Monday, July 14, 2014

The Legacy of Gygax's Armor

Recently, the Basic Rules of the next edition of Dungeons & Dragons became available for download. While for most, this presents an occasion to ponder the future of the game, for this blog, it inevitably turns our gaze back to the past. To magnify one microscopic detail, we find in the new rules a division of armor into familiar categories, with "studded leather" and varieties of mail including ring, scale, splint, chain and finally plate. These types seem to have been with the game since its inception. So where did they come from? We can gain some initial insight from this article by Gary Gygax in Panzerfaust #43, from April 1971: about a month from when the game Chainmail first became available.

In this early article, written three years before Dungeons & Dragons, we can pick out many familiar keywords. Referring to armor prior to the medieval period, Gygax says it "might be padded, leather, scale armor, ring mail, or chain mail," quite a procession in a single phrase. He notes that in the era of the Norman Conquest, the legs of a fighting man might be protected by "studded leather."  Later he cites "banded mail" and "splinted armor," though with the caveat that "none of the authorities can agree as to just what the Hell banded mail was." This all led up to the "Plate period" beginning in the fifteenth century, in which "suits of plate were beautifully made and decorated, but they were entirely functional." Indeed, none of the armor types in the new Basic Rules of Dungeons & Dragons (p.44) go unmentioned in this brief article -- even "hide."

While this article handily demonstrates that Gygax knew of these armor types well before working on Dungeons & Dragons, it is most historically valuable for the citations given in its final sentence. These show us the sources that Gygax consulted for his account of armor, which has been a matter of some confusion.[*] In them, we can find the originals of images Gygax reprinted in the Domesday Book; he plundered Ashdown for weapon depictions given in Domesday Book #5, for example, and his helmets in that issue are taken from Hewitt. In Stone, he could find the following illustration of some of the more exotic armor types, namely ring and scale armor:

This is significant as the prevalence of those armor types in medieval Europe, especially ring armor, became a target of historical skepticism by the mid-twentieth century, largely following Blair's European Armour (1958), which criticized the interpretation of some vague medieval illustrations as indicative of ring mail. Gygax's sources, mostly from the early twentieth century, do not take Blair into account. Thus we might accuse Gygax of neglecting contemporary research in his game designs... except for the fact that Gygax actually did not introduce the ring or scale armor types to gaming. When we look to Chainmail, for example, we see that his system reduced armor to only a few base categories, further divided into those with and without shield, of "armor protection types":

For medieval miniature warfare, Gygax lumps in padded with leather, and considers banded, studded, and splint as equivalent to chain. Ring and scale mail are immediately notable for their omission. Nor did the publication of Dungeons & Dragons fill in that gap. In fact, the first edition of Dungeons & Dragons followed the Chainmail armor categories; unarmored, leather, chain, and plate, which might be worn with or without a shield. Types like padded, banded, and splint, which are at least mentioned in Chainmail, do not appear at all in the original Dungeons & Dragons. This situation remained unchanged through Holmes Basic.

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, and Steve Jackson's Melee keeps to the simple leather/chain/plate categories of Dungeons & Dragons. Scale armor can be worn by Heroes in Midgard 2; though the rule addition is undated, it surely came before 1977. These types are however present in Runequest (1978), which debuted at almost exactly the same time as the original Players Handbook (1978). It is in the PHB that these familiar armor variants could all finally be worn (when purchased) by characters in Dungeons & Dragons:

Probably, we should understand the addition of more armor types as an attempt by Advanced Dungeons & Dragons to remain competitive with the deeper level of medieval simulation that new titles had begun to offer. We can  detect some early hints that this was coming: for example, the entry for "Wood Elves" in the Monster Manual (1977) contains a mention that "they usually wear studded leather or ring mail (armor class 6)." And under "Men," the entry for merchants notes that accompanying mercenaries might include those with "light warhorse, scale mail, light crossbow, sword." It is only natural that the concepts of Advanced Dungeons & Dragons should already be on display in the Monster Manual, even if there was as yet no published system to interpret "scale mail" in the game. But we should be careful to assign the proper legacy to Gary Gygax: his research on armor was ahead of its time, but in expanding his game beyond the simple categories of leather, chain, and plate, he was a follower rather than a leader.

[*] In fact, Gygax had published a detailed bibliography of his medieval sources months earlier in Domesday Book #7, which encompasses works he consulted on castles, battles, weapons, and many other matters than just armor. It does include the authors listed above among many other authorities. To capture Gygax's contemporary thinking, these lists should be preferred to the ones cited far later in the Dungeon Masters Guide (1979) or at the back of Unearthed Arcana (1985) -- with the caveat that Gygax did indeed rely heavily on the 1911 Encyclopedia Britannica for medieval information in the early 1970s for certain particulars, though that would be a story for another time. We also must remember that Conan wears "ring mail" in the "Hour of the Dragon" and scale mail in the "Queen of the Black Coast," and surely fantasy fiction held more sway over early game designers than academic histories.


  1. You might want to talk to Mike Mornard about this; what gary was saying was the then-current SCA approach to armor research at the time. See also the issues of "The Hammer", by Brian Flax.

    - chirine

    1. I will ask Mike. Following my usual method here, I'm going with the sources that Gygax actually cited at the time. Even the long bibliography in DB #7 doesn't cite Flax, though I'll poke around a bit more. There was certainly ample cross-pollination between the SCA and the C&CS, and those old issues of Tournaments Illuminated were circulating in Lake Geneva, so you can't discount influence there.

    2. Oh, I agree with your methods, and I think you are doing the right thing. My thought was that what Gary was saying sounded so much like what was being discussed in the armorers' shops at the time, that the similarity might be worth looking into.

      We went slightly nuts trying to figure out what 'banded' and 'splinted' mail might be. There were so few actual examples of the stuff to hand, and all that we had was what's being termed 'ring' mail.

      By the by, I have to say that 'old issues' of TI is pretty funny to me; back then, they were hot off the presses... :)


    3. Thanks, Chirine! Yeah, it was crazy for a while... like figuring out that "cuir boulli" could NOT have been soaked in wax, as that made it EASIER to cut...

      (Rawhide soaked in salt water turned out to be the best answer... a 1/2 inch thick piece of that will stop a broadhead arrow from a 75 lb bow at 15 yards)

  2. Studded armour has always been the tricky one to figure out. Some (like me) assumed that this was a misinterpretation of brigandine, as it looks like studded leather or cloth from the outside. However, brigandine would be of a much higher armour class, and it was quite effective (some medieval sources say that it was capable of protecting against crossbow attacks).

  3. Most of the armor types in D&D and nearly all RPGs are fairly far from reality, both in their naming and in their construction. Armor was never called "plate mail" for instance, nor was leather by itself ever a common form of protection in medieval times.

    Leather required carefully cured hides and those were not in great supply. Like silk and other expensive fabrics it was used only in small pieces until closer to the renaisance. The use of leather in armor was mostly relegated to specific pieces like the poleyns, spaulders, and the occasional rerebrace. Very little leather armor exists from the medieval period, and in fact little metal armor exists from that time either.

    Mail was very durable, and as the centuries wore on, and mail went from covering the whole body to just the joints, shirts and coats of mail were chopped up and repurposed as aventails, gussets and mantles, leaving probably none made before 1400 still intact (in fact none at all that I know of).

    In addition, variations of what we're calling plate armor was a 13th century medieval invention, not a 15th century (and thus renaisance) one. The first evidence of a "coat of plates" is in a British tomb effigy of around 1250AD, and evidence of fabric surcoats with metal plates riveted to them exists even earlier. This evolved from the emerging use of the lance, which began dominating early medieval battlefields after the widespread adoption of stirrups in the late 12th century. As metallurgy innovations drove forward, smelting larger and larger pieces of iron became possible, giving rise to larger metal plates (noteworthy in that they were still predominantly low carbon iron, not high carbon steel, until the late 14th century) and the concept of a warrior protected entirely by large overlapping plates of metal was born: plate armor.

    Early 14th century plate armor looked more like an intricate and deliberate patchwork of metal, leather and fabric than what we would commonly recognize as "plate armor" today, but it became more widespread and covered more of the body with ever larger plates, resulting in changes to weapons and fighting techniques to adapt. But that's another story :)


    1. I don't think anyone is going to argue for the historical accuracy of armor in fantasy gaming - I'm just trying to get at why the armor types in gaming are the way they are. Unsurprisingly, that has little to do with, you know, actual history.

    2. What makes ME laugh my tonker off is that Gary used sources that, though obsolete now, were perfectly respectable in 1972. No problem, this happens in historical issues.

      But forty years later people continue to swipe his stuff!

    3. Couple of points:
      1. Stirrups were adopted a lot earlier than the 12th century - it was not the lance that drove armour development (more likely it was the crossbow)
      2. High carbon steel for armour is known from the mid-13th century; the Dargen helm had a fairly high content. Here are the specifics on its composition:
      The microstructure consists of pearlite and ferrite, corresponding to a steel of perhaps 0.5% C, with some slag inclusions. Average microhardness (100g) = 256 VPH.
      Dated to ca. 1250-1280; currently displayed in the Altes Zeughaus, Berlin

  4. Dammit, my comment vanished.


    Jon, if you had asked me I could have told you that Gary used Ashdown and Stone for his sources almost totally. "Banded" and "Studded" mail have Ashdown's fingerprints all over it, and Stone is where Gary got the glaive-guisarme-bardiche-spetum-canopener polearms from. Just like CHAINMAIL draws almost 100% on Oman.

    Honestly, I never even knew it was a question. CHAINMAIL and D&D ** obviously ** derive their armor descriptions from Ashdown, who pretty much yanked them out of his ass.

    And in 1977 or 1978 I took my copy of Claude Blair's "European Armor" and visited Dave Sutherland in Lake Geneva. We spent a day photocopying illustrations, and that's where "A Paladin in Hell" got his armor. Once I read Blair I abandoned "studded mail" and "banded mail" et al.

    Also, Dave Sutherland was in the SCA, hence the influence.

    I must admit to being slightly bemused that this is such a puzzle.

    1. Correction, it's Meyerick who made up the mail types, Ashdown just copied them.

      But Gary had a copy of Ashdown on his bookshelves along with Stone.

    2. Definitely appreciate the corroboration - again, I'm always happiest when I can find Gary himself attesting to his sources in the day, but hearing it reinforced by eyewitnesses helps. A ton of people are confused about exactly what authorities he followed, and more importantly which ideas he implemented in gaming. I'm just trying to get the record straight.

      That story about "A Paladin in Hell" makes me want to raid Blair for source images. Good tip!

    3. Given some time, like a day or so, I can probably even find the original. Blair's on my bookshelf just over there. It's a 15th century French made harness with I believe a sparrow-beak close helmet. But confirmation later.

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  6. Nice article! I think it is more likely that studded and ring armour were introduced specifically to distance AD&D from D&D, though, what with them filling the new AC 7 gap between leather armour and what was previously leather armour with shield.

    Gygax's armour taxonomy was pretty good overall, and at least he never seems to have fallen into the trap of "chain mail armour", like so many later derivative authors!

  7. This is great. I didn't know that Dungeons and Dragons will base some items in real life. I played this MMO game before and it is really fascinating. Well, after reading this, I really wanted to play again.

  8. The medieval armour would be the most appropriate thing I would like to have in my medieval collection.