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Armor is Cool
[05/14/2014] [Randall]

Armor is cool. It’s also occasionally controversial. Some folks think it’s unreasonable that Amtgard has rules for minimum armor weight, but swords can be as light as we can make ‘em. They say we’re a fantasy game, and there should be rules for fantasy armor that is light and just as protective. To them, I say this: first, swords and armor are held to different standards because the game design behind them has different goals. Second, Amtgard does have rules for fantasy armor that is light and protective. And third, armor makes us look damn cool because the rules require it to look and feel awesome.

Take a look at Amtgard weapons and the rules we have in place. Remember, rules don’t exist in a vacuum—they are written to achieve certain goals. In Amtgard, our most fundamental goal is to be able to hit each other with fake swords without hurting each other. Protective gear is optional, so those swords have to be safe. We’re also a 14-and-over game, so those swords have to be safe for high school kids. We also want our weapons to sort of resemble weapons. As a result, our rules are about making sure swords are safe, but not about making sure swords are heavy.

In fact, rules on weight that existed in Amtgard in the past were discarded because they did not meet our primary goal about safety. Anyoen who has been hit by one of the old-school red weapons can attest to that.

Other boffer games have slightly different requirements. Dagohir and Belegarth are 16-and-up, and have slightly heavier weapons. Their minimum is 12 ounces, which is only a few ounces heavier than an average Amtgard sword made from the lightest possible materials.

Also, real swords are lighter than you may think. A medieval longsword is about 3 pounds, a few times heavier than an Amtgard sword. Medieval armor is basically the same (especially since we generally have no need or requirement to wear hand, foot, or head armor). Actual armor tends to weigh a few times the weight of what we use in Amtgard—and that’s with a “realism” requirement. Amtgard uses historical weight as a guide, but what we have is still lighter for lots of reasons: we don't use complete kits (because we don't need 'em and they don't fit our style of play), our gambesons are much lighter than the real thing, we don't use historical steel, and so on. So our swords are a fraction of what historical swords weighed, and our armor—although we use historical accuracy as an important guide—is a fraction of what historical armor weighed.

So: armor. What’s the core goal there? Unlike swords, where the goal is to safely hit each other with fake swords, armor rules aren’t driven primarily by safety. Sure, armor has to be safe, but the main objective is something else. We want to be able to wear cool-looking armor. We want our armor to let us ignore shots based on what kind of armor it is. And we want it to be fun.

The basic breakdown of armor—the kinds we want to wear—comes from fantasy gaming: leather, then chain, then plate. That was what Amtgard started with. Other armor types got added: cloth as the weakest, plus the popular coat-of-plates (old-style brigandine) that ended up above chain and below plate. That gives us the familiar 1-5 structure we have today.

As you wear more of this stuff, you get to ignore more shots, which makes armor very powerful. In fact, because of how many shots you can potentially ignore, armor runs the risk of being too powerful. That is why it gets balanced by a weight requirement. Basically, the more it protects, the heavier it should be. This has been a fundamental principle since the first edition of the rules:

“Leather isn’t chain,
Chain isn’t plate.
If you want the protection,
You have to bear the weight.”

Think about it. Our swords don’t have a weight requirement because weight isn’t important to meeting our core goals about swords. That makes light swords potentially powerful. A person wearing tons of armor and wielding light swords can be unbalancing to a game if that armor doesn’t have some sort of balancing factor. That balancing factor is weight.

“We use light swords” is not an argument to allow unrealistic armor. To the contrary, “we use light swords” is one of the reasons our armor needs to have realistic weight in the first place. We do this to balance the power armor gives. We do this because it’s more fun this way. Another way of putting it: it was no fun fighting warlords in four points of stoneskin.

We also want our armor to look cool. This is why armor is held to a standard that isn’t required of garb and weapons. Frankly, this is a good thing. I wear armor often, and bystanders and newbies frequently come up and talk about how cool it looks. This almost never happens with swords or garb. That is because the rules for these items are so lax in comparison that people that the minimum standard isn’t impressive. Thankfully, sword rules have reversed course a little and awful covers are no longer allowed. But yes: the complaint that we require armor to look authentic but make no such demands on swords is not an argument to relax the standards on armor—which is so cool that people are drawn to it—but to raise the standards on swords, which tend to look shoddy in parks across the game. But it’s okay to have those different standards, because we want the fundamental parts of Amtgard (slap on a tunic and pick up a sword) to be highly accessible. That means cheap. Anything past that minimum should look cool, though. With armor, that means looking and feeling authentic.

And if someone wants to wear a kickass suit of fantasy anime “plate” made from plastic and get six points. . . . well, yes, it looks really cool, although it doesn’t fit within the regular system of balanced classes. So, without further ado: the fantasy game issue.

A common counter to the way armor is set up is that we’re a fantasy game, and therefore we should be allowed to have fantasy armor like mithril, adamantium, and so forth. But what is a person really proposing when they say this? Let’s break it down.

Imagine someone wants to use fireballs. The answer to that person is simple: go for it, but remember that fireballs are powerful, so we have a special fireball class that is balanced to account for that power. Now let’s imagine the person wants to wear tons of armor. The answer is similar: awesome, but remember armor is powerful, so we have a special heavy-armor class with restrictions of its own. Finally, let’s say the person wants to do both at the same time—fireballs and plate. That’s totally awesome, but it’s also very powerful. The answer is still yes, you can do that—but these abilities are powerful enough that the rules on who gets them both are quite restrictive, making it limited to monster classes only.

Armor is balanced the same way. If someone says they want to wear a ton of armor, you can tell them that armor is powerful and comes with limitations (i.e., its weight.) And if they say they want armor that is very light, you can tell them that armor plus mobility is powerful too, and also comes with limitations (i.e., the number of points you can have.) And if a person says they want both? That they want “mithril” that gives lots of armor points and very little weight?

If that happens, you still say yes, because they can do that too—but it’s just like playing the plate-and-fireballs class. The combination is so powerful that it can only come with special restrictions. The restriction is that such a combination would be limited to monster classes only. You want to play a class that wears a silver shirt representing 4 points of mithril plate? You want to wear fantasy anime “plate” armor for 6 points? Write up a monster class and rock on.

Of course, even within this rubric, there’s wiggle room, because artisans have the option to use aluminum and beat back the penalty by adding on bonuses from gambesons, gauge, and construction. You can’t have 6-point leather or 6-point chain—not without playing a monster class—but you can at least get armor that looks and feels fantasy in origin due to the lightness and materials. Or you can get enchantments: now your 3-point leather is 4 points and magical, or your 4-point chain is 5 and magical. There is a balancing factor, since it can be dispelled, but that’s how it should be for the regular, non-monster classes.

Armor and weapons have different rules because they are designed to accomplish different things—and, practically speaking, armor and swords both weigh less than the real thing did. We do have rules for fantasy armor. Armor is powerful, so it has to be balanced. And the armor rules help make the game look really cool.

So that’s armor. Armor is cool. Very cool. The rules make it cool by requiring at least a nod toward authenticity. Let’s keep it that way.

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