Copyright Chris Tozer © 2019

Edited by Terence Wynne for The Guild Companion

"A key fact about armor is that it isn't just the outer layer that matters. The inner layers can make a considerable difference."

The Last Line of Defense

First and foremost, it needs to be understood that regardless of how much armor and protection—of the non-fantastic sort—is bestowed upon the character, it doesn’t mean that she or he or she is invincible. This holds true especially when fireballs and death rays are thrown into the mix.

Armor is the last line of defense in combat. No semi-intelligent warrior is going to willingly allow himself or herself to be struck: she or he will avoid blows by any means necessary. Your characters should know a thing or two about parrying, blocking, and dodging incoming attacks before heading off to battle—for mobility is critical when it comes to medieval warfare.

What Lies Beneath

A key fact about armor is that it isn’t just the outer layer that matters. The inner layers can make a considerable difference.

Most armor work best when supplemented by a layer that complements the main defense. Beneath the metal fortress of chainmail or plate armor is a padded suit such as an arming doublet, gambeson, or an aketon. Chainmail works best with pieces of solid armor layered over it to negate bludgeoning force—one of chainmail’s greatest weaknesses.

Weighing Your Options

The heavier and bulkier the armor is, the less mobility the warrior has. Equipment weight plays a role in the warrior’s survivability. Mobility keeps a warrior alive and functional, and the more hindered she or he is, the more likely she or he is to be killed.

Furthermore, distribution of that weight is of high importance. Proper weight distribution will ease the burden on the armor-clad warrior and make him a deadlier asset on the battlefield. Even though weight was a serious thing in medieval combat, it wasn’t so terrible as to make plate-wearing knights immobile and unable to get up after falling to the ground; knights would not go out into a fray just to be knocked over and killed. A knight in a properly fitted and crafted suit of plate could do cartwheels, regardless of the weight of the armor. Moreover, warriors wearing such armors were trained to deal with the weight and encumbrance from a very young age.

Regardless, armor is always a compromise between protection and mobility: a person wearing a suit of plate armor isn’t going to be as nimble as a man wearing leather.

Price and Availability

Price is yet another major factor to be considered in choosing armor. While chainmail and plate were taking medieval battlefields by storm, leather still stuck around in the lower ranks due to its affordability. It was prestige and wealth that could accommodate medieval knights with their treasured plate and chain armors, not the racks in the barracks.

Medieval knights were like Greek Hoplites in the sense that both purchased their own armor, with their own money. Your farmer-boy, rising hero isn’t going to be able to stroll into town, locate a skilled blacksmith, a tailor, and a leatherworker, and buy a suit of plate that fits him without having the coin, and time, to do it.

When in a fantasy setting, you must also take into account the availabilities in resources of your countries and kingdoms. Some countries may need to import the metals like the Mesopotamians once did, due to lack of the required materials in the regions. Smiths capable of creating metal armor, and the availability of the technology or power to craft and create the armors, should also be taken into account. The fewer smiths who can make the armor means there are fewer people who can wear and afford it.

One Key Question

All in all, it boils down to one key question, and that is what type of armor will be appropriate for the situations they will be in. Surely you wouldn’t want to send a knight into the middle of the desert in a suit of full plate armor or throw a barbarian with only a leather harness and a raggedy loincloth into the heart of a snowy mountain range.

But perhaps some of your characters are flamboyant and would like to show off that gilded ceremonial plate armor their families prize above all else. Or maybe your proud huntress dons some pieces of her greatest kills upon her leather armor, like a tiger’s pelt for a cape, and a rack of pristine antlers crowning her head.

Whatever the case, armor does have its uses beyond protection; it can reflect characteristics or reveal flaws as well. But, always keep in mind that armor only serves its purpose to an extent, and armor, in all of its varying forms, does not equal invincibility.