@Play: Which Is Better, Ring Mail or Splint Mail?

@Play‘ is a frequently-appearing column which discusses the history, present, and future of the roguelike dungeon exploring genre.

Gary Gygax was a weird person. I won’t get into his life or history or, the casual misogyny of AD&D character creation, or the Random Harlot Table. But he did know a lot about medieval weaponry and armor, and to some degree this obsessive interest seeped out and infected a whole generation of nerds.

How useful is this armor in protecting someone? Five. It is five useful. (Image from National Museum in Krakow)

I know which is generally better: leather armor, studded leather armor, ring mail, chain mail, splint mail, plate mail or plate armor. I know that, although in life each is different, battles are random, and there’s countless factors that might determine who would win in a fight, the order in which I have given them is roughly how effective they are, because it’s the order that Armor Class increases, sorry decreases, in classic Dungeons & Dragons.

While the list of armors is presented, in practically every Player’s Handbook, with their effects on protection right there in order, unless you’re steeped in the material, it is not obvious, just from reading the names of the items, which is supposed to be better than another.

Splint Mail was rare in Europe during the medieval period. It’s also really hard to Google Image Search for without ending up with pictures taken from D&D material!(Image from Wikipedia)

This is a considerable roadblock, and one I struggled with for a while, when I first tried to learn to play Rogue, because that game expects you to know how effective each piece of armor is. You start out with Ring Mail +1. You find a suit of Splint Mail. Should you switch? People who play nearly any classic roguelike are going to run against this eventually. Even now, some games just expect you to know the relative strengths of each.

If you decide to take the chance and try it on, to Rogue’s (and Nethack’s) credit, it tells you immediately how effective the armor is on the status line, and you can compare its value to your past item. To Rogue’s (and Nethack’s) detriment though, if the new armor is cursed, you’re stuck with it, until you can lift the curse (to a new player, unlikely) or die (very likely). And then, unless you’ve been taking notes, you’ll still probably forget the relationship between the two items, meaning you’ll have to guess their relative value again later, and deal with the same risk.

Classic D&D tended to give short shrift to the intricacies of real-life armor use, simplifying a complex topic beyond perhaps what was appropriate. AD&D attempted to remedy that by going overboard, giving each armor ratings according to its bulkiness, how much of the wearer’s body it covered, how much it weighed and how it restricted movement. Gygax’s tendency towards simulation is responsible for some of the most interesting parts of the game, but it didn’t help him here I think.

Most classic roguelikes, at least, use the “bag of Armor Class” approach to armor, which is probably for the best. Nethack probably goes to far in the Gygaxian direction. If you find Plate Mail in Nethack, you’re almost entirely better off just leaving it on the ground, even despite armor’s huge value, because it’s simply too heavy. Even if you can carry it without dipping into Burdened status, or, heaven help you, Stressed, its mass and bulk lowers the number of other items you can carry before you reach Stressed, and carrying many other items is of great importance. This is the secret reason that the various colors of Dragon Scale Mail are so powerful in Nethack: it’s not that they have the highest best AC in the game (though they do), it’s that they’re also really light! Even if you don’t get the color you want, it takes concern about the weight of armor completely off your list of worries.

The use of armor underwent revision throughout D&D’s development. (This page lists the changes in detail.) For reference, the relative quality of D&D, and thus roguelike, armor goes like this.

NameNew-Style Ascending Armor ClassOld-Style Descending Armor Class
Leather Armor28
Studded Leather & Ring Mail37
Scale Mail46
Chain Mail55
Splint Mail & Banded Mail64
Plate Mail73
Plate Armor82

Why the difference in values? Up until the 3rd edition of D&D, Armor Class started at 10 and counted down as it improved. 3E updated a lot of the game’s math, and changed the combat formula so that AC was a bonus to the defender’s chance to be missed instead of a penalty to the attacker’s chance to strike. Because of that, now it starts at 10 and counts up. The changeover was a whole to-do, I assure you, but now two editions later we barely look back. Back in that day others were confused by the system too, and even Rogue used an ascending armor score. But Nethack, to this day, uses original D&D’s decreasing armor class system.

If you compare those values to those used in 5th Edition, you’ll notice that even the new-style numbers don’t match up completely. As I said, while the relative strengths have remained consistent, if not constant, the numbers continue to change slightly between versions.

That concludes this introductory level class. You’re dismissed! If you’re looking into the relative effects of different polearms… that’s the graduate-level seminar, down the hall.

Time Extension: Why Do So Many Japanese RPGs Use European-Style Fantasy Worlds?

Time Extension has come up here a lot lately, hasn’t it? It’s because they so often do interesting articles! This one’s about the propensity of Japanese games to use medieval European game worlds, the kinds with a generally agrarian society, royalty, knights, and their folklore counterparts elves, dwarves, fairies, gnomes and associated concepts.

They often fudge the exact age they’re trying to depict, with genuine medieval institutions sitting beside Renaissance improvements like taverns and shops. Nearly of them also put in magic in a general D&D kind of way, sometimes institutionalizing it into a Harry Potter-style educational system.

Notably, they usually choose the positive aspects of that setting. The king is usually a benevolent ruler. It’s rare that serfdom and plagues come up. The general populace is usually okay with being bound to the land. The Church, when it exists, is sometimes allowed to be evil, in order to give the player a plot road to fighting God at the end.

Hyrule of the Zelda games is likely the most universally-known of these realms, which I once called Generic Fantasylands. The various kingdoms of the Dragon Quest games also nicely fit the bill. Final Fantasy games were among the first to question those tropes, presenting evil empire kingdoms as early at the second game.

Dragon Quest
(All images here from Mobygames)

John Szczepaniak’s article at Time Extension dives into the question by interviewing a number of relevant Japanese and US figures and developers, including former Squaresoft translator Ted Woolsey. I think the most insightful comments are from Hiromasa Iwasaki, programmer of Ys I and II, who notes that this Japanese conception of a fantasy world mostly comes from movies and the early computer RPGs Wizardry and Ultima, that the literature that inspired Gary Gygax to create Dungeons & Dragons (which in turned inspired Wizardry and Ultima), especially Lord of the Rings and Weird Tales, were generally unknown to Japanese popular culture. Developer Rica Matsumura notices, also, that there is a cool factor in Japan to European folklore that doesn’t apply, over there, to Japanese folklore.

Wizardry: Proving Grounds of the Mad Overlord

It’s a great read, that says a number of things well that have been bubbling up in the back of my head for a long time, especially that JRPGs recreated both RPG mechanics and fantasy tropes at a remove, that they got their ideas second hand and, in a way similar to how a bunch of gaming tables recreated Dungeons & Dragons in their own image to fill in gaps left in Gary Gygax’s early rulebooks, so too did they make their versions of RPGs to elaborate upon the ideas of Wizardry and Ultima without having seen their bases.

Why Do So Many Japanese RPGs Take Place In European Fantasy Settings? (timeextension.com)

How Do You Say “Bahamut?”

Drew Mackie’s Thrilling Tales of Old Videogames brings up the issue of frequent Final Fantasy summon and sometimes optional boss monster Bahamut’s pronouncation, and tells us its mythological source wasn’t pronounced ba-HA-mut, but instead, ba-ha-MOOT.

Bahamut is one of the oldest traditions in Final Fantasy, going all the way back to the first game, where much of the game’s bestiary came directly from the Dungeons & Dragons books. Yet Bahamut was not fightable in that game, they wouldn’t fall into their standard role of challenge encounter until the third Japanese game. Like many D&D creatures, and JRPG creatures too, Bahamut was a borrowing from a mythological source. They were one of the entities upon whose back the world is carried. Observe:

Which of these entities is “dragon king” Bahamut? The person is just an “earth-bearing angel.” The bull is Kuyuta. Bahamut, or “Bahamoot,” is the fish. What’s more, it’s thought that the name derives from Behemoth, from the book of Job, despite Behemoth not being a fish. But Final Fantasy already has a Behemoth….

None of this proves much of anything. RPG writers, both tabletop and videogame, have long just pulled anything out of mythology, and sometimes more recent literature, that they wanted and just used it, regardless of author, age or culture. Gary Gygax had a Monster Manual to fill, he didn’t have any internet to help him fill it, but lots of other people enthusiastically used his bastardization, to help them compile their own bastardizations. That’s what most game lore is when you get right down to it: it’s bastardizations all the way down.

This is just a fraction of the edifying enfo, er info, in the article, a link to which awaits you here:

Bahamut and Behemoth: One And The Same? (Thrilling Tales of Old Videogames)