Monday, August 13, 2012

Lightly Armored Fighter

In the swashbuckling era, no swordsman worthy of the name would think of sullying the fine, graceful line of his body in motion with the use of anything so gauche as armor. Helmets and breatplates are for lowly guards and comically cowardly pirates, not gallant heroes or suave villains. Your DM should give you some free armor protection to compensate for the unforgiving treatment that D&D rules mete out to unarmored combatants.
So says Robin Laws, writing about "swashbuckling essentials" in Dragon magazine.

It is an article of faith - a received truth - among many gamers that the lightly armored Renaissance swordsman is the equal of the medieval knight by virtue of being quick on his feet and wielding a lighter blade. The lightly armored fighter archetype appears in fantasy literature as such, and to fail to represent this puts anyone who wants to play a swashbuckler in a world of plate mail and tower shields at an unfair disadvantage.

I'm guessing that an actual Renaissance or Early Modern warrior, in his leather buff coat and steel cuirass, his maille sleeves and epaulettes, his thigh-high cavalry boots and his steel helmet, would find the notion that he was a medieval knight's equal preposterous, for by virtue of the carbine slung around his neck and the pair of pistols carried in holsters draped from his saddle horn, he was the knight's master on the battlefield.

Armor didn't disappear from battlefields because swords got thinner or swordsmen more agile - armor disappeared because firearms rendered it ineffective.

But what about fencing techniques? Surely the great masters of the fifteenth, sixteenth, and seventeenth centries changed the nature of swords and swordplay? In fact, fashion, not fighting, dictated a change in blades, with swords growing thinner and shorter in response to the needs of courtiers, not soldiers, and the techniques of the swordmasters changed in response.

Well, so what, right? D&D's FANTASY, ain't it? Who cares what soldiers wore in the seventeenth century? After all, most fantasy worlds don't even have guns, so why can't a swashbuckler be just as good as a mail-clad warrior?

Fair enough. So how does D&D represent fighting skill? The ability to hit an opponent is tied to class and level, expressed, for example, on an attack matrix in 1e AD&D or basic attack bonus in 3.x D&D. As your character increases in level, so does her ability to hit things. So far, so good.

Defense is handed a bit differently. In 1e and 3e - and I'll keep referencing those two editions from here on out, as they are the ones with which I'm most familiar - a character's primary protection comes from armor, and thus we get to the "unforgiving treatment that D&D rules mete out to unarmored combatants," for which Robin Laws suggests the solution is "some free armor protection to compensate."

But armor isn't the only form of defense available to characters. First, characters can parry - in 1e, a parry subtracts the defender's Strength bonus to hit from the attacker's die roll, and in 3e, "fighting defensively" nets you a -4 on attacks but a +2 dodge bonus to armor class - or dodge - 3e feats and class ability which improve armor class. Second, characters get a bonus to their armor class - called defensive adjustement in 1e, Dexterity bonus in 3e - through having a high Dexterity ability score.

Defensive skill, however, is represented in D&D another way: hit points.

If I could go back in time and send a message to Gary Gygax as he was preparing the little brown books, it would be, 'Come up with a different names for hit points.' Intuitively most gamers associate hit points with the ability to withstand physical damage, and this association sowed untold confusion ever since. 1e defines hit points thus:

Because these reflect both the actual physical ability of the character to withstand damage - as indicated by constitution bonuses- and a commensurate increase in such areas as skill in combat and similar life-or-death situations, the "sixth sense" whith warns the individual of some otherwise unforeseen events, sheer luck, and the fantastic provisions of magical protections and/or divine protection (emphasis added).
3e, in the SRD, is much more succinct: "Hit points mean two things in the game world: the ability to take physical punishment and keep going, and the ability to turn a serious blow into a less serious one" (emphasis added again).

But Robin Laws isn't satisfied to allow hit points to be what hit points are: martial skill, the ability to turn aside a deadly blow. And unfortunately he's not the only one.

The original Duelist for 1e was written by Arthur Collins and published in May 1983 as a 'non-player character class' in Dragon 73. The class description includes some forgettable fluff, but the mechanics are what interest me. First, as one expects of the lightly armored fighter, the duelist is restricted to leather armor; somewhat surprisingly - and certainly comically for a character based on the swashbuckler - the duelist cannot use a shield. However, the role of hit points as combat skill - the presumed forte of the lightly armored fighter - is underscored by giving the character a d12 hit die. The author, Mr Collins, goes to some length to explain this design choice, writing, "Giving the duelist 12-sided hit dice is not intended to convey the impression that duelists are monstrous hulks . . ." and calling out the same passge in the 1e DMG quoted previously. Mr Collins concludes, "A 10th-level duelist will average more hit points than a 10th-level fighter, thus giving the former an appropriate edge in one-on-one combat; the duelist can outlast and wear out an opponent who is less skilful than he" (emphasis added once more).

To me, this is an adroit application of an elegant rule. Hit points were designed to emulate the give-and-take of swashbuckling swordplay from the very beginning, and the duelist takes that conceit and runs with it.

However, Mr Collins isn't content to stop there. Not only is the duelist given a higher hit die, representing his martial ability, he's also harder to hit, receiving "free armor protection" in the form of an armor class bonus every three levels; moreover, the duelist receives additional to-hit and damage bonuses as well, so that 10th-level fighter is at a further disadvantage against the 10th-level duelist.

It's a shame that some game designers just don't know when to let off the gas. The duelist and his d12 hit die does exactly what one expects of the swashbuckling fighter, to skillfully land the killing blow when his opponent runs out of tricks of his own; adding an armor class bonus gilds the lily.

The 3e Duelist prestige class is another take on the lightly armored fighter. Feats and skills ramp up the notion of the 'wily' fighter - as opposed to what other kind of fighter, one wonders? are other types of fighters less skilled somehow? - with feats like Dodge, Mobility, and Weapon Finesse which are the prerequisites for the prestige class. The Duelist's class abilities pile on, adding an armor class bonus for Intelligence bonuses, a precisely located strike for extra damage, even the ability to deflect arrows; as with so much about 3e, it takes the archetype and turns it up to eleven. Note that I don't think this is objectively bad for any reason; I do think it reinforces a parody trope of swashbuckling, but at the end of the day, it's simply not my cuppa.

So where am I going with all this?

Last week, Beedo at Dreams in the Lich House posed the question, "For purposes of D&D, what's the difference between a Norman knight, a viking, a samurai, a Roman centurion? What if we throw a muskeeter in the mix, a Mongolian horse archer, and a Hospitaler?"

It's a great question. Beedo continues:
I love this question with regards to the fighter, because the convergence of technology and tactics has created great variations in the fighting men of world history, and the differences are so easy for us to visualize. The evolution of D&D from its original vision has involved a long line of add-ons and extensions to create mechanical differentiation among character classes - new classes and sub-classes, secondary skills, kits, feats, prestige classes, and so on.

It's a topical question for me - I'm thinking over what a game in an Oriental Adventures setting would look like using a BX style of rules, and I have a pretty good idea how I'd handle archetypes like the samurai, the bushi, the kensai, the warrior monk: you're all fighters. You wear different armor, use different weapons, but at the end of the day, you all get paid to slug it out with the other guy. My work here is done.
I couldn't agree more. one of the strengths of the fighter class is that it embraces so many archetypes.

I also have some pratical experience with this approach. As I noted in the comments to Beedo's post, many years ago I ran a 1e fighter with a high Dexterity. An ex-pit fighter who escaped the arena, he was all about quickness, from his 12" movement rate in leather armor to his weapons speed factor 3 short sword to win initiative ties - this is why you use speed factors, boys and girls - to his spiked buckler which could be used for both offense and defense to his d10 hit dice which made him a more skilled combatant.

But where does that leave the poor swashbuckler, the duelist with his sword and dagger and no armor in a game filled with deadly warriors in iron suits? Well, I imagine it leaves them lighter on their feet and more likely to take a hit, like their counterparts in Melee, as Fenway5 at Sword and Shield reminds us.

Look, I completely understand the impulse to impose some sort of rules-parity between the lightly armored swashbuckling fighter and the plate mail-clad knight in a fantasy campaign, but I don't share that impulse.

Unlike some fantasy fans, I think history is instructive on this point. Real-life duelists fought without armor at a time when armor was the norm on the battlefield. Why would a duelist forego armor in a fantasy setting? Because of social taboos associated with honor, or because wearing armor around town is an incitement to violence that the authorities won't countenance, or because climbing a trellis into your lover's window is too noisy in chain maille and a great helm. Let the adventurers climb out of their tin cans once in awhile - give all the fighters a reason to be lightly armored.

Just not when a dragon's bearing down on them.


  1. The Swashbuckler image has a lot to do with fighting-men getting into fights in circumstances made heavy armor and arms impractical.

    i.e. Want to play a duellist? Have a high dex fighter in a city that outlaws armor.

  2. Armour didn't so much disappear due to firearms, but had to become bigger and heavier to stop a bullet. Full plate armour wasn't worn until the use of gun powder on the battle field. I've been lucky enough to due a history module on my degree to have access to one of England's largest repository of historical arms and armour, and have held various chest plates as they were thickened as time went by to stop a bullet, and the final one in chronological order was so heavy that movement was almost totally restricted. they were given to pike men who simply had to hold a line, or to men on horses who were fine to sit in place.

    1. When it reaches the point that it is no longer practical to wear, then it has effectively disappeared.

      If you find a curiass from the TYW and ECW in a museum, you may note what appears to be a dent in the breastplate. This was known as a proofing mark, and it was generated by firing a pistol into the breastplate to demonstrate that it would stop the ball.

      The problem was, while it would stop a pistol ball, it wouldn't stop a musket ball.

      Through the fifteenth and sixteenth century, when handgonnes and arquebuses appeared on the field, cavalry still wore plate armor. The power and reliability of firearms overtook armor in the seveneenth century, and accounts of soldiers on campaign discarding their armor became rife. By the time of Louis XIV, most soliders wore little or no armor, particularly as the plug bayonet turned musketeers into pikemen.

    2. The excellent clip from 1612 you posted a couple of weeks ago had a graphic illustration of the role artillery played in the demise of the heavily armored cuirassier.

      As aware as I was, intellectually, of the effect of chainshot and grapeshot it was a revelation. That it was a movie special effect made no difference. My visceral reaction was one of horror.

    3. Add Gustavus Adolphus' innovation of lighter, more mobile guns that could be moved quickly in support of the attack and defense - that's when the queen of battle got her tiara.

  3. Swashbuckling=pirates=sea=water=drowning in heavy armour.

    Swashbuckling=Robin Hood=Bows=Dex to-hit bonus for non-bulky armour.

    Which is not to say I disagree with the point about hit dice (quite the opposite) but it's worth remembering that there are other advantages to light armour and they're not all rules based.

    1. Soldiers at sea in the sixteenth and early seventeenth century still wore armor - they fought on deck and ships came to close quarters by grapnels and ropes, so drowning was a secondary concern to taking a pike in the ribs.

      But yes, light armor has other advantages as well.

  4. I had forgotten about the d12 and the duelist (despite the fact I'd played a duelist for quite some time back in the day). That was pretty elegant.

    Not to wade to far into the "what hit points are debate" but it's not as Q.E.D. as all that. Yes, quoted Gygax seems to suggest its more than damage but healing (magical and otherwise) and damage from non-combat situations are inconsistent with this explanation.

    1. If we take 'healing' as both physical (injuries plus fatigue) and spiritual (luck, divine favor), then it works for all but a few extreme corner cases.

    2. You just house rule that 60% of HP are restored with overnight rest and the remaining 40% after a week of bedrest.

      Vary the ratios depending on how "heroic" you want the characters to be.

  5. This, again, gets me thinking about using D&D's mechanics with FB trade dress.

    My players found the FB combat confusing. My being so new to is didn't help.

    Perhaps I can bridge the gap by using the D&D mechanics and gradually introducing the variety and complexity of the full-blown FB system.

    1. I think D&D hit points as swashbuckling emulation is frequently underrated.

      Instead of, 'You take a glancing blow for four hit points,' turn it into, 'He tips a table over onto you, take four hit points,' or, 'He binds your blade and shoves you back into the wall, take four hit points.'

  6. The carrying capacity limits in Savage Worlds are pretty brutal, so it does a good job of balancing armor vs speed.