On the Weariness of Armor

Hello everyone!

I hope your Summers were less tumultuous and eventful than mine was, and that your fall games are ramping up to speed. It is, after all, the start of gaming season.

We're wrapping up the endless trudge that Tyranny of Dragons has become. It isn't so much that it's a railroad (though it is that), it's that I think 40-ish sessions is too many for any single storyline. 40 sessions is a year of play for most groups, considering missed weeks, vacations, holidays, etc. The upper limit of a single storyline should be 15 sessions or so, Phandelver was about perfect.

Playing that much 5e has given me a fairly good handle on higher level 5th edition combat and characters. The highest contrast between 5th edition and old school play is the pace of leveling at higher levels. It has a significant effect on play.

The general leveling scheme in most old school games is that you gain a level every 3-5 sessions for the first year. Earlier advancement tends towards the 3 session range, later advancement tends towards the 5 session range.

So in your average year of gaming, you can get one of your characters up 5th-7th level (Considering deaths, secondary characters played while training, missed sessions, etc.) At that point, most old school games require large amounts of experience to advance—far more than what can be found in a single storyline or module. A wizard must accumulate 45,000 experience in 1st edition to reach 8th level from 7th. A fighter to accomplish the same feat must accumulate 125,000 experience! Most adventuring groups are at least 5 characters, more counting henchmen. Hauls from adventures stay relatively static, averaging 50,000-80,000 experience per module, most of which take 3 to 5 sessions to complete.

The end result of this is that it takes characters a solid year of real time adventuring to traverse levels 7-9. After that, you can figure it's a year or a year and a half per level to advance. Of course the rewards for doing so are much less significant, a few hit points, etc. Your character advancement comes from their actions. Raising armies, seizing political power, crafting magic items.

This isn't the case in 5th edition.

My party is sitting around the 10th-11th level mark. They continue to accrue hit points, making them gigantic bags of hit points. I'm not engaging in "automatic advancement", otherwise known as the gold star advancement system. I'm giving the experience points as recommended by the system—for everything they manage to overcome or slaughter.

To reach 8th level from 7th, a character only needs 11,000 experience points, an increase of 2,000 from the amount they needed to reach 7th. Advancement is brisk, steady and consistent, as experience from opponents and challenges rises in lockstep with the increase in experience required.

This means you have to keep giving players things. They need to get something at every level, right? It means hundreds of hit points—170 on the barbarian for example. Did I mention the barbarian's rage causes her to take half damage? So, yes, in order to provide a threat, I have to chew through 340 hit points on a single character at the halfway point in that characters arc of power.

It isn't as bad as it seems though, because opponents also have giant sacks of hit points and everyone hits like a nuclear weapons. A weak round of damage for the fighter is around 40 points of damage. Monsters hit just as hard, though not as often. And enough of them can cause serious problems for the players.

Magic items fulfill a strange role also, anything that affects any of the core stats (chance to hit, armor classes, saves) is very powerful and can wildly cause characters to become powerhouses. They weren't kidding when they removed the magic christmas tree effect. Characters with a few magic items can hit well above their power level, and come off as almost comically powerful.

It generates a style of play that is meaty and huge and precarious, it's a very American version of Dungeons and Dragons. But it works, in a way 3rd edition and 4th edition never did. It isn't grindy, play doesn't often slow to a crawl, and when it does, it's for the same reasons it does in older school styles of play. How much volume is there in a 8200 square foot cavern? How do we transport 8 15-ton marble statues? How can we teleport the treasure away from the golem without him attacking us?


That isn't even what we are talking about today. I'm not sure if it's just me, but I've never run a version of any kind of role-playing game, where a player didn't get the bright idea to make themselves invulnerable to any kind of damage by pushing their armor class to the maximum possible values. Is this something that happens in other groups? I've had players wearing magical plate, rings of protection and cloaks of displacement to give themselves AC -10/-8 in first edition. I had a gnome in a Hackmaster game that wore full plate and complained bitterly when he couldn't reach combat with his 1" movement before the monsters were defeated. I have a player in my 5th edition game who is working very hard to break the bounded accuracy by encasing his fighter in as much plate armor as possible. ("Can I have Adamantium plate? It says it's only Uncommon." "No, because it requires like 40 pounds of adamantium. Do you have 40 pounds of adamantium?" If you think I'm wrong for saying no, let me know.)

Is it just me? Or is this something that happens to most Dungeon Masters?

I'm not super fond of the way 5th edition handles this. It manages high armor class values by leveraging the law of averages. By keeping hit point values for fighters low enough, that the occasional 19 or 20 actually hits (which is what the vast majority of monsters actually need to hit an armor class in the 24-26 range) does enough damage to be threatening. Fighters are this way by design. I allow feats, so lucky means I have to hit the fighter several more times, because that allows him to 'luck away' my critical hits.

The actual experience in play, however, is unsatisfying. I roll many attacks. They all miss. I get a critical, it get's lucked away. I spend a lot of time rolling and there's not much happening. This isn't a problem exclusive to 5th edition, it crops up in all versions of the game. 4th edition dealt with it by making armor one of 4 defenses. 3rd and Pathfinder deal with it by using weak saves and attack values that far exceed possible armor values. 1st edition deals with it by making plate mail very expensive and a focus on encumbrance. 2nd edition doesn't really deal with it, except by providing 'kits' and options that wildly unbalanced everything but it didn't matter because CHOOO-CHOOOO! Mentzer Basic limited Armor Class to actually worn armor, not modified by Dexterity, which affects only missile weapons and reaction speed. Basic of basic expert used strict creation (3d6 in order) and bell curve modifiers combined with high monster hit points and attacks in order to limit the effectiveness of armor.

I mean, it works, right? I'm not complaining. It's certainly more enjoyable on the player side. My favorite method of handling armor is fatigue, from Hackmaster 4th edition. It suffers from the fact that it requires extra tracking and that even plate armor quite clearly was light enough to allow great mobility in combat, but I still like it.

It isn't the armor that's fatiguing, of course. Yes, carrying 30 to 65 pounds of equipment or armor isn't easy, but for someone in shape and used to the rigor it's easily possible. During combat however, your body exhausts itself trying to live.

So, every player has a fatigue factor, which is a combination of their Constitution and level of encumbrance. This provides the number of rounds you can act without becoming fatigued. I represent these in person by handing out white poker chips to players. In order to take their turn in combat, they have to pass me a white poker chip. Once these are out, they have to save versus fatigue in order to act. The target is one-half the total of their Constitution and Wisdom. If they fail, i hand them back a red poker chip. This acts as a penalty to all their actions and defenses.

Why do I like this? Because in certain old school games, you can basically be invulnerable to attacks, unless you receive a critical hit. Critical hits aren't even that relevant. You can become immune to them in 5th edition, or in Hackmaster your weapon skill can be so high that you can mitigate the damage of a critical hit down to nothing. In most versions of the game, there aren't any critical hit rules anyway (besides automatically hitting).

Fatigue increases the relevance of weak opponents. Yes, they can't hurt you. Yes, they are easy to kill, but if there's 80 of them, they still pose a threat, because how fast can you hack? (This works especially well with volumetric fireballs). It also introduces a (significant) benefit to wearing lighter armor and remaining unencumbered that meaningful. Generally, there is no downside at all to increasing your armor class. It's not that there's no significant downside; it's that there literally isn't any downside at all. I say this as someone who has had a legitimate Insight bonus to their Armor Class in Pathfinder.

Does this work for all games? No. It doesn't work for games where combat is supposed to be handled quickly, like basic/expert or original Dungeons & Dragons. It also doesn't work for abstracted games like 4th edition. But for games where you measure inches on a tabletop, and significant combats are a feature of play, it's always been my favorite solution to the heavy armor problem.

Hack & Slash 


  1. This part: "Once these are out, they have to save versus fatigue in order to act. The target is one-half the total of their Constitution and Wisdom. If they fail, i hand them back a red poker chip. This acts as a penalty to all their actions and defenses." isn't clear to me. So the DC for a character with Wis and Con 10 is 10, while for a character with both stats at 20, it's 20? So it's harder for them to make it?

    It does seem like a handy solution, no two ways about it.

    1. What are the penalties for each level of encumbrance?

    2. None is 1x, Light is .75x, moderate is .5x, heavy is .25x and severe is 0.

  2. Does spellcasting wear casters out?

    1. Well, yes. To take any action in combat, you need a white poker chip. Since they are unencumbered, they can act without penalty for far longer.

  3. I don't know, I always go for slower level progression, lowering the rewards a little and emphasising less combat and more everything else. My magic items are rare for combat and more "interesting". At higher levels combat becomes less frequent and posturing becomes more frequent, or commanding troops to go against your enemies.

    I just had a session last weekend where there were 12 orcs vs 3 1st level players. 1 orc died, two players dropped to 0 but were rescued and everything was a chase. The players were attacking the orcs and then had to flee. It was fun and tense. I found the key with 5 ed is lots of easy encounters and then some deadly ones. The players approach the deadly ones either boldly or with cunning.

    1. Do you have much experience playing at levels 8+?

  4. I tend to have a problem with the idea of players being able to beef up their armor class through the use of magic and items for a couple of reasons. First, because the game invariably becomes about the players' toys rather than the character's abilities. Conan didn't wear magical +3 plate armor that negated 75% of critical hits and allowed him to shoot spikes at his enemies. More often than not, he didn't even wear armor; yet, his abilities being so far beyond most mortal men, he managed to survive every encounter of which I am aware. There is a difference, of course, between writing fiction and playing fantasy games, but since the fiction is the basis - the aspiration, even - of my own point of view regarding fantasy games, it would be weird for me not to take the point into consideration. Secondly, as a DM/Referee/Manager/What-have-you, I really shouldn't have to work that hard to challenge the players. If a dramatic increase in AC is expected, then a dramatic increase in Hit Points should not be as necessary (and vice versa).

    I think that the biggest flaw with every system is the idea of infinite growth. That with each level, the character becomes noticeably more powerful. There's no reason to do that. If a player wishes to continue with a certain character after several levels, it is most likely due to an emotional attachment to the character rather than a desire to achieve "level 20" (or 30 or 40 or whatever). Yes, there are exceptions. Yes, that's a generalization. However, infinite power advancement becomes anathema to an already struggling DM. Not only does he or she most likely have to deal with the real world (jobs, school, family obligations), but doing the thing he or she loves to do (DMing) becomes more and more difficult and time consuming to bring to a satisfying realization. It's nuts.

  5. Yeah, I have known plenty of players who chased invulnerability. In my AD&D days, every PC always wore the best armor their class allowed that they could get their hands on. When I played GURPS, one of my friends was on a quest to find transparent steel so he could armor the one vulnerable point he hadn’t yet—his helm’s eyeslits.

  6. Very interesting post.

    "Fatigue increases the relevance of weak opponents". I'm not sure this is needed in 5e, so far they seem to be quite relevant to me, but I haven't played much beyond level 10 or so, nor do I use magic items often.

    I like the idea of armor causing fatigue and taking encumbrance more seriously. This would be specially interesting for the 5e DEX Fighter that, in my opinion, is tempted to treat STR as a dump stat.

  7. ("Can I have Adamantium plate? It says it's only Uncommon." "No, because it requires like 40 pounds of adamantium. Do you have 40 pounds of adamantium?" If you think I'm wrong for saying no, let me know.)

    You're wrong for saying no but not for the reason you might think. Literally, just change "no" to "yes, but" and you're all set.

    Can you make adamantium plate? Yes, but it requires 40 pounds of adamantium. Get that and then we'll talk.

    1. Yeah, I agree with you there. The context of the campaign is a Railroad, being of WotC origin, so I'd have to have a 'detour' that the entire party agreed to, and we are quite ready to be done with it.

  8. It does seem that such system (in 5e) would benefit barbarians, though. Still, it might be a way to balance magic armor if you're using a lot of those.

  9. About whether you were wrong or not about the adamantium:

    A wise man once told me: "Don't say 'No' to your players, say 'Yes!' or 'Yes, but...'", however, its hard to say how to implement "yes, but" if your player was asking for a magic item at CHARACTER CREATION. All the "buts" usually come in-game. So, you end up having to say "Yes, but something bad will be happening that you'll have to discover in-game which wouldn't happen otherwise" or "Yes, but LEPROSY!"

    That, or, you know, "No."

    The "do you HAVE 40 lbs of fantasy metal?" point might actually be good, because its a "yes, but" disguised as a "no". Once they are in the game, the player just has to vandalize the king's prized adamantine statue and voila!


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