Science fiction and science fantasy RPGs tend to focus a lot of energy on defining societies by the level of technology that they’ve achieved. They have the word “science” in the name of their genre, and science = technology, right?
We don’t see much similar discussion of technology in fantasy games. Leaving aside the question of magic for now, the role of technology—chiefly military tech—in FRPGs such as D&D and Pathfinder might deserve a second look. To warriors, technology was every bit as important 1,000, 2,000 or 5,000 years ago as it is now.
Consider just a few examples:
● By leveraging a combination of iron weapons and advanced siege engines, the Assyrians dominated their bronze-armed neighbors.
● With their 6-foot-long, iron-tipped spears, Greek hoplites could stab right through the wicker shields of their Persian foes, while the short Persian spears couldn’t penetrate the Greeks’ shields of bronze.
● Quick-firing English longbows swept the French decks clear of slow-firing crossbowmen at the battle of Sluys.
● The Renaissance knight, plated in steel from head to toe and riding a similarly armored horse, was essentially invulnerable to anyone who wasn’t armed with weapons specifically designed to defeat such a foe.
How do RPGs portray all of this? Mostly, they don’t, at least not anymore.
The interactions between weapons and armor were big concerns in the early years of D&D, as evidenced by countless variants that appeared in fanzines and small press publications, by competing games such as Runequest and Chivalry & Sorcery that promised more “realistic” combat, and by the infamous weapons-vs-armor table in the original Players Handbook. This interest in hardware grew out of D&D’s wargame roots. It came straight out of Chainmail, which was literally a wargame that served as D&D’s very first combat rules.
By the early 1980s, most players were already ignoring AD&D’s confusing and unwieldy weapon-vs-armor table, reflecting D&D’s growing appeal outside the wargame community. (That’s aside from the table’s cumbersomeness and the fact that it made no sense when the enemy was any sort of monster that didn’t wear actual armor.) In 2nd Edition, that table was reduced from an entire page to 11 lines by broadly classifying weapons as bludgeoning, piercing, or slashing, and its use was officially made optional. The three damage types survived into 3rd Edition (and live on in Pathfinder) but lost their interactions with armor; they matter only where select monsters are concerned. The distinctions disappeared entirely in D&D 4E, and if I were to make a prediction, I’d say we’re unlikely to see a comeback next season.
The question that remains is this: has anything has been lost? I expect that here in 2012, 95% of fantasy roleplayers would answer with a resounding no. I’m sure they’d offer a host of reasons, all of which would boil down to “our chief interest in roleplaying lies elsewhere.” That’s an entirely legitimate response that I’m perfectly on board with.
But even though I’d answer no to that question, I don’t think my no would resound. Maybe that’s because despite my long involvement with RPGs I’m still a wargamer, too. My friends and I had tremendous fun with that ridiculous table on page 38 of the Players Handbook, and even with puzzling our way through what it meant to fight as “3 Men or Hero –1, armored foot” vs. giant wolves that fight as light horse. We attacked the Man-to-Man Melee Table on page 41 of Chainmail like cryptologists deconstructing an Enigma machine. If you were marching off to do battle with bandits who wore studded leather armor, then you’d best sling a halberd or a two-handed sword across your back. Why? Because the table on page 38 gave those weapons the biggest advantage against studded leather, that’s why!
Yeah . . . it does sound pretty silly, now that I think about it.
About the Author
Steve Winter has been involved in publishing Dungeons & Dragons in one capacity or another since 1981. Currently he’s a freelance writer and designer in the gaming field. You can visit Steve and read more of his thoughts on roleplaying games, D&D, and more at his website: Howling Tower. If you missed the first of these entries on the Kobold Quarterly site, please follow the Howling Tower tag to read more!