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The Armour Problem: Exploring Potential Abuses in Traditional Roleplaying Games
By Steven Satak
It is my opinion that a good game is a balanced game, one that prevents abuse within the game. Why?
Simple. Whatever you may have read in print, and despite what game designers might want you to experience in your own gaming, most players are people conditioned by their culture. And most cultures define success in life (or any other endeavor) as Winning and Losing. Despite the story-based, supposedly ‘noncompetitive’ nature of most roleplaying games, the fact is, people compete in these settings. Whether we like it or not, players strive against one another, the GM, and the rules to come out on top. So, with all this surge for competition, who will make sure roleplay, immersion and fun take the lead?
The Rules Lawyer won't. He cares only about the written rules, not the implied Social Contract. His goal is to acquire power in the game setting, within the strict limits – and loopholes – of the game as it is written in the rulebooks. If the game is unbalanced, or if the balance is left to a negligent GM, so much the better. This state of affairs just makes it easier for a Rules Lawyer to do his work. Manipulation and triumph through canny interpretation is their goal.
The Power Gamer won't. He wants power, lots of it, and he resents any attempt to prevent his character from being the ‘best of the best of the best’. This type of player will bend, break and stomp on the rules to get an ego boost. He pushes the rules as far as he can, and the cardinal rule is “Don't get caught”. Of course, the end result is that the Power Gamer also gets to bend, break and stomp on the story and the other players. But that's why he's there.
The Casual Gamer won't, either. She is only in this because she is bored, or because nothing else was going on, or because the boyfriend was playing that evening. She doesn't care about anything game-related at all - not because she is power-hungry, or because she is mean and cruel, but because the chances are pretty good she won't even BE at the next game session.
What I'm calling for — balance — is less a call for realism and more of an appeal to the GM for continuity, for consequences and for justice. We expect it in real life — why not here? Munching out is like cutting to the head of the line with the excuse that no one said specifically that you couldn't do it — only that you shouldn't. I see “good roleplaying” as the end result of mature players — and not everyone is keen on growing up. I am talking about a specific mindset. The game is not about screwing the GM and his NPCs, or the other players and their PCs. What do I mean? Well, think of the games as a structured daydream; you're participating in the great adventure stories (such as The Lord of the Things). Now it is true, Gandalf could have just mounted that big bird and ridden off to Morder and tossed the ring into the volcano before anyone of the bad guys was wise to him. End of troublesome One Ring, right? But that would have left Mr Tolkien with a couple of books full of empty pages — and you and your friends without an adventure. The point is, you're not trying to abuse the universe or the story but live within it and play a part in great deeds.
This article was originally written for a fellow with about twenty plus years of hard-core gaming (mostly Rolemaster) who was sick of players abusing armour. We discussed several points which we agreed had been abused, but decided to launch with this article and continue with others if time and the topic permitted.
High Personal Defenses – or “Your Armour Class is WHAT?!”
One note before I begin. High personal defenses fall under the category of "passive abuse". This does not mean "less destabilizing" it's just that passive abuses are harder to detect and deal with. A passive abuse takes longer to do its dirty work, and is usually based on subtle flaws in, or abuse of, the rules. But it is just as corrosive in long-term campaigns as active abuse. In fact, active abuse can be easier to handle. While it is fairly obvious and fast-acting, it is also mostly a result of over-achieving players or a GM who lacks a firm hand. These are "sins of ommission" in the role-playing world.
High Personal Defense, sometimes known as Armour Class, is really the easiest and most obvious way to get a leg up on the game and the other players. It is insidious in nature. It raises no alarms, as it is an established part of the genre. It is usually the first choice of new players, whose survivability is in question from the first roll of the dice. Yet high defenses will corrupt the game with an arms race which neither the player or GM can win. And this "arms race" can get out of hand really fast, with severe consequences.
The arms race usually begins when characters, not yet high in terms of power or toughness, acquire high defenses such as plate armour or powerful protective items. Most Game Masters will counter this by steadily increasing either the number of creatures, or the individual power of each creature, for a given encounter. The arms race has begun. The first consequence is that, as mentioned earlier, the monsters will get bigger, or they increase in number, or both. Encounters become more challenging, but also more lethal. A typical encounter in a normal game might result in a moderately-armed, leather-clad low-level character being beaten senseless, and stripped of his belongings by a band of goblins.
When the arms race is well underway, it’s quite common for that same character to be in field plate, wading his way through a horde of minions. And at first, everyone cheers. Our Hero is nigh unstoppable! But the players have forgotten that, while the armour is iron plate, the character inside is still made of marshmallow. A well-armoured character may spend many turns in combat. It is just a matter of time until the fatal blow lands. And when the inevitable Natural Twenty is rolled, our hero will be instantly killed by a double or triple-damage shot to the kidneys.
If Our Hero had not been so heavily protected, perhaps he would not have stayed so long in combat, or gone so deep into the catacombs. Vulnerability breeds caution. And perhaps the GM would not have sent so many nasty creatures to swarm him. Overkill does not serve the story. Nor does it help that such a challenge to Our Hero is nearly always quick death for his fellow adventurers, who are probably not so well-equipped.
Surviving a Walk with the Devil
The second consequence is that, when characters are armoured to their eyeballs, and the lethality index is high, it is very hard to start over as a new character. High-level characters die, and are replaced by farmhands starting out on the road to adventure. New players arrive, starting new characters and looking forward to an evening of fun in a fantasy setting. Unfortunately, very few beginning characters stand a chance of surviving even a single scenario, because everyone else in the party is a walking engine of destruction. As you might guess, an encounter which would challenge a character with a high armour class will be certain doom for the poor wretch starting out with only leather armour.
The third consequence is the 'blanding' of your character. As other game systems have pointed out, your character depends on weakness and strengths to define his or her place in the campaign world. Pendragon, for example puts personality conflicts as its central theme, to allow courtly poetry situations. How will your one-eyed character with her superior strength and lifelong enemy make her way through such a world? But notice how such traits also keep the character interesting. People, including you, want to see a story told. Overcoming adversity against the odds is a very old, very entertaining story.
A high armour class will not only neutralize your vulnerability in combat — it makes your character boring. After all, if you can't be hit, you may as well be a rock. What can challenge you? Instead of having your players solving problems by crashing into them sword-first, you have vulnerability which makes a player think, talk, duck, dodge and weave to survive - and in the process, develop a character other people want to know. Fellow players want to know that they are necessary to the party's success. People need to be needed. Two-legged tanks don't really need anybody. And who the heck wants to hear a story about a rock?
This brings more interesting play, with the focus shifting from what you're wearing to what you're doing. Even the combat becomes more descriptive: "I hide, throw a stone in the opposite direction, sneak to his back and cut his unprotected throat" is much more exciting than "I hit, 16 damage".
That sums up why you should care about the imbalance that High Personal Defenses can bring to your campaign. Assuming you DO care, what can you do about it?
Establish a Tech Level
The arms and armour presented in any game system’s rulebook are a smorgasbord of types which have been culled from three thousand years of armed human conflict. Let’s consider weapons.
Obviously, not every weapon ever invented will make a given list — there is not room enough, and there is often no need. However, for the purposes of a fantasy campaign, the list is long enough. Most fantasy games assume you are at least in the Bronze Age. Stone axes will not be much in demand. However, with a moment’s thought, you can extend this example, and arrive at the reasonable conclusion that not all weapons enjoyed their heyday during the same time period. For example, polearms of varying types are available on many lists, despite the fact that they are intended for massed troop formations, and despite the fact that some are actually descendants of others – designs which are, in some cases, hundreds of years apart!
Because the sourcebooks are designed for flexibility, they try to present a wide range of choices in weapons, and these they pluck willy-nilly from thousands of years of examples. However, all these weapons listed on the same page can easily lead to a dangerous error – the idea that they are, somehow, all in use at the same time, in the same campaign world you are playing in. It should be obvious that this is not so, and probably the game’s designers never intended that it should be.
Stepping over to armour, you can see the same mistake being made again. As soon as you see the extensive list of personal protection, the question immediately presents itself: “Why would anyone wear leather armour if chainmail were readily available?” The obvious answer is: they wouldn’t. Oh sure, any number of people will immediately shout “cost, dummy!” However, you must remember that in most fantasy campaigns money is rarely an ultimate issue. This is mostly because it severely cramps the heroic style. Getting by on ten gold a year might be satisfactory for the average NPC, but hardly suits heroes who are busy saving the kingdom.
Actually, the availability of different types of armour is more like comparing a 1923 Model T and a 2007 Mustang. In 2007, people drive the Mustang if they can afford one, and something cheaper – but similar – if they can’t. You don’t see many poor folks driving Model Ts. The level of technology is relatively constant. And that is what you, the Game Master, control.
What tech level does your campaign enjoy? Are you setting the tech level to European Late Middle Ages? Early Roman? Arabia in the 1200s? Go look to see what was the predominant armour type for the chosen era. Be sure to look not only at the style of the moneyed types, but at what the peasants wore, too. Decide, for example, that in your campaign, chainmail is the best a man can get, and that leather and fur are second best. Or if you must, go with plate mail, with the po’ folks wearing ring mail or possibly scale mail. The well-equipped man in the field might have a coat of plates, if he is lucky, and only the regulars and his bodyguards would wear breastplate. Peasants are peasants, and through the ages would rarely wear armour.
Tech level also brings out the subject of metallurgy. Think that civilization went through the Bronze Age, the iron age, and the steel age. In the Bronze Age, not only was the armour more fragile, but made with the same metal used for coinage. What age you are in will not only dictate armour technology, but a whole host of other things as well. The wise GM will consider the big picture before making such a decision. A dragon hoard of copper pieces may not be much to crow about in an ordinary game, but it will have a shocking effect in a world where bronze armour is as good as it gets, and the copper mines have been played out for the past hundred years.
Metallurgy, armour techniques and production capacity; there are many books out there which deal with these topics. Read up on them! Not only will you be more informed, but you can justify your choices to your players on solid, historic ground, rather than the old fall back of "because I said so". And as you become more comfortable in the world you are creating, this new information will inevitably lead to new plot ideas — as you can see from the following examples.
Think about how many 200-mph sports cars you see on the freeway, and allocate your advanced armour accordingly. A car is a car, true. But there are a lot more folks driving Volkswagens than Lamborghinis. Rarity is a function of many things — cost, tech level, and the likelihood that you will get your hands on something without having to beat the crap out of its former owner first. Even if you do get your hands on it, there seems to be a rule that the better the armour, the less likely it is to fit you properly when you try to wear it. One glance at the way the better armour types are designed and you will begin to see the sense in this. A character should NOT "find" a suit of armour that fits him or her perfectly — or even very well. Close is as good as it should get, and even that should be a very small percentage of the time. The lower the tech level, the less of a problem this is, but you should always keep the really good stuff as rare as teeth on a chicken.
Finding a magic item that grants permanent, substantial personal protection should be something that is incredibly rare, if it even exists. Most owners will be wearing it, or it will be locked up, or it will be at the bottom of the ocean. You will not find it in a Dragon's hoard or a random dungeon room. The type of person (or creature) who uses such items does so to ensure they get away in one piece. If they don't survive, you can be sure their associates will take everything of value — leaving nothing behind.
Determine Cost in Money and Time
Several rulebooks and supplements have already debunked the idea that you should be able to stroll down the Avenue of Armourers in the nearest big city, pony up thousands of gold, and walk out in a shiny suit of field plate. But, of course, this happens all the time in actual fantasy campaigns. Does this mean the Game Master is a failure? Not necessarily. You see, some folks honestly think this is where the "fantasy" part of "fantasy role-playing" kicks in. Their idea of "fantasy" means you can do anything you like; indulge in power games, etc. But if you really think about it, this turns out not to be the case.
"Fantasy" implies the fantastic. And the idea of something being fantastic implies an ordinary world against which that something is measured or compared. Dragons, elves and the like are wonderful, amazing things — but only if you have an ordinary, no-nonsense world and background to set them off in. If anything goes, nothing is going to be fantastic. The same applies to hum-drum things like getting armour.
The best armour available in your campaign had better be rare, demanding in terms of maintenance, and the product of only the most skilled of the Master Craftsmen in that region. A lower-middle class worker is supposed to be able to earn up to ten gold pieces in a year. A good suit of chainmail will cost between 80-120 gold pieces — eight to twelve years income for the average schlub! The very best armour available in your tech level might be field plate. That will cost between 3500-4500 gold pieces, more than ten average men can earn in a lifetime! If the very best armour in your campaign doesn't follow these proportions, see that it does from now on. If that means plate mail suddenly costs 20,000gp, so be it.
The other factor is time. The more expensive and personalized a given armour is, the longer it will take to make. Assuming a character has the money, and has found a Master Armourer with the time and inclination to do business, you can expect that character to be out of the adventure for at least four to six game months. The character must remain within a days ride of the Master Armourer, and submit to weekly fittings as the suit is created for him. If he does not, if a mistake was made, the fitting will take longer. That is assuming, of course, that the initial attempt to make such wonderful armour is successful.
For those of you that think this is exaggerated, I have actually had armour made for me for the SCA, a very long time ago. I was informed that I would have to touch bases with the armourer for my leather and chain at least once a month, and since I was footing the bill, the burden of contact was mine. I asked about metal armour and was told that if the armour was to be ready in six months, the prospective owner would have to be around to test fit at least once a week. Plate mail (the best you can get with an SCA armourer, so far as I know) is surprisingly fiddly.
There IS generic armour out there, but if you want a personal suit (and are willing to maintain your same weight for as many years as you wear it), the parts have to work with each other within fairly close tolerances if you don't want a permanent chafe. I can only imagine what a suit of full or field plate would require, but I did not think it likely to be LESS demanding of the purchaser's time for proper fitting. Remember that historians guess the measurements of kings from their armour.
You can, if you wish, suggest that the character be limited to adventures which will allow him time to go to and from the armourer's. This would give a breather from dungeon crawling and open up the possibilities of a few city adventures.
But all of these rules are better illustrated elsewhere. The point is that a player wishing to upgrade is going to have to sacrifice adventuring time to get what he wants. That is often worth more than gold. Use it to your advantage.
Determine Availability in a Given Area
Experienced Master Armourers are like any other Master — they specialize. You must decide how many are available in your campaign for a given armour type, and then determine if they are available for general hire.
This is not as easy as it sounds. Armourers often have all the business they can handle, from the day they join the Guild to the day they die over a hot anvil. There is no shortage of demand for armour of every type in a campaign world which is often at war. Kingdoms left and right are heavily dependent on troops and personal guards and militias, as well as other sorts of weapon-wielding brutes and blackguards. Force of arms is the main source of political power, after all. You can be sure that if a Master Armourer is any good at all in his chosen craft, he will be permanently retained by those in power. His services are theirs and theirs alone.
The chance to commission a serviceable suit of really good armour should be treated as a rare opportunity — the gift from a grateful Duke, perhaps. It should not be the equivalent of picking up a loaf of bread from the corner shop.
Technology is not regularly allocated, neither shared, nor patented. Metallurgy secrets are kept in certain areas, where they are part of the local prosperity. For the same reason you had to go to Toledo to pay for the high-expensive high-quality steel Blades, the GM has to tell the players where their characters have to go to meet the guild of smiths.
Advertise Armour Drawbacks
No one sleeps in plate armour, okay? No one walks around town in it, either. The stuff is carried on a horse, with a squire in tow, and donned just before a major battle. Walking around in it, as though it were a tee-shirt and jeans, is ludicrous. It is heavy, hot and at best, uncomfortable. There is no air conditioning and very little peripheral vision and your hearing suffers. Heat exhaustion is a very real enemy.
And metal armour is fussy, demanding stuff. The metal rusts, the joints freeze, the hinges wear through and blow out, the straps rot and tear, and then there is combat damage. You have to track the damage to your armour, repair it when it busts, and suffer poor armour class AND reduced agility AND extra fatigue when you don't.
It takes time to don armour, any armour. This alone can keep a character out of combat if he or she is awakened at night, and is determined to get the whole thing on in a hurry before rushing out of the tent and into battle. Chainmail isn't too bad, but leather is a chore, so is scale mail, and plate is impossible, even with help. The truth is, the characters in your campaign should be dressed in street clothes most of the time, especially at night, unless they are crawling through the local dungeon or standing guard.
Men in armour are rare, and expected to be nobles, soldiers or bandits. In any case, they raise the interest of local population and authorities. A fellow in plate had better show a coat of arms fully recognized by the locals or he is going to be considered a rogue or a mercenary, neither very welcome in a feudal society.
If players are abusing the GM's good will and claim they carry armour when their characters shouldn't, it is every good GM's duty to make those players pay. And pay. And pay. Imagine circumstances where armour is a handicap — rafts on a river, narrow corridors, acrobatics, tree-climbing, a fight on the rooftops — it's not hard to come up with drawbacks which encourage the characters to forsake their protective shells once in a while. Pay attention to the environment of every fight, and make it more of an advantage to wear the lighter armours than the heavier stuff. This may turn some of your combat scenes into cloak-and-dagger adventure reminiscent of the Three Musketeers, but it is a step in the direction of "arms-reduction" and your players may enjoy working with rapiers instead of two-handed swords.
When describing the action, focus on which parts of a character's body are protected. This promotes player immersion through detail rather than statistics. The players visualize their character's encumbrance ("I hold my shield to protect my left side and my left arm. I've a sword to parry in my right. Who's carrying the torch") and encourage a tactical sub-game of optimizing armour ("Could I run and jump with those greaves on my legs?") Reward roleplay, not exhaustive knowledge of the rules. However, when all is said and done, there will be players who still opt for the heavy metal. They should be paying, in terms of time and money and inconvenience, for every bit of armour they have with more than a few moving parts.
The Key Is Enforcement
All of this advice is worthless unless you make it clear, write it down, get the word out, and make it stick. This is true of every solution to every sort of gaming abuse, passive or active. All the methods mentioned so far rely on realism, but this is more. You've got to change the way the story is told, so system abuse can't get a toehold in your game. It's your job and yours alone. The players will not help you here.
You, the GameMaster, the StoryTeller, are going to have to decide before anything else happens, whether you are going to own the Story — or whether it is going to own you. You decide what goes before the game starts. Let's assume you have informed your players of what is different from the standard fare before they begin play — and that they agree and are still eager to begin the adventure. At no point must you begin thinking that, because you accepted some player input, it is suddenly a democracy. Most of the players I know would not play if it were. They need that hard, unyielding structure, that fantasy 'reality', to mirror the everyday world in the most important way: where a game is played, it must be possible to lose. The GM, in a word, must be hard but fair at all times.
Control the arms race in your game and you control one of the seats of power. Remember, power corrupts. And immunity from death is the greatest power of all.
Steve Satak is currently living in Washington state, near the city of Seattle. He has played nearly every kind of game there is at one time or another, with an emphasis on role-playing in the 1980s and 1990s. Now in his fifth decade, he is currently a casual player of Magic the Gathering and Battletech, enjoying both pursuits alongside a young son who has all the powers of the nerd and none of the drawbacks. He writes about gaming of all sorts, as well as [ugh!] fan fiction set in the richly diverse universe of Battletech.
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