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A philosophical post about armour class

John Carter is never truly naked, for he retains his wit.

Trollsmyth posted this about naked warriors.* Admit it, we all like them. Naked, or unarmoured, or even lightly armoured warriors account for several characters important to the source (ahem) literature.**  I blame the Greeks. But D&D hates them and stamps them into the dungeon floor. Even the monk, who should be totally woo-woo invincible if you follow the Hong Kong filmography gets to be about as good as a guy in crappy old scale mail that a first level fighter wouldn’t go near unless he was stealing it from the gnoll that imprisoned him and stole his plate mail.

Now admittedly, much of that nudity is a visible expression of badassery: these guys are so mean they don’t even wear armour! I get it. It makes sense. But your PCs will pass on that badassery, thanks, because the dice of D&D are final arbiters, and reducing your chance of taking damage by 5% in every single combat round beats all arguments or show. And so the noble warrior of the hills becomes a laden-down pragmatist, and doesn’t it make more sense to ambush those orcs than face them head on? And frankly it would be best to knock em all out from behind so we can slit their throats in safety. And those are your heroes and that’s the game you’re playing. Which is just how some people like it but not always and not everyone. And winning through superior technology may be “true” but it doesn’t help us tell satisfying stories of forza vs. frodo: instead it helps us tell colonial stories. Which, again, might be fine for sword v planet, but might not be the life-affirming nostalgic-nationalistic expression of prowess you were looking for. (I’m not here to judge: I’m just saying there are different goods people want their games to deliver, is all.)

I don’t have a ready answer for the bigger issues of psychopathic anti-heroism.*** But on today’s smaller issue, I’m going to confess a terrible thing: I have no idea just how much help armour should be in a fight. And I suspect Gary didn’t either. Sure, there’s historical precedent. It all makes common sense. But there are anti-precedents, too, and anyway it’s not about history it’s about what you want in your game. I think Gary ranked a set of different armour types from an encyclopedia according to gut feel (prejudice) and assigned numbers ’til it felt like a simulation. The result is a tall tree of possibilities crowned by one best suit of armor that does more to ensure a 1st level character’s survival than the next n experience levels.

Simulationist? Maybe. Satisfying? Depends. Under 1e armour rules any MU or thief who doesn’t walk about in plate mail is a fool: take it off when you want to do your special juju.**** Unless goblins in your world don’t shoot people in the back. Choose spells that aren’t quick-fire ambush-foilers and hire a bodyguard to replicate that magic missile.

And the rest of the game – which is all abilities and threats on arbitrary scales – is built around a plate mail standard, because it’s there. Goblins are crap because of plate mail. Artillery is a crock because of plate mail.

It needn’t be. Just change the AC numbers for armour. They’re not sacred. Or change your D20 for a D30 and change all base to hit numbers (by, say, +7). But most of all (and I love this about Trollsmyth’s post) play up other factors that make the choice of armour a trade-off, a matter of strategic deliberation, rather than a no-brainer. Allow improved AC for dodging, cover, shadows, levels, surprise/preparedness. Armour restricts your senses, making you easier to surprise, and clanks, making it harder for you to surprise others. It slows you down and tires you out. It’s harder to taunt the other guy into a foolish rage if you’re wearing a full helm – I’m guessing turning undead and rallying hirelings might be similar. I’m not going to say what will work for the game you want*****, but consider this: how lightly would you put a +3 sword in a first level dungeon? Plate mail (400gp at the market) is a +6 shield.

Or change the world. Outside historical games, historical precedent is useful for 3 things: 1; sparking creative ideas, 2; helping suspend disbelief and 3; establishing a common language of expectations (when you agree on your history/terms). With long-term players #2 is the problem here: their prejudices are set by familiarity with one system. Trollsmyth’s rationales are partly aimed at fighting that. I might just change the technology – lightsabres or ghost blades will cut straight through your breastplate. Or metals are so scarce that even swords are like diamonds: wooden spears are the order of the day, and obsidian-chip swords. And trust me, you don’t want a breastplate made out of obsidian chips. Yow.

* Beware the video link: features unchained wild women.
** Note: despite video link above this is not a plea for chainmail bikini gaming. Not. At. All. But it is a plea for diversity: plate mail is the standard in D&D, nothing else makes sense. That’s a decision that pulls the game away from a whole load of swords and whatever source material. Why would we accept that tyranny? Next you’ll say there can be no rayguns.
*** Alignment didn’t work out so well, and Vampire, which tried to keep its characters aware of an abyss of unplayable animalism, seemed rather to invite them to jump into it. Worst of all is the Cthulhu party, who know that no matter how depraved they become, there are worse depravities awaiting those who don’t do what it takes (and I so want to run a CoC game where that itself is the trap).
****Bracers of defense? Now you can Arnie around in a loincloth? Sorry, it’s more practical to give them to all those MUs and thieves to shorten their boot times. Makes me wonder what class Wonder Woman is.
***** though I would collapse all kinds of flexible metal mail into one category in a heartbeat, and maybe distinguish them by other factors, or maybe not. And maybe turn shields into a saving throw of some kind. Then I could say, for instance, all leather/cloth armours: AC -1. All flexible mails: AC -2. Solid/magic mails: AC -3, and dodge/shield is a saving throw with a penalty equal to your AC bonus.
****** You promised me nudity and all I get is hectoring systems blahblah! WTF!!!1111! Here. Eye candy.

MOST DISTURBING THING I LEARNED THROUGH ALL THIS: General Butt Naked. Right up there with the Tonton Macoutes and the wildest stories about Idi Amin. Sit down before you read it.

  1. April 12, 2011 at 2:34 pm

    I think what you propose sounds like a good, streamlined system. I think few are so into simulationism that they would need more detail.

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