Thursday, April 27, 2017

1e Tunnels & Trolls, Part 11: Armor

Helmets (Rob Carver, 1st edition, p. 18)
21. Armor

What was the first fantasy game to incorporate ring mail, scale mail, piece armor and multiple sizes and makes of shields into its armor system? The answer is Tunnels & Trolls, three years before the Advanced Dungeons & Dragons Players Handbook.

I know this schtick of mine (T&T was first in this or that, and/or was more detailed than its precursor in this or that) is getting a bit old by now, but I want to keep, so to speak, hammering it in. It might be a wonky historical thing, but I think it's interesting and notable.

The supposedly "simple," "easy" and "stripped-down" alternative to Dungeons & Dragons had a relatively large selection of armor possibilities. T&T would remain one of the few fantasy games to do so through the 1970's, as most of the offerings in the first six years of the hobby more or less adhered to the tripartite standard of leather/chainmail/plate set by Gary Gygax and Tactical Studies Rules in 1974.

Here is the armor class chart from OD&D's Monsters & Treasure:

And here are the armor and shield lists from 1st edition Tunnels & Trolls:

Okay, caltrops aren't shields, but still.

You also might notice that the R.A.F. Flight Helmet and Steel Beaney, etc. are not on the list. Those were jokes by the artist, Rob Carver.

(That's it! No jokes allowed! Everything in the rulebook MUST be serious!)

It makes sense that the games published by Tactical Studies Rules (later, TSR) would stay on this track. With an "armor class" system consisting of eight possibilities or degrees of armor coverage from AC 9 to AC 2, having only three types of armor (or four types if you counted wearing no armor as a type), plugged right in to the system. The four types would neatly become eight if each split into the particular type with or without a shield.

And looking back on it, this is what made the explosion of armor types in the Advanced Dungeons & Dragons Players Handbook seem so out of place. Suddenly armor class lost its meaning as a "class." AC 7, for example, represented Leather + shield OR Padded armor + shield OR studded leather OR ring mail. The further grafting of a weapons vs. armor type chart onto the new scheme made no sense, since each class now contained up to four divergent types of coverage. And, of course, the addition of an extra notch - AC 10 - made things even more confusing.

Looking more closely at early games from Tactical Studies Rules, Empire of the Petal Throne (1975) adhered to the OD&D standard, as did Metamorphosis Alpha (1976) and Gamma World (1978), though the latter two would change the armor names around a bit to reflect a more primitive or post-apocalyptic vibe - leather became "heavy fur or skins," chainmail became "cured hide or plant fiber," and so on.

Curiously, the non-TSR Arduin Grimoir (1977), which added more detail and options to all sorts of things, roughly adhered to the original unholy trinity, adding only scale armor and a kite shield into the mix, and the insanely complicated non-TSR The Complete Warlock (1975, 1978) with its pages and pages of lists and charts cooked up by Caltech numbers nerds, made only a timid venture into armor expansion by adding merely the brigandine and "chain-plate."

As far as I can tell, the second fantasy game to follow Tunnels & Trolls in going, so to speak, full-diversity in terms of armor was Chivalry & Sorcery (1977), followed by Runequest (1978), which put a premium on piece armor.

And that's a bit ironic. Tunnels & Trolls was that "less serious" game, while Chivalry & Sorcery was about as serious (way past a fault, many would say) as you could get. And, of course, Runequest was also very much on the serious side.

Here is Chivalry & Sorcery (I hope you can read it):

Don't take just my word (or the small type screenshots) for all of this. I was first alerted to the whole issue by reading a post at the Playing at the World blog, by the pre-eminent historian of the hobby, Jon Peterson. Interestingly, for ring and scale devotees, Peterson points out that even Chivalry & Sorcery left those out:
So who first introduced ring and scale to role-playing games? The answer can be found in the first printing of Tunnels & Trolls (1975), which includes a detailed armor chart that divides plate armor into constituent parts (the basinet, breastplate, casque, chausse, cuirass, and solleret), and does the same for chain, ring, and scale. Here Ken St. Andre proves a solitary innovator: though he reuses the ring and scale categories in his Monsters! Monsters! (1976), few soon followed his lead: even the exhaustive list in Chivalry & Sorcery (1977) skips ring and scale . . .
So far, my analysis has been historical and fairly neutral (though, I obviously took a few shots at AD&D). But for the last few paragraphs I want to switch gears and ask a basic question:

How much armor should a fantasy game have?

There are two parts to the question - one is mechanical and the other is aesthetic/historical.

In my view, for an OD&D type eight armor class system (which of course T&T did not have), anything more than three armor types is too much, for the reasons explained above. I suppose you could have more than three different names for, say AC 5 armor - we use mail here in the northern lands, in the south they use lamellar and those weirdos in the forest use plant fibre - but if you put them all on the same equipment list it fusses things up, and the players will simply choose the cheapest or (after they have some money) least encumbering alternative.

A piece armor system placed on top of the three, also fails for some of reasons explained above. I think you could have a piece armor system on its own. Instead of leather, chainmail and plate, for example, you could, say, simply have different levels of plate coverage. A number of games have done this to excellent effect, especially when simulating non-medieval or non-European armor systems. See, for example, the recent Swords and Wizardry White Box based Ruins and Ronin (2009).

For a non-OD&D absorptive armor system, such as Tunnels & Trolls, all bets are off, and it would initially seem to grant a wider degree of freedom to incorporate greater and more diverse armor types. But I'm not sure. Piece armor almost seems out of place. The point of, say, a breast plate is not that it absorbs less damage than a full suit of plate but that it either absorbs the same amount of damage (if you strike it) or absorbs no damage at all (if you strike another part of the body). Perhaps this is a quibble. And, arguably, the Tunnels & Trolls combat system is presented at such a high level of abstraction that it's silly to even worry about the issue.

More to the point for either, say, D&D or Tunnels & Trolls is why you need more than a few choices, given that players will always go for the best ones. AD&D had nine different types of armor (or ten if you counted the off-the-initial-scale armor type, full plate), but fighters would pretty much always gravitate towards plate (or full plate), at least once they had a bit of money. The other armor alternatives would be left for silly NPC's to wear or to create annoying situations - Wow, a +2 suit of ring mail! Gee, thanks, I guess, Santa!

You can create some interesting choices by making use of other variables such as, say, encumbrance - you might choose something a bit less protective than plate if it were much lighter - but it's still almost impossible to make nine or ten types attractive.

Tunnels & Trolls somewhat bucked this problem by simply making more protective armor progressively more heavy. Given the extra importance placed on strength-based carrying capacity in T&T, this arguably worked - you might very well choose, say, chain mail over plate, just so you could use that great axe (or just so you wouldn't collapse in your armor after expending a few strength points casting a spell). I should note that 5th edition Tunnels & Trolls made chain mail (5th edition would, with more accuracy, call it simply, "mail") heavier than plate. This made more sense from the standpoint of historical realism but essentially made the existence of mail pointless.

From an aesthetic or historical point of view, the military historian, Gary Gygax set a very bad precedent with his armor types. Leaving aside the odd and ahistorical terms - "chain mail" (instead of just "mail) and later in AD&D, the almost non-sensical, "plate mail" - Gygax postulated a world in which different historical armor types existed side-by-side at the armor store. But in fact, mail was medieval, while plate was not. Plate armor came into its own during the renaissance period and after. And it was an improvement in every way over mail. It was more protective and lighter and cheaper. I doubt there ever was a time when, say, knights went into battle with some of them wearing mail and some of them wearing plate, or even a time when mail wearing knights confronted plate wearing knights.

Indeed, in most historical times and places, soldiers didn't really make choices as to armor types. Armor was just armor - made out of bronze, mail links, metal plates or what have you, based on the technology level and time period. You might have a bit of choice over the number of pieces you wore (or could afford to wear) but that was it.

It might be objected that historical accuracy is beside the point, that these are fantasy games we're talking about, etc., etc., but for Gygax, at least, who seemed to pride himself on getting this sort of thing right, it's a bit weird.

Regardless, the precedent was set.

I bit the bullet and used the unholy trinity of leather/mail/plate for Seven Voyages of Zylarthen, partly because I felt that it had become too canonical to leave out of an OD&D based game. I tried to make mail more attractive by making it much less encumbering than plate (again, inaccurately from an historical point of view), and by pumping up the constraints of encumbrance such that such a consideration would matter. I have to say, though, that that "compromise" still annoys me a bit.

I think the armor choices generally work for 1st edition T&T, though I still have my reservations about the piece thing. And I don't know about that tower shield. Why not just allow warriors to drag a metal sheet down into the dungeon and ask the monsters to hold up for a moment before you set it up?

An extensive armor list was part of the "pump up the volume" vibe of Tunnels & Trolls. You like armor? Have more armor! And don't forget your Viking spike shield. Here, catch...

Next: Where Did All the Magic Items Go?


This is a multi-part review series focusing on the 1st edition of Tunnels & Trolls. I also discuss the original edition of Dungeons & Dragons (OD&D), the early history of the hobby, later developments in Tunnels & Trolls and game design in general.

The 1st edition of Tunnels & Trolls was authored by Ken St. Andre in the spring of 1975. It was a 41 page, typewriter-written document, from which 100 photocopies were created. These were sold to friends and fellow gamers in Phoenix, Arizona, with some of the remainder being offered at the Westercon 28 gaming convention in Oakland, California. Within a few months, St. Andre entered into an agreement with the play-by-mail wargame company, Flying Buffalo, and a 2nd edition of Tunnels & Trolls was officially published at the end of the year. Many more editions followed, including the iconic 5th edition in 1979, which would remain in print, in much the same form, until 2012.

In 2013, as part of the Kickstarter campaign for Deluxe Tunnels & Trolls, St. Andre donated his only remaining copy of the 1st edition to be used as an incentive. Flying Buffalo later released a PDF of that copy, based on a precise scan of the original document, and including a new one-page introduction by St. Andre and a new back cover. It can now be purchased on RPGNow for $1.95.

At that price, it is now the best "steal" in the hobby. And it acts as a fascinating historical introduction to one of the best values in the hobby, the comprehensive 386 page current edition of Deluxe Tunnels & Trolls.


  1. What are your reservations regarding piece armour?

    1. Well, I tried to explain it, above (though obviously not very well). In an OD&D AC 9 to AC 2 system it doesn't track well, at least if you also have full suits. The original conception of an armor class was of an actual CLASS, not merely a particular level of protection. But that breaks down if you add pieces. A breastplate is just a different sort of thing than, say, leather armor plus a shield.

      But I think piece armor fits very well with the OD&D system if you scrap the full suits and just go with pieces.

      For an absorptive armor system, it doesn't really fit the whole idea of it. See paragraph 11 from the bottom, above.

      In both, it also seems overly fussy and unnecessary - why would any one want to wear, say, only a breastplate or only a gorget or whatever - unless you provide strong reasons for that sort of thing, such as a robust encumbrance mechanic, which 1st edition T&T sort of does.

      For my own game, Zylarthen, I built in armor vs. weapons considerations into the combat mechanic - maces are better against plate, swords are better against leather - because I thought it added some neat choices for the players. But that would have been impossible (or non-sensical) to do if pieces had been added into the mix.

      I suppose for most game systems, you can just hand waive some of these considerations. But my fussy side is annoyed by them.

  2. None of this answers the question about just a helmet, like that guy with the spear from white plume mountain

  3. I thought plate usually had mail underneath it.