Collections: The Gap in the Armor of Baldur’s Gate and 5e

This week we’re taking a bit of a detour to critique some video-game armor, in this case the armor of Baldur’s Gate III. I have been meaning to do a general critique of the Dungeons and Dragons 5th edition armor system from a historical perspective for a while, and the massive outsized success of BG3 made this seem like the obvious time to do so. In particular, BG3‘s success, I suspect, will make its artwork the ‘standard’ visual depictions of these armors for many DnD players when they imagine their characters. Moreover, a critique of DnD on this point generally is, I think, useful: DnD remains one of the most common entry-points into pre-modern arms and armor for many people, which has traditionally been a challenge educating in this field, because DnD‘s treatment of historical arms and armor is generally quite bad and its mistakes have a habit of becoming popular ‘knowledge.’

Alas, 5e and Baldur’s Gate III, while they offer some improvements (goodbye, ‘banded mail,’ whatever the heck you were!), still generally display a pretty weak grasp of pre-modern armor, from materials to construction, to fit to function and weight.

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In brief, the fifth edition (5e) rules for Dungeons and Dragons divide armor into three categories (light, medium and heavy) and that makes an easy enough division for discussion. In particular I am interested in three questions: do the name and basic rule-book description resemble actual historical armors? Do the statistics and relative weight in turn make sense given the qualities of those actual armors? And finally, do the visual depictions of the armor in Baldur’s Gate III make sense as translations, albeit fantastical ones, of the armor described? I’m particularly interested in BG3‘s visual interpretation because I suspect, given the tremendous popularity of the game, that its interpretation is going to become the standard reference for what armor in DnD looks like for many people.

And since we’re looking at the visuals of the armor in game, that means lots of screenshots, so everyone please welcome our model of the hour, half-elf Oath-of-Vengeance Paladin1 Aimee:

Hi! Do you need any Vengeance done?

I am mostly going to focus on the base, unenchanted armors; the +1 variants and so on have slightly different designs (indeed, that is a +1 chain mail up there), though in a few cases I am going to comment on the higher variants, particularly when they make the problems of the base variant worse.

Before we dive in, let’s clarify how armor works in 5e. Each kind of armor contributes to a character’s “armor class” (AC), every point of which reduces the chance of being hit by 5% (to a maximum of 95% and a minimum of 5%).2 In 5e, light armors are mechanically distinct in that they allow characters to use their full dexterity bonus3 to armor, whereas medium armor caps this bonus at 2 and heavy armor doesn’t allow it at all. In practice, given the AC values, that means light armor is the optimal choice for a character who cares not at all about stealth at 20 dexterity4 and for a character who can’t afford to be at disadvantage5 on stealth rolls at 18 dexterity.6 While we’re here, plate armor technically beats all medium armors at any dexterity, but is very expensive; at a dexterity of 14 or above, medium armors otherwise match heavy armors.7

In practice the way this works is characters take the heaviest armor their class’ proficiency allows and then, in a point-buy system (and where players are interested in optimal builds), dexterity is tailored to the armor type; light armor classes tend to max it out, medium armor classes cap dexterity at 14 and heavy armor classes will leave it at 10. AC values in 5e (in contrast to earlier systems, like 3.5 which had a lot more ways to build much higher ACs) thus tend to vary within fairly tight ranges.8 Assuming no shields, a light armor rogue might have 15 or 16 AC9 while a medium armor barbarian might have 16 or 17 AC,10 while a heavy armored fighter (wearing splint or plate) might have 17 or 18 AC.11

Light Armor

We start with light armor, which comes in three kinds: Padded, Leather and Studded Leather in order of cost and weight. Studded leather is more expensive, a touch heavier and offers 1 point more AC than the others, while Padded is cheaper but comes with disadvantage on stealth checks in pen & paper. Here is what they look like in Baldur’s Gate III:

And we actually start off pretty strong with padded armor. Padded armor was a real kind of armor and the the rule-book description that this is “quilted layers of cloth and batting” is a decent enough description of how it was structured. Historically, this armor shows up in a lot of cultures and goes by quite a lot of names (gambeson, aketon, padded jack, arming doublet, etc), sometimes worn as a primary armor or worn as foundation layer for other armors.12 At around 3kg or so, armor like this makes a lot of sense in the ‘light’ category too.

As for the visual depiction, I have a few quibbles. Because these are made of fabric, there’s no reason they can’t extend down at least to the knees to offer more protection and for padded armor worn without any other armor layer over them, they generally do. Also – and this is a problem with several of BG3‘s armor designs – there’s no reason this armor needs to split so high up on the body and doing so exposes the lower torso. Instead, an armor like this can extend down to the knees while being a bit loose and closing with an overlap in the center to provide more coverage with no reduction in freedom of movement. Judging from some of the other armor designs, I suspect they split this high up actually to avoid lots of clipping and necessary fabric physics. Finally, the gigantic leather belt the character wears with this armor is unnecessary, though the idea of purely cosmetic, stylistic elements in armor is perfectly reasonable: people decorated armor!

Leather armor creates a lot more problems because the weight-class of this armor doesn’t agree with its rule-book description which doesn’t agree with its appearance. The description says this armor’s chest and shoulder protection is, “made of leather that has been stiffened by being boiled in oil.” That runs into a whole mess of problems; cuir bouilli (‘boiled leather’) is clearly what is intended here, but it is both unclear of cuir bouilli was ever actually boiled and second it seems pretty clear it was not ever boiled in oil. Still, we might assume some kind of hardened leather, but then the problem is that most hardened leather armors are quite a bit too substantial to be in the ‘light armor’ category. Cuir bouilli was a substitute material for iron plates in armor, not for a padded jack; the material is relatively heavy and inflexible.

We’re long overdue to discuss leather in armor here, but briefly the tanned sort of leather in a modern leather jacket isn’t going to accomplish much of anything as armor, while the hardened leathers that will are usually not very light or flexible. However, I can think of one sort of leather armor which would fit quite well into this category: buff leather. Somewhat flexible (though less than your leather jacket), coats of buff leather (“buff coats”) were used as protection underneath armor and on their own in early modern Europe and became something of a signifier of aristocratic status in artwork.

The visual depiction splits all of these differences in unsatisfactory ways. It has a light shine to it that makes me think they were thinking of cuir bouilli, but the light-tan color is not generally a color one sees cuir bouilli in (though it isn’t an impossible color by any means), but the thickness an structure isn’t consistent with cuir bouilli, which had to be arranged in much the same way as metal plates: either as smaller scales or lamellae or as fitted plates like in a plate harness. Meanwhile, they don’t have the very distinctive yellow-orange color of buff-leather, or its normal shaping. Personally, I’d love to see the ‘light’ leather armor of DnD traded out for buff leather, with heavier cuir bouilli armor showing up in higher categories.

All of which now brings us to studded leather, a standby of medieval fantasy, but unfortunately not a thing to actually existed. The added protective value of a few rivets run through leather is basically nil. Instead, ‘studded leather’ seems to be based on a misinterpretation of medieval artwork, what I am going to refer to broadly as the ‘English Effigy Problem.’ What I mean by this is that modern folks (often Victorian moderns) looking at statues (famously, English coffin effigies, but also manuscript illustrations) without any experience of the objects being depicted tend to badly misunderstand what it is they are looking at.

In this case, there was a kind of armor in the Middle Ages which, from the outside, resembled a leather or textile coat with rivets through it: the brigandine (and also some coats of plates). But those rivets weren’t the defensive element, they were securing many small overlaping metal plates and those were the defensive element. A brigandine was not by any means light; it was a viable substitute (and with the coat of plates, a chronological forerunner) for a full breastplate. Looking at the BG3 armor, even this many years removed from the original mistake of having ‘studded leather’ in DnD, it is still immediately clear to me that this is a misinterpretation of a brigandine. Studded armor wasn’t a thing.

Medium Armor

On to medium armor.

The first armor in the medium category is hide armor and in the rules it is explicitly an armor of “folk who lack access to the tools and materials needed to create better armor” consisting of “thick furs and pelts.” And while there are certainly armors made of rawhide (a kind of hide product), ‘hide armor’ of this sort was not a historical armor. This sort of thing seems to me to derive from Hollywood depictions of the armor of Mongols and other Steppe peoples, but they frankly had access to much better armor options. The visual depiction in BG3 further seems to confirm to me that this is intended to be armor just made of some thick pelts and furs thrown together, rather than something intentional.

That said, hide occupies a position where a hardened leather armor, made of cuir bouilli or rawhide would make a lot of sense! These hardened kinds of leather, thick, stiff and relatively heavy, were used as armor materials. This sort of armor tends not to survive, but we know, for instance, that lamellar armor – a form of armor made of small overlaping metal or hardened leather plates – was often made with hardened leather when metal could not be afforded. An armor of hardened leather scales or lamellar would thus make a lot of sense as the cheapest form of medium armor.

Via Wikipedia, three examples of lamellar armor, from (left to right) China, the Byzantine Empire and Japan. This was a very common sort of armor that was very effective and occurred in many different cultures, but is very under-represented in video games, presumably because it was less common in medieval Western Europe.

Next up is the ‘chain shirt.’ This is a real historical armor, though I would call it a ‘mail byrnie’ rather than a ‘chain shirt.’ ‘Chainmail’ is a modern term that historians generally won’t use; mail isn’t made of chains in any case but of linked armor rings. Where I think this goes a bit wrong is in how DnD and BG3 understand a mail shirt to be worn. In particular, the rulebook description says, “a chain shirt is worn between layers of clothing or leather,” which muffle its noise. Now mail was always worn over some kind of foundation garment (like an arming jack), but it was very often worn without any kind of cover over top and certainly not something heavy enough to muffle the sound of the links as one moved.

A mid-15th century mail shirt from the Wallace Collection (inv. A3), showing what an actual mail shirt looks like. Wood, Edge and Williams, “A Note on the Construction and Metallurgy of Mail Armour Exhibited in the Wallace Collection” AMM 9 (2013) estimate that this shirt has some 29,653 rings used in its construction. Note how the closure system is integrated directly into the mail, not as part of a cloth or leather backing; this direct integration was standard in mail from its invention onward.

That problem is intensified with the BG3 artwork. The problem here, I assume, is the desire for a level of ‘visual interest’ in the armor, but mail generally looks pretty simple.13 So instead the mail is actually set into a leather backing, which ties up in the center with a wide leather fringe. Now there’s no reason you couldn’t sew mail into a backing like this, but apart from the shoulder-guards of very early mail, it seems to have almost never been done. The mail shirt was a separate garment, put on after the arming jack. Mail ‘voiders’ (bits of mail to over gaps in another kind of armor) might attack to an arming doublet, but the chain shirt isn’t a set of voiders; you’re not wearing anything over it. So while this is a real armor, it doesn’t really look the way it is shown in game, though the depiction is not entirely impossible, so long as we assume that the mail continues beneath that textile (otherwise there are huge gaps in the armor over vital areas).

Next up is scale mail. So I should note that the addition of ‘mail’ to the name of armors to make ‘plate mail’ or ‘scale mail’ is wrong; there is scale armor, plate armor and mail armor (armor of interlocking rings). But the basic concept in the rulebook is a real kind of armor, consisting of a backing – the rules naturally specify leather but textile could be used – with metal or hardened leather scales attached. Scale armor is distinct from brigandine or lamellar in that the scales are attached to the backing at the top, rather than to each other at multiple points; that makes it easier to get a weapon in underneath the scales of scale armor, making it a simpler but more vulnerable form of armor compared to brigandine or lamellar. And this makes a lot of sense as a ‘medium’ armor, though I should note that a coat of scales could weight every bit as much as a breastplate or a brigandine; there’s no less metal there, it’s just not as solidly attached.

But the visual depiction here is an absolute mess; I’m not even fully sure I know what I am looking at. It seems like there is a base layer of scales, but then leather straps that go over those scales and then also leather (scales?) running down the center (which is exactly where you would want your more durable metal scales!). This doesn’t look like any scale armor I know. It’s odd: game designers tend to overuse scale armor because it is more visually interesting than mail, but apparently here even that wasn’t enough and so we end up with a wildly overworked scale armor design. Scale armor is conceptually simple: you have a backing material and then you layer scales over it. And then you are done! Adding more layers is going to prevent the scales from moving, which will surrender the one major advantage of scale armor which is that it is flexible!

Via Wikipedia, a detail of some scale armor depicted on Trajan’s Column. Note how the armor is relatively flexible and you can see the textile backing inside through the opening for the neck. Also note how it doesn’t require a whole bunch of other leather bits: just a textile base, a bunch of scales and a belt.

Next up is the ‘breastplate,’ and once again while this is a real armor, the artists have somehow managed to get it quite wrong. The rulebook description also, frankly, bothers me, describing this as, “a fitted metal chest piece worn with supple leather.” At this point, our leather is getting properly out of hand. You could wear a breastplate over something like a buff coat, but it would have been far more common in the sort of societies we are talking about to wear it over a padded textile arming doublet. There does seem to be a trend here where the DnD rules feel like every bit of flexible material has to be leather because leather is strong and badass. But there’s a reason no one wears a leather T-shirt: it’s uncomfortable. You don’t usually want a lot of leather, no matter how supple, right up against your skin. You want cloth. So base layers tend to be textiles.

And then the artwork. The BG3 artwork for the breastplate is a mess. The breastplate is a tiny plate, connected to a tinier backplate by straps, with a whole second ‘belly guard’ below it. This is not what a breastplate looks like. This is what it looks like:

Via Wikipedia, armor of an early 19th century cuirassier, a type of early modern cavalry which kept the breastplate after most other soldiers had dropped it.

And that basic form is not new, here is a breastplate from 600 BC:

Via Wikipedia, a Greek ‘bell cuirass’ now in the National Archaeological Museum, Madrid. While not quite as refined a design as the above, you can see the similar elements.

That’s how a breastplate is structured: it extends from the shoulders to the natural waist (not the beltline but also not halfway up the ribcage!) with a front- and back-plate that connect directly together, providing good protection for the sides of the body and usually featuring a downward projection at the base which flares out to allow movement while protecting, to at least some degree, the pelvis (if this part is very substantial it is called a ‘fauld’). There’s no reason to have a second belly-guard when that can just be an incorporated part of the main breastplate. Likewise, there’s no reason not to have the cuirass wrap around and join at the sides, thus removing the vulnerability there.

Finally, the garments underneath the armor are a mess. The character wears a quilted green garment that I assume is meant to be a padded jack (good) but over a second quilted ‘leather-brown’ garment which is…I don’t know? Is it another padded garment, but faced in leather? If so, that wasn’t the normal way to make them. Also it covers the legs; these sorts of things generally did not extend over the legs. The whole thing gives the real impression that the artists understand that medieval armor sometimes involved quilted garments, but that they haven’t yet sussed out when or why, so they’ve just put quilting patterns on everything. Meanwhile the outfit has knee-guards (poleyns) but no greaves or any other metal protection for the legs or arms, which isn’t an impossible configuration, but it is an odd one.

Breastplates should not be this hard; the Pillars of Eternity games absolutely nailed this design already.

A breastplate from Pillars of Eternity II (it’s the ‘Valian Breastplate,’ which was what I had to hand in my last save). I should also note that Pillars‘ setting, which is technically somewhat later the Faerun – more 16th century than 15th – makes an armor like this, with a cuirass only make a lot more sense. Breastplates without the rest of the plate harness emerged as a response to the need to thicken plate armor to withstand firearms without adding unacceptable weight. In general, Pillars has more plausible armor designs than most RPGs, though it does sometimes get a bit silly. I think Pillars also demonstrates really well that you can have historically inspired designs that nevertheless maintain visual interest.

On to the half-plate. I have actually found folks surprised when I tell them that of all of the armors in the DnD system, half-plate is not one of the ones simply invented out of whole cloth. Half-plate was a real thing, although we probably ought to say ‘half-armor’! This was a term used to describe late medieval ‘munition’ armor, also called ‘Almain rivets.’ The rule-book description isn’t way out in left field, but also isn’t a particularly good fit: “Half plate consists of shaped metal plates that cover most of the wearer’s body. It does not include leg protection beyond simple greaves that are attached with leather straps.”

In practice, half-armor consisted generally of a breastplate with a backplate, generally with long tassets (segmented, articulated metal plates covering the upper thigh), a metal collar and spaulders covering the shoulders and upper arms, providing very strong protection for only the most important parts of the body and avoiding all of the really hard to armor areas. That gave this armor the advantage of being cheap, modular and one-size-fits-most, and it tended to be an armor stockpiled for issue to regular soldiers in the very late medieval and early modern period.

On the left, half-plate in BG3, on the right, via Wikipedia, what a munitions half-armor actually looks like.

But the BG3 artwork treatment here is baffling. The historical original is actually a visually interesting armor, especially once you put it over an arming doublet and add some details! But the BG3 artwork has instead gone with an armor, again, where I have a hard time figuring out exactly what is going on. Once again, the breastplate is inexplicably literal in covering only the upper third or so of the torso instead of extending down to the natural waist and below it we have what looks to be three layers of alternating leather-textile-and-leather? And then we have what looks to be at least four belts.

All in all then, medium armor from a rulebook perspective is alright, but the visual choices for BG3 are almost all quite a bit off; given the tremendous success of BG3, I suspect this will exert a significant ‘pull’ in how players imagine and understand their medium armor, which may counteract the somewhat better rulebook descriptions. On to heavy armor.

Heavy Armor

The first of these is ring mail and this is an easy one: ring mail is not a thing. The rules say, “This armor is leather armor with heavy rings sewn into it” and that’s just not an armor anyone ever seems to have used at any point, historically. ‘Ring armor‘ like this was conjectured armor during the Victorian period, composed mostly of misunderstandings of artwork. Visually, the structure of the armor in BG3 reminds me quite a lot of a brigandine, in terms of the length of the coat and its front-joining, leading one to wonder if this is another example of the ‘English Effigy Problem.’

The design for ‘chain mail’ is much better. The rule-book description even specifies that mail gets, “layer of quilted fabric worn underneath the mail” rather than leather! And the core of what we see in the game at least has a decent resemblance to a mail hauberk. And, for visual interest, they’ve added a surcoat, which is good, mail was often worn with surcoats as decoration and for temperature control, so a decorated surcoat is a great addition. There are a few problems here, though. The first is in the ‘cut’ of the mail, which includes split sides and a large front opening; for mail this long, some split is necessary, but it was usually just a front-and-back split at the base of the mail and it didn’t extend nearly this high. More frustrating are those hardened leather pauldrons and collar; that’s not an impossible configuration, but it wasn’t a particularly common one either and surely if one was going to add reinforcement, they’d reinforce the chest first?

Looking at the +1 version clarifies this problem as the quintessential ‘English Effigy Problem.’ We’ve now added metal pauldrons and a high collar that is almost a bevor protecting the neck, while keeping the rest of the armor simply in mail with a surcoat. I’ve often supposed that the problem here is a misinterpretation of some medieval sculpture (again, particularly certain English funeral effigies depicting figures in armor) where the figure appears to be wearing a lot of leg, arm and neck protection, but just what might be interpreted as a surcoat over mail over the body. But what that figure is actually wearing is either a coat of plates or a plate cuirass covered with textile (such as a jupon).

On the right, via Effigies and Brasses, the armor of Robert Albyn (c. 1400) as drawn in 1861.

I also find I have an issue with placing mail so far up the weight scale as to put it in the ‘heavy’ class. Certainly, a full maul harness (which might have included with the hauberk full sleeves, hand protection, and leg protection (chausses)) could be fairly heavy and was in its day the heaviest armor available in Europe. But in a setting where full plate protection is an option, a simple mail coat like this was no longer ‘heavy’ protection. And the rule-book weight of 55lbs is wildly off; a heavy mail coat of this sort might weigh 30lbs, tops. Most are closer to 20-25lbs. The rulebook cost is also comically wrong, with the ‘chain mail’ costing 75 ‘gold pieces’ to half-plate’s 750 (remember, half-plate was a cheap armor for cheap soldiers) and the breastplate’s 400. In fact, a mail hauberk would have been much more expensive than either. In particular it’s strange to put the mail hauberk in the same weight-class as plate armor, which historically often incorporated a complete mail hauberk as part of its foundation.

After this comes splint armor and the historical interpretation problem is clear. Splint armor, which is, as the rule-book says, “narrow vertical strips of metal riveted to a backing” of some flexible material, was never a complete armor, but a form of protection for the arms and the legs, with the body being protected generally in some other way (like mail, or a coat of plates). But the phrase ‘splinted mail’ is coined by Victorians looking at armors which incorporate splint elements into the arm and leg defense, leading to the assumption that this was a complete and distinct kind of armor, rather than just a specific way to make rerebraces (upper-arm guards), vambraces (lower arm guards) and greaves or cuisses (leg guards).

The in-game visual depiction is also a mess, with a tanned-leather base with a mix of lamellar that doesn’t overlap vertically (which defeats much of the purpose of lamellar) and segmented plates which also don’t appear to articulate; the whole thing ends up looking like someone threw three or four different armors in a blender and took what came out, but I can’t fault the artists too much because they’re being asked to imagine how a design principle (‘splint’) could be applied to parts of the body it was never applied to. Nevertheless, I can’t help but notice that the BG3 ‘splint armor’ includes no splints on the arms or the legs (or any other part of the body).

In practice, I think this would have been an excellent spot to simply have a lamellar armor with metal lamellae or alternately a Roman-style segmented plate armor. Another option here could have been some kind of reinforced mail armor, as we do see societies where instead of wearing plates over mail, metal plates are integrated into mail.

Which at last brings us to the end with plate armor. The basic rule-book description is fine, “shaped, interlocking metal plates” covering the whole body with “thick layers of padding underneath.” One crucial thing missing here however is mail; plate armor was generally worth with either a mail shirt between the padding and the plate or with mail ‘voiders’ – smaller pieces of mail made specifically to cover the gaps in the plate protection around joints.

Via Wikipedia, an Italian suit of armor, c. 1450; note the mail covering the groin and elbows. The back of the legs and armpits were also often covered in mail, when a full mail harness was not being worn beneath plate armor.

Still, this is a real kind of armor and was the heaviest and most complete sort of protection we might expect in a late medieval society. The BG3 artwork here is colorful and detailed and works hard to sell the, “This is really expensive!” part of concept, but leaves some things to be desired, at least with the base version. The aversion of the artists to fauld-and-tassets means that there are gaps between the leg harness and the breastplate (half-obscured by an oversized cloth skirt, another feature – belted cloth skirts – the designers love which were not, in fact, common in these sorts of armor) and the leg harness as a result runs very high; it looks like bringing the leg fully up might be pretty uncomfortable. Meanwhile, there are visible gaps between the spaulder/rerebrace (upper armor protection), which is normally where a pauldron would go (or mail voiders!). The breastplate also has a multi-piece riveted design which we might say is for artistic flourish, but actual breastplates often avoid that sort of thing, preferring instead a globular shape to better let blows glance off. Finally, the cuirass has the same problem as the others, where the breast and back-plates don’t fit together well, leaving a visible gap where none is needed in a properly made armor.

Closing the Gap

So how might I ‘fix’ this system? I think its worth thinking in two ways: what might we do while keeping the basic mechanical structure (light/medium/heavy and the AC system) in place, and what might we do if we weren’t confined to that system.

For the former, first I think we can safely remove the armors that are made up: studded leather, hide, ring mail and splint can all go.14 We replace ‘leather armor’ with ‘buff coat,’ at roughly the same position in the set. We can then add in some of the transitional armors oddly left out: brigandine and lamellar, to fill in the gaps created by getting rid of the made-up armors. Next, some re-ordering, with our conceptual division being less about pure weight and more a function of restriction of movement and fatigue. Our basic mail byrnie (replacing the ‘chain shirt’) moves to light armor (back where it was in 3.5, I might note), while a mail hauberk becomes the standard medium armor (again, back to 3.5). Meanwhile our heavy armors are reserved for fully rigid armors covering most of the body. That gives us, in roughly ascending order of AC:

  • Light Armors
    • Padded
    • Buff
    • Mail Byrnie (‘Chain shirt’)
  • Medium Armors
    • Mail Hauberk (‘Chain mail’)
    • Scale Armor
    • Hardened Leather Lamellar
    • Brigandine/Metal Lamellar
  • Heavy Armor
    • Breastplate (over mail)
    • Half Plate
    • Full Plate

Now what if we could completely change the mechanics?

The biggest mechanical change I would make is this: armor in a real fight doesn’t generally negate damage the way armor class functions in DnD. A strike which hits armor rings or a breastplate isn’t cancelled out, but merely converted into blunt-force trauma. Consequently, I’d want different kinds of armor to bring damage reduction rather than a set chance to negate incoming attacks. Armor class is a huge part of DnD’s balance, so it would be hard to remove without overhauling everything, but I might also give escalating damage reduction (something like DR/magic in ye olde 3.5 rules). To go even further I might add a rule that all hits which beat the AC rating always do at least one damage.

What would I do if I could rip out the whole system and start over? Well, I run my own games with a heavily homebrewed version of the d10 (‘Storyteller‘) system, in which armor purely serves as damage reduction. Each character can have one type of armor in each of three layers, which approximates the layering of medieval armors in Europe and the Middle East: a padded lower layer, an intermediate mail layer and then a rigid armor surface layer. The ‘soak’ (=damage reduction) values of each layer are added together to give the character a single, fairly simple to manage armor value. Since the Storyteller system splits damage types into bashing, lethal and aggravated, that gets expressed as a soak value against each damage type, with armor downgrading each level of damage into the next lowest (aggravated becomes lethal, lethal becomes bashing, bashing becomes no damage at all). So a fully plate-armored knight might have a 1B/4L rating, meaning the first four points of lethal damage in an attack are instead treated as bashing and the first bashing point is negated.15

The mechanical result is that players facing an armored opponent either need to score a big enough hit to overwhelm the armor or find a way to attack that avoids it.16 That in turn creates a balance space for weapons designed to specialize against armor, something that DnD largely lacks, but which was a significant concern historically.

  1. For some reason, when I planned this, a part of my brain thought, “oh, I’ll need to pick a class with all three armor proficiencies. In retrospect I did not need to do this just to take screenshots, but, oh well, paladins are neat anyway. Also the added base moment speed half-wood-elves get is really handy with a melee-focused class like paladin.
  2. For those familiar with the game this may seem an odd way to sum this up, but this is the statistical impact of the dice system.
  3. (Dex-10)/2, rounded down
  4. Where studded leather will result in 17 AC, a statistical tie with the heavier, more expensive half-plate.
  5. Forced to roll two dice and take the lower result
  6. Where studded leather statistically ties a breastplate at 16 AC, while being lighter and cheaper.
  7. Half-plate at 14 dex or higher gives 17 AC, equal to splint and greater than chain mail or ring mail. All heavy armors give disadvantage to stealth, so that’s not a factor.
  8. Most non-armor classes have access to something like Mage Armor, which gives them a base AC very similar to armor-wearing classes. Mage Armor sets a caster’s armor at 13+Dex Bonus, making it equivalent to a +1 Studded Armor, so long as the caster doesn’t wear any armor.
  9. Studded leather with 16 or 18 dexterity
  10. 14 or 12 dexterity with either a breastplate or half plate producing a range of 15 to 17, depending on build
  11. Though at low levels characters might not be able to afford optimal armors. Assuming cost-constrained characters, we might expect light armor at 16 AC, medium armor at 16 AC and heavy armor at…16 AC (Studded, Scale and Chain mail respectively). And the wizard with Mage Armor might have around 15AC (assuming 14 dexterity). It really does vary within a relatively narrow range, especially when you remember that 1AC is just a 5% chance to hit; significant but not enormous.
  12. Structurally, I should note that arming doublets worn under armor might be differently constructed (in terms of thickness, facing materials, etc.) than padded jacks intended as a primary armor.
  13. Though decorations to mail armor, like incorporating bronze or gilded rings to add color in patterns or as fringes, were common enough.
  14. Splinted arm and leg guards could remain as components of other primary armors.
  15. The base storyteller system allows character to further negate levels of bashing damage with a stamina roll, so a knight with a lot of stamina has a good chance to negating the rest of those bashing damage levels.
  16. The base storyteller system includes rules for taking a higher difficulty on the attack role to target specific body parts. I ended up codifying these by giving certain weapons higher difficult ‘precision’ attacks which lessen or ignore armor, making weapons historically designed to defeat armored opponents dedicated ‘can openers.’ Alternately, I set the base damage on some blunt trauma weapons high, making them good choices since they bypass the lethal damage protection.

212 thoughts on “Collections: The Gap in the Armor of Baldur’s Gate and 5e

  1. Unearthed Arcana (a big book of optional rules hacks for 3.5) had a few alternate armor rules, and one of them was “Armor converts incoming damage into nonlethal damage,” similar to the bashing damage example you give.

    I never tried playing with these rules – I suspect that the effect would be to make Dexterity into even more of a god stat, since it allows you to dodge attacks entirely and avoid taking even nonlethal damage.

    1. Armour as Damage Reduction (page 111) and Damage Conversion (page 112) are nice variants. Together, they seem to approximate the Storyteller layering pretty well. I quite like the role-playing consequences of damage conversion: defeated enemies are often unconscious, and the way you deal with that says a lot about your character. Conversion also makes in-combat healing a bit more powerful (since healing spells heal non-lethal damage in addition to lethal damage), which is nice, since in-combat healing is a bit under-tuned by default. (However, Dexterity becomes slightly worse with these variants. It does not grant DR or conversion, so it’s a slightly worse way to pick up AC. It remains a good way to get touch AC, initiative, Reflex, and some skills, of course.)

      It should be noted that damage values in 3.5 can be much higher than armour bonuses. Hits of around 50 damage become common around level 10, and builds that specialize in single-hit damage will go higher (via e.g. Spirited Charge, Decisive Strike, or Ruby Nightmare Blade–your crit-fishers will go higher, too, but less consistently). Damage keeps scaling pretty well after level 10, but armour generally doesn’t. I don’t know Storyteller, but I suspect the numbers are a bit smaller, so armour soak is more relevant.

  2. Curious if you’ve ever looked at GURPS. GURPS seems to put significantly more effort into historical accuracy then D&D (certainly, GURPS is the only TTRPG I’ve seen where the rulebooks come with bibliographies) but I’d be interested to see what an actual historian makes of them.

  3. I had a similar moment with D&D 5th edition a few years ago, and ended up deciding to re-categorise armours into “soft” (e.g. padded armour), “flexible” (e.g. mail, scale) and “rigid” (e.g. plate armours of all sorts).

    Soft armours get a bonus against bludgeoning and piercing damage, flexible armours get a bonus against slashing damage and rigid armours get a large bonus against slashing and a more moderate one against piercing damage. In terms of their armour values, soft armours are generally on the low end, flexible on the intermediate end and rigid on the high end.

    So as you go up the scale you end up with a sort of rock-paper-scissors dynamic where weapons that are less effective against your lower-end armours come back into play against the higher-end stuff. Meanwhile, weapons that are very useful at dealing with lower-end enemies (cutting swords and the like) fall off badly once you’re up against more foes with mail and plate armour.

    In the end the whole exercise spun wildly out of control as I tried to ‘fix’ a bunch of systems that were fairly core to the rules as a whole, and ended up being useless for the purpose of still playing a 5E game.

  4. Since this blog has the title it does I don’t feel bad pointing out that each point of armor class reduces your chance to be hit by five percentage points, but not by 5% (since the % reduction in being hit is contingent on the opponents attack bonus)

  5. Motorcycle guy here again – it cracks me up that fantasy-game writers think “how much does solid leather armor weigh? Maybe 5 pounds?” and just write that down. A solid, protective leather motorcycling jacket weighs more than my cat. My boots weigh more than my *other* cat. We’re up to 20 pounds of gear before I even put on pants, and none of that gear would protect me in a fight against an opponent with a rondel dagger.

    Also, in my limited experience wearing a mail shirt, mail shirts make *less* noise than leather when you move. The rings rustle a little, but that’s nothing compared to the creaks and squeaks of poorly-oiled leather (and after six days in a cave or a lich’s tomb or what-have-you, my leather armor would *not* be in good shape).

    1. “A solid, protective leather motorcycling jacket weighs more than my cat”

      Americans will do *anything* rather than use the metric system.

      But leather armour wouldn’t look like your motorcycle jacket anyway. It would look like rigid slabs of material. It wouldn’t creak or squeak because it wouldn’t bend.

      1. Rigid “boiled” leather still bends and creaks a little. If it’s hard enough that it doesn’t bend at all, it’d also be too brittle to provide actual protection. More importantly, if there’s more than one hardened leather component (e.g. spaulders in addition to the cuirass), they’d clack against each other upon contact, just like wood or hard plastic.

  6. It’s funny, it was actually reading your blog and realizing that plate armor negates most stabs and essentially all cuts, that gave me a new appreciation for D&D’s AC system, and made me think other systems’ damage reduction mechanics were inadequate.

  7. Some of the variant armors look a little better than the baseline versions. I was pretty impressed by the Adamantine Splint that you can acquire in Act 1. Naturally, there are plenty of others that just look ridiculous.

    When I’m running D&D 5E I re-flavor the armor types to make more sense. Leather becomes Padded, Studded Leather becomes Quilted, Chain Shirt becomes Haubergeon or Mail Shirt, Scale Mail becomes Scale, Breastplate and Half Plate stay the same, Chainmail becomes Hauberk or Mail Coat, Splint Mail becomes Lamellar, and Full Plate becomes Plate or Plate Harness. I discard 5E’s Padded, Hide, and Ringmail entirely. I’ll also often rename Quilted as Bambakion, Hauberk as Lorikion, and Lamellar as Klibanion. If I want to add more variety, I might make additional substitutions, such as Half Plate into Brigandine or Padded into Gambeson. I’m also happy to allow for especially complete or stripped-down versions of one armor to count as an appropriately better or worse armor (a klibanophoros might wear plate-level lamellar while a steppe horse archer might only have half plate or breastplate lamellar).

    My home-made RPG system uses damage absorption and allows for reasonable stacking, with different weapons having different grades of armor penetration and wounds being categorized according to severity and multiple wounds adding their degree of severity together to get a final injury state. A cataphract might have a bambakion (+1 armor), a lorikion (+3 armor), a klibanion (+5 armor), and an epilorikion (+1 armor) on the torso, adding up to 10 damage reduction. A mace might do a base damage of 4, but with an armor penetration of 4 as well. I also add degrees of success on attack rolls as bonus damage, so a mace might require three degrees of success on the attack to land a superficial wound on the cataphract’s torso. The head and especially limbs will likely be rather less well protected and thus easier to injure.

  8. I tend to just use the armor designations as the abstracted fast and loose placeholders they are, much like how D&D does weapons.(Don’t get me started on longswords and bastard swords and what ever happened to the broadsword?) Anyway, here’s my standpoint, as a long-time D&D player and long time Real Historical Arms & Armor enthusiast.

    Really what we’re looking at across the 5th edition D&D Armor spectrum is that each weight category of armor has, roughly, 3 grades. Cheap/Primitive, Standard, and Advanced/Expensive. D&D adheres to this pattern more or less. D&D covers a lot more cultures interacting at different levels of advancement and craftsmanship than the Real World Human Experience, so things can get pretty varied out in the field.

    The cheap armors: Padded, Hide,(Scale) and Ring/Splint. These can be produced without especially skilled metalworking techniques, and generally give up protection and/or mobility for ease of construction and availability. Excepting padded, for its ease of use, you will only see these armors among relatively primitive, impoverished, or otherwise materially restricted societies. Player characters will bypass this sort of armor by level 2 or 3 and never visit it again, barring any financial disaster. I disagree with applying stealth disadvantage to padded armor btw.

    The “standard” armors: Leather, Chain Shirt, Chain Mail, Splint. These are what anyone who does this thing for a living and isn’t under primitive or destitute conditions defaults to.

    The Advanced armors: Studded leather, Breastplate, Half or Full Plate:These armors use techniques that are the height of readily available technology for the world, requiring specialized craftspeople and well equipped workshops. Advanced armors offer improved protection over their standard counterparts without significant tradeoffs in weight or mobility.

    Also a consideration of light/medium/heavy armors in game, light armor is the sort that can be donned/doffed quickly and without help. Medium armor can be worn without assistance, but it’s quicker with help. Heavy armor is all but impossible to get on and off without help.

    On to individual armor ideas and breaking away from the overly specific names used in D&D, “padded and leather” will cover any basic, easily worn protection available, as well as the base layer for any heavier armor (optionally you can wear this base layer independently, for ease of use and RP reasons). If it’s a basic nonmetallic protective garment, it probably fits here. Don’t sweat the details. Use “padded” if it’s primitive and “leather” if it’s standard.

    “Studded Leather” (I wish the name would die) in practice covers “improved” light armor. This could be a Gambeson reinforced with Jackplates and a metal coif and helmet, a light armor Jack, Buff Coat, or Byrnie, (designed and cut with the intent of mobility and ease of use) or such like this. Hardened leather is such an inferior material to textile and metal that it’s pushed fully to the primitive medium and heavy armors except as specific elements of other armor.

    “Hide” is, effectively, any primitive or ad-hoc medium armor, suitable for barbarians, bandits, and some of the more bestial or less craft-adept races. It’s distinguishing attribute is that it’s cheap. The details are really unimportant.

    “Chain Shirt and Scale Mail” these are both in the same niche, with scale being considerably heavier and more awkward than Chain for slightly more protection. Scale Mail (Really a stand-in for the bulky medium armors that might be forced due to economy or middling metalworking skills) might be the heaviest armor a primitive society is capable of, but you won’t see it at all on anyone capable of affording its straight upgrade, the Breastplate

    “Breastplate”. As stated, is improved in every way over Scale Mail, save for price, being the first Actually Significantly Expensive armor a PC could wear. This armor could also include some of the more well-crafted light Brigandine or Jack of Plates. This is, effectively, the heaviest armor you’re going to be expected to be able to get in and out of without help, which makes it very good for traveling!

    “Half Plate” is essentially for the character who needs heavy-level protection but doesn’t have the training to wear heavy armor, or wants to be less encumbered. It’s also superior to Scale in every way, 5lb lighter and +1 AC and is the most protective medium armor available. Along with traditional Half-Plate this would also be appropriate to represent a heavy Jack or medium Brigandine, or some of the best Eastern armors.

    “Ring Mail” is the primitive heavy armor, and is the most poorly named next to studded leather. In practice, this will be more of a rough brigandine or typical Lamellar, or at the most primitive end, hide or Cuir Bouille overlaid with iron. It’s not going to be used by anyone who can acquire a good heavy Hauberk or better.

    “Chain Mail” needs the least explanation or handwaving. It is what it is. Note in D&D this generally comes standard with a coif and metal helmet, greaves, vambraces and spaulders, but there’s a lot of flexibility in appearance here.

    “Splint” is the heaviest armor available to anyone who doesn’t have well developed ironworks and the ability to forge large one-piece plates. This level would also represent heavy Brigandine, samurai O-Yoroi, and heavy Lamellar.

    “Plate” armor, given the fairly advanced renaissance level development of the default D&D Setting, is a special creature IMO. Able to be worn with various pieces of exchange, and can be configured to replicate the properties of studded leather, breastplate, or half plate on demand by removing or exchanging a few parts, so long as the owner is well supplied.

    In short, don’t get hung up on names in D&D, it has a lot of inertia from 70’s wargaming. This doesn’t mean we shouldn’t get nicer representations of armor in D&D based videogames though.

  9. What I forgot to mention is your comment on damage reduction.

    Though heavy armor users are well served by spending a feat on Heavy Armor Mastery, which reduces all instances of physical damage by 3. Aside from that D&D damage is abstracted a little too much to treat armor this way, and in effect just “Makes it less likely for an attack to significantly hurt you”

    If I were to redo it while keeping the same structure, even the most basic armor would be significant protection over no armor at all (+3 or +4 perhaps?) with less variation across the tiers of armor overall.

  10. Everyone recommending their favorite RPG to Dr. Deveraux, LOL.

    Honestly, while pedantry is fun, if actually playing an RPG, I would prefer than realism/simulationism take a backseat to playability/fun.

    Deathspiral Combat and Rocket Tag are probably more realistic simulations of real fighting than, say, Squad Tactics Grid, but they aren’t enjoyable to play for many people.

  11. Hi there,

    lifelong fantasy role-play gaming player here 🙂

    First, I wanted to say that I really enjoy this blog.

    I think some people here might be interested in a perspective on historical realism, from the viewpoint of modern fantasy role-play gaming.

    The main point of playing fantasy games is to have fun and enjoy oneself. This might sound trivial, but is actually hard to achieve. One reason for this is that in fantasy games, there are many different ‘types’ of players. Some players value that a fantasy world has a complex set of rules, and optimize their characters for maximum performance. Other players are bored by the rules, but enjoy creating and playing characters. Again other players are not even interested in active gameplay, but enjoy to follow the story of a game.

    If you are designing a modern system like D&D5 (the pen-and-paper version), a main challenge is to accomodate the needs of all these different players, within a single system. Therefore, an import rule in modern fantasy game play is that ‘anything goes’, in terms of modifying the system, as long as the players with whom you play together all enjoy a given style of playing.

    Early fantasy games had a tendency to be dominated by historical realism, or more generally the goal to ‘play realistically’. It is a major achievement of modern fantasy games to get rid of this goal, and focus entirely on the enjoyable gaming experience. If something is not possible or does not exist in the real world, why should this be a problem in the fantasy world, if it would be enjoyable for the players?

    Of course, historical reasism is A possible criterion that one might use in order to asses a fantasy game. If it was important to any particular group of players, they might decide to modify a gaming system to be entirely realistic, or they might even attempt to simulate an earlier period of time as well as possible (the ‘simulationist’ is also one of these types of players that I mentioned above). And this would be perfectly fine! But its important to note that this kind of gameplay is (no longer) the main goal of modern fantasy gaming.

    I hope this was interesting to some people here!

    1. “Early fantasy games had a tendency to be dominated by historical realism” -> I think it is indeed important to put emphasis on this. There’s a whole history of modelling historical weapons and armors in fantasy games (and then in video games), which explains how we ended up with the representations and tropes of BG3. Some are genuine mistakes that just get reused for decades and centuries (the author of this blog mentions victorian interpretations a lot for this reason ; another typical example would be the treatment of katana in modern games), but some are born of simplification and abstraction, because the ultimate goal is gameplay and not simulation. And this is also why some victorianisms persist – because people don’t really want to simulate mediaval combat systems, they want to feel immersed in a old fantasy world that has its own “traditions”.

      It is for a similar reason that Fireballs don’t use cannon ball rules anymore (they used to be able to bounce off the walls of a dungeon) and instead became such a fun staple of D&D.

  12. It’s worth noting that E. Gary Gygax had a somewhat different conception of these armors in mind when he wrote the core rules. The various types of ___ mail were, canonically, light mail with scales, splints, bands, etc on top. That’s why plate mail was so heavy, it was mail reinforced with plates rather than a lighter coat of plates. AD&D 1/2 ed. at least had separate rules for “field plate” that provided more protection than plate mail and imposed less encumbrance, but noted that it was expensive because it was complex to make had to be tailored to the specific wearer. (Not that this makes it any less realistic, of course.)

  13. WordPress ate my entire post yesterday. Very cool. Well the first draft is always crap right?

    We do deserve accurate representation of arms and armor in fiction and video games. Why? Because it’s cool, it dispels stupid persistent myths, and it really takes very little effort over just getting it wrong. I think it’s been proven time and time again that plausible and practical armor, if not strictly historical, can be just as cool as fantastic nonsense if you just spend a little effort.

    D&D had the chance to fix its scuffed 1977 legacy naming and descriptions, in 2008 with the massive changes for 4th edition, and again in 2014 with the reversion to a simplified classic style in 5th. Could have fixed the armor weirdness (Not to mention the whole longsword confusion) right there.

    So we’ve got two sets of tiers for D&D armor. Weight and Quality.
    For weight we of course have light, medium, and heavy, and it’s explicitly categorized as such, as it has direct in-game effects. Light armor is easy to get on and off, medium is good protection without restricting mobility very much, and heavy provides the best protection but can restrict movement and also requires someone to help you get it on and off. But there are tiers that the rules don’t talk about, and those are Simple, Standard, and Premium.

    Lowest tier is the simple armors. These don’t need industry, specialized craftspeople, advanced resources, or techniques to produce. They are cheap but bulky or awkward compared to the others in-tier, and offer less overall protection. In game this is padded, hide, scale, and ring, and will be abandoned by beginning player characters as soon as they come into any sort of money, never to be considered again. None of these are named very well.
    (In reality the lowest tier of light armor should be leather, as it’s the easiest to produce and is also in general less effective for the weight and cost than a good gambeson or other linen armor.)
    We have two primitive armors in medium tier, with hide taking up the low end and scale the high. Hide would actually be a decent representation for something like a simple (but not well-fitted) buff coat, or any of a number of adhoc and cobbled together armors worn by the likes of bandits, bestial intelligent races, and those lacking decent resources.
    Scale represents the other end, essentially for those who cannot make or procure a good mail byrnie, or want a little more solid protection, don’t need to sneak, and can’t acquire a breastplate. In D&D a suit of scale may be what it says on the label, or it could be a reinforced linothorax, a armor jack or lower tier brigandine, light lamellar, or an attempt at making a higher-tier armor suit with inferior materials.
    In the heavy category we have Ring, which by the rules is inferior to essentially all of the medium armors. I don’t see why anyone would use it except that it’s hilariously inexpensive (Cheaper than any medium armor except Hide, though also mechanically worse), so maybe it could be used to outfit cheap heavy infantry or cavalry. Practically, this armor would be represented by bulky lower-tech armors such as Lorica Segmentata, heavy lamellar such as could be worn by a cataphract or early samurai, or a piecemeal armor that has been up-tiered with additional layers of protection. As it’s worse than Scale (which itself is a low tier, highly available armor) in every way but price, the only mechanical reason to be wearing this is if you want to make use of a Heavy Armor feat and have nothing better to wear.

    Next we have the mid-tier, standard armors. These are what regular professionals will wear, will be outfitted to well-equipped armies, and is essentially the baseline protection, that should be regularly and reliably produced by any specialized armorsmithy anywhere on the continent.
    For light armor we have “leather” which in our context is a blanket term for any lightweight nonmetallic protection that’s well-crafted (so you’re not at disadvantage on stealth). This could be a good gambeson, arming doublet, light buff coat, or similar. Head to toe leather just doesn’t happen, at least not in an armor context. Not much else to say about this one.
    In medium we have stealth friendly and stealth unfriendly options, with the Chain Shirt and Scale Mail. Yes, Scale is in low and mid tiers, since it offers a viable option to the Chain Shirt, trading stealth for just a little more protection. Thusly, the mid-tier Scale could be simply be represented by a Chain Byrnie with extra heavier pieces, or a lighter coat-of plates.
    Heavy gives us the ol-reliable Chain Mail, or more accurately a Chain hauberk with mail coif, helmet, grieves and vambraces, over sturdy padding. At a requirement of higher strength, Splint is also in this tier, which realistically could be further reinforced Chain Mail, or any of the heavy armors that don’t require working of large, single piece metal plates. Most commonly a full suit of Brigandine would fit very comfortably into here, as would heavy samurai armor, or the sort of munition plate that would be used to outfit well-funded heavy infantry.

    Now we’re at the premium tier, where the armor produced by the best techniques and specialized craftspeople live. These are produced at cities and in well-off countries that are at the forefront of the arts.
    “Studded Leather”, sigh. Name aside, this is going to represent well-fitted light armor with metallic components, of the sort used by well-equipped scouts, skirmishers and such. A well-fitted light Jack or a Gambeson with Jack Chain and other metal accessories would be a good representation of this sort of armor.
    We get stealthy and unstealthy options for premium medium, with Breastplate and Half Plate. Not much else needs to be said about these, as they’re fairly well named and placed, though this represents the high-end version of halfplate, vs the cheap, munitions grade version which is better mechanically represented by Splint in the heavy category, due to price. This high-end halfplate is not at all quiet, but it is lightweight and easier wearing compared to its heavy Splint counterpart, though it offers no more protection. Breastplate is the highest tier of armor you can actually be expected to be able to wear without help getting it on or off, which makes it good for traveling!
    Then at the top is Plate, which is what it is. Additionally through leaving out parts or using pieces of exchange, Plate would be able to be worn, effectively, as a premium tier light or medium armor as needed.

  14. I am curious how Dungeons & Dragons’ armour even got to this quality, so to speak. Did somebody “research” it in the seventies or eighties on the basis of primarily Victorian sources and did they call it a day after that?

      1. While I enjoy the pedantry here as much as anyone else, I think it’s important to bear in mind that DnD was never billed as historically accurate or a simulator for life in the Middle Ages. The intent was to create a system for collaborative story-telling. To that end, increasing the amount of research had diminishing returns. One of the easiest ways to procrastinate is “I need to do more research before I can do this.” And with collaborative story-telling the Rule of Awesome and Rule of Funny trump realism–if something’s enjoyable (engaging may be a better word here) it’s allowed.

        Modern audiences are different. While the myth of the Middle Ages never died (as evidenced by every generation retelling the Arthurian Legends), people today are much more interested in the reality of the past. In the past, if you were interested in 18th century laundry processes you were either an uber-history-nerd or were not right in the head. Today it’s just something people do. Part of that is, I think, a shift in emphasis from Great Men and grand events in history, and towards a more…visceral approach, I suppose. We want to see the world through the eyes of someone in that time period. And part of that is an increasing focus on the mundane minutia. We WANT our entertainment to also be educational in certain ways–not Jewels Vern levels, but we want to have a reasonable expectation that what we’re seeing reflects the past in terms of material culture (it’s interesting that we are wildly opposed to this in social culture; see “Kingdom of Heaven”).

        Ultimately for the story it doesn’t matter of the paladin wore a historically-accurate gambeson or not, it matters that he came in at the last minute to save the party. For the audience, at least today’s audience, however, it does matter.

        It’s also worth noting that DnD switched from “theater of the mind” to visuals when it made the transition to video games. I can’t control what you see when I say “Studded leather armor”. What *I* see is brigandine, because I helped my shield-brother make his first coat (though he used canvas) and after you spend a week on something it sticks with you. What you see is going to depend on what your experiences were. As long as the stats are the same, it doesn’t really matter. In contrast, we both see the same character on the screen. At that point, the developers can’t rely as heavily on audience participation; they actually have to get things right themselves.

        1. D&D was originally the Chainmail Miniatures wargame. It had a fanatsy supplement to the rules, and when it was turned into a one-on-one game it morphed into D&D.

          It is clear with all the various weaponry specific bonuses/deductions, weights, etc. that the intent was toward realism. The problem was that Gygax was a so-so game designer. He lucked into a great initial idea created by someone else, and then pretty much ran with the legacy advantages.

          1. “the intent was toward realism” … for Chainmail, maybe. For D&D? that’s rather difficult to justify.

            Because D&D is not _just_ Chainmail with fantasy bolted on, and then with role playing individuals bolted on. That may be the evolutionary path, but it is not what the game became even as early as the first printing. You could use Chainmail as the D&D combat system, but that doesn’t mean you could use D&D rules in your purely Chainmail tabletop battles.

          2. My comment got eaten….

            I’ll accept correction on the original intent–you obviously know more than me. 🙂 No sarcasm here.

            I will continue to argue, however, that even if we accept DnD STARTED with an eye towards realism, it didn’t CONTINUE in that vein. It developed as interactive story telling, with realism taking a back seat to the story, at least for many players. There’s a very good reason for this: Realism slows things down. I’ve played with groups where the energy of a falling object was calculated (and our DM had local gravity figured out); it takes FOREVER to get through combat! If you enjoy that it can be a lot of fun, but maybe 5% of the population actually enjoys that sort of thing. For the rest? They want to move the game forward. And that means sacrificing realism in a lot of cases.

            DnD is a representation of a thing, not the thing itself. And representations distort things in order to make them more clear.

  15. What is banded armor?

    It was a posited armor type that was discussed by the archeologist crowd just prior to the time of the Chainmail/D&D boxed set. I recall seeing it in an old academic book. It seems to have been a misinterpretation of data.

    I think that Gygax saw the term and felt that it could be fit by the Roman Lorica Segmenta armor. I seem to recall him describing it as horizontal bands of articulated plate: which would fit.

    It would have been helpful if he had said that if that is what he meant.

    1. I think it was supposed to be both O-Yoroi and Lorica Segmenta. I seem to recall that during the early 80’s, O-Yoroi was described in AD&D as a type of banded armor, instead of describing it as a variation of a lamellar.

      1. Probably more of a generalised “Japanese armour” thing than O-yoroi. The scales in the O-yoroi were so tightly laced that they made up rigid boards more closely resembling awkward, boxy plate armour; old-fashioned D&D “banded mail” more closely resembled the do-maru and haramaki, where the horizontal bands tended to have a little more freedom to move relative to each other. But of course there’s also the added confusion from Meyrick’s numerous types of “mail,” some of which were real but extremely unusual while others were completely made up (“banded mail” here likely referring to mail with rows stiffened by wire or rawhide thongs passed through them horizontally, and we honestly don’t know which category it falls into).

  16. typo:
    unfortunately not a thing to actually existed. — thing that

    Realistic ‘adventurers’ would have other considerations:
    how easy is it to transport the armor when not worn. (Even if plate weighs less than a full mail hauberk, which is easier to pack?)

    how easy it is to do field repairs (brigandine may be tougher than lamellar, but can you do rivets if needed?)

    how easy it is to put on, and do you need help.

    RPGs usually don’t touch these, but the D&D rules linked _does_ have times for don/doff… according to which it takes 5 minutes to put on a chain shirt, and 10 minutes for chain mail (including guantlets, but are those plate style or mail gloves?)

    I’ve seen videos of people putting on their hauberks, it does not take 10 minutes, or 5, arguably not even 1 even if you include putting on a gambeson first. (Also contra the rules, it seems slightly harder to take a hauberk _off_ than on.) Brigandines aren’t in D&D but AIUI it’s pretty much like putting on a coat.

  17. > Looking at the BG3 armor, even this many years removed from the original mistake of having ‘studded leather’ in DnD, it is still immediately clear to me that this is a misinterpretation of a brigandine.

    Studded leather existing in D&D isn’t a mistake, and it’s not a misinterpretation of brigandine.

    AD&D includes both Studded Leather *and* Brigandine among its available armors, and the description for Brigandine is reasonably accurate to the real-world armor:

    > A development of both scale mail and studded leather, brigandine armor is composed of a layer of small metal plates riveted to an undercoat of soft leather, thick cloth, or coarse canvas. A further overcoat of cloth is applied to the exterior of the suit, making for a layered protection that is lighter than scale mail. An alternative configuration is for the plates to be sandwiched between two layers of soft leather.

    Studded Leather exists because the original Chainmail armor tables had only 4 distinct armor classes (unarmored, leather or similar, chain or similar, and plate) whereas AD&D had 10 distinct armor classes from 10 (unarmored) to 1 (plate; lower AC was better in AD&D), with shields bumping you up one class in both games, so AD&D needed more armor types to cover all those distinct classes.

    Thus, it assigned “Leather or Padded” to AC 8 and “Brigandine, Scale, or Hide” to AC 6, with “Studded Leather or Ring Mail” filling the AC 7 gap in the middle. It was a deliberate design decision, not a research failure.

    Similarly, Gary Gygax was well aware that a lot of these armors weren’t historical (or at least not reliably so), and included a bunch of notes to that effect in the Dungeon Master’s Guide, such as…

    > Although there is some controversy historically over the different types of armor, all
    known or suspected types are included here.


    > The armor type known as bronze plate mail has no real historical model, but is included as a logical extension of bronze plates worn over more of the body.


    > Splint Mail: The existence of this armor has been questioned. It is claimed that the armor is made of narrow vertical strips riveted to a backing of leather and cloth padding.

    The fault for this misunderstanding around studded leather actually lies with Wizards of the Coast, as in 3e a bunch of armor types were no longer mentioned in the slimmed-down Player’s Handbook armor list (Brigandine in particular was moved to the Arms & Equipment Guide) and in 4e and 5e they got rid of Brigandine entirely.

    The lack of mentions of other armor types and notes on their historicity in 3e and later meant that a lot of players who started playing with those editions thought that Studded Leather was always *supposed* to have been Brigandine, and they’re the ones who started the whole “leather studs are ackshually brigandine rivets, Gygax sucked at historical armors” meme.

    So while the BG3 armor lineup does deserve a lot of criticism, it’s actually WotC, not Gygax, who should take all the blame for it.

    1. Your quotes are not from where you are attributing them, and are in fact from the 2e PHB. This is getting pretty after-the-fact to determine Gygax’s true motivations. Nor does your unsourced claim re his motives make much sense – he could also have just not included it, or had more gradations of leather, or any one of a number of solutions.

      Gygax’s chosen source for armour was Ffoulkes, which was written in 1909 (and whose references to studded leather are pretty minimal, though they do exist). He does not appear to have updated things as time passed, despite time available and budget available both increasing.

      As to your suggestion 3e thinned the armor list, the 3.5 PHB has 12 armor types (I cannot quickly find the 3e one at the moment). The 2e PHB (since you like it so) has nine (I am ignoring Elfin Chain for obvious reasons). More shield options in 3e, as well. Oh, and Brigandine isn’t in the 2e PHB either.

      Literally every claim I can check of yours is wrong in some fundamental way. This does not suggest reliability in your unverifiable ones.

    2. The confusion between “studded leather” and brigandine is much older than that — it certainly didn’t start with D&D 3e. There are several armour cultures (most notably Qing China and roughly Mughal-era India) where it was quite common to have studded cloth or leather garments as lighter ceremonial versions of actual brigandine, to be worn when the wearer needed to project a military image but wearing the actual armour might be ridiculous (such as in some court functions, presentations of awards by the emperor, etc.)

  18. Hey, Brett, love the blog and really appreciate posts like this.

    A couple comments as someone who fights in various levels of armour:

    1) While there’s a reasonable debate over how various cultures used hardened leather in the past, quite a few practitioners of HEMA/SCA/LARP make and use it today and it’s not a huge mystery how to do it. I typically just boil leather in a kitchen saucepan of water for a few minutes and it does a pretty good job of stiffening it up to about the consistency of a similar thickness of plastic. I know someone who boils it in wax, which doesn’t get quite the same hardness but looks a lot nicer.

    2) When wearing mail, the biggest source of noise is the mail clacking against any rigid metal components of your harness. A layer of fabric between the mail and your cuisses or whatever goes a long way to reducing the noise.

    Worn alone, mail isn’t particularly noisy at all, especially if it’s well-fitted to your body, as historical pieces typically were. I used to go running with a mail shirt sandwiched between two layers of modern gym shirts and that was enough to suppress ~90% of the sound.

    3) I go back and forth on whether I prefer systems that treat armour as damage negation or damage reduction, but your proposed system seems really good, especially with the inclusion of “alternate” attacks with the specific purpose of negating armour.

    I’m sure you’re aware of the genre of Harnischfechten, or fencing techniques designed for fighting in armour against an armoured opponent; it’s a way of fighting that’s probably too difficult to represent accurately in a medium without force feedback (even more so than sword fighting in general), but your idea is probably one of the closest that I’ve heard.

  19. The funny thing is that armor in D&D shouldn’t really look like historical armor. Real armor is designed to defend you from attacks by other humans, so there are a bunch of assumptions baked into it about stuff like how tall your attacker is (roughly your height in most cases) or how they’re going to attack you (they’ll try to smack or stab you). Those aren’t safe assumptions to make in D&D.

    It’d honestly be pretty interesting to see armor designed from first principles with the assumption that your primary threat is a bunch of guys that are half your height. I’d imagine that an armored belt/jockstrap would take over from the helmet as your bare-minimum armor, since your primary risk is being stabbed at from below.

    (This doesn’t have much to do with the actual post. I just find it a little funny that fantasy media tends to ape the stuff that works in real life without considering why it works, or whether or not it still makes sense in the world they’ve designed.)

    1. The other thing is that there’s a lot less specializing in D&D than you would reasonably expect. Sure, if you go into an old-style dungeon where the perils are so random that you can run into wandering monsters without any room having that type of monster, you would need a generalist, but nowadays, people pay more attention to some element of order, and that means real adventurers, and not players who would be bored with the same old thing, would specialize and invest in intelligence.

  20. Hey so, I wanted to toss this here since I couldn’t find a better way to contact you; what options do you give for individual layers with the custom system you brought up for armor?

  21. Full “realism” in an armour system for a game meant to be playable is always going to be elusive, since almost all of the armour categories you’ve discussed came in a large variety of weight and protection values. For instance, your statement that “arming doublets worn under armor might be differently constructed (in terms of thickness, facing materials, etc.) than padded jacks intended as a primary armor” is a HUGE understatement. Of course the evidence we have doesn’t really allow for a rigorous comparison across large areas and many centuries, but we have enough data points to hint at the sheer magnitude of the variation. For instance, we have the Burgundian Ordonnances mentioning jacks made up of 40 layers of linen plus a layer of leather (deerskin?) on top — maybe for waterproofing — while near-contemporary accounts from armoury receipts and inventories in Northwestern Europe show similar items made up of as little as 5 to 8 layers. Not to mention strong hints that many “arming doublets” were literally nothing more than civilian doublets (thus no more than maybe three layers — shell, lining, and interfacing — in most places) with small strips of reinforcement in high-stress areas (the waistline, lacing strips/patches for the leg and arm harness, etc.). Lessons from modern reconstruction also indicate that the same garment might vary in thickness over different areas, with the front being heavier than the back, the sleeves lighter than the body (to reduce the penalty to mobility), and so on. Similar principles would apply to leather armour; most people who have never examined buff coats don’t realise just how thick and heavy they are, to the point that their weight and bulk might actually have imposed a greater penalty upon the wearer’s range of movement than lighter types of plate armour that provided similar degrees of coverage (let’s say a late 15th/very early 16th-century demi-lancer’s harness, built much lighter than late 16th-/early 17th-century lancer armour with roughly the same degree of coverage. I don’t know what that is if not YET ANOTHER example of annoying variation in the weight and protection of armour that otherwise look quite similar to the layperson’s eyes.)

    Constructing a workable quantitative system to represent all this variation would probably result in so many categories that they’d overwhelm the player with an unnecessarily steep learning curve. My preferred solution would be to provide the DM/GM with tools to simplify and restrict the types of armour available to match the aesthetics of their campaign setting, but this isn’t really much good at mitigating the steep learning curve — it just displaces the responsibility to the DM/GM.

  22. There’s actually a few early 14th century manuscripts that seem to combine elements of developing plate armor without a Cotte de Plates, but they’re rare. Metal collars (not Gorgets or Bevors, but actual collars like we see on some Great Bascinets) start appearing by the end of the 13th century alongside metal spaulders, poleyns, and couters.

  23. I’ll have to disagree that hardened leather is necessarily heavy, though it is very rigid. My experience is that leather hardened by boiling it in wax tends to be significantly lighter than steel. It is also more easily pierced, but there are always tradeoffs. It’s generally a little more rigid than steel, too, and does not normally deform under hard impacts (though that deformation also means steel absorbs more energy).

    1. To be clear, when I say heavy, I mean weight-for-protective value. At an equivalent thickness, it is obviously far lighter than steel, but also a meaningfully less protective. But claims about the potential performance of hardened leather are sometimes based on pretty robust thicknesses, at which point weight starts to be a factor again.

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