Sins of the Father: the influence of D&D on weapons and armour in FRPGs.

D&D – an early 1970s design, influenced by the perceptions of wargamers using rules developed in the 1960s.  Almost fifty years later this still influences the way designers automatically approach the mechanical integration of historic arms and armour into RPGs.  Meanwhile our understanding of how medieval arms and armour work has been improved by several generations of scholarship and experimentation.
 
The two big ones:
 
Armour – better armour is assumed to reduce your ability to move.
Weapons – characters can choose from the full kitchen sink.
 
Two smaller ones:
 
Horses – near complete failure to integrate mounted combat.
Archery – short range snipers.
 
Armour
 
Many fantasy rpgs have a scaling movement penalty that feels intuitive, leather is little or no penalty, chain mail (hereafter referred to as maille) is a moderate penalty, and plate is a big penalty.  It feels obvious, that leather is light, and that wrapping sheets of metal around your body should slow you down.

This is wrong.

People move about as fast in plate as they do in maille or leather (especially when they’re running for their life).  The crucial factor here is exactly how the weight is distributed across the body, and to a lesser extent how the armour moves while you are moving.  The weight of a full hauberk of maille armour is carried mainly from the shoulders, and the skirt tends to swirl when moving (slapping the inside of the thigh/knee in a way that can cause injuries long term).  The weight of a full set of plate armour is more fully distributed around the body – much more of the weight is carried by the hips (just like modern backpacks) – and when strapped tight the armour remains in close fit contact with the body.

 This allows someone in plate to move pretty fast – unless the straps come undone.  Speaking from personal experience, forgetting to tie your straps and having your greaves angle themselves so they point into your shinbone brings you to a screaming halt. Literally.
 
At the battle of Stamford Bridge in 1066, Vikings were able to run approximately 12 miles (as the google crow flaps) in maille armour.  Yes they arrived at the field in a state of exhaustion, but they were able to do it.  There are accounts of knights in plate armour doing cartwheels and being able to vault into the saddle.  Many illusions about the limitations of armour are based on misconceptions caused by surviving examples of tournament armour, which is a bit like assuming cars for the highway should behave like cars designed for racing.
 
Movement on a battle field is far more constrained by your formation (a phalanx moves more slowly than a skirmish line) than it is by your equipment.  Modern reproduction armour is only a rough guide, as it can actually be heavier than medieval versions (although the use of modern materials such as stainless steel or titanium compensates for this), as its designed to be litigation proof in the USA rather than being designed to keep you alive in one battle.  Given the characters in RPGs rarely move in formation, armour should not really limit their movement ability in game.
 
This raises the obvious question, why would you wear maille armour if you could wear plate, and the historic answer is that you didn’t.  In the 14th century armies in Europe transitioned from wearing full suits of maille armour to full suits of plate (which incorporated small amounts of maille for the body portions the plate could not be tailored to cover).  Most maille suits had there metal recycled for other uses, which is why there are so few of them today.  You might keep wearing maille if you were too poor to affords to upgrade, or if you were too far away from a centre of armour manufacture that could make plate armour.

Let me also just say that nearly every rpg in existence underrates the protective quality of armour made from padded cloth.  You are far more likely to encounter historical armour made from layers of cloth than you are to find leather armour (although water hardened leather is pretty good if you do not have access to metal).
 
Now, do you want to know what is actually the most exhausting form of armour to equip?  Its the shield.  Don’t believe me?  Try this.  Load 20 kilos of books into a backpack.  Go for a half hour walk.  Unless your physical condition is near death you will not find this too stressful.  Now grab a 4-5 kilo pile of books.  Hold them with your arms fully extended.  After ten minutes of this you will be in a world of pain (unless you are some kind of neo-barb who does manual work for a living).  Shields are also primarily effective when used in formation.
 
While rpgs often spend a lot of effort detailing encumbrance penalties based on weight, and bean counting a round by round cumulative exhaustion as combat is resolved, they do not usually devote much attention to what really exhausts people: heat and lack of water.  We also don’t spend a lot of effort restricting the flow of information to people in fully enclosed helmets, but that’s a story for another day.
 
Weapons
 
D&D presented a list of almost every weapon ever used by anyone in medieval/renaissance Europe (going a little overboard on the polearms when Unearthed Arcana was published).  Yet the effort to assemble this exhaustive list was almost a complete waste of time.
 
In play, most people made a simple choice – they equipped the weapon that did the most damage.  This varied a little depending on whether or not you had a shield.  The fact that close to 70% of all randomly generated magic weapons were swords may have also influenced decisions – when was the last time you saw a +5 Glaive?  Part of this was the deliberate decision in D&D to conflate ‘chance to hit’ with ‘chance to penetrate’ armour.  So why have 100 weapons when 80% of players will choose from the same 2-3 weapons? 

What is happening here is that the cultural and socio-economic context of the weapon is ignored.  here are some of the factors I have become aware of:

  • Legality: people were often required to own weapons and armour (a contrast with weapon control laws of today)
  • Socio-economic status: weapons as symbols of social standing, ritual uses in religious ceremonies, judicial weapons, and duelling
  • Metal scarcity: its hard for a modern person to understand just how valuable worked metal was in the middle ages, many weapon designs are based on farming implements, allowing rapid conversion, because some people could not afford actual weapons
  • Hunting weapons: while they might be improvised for military use, they also varied from low quality peasant weapons to ornate displays of noble wealth
  • War weapons: use relies on specific role in the field, formation or other tactical combination.

As a rough rule, changes in weapons and armour are driven by improvements in materials technology and construction techniques.  As armour improves, weapons change to be able to penetrate the improved armour.  Weapons that cannot penetrate armour cease to be effective weapons, although may be retained in a ceremonial role or as a social status symbol.  A simple example: one-handed swords cannot slash through plate armour, although they can thrust through weak points.  A two-handed sword, however, can cut through plate armour.  Trying to mechanically represent thrusts and slashes in rpgs tends to fall into the ‘too hard’ basket so if a sword could possibly penetrate armour it generally gets a blanket ability to do so. 
 
Anyhow, it should be no surprise that when medieval armour improved to full plate, the weapons that were used when armour was maille were abandoned and replaced by modified versions that could thrust more effectively, or by two-handed weapons that could have more effective power transferred to the point of contact.  Once the big two handed weapons were in use, shields largely vanished – why carry around something that won’t seriously impede a blow directed against you, and which prevents you from carrying an effective weapon?
 
Game mechanics are often driven by niche protection (whether of formal classes or informal roles created through player skill allocation), and the preservation of fantasy icons like the ranger equipped with two weapons.  The reason why dual wielding is bad, is that you are losing a significant amount of protection from not having a shield, dividing your concentration between two weapons, and both your weapons are likely to be unable to penetrate plate armour.  Its marginal in a 1:1 duel or small brawl, but if you take rapier and dagger onto a battlefield where your opponents have pikes its not going to end well.
 
Horses
 
Physics make lances the most dangerous weapons on the battlefield prior to the deployment of gunpowder weapons. Force = mass x acceleration squared.  But horses don’t fit in dungeons.  They also make armour movement penalties a moot point, as the weight is carried by the horse.  Large numbers of medieval weapons simply don’t make sense until you realise they were designed to either be used from horseback, or against people on horseback.

So why do so few rpg combat systems allow mounted combat to be effective.  From a design point of view, either all PCs have to be mounted, or all have to be infantry, a 50/50 ratio simply doesn’t work.  Players spread out to far, the people on horseback chase off after interesting things, leaving the plodders to guard camp or brew tea.  Horses also do not scale well in damage absorption, and having to buy remounts is annoying.  Its almost like any society which develops flying carpets never manages to develop the stirrup…
 
Archers
 
Note the arch in archers.  Imagine an archway.  Thats how archers work to maximise the distance they can shoot.  They’re not actually all that good at the kind of point blank fire you expect from an uzi, and which you see displayed in movies.  Battlefield archery also relies on mass volley fire aimed, not at individual targets (because it takes time to aim, and rate of fire is crucial in determining effectiveness), but at other masses of men (and horses).
 
In summary
 
What does this say about game mechanics?  A lot of its in the way equipment tables are presented to players, the focus tends to be on weight and then either armour value or weapon damage. 

Weight is irrelevant in my opinion: you can only wear one suit of armour, and you can only equip one weapon at a time.  Keeping a spare weapon is reasonable, but no medieval soldier carried a golf bag of weapons onto the field. 

Players will also start from an optimal DPS level they want in combat, and work back to the weapon choices that support this, with a tradeoff to survivability where shields are concerned.  Its also reasonable to assume that players will quickly identify weapons that are incapable of penetrating the best available armour and will rapidly unequip them.

Anyhow, I have some ideas about a followup post on relative weapon damage and armour mitigation values, but that can wait another day.

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