Ancient and Fantasy Armor Revisited

by Dave Steele

Art by Art Today

Many fantasy game systems fall victim to the myth that medieval armor is both heavy and cumbersome. While GURPS made the leap that armor is not particularly cumbersome, the myth of its excessive weight continues to exist. Some study will reveal, however, that the weight of medieval armor has been badly blown out of proportion. Also, a couple of armor types that were common in the medieval period have been ignored.

Ancient and Fantasy Armor Revisited While in some cases estimates had to be made, the chart below provides a reasonably accurate system for gaming. The GM could alter some things, depending on the "true" tech level of his world. For instance, in our modern society leather is relatively expensive (several dollars a square foot for armor-weight leather), whereas steel can be purchased at a scrap yard for pennies per pound. The expensive part of producing body armor with these two materials in a modern setting is the labor. In a medieval or equivalent setting, labor was cheap and plentiful. Leather was used more extensively, and was much cheaper as well. Iron or steel, on the other hand, could be very expensive, depending on the time period in question. In early medieval times, iron was scarce and hard to come by, and was very expensive. It's also difficult to work; there were no handy steel mills to produce a sheet of 16 gauge to use for armor. Instead, a smith was needed to beat the steel into a sheet by hand.

The same was true of mail (often mislabeled "chainmail"). The wire drawing machine hadn't been invented, and a smith or his apprentice had to beat pieces of iron into wire, then wrap, cut and assemble the rings. So the price of mail could vary widely, depending on whether wire-drawing technology was available or not. It's also possible that some areas of a world would have the technology and others would not.

Some of the armor types in the table may be unfamiliar. Please see the descriptions below the table for more detail.

ItemTL   PD   DR   CostWeight (lbs.)   
Winter clothingany01~$607+
Padded cloth armor1-411~$10014
Light leather1-411~$15010
Heavy leather1-422~$20025
Jack (see notes)323~$37517
Light Mail3-423~$175018
Med. Mail3-434~$110030
Heavy Mail2-434~$55045
Medium Banded Mail   334~$1650   35
Heavy Banded Mail334~$82550
Scale armor2-334~$75040
Half plate3-445$2000+40
Light plate3-446$4000+35
Heavy plate3-447$6000+55
Jousting plate3-448$10000+110+

Ancient and Fantasy Armor Revisited Armor pieces: Use the following formula to get the price & weight of individual pieces of armor: Torso 42%, Legs 38%, Arms 20%. In reality, these pieces tend to vary widely, depending on armor type and period (a late medieval plate torso might be cheaper than mail, for instance), but this provides a reasonably quick and dirty system. Armor prices are estimates. If an area of a world was iron-ore poor, the price for iron and steel should go up. Japan is a good example of a culture that used other materials, like hardened leather, for a majority of their armor, because iron was in very short supply and swords can't be made from anything else.

Mail: Mail comes in three "weights": light, medium and heavy. PD/DR shown is versus a cut; vs. an impaling attack, subtract 1 from PD and DR. Against a crushing attack, subtract 2 from PD and DR. All suits are assumed to have a layer of light padding, weighing approximately 5 lb.. underneath the mail. Sans padding, subtract 5 lbs. and 1 from DR, before any other adjustments.

Banded Mail: This is mail reinforced by leather thongs run through every other row of rings to stiffen and reinforce the mail. PD/DR shown is vs. a cut; vs. an impaling or crushing attack, subtract 1 from PD and DR. All banded mail is assumed to have a layer of light padding, weighing approximately 5 lbs. underneath the mail. As with regular mail, subtract 5 lbs. and 1 from DR, before any other adjustments, for no padding.

Some other mail notes: Why the cost difference? Also, shouldn't "Heavy" mail be more protective and cost more? No, the difference lies in the weight, the quality of the wire used, and most importantly, the size of ring used. Heavy mail is made of large, cheap iron rings, which are butted together. It could be produced anywhere, by most any smith. Medium mail is made of slightly smaller rings, made from better wire, requiring a wire-drawing machine of some type. Medium mail rings are typically riveted as well. Light mail is made from fine steel rings, that are very tiny. It would take at least four times as many rings for a suit of Light mail than for Heavy, and maybe more! Only a few shops could, or would, produce Light mail. The only "period" examples surviving come from Japanese suits of armor.

Jack: Jack is a form of Brigantine (see below), using horn instead of steel plates, with a cord passing through a hole in each plate that replaces the rivets of brigantine. It is more commonly available than brigantine. It may be ordered with more expensive outer cloth, though this appears to have been rare in period. Base price assumes standard canvas or other sturdy, cheap material.

Brigantine: This is essentially a development of scale armor, consisting of hundreds of small plates (one surviving example has 1,650 plates!). It is one of the more flexible and comfortable types of armor to wear for extended periods of time. The plates are enclosed in a cloth garment and riveted into place, with padding built in or worn underneath. It would be found in the armor shops of cities or large towns. The price given would be for a "bare-bones" suit; however this armor normally is covered in velvet, silk, etc. Increase the price appropriately, using Upper class or Noble class clothes as a guideline. (Brigantine $1,250 + Upper class clothes $200 = $1,450). A brigantine jacket is what you'd find the understandably paranoid nobles in a treacherous court wearing . . .

Jousting Armor: It's just that -- jousting armor. It is designed for that sole purpose, and is not good for adventuring! Many of the misconceptions about field armor come from this heavy, highly specialized form of armor, which was developed very late in the medieval period or slightly after. It is heavy, it is cumbersome, and a rider "unseated" from a mount would take several rounds to get up. It wouldn't be unfair to disallow the use of hand weapons with this armor -- it was designed to carry a lance, and nothing else. It does, however, help the owner use the lance, providing a place for the end of the lance to rest against the breastplate. Giving a +1 (or even more) to lance skill when jousting armor is used by an experienced character would be entirely appropriate.

Final Notes

It should be noted that the weight of some armor, and of plate in particular, has dropped to a fraction of that given in the GURPS Basic Set or AD&D (at least the old AD&D books that I have). These weights are consistent with actual medieval pieces still in existence, or extrapolated from these pieces.

The GM should feel free to disallow characters from buying any kind of armor if doing so would unbalance the game. The GM can simply make the armor unavailable, or perhaps impose extreme taxes for buyers who have not sworn fealty to the local ruler -- and did we mention that if you're not one of the king's vassals, wearing such armor is illegal on his lands?


Arms and Armor of the Medieval Knight, David Edge, 1993.

The Armourer and his Craft : From the XI'th to the XV'th Century, Charles Foulkes, 1989

Article publication date: June 18, 1999

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