Ours is a compassionate and loving species. And ever since the first time one guy hit another guy with a rock, human beings have been engaged in a fun little game: the arms race. Rocks got sharpened, then attached to sticks, then replaced with metal—which our compassionate and loving species proceeded to forge into every conceivable point, edge, and blunt face to try to figure out which shape was best for compassionately and lovingly murdering the hell out of other human beings.
Meanwhile, our ancestors realized that clothes were useful not only to protect ourselves from the elements, but also from compassionate and loving murder. Animal skins were replaced with cloth, then with leather, then with lots of layers of cloth, then with boiled and hardened leather, then with sheets of metal, then interlocking metal Spaghetti-o’s, then with cloth with bits of metal sewn into them, and finally with articulated and fluted plates resembling a crustacean.
These two sets of developments were not merely correlated with one another; each determined the path of the other, as advances in armoring changed the weapons needed to kill the person wearing them, and advances in weaponry changed the way we needed to defend ourselves. Being on the right side of this relationship meant you stood a fighting chance, while being on the wrong side of it often resulted in the extermination of your culture. So it was kind of a big deal.
A Brief History of Mass Murder
European warfare has a long and glorious history, and volumes can be written about it. But, for the sake of brevity, let’s examine the medieval period. Not only is this period (around 500 AD to around 1500 AD) chock full of advances in both weapons and armor, but it also happens to be the period that has inspired fantasy fiction in the 20th century, giving us the explosion of both myths of “knights in shining armor” and role playing games that let people act out those myths.
In the beginning of the medieval period, most people were running around killing one another with spears, axes, and swords. The metallurgy of that time gave Europeans a basic carbon steel, which had been produced for about a thousand years prior to the start of the middle ages. However, because the economy of Europe collapsed with the Roman Empire, steel was a rare and valuable thing.
The production of steel in Europe was the primary driving force in advances in mass murder. As the economy recovered, more iron was mined, and more steel was crafted. This, in turn, meant that instruments of murder became cheaper and more plentiful. This also meant that armor—once a rare prize—became more common among murderers who were trying not to get murdered by the other side. The economy was the most important factor in raising and equipping armies, and the arms race reflected that.
A Point Regarding Armor
As soon as people could afford armor, they spent money on it. Aside from paying other people to fight for you, armor was the best way to make sure that you didn’t die in battle. And armor had one purpose: to make sure that whatever was behind it didn’t get poked, sliced, chopped, or crunched. If it did this job, it protected; if the weapon got through the armor, it didn’t.
In Everybody’s Favorite Fantasy Role Playing Game™, armor is simplified into “classes” of armor; the heavier the armor, the more it protected. But in the real world, armor didn’t work that way. For instance, a quilted jack was a linen shirt made of around 15-20 layers of linen, all stitched together. It stopped one hundred percent of knife cuts made to the torso, and zero percent of knife cuts made where the quilted jack wasn’t worn. Similarly, a mail hauberk, which protected the same amount of skin, offered the exact same protection against the medieval saex, a wide-bladed knife of the period. But it also protected against Viking swords, which were practically unable to cut or stab through riveted mail—although a properly sharpened sword could cut through a quilted jack. So, in a knife fight, a warrior would be better served by a quilted jack and accompanying pants than by a mail hauberk, simply because it protected more of the body.
But when evaluating stabs and slashes, both contemporary testing and contemporaneous accounts indicate that not all types of protection are created equal, even if they do prevent penetration. A solid strike from certain swords or axes might not penetrate a quilted jack or mail hauberk, but could still transfer enough force to break bones or cause deadly internal trauma. On the other hand, slashing strokes from sharp swords were likely to cut through a jack, but slide across the surface of mail. With most weapons that slash rather than chop, an attack would not transfer debilitating or lethal levels of force, relying instead on its ability to cut through the armor and the flesh underneath.
The Arms Race
As advances in armor helped people survive battle, kings and princes were faced with an conundrum: how to keep compassionately and lovingly murdering the hell out of people when they kept on covering themselves in such wonderful armor. The key was in creating weapons that were specifically designed to defeat that armor. As mail became more prevalent throughout Europe and the Middle East, sword morphology changed. The parallel blades and spade tip of the Viking sword gave way to swords that tapered down the length of the blade, ending in a tip acute enough to penetrate mail. Backswords like the falchion were developed, with a chopping rather than slashing design; they would break bones on a solid hit, or hack off arms of poorly armored opponents. The broad bladed saex gave way to the sharply pointed dagger, deadly when grappling an armored foe.
In response, armor technology continued to develop. Plates of metal were affixed to lighter armors, with jacks-of-plates and brigantine being introduced by the 12th century. Over the next two centuries, armorers introduced more and more small plates to protect areas like the legs and arms, but the technology to craft large plates had not yet been developed. The cuirass, or breastplate, had been known since ancient times, but they were crafted of bronze; iron weapons had rendered them obsolete. The Romans had used Lorica Segmentata—a segmented cuirass of case-hardened iron; but it wasn’t until the early 14th century that the medieval breastplate was manufactured in a steel strong enough to protect against European medieval weapons. But once that happened—it was off to the races. Within a few short decades the cuirass was combined with other plates to form transitional plate armor, finally culminating in the “white armor” that we identify with the iconic medieval knight.
Weapon smiths had to yet again innovate. Most bladed weapons could, at best, dent plate armor, while the arming swords of the period skipped right off. Maces and warhammers rose in popularity, as warriors found that the force could still cause concussions, and the military pick and bec de corbin (or “crow’s beak”) were employed to penetrate the impenetrable. A number of pole arms were designed to either focus tremendous force into a small point, or to trip or pin armored knights to immobilize them. The arming sword evolved into the estoc, which had no cutting edge at all, and the dagger similarly evolved into the rondel. But plate armor was rare, and the arming sword was still a more effective weapon when wielded in a melee against more lightly armored foes. As a result, the tool kit of the men-at-arms expanded. While a mercenary in the tenth century may have carried a sword and dagger, by the fifteenth century he would have had to carry numerous weapons to defeat various types of armor.
The Point of the Point
Historically speaking, armor didn’t convey an “armor class”; they stopped compassionate and loving murder. More importantly, any old weapon can commit compassionate and loving murder, but it takes a special kind of weapon to butcher a walking steel lobster. And the best weapon for butchering someone in Maximillian plate is not necessarily the best weapon for butchering them in a quilted jack.
Weapons were designed to defeat specific types of armor. Of course, in Everybody’s Favorite Fantasy Role Playing Game™, there is no mechanic to model that. Ironically, 39 years ago, in the first edition of Advanced Everybody’s Favorite Fantasy Role Playing Game™, tables modeled each weapon’s performance against each type of armor. The people who created it were avid wargamers, and appreciated the fact that it was much easier to hurt someone in plate armor with a bec de corbin than with a quarterstaff. But, while this table addressed the issue, it also meant that calculating to-hit rolls without an engineering degree or abacus was too time consuming to be fun. Which brings us to…
Ideally, weapon statistics should model their performance. Nobody would be happy if a sword did 1d8, but a dagger did 2d6. And D&D does a pretty good job of modeling different weapon types. But they have long since abandoned weapon vs. armor type. This leaves the designers with a conundrum when evaluating weapons match-ups like sword vs. mace. Historically speaking a sword performs much better than a mace if foes are lightly armored, but much worse when you introduce heavy armors. Medium armor made sword morphology paramount, as a highly tapered arming sword (“short sword”) was much more effective against chain and brigandine than a spade tipped Viking sword (“long sword”).
A quick and dirty work-around would be to give each weapon a “weight” when determining armor match-ups. It wouldn’t be super realistic—but saying that weapons get a bonus to hit armor types if they are the same or greater weight than the armor (light, medium, or heavy) is a quick way to calculate armor match-ups and introduce a bit of realism without the undue burden of tables.
Another way is to use the new Advantage mechanic, saying that a weapon has advantage to hit armor types that it is specifically designed to defeat. But the statistical advantage that Advantage confers is considerably greater than the statistical advantage that was held in real life. Advantage and Disadvantage amount to about a five-point difference—which is the same bonus that chain mail gives you to your armor class.
A third way would be to restructure armor and weapons to more accurately reflect both protection and penetration. Increasing the protective value of lighter armors while creating a weapon vs. armor table would yield a more realistic system—but that level of granularity in your game might slow things down so much that the game isn’t fun anymore.
Whether you go with the rules as written or implement a house rule, it’s up to you. But in the end, fun is the name of the game. Warhammers and maces are the neglected step-children of role playing games, but they had a very profound usefulness on the medieval battlefield. Recognizing that particular weapons were advantageous against different types of armor suddenly makes them relevant again, and makes their selection more than just window dressing. For some people, that sense of gritty realism can be the most entertaining of all.