This is part 13 of 18 of the series: Hacking New Rules

Drowning in Armor Systems (Part 1)

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The way I see it, there’s three kinds of GMs. First, there’s the Lazy GMs. Those are the GMs who make all their decisions based on how much work is involved for them. They reskin monsters on the fly because preparing a game takes too much time. They improvise their entire goddamned game because planning requires effort. They resort to narrative combat because maps and well-planned encounters take work. They fall into milestone leveling bulls$&% because math is hard. And they come up with excuses for why all that crap makes their game objectively better.

Not every GM who relies on improvisation and narrative combat is a Lazy GM, mind you. Everything I listed above is an important and useful skill and it has its place in the game. Improvisation and reskinning are, for example, practically required whenever the players do something unexpected. And narrative combat is one of two useful methods for running combats that should be used in tandem. Yes, that’s right, a good GM understands the merits of both narrative and tactical combat and switches between both. Stupid GMs argue that one is inherently and objectively better. And Lazy GMs are the ones who HAVE TO argue that their approaches are inherently and objectively better because they KNOW they are just avoiding work and have to rationalize it. Lazy GMs are just looking to do the least amount of work possible. Smart GMs use their work time efficiently, saving time in some places so they can use that time more effectively in other places.

So, there are Lazy GMs and there are Efficient GMs. Efficient GMs want to run the best game possible and they are willing to work at it. But they are smart about it. They carefully assess their own skills and their tools and their players and put the most effort into the things that have the greatest impact on the quality of their game. If their players don’t give a flying f$&% about tactical combat, for example, they don’t design them. Instead, they focus on building better social encounters or whatever bulls$&%. And if they are really terrible at remembering world details but really good at designing combats on the fly, they spend their time keeping very good notes about the world and rely on their improvisational skills to bring action to the table.

To be an Efficient GM, you need to be very knowledgeable. You need a big toolbag with a wide variety of tools. And you also need to know how to use all of those tools. And you need to be good at analyzing your game so you can figure out the best tool for every job. That’s the sort of GM I want you to be. That’s the best type of GM. That’s what my website is all about.

And then there are the GMs Who Don’t Know When to F$&%ing Stop. And that’s the kind of GM I am. Seriously. GMsWDKWtFS are the sorts of GMs who start off say, deciding to run a simple campaign set in a tropical archipelago and realizing that they need to do something about armor because only idiots ride around on ships wearing a 100-pound steel exoskeleton and end by basically rewriting the entire goddamned equipment chapter. For a campaign they know will run for only six months and then never get played again. If it even lasts that long.

Now, look, I’m not encouraging anyone to become a GMWDKWtFS. I’m not encouraging anyone to balloon a simple campaign introduction into a 50-page document that includes custom rules for inspiration and equipment and ten pages of unique backgrounds. I know I go too far. And I know it isn’t healthy. Don’t do it. But Efficient GMs – the smart ones – need GMsWDKWtFS like me – the brilliant but crazy ones – because we’re constantly analyzing s$&% and creating new tools. And because we can’t f$&%ing stop, we’re happy to tell you all about everything we did. In exhaustive detail. In the hope you’ll get something out of it.

So… fixing the armor table in 5E.

An Anchor Around the Neck of a Fighter

So, I redesigned the entire armor table for D&D 5E. And I don’t mean that I simply made up some new names and descriptions for the various suits of armor and called it day. That’s what I SHOULD have done. That’s what an EFFICIENT GM would have done. Well, actually, an EFFICIENT GM would have done one other little thing if they were in my position. And then stopped. I can pinpoint the exact moment when an Efficient GM would have stopped. I know I have a problem. Or rather, I can’t see a problem and not solve it.

Ostensibly, the issue was this. As you might recall from my article entitled From Zero to Pitch in 24 Hours, I decided to start a new campaign with a focus on exploring a chain of tropical islands. I mean, sure, it’d have jungle ruins and dragons and magic and evil raiders and tyrannical empires and all that normal crap. But all those things would have these stretches of ocean between them. And the PCs would spend a lot of time sailing around. And, what with the possibility of aquatic battles and sunken continents and all of that crap, the anemic squitter that D&D offers to handle all things underwater was not going to cut it. I knew there were going to be a few issues that were eventually going to crop up. And one of them involved heavy armor and its effect on swimming. Which, according to D&D 5E, is precisely nothing at all. Yes, a 65-lb. suit of solid steel encasing your entire body does affect your ability to sneak around unnoticed, but swimming? Nah. No effect.

I knew I would have to figure out two things. First, I’d have to figure out how armor and swimming interacted. Second, once I figured out that wearing any sort of armor would interact with your swimming ability in much the same way that being chained to anchor interacted with your swimming ability, I’d have to find a way to fix that so that heavy armor didn’t simply become worthless. Because if heavy armor goes, one of the major defensive benefits of the combat-heavy classes goes with it. Paladins and fighters get screwed. That proficiency, the heavy armor proficiency, is a class benefit. They deserve to use it.

Honestly, I figured that all out pretty easily. First, I added a column to the armor table next to the Stealth column. It was called Swimming. Some armor granted disadvantage on Strength (Athletics) checks made to swim – and also slowed any creature that had a swim speed. Some armor made swimming impossible. Characters could not make Strength (Athletics) check to swim. They would sink like a stone. And any creature with a swim speed would have that speed reduced to 0. Simple enough. Light armor didn’t affect swimming. Medium armor mostly gave disadvantage to swimming. And heavy armor mostly made swimming impossible. But to allow heavy armor wearers to save themselves, I changed all the heavy armors to cuirasses. That is, they were simply breast-and-back-plates. A person who fell into the water could cut through the straps on their armor in a single action, letting the armor sink while themselves floating to the surface. During aquatic adventures, such characters would have to trade down to a backup suit of armor until they had some magical options. But that was nothing I couldn’t handle. In fact, that sort of thing can be fun. As long as the GM accounts for it in the adventure design, its okay to have an occasional adventure that makes specific characters feel vulnerable.

Now, the thing with the cuirasses was neat. Basically, different types of heavy armor were just breastplates made of different materials. And that got me thinking about medium and light armor and injecting some uniformity into those by reskinning. So, all medium armors became hauberks or lamellar armor made of different materials. And all light armors were basically jerkins and vests made of various materials. And it allowed me to inject a little bit of flavor into the campaign. Easy peasy.

As a side note, I also allowed for the layering of suits of heavy armor over certain suits of light armor. That way, if a fighter did have to cut themselves free of their armor, they had some protection left.

And THAT is where an Efficient GM would have stopped. It’s an easy solution to the problem. Basically, one extra column on a table, some reskinning, some fiddling with the weights, and done. But, I’m not an Efficient GM. I’m a GMWDKWtFS. And so, I didn’t stop. Because truth be told, I’ve been very annoyed at the armor table in D&D 5E. And the equipment rules in general. And magic items. And that’s exactly how it happens when you’re a GMWDKWtFS. You figure, you have the hood open anyway, so once you get done fixing the alternator, you might as well overhaul the entire goddamned engine like you’ve been meaning to do.

Broken Steel

Here’s the problem with armor in D&D 5E. Or, rather, with equipment in general. There’s nothing interesting about choosing your equipment. And once you’ve chosen your equipment at first level, you pretty much don’t give it a thought unless you’re a fighter or paladin or cleric. And if you are a fighter or a paladin or a cleric, the only thought you give it is the thought you give to counting your gold until you can afford Half Plate – if you’re a cleric – or Plate – if you’re a fighter or paladin. And frankly, given the treasure tables in D&D 5E, that isn’t something that you’re going to be thinking about for long. And that’s assuming you don’t just find a suit of magical armor. I mean, your GM is going to put one in the game eventually. But you have no agency over that. You can’t BUY magic armor. Hell, magic items are buried in the Dungeon Master’s Guide. You may not even know what’s possible.

Whatever class you are, you simply buy the best armor you can afford. Assuming you aren’t just handed the armor as starting equipment. Frankly, there’s no reason not to just hand characters their armor. You know exactly what choices they are going to make. All light armor users will buy Studded Leather. All medium armor users will buy Scale Mail unless they have proficiency with Stealth. Stealthy characters will buy a Chain Shirt. And by 3rd level, every class will likely have their best suit of armor. Except for fighters and paladins who will likely have plate armor by 5th level.

Now, that isn’t a BIG deal, admittedly. Most characters don’t care about upgrading their equipment periodically. And the ones that do probably have all of their upgrades done by 5th level. Fine. But one of the things that happen in D&D is that characters find treasure. Upgrading and replacing equipment is one of the primary uses for treasure in video games. And that’s because it functions as a very simple advancement track. Periodically, you trade in some gold for higher numbers. And sometimes you have to choose which numbers are more important to upgrade first. Alongside the complicated advancement track that is leveling up – gaining new abilities and skills and feats and things – it’s nice to also have a simple track that just gives you little mechanical boosts. It means that money has a use. You have something to save for. And different characters can save for different things.

D&D doesn’t have any sort of an upgrade path. Not one over which the characters have any agency. The only upgrade path is “you’ll get the magic items when I put them in the f$&%ing adventure and you’ll thank me for it.” Fantastic.

And speaking of that, let’s talk about magical items. Magical items are always this separate, special goddamned system. First, they make equipment. And then they create this entire, separate system for magical items. And when they create the entire separate system – which they put entirely in the hands of the GM to adjudicate – they always end up f$&%ing with the balance of the game in some crazy way. Either they go crazy overboard trying to figure out exactly what equipment every character should have at every level and come up with these complex wealth tables and magic item progressions and then tell GMs that they damned well better give out magical items at just the right rate. Or else they just say “eh, f$&% it. Here’s magic items. Do what you want with them.” Oh sure, they might impose some fluffy little guidelines about rarities and the levels that people should have items. But the problem is they have to fit all of the items that DON’T have a direct mechanical impact on the game – like bags of holding and wands of secret door detection – with the items that DO directly impact the mechanics – like magic weapons and armor.

Either way, it’s messy as f$&%. Players can’t have any fun with their money if they want to and GMs either have to jump through a whole bunch of hoops or else they end up either being too stingy and making their players sad or being too generous and making their game broken.

If equipment with numbers – like armor and weapons – were built around an upgrade path and that upgrade path worked equally well for magical crap and nonmagical crap, the whole thing would offer GMs and players a lot more options and it would all be a lot easier to control. Players could buy equipment with boring upgrades periodically – the numerical bonuses that GM complain aren’t FUN magical items – and the GMs could hand out interesting magical items. And because they were all on the same scale, if the GM wanted to run a low magic game and not hand out interesting magical items, the characters would still maintain the same power level. They’d just have higher numerical bonuses instead of flaming swords. And they’d buy their own upgrades. And that scale would also provide an easy way for GMs to allow players to BUY magical items if they wanted to. Or to craft s$&% if they wanted to. Basically, it’d provide a foundation for a UNIVERSAL equipment system that would work equally well for mundane and magical items.

So, once I decided to incorporate basic swimming rules onto a reskinned armor table, the next logical step was to develop an upgrade path for mundane and magical items and reinvent the entire table.

Well, it wasn’t as clean cut as that. It sort of snowballed. And I’m going to show you how I got to my armor table. And in so doing, I’ll empower you to build your own custom armor table for your low magic or high magic or exotic campaign. And then, you can decide if that’s worth it because you’re an Efficient GM.

Where it All Began: Swimming, Climbing, and Tumbling

I started with a few ideas. First, I wanted to incorporate swimming rules into the armor table. We covered that. Second, I wanted to create some upgrades for armor so players had something to spend money on. And I wanted them to occasionally struggle with the choices. That is, I wanted them to sometimes decide that the magical armor they found WASN’T better than the armor they were wearing. Or that the most expensive armor WASN’T the best armor for their situation every time. I wanted them to make interesting trade-offs.

As it stands, the armor choice is a pretty easy one in D&D 5E. The choice is pretty much made by your proficiency. Now, there are a few tradeoffs built into the armor table, but they are illusory. For example, the choice between Light, Medium, and Heavy armor SEEMS to hinge on your Dexterity bonus, right? Light armor allows you to add your whole Dexterity bonus to your AC. Medium armor adds your Dexterity bonus up to a maximum of 2. And Heavy armor just gives you a fixed armor class. That’s fine for differentiating Light, Medium, and Heavy armor, but it does make armor choice a simple calculation. Assuming you have the proficiency available, you buy the armor that gives you the best AC, taking into consideration your Dexterity bonus. And, under the normal rules, it’s pretty rare to even have a Dexterity bonus above +2 anyway. So, although the Dexterity bonus thing seems like it might drive a choice, it really doesn’t. It just provides a math problem. A very simple math problem.

There are two other tradeoffs involved, though. First, some armors grant disadvantage on Dexterity (Stealth) checks. But the characters likely to have proficiency in stealth are usually the characters who only wear Light or Medium armors. And, unless you’re purposely trying to play a sneak, you’re not going to care about Stealth enough to give up a massive AC from Heavy Armor. Light armor gives you a choice of saving 5 gp to avoid the Stealth disadvantage, so that’s a non-decision. It’s 5 gp. It’s nothing. There’s no reason to take the penalty. Not for the same AC. It’s in the Medium armors that we actually see a tradeoff between stealth and protection that actually DOES drive a cost. At first level, a Medium armor wearer faces a choice. Basically, they have to choose between Disadvantage on Stealth or an AC that’s lower by one point. For the same price. And that’s actually an interesting tradeoff. Clerics will choose the scale mail and rangers MIGHT go either way depending on how they want to play. And barbarians might have to factor that into their choice depending on how they are playing and whether their unarmored defense thing is better or not. So, three different barbarians might choose three different suits of armor that is the best for them. Isn’t THAT interesting?

Once we get into Heavy Armor, we see one more driver of choice that isn’t really a driver of choice at all. That’s the Strength requirement thing. The heaviest heavy armors require a particular Strength score. If you don’t have that Strength score, your speed is reduced by 10 feet. Now, that’s an interesting soft choice. You might decide being slow is worth it even if you don’t have the Strength for it. And I could see that being an issue for paladins, depending on whether they focus their ability scores on spellcasting and paladin abilities first. But for fighters, they are likely to focus on Strength if they are planning to be heavy armor users anyway. Still, it does do some good.

The problem is, to really drive choice, there needs to be more differentiation between different types of armor. And the differentiation has to make logical sense and it has to be likely to impact a broader swath of characters. And that brought me around to the idea of Athletics and Acrobatics.

Athletics is all about climbing and jumping and swimming. And Acrobatics is about maintaining balance. And in a campaign focused on exploring difficult, tropical environments and ancient ruins and also on sailing from place to place, those things can be pretty significant.

So, now I had several factors for armor to tinker with. AC, of course, Stealth, and Strength. Those things already existed. And I added the Swimming thing and also Athletics and Acrobatics. And there was also whether the armor was Cuttable and whether it could be Layered.

Now, I realize that is all pretty specific to MY campaign. But, those specific rules fell away a little once I started tweaking. I’m just showing you the process.

Tabulating Armor

Okay, so now I have the basic properties that armor in my world will have, right? It’ll be Light, Medium, or Heavy. It’ll have an AC that might include a Dexterity modifier (as determined by its type). It might provide disadvantage on Stealth, Athletics, or Acrobatics. And it might impose disadvantage specifically on swimming or make swimming impossible. It might be possible to cut the armor off with an action. And it might be possible to wear the armor over or under another suit of armor.

So, I have the basis for a simple armor table. And that means it’s time for my favorite thing in the world: making a table in Excel!

Now, the question is, how many options do there really need to be? And here’s where I sound crazy. Because the answer is “not many.” What? After all that crap I said about agency and interesting choices and stuff?

Look at it logically. At first level, your choice of armor is based almost entirely on your proficiency. Now, certain characters are going to have concerns. Specifically, Stealth and Athletics/Acrobatics. Light and Medium armor wearers are going to choose between Stealthy armor and not Stealthy armor. Heavy armor wearers are not going to care about Stealth. But they might care about Athletics/Acrobatics and whether they can swim in the stuff or whether they want to risk cutting it free and consigning it to a watery grave if they fall in the water. And that’s pretty much it. The reason to differentiate armor further than that is to help players decide when to upgrade their armor and what to upgrade.

See, what I’m trying to do now is to establish the baseline for armor. Or more specifically for Light armor, Medium armor, and Heavy armor. Light armor has an AC of 11 or 12 – plus Dexterity modifier, of course. That’s what’s in the PHB. It might impede Stealth or it might not. But what’s weird is that you can outright buy armor at first level that has an AC 12 that either impedes Stealth or not. And I don’t care for that. So, the baseline for Light armor is either AC 11 or AC 12 with disadvantage on Stealth. If you want to be a sneak – which allows you to basically remove yourself as a target when used effectively – you trade a point of AC. That seems fair.

For Medium armor, the armors you can buy at first level run from AC 12 to AC 14 – plus up to a +2 Dexterity modifier. And the 14 impedes Stealth. It’s a bit weird to have three choices. Especially when one of those choices is basically a cheaper equivalent of the best Light armor. I mean, I understand a character with a high Dexterity who can wear Medium armor will choose the best Light armor instead of the worst Medium armor – and I understand they will pay more – but that seems like an odd sort of corner case. I guess I could see a ranger agonizing over that choice. But it doesn’t seem worth keeping around. So, the baseline for Medium armor is AC 13 or AC 14 with disadvantage on Stealth.

As for Heavy armor, the baseline there is a bit stranger. There are two types of affordable armor at first level. One has an AC of 14 and one has an AC of 16. The difference is one has a small Strength requirement (13), and I can’t see that being a big issue. Especially since the better one is given away for free to fighters and paladins. No one is going to end up with that first suit of armor. So the baseline armor for 1st-level has an AC of 16 and a Strength requirement of 13. And that’s fine.

And now we need to think through our other properties. Acrobatics/Athletics, Swimming, Cutting, and Layering. Except there really isn’t much to think about. You can’t swim in heavy armor. And heavy armor will impede Acrobatics and Athletics. It’s Cuttable, so it can be layered over other armors. And the lightest armor should be layered under other armors. Right? That’s all just logic.

At least, that’s how I was thinking at that point.

And so, we end up with five armors that are available to starting characters. Five baseline armors. And they look like this.

Upgrades and Ranks

Now, from those baselines, you might notice an interesting pattern. At least, I did. Light and Medium Armors offer a trade between a point of AC and disadvantage on Stealth. And that implies that adding a negative trait to a suit of armor can be bought off with a point of AC. Presumably, if there were positive traits, they could be added by sacrificing a point of AC. And this sets up a basic formula. Each type of armor has a baseline: an AC and a number of traits that you might consider properties of that weight class of armor. If you add or remove traits and fiddle with the AC appropriately, you can create equivalent suits of armor.

For example, take the Heavy armor. The baseline for Heavy armor is AC 16, Str 13, disadvantage on Stealth, Athletics, Acrobatics, and no Swimming. If I remove some of the negative properties from the armor and balance them with a reduction to AC, I can say the two suits of armor are “equal” in some way. Right?

But now I have to confess that not all traits are created quite equally. It seems to me that the Athletics/Acrobatics trait is enough to be “worth” a reduction in AC. So I can create a suit of Heavy armor with an AC of 15 that doesn’t impede Athletics and Acrobatics. Easy peasy.

Now, what if I f$&% with the formula. What if I don’t simply keep the armors roughly “equal.” If I take a suit of armor and just flat out increase the AC by 1, I have a suit of armor that’s “one better.” That makes sense. But that also means I could make armor that’s “one better” simply by dropping a negative trait. Or “one worse” by adding a negative trait. I could make, for example, a slightly crappy suit of Light armor by adding a trait like “impedes swimming.”

So, by making those basic tweaks, I suddenly have seven armors that should all be affordable at first level. Granted, that crappy suit of Light armor should be slightly cheaper. But that’s a fine detail.

Now, those are our baseline armors. Our starting armors. It’s easy to imagine how we might build on those armors simply by increasing the AC bonus and fiddling with the various traits. But we don’t want to go f$&%ing crazy. We want to be systematic. Because, it might occur to you – as it occurred to me – that there is already a sort of system of ranking armor by upping the AC by one. You know all of those boring magical suits of armor that just provide a +1 to AC or +2 to AC or whatever? Magic items? Those are basically just upgraded normal armor. And there’s no reason they have to even be magical. Let’s say we have a suit of “leather armor” that grants AC 12 + Dex modifier and imposes disadvantage on Stealth? What’s the difference between a suit of, say, “studded leather armor” that grants AC 13 + Dex modifier and imposes disadvantage on Stealth and a suit of “leather armor +1”? Nothing really. Not for practical purposes.

Purely from a mechanical perspective, there isn’t MUCH difference between a suit of magical armor and a suit of nonmagical armor if the numbers are equal. I mean, sure, there’s the detect magic thing and the identify thing, but those aren’t THAT big. And those magic items are boring anyway, right? No GM likes giving out a suit of armor +1 over any other item and no player gets excited over armor +1 the same way they’d get excited about armor that grants fire resistance or some s$&% like that. Right?

But it does provide us with a handy way of measuring our armor. We can call the current suits of armor Rank 0. It’s the equivalent of normal, mundane, starter armor. Rank 1 armor would be the equivalent of +1 armor. Rank 2 armor would be +2 armor. And so on.

Let’s try to make some Rank 1 armor. All we have to do, for example, is take our Rank 0 Light armors – both of them – and increase their AC by 1.

See? Easy.

And we could easily populate an entire armor list for as many ranks as we want just by doing that. Now, my campaign is going to cover levels 1 to 12. And according to the DMG, players might find +3 armor by that time. Which means I need armors to cover at least those ranks for the players to buy.

But I don’t JUST want to copy and paste all the armors and increase the AC by 1 each time. That’s a little formulaic. I want to leave some gaps. Some holes. For example, for my Light armors, I might do something like this.

Notice that I’ve only got one Rank 2 option. It’s an upgrade if you’ve been wearing the “12 + Dex, Stealthy” option, but NOT if you don’t care about Stealth and you’ve already got the “13 + Dex, impedes Stealth” option. You might skip that upgrade and wait until you can afford the “14 + Dex, Stealthy” option.

It’s a big mistake to fill every blank. Gaps make things interesting.

For the same reason, we might decide that the best armor can’t be layered under.

Let’s play with the Medium armor. First of all, I create two Rank 1 options that are basically just upgrades to the Rank 0 options. But then I create only one Rank 2 option. And it impedes Stealth. Unlike Light armors which reach a point of quality above which there are no options that impede Stealth, Medium armors reach a point where they are just too heavy. They all impede Stealth. There just aren’t any high-quality Medium armor options for stealthy people. Which is fine. Because that creates a space in which magical items will be valuable even if all they provide is a numerical bonus. A stealthy ranger who has been wearing the best Medium armor he can get without wrecking his stealth will actually get excited about a suit of magical Light armor. He’d trade DOWN the weight of the armor to upgrade. Neat, right?

Notice, though, that I have two options for Rank 3 Medium armor. Both of them impede Stealth. But one of them trades a point of AC for disadvantage on Athletics and Acrobatics. And so we can envision another break in the upgrade path. Clerics who don’t care about mobility will upgrade to the largest AC. Barbarians and rangers who do care about mobility will probably sacrifice the point of AC and upgrade to the more mobile option.

I also decided that all of the higher quality Medium armors disadvantage swimming. Strictly speaking, it does deviate from the formula a little bit. But disadvantage on Swimming by itself doesn’t feel like it’s really worth a whole point of AC at this point. Yeah. I said feel.

The thing is, you can get too wrapped up in the math of all of this s$&%. You can convince yourself that perfect balance is the way to go. It isn’t. It really, really isn’t. The numbers in D&D aren’t that precise and yours shouldn’t be either. I’ve learned, over the years, to trust my feelings. And I’ve learned to fiddle with things a little bit, to leave some wobble in the balance. Because interesting choices happen when things are fuzzy and unclear. If the players can do the math to figure out the best of everything, they aren’t making choices. Choices happen when things are hard to compare.

Anyway, as I look at the table, my gut feeling is that the AC range on the Medium Armors is a bit too big. So, I reduce all the ACs by 1. I’m using the f$&%ing force here.

Speaking of using the force, it’s time to create the Heavy Armors.

I decide there’s only one Rank 1 option. But I do two of each other Rank. And it SHOULD be pretty straightforward. Except this: notice one weird option. Can you spot it? There’s one option that is just outright better than the other option of the same rank. It’s that armor that has the same AC with a lower Strength requirement and better mobility. Strange, right? Yeah. It is. Just like it’s okay to have some slightly crappy options and some options that are incomparable, it’s also okay to have unusual options that are just flat-out better.

Finishing the Table

And so, ultimately, we have an armor table that looks like this.

Nice, right? All we need to do is name our armors and set the costs, right? Well, naming the damned things doesn’t matter. I know some people THINK it matters. Some people THINK an armor table should start with a list of armors and then the invention of stats for each armor based on what that armor is supposed to be. But that’s crazy. The armor table STARTS with the stats and then you invent names and descriptions for the armors based on the properties you’ve already given them. The names don’t f$&%ing matter.

As for the costs, well, obviously, we need to do a bit of work. We need to figure out approximately when we want the characters to be able to afford upgrades – as in what level – and then figure out their treasure acquisition based on the treasure tables in the DMG – or our own system. But we should be able to do that pretty easily, right? After all, the DMG tells us when +1 and +2 and +3 items should be available and how much they are worth and how much treasure players get based on their encounters and so on. I mean, it’s a good thing we have all that information. We’d be in real trouble if it weren’t there. Or if it were a bunch of random, inconsistent garbage that some game designer s$&% into the DMG just to fill pages.

Okay. The wealth question is a bit more complicated than it might first appear. But it’s not the only problem we have to solve before we can finish this table. The other problem is that this table is utter crap. It’s garbage. It’s complete s$&%. Why? Because it’s KLUDGE. That’s why.

What’s kludge? Kludge is when you have a solution to a problem that is actually more complicated than the problem itself. All of those ugly columns for different specific skills and combinations? Those aren’t elegant. And they are a pain to record and keep track of. And they don’t get us a whole lot. I mean, yes, they work okay for a seafaring campaign. But what if you aren’t running a seafaring campaign. What if you want to differentiate your armor differently? Or provide other tradeoffs? What if I want to have spiky looking orc armor as one of the upgrades and it provides a bonus to Intimidation checks or a penalty to Persuasion because people who wear it look like the Dark Lord of F$&%ing Mordor? The problem is, you’d need to add a whole new column to the table. And what about magic items and magic properties? Could we bring them into this system too? Completely?

The answer is yes. Before we start setting costs and naming our armor, we’re going to take this table and elegant the motherloving f$&% out of it. We’re actually going to end up with a table that is, in some ways, SIMPLER than the one in the PHB. And one that gives us lots more options. We just need to borrow a mechanic from weapons. And we’ll do that in the second part of this article.

Don’t worry. The second part is shorter.

36 thoughts on “Drowning in Armor Systems (Part 1)

  1. I love this. I’m already thinking of how I can incorporate it into a game I’m running that will involve oceans, deserts, mountains, and more, and as a result I’m really looking forward to the second article on simplifying all this, because by god I don’t want that many columns.

    Really though I never realized I hated the armor options until now. I also like how making these specific choices between different ability combinations allows plays to “customize” their armor too, and make it feel more personal.

  2. I thought the crappiest versions that no PC would ever willingly choose was for NPC creation: the clubs, the padded armor, etc., but in retrospect I doubt the creators put that much thought into it.

    Either way, I love the system.

    • Yep, there are still little fragments of simulation for its own sake hidden in 5e, I think. I suppose ring mail is an option for low-level barding on mounts due to the cost multiplier, but I’m pretty sure it exists for “realism” rather than for a real game design decision.

  3. I liked reading through this process of thought.

    The thing about names being unimportant made me chuckle because Angry is putting importance on the game side of the system than the game designers did.

    Taking a name and creating an armor that fits the name is more in line with simulation. Ultimately, this is a game first and as such it makes more sense to setup Angry’s way and pay attention to how the armor fits in the game.

    • Ultimately, I DO care about both. My names ended up being sensible, flavorful, thematic, and also followed a consistent pattern such that an attentive player could tell on sight whether a piece of armor was light, medium, or heavy.

  4. So, you’re going Pathfinder route?

    Different bonuses/materials have flat costs and features GM can mix and match to add them?

    Feel like 3.5 had similar system, but Pathfinder codified it better. But my memory isn’t trustworthy.

    • Seems likely given the remark about weapon qualities.

      Swimable = Buoyant = Light
      Stealthy = Non-jangly = Finesse
      Non-swimable = Sinkable = Heavy
      Cutable = Easy-Doff = Versatile
      Athletics\Acrobatics = Bulky = 2-handed

      Or what the f@~k ever.

      For bonus points you could add in material types associated with the traits\properties\qualities.
      Even tie those materials\construction techniques to the game world.

      Coral armor is always Boyant.
      Leather armor is always Layerable.
      Black Iron armor is always Sinkable.
      Mithril armor is always Stealthy.

      Or whatever. Then when you tell a player they see some dudes wearing Mithril Chain they’ll know (to a degree) what they’re about. Similarly if they run in to some dudes wearing Rank 2 armor they might even be able to estimate how powerful the NPCs jerks are based on the equivalent level of “magic” item.
      That might be a nice feature too.

      And added Ranks get you more slots to assign to qualities.

      Then you can roll your own Heavy Finesse armor with +1 AC, it’s just a Rank 2 armor.

    • The 3.5 system is almost the same as the Pathfinder system, at least in terms of purchasing armor.

      It certainly seems like Angry is moving towards the modularity of the 3.5 armor enhancement system, in which case, why not copy it essentially verbatim?

      • Because of need to adapt it, most likely. Copypasting across editions is dangerous, and if you don’t know what you’re doing, you can ultimately ruin your game with the wrong mechanics.

  5. If there are some French speaking people here (I’m one, in case my written English wouldn’t have made you guess it), there is a nice RPG out there called “Donjon the Naheulbeuk” (some of you may have heard of the audio series, but there is a game based on that universe). It’s a quite simple game, so it’s great for new players and new GMs, and a great deal of fun if you enjoy universe that don’t take things to seriously.

    I’m talking about it because one aspect of that game that is very well-made is the equipment system, which is full of options and significant choices: there is a built-in variety of armor and weapons quality (rubbish, basic, correct, good and masterwork), following a mostly consistent pattern in terms of cost, stats and bonus/malus. And most characters start the game quite poor, often with suboptimal weapons (depending of their wealth throw, they may start with only rubish-grade material: I had a level-1 warrior who was a peasant self-proclaimed knight, equipped with rusty scavenged armor pieces). And weapons or armor costs quite a lot, especially correct-grade and above, so there are a lot of decision making for players: do I spend all my money on a quality sword, or do I upgrade my rusty chainmail? Do I buy a single quality armor piece, or a whole set of inferior plate armor?

    So, loot gets quite an important part of leveling. Compared to DnD, character progression is less centered around XP and skill progression (in fact, a lot less, you get 1D4-1D6 HP per level, on a base of 20-35, +1 one one of your main stats, and a minor skill each three level or so.) So money plays a big role (you must consider also the fact a lot of magic items can be bought, although they are expensive). So instead of complex character skill progression, you have a really fleshed-out equipment system. If this is the kind of thing you might enjoy, you could check it out:

    • I have followed the audio series for a while in the early years, maybe ten years ago. Considering it is quite humoristic and often silly, did they include that feel in the RPG by building around that idea or can it be played like any RPG ?

      I might check it out if I can find time to do so, sounds pretty interesting !

      • Oh damn yes they included the feeling. It’s made by the author of the series, and it expands the original universe a lot, with many references to the audio material. Then, it doesn’t fit quite much for some serious themed campaign (it isn’t impossible, but that would mean playing around one of the strength of the game, which is its strong humorous and absurd tone).

        Good thing is, it’s really accessible to new players and GM: rules are quite simple, character generation is easy to understand for players, and all classic archetypes of the fantasy genre are present, so it is not too unfamiliar even for people not knowing Naheulbeuk universe. If you want to introduce friends to tabletop RPG, I haven’t found a better introductory game. And it’s all free.

  6. Awesome! Part of what I worry about is unbalancing things, but the trade-off idea helps drag the overall AC below an ideal target. Thanks, Can’t wait for the next.

  7. Wait, part one? How many parts can you possibly need to write a system for drowning in armo—oh. Oh right, I get it now.

    Yes, I actually thought the title meant it was a series about drowning while wearing armour.

    • It is that too, though. The whole basis of the table was figuring out how to stop the heavy armour wearers from drowning when they fall into the water. You see, it’s a clever double title.

      • Not really, that was just the starting motivation. But yes, the title is a pun. Puns tend to fall flat if you only notice one meaning.

    • I was the other way around. I originally thought the series name was about having too many armour systems, and I only realised the pun when I reached the end of the article. 🙂

  8. I’ve done exactly the same study for my game, but didn’t leave gaps and you’re right that it does add something so I’ll put some. That will also allow me to remove some weapon names that were going on the weird side (flying guillotine anyone?)

  9. Excellent. Curious how you feel about the weapon system now. Always wished for lower quality and higher quality weapons but I’m not yet confident enough to to brew that up myself.

  10. I’ve considered doing something along these lines myself, but I prefer to keep to existing systems where possible, so I was just gonna use the PHB table but assign extra meaning to existing features.
    For example, the Stealth column would also apply Disadvantage to Acrobatics and whatnot. I figure if it’s too clunky to sneak around in then it’s too clunky to do jumps and flips in.
    For Swimming I might use the same column, or possibly base it on the Medium/Heavy designation.

    It bugs me that Heavy Armour is nearly always better if you can wear it.
    An Archery-based Fighter would most likely prefer Plate to Leather, and that just feels wrong to me.
    My own Life Cleric had a measly 8 Strength and still wore Plate. Although it helped that being a Halfling meant I was small enough to ride around on the Ranger’s pet spider and not worry about having a Speed of 15ft. 🙂

  11. Very interesting subject. I can’t help but feel that a lot of these issues come down to dms just not paying enough attention to common sense. Generally, swimming shouldn’t work in ANY armor. 40 pounds of leather is going to sink you as fast as 100 pounds of steel. As a player even, the first thing I do when I get on a ship in d&d is take off and stash my armor. Generally, if people are going into underwater situations they should be, at most, in their clothes, and wielding a dagger or short sword. I think one of the biggest inbuilt choices is being missed if you aren’t asking your pcs i they are taking their armor off on water. This is an ancient problem for humanity: Roman and Greek marines used to load into a ship in full battle gear knowing damn well their armor would take them to the bottom if they fell off, it’s no different than one being pretty much screwed if one fell over in the middle of a horrible battle field. It was part of the world of war. I honestly feel a big part of the magic of Roleplaying is when you force people to have disadvantages in certain situations. I definitely see where your going with these changes and it’s a really cool toolkit, and wonderful food for thought. I might take the opposite approach tho: at character creation I’d say “hey, this is a world full of water, and you’ll be doing a lot of sailing; very carefully consider building a character who is armor-dependant, it’s going to be inconvenient for you”.. then it’s up to them to decide if they want to take in that challenge or not. But like you say, I’m free to run my games any wrong way I want

    • I think you’re right that a good DM might not need a system for this. But I’m not one of those good DMs!! Remembering is hard.

      I say there’s two components: player buy-in, and psychological reward of better items without breaking balance. … Up frontness covers the former, but leaves the latter up to DM experience.

    • I think you and Angry have the same goal (although you disagree on whether you can swim in Light armour), but your method relies on a “common sense” adjudication by the GM at the table. Not all GMs are comfortable or skilled enough to make that ruling, and some players may feel shafted that their characters are less effective than the rules say they should be.
      Angry’s method attempts to create a clear structure that empowers players to make informed decisions, whilst also remaining fair and fun.

  12. That’s neat! I’m writing a modified version of the D&D rules to my home campaign, and two things that I find awful in the core game are the wealth guidelines and the lack of variety in the armor table. I’m excited to see what you’re going to do next, and I might do something similar.

  13. It’d be interesting to hear your opinion on the equipment system of Starfinder, and how it flat out upgrades weapons and armors in a similar way you do. Interestingly, it also has a minimum level requirement, so even in a “you inherited your parents’ money” setting, you can’t go full 12d8 Plasma Cannon at level 3.

  14. You never think about how many armor options could exist until you’re creating them. That high-quality of detail will do the marketing for you. You know there’s commitment when there’s a table involved. I salute you.

  15. One of the things I really like about this system is that it does something worthy with the flavor of Masterwork Weapons and Armor. That’s a very rich trope-space, and it’s one that D&D has really whiffed on executing. So kudos for that!

  16. I’m new here. I was googling for initiative trackers because I’m a new DM and I’m reading up on Pathfinder (HumbleBundle) and after reading your post on how DMs make initiative far harder than it needs to be. I think I’ll actually try it once before I go overboard with the init stuff. I had to see if you had other amazing writings and apparently you do. Going straight to Part 2 because I didn’t anticipate reading all this and now I’m hooked.

  17. I don’t understand… what is the purpose of keeping the option that’s just flat out worse?

    Having holes, or options that are better value for money than others make sense, by why have anything that’s not on the Pareto frontier? That does not result in interesting choices, and to me seems to just clutter up the table.

  18. Scuba equipment weighs about 50 pounds. Field plate armor weighs about 50 pounds.

    If you can’t swim in plate armor, then how do we have scuba divers?

    • Scuba divers also use a combination of inflatable buoyancy control devices and ballast to control their buoyancy. They need the BCD to counteract the weight of their equipment and then use ballast to minimize the amount that they have to use the BCD to remain stationary underwater. They are not remotely comparable.

      • Also, as I said in the article, I’m not interested in hosting an argument about the “realism” of swimming in armor. I give no f$&%s about what anyone thinks they know about it. Since people can’t get past that, I’m closing comments. I’m tired of moderating that BS.

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