Exploring Armor Options

A few days ago I posted rules for armor in Echelon. Some have been retained, some discarded because they were impractical or didn’t achieve the goals I wanted.

Two benefits of armor that I really liked were that armor provided Damage Reduction and energy resistance. I removed the Damage Reduction because after the increase in armor class the rules changed granted Damage Reduction would make fights take way, way too long. I may revisit this in future, in part because I may have gone too far in making armor relevant throughout the tiers – it can be as hard to hit a character in full plate at twentieth level as at first. I’m not convinced this is a problem, but I want to prepare some options in case it is.

In order to provide useful protection from energy (which means that it is worth having at low level and requires that it scales with level in some fashion) it turned out that it quickly became sufficient to protect the wearer from energy effects like sustained exposure to fire or even lava. When this was pointed out I agreed it was probably too much and dropped it, but it made me sad to lose armor providing protection from energy effects. On reconsideration it might not even be unreasonable that it work that well, and some alternatives have been suggested that I want to explore.

Another concern about the presented rules was that there were too many armor class values. I was modeling D&D 3.x armor use, but I’m all for simplification. I’ll present a couple of options below.

Damage Reduction Options

My original post had armor provide Damage Reduction equal to the armor bonus and increased by Martial Training to a maximum of twice the armor bonus. This was so all armor had a Damage Reduction bonus and so that heavy armor continued to improve beyond what was possible with light armor.

This was certainly achieved; the best light armor could be improved to a point no better than the full plate (+8 total), while full plate could provide up to sixteen points of Damage Reduction.

It was pointed out that this amount of Damage Reduction starts too high to be practical.

Four to nine points of Damage Reduction at first level renders many weapons more or less useless. Two-handed weapons can still have effect at low level (2d6+6 cannot fail to get past DR 4, and will almost always get past DR 9), and if critical hits ignore armor-based Damage Resistance then critical-happy weapons can ignore all the DR for about 15% of all hits, as long as the attack bonus is high enough to cover the whole threat range (and do extra damage in the bargain). However, if the attack does not result in a critical hit then the critical-happy weapons often won’t do damage at all to the person wearing light armor and will almost never harm a person wearing full plate. A person wielding a one-handed weapon such as a long sword might do 1d8+2 or 1d8+3 points of damage – enough to usually get past DR 4, but often not enough to get past DR 9 (and do only minimal damage even then).

Light armor can provide a maximum of DR 8 at seventh level, which puts it slightly worse off than full plate at first level. Heavy armor can provide a maximum of DR 16 at fifteenth level. Critical-happy weapons can be expected to still bypass this entirely 15% of all hits (and probably higher if the wielder has learned an appropriate combat style that increases the threat range), and two-handed weapons can be expected to get past this DR (getting +16 points of damage at this level, without a critical hit, is pretty trivial even without magic weapons).

This is still workable, even without considering other options for calculating Damage Reduction from armor. I’ve listed a couple below, but in the end I agreed that having Damage Reduction at all is likely to turn combat into an annoying grind. Limited Damage Reduction may be appropriate (such as the Unearthed Arcana version (described below), but those values are small enough I don’t think they’re worth the trouble.

Unearthed Arcana Armor Damage Reduction

Unearthed Arcana introduced a variant for armor that split the armor into a defense bonus (adds to Armor Class) and a Damage Reduction bonus. The defense bonus is equal to one-half of the normal armor bonus, rounded up, and the armor provides Damage Reduction equal to one-half of the normal armor bonus, rounded down. Thus, each type of armor in the core rules provides an armor bonus from one to four points, and zero to four points of Damage Reduction.

The difference in armor bonus could frankly help Echelon because it is hard to get past full plate (the +8 armor bonus will likely always apply, causing the armor class to stay about eight points higher than the attack bonus possible at any give level). Reducing the armor bonus of full plate from +8 to +4 should more than double the chances of hitting someone in full armor, while the Damage Reduction will help mitigate the effects of this change.

Personally I don’t think this is needed. Full plate armor is supposed to make it hard to hit the wearer, and DR 4 (or less) can be hard to care about for a lot of the game. I mention this option for those who find armor is too useful and want to back it off.

Damage Reduction Derived from Martial Training

Jim suggested deriving the value of ‘armor-based’ Damage Reduction from the Martial Training Bonus, with the armor acting as a tool to modify how much Damage Reduction is available. Specifically, light armor allows an active wearer to have Damage Reduction equal to one-half his Martial Training Bonus, medium armor allows an active wearer to have Damage Reduction equal to his Martial Training Bonus, and heavy armor allows an active wearer have Damage Reduction equal to twice his Martial Training Bonus.

These values are usable, for the reasons given above. They allow Damage Reduction to grow through a character’s career, while not making them as difficult to apply at low levels as my original suggestion. The curve is slightly different and may work better, but I think it still suffers from the problem of making fights against heavily-armored opponents a grind.

Damage Reduction as Threshold

This variation can be applied to almost any Damage Reduction option. Damage Reduction becomes a slight misnomer in that it no longer reduces the damage of any particular successful hit, but acts as a threshold for doing damage. Damage that does not exceed the Damage Reduction is prevented, while damage that exceeds the Damage Reduction happens normally, without being lessened by the Damage Reduction.

Without the rule allowing critical hits to ignore armor-based Damage Reduction, this will lead to heavy weapons being favoured against heavily-armored opponents and light weapons favoured against lightly-armored opponents. Even without this rule, critical hits from lighter weapons may still be able to get past the Damage Reduction (a rapier doing 2d6+6 on a critical hit is trivially done around the Heroic tier).

This variation would probably mitigate the effects of Damage Reduction without making it useless. I still think I won’t use this, at least initially, but think it may be a useful variation.

Armor Providing Protection from Energy

I really like the idea of armor providing benefits against energy attacks. As tussock pointed out years ago, if you wanted to design a suit to protect against energy effects (using materials available during medieval times) it would probably end up looking a lot like full plate – a hard, durable, conductive shell over a softer nonconductive layer. I originally liked the idea because characters wearing heavy armor usually suffered horribly from energy attacks because they lacked decent Reflex saves and no way to mitigate the damage, while most other characters had some options (whether protective magic or skill to avoid the effect, such as good Reflex saves or evasion).

Armor Providing Energy Resistance

My initial approach had armor provide energy resistance as I described for Damage Reduction above (armor bonus plus Martial Training Bonus, to a maximum of twice the armor bonus). One concern was that this could easily make a character wearing heavy armor mostly immune to prolonged exposure to energy (such as standing in fire or lava). A counterargument was that spellcasters at similar levels can easily have that effect without armor at all (and I am sympathetic to this argument; “fighters should be allowed to have nice stuff” holds a lot of weight with me, and packing around and wearing fifty pounds of armor should be worth something).

Energy resistance could be calculated as Damage Reduction above (light provides energy resistance equal to one-half Martial Training Bonus, etc.), but I think in this case it is derived primarily from the armor itself rather than skill using it, so I’d keep the original calculation.

Armor Providing Reflex Bonuses

This was originally suggested by tussock, and I actually like it rather more than the energy resistance option for a couple of reasons that I’ll describe below.

At first glance it seems odd that a character loaded with armor would be better at avoiding effects calling for Reflex saves, since they can’t dodge so well, but with a bit of consideration it actually makes a lot of sense. Armor covers the body with a protective shell (of varying quality depending on the armor). Cover. Cover provides bonuses to Reflex saves. The tanked out fighter doesn’t lithely dance between the flames of a fireball, he ducks and covers to avoid the worst of it and lets his armor absorb the rest.

Checking the rules for cover, cover normally provides a +2 bonus to Reflex saves originating on the other side of the cover, while greater cover doubles the bonus (to +4) and effectively grants improved evasion against any attack to which the cover bonus applies.

Allowing medium armor to provide a +2 bonus to Reflex saves (cover) and heavy armor to provide a +4 bonus to Reflex saves (greater cover) goes a long way toward making armor not suck against energy effects, which mostly have Reflex saves. If heavy armor gives the equivalent of improved evasion, medium armor should provide the equivalent of evasion… but I don’t want evasion to be so common.

A slightly more complex variant would be to allow armor to give a Reflex save bonus equal to one-half the armor bonus. I like having the armor differ, but the simplicity of a +2 or +4 bonus is appealing, and I’d like to have someone liking heavy armor that isn’t full plate, so for now I plan to go with +2/+4 for medium/heavy armor.

Heavy armor causes the wearer to use his Strength modifier for Armor Class, while medium armor allows the use of Strength modifier or Dexterity modifier, whichever is higher. This could be extended to Reflex saves, but I don’t plan to do that right now.

This bonus may or may not apply to all Reflex saves (some are literally to get out of the way, such as for some physical traps), but unless I can come up with some specific and reasonably common examples I’m inclined to let the bonus apply to all Reflex saves.

Armor Class Values

Full Armor Class, Touch Armor Class, Flatfoot Armor Class, Helpless Armor Class… this is a lot to keep track of, especially since they all apply at different times. Doug suggested a few changes that will let the number of armor classes be reduced to… one.

I like one armor class. I think the last time I saw a character with one armor class (except a Dex 10 character without armor) was when playing BECMI D&D.

I think I was nine or ten years old.

So, let’s examine the various armor classes and see what can be done.

Full Armor Class

Armor’s on, shield’s up (I need to talk about shields sometime, yeah. I’ve made a note in my To Do List), attention is focused on not getting hurt. This is considered the normal condition in combat situations, so it should be the base for other conditions.

Touch Armor Class

Touch armor class in D&D 3.x ignores armor, shield, and natural armor bonuses and represent certain attacks being successful just for striking the target, regardless of armor. There are some monsters with attacks that do this (stirges) but they are very uncommon. This attack type is used almost entirely for spells and spell-like abilities (and grapple attacks, but the grapple rules suck… another To Do List item for new grapple rules).

I’d like armor to have some benefit to its wearer against targeted spells, spellcasters to favour the use of spells over weapons in their attacks, and not require spellcasters to take Martial Training to have a chance to hit their targets.

This can all be done easily by allowing spellcasters to use their Caster Training Bonus in place of the Martial Training Bonus for the purpose of targeting spells. Doug’s original suggestion was that spellcasters do use their caster bonus, but I think allowing the use of the higher of the two will work better in the long run.

Another suggestion from tussock is having former ‘touch attacks’ target Reflex saves rather than armor class, but I have not yet explored this option in detail. Heavily-armored characters will tend to have a Reflex save bonus lower than their Armor Class Bonus (ACB = HD+mStr+8 vs. Reflex = HD/2+mDex+4) so it would be worth using against these characters. Light-armored characters would likely also tend to have a Reflex save lower than their Armor Class (ACB = HD*3/4 + mDex + 4 vs. Reflex = HD/2+ mDex + LightningReflexes?) so it would still be beneficial to use against them, just not as much. Mind you, tussock may have had something else in mind, I don’t know the details, but it looks workable even like this.

Flatfoot Armor Class

Flatfoot Armor Class in D&D 3.x strips the character of any Armor Class benefit from Dexterity and represents some situation that prevents the character from reacting as well as normal against attacks. It inflicts no negative effect on characters without Dexterity bonuses to Armor Class (except that they are vulnerable to sneak attacks), while high-Dexterity characters can be hugely effected. Like touch attacks stripping all armor-based bonuses from a character, this is a poor solution.

I understand D&D 4e has the idea of a ‘combat advantage’ that applies when one character is somehow in a better situation than another. A disadvantaged character suffers a flat penalty to Armor Class (-2) and is susceptible to sneak attacks and the like.

This strikes me as a pretty good solution. I was already doing something similar for flanked creatures (susceptible to sneak attack and suffers a -2 penalty to Armor Class against all attackers, even those who do not themselves ‘flank’ the character – someone already distracted by opponents on either side should still be distracted when attacked by someone to the side). I’d be willing to consider ‘multiple disadvantages’ such as flanked and flatfooted, but that’s another consideration.

Helpless Armor Class

I presented ‘helpless’ as still having the passive benefits of armor (base armor bonus with no benefits from Level Bonus or Martial Training Bonus). Doug suggested a massive penalty to Armor Class and melee attacks are always critical hits without a roll.

It would be more consistent with D&D 3.x to treat the target as having Dexterity 0 (which he does – he’s unconscious, held, bound, or some other condition that prevents him from moving), and because he can’t move he doesn’t get Level Bonus or Martial Training Bonus to his Armor Class either. I can’t think of any good modifier to reasonably account for these losses at all reasonably.

Also, in D&D 3.x melee attacks still need to roll to hit helpless characters – the attack will almost certainly succeed, but this roll determines whether a critical hit may be threatened. An automatic critical comes from a coup de grace attack, which is a full-round action. I am inclined to keep this rule as it is.

Armor Class Values Conclusion

Split the Armor Class into two values, ‘active’ (the character can act to protect himself and thus gains Dexterity, Level, and Martial Training bonuses to Armor Class) and ‘passive’ (the character cannot act to protect himself at all and thus armor class is taken only from armor bonus and natural armor bonus, with a -5 penalty for being functionally immobile). When using the Active Armor Class a character can suffer combat disadvantage (for being flatfooted, flanked, prone, and so on). When using the Passive Armor Class a character cannot suffer combat disadvantage (flanking doesn’t distract him, he can’t react at all so being prone doesn’t limit his ability to avoid attacks, and so on). In both cases a character can benefit from cover (‘active cover use’ such as maintaining a position with the cover between the attacker and target is handled by the Level and Martial Training Bonuses to Armor Class).


It looks like the rules for armor use are steadily getting better, in large part thanks to the comments and responses received above the earlier articles. At this point we have:

  • Active Armor Class = 10 + level bonus + martial training bonus + ability score modifier + armor bonus + natural armor bonus, and is used when not helpless.
  • Passive Armor Class = 5 + armor bonus + natural armor bonus, is used when helpless, allows sneak attacks and coup de grace attacks.
  • Combat disadvantage causes a -2 penalty (possibly more than once for more than one disadvantage) and allows sneak attack against the target, but applies only to Active Armor Class. When using Passive Armor Class combat disadvantage is meaningless because the target cannot react.
  • ‘Touch Attacks’ from spells are resolved as normal attacks but may use the Caster Training Bonus in place of the Martial Training Bonus (but are not required to).
  • Armor provides a bonus to Reflex saves (+2 for medium armor, +4 for heavy armor).


  1. hadsil

    While I was interested in Unearthed Arcana’s take on damage reduction, I didn’t care for the reduced AC. The DR was meaningless because the character would be hit more often anyway. The book also provided another AC system of AC based on level and class for gameworlds where armor isn’t practical or thematic. The book has a one line mention of using both together. That’s what it should have been in the first place. Let level and class determine AC and armor is the DR.

    While I’m still not convinced armor should provide energy resistance, I am palatable to it providing a reflex save bonus rather than the resistance values you used before. However, your logic for providing it doesn’t fit all scenarios a reflex save is called for. For example, there might be a reflex save to avoid falling down a cliff because of loose rock or the Grease spell. It’s more complex but more logical to have the reflex bonus be situational to energy effects only.

  2. tussock

    Just to note, I’m not sure we’re on the same page with Ref saves vs touch attacks either. I don’t use a reflex defense like SWS, where the ghost attacks you ref +10 or whatever, though it’s functionally OK to do so.

    Instead of a Shadow’s incorporeal touch +3, I use incorporeal touch DC 13 (10 + 1/2 HD + mDex). Instead of Scorching Ray +4, it’s Scorching Ray DC 16.

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