First of all he forged a shield that was huge and heavy,
elaborating it about, and threw around it a shining
triple rim that glittered, and the shield strap was cast of silver.
There were five folds composing the shield itself, and upon it
he elaborated many things in his skill and craftsmanship.
He made the earth upon it, and the sky, and the sea’s water,
and the tireless sun, and the moon waxing into her fullness,
and on it all the constellations that festoon the heavens,
the Pleiades and the Hyades and the strength of Orion
and the Bear, whom men give also the name of the Wagon,
who turns about in a fixed place and looks at Orion
and she alone is never plunged in the wash of the Ocean.
-Homer, The Iliad 18 (478-489)
Weapons get their own special place, but fighting kit is not truly complete without some amount of armor. Or at least a studded loincloth. Armor is an important part of storytelling, and Homer lavishes upon the Shield of Achilles something like 1,500 words. and the taking and reclaiming of the armor of heroes featues prominently throughout the RPG campaign gone awry that is the Iliad. In modern cinema, girding Tom Cruise in his yoroi (The Last Samurai), or King Theoden in his magnificent armor (The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers), or the sequence where Bruce Wayne assembles his fearsome batsuit piece by piece all are given fairly long screen presence.
Protecting yourself comes in many forms, from many games. Let’s look at a few, taking some classic examples as above: a padded gambeson, a mail hauberk, a japanese yoroi, full plate harness, and finally, we’ll throw down with Interceptor Body Armor with trauma plates while we’re at it.
The gambeson, also known as a padded jack, was essentially quilted cloth. Often wool or linen, somtimes stuffed, sometimes faced with leather. It could be may layers thick – a dozen or two – and was reputed to be able to defeat even heavy war arrows.
Mail reigned supreme as protection worthy enough to hand down as an heirloom for centuries. It seems to have been utilized by nearly every culture that could fabricate, ,purchase it, and true to the spirit of roleplayers everywhere, was a popular target for looting after a battle. It varied in quality from poor iron butted together to hardened and flattened steel, drifted and riveted (a drift differs from a punch because no material is removed; its a stronger join). It was effective, especially the riveted version, against most penetrating trauma, though bludgeoning weapons could still deliver non-penetrating injury. The hauberk reaches from shoulder to mid-thigh.
The japanese yoroi armor suit represents a type of lamellar armor where small plates of material – the most effective of course being metal – are laced together or attached to some other backing in order to provide an overlapping defense. The lamellar technique tended to be used where huge plates of material were not available due to technology, materials availability, or expense.
The full plate harness was the most impressive of the armor technology from a metalworking perspective, fully encasing the wearer in iron or steel plate. By the time true plate armor was in use, it was steel that might vary from 0.04″ to 0.16″ within a single particular piece of armor (later shot-proof breastplates might be 0.25″ thick at the toughest part, and still taper to 1/20″ at places). Actual full suits were usually lighter than one would think – perhaps 40-60 lbs.
Finally, we have the ballistic vest. Usually with highly localized protection, the best armors have ceramic plates and ballistic fibers that can defeat one or more armor-piercing 7.62mm projectiles. Lesser versions are proof against pistol and SMG fire – in fact many high-threat vests are plates (for rifle protection) layered on top of ballistic fibers (aramid and polyethylene being popular) that will defeat pistols, SMGs, and fragments on its own.
Nearly all of the game systems (save for D&D) are generic and can be expected to run (or in the case of Night’s Black Agents, are explicitly set in) modern games, and even the d20 system has a version suitable for present-day games, appropriately enough called d20 Modern. But let’s start with the current version and D&D5.
The armors in question are picked from a list, and given a rating that adds a boost to the character’s Armor Class. This makes him a harder target to hit, with each +1 boost to AC decreasing hit probability by 5% on a straight-up die roll (with Advantage or Disadvantage that’s not quite as linear).
A gambeson is “padded” armor, for AC 11; a mail hauberk is called “chain mail,” more protective than the “chain shirt” and is AC 16. The japanese yoroi is probably best described as a type of scale armor (AC 14), while a full suit of plate armor is the ultimate in protection for mundane armor, giving AC 18 without a shield.
Looking at the armor table, between the maximum Dexterity bonus allowed and the armor’s protective value, tells a slightly different story. A nimble character will have a DEX bonus of +3 to +5, and heavier armor limits that bonus (Medium armor limits it to +2; Heavy armor doesn’t allow a bonus at all). This means that the upper bound on AC for a +5 to DEX for each armor type is AC 16 for padded, AC 16 for scale, AC 16 for a mail hauberk, and AC 18 for plate harness. Basically, with the right stats (+5 DEX bonus), your armor table (cherry picking values):
Obviously the conclusions change if you only have an AC bonus of +2 from DEX, but the key bit seems to be that lightweight armor does not inherently limit you, and with the right stats, Light, Medium, and most Heavy armors are functionally equivalent.
Ballistic-resistant body armor obviously doesn’t appear in D&D, but reaching back to d20 Modern, a D&D3.5 variant, we find the Concealable Vest (for standard duty), and the improved body armor worn by modern military units is probably closest to the Special Response Vest. The Concealable Vest is AC 14 and allows up to +4 from Dexterity, while the Special Response Vest is AC 17 and allows up to an additional +1 from DEX. Nearly all of the armor’s protective values combine with DEX bonuses to enable a maximum AC of 17 to 19. With the right DEX, the Concealable Vest and the Special Response Vest provide the same protection against attacks, the same trend as with D&D5.
A shield in D&D is a flat add to Armor Class. In D&D5, it adds +2, reducing the probability of a hit by about 10%. Other variants might give as little as +1, or as much as +3, depending on the rules and size of the shield. Given the importance of magic to the game, though, the shield can serve as another object to “hang” bonus protection from. Again, depending on the edition, magical AC boosts can top out at +3 to +5 – providing an increase to AC that can thus be from +1 (a small non-magical shield) to +8 (a hugely magical tower shield in Pathfinder). D&D5 tops out at about +5, a significant improvement to basic chances to hit.
As with weapons, Fate does not inherently make room for armor. If’ it’s special to the character, you can define it as an Aspect. If it’s gear, it’s probably an Extra, reducing shifts of a successful attack the same way a weapon hit adds shifts to the value of the impact of a successful hit. Armor values range from 1-4, with padded armor being of armor value 1, a mail hauberk or samurai scale being armor value of 2, and a full set of late-era articulated plate has an armor value of 4. Prices and weight are not defined; armor (and gear generally) is chrome, not functional unless deemed so by an Aspect or given mechanical weight as an extra.
One of the more comprehensive lists of the options available for treating weapons and armor in Fate can be found at Roll for Critical. This fine list does a great job of offering up a summary of different ways of accounting for weapons and armor (the two are inextricably linked). A weapon tends to increase the potential for injury for a successful blow (but doesn’t guaranteed it), while armor decreases (including to zero) the injury received from a successful blow. Too-heavy or otherwise encumbering armor can make being struck more likely.
Working through possibilities is a bit out of scope for this column, but it’s too fun to ignore. Were I running a Fate game where weapons featured prominently (and of course, they would – have you seen the title of my blog?), my preference would be to do something that ensures a bit of separation between a hit and injury, but not as deterministic as “swords add +3, while plate armor subtracts 4.” One would need to keep it fast, though.
Works that have increased the availability of enumerated weapon and armor stats include Bulldogs, Day After Ragnarok, Jadepunk, Mindjammer, and Achtung, Cthulhu! – this isn’t a comprehensive list, of course.
Fate Core doesn’t provide for shields a priori, as with regular armor. It would make sense as a freely-invokable aspect on defense, since it will more have the impact of preventing hits in the first place than soaking damage.
As befitting its as-detailed-as-you-want-it nature, GURPS allows, perhaps even encourages, fine-grained representation of armor. While the armor kits that can be assembled can be arbitrarily detailed, by and large the effects of armor are very simple: a point of Damage Resistance (DR) provided by armor subtracts 1:1 from damage rolled, and one has to punch through DR before most wound modifiers are accounted for. If you have a sword (cutting) or an arrow or sword thrust (impaling), the x1.5 and x2 multipliers for injury for such wounds are applied after DR is subtracted.
The only complexity here is that some armor types – notably the flexible ones – are usually treated as being of lower DR vs. some types of attack. Mail, for example, provides only DR 2 vs. crushing blows, owing to its flexible nature, while it might be DR 3 to 5 (depending on the quality, thickness, etc. of the mail) vs. cutting blows.
In GURPS, especially with the addition of GURPS Low-Tech, a padded gambeson is considered layered armor, varying from DR 2 through DR 4 (recall a ST 14 warrior swinging a sword is looking at 2d6+1 cut for damage). Basic “cloth” armor not really intended as armor is DR 1. A mail hauberk will vary from DR 3-5, while the lamellar yoroi is a type of scale, and can vary from DR 3-5, but this is rigid armor – the mail -2 to DR against crushing attacks. Finally, a full suit of plate can be as low as DR 3 and as high as DR 9 – or even higher if you’re willing to pay the price. In Dan Howards “GURPS Loadouts: Low-Tech Armor,” he details the full-plate loadout of a 16th-century Italian Condottierre, a suit of armor that weighs in at nearly 80 lbs., costs $40,000, and provides DR 9 or DR 10 on the torso and head, DR 7 on the bulk of the limbs. Only the hands and feet have “only” as much protection as standard mail – DR 4 – but of course they’re armored gauntlets and sabatons, so not flexible.
In cames such as Dungeon Fantasy, enchantments such as Lighten and Fortify can magnify cost, decrease weight, and push DR into the double-digit realm pretty easily.
Note that these armor values are still quite penetrable. Cutting at mail with a sword is 2d+1 vs. DR 4, which by and large can be expected to put 6 HP of injury through the armor on an average blow, and this is even true of arrows as well. Armor did tend to be a bit more protective than this, which leads to house rules (some of them given more nods than others) to make epxensive armor a tad more protective for the cost.
Finally, GURPS deals with a wide variety of modern body armor as well. While differences in authorial approach between Low-Tech and High-Tech led to different assumptions, the Interceptor body armor with trauma plates is represented by the “Assault Vest,” and gives DR 12 to the torso and groin, with an additional DR 23 if the full range of ceramic trauma plates are worn on the torso – basically DR 35, or the equivalent of 10d damage, enough to defeat, on the average, armor-piercing bullets from an M16 (which do 5d damage but halve DR due to being armor piercing).
In GURPS, Shield is a separate skill, and enables an entirely different type of Active Defense, the Block. Useful in situations such as countering arrow fire where Parry is disallowed without cinematic skills, a shield also can be used as a weapon to bash and slam. Finally, the cover provided by a shield provides a flat add to all active defense rolls: Parry, Block, and Dodge. Finally, if using the rules for parrying heavy weapons (if you try and parry a heavy weapon with a fragile one it can break), the high weight of the shield makes for an excellent counter to such threats.
As befitting it’s compressed scale for injury, NBA takes a likewise compressed viewpoint on armor. The rules as prevented only deal with modern armor, and divides it into three segments – light ballistic armor that’s fully concealable subtracts 1 from rolled damage, while the military ballistic armor we’ve been discussing gets an armor value of 3.
On that scale, full plate would be at best an armor value of 2, if not 1. It’s cool enough one might bump it up, and call it a 2. On this scale, mail and lamellar are probably a 1, and a gambeson either doesn’t rate as armor at all, or is also a 1.
As with armor, there’s no specific provision for a shield, especially given that Jason Bourne is unlikely to be wielding one when not talking about Bite Club. The most likely house rule would probably involve increasing the target number for a successful hit by 1. Anything more would likely be unbalanced.
The armor in Savage Worlds adds to Toughness rather than altering hit probability. As such, it’s an orthogonal system like GURPS and even NBA, where the armor is on an entirely different axis than hit rolls. The armor values are compressed, with leather (equivalent to our gambeson) given Armor +1, mail (and likely our scale/lamellar yoroi) given +2, and a steel corselet and other plate given +3. Added to a Toughness value ranging from 4 to 8, this can be expected to absorb a bit more damage – but has no effect on Raises. The offset in target number means that higher and higher (and thus lower probability of occcurance) exploding die rolls will be necessary: going from Toughness 6 to Toughness 9 vs. a d6+d6 attack roughly cuts in half the odds of being Shaken or Wounded.
On the modern side, modern ballistic protection counters a certain amount of Armor Piercing (which negates armor but not Toughness), and also protects as +4 for most attacks, but +8 (due to the inserts) against bullets.
In Savage Worlds, shields are pretty effective. A small shield improves Parry by +1, while larger shields provide not just Parry increases (+1 or 2) but Armor as well (+2 to ranged shots that hit). That’s a good bit of defensive boost.
As with injury, protection from harm dictates tactics. In D&D5, it is very difficult (but possible with AC over 20) to become truly untouchable, especially since nearly everyone attacks with a bonus. Still, AC provides a way of extending endurance during a fight, avoiding injury on any given attack. GURPS allows a situation where a character might be hittable 100% of the time, and still never suffer injury due to high DR. In fact, a series of All-Out Attacks (forgoing defenses entirely) is not an uncommon tactic when encased in a full suit of plate.
For Fate, armor and shields are accessories and flash mostly – only as important as the rules allow them to be. As befitting the high-action genres the rules are designed to emulate, armor only makes a difference when dramatically appropriate (Stormtroopers, anyone?). Savage Worlds gives a minor but important boost to Toughness for most armor. Exploding dice on the attack means that you’re never safe, however. That’s also true for Night’s Black Agents, where the narrative impact of body armor is often secondary to the high action implicit in the genre.
Emphasis on gear can come to dominate the game. For some, this is part of the fun, if not central to the fun. The ability to specify the Shield of Achilles, or drop many times the starting cash value on a spectacularly awesome suit of armor (not to mention having a particular set of weapons) is a part of what makes a character distinct.