It’s an enduring image: the knight in shining armour, the ironclad hero. Many of us grew up with stories of Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table and other stories like El Cid, the hero of the Reconquista, or even Ivanhoe the crusader. All of them honourable warriors, clad in armour, they fight in the name of good. For king and country, or for fair lady’s hand (and presumably her father’s rich inheritance), some of them even kill dragons. But all of them have one thing in common… they’re ridiculously difficult to kill.
Armour is a power fantasy. If you’re playing a hero and you’re clad in full plate, you feel invincible. When I was playing Dungeons and Dragons, I was fond of the paladin class and couldn’t wait to be rich enough to afford plate. I felt invulnerable in it.
…until the mook with the dagger rolled a 20 and shanked me through the plate and I was bleeding out on the floor. Roll a death save, Sir Gareth.
You see, if it’s true that lovers of history – and by that I mean those who actively read and study it – can’t enjoy historical dramas, it’s also true that those with some understanding of historical combat can’t enjoy role-playing games as much. The more you know, the harder it is to let some things slide. For instance, when a fighter with a longsword goes up against a knight in plate and skewers him with it, you can’t help but raise an eyebrow.
Eventually, after D&D I got into World of Darkness, especially Vampire: The Masquerade and later, Vampire: Dark Ages (set in the Middle Ages, just to mess with you). I’m talking here about the 20th anniversary edition of WoD, for which the Dark Ages book just came out. And while it isn’t exactly perfect, it does work a lot better when it comes to combat and especially armour.
Here’s 3 reasons why:
1. Armour soaks damage, does not make you invulnerable or harder to hit.
If anything, you’re easier to hit because you weigh a ton. But more on that later.
Some role-playing games go with HP (hit points) to indicate general vitality and toughness of a character. In some, like D&D, the more you level up, the more HP you get, making your mortal character about as hard to kill as a rhinoceros… wearing full plate… inside a Panzer. In a bunker. You get the idea. Even at mid-levels, characters have so many hit points, it often leads to hilarious situations like this:
“The dragon breathes fire on you and deals 50 damage.”
“Yeah, I’m still standing.”
In WoD, you’re squishy. With varying degrees of toughness depending on whether you’re a vampire (tough), a werewolf (bloody tough) or a mage (as tough as wet paper). You’ve got 7 levels of damage that you can take and depending on how much of it you take in the chin or what kind, it has different effects. Bashing damage from fists or non-lethal weapons won’t take you down as fast as lethal damage and aggravated damage is what a werewolf calls a silver bullet in the gluteus maximus. “Eee, I’m so aggravated.”
If you take one level of damage, you’re bruised. More angry than anything. Two levels and you’re hurt, -1 penalty to your dice rolls. That means you roll one die less, and when you typically have a pool of 6-8 dice, with 10 or more being pretty high for a starting character, a one die penalty can be tough. At six levels of damage you’re crippled: -5 which usually makes a weak character useless. If all seven hit-boxes are full with lethal damage you’re either incapacitated (if you’re a vampire or a werewolf) or if you’re just plain human you’re playing the harp and joined the choir eternal.
Armour stops that from happening by giving you dice to add to your “soak” value. When someone whacks you with a weapon, you don’t just take it like a chum, you soak the damage with your stamina and add to that your armour. So a character with 4 Stamina (fairly decent but not extraordinary) and chainmail would have 8 total dice worth of soaking. Given that a character with a Strength rating of 4 and a longsword would roll 7 dice of damage, all else being equal, you’re going to do fairly well in that chainmail. The chap with 3 Strength and a dagger had better roll like Apollo on attack, otherwise he can forget it.
With average rolls a character in armour can withstand a lot of punishment. But a few (or several) well-placed hits might still do you in, eventually, because…
2. Armour makes you easier to hit.
It makes sense. You weigh a ton. While you might parry with your sword or shield, you are easier to hit if you’re a great, big lumbering hulk of metal. To reflect this, armour in World of Darkness incurs a Dexterity penalty (and helmets give you a Perception penalty). Which is only common sense, for the reasons stated above.
In case you’re not familiar with the system, when someone comes at you with a weapon, you have two options for defence: you can dodge, in which case you roll a combined dice pool of your Dexterity plus your Athletics (so a fairly decent character would have 8 dice to roll, while Nadia Comaneci rolls 10 dice, with a perfect 10 on each of those decahedrons), or you can parry with your weapon or shield and roll Dexterity plus melee. So with the Dex penalty from your armour, you’re actually easier to hit. But say you roll poorly and they hit you, you’ve got another 8 dice to soak the pitiful damage they’re doing.
Now you feel like a bloody tank!
If any of you have practiced a kind of martial art that involves weapons and armour (shout out to all my HEMA and Kendo brothers and sisters), you’ll find this very refreshing.
Which brings me to my final point…
3. Defence is a skill, not a number
Unlike D&D’s abstract “Armour Class” or the nightmare that was THAC0, it’s your skill with a weapon that makes you harder to hit, not your armour. Combat in World of Darkness is a contested roll between the opponents. The attacker rolls their dice pool to try and hit you: dexterity plus melee, if they’re using a weapon. So an average mook with Dex 3 and a skill of 3 rolls six dice to try and hit you. Then you as the target and intended shish-kebab roll your defence to try and either parry or get out of the way. If you’re any good, you’re rolling upwards of 8 dice again (and this is without all the supernatural bonuses). And even if that hits you with their longsword and meagre strength, you’re in armour. So you take it, scoff at them and with a hearty laugh, shout from underneath your helmet:
“Come at me, bro!” (at which point the GM docks you XP for breaking character).
This is significant because you feel less like a Panzer with a sword gaffer-taped to it, and more like a trained fighter who’s spent ten thousand hours in heat, cold, rain and snow, weapon and shield in hand, practicing at the art of combat. You’re not a statistic to hit, you are a trained combatant with experience and discipline. In the end this makes combat a more enjoyable experience and when the stakes are high and your skill is what wins you the day, it makes the player feel rewarded for making a good character and playing it well.
Fantasy role-playing requires you to suspend your disbelief in order to accommodate for vampires, werewolves, or dragons and gelatinous cubes. But it certainly doesn’t have to sacrifice realism for entertainment.
Something of a modern day caveman, Anderson fell down the rabbit hole of role-playing games 12 years ago and has refused to emerge ever since. Starting with D&D, hisworld changed one evening when by candle light he and a few of his friends plunged into the World of Darkness. That was the last time he saw daylight. When not stalking the night or practicing the way of the sword, Anderson studies cultural anthropology and writes short stories (and promises himself that he'll publish that novel). You can find more of his work on his blog, The Caveman Blues (which he swears he'll update more regularly)
I am become death, destroyer of worlds.