richardthinks (richardthinks) wrote,

Not for Civilians: Armour as a Signifier in AD&D.

If you have no more than a passing interest in character class divisions in old editions of D&D, you may want to skip this

Over on Grognardia I was involved in the following exchange;
“That is, the debate seems to be between agility/ability and armour: the fighter gets the latter and it cripples him for the former, turning him from a rogueish adventurer into a knight.”
I don’t think armor needs to cripple any other abilities. I don’t think armor is more than a minor point in this discussion.
I have to respectfully disagree: I think it’s an important point, but one that takes some teasing out. My point is that wearing armour is a complex business in AD&D 1e and, I presume, in other early editions of the game, and that it’s not adequately covered by the encumbrance rules.

In AD&D the ability to wear armour as part of one’s class/archetype function is a privilege: one that distinguishes fighters and clerics from the rest. I argue that as such, it works both as a practical support for the fighting supremacy of the fighter (ie it directly supports his class function) and as a sign that defines the class. Armour is fundamental to D&D fighting – it lowers your chance of being hit, increasing your fighting prowess and survival chances directly, allowing you to engage more enemies and remain in combat, specifically melee, for longer, preserving your hit points and maximizing your chances of doing damage through repeated attack rolls. That is, it extends your ability to do what the fighter is made to do: engage in combat. Fighters, as wearers of armour, are therefore cast in the role of tanks:* when combat is the core of the dungeon, the enjoyment of playing a fighter is that one gets to occupy that core, while the specialist thief and magic user have their contributions very deliberately limited, either through lower hit points and lesser armour (in the case of the thief) or by the one-casting-per-day provision, combined with a ban on armour-wearing for MUs.

Why can’t thieves and MUs wear armour? In both cases, because it interferes with their own class functions; ie, because it contradicts the concepts that rule the classes. The thief is pictured climbing walls and sneaking silently, which he can’t do while “clanking about in armour.” The MU is pictured engaging in a kind of energetic ballet while spell-casting (even though that’s not how the somatic components of specific spells are often written) - any kind of armour is seen as anathema to the freedom of movement required (as is the carrying of any weapon larger than a dagger – I’m not sure I get the in-game rationalization for that, though, and I don’t have the books ready to hand to check). Note: these provisions are written into the class rules, without reference to the encumbrance tables: conceivably, a strong thief might be able to climb a wall in chainmail, or open a chest in plate (like modern bomb-disposal experts**), but because they’re thiefly skills, they’re off limits. In each case the apparel allowed helps signify the class, and limits the ability of the other classes to step on the fighter’s toes: the thief wears leather (because he can, and because it fits the image of light protection needed when going over the spiky tops of railings) and is not insane to try backstabbing, given that he stands some chance of surviving the one round of combat that might result from failure in its attempt, the MU wears nothing of significance and is therefore very clearly excluded from close combat unless he uses magical means (shield) to buy a temporary ticket to the fray – and even then, all his important weapons are ranged ones.

Given the iron boundaries between classes in D&D and the association of classes with archetypes (which I know James favours), class identity seems pretty important: a class is not merely a job, it’s also a style of play, and, moreover, a division of labour/interaction in the party; a specific set of encounters for which the character is designed (and which exists with the character in a dialectical relationship: it may be that traps existed before the thief, but the invention of the thief adjusts the possibilities of the trap). The specialization of the fighter is harder to see than that of the MU or, especially, the thief, because combat is very much the default activity of the game and, of necessity, everyone fights. It’s still important, though, and just as thieves change the shape of the gameworld by heping to proliferate and ramify lock/trap obstacles, I’d see the inclusion of plate mail (a high renaissance/early modern armour type) in what appears otherwise to be a medieval setting as a kind of adjustment to accommodate the most tank-like, Malory-inspired-knight-like conception of the man-at-arms – to maximize the distinction of fighterliness.

All of this makes lightly-armoured swashbucklers hard to handle with D&D rules: they’re certainly fighters, per James’ broad inclusive definition, but they’ve foregone the rational decision to maximize their life expectancy. How can such characters be accommodated in D&D? I frankly don’t know. The setting cries out against it. Even the Ranger is a fool not to clank about in plate.

So no, I don’t think armour is a minor point: I think it’s part of the essence of D&D as written… and an impediment to a broad, inclusive working of pulp-fantasy tropes into D&D games. I’d also note that C&S, which was written ostensibly to be D&D’s “more realistic cousin” (a quixotic effort if ever there was one), having taken small steps away from the class/archetype architecture of D&D, included a skill - “wearing armour” – for its professional fighting men, both to help distinguish them as the game’s warrior elite and to provide a historical gloss for the distinction, stating that metal armour was just too heavy and cumbersome for those not trained to it from an early age. I think any pulp fantasy reworking of D&D will have to tussle with the issues raised by armour, and consciously decide whether to embrace D&D’s curious hybrid practical/cinematic synthesis or to go with visual genre conventions and come up with mechanics for getting around the masked, metallic image - perhaps something like the monk's "natural armour class" ability, if that's not too big a stretch.

* Or, perhaps better, ships of the line, while the thief and more, the assassin, is analogous in some ways to a frigate: able to break out of the line of battle, sneak around flanks and deliver surprise attacks, but vulnerable when exposed to direct fire from heavy opponents.
** OK, this may not be fair: Kevlar would probably be classified as a kind of magic leather.

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