Monday, July 7, 2014

Better Living Through Clones: The Cost of Armor

As other people are talking about the new edition of D&D, I want to start taking a look at the way that different classic clones handle things. Generally it will focus on finding things that are tweaked by the clones in ways I like. I'm starting with the cost of armor.

In original Dungeons & Dragons, leather armor costs 15 GP, chain costs 30 GP, and plate costs 50. Given that PCs rolled 3d6x10 for starting gold, it was a given that most fighters would be able to afford plate armor. (It's not plate mail. That's a mistake of 19th century writers that Gary propagated into the 20th and 21st. Mail is chain armor.) After an adventure any PC should be getting it. Encumbrance is really the only reason to use chain or leather.

Holmes kept the OD&D prices, while Moldvay moved it up a bump: leather is 20, chain 40, and plate 60. Mentzer and the Rules Cyclopedia keep this distribution. AD&D adds a whole bunch of armor types, many of them mythical or silly (such as studded leather and ring mail). Leather is only 5 GP, while chain goes up to 75 and plate to 400 GP. This meant that most fighters started with such ahistorical armor such as studded leather or ring mail, or if they rolled well they could afford scale armor or mail.

(And yes, I'm being pedantic, but there is no evidence that ring armor was actually used; it's mostly a misinterpretation of medieval depictions of mail, or chain armor, which is not called "chain mail" because that's redundant. And putting metal studs in a leather coat is a fashion choice, and would have no defensive value.)

What's fascinating is that clones tend to lean toward AD&D's side of the armor prices, even if they don't have all of the variations, but not in any standard way. Basic Fantasy uses 20 for leather, 60 for chain and 300 for plate. Labyrinth Lord is 20/150/600, and adds in several AD&D types to fill the gaps. LotFP uses silver, but charges 25 for leather, 100 for chain, and 1000 for plate. Swords & Wizardry uses 5 for leather, 75 for chain and 100 for plate, adding in the mythical ring armor for 30 GP. BLUEHOLME uses what are in its case the Holmes prices: 15/30/50, and Adventurer Conqueror King follows Moldvay with 20/40/60.

For most of these, the result is that starting fighters will wear chain and carry a shield (generally equivalent to AC 4). But Dexterity can improve AC, in most of these up to AC 1 – a step better than OD&D even allows – and with AD&D style bonuses, even AC 0. OD&D and Holmes conversely have AC 2 fighters and clerics wearing plate armor unless they're really poor, or really need to be sneaky.

After a lot of experience, I find myself in favor of the higher prices. PCs start with 3d6x10 GP or some number around that in most of these versions of the rules; I know Labyrinth Lord goes higher with 3d8x10, one of its many quirky switches that is there to avoid actually being a photocopy of Moldvay and Cook/Marsh. Despite the cheap cost in B/X, as a sop to at least minimal realism I require six weeks for the manufacture of a suit of plate armor; it was a difficult and time-consuming process that involved fitting the plates precisely to a cast model of the eventual wearer. (So don't gain weight!) Actual medieval armorers could take months fitting plate armor together, but if your life depends on it, aren't you going to want it as well made as humanly possible?

OD&D implies that it takes an armorer (100 GP / month) a month to make a suit of armor, or two with assistants, yet the armor only retails for 50 GP; maybe it's a loss leader? If we extrapolate from this, the Basic Fantasy prices are actually pretty on the money, while Labyrinth Lord's are a bit inflated. Generally I find this setup preferable, because it focuses on core armor types and doesn't add in a bunch of fake ones that Gary Gygax pulled from inaccurate 19th century sources.

Dexterity makes it possible for a mail-wearing 1st level fighter in BFRPG to be as survivable as his plate-wearing OD&D cousin. BFRPG also exaggerates the weight of armor a bit less than OD&D does, which is another point in favor of its equipment list. I'm sure there were Renaissance suits of ceremonial plate armor that weighed around 75 lbs (as in OD&D), but a well made suit shouldn't really be much over 50 lbs (the weight in BFRPG). This, of course, does make enforcing encumbrance rules important, but that was always supposed to be a mitigating factor of different armor types.


  1. Studded Leather is probably a mis-interpretation of pictures of Brigantine Armor. As a style choice, some Brig had decorative rivets rather than using stitching to bind together the metal plates and the outer layers of leather of heavy cloth. In my game I consider Studded Leather to Brigantine with no overlap in the plates and scale mail to be one of the overlapping plate styles (either brig or heavier leather with the plates exposed).

    The other armor type that gets ignored is the early gothic era plate and chain. This is a plate chest piece (and other spot pieces) over a full mail hauberk. This transitional style is where the notion of plate being stupidly heavy comes from as this style often broke 75lbs. I'm not sure where this fits into OD&D and its clones. In AD&D with Unearthed Arcana I use the field plate armors to represent the custom fitted plate armor of the late gothic and early renaissance and consider Plate Mail as the earlier plate over mail armor (where the term plate mail isn't as much of a disconnect).

    1. Looking at pictures of brigandine, I think it's simply funny that people thought the rivets were themselves part of the protection of the armor, instead of a way to make the plates flexible. And that we continue to see Studded Leather as part of the obligatory armor list.

      In OD&D a breastplate with mail covering the extremities would fit neatly in the otherwise empty spot between chain (AC 5) and plate (AC 3), and the cost should be interim. Brigandine could be handled the same way.

    2. Or the various hilarious misinterpretations of mail by victorian writers based on perusal of the Bayeux Tapestry and its many contributors various ways of embroidering knights in mail.

    3. As early as the 1E DMG Gygax was distinguishing 'plate mail' (chain plus plates, AC3, costing 400 GP) from 'plate armor' (fitted plates, AC2, costing 2000 GP) (see pg 27). Probably a retro-fix by Gygax, but could be adapted backwards to OD&D by assuming the 'plate mail' listed therein is actually the chain plus plates.

  2. I have three kinds of armor, two kinds of hats, and two kind of shields. There's Jack armor which is anything less than chain, Metal armor which is chain through plate, and Suit armor which is really good, but really expensive.

    Seems to work fine. And players can describe their armor however they like.

  3. The 14th century was a time of transition in armour and its naming. As one commenter pointed out, what we now call "brigandine" is probably what inspired "studded leather", but in-period they seem to have called it a "pair of plates". For whatever reason. This may also be what they called a solid breastplate/backplate, it's not entirely clear.

    If we're being pedantic, "plate armour" isn't the right term, either. The latin term they used at the time was "hernesia integra", usually translated as "full harness", and down to today, "harness" is considered the most correct term for a "suit of armour".

    Most harnesses were not custom-fitted affairs, but generic pieces, produced on something quite like assembly lines even as early as the 14th century, and therefore not exorbitantly expensive, but still a lot compared to a labourer's wages. A mail shirt, a pair of plates, gauntlets, a bascinet and aventail alone (without plate arm/leg defences) could easily start at two years salary for a labourer. Is it reasonable that characters have saved up a few years wages? I don't think so. I think even the highest prices are much too low, for all the armours. A cloth armour could easily be six months salary, a mail shirt anywhere from six months to a few years salary.


Comments on posts older than two days will not appear until approved.