Armor vs. Padding

Even the chainmail bikini usually gives an RPG hero a boost in “armor”: that generic value of how protected a character is.  In a lot of games, there’s no reason not to want the highest protection, and in others, the trade off is a simple protection vs. speed.  In order to have more interesting choices in armor, we should look at different types of damage.

Many others have contemplated the various armor styles in RPGs, and they boil down to three distinct effects against incoming damage: evasion, reduction, or absorption.  Evasion armor helps attacks miss you (e.g. D&D: a sword bounces off of plate), reduction negates the damage altogether (e.g. Shadowrun: lowered damage total), and absorption transfers the damage from one source to another (e.g. FATE: from physical wounds to stress).  There are pros and cons to each, but the reality of armor is that it usually does all three.

The main issue with straight damage vs. armor is that there are multiple different types of attacks that are effective against multiple types of armor.  A dagger slips underneath the platemail, but gets slowed by a layer of padding.  A bullet slams into a body vest, knocking its wearer off their feet. Most attacks have some effect of wearing down their target.

In order to more interestingly simulate armor in a game, and without making it overly complicated, some games have given armor bonuses against the “core” types of attacks: slashing, piercing, and crushing.  But these are very specific, and don’t work well as generic damage types.  Instead, I’d like to suggest using “lethal” and “non-lethal” damage types.  In some games, non-lethal damage is an add-on mechanic only used for fist fights or the occasional status effect.  However, if we define every type of attack with both lethal and non-lethal properties, we can come up with something very interesting.

Lethal damage is the cutting/piercing power of an attack.  It’s the damage that, given no protection at all, drains the life force from blood-bag humans.  Non-lethal damage is the force behind an attack.  Most attacks have it, but it hits in a different form than lethal damage.  It generally hurts more (I thought about calling it “pain” damage…), and it saps a character’s energy, focus, and balance.

For this to work, we have to assume two properties in our RPG: “health” and “energy”, or some version of it.  Lethal damage gets through to health, and non-lethal gets through to fatigue.  A sword swing, for example, may have 5L and 5NL damage, an arrow may have 7L, 3NL, and a hammer may have 1L, 10NL.  As you might expect, once a character is out of energy, that damage starts rolling over to health.

If we have these two types of damage, we also need two types of protection: armor and padding. Armor will reduce the damage from lethal attacks, and padding will reduce the damage from non-lethal attacks. I think this best simulates both the evasion and absorption properties of protection by completely negating the effect of low-damage attacks and splitting the possible effects of attacks with this dual-type system.

Let’s look at some extreme examples:

Plate vs. Blade: The high armor of plate protects it against the cut of the blade, but not the swing of the metal.  A hammer would be more effective, but the sword swinger still slaps a bit of wind out of the wearer.

Plate with Padding: “I didn’t even feel that.”

Bullet vs. Body Vest:  The body armor stops all of the “lethal” damage behind the bullet, but the force of the impact still hurts like a bitch.

Boxing: The attacker’s gloves acts as padding, turning a bone-on-bone situation into a pure ‘force’ attack.  This lets the competitors beat the crap out of each other without fear of getting actually injured (obvious exaggeration, but that is why they wear gloves).

The line of “overly complicated” is blurry, and very much open to individual preference.  To me, that line is crossed whenever a system introduces hit locations or weak points in defenses (for the players - at least).  I much prefer critical hits and misses, to keep things exciting while simulating that “perfect hit”.  In this type of system, the attacker might have a choice for critical hits either A) increasing damage total, B) bypassing armor, or C) bypassing padding, or some combination thereof.

The straightforward Lethal -> Armor -> Health and Non-Lethal -> Padding -> Energy damage system I propose here could be what I use in my upcoming game Hostargo.  But I can’t help but feel that, while this has solved my gripes about damage and armor in other games, it’s going to be too much.  The extra definition of each attack, plus the additional subtraction and rollover of damage means that this would add quite a crunch to whatever system it’s implemented in.