat ability in relation to your opponent. In other words, if you're a better fighter than your opponent, you'll have an easier time, and if not, you'll have a harder time.
Sound good? Well, I'm going with it anyway. Exactly what determines "combat ability" is pretty easy with respect to humans: training and experience (i.e. class and level) with fitness/athleticism (ability bonuses) playing some part, too...perhaps as a bonus or penalty. It would be a ridiculous exercise in "clunk" for me to do up tables cross-referencing every level of every class against every other level of every class, so what I need is some sort of short-hand for cross-referencing. For example, what level of experience would a cleric need to be to have the same combat ability as a 4th level fighter? 7th? 9th? In B/X a cleric of levels 5-8 have the same attack abilities of a fighter of levels 4-6, and while I may not agree with the scale of B/X, I do agree that when determining combat proficiency, there should be tiers of ability, with each tier containing a range of levels. It's not just as simple as "gain a level, earn a +1 base attack bonus."
[of course, that's my own bias when it comes to modeling. For me, there just shouldn't be much difference between a 4th level fighter and a 6th level fighter when it comes to attack ability...we tend to learn in stages and have sudden "leaps" of realization. In my experience fencing, I can easily take apart someone who has little or no experience, but would be hard-pressed against people of equal experience unless I had some advantage in athleticism (not bloody likely). Meanwhile, I might score a few touches against an opponent with a couple more years of experience, but would be hard pressed to win...and against my old instructor (only a few years older than myself) I probably wouldn't score even a point. And he wasn't even in the same league as individuals who pursue the sport on a national or international level...]
So, strike bands (as in bandwidth)...that's what I'm calling my "tiers of combat ability." Consider a range of about five bands (labeled A-E), with A being your average "normal, non-combatant trying to fight" and E being reserved for truly legendary fighters (and non-fighters being limited to D as their maximum ability). Strike bands would be cross referenced to find the target number needed for an attack to succeed, with two opponents of equal ability having a 50% of succeeding on an attack and success being adjusted upwards (and downwards) from that baseline.
It's not really a new concept...very similar to Warhammer (the war-game's) comparison of WS versus WS in melee combat to determine the number needed on a D6 (WS stands for "weapon skill" and represents hand-to-hand ability). My initial thought would be to have the percentages scale like: 95% (the maximum...for an attacker with 3+ strike bands more than the opponent), then 85%, 75%, 50% (even ability), 25%, 15%, 5% (the minimum...against a defender with 3+ strike ranks more than the attacker).
[there is a degree of diminishing returns. I would fare no better against an Olympic-level fencer than I would against my instructor (at least, back when we were both in our primes)...but I'd fare no worse, either. I mean, how do you do worse than "losing quickly and embarrassingly?"]
The neat thing about the strike band idea is that it's fairly easy to slide them up or down to account for specific circumstances. A fighter using a shield increases her strike band by one when defending (for example). A magic weapon increases a strike band by one (when attacking). Characters using missile weapons would simply use strike band A, and then range would be considered for defense (with A, B, and C corresponding to short, medium, and long). Specialist marksmen could increase their missile strike band to B. Cover could increase range by one step (to a maximum of D).
Monsters would be assigned strike bands based on their size, speed, and general ferocity. I can see something like:
A: used for creatures who are small (kobolds) or slow (skeletons and zombies)
B: used for man-killers (orcs, tigers, etc.)
C: used for exceptionally large monsters (ogres, trolls, etc.)
D: used for incredibly fast, strong critters (dragons, bloodthirsters, tyrannosaurus rex, etc.)
You could even combine it with 5E's advantage/disadvantage mechanic. A (slow) giant might use strike band D with disadvantage, while super heroic types (vampires, wraiths) might use strike band C with advantage. Ability bonuses (for strength and dexterity) would still add to the D20 roll (yes, I'd change those percentages into D20 target numbers) rather than shifting strike bands.
Anyway...that's just one idea. I'm sure there are others. Now, I really need to get back to my taxes.
|+1 Strike Band (offense AND defense)|
when attacking unmounted opponents