Armor - Game Mechanics

   I finally created a decent implementation of armor in Violence Spells Gods and Politics.

   Armor's mechanics fall into one of three categories. I'll start with a discussion of these three. I proceeded through them in order while designing the game.

  1. Armor Class: The better the armor the harder to hit.
  2. Damage Reduction: Armor reduces the damage of each hit.
  3. Armor Toughness: Armor toughness must be reduced to 0 before injuries pass on to the wearer.

Category 1 - Armor Class

   Category 1 was only briefly considered, never used. I don't think it makes any sense. Why would armor make you harder to hit? From the mile up perspective of a wargame, AC works, but the first person perspective exposes situations for which it needs modifiers, and variants. What about touch attacks? Why doesn't all the padding help soften my fall? Isn't that heavy armor cumbersome? The concept we have for it breaks down and we're left with only the numbers and abstraction wrapped about it like duct tape. Numbers and abstraction are not what I roleplay for. I want the concepts to hold together. I can do better than this.

Category 2 - Damage Reduction

   I first tried Category 2, damage reduction, but discarded it after the first batch of playtests because it did not scale well for us. We found that if improvements to weapon damage do not proportionally match improvements to armor, then combat becomes a grueling, and boring slugfest at higher levels. And yet when you do scale weapons and armor in tandem, standard equipment becomes obsolete.

   Damage reduction also does not actually do what is suggested by the idea behind it. The intention of damage reduction is to make every hit do a little less damage. Its implementation however is not as a percentage of damage, but as a threshold that subtracts a fixed amount when crossed1. So in addition to reducing damage, a percentage of hits inflict no damage. This is annoying if its not your intention, and is what was making our combats last far longer than we wanted.

   I do not want whole classes of weapons or armor to be rendered obsolete.2 I also don't want really long combats. Scrapping Damage Reduction required a significant redesign, but I was convinced it was not working for my game.

Category 3 - Armor Toughness

   The current design of armor in VSGP is Category 3. When you reduce it to it's bare essentials this armor is buyable hit points. I like armor as resource sink, but the primary purpose for play is to ensure that each hit does something, even if it does not harm the character. Other properties I want included in armor's implementation:

  • Combinatory piecemeal armors.
  • One rating measuring both protection against Special Attacks3 and reduction of Evasion (difficulty to hit).
  • Differentiation of effectiveness by damage type.
  • Protect different parts of the body.
  • Armor Toughness scales with size.4

   Given my laundry list of goals, I was not able to come up with a graceful implementation of Category 3 armor on the first try. I've progressed gradually through these steps:

  1. I first gave each piece of armor different levels of Toughness by damage type, and rated the armor by size with the formula: Rating = Toughness/Size. The bookkeeping for this was not worth it and I hadn't even tried to replicate Runequest's hitpoints by location chart yet. So after very minor testing, I scrapped this.
  2. I next gave each piece of armor one Rating, differentiated its Toughness and Cost by Size in a chart, and identified which damage types the armor defended against. Calculating resistance to the effects of a Special Attack however was complicated. The defender had to determine which pieces of armor provided defense against the Special Attack (based on damage type from the equipment chart), and then find their individual ratings (on the equipment chart), and add them up. This fussiness proved more problematic than it was worth. Combat should be fast and exciting when a character tries to stun another with a hammer or slice off their hand. Instead of fast and fun, players were hunting for numbers to calculate a modifier before the defender could roll to resist the blow. Bookkeeping for combined armors also promised to be a chore, and some stuff didn't make sense. Why would a helmet always add to the overall Toughness of the armor, but only help against Special Attacks if the attacker targeted the head? I was on the right path, but this was obviously a rough draft and not a playable set of mechanics.
  3. Today, frustrated by this mess, I sat down to rewrite the whole thing. Then I had an idea: make all three aspects of armor - Rating, Toughness, and Defenses - independently additive and always fully combined, so that when multiple pieces are combined, there is just one stat line for the worn armor. The trick to making this work is treating the armor's defenses like tags, and searching for their presence or absence when a hit is scored. If the armor has defenses against both the attack's damage and location then the armor protects the wearer. If not, the armor is ineffective. A hit to the torso from a bludgeon against armor that has bludgeoning defense is absorbed by the armor. I had all these pieces in the mix earlier but was misusing them.


   These armors are for medium size characters to simplify the numbers. For the full charts you can see the Equipment List. Meanwhile look at these:

Name Rating TOUGHNESS Defense Cost
Padded Gambeson 1 3 Torso, Arms; Bludgeoning +1. 6
Mail Vest 1 5 Torso; Slashing +1, Piercing. 24
Armor Accessories
Name Defense Cost
Iron Helmet Head +1. 9
Iron Greaves Legs 6
Name Damage Type Special Attacks
Dagger 1 Piercing Armor Pierce, Disarm, Trap, Grapple.
Mace 1 Bludgeoning Stun, Armor Smash, Deflect, Disarm, Trap
How It Works

   A character wearing the padded gambeson has no protection against the dagger, but against the mace the armor absorbs the first three hits before the character is injured. The armor absorbs hits to the arms or torso, but does nothing against a called shot to the head or legs. The mail vest likewise is ineffective against the mace, and provides no protection for the arms against the dagger. However if the character puts the vest on over the padded gambeson, the armor will absorb 8 points of damage against bludgeoning, slashing, or piercing aimed at either torso or arm.

   In order to extend this protection to head and legs they would need to also wear the helmet and the greaves. The total cost is 45 coin, has an Armor Toughness of 8, and an Armor Rating of 2. Let us say that an opponent goes for a stun with a mace on the first swing, but they don't just want to knock the wind out of them with a shot to the torso, but knock them out cold with a blow to the head. Despite the called shot, the attacker rolls high enough to hit, and now our character has to resist the stun. They add their TOUGHNESS of 3 (not the Armor Toughness but the character's), and they also add their Armor Rating of 2. Additionally their armor has a +1 defense to the Head from the helmet, and a +1 to Bludgeoning from the gambeson. Altogether this produces a contest of 3+2+2+dice versus the attacker's to hit roll (COMBAT+dice) to determine the success or failure of the stun effect. We are still calculating the modifier to the resistance check before rolling, but all the armor's numbers are clearly laid out in a line on the character sheet. Running a back of the envelop guesstimate, I think this will play quickly. Back to our example, with 18 as the median for their resistance roll, let us assume that our character resists this stun attack. Despite this the mace still applies a point of damage to the character's armor, reducing the Armor Toughness from 8 to 7.

Armor Stats on the Character Sheet
Rating Toughness Damage Defenses
2 8 0 Torso, Arms, Head +1, Legs, Pierce, Bludgeon +1, Slash +1

Wrapping Up

   I like this. The most complicated it ever gets is: "Stun attack with my war club, called shot to his head." Attacker rolls a 13+3 COMBAT. "Oooo 16 versus his 11 Evasion. Exceptional Success! Hit!" The defender looks up nervous, "Shit. OK. I resist." Rolls a 9+3 TOUGHNESS. "12. Hmm not optimal," looks at the armor line on the character sheet and keeps talking through it, "but with Armor Rating that's 14, and defense bonuses to Bludgeoning and Head ... 16! Yes!" Attacker tisks but then shrugs, "You still take the point of damage." Defender looks down at his sheet, ticks off a point of armor Toughness from 8 to 7. "You merely dented my helmet. I'll fix it later. Now I stab back with my spear." Rolls a 12+2 COMBAT. "14. That's gotta be a hit." "Yes, Evasion 14 here. I need a bigger shield." "And what is that you're wearing?" "Its basically padded armor, skins and fur over cloth. No piercing defense." "Looks like I drew blood." The initial attacker is injured. Their player marks down their current TOUGHNESS from 4 to 3, and the melee continues.

   In terms of complexity, the prior example demonstrates the worst case scenario. That I can live with. I need to put it to test, but I don't foresee any more problems.

   Lastly one thing I immediately did was make a leather cape as an accessory which has a Defense of Fire. When a character dons the leather cape, all of their armor now is used to protect against fire damage too. The visual of this in action is an armored character using the cape as a shield against a bolt of fire. Makes sense to me. The cape doesn't do anything on its own. Its a component which becomes useful in combination with other things. The stupid simplicity of these mechanics make it incredibly easy to implement more defenses on various armors and accessories. Simplicity makes invention and testing easier. I need to get back to regularly play testing this game, and have more fun with it.

  1. There are advantages to a damage threshold. Call of Cthulu for example uses damage reduction masterfully, where many monsters are invulnerable to "normal" attacks, but enterprising characters can escalate matters with modern methods like explosives and howitzers and sometimes achieve results. I like this in Call of Cthulu. There are different classes of weapons. When you mix the firepower of modern weaponry with knives and clubs, this works. In a heroic fantasy game, however, I think it is less fitting.

  2. Obsolescence of equipment in the face of level creep sucks, and I was never thrilled with "only silver weapons damage the werewolf" situations because it renders a potentially horrifying and mysterious situation into the humdrum task of shopping for the right tool for the job. Enchanting your trusty old sword in a magic pool glistening like quicksilver in the light of the full moon is far cooler than "aren't we going to face werewolves? Let's stock up on silver." or worse "we are level 10 now. discard the old stuff and upgrade to adamantine weapons at the magic shop. we should have enough cash after that last haul." Booooooring. I don't play fantasy games to recreate the economics of planned obsolescence.

  3. Special Attacks were the new idea I had for speeding up combat and making it more exciting. Its not really that new of an idea. They are basically feats. But these are intended for knocking out an opponent with one hit. They apply effects to the target that the target has a chance to resist. Effects are like trips, disarms, traps, and then incapacitations like a stun, or paralysis, and lastly permanent forms of damage ranging from scars, to loss of limb, to loss of life, decapitation. The intention with special attacks is to speed up battles when characters become more powerful rather than slow everything down.

  4. Armor Toughness scaling with size does present one annoyance. If the character magically changes in size, you need to adjust the armor. I think I'll accept this edge case for now, or if its too much of a PITA I can house rule that magical transformations of a character's body don't extend to equipment, which I might do as the default anyway because magic should always have a drawback or problem you need to address.