When I was younger I fancied myself a bit of a military historian. I read a lot of books, especially on the medieval and renaissance eras. This tied in with my love of D&D and role playing games. But the more I read and learned I began to notice a paradox. Your D&D warrior in heavy armor is far more effective than the figures that historically ended the rule of the heavy armored horse. The system that uses Armor Class as a measurement of how hard it is to hit your opponent will favor heavy armor over skill. While traditionally heavy armor was less a detriment to being hit so much as it allowed the wearer to absorb damage. That is the paradox that has always bothered me.
When I read history I was especially fascinated with the different ways that people developed to break the rule of the armored knight. I know that long term the invention of gunpowder infantry weapons did the knights in. But there were several other things that did them in before that. And they all occurred at roughly the same time historically, the roughly 100 year span from 1275 to 1375.
This week saw the 600th anniversary of the Battle of Agincourt, which saw a numerically superior force of French Knights defeated by English longbowmen. That wasn’t the first time that particular combination won a battle, with archers defeating heavy cavalry.
There were other ways to defeat the heavy cavalry. For example the heavy Pike and Halberd squares of the Swiss armies and mercenaries. Their tight formations of pikemen and the heavy counter of the halberds saw them defeat many a force of heavy cavalry.
And the traditional European heavy cavalry were also routed by the forces of the Mongols in Eastern Europe. The Mongols used large numbers of light horse archers and mobility to keep the heavy cavalry at bay.
Okay so what all this have to do with Dungeons & Dragons you ask? Or role playing games in general? Assuming you are not playing a hybrid game that incorporates early gunpowder weapons, which is possible in some systems, there is a real problem here in my mind.
Some D&D games and campaigns are based on early middle ages level technology and culture. But I think it is more common to think of most of the High Fantasy settings as being closer to late Middle Ages or early Renaissance. Which means that theoretically, depending on your setting, that military expertise has reached the point where any or all of the three developments I spoke of above could be found: massed longbowmen, mass pike squares, light horse archers employing shock tactics. But if you follow the game system rule those tactics will not necessarily work. That is the problem I have with D&D and similar systems.
Let’s take 3 D&D level 1 fighters and equip them as follows. For sake of argument the all have average Strength and Constitution scores for a fighter (16’s). The first is a Knight, with full plate, shield, on a barded warhorse, giving him AC 21 (using Pathfinder rules.) The second is an archer, with light armor, and a longbow. The third is a pikeman, with light armor and a pole arm. We will make the Knight charge from 200 feet.
An armored warhorse moves 30 feet, double on a charge, so the knight can cover that distance in 4 rounds more or less. And when they hit with a lance they get additional damage. Now, that gives the archer 4 rounds to shoot at the knight. And the pikeman can brace his pike, and then attack with reach before the knight gets close, so they get one braced attack before getting attacked. Here is the gritty paradox.
That archer, assuming he has a Dexterity of 16, has four chances to hit AC 21, with a +4 to hit, rolling a D20, that means 4 chances to roll a 17 or higher. Now, assuming that things are average, the knight has 8 hit points, and the bow does 4 points of damage if it hits (Critical hits are not part of the equation.) That means the archer needs 2 hits to kill that knight. So now he needs 2 rolls of 17 or higher on a D20. That’s not very likely.
The pikeman needs 17 to hit, just like the archer. Since he has braced weapon he does do double damage, so if he hits and rolls average he can kill the knight with one shot, but he still needs a 17 or higher to hit. So the pikeman has a chance to kill the knight, but only one before the knight is on him.
Now the the footmen have light armor, as is traditional, which we will call studded leather, which is AC 13. So the Knight needs a 9 or higher to hit, and if he is using a lance he does double damage so his one hit kills on average.
So the odds are decidedly in favor the knight in full plate armor, simply because the system has declared that he is harder to hit. Which technically is the point of armor of course.
My point in all of this is that it creates a paradox. If you study history, the 3 tactics that defeated heavy horse will not work be successful in the D&D/Pathfinder systems. So when it comes to creating a campaign setting you have to figure out how adjust for this. When it comes to role playing systems I personally prefer the Savage Worlds/GURPS approach which treats armor as a damage sink. You can hit that armored knight all day long, but unless you hit them right they won’t really take any damage. But the weapons of the classical foot: longbows, pikes, can do enough damage to get past that damage resistance.
What is my solution you ask? Well the campaign I am running I have come up with a 3 part approach that will reduce the number of characters running around in heavy armor, all of which have some grounding in history. First, is scarcity, where the players are there simply isn’t enough steel to produce many suits of heavy armor (the history being that only the nobility could afford those suits of armor, limiting the number of heavy cavalry.) Two, environment, the players are living in a region that gets hot, it is high desert, so heavy armor can create negative effects. Three, cultural, I am saying that the society the players in have already reached the point where professional armies, trained foot, have become the rule rather than the exception. Which means the county militia is trained as pikemen and archers, not heavy horse.
Now what do I do when the party does reach the point where they can afford heavy armor and wants it? I’m not sure, I will probably allow some of them to have it, but emphasize that their role is not the same as traditional soldiers. And that is one of the reasons they won’t see many other people wearing heavy armor.
Well this was a fun, if long winded post. To sum up, if you want a reasonable game where the players are not running around in full plate all the time, you either have to play a different system, or use a little deus ex machina in the creation of your world.