Armor is a staple of most tabletop roleplaying games with some kind of combat system. The point of Armor is that you can purchase an item that will passively improve your defense. In D&D Armor improves your Armor Class which makes it harder for enemies to hit you at all in its binary “roll high” resolution system. In Dark Heresy the Imperial Guardsman of the group will be wearing armor that gives around 4 damage reduction – though many weapons in Dark Heresy outright ignore points of armor through their Penetration value, so this more complicated than it sounds. In Exalted, Armor directly reduces points of lethal or bashing damage inflicted on the character, or both at once. There’s many more examples of course. Lately though, I’ve felt kind of down on Armor, and have been looking for ways to remove its presence from my own designs.
I wanted to think out loud a little about removing armor as we know it from tabletop RPGs, and how best to do it. Armor is definitely a strong element in the aesthetic of many characters in our games. The Space Marines of Warhammer are known for their incredible Power Armor, near-impregnable to standard weaponry. In fantasy we have armored Knights, and the staple of the heavily armored character who has focused on shrugging off lethal blows is usually paired with a heavier frame and stronger, more visible armor. We also have lighter armor, which gives minimal protection to sly, quick Roguish characters, who would feel encumbered and inhibited wearing heavier, more protective armor than their own.
But armor has sometimes felt like a third wheel when it comes to gauging, in terms of the rules, the balance of Offense and Defense in games. Many Games have a health system and unique character classes that are expected to use certain types of equipment. Do we lose anything by expecting that the Space Marine will always wear heavy powerful armor, and simply modeling that by giving the Space Marine more robust health to counter the damage inflicted upon them? Wouldn’t it be simpler if we baked in the light armor of the sly quick characters in some other intrinsic part of their overall stat package?
Does Armor merit inclusion as an independent part of the system? I know some people who’ve talked about “Shopping List Fatigue” – how games that include deep armories tend to lose them because of all the combinations obfuscating what their character can ultimately do. It can be complicated balancing out Armor and Weaponry such that characters can feel protected and tough where wanted, but can still be harmed and challenged. It’s a tough balancing act between health and injury, and when you add extra layers that determine overall survivability, the mathematics behind it get murkier.
Armor could be written into health so it’s obvious survivability. The Space Marine, instead of having Unnatural Toughness times [a lot] and Armor [tons] and a hell of a lot of Wounds, could just have a hell of a lot of Wounds that directly represent how tough the character is. The role of Damage Reduction could exist but be lessened, and become a better trade-off. It’s pretty much assumed in many games your character will wear armor and if they don’t they’re pretty well dead. And sometimes even when characters don’t wear armor they’re given a choice to make that just up and gives them armor anyway. For example, in D&D 4e the Monk goes without armor, but gets bonuses that make it exactly as if he or she is wearing Armor. This preserves the game balance, but it really goes to show the thin veneer of relevance that Armor has, in my opinion. It’s a shopping list item everyone is expected to have, so why not just bake it in? Focus on balancing offense vs health; leave armor out of it.
13th Age seems to do this by having weapons and armor inside the character classes as well. It strikes me as a simpler system in which the offense and defense clashes are easier to suss out. On the face of it, we do lose something by having the Rogue character unable to get into bulky armor, or assuming the Space Marine always wears heavy armor. But we can get that back if we just give them character options unrelated to coin or quartermasters that they can take to switch up the numbers a bit and model those changes while retaining their identity – a Space Marine in any Armor could still be tough, just in certain degrees of tough; and a Rogue in any Armor could still be quick, just certain shades of quick (and tough).
Armor in tabletop games can sometimes have a constricting effect on gameplay because of how it’s modeled against dice. You’ll note that in most video games there is never a chance that Armor will prevent all the damage you’re taking, and much of what Armor does in the game mechanics is making HP last longer. Commander Shephard in Mass Effect can only go invulnerable through stacking on protective, active abilities, and never completely. Shephard’s Armor can be customized toward higher defense, but that essentially just gives more HP. In Skyrim the only way to completely block attacks is by parrying them actively with a shield or weapon, or using magic. Armor itself won’t blunt all the damage you’re receiving. In a lot of RPGs, however, it is harder to balance Armor because it can mean the enemy does nothing to you at all – in D&D it can be outright impossible for characters to fight heavily armored enemies stronger than them, even with large groups of characters, because it takes luck to land hits on them at all. In the Warhammer 40k RPGs, an enemy’s armor might be so huge that without specific armor-piercing weapons, it can be impossible to deal any damage to them. A lot of larger, powerful enemies fit this bill.
Of course, we can say the same for weapons. We can abstract weapons into the characters that use them – 13th Age does that too for example. I’m a personal fan of varied weapons. I feel that weaponry in games is a space that can be more active and interesting than Armor is. A lot of games already do this with weapon keywords, special powers and abilities keyed off specific weapon use, and archetypes like the Rogue that uses light weapons. I would say that the Rogue’s use of light weapons is a lot more interesting and active a design space than the assumption that the Rogue must wear light armor. I think weapons can be much more defining of what a character plays like than the Armor that is worn. Somewhere out there though, someone is probably making the opposite argument. And I think in that case it can still be valid. In fact I’d like to see a system where your Armor defines you and your weapons are baked in. I feel like doing the opposite myself, right now though.