Welcome back to the Zurn blog! Today we are continuing our discussion of recommended changes to make Dungeons and Dragons more realistic, and since we discussed weapon proficiencies last week, we now move to armor proficiencies.
My hope here isn't to bash D&D for being a "bad system." Rather, because people get the wrong idea about weapons and armor from games like D&D, we need to be intentional about how we portray them in games. So in this post, we will set the record straight on armor, as there are a lot of oddities with the armor system in Dungeons and Dragons (and many other games that have been influenced by D&D).
I. Armor Proficiency in Dungeons and Dragons
Chapter V of the Player Handbook (Page 144) says, "Anyone can put on a suit of armor or strap a shield to an arm (Note: which is true, though I'll note that most shields--you know what, we'll save shields entirely for a future post). Only those proficient in the armor's use know how to wear it effectively, however. Your class gives you proficiency with certain types of armor. If you wear armor that you lack proficiency with, you have disadvantage (Note: this means you roll two 20-sided dice and take the lower result) on any ability check, saving throw, or an attack roll that involves Strength or Dexterity, and you can't cast spells." This is the official justification for armor proficiency. And I contend it makes no sense.
So basically the game designers are saying, "We're not saying you can't pick up a chain mail shirt and throw it on, we're just saying that you'll suck at fighting (so melee characters are out), won't be able to cast spells (so casters are out), and will fail ability checks that will help you get in and out of places (so rogues are out)."
As a limiter to provide game balance, this is a good limitation: it definitely keeps the classes in line as regards what they use for armor, and incentivizes taking the feats that give you an armor proficiency (commonly derided for being useless compared to an ASI upgrade). The problem, of course, is that this decision moves us past realism into the realm of, "Well I can't explain why your character gets this penalty, but they do because that's the rules so that we don't have heavily armored warlocks running around in plate mail blasting people with Eldritch Blasts." And it is this movement past reality that we want to discuss in this post.
There is also an advanced rule (same page) that allows the game master to add difficulties or cost for adjusting and tailoring armor, which as an aside I think is actually really cool and should be used (in fact, I've added rules like this to the official campaigns released by Zurn because it encapsulates realism really well). For the rest of this post we will walk through the problems I have with this mindset toward armor, and then present one simple adjustment that moves us back toward realism and the art of storycraft.
II. The Problem with Armor Proficiency As-Written
I have a lot of thoughts, but I'm going to narrow this post down to four issues.
First, the vast majority of armor in the book (everything except plate mail) does not require "proficiency" to figure out how to wear it effectively, which is the wording used on Page 144. I grant that plate mail requires you to learn how to strap it on and the right order to strap it on, and I'd go as far as to say that you really need help from another person to wear plate mail due to how the straps work. But to think that anyone who can put on a shirt can't figure out how chain mail, hide armor, or padded armor can be "worn effectively" is laughable.
Second, the vast majority of armor (plate mail included) was designed in medieval times not to inhibit a Strength or Dexterity check, with the exception of stealth rolls (which D&D gets right, by the way). Why would wearing a padded gambeson (Light Armor) as a sorcerer inflict a penalty on Sleight of Hand rolls (Dexterity)? Why would Hide armor inhibit a wizard's ability to lift or haul things (Athletics)? It makes no sense.
And third (and perhaps the most odd), why would armor (even ill-fitting armor) keep you from casting a spell? The only way I make sense of this is if it keeps you from seeing, but are we seriously saying that a sorcerer wearing a gambeson (padded armor, the "most basic" of all armor in the game, which really gets shafted in D&D as padded armor is way more effective than they give it credit for) can't see? Really? Under this rule, you can't even cast a spell on yourself, which you can clearly see. It makes no sense.
Furthermore, the rules as written indicate that if a spell only required, say, verbal components, why would you be kept from saying the words because you are wearing (say) ring mail as a warlock? In a system that specifies whether a spell requires somatic components (physical motions) to perform a spell, why in the world would the rule apply to all spellcasting and not just somatic components? Game balance. Not realism.
And the final thing we're going to talk about is donning and doffing time. First of all, I'm really glad they have this in the game. But some of the times are ridiculous because of the fact that they try to make an overarching claim for all armor in a given category. A typical chain mail or ring mail shirt will require less than a minute to equip, mostly because (as we know from history) the padded layers underneath were tied to everyday wear, so you didn't need to put on a cloth shirt or padded armor before putting it on. This is part of why so many guards across the medieval period wore chain mail: it's fast to equip, gives good protection, and is easy to repair. So the idea that a ring mail shirt, chain mail shirt, or chain mail would take 5-10 minutes to equip is just wrong, even if you include putting on gauntlets and a helmet.
Now where it does work is for items like plate mail that have extensive straps.
III. The Solution for Armor Proficiency
I'm going to say something that might be controversial: we don't need armor proficiency. If a wizard wants to spend gold on armor instead of spell components (which are not cheap), why not? If a ranger comes across a set of chain mail in the wild and wants to put it on (because he's smart and knows that it would stop virtually any and all animal claws and teeth from penetrating his skin), why wouldn't that be his choice? Both of these make perfect sense for certain types of people.
Now, there may be some druids that might swear off metal armor because they want to be closer to nature. And that is a wonderful story-based reason for not taking metal armor, and that is excellent.
And that is what we should be encouraging: find what the character would do, and then do it. But if you have a druid who has lived in the wild, has seen his fair share of dangerous beasts, and decides that a utility coat of plates (splint mail) would keep him safe from wild animals, then so be it. Why would we force him to go with poor armor when he knows that a monster could attack him before he has a chance to beast shape? We want our characters to make choices that make sense, and that means reenvisioning armor proficiency to allow them to use their street smarts in choosing how they dress, not an arbitrary rule.
The fact that a battle wizard accompanying a king as part of his official army cannot wear decent armor unless he multi-classes is unrealistic. At all. And I cannot imagine that wizards in the D&D world just sat back and said, "Okay, I guess we'll die, because game balance."
And on a related note, "mage armor" is not a sufficient substitute, but we'll discuss that in a separate post on defensive spells. As a bit of a teaser, the answer for a mage would never be, "burn an important spell slot to guarantee that you have protection for 8 hours when you could have protection all day without fear of losing concentration" when they could just slip into chain mail and be protected for 16 hours, especially in a universe where metal armor and cloth armor protect you equally from physical and magical damage.
Again, my hope with this post is not to say, "Wow, D&D sucks." My point in this whole series is to say that armor is a lot less complicated than we make it out to be, and when that poorly informs people on how armor actually works, that's on us as game designers. We need to be presenting things accurately because game knowledge does bleed over into the real world.
I hope this was of use to you; join us again as we take a look at shield proficiency, which is, I think, one of the ways that D&D can improve the most. Following up on this post, I may also do a post talking about edits to armor generally to complete the discussion on armor, but we will see.