Tuesday, July 31, 2012

The Relative Importance of Plate Mail

BX D&D has a curious relationship with plate armor.

At 60gp a suit, there's a really good chance most 1st level fighters will be able to afford plate, assuming they made a good roll on their starting money.  Additionally, plate seemed to be the default fighter armor for NPCs in those early games , too.  We'd kick off most campaigns with the Keep on the Borderlands, where just about every rank-and-file soldier in the keep is dressed in plate.  It seems far too ubiquitous and democratic to be the cap-a-pie of the noble born medieval knight on a destrier.  Later in the BECMI D&D line, "field plate" was added as a new armor type to represent armor reserved for the wealthy nobility.  Nowadays, most of the retro clones and later games have upped the price on plate, making those 1st level fighters wait until they've survived an adventure or two before they upgrade to it.

However, I wonder how much of the assumed survivability for low level fighting types was contingent on AC 3 or AC 2 (or better) right from the first excursion?

It becomes an interesting question in light of the last post, where it was suggested the high middle ages of Europe might not be the best analog for the ideal adventuring society.  When you shift the milieu to the Spanish Main or the Roman frontier or some early modern period, medieval plate mail no longer makes sense as an armor choice in the wider world.

I find myself evaluating two contrary positions.  The rules approach assumes armor classes are absolute, and the medieval knight in full plate represents the armored pinnacle of personal protection.  The unarmored musketeers of the 17th century are easy to hit, in game terms, and the legionaries in their lorica segmentata or lorica hamata would be ill-protected against a medieval knight as well.  Most characters in a colonial-era game would be AC 9 in BX D&D terms!

Alternatively, you can assume the game assumes the premiere fighter of the time period should be difficult to hit, and come up with an alternate scale to allow fighters to achieve better AC regardless of the military technology of the period.  Perhaps the fighter in the 17th century increases their base AC like a monk to represent the ability to duel or fire and maneuver with better skill?  The heavily armored roman legionary in segmented lorica would be armor class 2 or 3, the pinnacle of the armored warrior of his time?

I fall into the first camp, where armor classes are absolute, and one of the side effects of shifting out of the Medieval paradigm and dropping plate mail as a choice, is that front line fighters will be less protected.  In a game with muskets and firearms, cover and concealment and personal dexterity increase in importance, and that seems like the logical progression.


  1. Having followed your links to historical-dnd posts, my first reaction is I hate pseudo medieval! and I prefer almost anything else, unless you're really playing up the John Boorman shiny armour Excalibur angle, in which case OK but I'd rather be playing Pendragon.

    So that said, the more I think about this whole thing, the more I like guns in my DnD. Like, crazy overbalanced guns that do 1d20 damage and take ages to reload, exactly because they:
    (a) blast through armour and therefore encourage lighter-equipped characters who look more like the Sindbad type sources I prefer to emulate, and
    (b) flatten the power curve of leveling up - because if you face d20 damage every time, the difference between 4hp and 16hp is kinda like a difference in saving throw probability and I like that.

    Seriously considering adding guns now. Has anyone done it in an original and surprising way, I wonder?

  2. I think you might be on to something in terms of B/X assuming plate-armored fighters. It actually puts me in mind, if we're talking about intended historical analogues, of the mid- to late-1400s--end of the Hundred Years War, Wars of the Roses. Cheap plate mail was pretty much ubiquitous by that time. If we assume the B/X plate is cheap, mass-produced stuff and the "full plate" of BECMI is masterpiece-level, white steel and fluted plate, then I think that all fits with that time period nicely.

    That also opens things up to introducing primitive firearms, as per Richard. The old Grenadier "Fantasy Warriors" line had humans modeled on 14th-century tech, including handgunners. If I was going to go pseudo-medieval (and not play Pendragon!), I'd definitely go with a Wars of the Roses-type model. Plenty of opportunity there for D&D-style sandbox freebootery without any need for modding the base "tech level" assumptions of the rules.

  3. I've got black powder weapons integral to my version of Old School Hack, which is Fictive Hack.

    I'm finalizing the draft, and have a Word document up for review at this point. http://fictivefantasies.files.wordpress.com/2012/07/fictive-hack-basic-player-book-draft-7-9-12.docx

  4. @David: That's a really good observation that default D&D is probably late Middle Ages / just before the Renaissance. The old Mystara setting certainly feels that way.

    @Andrew: the AD&D 2E HR reference book for the musketeer period (A Mighty Fortress) has some firearms rules as well, and LOTFP should be shipping some LOTFP-flavored firearms rules this summer. I'll check out your link!

  5. I typically treat "BX Plate" as "Larry Elmore Plate" - little more than a bronze cuirass or similar. So that could be a Greek hoplite or Roman officer's armour - for both of whom the breastplate was more likely laminated boiled leather than metal - or it could be a 16th century Spaniard's steel breastplate and helm.

    Then, perfect-fitted 16th century full plate armour deserves at least an extra point of AC (base AC 2), as well as being much more expensive.

    BTW AIR BECMI does not actually have field plate, AIR it has jousting armour of the sort used in late-medieval tourneys, but not practical as military kit.

    1. That's pretty much how I do it. AC 3 is "heavy armor", whatever that means in the context at hand (where chain = medium, and leather = light). This is one of the reasons I dislike the imported d20 SRD armors in Labyrinth Lord; they break the elegant light, medium, heavy progression, and also prevent AC numbers from being 1 to 1 mappings with armor types.

  6. Guns - D&D is not designed to model them, but if you do want them then I think having them ignore armour, and have muskets & handgonnes do tons of damage (I'd probably go with d12 rather than d20) but have a very slow reload time.
    Pistols would do much less damage (d6?) and very short effective range, but still ignore armour, and you can carry a brace of them for those piratical boarding actions.

  7. BTW, I wrote a long rant about plate a while ago: here.
    Tl:dr version: you're free to (a) just change the numbers on the AC table and (b) introduce weapons that bypass armour, and that will make choice of armour a complex trade off decision of the type I actually enjoy making as a player, like I got this but alas had to get that too, or I deliberately eschewed it and now I have to play accordingly.
    +Ian Burns offered a neat set of tradeoffs on G+ just now:

    1) UNARMORED: AC 9; Move 120’; 5% chance of drowning; may be dragged at 30’ per round.

    2) LEATHER: AC 7; Move 120’; 20% chance of drowning; may be dragged at 20’ per round.

    3) CHAIN MAIL: AC 5; Move 90’; 80% chance of drowning; may be dragged at 10’ per round.

    4) PLATE MAIL: AC 3; Move 60’; -1 wilderness hexes traveled each day; 100% chance of drowning; cannot be dragged without assistance; cannot fire arrows from a bow.

    1. That's a great rant. Dropping Plate by moving to historical periods where it wasn't used increases the lethality of the game - that's fine IMO, and will force players to think more tactically about using cover and concealment to make up for the missing armor.

      I could easily get behind S'Mon's point as well, that BX Plate is a breastplate, helm, and greaves, and could represent both earlier and later forms of armor.

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  10. Classic Larry Elmore Plate: http://thedelvers.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/01/AleenaRedBoxLarryElmore.jpg

  11. Beedo, did you see my post on the Mighty Fortress firearms rules?


    I think they're okay. Not perfect, but probably the best I have seen so far.

    1. those are pretty great - clean, distinctive, appealing; clearly ancestors of Zzarchov's NGR firearms. I'm in favour of exploding double damage dice on a crit - it happens rarely enough that I think it's fine to have the possibilities open way up when you do really good, and it lets Brand take down Smaug with an arrow (like one time in a million). Corrollary: if you have a hundred archers, Smaug had better stand off.

  12. The D&D price of plate armour (and armour and weapons generally) bears little or no relation to the cost of weapons and armour in the actual feudal/medieval world. Plate is ludicrously cheap (especially for the bearly/mid medieval period). Actually, now I come to think of it, mail armour is also far underpriced.