Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Armor...Why the Hell Do I Bother?

People who dig fantasy artwork (like myself) or watch a lot of fantasy films or read fantasy comics, or appreciate a decent Frazetta cover (or his many imitators) have been treated to a wide range of terrible, historically inaccurate images of armor over the years.

Kayce down at Gary's Games is a trained visual artist and has at least some experience with both costume design and historical armor and I showed her the following image and put the question to her:

What the hell is this supposed to be exactly?

Bronze Age?
Keep in mind that I realize actual gladiators didn't tend to wear much in the way of torso armor. But here's this...what? Leather breastplate? It's not metallic, it appears to be flexible. Despite a ceremonial appearance, it would appear to offer at least some protection compared being bare-chested or just wearing a toga. But what would you call this, and was such a form of gear ever actually worn in battle?

And the reason I ask is you see this kind of thing in film. Conan the Barbarian is full of stuff that looks like this...perhaps more or less decorated but the same general theme...something stiff, but flexible, perhaps moulded from rubber like the Batman costumes of the last twenty years.

[speaking of the last twenty years, man, do I feel old sometimes. I heard a Nirvana song playing at a restaurant the other day and realized it's been twenty years since that song was first on the radio. In the 90s I used to listen to the "classic rock of the 70s" radio station...now, something that was NEW when I was in college is just as old as those "oldies" I used to listen to. That's just...ugh. I feel OLD. And going to yoga classes this week has just made me feel FAT and old. I better hurry up and get these books published before I'm too fat and old and decrepit to get out of bed!]

It's possible that this is supposed to be some sort of light, embossed cuir boulli (what gamer folks often equate to "leather armor") but from everything I've read, people weren't boiling leather for armor until around the 8th or 9th centuries (if that early), whereas the Gladiator film is supposed to take place in the 2nd century (and Conan is set sometime 1000 years plus earlier).

But these are films, sure, and films designed to be visually spectacular, which leads to all sorts of weirdness: like King Arthur and his knights wearing full plate armor in the movie Excalibur (despite the Arthur's legend being set in the 5th or 6th centuries...only missed this technological development by a millennium or so). Or this from the most recent Conan movie:

What IS this?
Fantasy armor is cool and all...it's fun to look at, it's fun to fantasize about , and it's neat to visualize one's character (or a neat NPC) wearing some sort of weird hardware in your fantastical, semi-mythological RPG world...but then why even bother trying to inject ANY kind of historical reality into your game?

Padded armor in action!
Have you SEEN what padded armor looks like? Do you think wearing heavy, knee-length padding would make it any easier for a thief to scale a sheer castle wall than wearing a hauberk of chain? Come on! You've got to be friggin' kidding me!

The point is this: in my opinion you've got two ways to go with your armor in an RPG...specific or abstract. And if you're going to be specific, you should either being paying close attention to historic accuracy (like not including plate armor in a time before the invention of firearms, for instance), or making up your one whole-cloth fantasy environment with people wearing crab carapace armor and fiber-and-hide and whatnot. In other words, go big or go home.

[by the way, you CAN choose to go the way of D&D and just include a big mish-mash of nonsensical and historic, though inaccurate, armor types lumped together, where a brigandine jack from the 17th century is seen on the thief in your pseudo 10th century world. Maybe YOU have more important things to worry about like what orcs plan on doing with all that hard earned coin they've stolen and hoarded. When I say "you've got two ways to go," I really mean I have only got two ways to go, for my own peace o mind]

Of course, if you go for the "specific" approach where you actually want to say, "Here's your chain mail...it costs 100 silver shillings and weighs X number of stone and is this effective against axes and that effective against bludgeoning weapons..." if you're going to model that degree of specificity then you had better make sure it actually makes sense, or else people are going to give you a shit hard time...the same way people give Gygax crap (even in death) for originally charging 60 gold pieces for plate mail armor.

You can say, "it's just a game," or you can give it specificity...you don't get both ways.

For me, I've decided to go abstract, because...well, because it's easier. Originally, Gygax was abstract, too (with his CHAINMAIL rules), grouping individuals as light or heavy or armored (for plate armored). Since my game (5AK) is set in the 8th century, I don't have plate armor so I can get away with just saying characters are wearing light armor or heavy armor (or that they're unarmored). And even if I ditch my semi-historical setting and shift back to a prehistoric myth age like Howard's Hyboria, I'll probably do the same. 'Cause it's just damn easier.

People have worn armor, in some form or another, throughout history. Protective gear is important when people are trying to do you bodily harm (duh), and what you wore was pretty frigging custom compared to the way we treat it. You didn't just walk into Sears and pick up a size 42 long coat of chain off the rack...you got sized and measured and paid a ton of scratch for a decent armorer to fit something to you. And hopefully the person knew their craft and wasn't having an off-day or suffering from a lack of decent material or the need for new tools or some other monkey wrench that might throw the process off. But even so, different cultures did their tooling and lacquering and styling differently from each other...resulting in very different pieces of the (ostensibly) "same armor type." And, no, I'm not just talking about different looking helmets.

So rather than try modeling how one guy's double-layer pauldron and vambrace gives him a better AC than the guy with the outmoded spaulders, I'm just going abstract: are you lightly armored or heavily armored. Now, sure, it's a bit more fiddly than that because, well, because I'm a big nerd...but not much more. And while I realize it's not terribly ORIGINAL of me to go this route (Randall Stukey does this in his book, as I recently noted...and the earliest place I've seen it in a true RPG is probably WHFRP), but being "original" isn't, in the final analysis, the point of the exercise. The point is to craft a game that I want to play and that models what I want it to model and leaves out what I don't need.

Good against stakes.
My RPG isn't about historic reenactment, it's about playability, and the different armor types found in most versions of D&D just include more minutia than what I care to include solely for the sake of "options." My players already have PLENTY of options and choices to make (as they should)...the type of armor one wears, in the end, is more a matter of STYLE when it comes to fantasy role-playing. Does your character wear a heavy chain coat that would drop a lesser man to his knees? Do you have interlocking plates, lacquered with the colors of your family crest? Or is it simply a quilted coat with metal studs, easily pierced with a well-placed spear or sword tip?

Now folks using the standard D20 versus AC combat system that want to go this same (abstract) way will need to look to something like Stukey's book...or else rename "leather, chain, and plate" to "light, medium, and heavy" or similar. Folks playing AD&D or Pathfinder with their wide range of armor nuance are going to have a much tougher time, because those editions of the game are designed to be more fiddly (i.e. "detailed") than OD&D or B/X or Chainmail. And if you're playing a more detailed version, there's a chance you're doing so specifically because you LIKE detail and specificity and so an abstract method of doing armor ain't your cup o tea. But boy-o-boy you folks have your work cut out for you...unless you're not into taking yourselves (or your game) too seriously.

But then, if you weren't about taking it seriously, why would you opt for a system of specificity? Just saying.

For me, abstract is the only way to do armor that's going to keep me sane. It doesn't matter to me if your armor looks like something off a medieval tapestry or something out of the Road Warrior. The form doesn't matter nearly as much as the function. At least, for the sake of modeling the armor's effect in combat. There are, of course, other considerations (like cash outlay and routine maintenance, but I generally hand-wave the latter for the sake of expedience...like I hand-wave characters answering the call of nature).

Thus ends my game design "thought of the day."
: )


  1. Dude, awesome!!! I hadn't even thought of this! It's like your abstarct weapon system in B/X; that is, the one where weapon type isn't important and class determines damage.

  2. I've always found the concept of abstract armor intriguing. Light, medium, heavy, etc. would definitely work for me, especially in fantasy or sci-fi. And if you really want to get nuanced, you can always create gradations (ultra light, super light, very light, light, medium, heavy, very heavy, super heavy, ultra heavy, whatever).

  3. You can do both specific and abstract. That's what I do.

    The first image is medium armor. AC 5. But the arms are not covered, and that might be important in some situations. I would never have it make much different in standard combat, but it might have an effect, for example, in an acidic rainstorm.

    Same thing would be true of chain armor, as another example of medium armor. You can't beat a suit of chain armor into a makeshift shovel like you can with a breastplate. That also might be important in some circumstances.

  4. I think a few accurate illustrations would go a long way, especially of textile armours. I don't think that particular attack dog training suit is a really accurate reflection of what a gambeson/aketon/jupon is really like. Jacks, i.e. twenty plus layers of linen, rather than a garment stuffed with padding, are actually not very voluminous and surprisingly effective armour and were common as muck, not that rpgs or their art has picked up on this.
    Leather armour is very difficult to pin down definitively, other than as buff coats from the English Civil War era, potentially this is because of how it decomposes but textile armours were way more common.

    That said I like very much the light/medium/heavy approach, it allows incorporation of lamellar, lorica segmentata, coconut and rattan fibre armour from South-East Asia, Hardwood armour from the pacific Nortwest etc. etc. without over-complicating things. I'd be inclined to add special dispensation for masterful armours to get bonuses - check out young Henry VIII's armour, its got to be +2 at least- but generally I'm in favour of an abstract approach, but with lots of illustrations.

    Also, armour websites, museum websites and dudes on youtube testing armour can be very helpful means of disabusing people of their ignorance.

  5. My informal reader poll on what to do for the samurai/ninja companion to Flying Swordsmen came back with a resounding [13:4:0] "keep it simple" response (over "somewhat detailed" and "ridiculously historically detailed").

    I agree, light/medium/heavy works, and lets the players then fill in the details however they like, be it historical, fantasy, or anime/dungeon-punk level.

  6. Anachronism in Arthuriana comes directly from the source material. So, it’s a lot harder for me to complain about than in other cases.

    (I’ve gone with a light/medium/heavy abstract system myself. The player can describe it however they want—within reason—but the price, AC, and encumbrance are determined by the light/medium/heavy scheme.)

  7. A strange thought for you here. Ignoring the obviously knitted from wool and spray painted mail, the armour used for the Monty Python and the Holy Grail movie, was actually pretty well based in historical reality of the time it was supposed to be taking place in...

  8. I'd add two descriptors. Primitive armor (from cultures without metal working) weighs one level worse than normal armor. Primitive light armor weighs what normal medium armor does. Superior armor (like elven chain) weighs one level less. Superior medium armor weighs what normal light armor does. That way you have nine possible variations in armor with just a three row chart.

  9. Some great thought. I take it a step further in Into the Odd. For the man on foot, you're either effectively Armoured (Armour 1) or you're not (Armour 0).

    Primitive armour requires a shield to be effective but modern armour keeps both hands free for shooting and fighting.

    Higher Armour scores are there for cavalry and big monsters, but aren't something to aim for on your character sheet.

    The setting is late-modern/early-industrial, though, so reducing the effect of shields is intentional. I don't think every setting could abstract things this far.

  10. Classic D&D (and most OS RPGs) tend to be a hot mess of pseudo-historicity, what with sabers and flamberges and pikes and rapiers and griffins and dinosaurs and cavemen and samurai and druids.

    And you know what? I could care less. :)

    (BTW, there should be a term akin to "gonzo" for this kind of Xena-ish melting pot game style, but I can't think of one...)