HOW CAN YOU USE THIS IN YOUR CAMPAIGNS?
We’ve talked a lot about various weaknesses and limitations throughout this article and there’s a temptation to see these as making your gear watered down or boring. The reality is weaknesses will actually make your gear far more interesting for your players. Contrast the below two examples:
The Dungeons and Dragons Approach
Weak points and multi-hit Penetration
As touched on earlier, most armour does not stand up to multiple hits, so perhaps you decide this is the element you most want to focus on. Perhaps you decide that when an attack lands, the attacker can choose to either hit an unarmoured extremity and deal only a hit point to two of damage because it’s not a vital area (let’s say a character has 40hp), or to deal full damage to the armour directly in the hope of eventually breaking through to the wearer (let’s say the armour has 30hp of its own)
This immediately creates some interesting tactical choices. If you have a weapon that deals high raw damage, you’ll want to focus on breaking the armour; on the other hand, if you can make lots of low damage attacks, you’re better off going for the unarmoured areas since you might be only dealing a couple of points of damage anyway. You also now give poisons a place in your game, since targeting the unarmoured section allows you to afflict the target with the poison without having to break through their armour.
As a third perk, you have the option of handing out some special rules to weapons. Perhaps stiletto daggers deal double damage to unarmoured areas, perhaps war hammers deal damage to both armour and the wearer. Perhaps lightening magic will deal full damage even to an armoured combatant but doesn’t harm the armour.
The key point here is that by giving your armour a specific weakness, you give the players the opportunity to adjust their pattern of play when they encounter it. The phrase ‘an armoured behemoth stomps into the room, the ground shaking underfoot’ ought to elicit different player strategies to ‘the blade dancer balances on a single blade of grass, coiled with potential energy and waiting for you to make the first move’
Though arguably a 'mech' rather than an armour suit, mass effects Atlas requires players to adjust their strategies.
Neither approach is always better
Even though this article is focused on science fiction, I specifically choose Dungeons and Dragons as the ‘uninteresting’ example. This is because it demonstrates that your game system, or your world, needn’t be complex to be enjoyed; no one (least of all us) is arguing that Dungeons and Dragons isn’t an amazing game system.
The take away here is to focus on what’s important to your campaign. We belabour this point a lot, but its critical: your players can only deal with so much complexity and still have fun. A full simulation of armour, including equipping time, serviceability, mobility impacts, coverage, multi-hit penetration and so on is entirely possible but you don’t give your players a lot of room to deal with anything else.
If your players are power armoured space marines and every session will involve them kitting up in battle suits, each a relic with generations of history, then you should absolutely put some effort into that. Make them powerful enough to deliver on their premise: let the players shatter their way through weaker foes with contempt. Balance this by giving them some weaknesses so when your heroes encounter certain foes they tense up, knowing that this fight isn’t like the others – here death could come swiftly and without warning (or at least you should play it up that way, we’d suggest most groups aren’t ready for a fight where a character might be killed in a single hit).
On the other hand, if only one of your players is ever going to use a personal shield, and even then, only in the last few sessions of the campaign, it’s probably a bad idea to have a full page of house rules governing its operation. Try to find the simplest way to blend it into existing rules while still providing worthwhile advantage. We still recommend giving it some degree of weakness, but maybe that weakness functions the same as those possessed by all other armour, or maybe its just a simple blanket statement that’s easy to remember (in Wireless Soul Transmission: “magnetic screens don’t stop beam weapons”).
If you can get past the gravity skates, the weak acting, the characters and the plot - Jupiter Ascending is a pretty good movie for world building ideas, like this energy shield that focuses its energy on a limited arc.
Who Wears the Best Armour?
While the complexity of the rules you use should be determined by player interest, the amount, and quality of armour present in your universe will be a function of the world itself. In fantasy RPGs, the castle dungeon raid likely ends in an encounter with the mad duke who, by virtue of his position, has the best armour in the place and whatever benefits that entails. Unless you’re doing a neo-feudal universe, its important to note that this isn’t terribly likely in science fiction.
As covered earlier, police today wear soft armour that is good against pistols and shotguns, but not really against military grade weapons. It follows that the police commissioner is not going to be wearing powered armour just because he’s the ‘boss’ at the end of the ‘police dungeon’. This is likely to be as true in an era of phasers and fullerene armour as it is today.
Going further – within professions we specialise more than we used to. A futuristic fleet admiral might be an equivalent to our medieval castellan, but you’d expect him to be a strategist and not a fighter. Ironically, he might not wear body armour at all, being well removed from any close-quarters engagements.
Such concepts also give you a jump off point for characterising your campaign in other ways. If your admiral wears armour because of shapeshifting assassins they will be a lot more paranoid than their trial-by-combat equivalent, though the latter might treat the players with automatic respect for their own history of personal combat. In this way character personality, world backstory and armour are all woven together. Instead of just hearing about the war with the shape shifting assassins, your players will speak with an individual who’s attitudes and dress are shaped by it, they may recover their armour and experience a material (and game mechanical) benefit that ties back to that same story.
We’ve covered some of the core technologies in personal protection, both from current day and those that pop up frequently in science fiction. While this will certainly be of use, the more important take away is how there are certain core physical and operational challenges that will always define personal defence. By understanding these you’ll be able to make technologies meet the inherent expectations your players will have about their body armour and how it fits into your world. You’ll be able to design rules and backstory that focus on the elements of personal protection that you believe are worth focusing on.
And once you know your player expectations you can also break them, creating the rich nuggets of variation that set your world apart from the one we live in today.
Except where otherwise noted, these posts are written by Stephen J Orion. Director of Scribed Starlight Press and creator of Wireless Soul Transmission.