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Howling Tower: Lucern Hammer Beats Banded Mail

Howling Tower: Lucern Hammer Beats Banded Mail

(Artist: Roelof Jansz. van Vries)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!

11 thoughts on “Howling Tower: Lucern Hammer Beats Banded Mail”

  1. Another great article Steve. I always loved the concept of the weapon vs. armor table, even if I *never* actually used it. I believe there is still a place for modifying attacks by certain weapons against certain protections. It all depends on how in-depth one wants combat, and how much one wants to interpret realism vs. roll-play (as opposed to role-play).
    Even role-play would get a look in with weapon choice – the weapon a person carries says a lot about thier fighting style and the armor the same.
    As far as technology goes, the gunslinger in Pathfinder has definitely blown the whole weapon/armor debate wide open…I’m happy with black-powder and grapeshotte, but I’d probably draw the line at sub-machine guns…or kevlar for that matter…

  2. I would think this sort of tech gap could make for an interesting campaign, rather than a rules mechanic. The adventurers are sent out by the leader of the tech underdogs to find a way to even the game again. This brings the gap back into the story without making it an endless series of charts to be manipulated.

  3. I always want some weapons to be the tools they are made to be. The most recent example for me is the estoc, a weapon specifically meant for killing heavily-armored foes (and specced out in KQ#11, IIRC).

    Likewise, I love the bonuses for pikes and polearms against charging or mounted foes. They still get those against charging foes, but mounted combat–the whole reason that polearms reached their peak of development–is not all that well represented in D&D either.

    I guess I love the sense of simulation, but I want it to be quick and easy. Competing goals.

  4. The main problem with the AD&D WvA table is that it was redundant. It exaggerated what was already there to absurd levels.

    To wit: Most of the time (not all, but most), it just made things worse for poorly-armored characters and better for well-armored ones.

    Well: Duh! Plate mail’s AC is already great. What else do you really need?

    Only if all armor was considered mathematically equal by default would rules that this really be needful, in my opinion.

  5. I still use the AD&D 2e weapon type vs. armor tables. There’s not a lot of plate armor in my games due to technology level, so most people know to switch to bludgeoning weapons when confronted with chain.

    I do think that something has been lost, and I lament its loss! It’s an important element of verisimilitude that’s been sacrificed for speed, ease of play, and game balance. That altar has claimed many burnt offerings in the name of advancement.

  6. Back in the day my friends and I loved that table. I remember pouring over weapon descriptions and matching with the illustrations to see in my head if things really made sense. It gave a reason to use that short sword or rapier or holy water sprinkler rather than the standard longsword. However, sometimes stuff is giveth and sometimes taketh … now with the dex armor interaction rules armor use is a lot more realistic in most games I play in than the days when every single fighter had full plate on all of the time.

  7. I only started gaming in the last decade, so I had not heard about this table.

    I’ll be interested to explore it when I get my hands on the 1st edition AD&D reprints Wizards is putting out in July.

  8. Most fantasy games have a setting that’s non-specifically medieval, as if the middle ages weren’t 1000 years long and spread across a continent. Some players want to play armored knights in the pre-Agincourt style, some players want to play longbowmen of the post-Agincourt years, and some want to play Conan-style barbarians from circa 600 AD. We’ve adapted by balancing the game so that a lightly armored barbarian is a match for an armored knight. That doesn’t make sense, but we roll with it.

  9. Charles Carrier

    I did use the table back in the late 70’s, and I liked it. Don’t remember ever officially abandoning it but I know I wasn’t using by the early 90’s, even though I was still using 1E rules.

    I think I’d like to see a version of it come back into the rules.

  10. I used a damage reduction based armor, and every armor have one physical damage type lower that the rest. Also, I use feats that grant some advantages to some weapons based on their damage type: Cutting weapons are the best in price-quality, but penetrating weapons have some armor piercing feats, and bludgeoning have charge based feats. So, choosing the right weapon is a factor in my game.

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