New Worlds: Armor

(This post is part of my Patreon-supported New Worlds series.)

Any attempt to discuss weapons without discussing armor is incomplete, because the two go hand-in-hand. The change in weapons over time isn’t just driven by changes in the technology used to make them and the social contexts in which they get used; it’s also driven by the changes in the defenses mustered against them. As armor gets good at defending against one kind of attack, people switch to attacks that will exploit some other weakness. (A point made very nicely by the movie The Dark Knight, when Batman gets chewed on by dogs.) And as attacks improve, armor will be developed to defend against those new threats.

All armor has to make choices — or rather, the people who make and wear it do. Kevlar vests can protect against bullets, but they’re not as effective against cutting attacks (though still better than ordinary clothing!). Chain mail deflects slashing fairly well, but piercing weapons can sometimes break the links open, and it doesn’t do a lot to help you against blunt-force trauma. Rigid protection like plate armor is good against practically every kind of attack, but it sacrifices mobility in some obvious ways: great for things like helmets, not so much for the parts of your body that need to bend. For those, you’ll need specially shaped pieces with the gaps filled by some more flexible material . . . and those gaps are going to be more vulnerable.

Weight is a non-trivial consideration, especially in the days before modern materials engineering let us develop strong, lightweight alloys and plastics. A suit of late medieval armor, with all the specialized pieces to protect different parts of the body, could weigh anywhere from thirty-five to fifty-five pounds. Now, this wasn’t the cumbersome, half-immobilized tin man of popular imagination; well-made armor allowed its wearer almost complete freedom of movement. But it’s one thing to be capable of doing a dive roll in your armor, and another to haul that extra weight through an entire battle: combat is incredibly tiring, even in short spurts, and weighing yourself down with a second skin made of steel just magnifies that.

Mind you, not all armor is made of steel. But leather armor isn’t really what games would like you to believe: while leather has been used in many parts of armor-making, as a backing for rigid pieces or a connector between different parts of the armor, on its own, it isn’t actually much use as protection. It works reasonably well against incidental dangers — that’s why motorcyclists often wear it — but even in hardened form, a deliberate attack can too easily cut right through it. Still better than nothing, of course, and the same is true of wooden armor, or the linothorax of ancient Greece. But on the whole, metal was historically your best bet for protection, whether it was bronze, iron, or steel.

But note the “well-made” qualifier a little while ago. Unlike a weapon, which can usually be handed off to another person without difficulty (six-fingered swordsmen notwithstanding), armor has to be fitted to the wearer, or it might hinder as much as it helps. Something like a chainmail shirt is reasonably forgiving in this regard, and to a limited extent you might be able to strap things on in a way that mitigates bad fit, but specialized plates that are too long or too short, too narrow or too wide, can only be altered with the assistance of a skilled blacksmith, or replaced entirely. So while your characters might loot the bodies of the dead for gear, they’re liable to wind up like barefoot John McClane in Die Hard: frustrated because what they’ve taken turns out not to fit.

Video games also lead one to believe that people regularly went around in armor all the time. In an active combat zone, that might be true, but bear in mind that armor is not clothing: it’s some combination of heavy, sweaty, bulky, noisy, chafing, or just plain uncomfortable, and it requires a fair bit of maintenance. (Which, come to think of it, is also true of some clothing . . .) It also suffers from the same social pressures as weapons, which is to say, wearing it in the wrong context will invite blowback: are you implying that you don’t trust the people around you?

As a result, people wear what they think they will need. Early police in London wore two pieces of protective gear: a rigid helmet to guard themselves against being coshed over the head, and a rigid collar to defend against garrotes. The technology available to them wasn’t bulletproof, and the calculation of armor’s detriments vs. the risk of being knifed came down on the side of not being armored. Modern sports gear protects the head if there’s a significant risk of traumatic brain injury (football, cycling), but not if that’s unlikely (tennis, swimming). Men may wear athletic cups to protect their groins, but women generally don’t, because a blow to that area is not nearly as painful if your reproductive organs aren’t external.

Credit where credit is due, though: for all that I’ve ragged on games for ignoring the realistic restrictions on weapons and armor, most editions of Dungeons and Dragons have included rules describing how long it takes to put on different types of armor, which is relevant if your characters find themselves needing to put it on in a hurry. And they also specify that sleeping in armor is not properly restful, to avoid players claiming their character just never takes theirs off.

Unless the armor is magic, of course. Speculative fiction opens up the door to say that some or all of these considerations could be solved, either through magic or through advanced technology. Your armor can weigh nothing and be invisible and allow you perfect mobility while also covering you from head to foot with no gaps (and not asphyxiating you in the process), because it’s made of some super-special material or consists of a forcefield.

But in contrast to my usual refrain of “we can do so many narratively interesting things with magic or technology!” . . . I’m not in favor of letting the speculative element act as a “get out of jail free” card on this. Perfect armor isn’t interesting, because it means there’s no risk or tradeoff the character has to accept. In one of the Pathfinder games I’m playing in, I could have paid for an enchantment on my character’s armor that let her get a full night’s sleep in just two hours — but that would have meant no more scenes where she nodded off on the shoulder of her vigilante ally/love interest because she was trying to live three lives at once. I liked those scenes, so I spent my character’s money on other things.

That isn’t to say you can’t invent some speculative twist to improve on your character’s armor. Just that it should still carry some kind of restriction, whether that’s a real-world one like weight or mobility, or a made-up one like directly drawing on the energy of the wearer for its effect. And remember that it should interface with the weapons they’re likely to encounter! The armor your characters wear should seek to defend against the most probable kinds of attack, while the weapons should seek to exploit the most probable vulnerabilities. It’s the original arms race, and it makes for good story.

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About Marie Brennan

Marie Brennan is a former anthropologist and folklorist who shamelessly pillages her academic fields for inspiration. She recently misapplied her professors' hard work to the short novel Driftwood and Turning Darkness Into Light, a sequel to the Hugo Award-nominated Victorian adventure series The Memoirs of Lady Trent. She is the author of several other series, over sixty short stories, and the New Worlds series of worldbuilding guides; as half of M.A. Carrick, she has written The Mask of Mirrors, first in the Rook and Rose trilogy. For more information, visit swantower.com, Twitter @swan_tower, or her Patreon.

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New Worlds: Armor — 17 Comments

  1. Another consideration that the Crusades discovered: Broken chain mail can carry infection into the wound beneath. That killed more warriors than the wounds themselves

    The Muslims’ many layers of silk sandwiched together with the warp of each layer at a different angle might not provide as much protection but they didn’t get infected as badly.

    • Ooof, yeah. Given how frequently in pre-modern war you got killed, not by the wound itself, but by infection afterward, trading protection now for cleaner wounds later might be a good plan . . .

  2. Pingback: New Worlds: Armor - Swan Tower

  3. General principle: Every item of protection leads to a sensory deficit of some nature. Football helmets have earholes… which are perfect places for a poignard or stilleto to slide through and stir things up a bit. But if you cover up the earholes, you can’t hear effectively — not commands, and especially not sneaky ninjas creeping up on you to introduce your armpits to one of those poignards (or your shoes to a torch). In the field, being unable to feel a shift in the wind because one is so well covered up can be fatal all by itself as smoke/vapors overcome the well-armored soul, or even just gets rained on and ruins other equipment or food (or spell materials/preparation).

    Then, too, there are all of the fine motor control issues. Picking a medieval lock while wearing thick leather gloves isn’t THAT difficult; but posit a more-modern lock and materials, and perhaps a roaring fire that is slightly warping the hinges, and things get Interesting.

    Finally, there’s a nasty countermeasure I resorted to as a DM thirty-odd years ago, when a new-to-the-group player insisted on his character importing a nuclear-powered impermeable shield from a parallel universe. Every game-hour, I secretly rolled for side effects of radiation poisoning because the player insisted the power source weighed only one gold piece… and that’s not enough to allow for any radiation shielding. His character got sicker and sicker for some reason.

    • I’ve picked enough modern locks to know that anything other than bare skin would make life more difficult, yeah — and that includes just having cold fingers. Which makes for an interesting conundrum with regard to gloves: would I rather lose sensitivity by covering my fingers, or by having them get cold and a little numb . . . ?

  4. As a dutiful little punk I happened to drag along my winterweight, bristly leather jacket (you just hang it off your left shoulder) on a stuffy August evening when a mugger came at me with a long knife. Well, he was not exactly sober but his knife ended up at the bottom of a nearby pond, himself ended up kicked in the groin, and the jacket ended up slightly slashed but wearable. Never underestimate leather and madwomen.

  5. “because it means there’s no risk or tradeoff the character has to accept”

    I was conflicted about my warforged. Bulled through some challenges in a nice way, but the disconnect from the regular pattern of life — sleep, eat — got to me. Not that our GM was charging for living expenses, so we all might as well have been video game characters.

    OTOH D&D arcane-like casters can’t wear armor at all and cast, so my psion was happy to shelter behind her version of mage armor. Which lasts long enough to justify being up when needed, though I did have to try to keep myself honest about how strong it would be by default.

    • Mage armor is fine by me, because it costs you a spell slot and only lasts for a while. But yeah, the more you disconnect from practical implications, the harder it is to feel a sense of connection with the character and the story.

  6. The absence of the trade off price is what irritates me about ‘magic’ in many poorly done fantasies. Its used as a universal solution and substitutes for interesting plot and world building. (Also the reason why I fine fantasies that don’t feature the lives of the rich and famous more appealing – the grit of non aristocratic life tends to encourage an appreciation of prices paid for short cuts – which is what such fantasies seem to use much of their ‘magic’ for.

    • That’s why I wish the basic level of gear were relevant for longer in D&D. I think it might actually be interesting to play a game where you really do have to scrape by for a while, deciding to forgo a better weapon because you really need some armor, and appreciating the little non-magical bonuses you get from certain items, before you get to the point where you can just throw vast piles of wealth at your problems.

  7. Armor is also a question of mobility versus defense. Supposedly the Mongols had light armor because they felt they couldn’t perform their horse archery and other riding feats with heavier armor. Then again, they chose armor that was specifically good for one purpose – defense against arrows. The multiple silk layers of the Mongols wouldn’t have protected against blows to the body, but given that the Parthian tactics of Mongol horse archers dictated they never actually close with the enemy, it made a lot of sense, as it only had to defend against arrows.

    • Exactly. You defend against the threats you are most likely to face, because defending against all threats equally just doesn’t work.

  8. …which leads to the calculations that covert groups like SEALS and ninjas had to do: on one hand, ease of agility/mobility and speed, vs on the other hand, protection against projectiles and attacks…vs on the gripping hand, how invulnerable they wanted to appear.