Armor as Damage Reduction?

An obvious refinement in handling armor in RPGs is making armor reduce damage instead of the original D&D reducing the chance of taking damage.  Intuitively that’s what armor does, right?  It doesn’t make you better at dodging, it just reduces how much you get hurt when you get smacked.   A lot of pretty good games over the years have taken that tack, including one of my favorite combat systems, the microgame Melee that formed the basis of The Fantasy Trip and later on GURPS.

The thing is, the phrase “roll to hit” is a misnomer.  It’s really roll to hurt.  We don’t, except in some special circumstances, really care if the blow missed completely or hit the armor and bounced off.  What we want to know is if the blow actually hurt enough to bring the foe closer to defeat.  From there it’s easy to see that the “space” of possible results from an attack are basically the same whether you treat armor as reducing the chance of rolling for damage or reducing the damage once rolled: the target isn’t hit at all, the target would have been hurt but for armor, and the target is hurt. Editions of D&D with rules for “touch attacks” only needing to beat the AC of an unarmored man make this explicit… really any attack that would have hit an unarmored man but didn’t beat the AC of the target can be presumed to have hit but failed to penetrate the armor1.

In fact, the only real difference between the two approaches is that armor as damage reduction introduces an extra oddity that usually needs to be addressed. In the standard D&D AC system armor can make it unlikely that a blow scores a wound, but a blow that finds a chink in the armor can be just as deadly to an armored man as an unarmored man: an arrow to the eye slit2 will kill a knight just as dead as a peasant. In contrast, in systems that use armor as DR it’s often the case that once you have a reasonable amount of armor, it becomes literally impossible for a single blow to kill an average man.  If an arrow does 1d6 and chain armor stops, say, 4 points, then a first-level fighter with at least 3 HP can’t ever be killed with a single arrow.

To compensate for this, DR systems almost always add further complication.  Typically they include “critical hits” that introduce the possibility that if you roll well the damage is then multiplied by some factor large enough for weapons to once again pose a deadly danger to the average man.  Others will introduce things like differentiation between weapons that can pierce through the armor and weapons that will bounce off, so an arrow or warhammer might be more dangerous to a heavily armored fighter than a club or saber, or  add “called shots” so that if you want to actually hurt a knight in plate armor with your arrow you have to take a penalty to the roll representing aiming for the eye slit. Which is all well and good, but wouldn’t actually be necessary if you hadn’t introduced the complication of damage reduction in the first place.  It’s several extra steps to get back to “against heavy armor you need to get extra lucky or good if you want to do significant damage.”

When I was younger I used to heavily favor such complications; it’s only comparatively recently that I’ve come around to preferring the simpler “chance to hurt” abstraction.  I still enjoy me a good critical hit, but I like ’em like Dungeon Crawl Classics or Arduin, where they are used to add a big dollop of flavor with results that are more specific and usually much grittier than a straight double hit point damage.  In a system where damage is usually abstract: 3 points, 4 points, 8 points, it’s nice to have the occasional “your ear is torn off” or “your forearm is shattered” as long as it doesn’t become something you have to calculate every blow.



  1. and when it comes to simulation, that’s probably a more accurate representation anyway.  Most of the time if you’re hit while wearing armor you won’t take the same wound that an unarmored person would take, except shallower. If it didn’t find a weak point in your armor chances are you won’t take any damage at all, what damage you do take will often be in the form of a bruise or broken rib instead of a gash or hole in your flesh. The only game I can think of off-hand that did that level of  simulation was CORPS, which took the physics-based intuition even farther and made armor reduce some damage, and then convert some of the remaining damage into less lethal concussion damage.  Of course, at the level of abstraction Hit Points represent you could/should simply interpret differing amounts of damage as representing different levels of wound anyway, but if you’re doing that there’s even less reason to care whether “no damage” is a 13 on the to-hit roll vs AC 14 or a 10 on the to-hit roll vs AC 10 but a 3 on the damage die against 4 points of DR. 
  2. a reasonable interpretation of rolling high damage against an armored knight, even if there’s nothing explicit in the mechanics dictating that’s where it hit. 

Shields Shall Be Splendid!

The following presents a house rule for handling shields that makes sense to me for a more Sword and Sorcery than high medieval setting.

In most D&D-likes, shields are an afterthought.  The bonus for carrying a shield is +1 or maybe +2 on a d20, which seems a little strange considering the prominent place shields have in actual history. There have been some attempts over the years to “fix” that with house rules, such as the nifty “Shields Shall Be Splintered” rule offered by Trollsmyth, giving the player an incentive to carry a shield in order to sacrifice it to avoid damage.

Still, that’s not that much of an incentive, particularly if shields are hard to come by in the middle of an adventure.  There’s also another potential problem if you’re trying to run a campaign set in a period more reminiscent of the ancient world than the late medieval/early renaissance age of heavy plate armor, and particularly if you want the pulp Sword & Sorcery feel of something like a Conan comic.

If you want your combatants to look like this


not this


not this



not this


then the standard D&D-like rules could stand to be improved.

You can of course make it so the heavier armors just don’t exist in the setting, or are prohibitively expensive, or forbidden by law or custom except to certain social classes and only in certain situations, or lean heavily on encumbrance rules (no pun intended)… but doing so tends to make the characters like front-line fighters that rely on heavy armor in games more fragile…sometimes a lot more fragile.  That’s not always a bullet you want to bite for an aesthetic preference.  Another approach some people use is to either tie AC directly in to level, making armor irrelevant, creating some sort of swashbuckling class or option so certain characters can opt to use less armor without getting chopped to pieces or even provide “chainmail bikini” bonuses based on DEX or even CHA for a particularly Red Sonja comic-book take.

Here’s an alternate take: Make shields provide the bulk of the defensive bonus, with armor only being a secondary bonus unless you’re fighting without any shield.  Here’s a chart of how this would work for an ascending AC game, with values based on Dungeon Crawl Classics.

Shield AC bonus Check Penalty
Off-hand Weapon/improvised 1 0
Buckler 2 0
Targe 3 -1
Roman Scuta 4 -1
Heater 5 -1
Kite 6 -2
Greek Hoplon 7 -2
Tower 8 -3

Using a shield and armor within 3 bonus of each other provides AC equal to the better of the two, plus 1. Using shield and armor more than 3 different, like full plate and a buckler, or leather armor and a tower shield just provides the better of the two bonuses. The Check Penalty is the worse of the two, minus 1, regardless of how close in bonus they are.

Using these rules, all the AC bonuses and check penalties stay the same for existing characters if they like, but there’s the option of shedding a bunch of armor to increase mobility and fit in better with actual historical shield/armor mixes such as Hoplon plus linen linothorax or just greaves and helmet, or targe and leather or hide, or even fantasy comic book targe or buckler and chainmail bikini.  The bonuses are chosen with an eye on providing even min-maxers an incentive to keep to vaguely plausible combinations, even if plausible includes the likes of Frazetta’s Conan or Frank Thorne’s Sonja.

I think doing shield and armor this way allows for a wider variety of Sword & Sorcery or even anime setting tropes with minimal changes to game balance.  If you’re not using DCC, you might have to adjust the bonuses and penalties if you want them to work out to the same as the existing combinations, but the changes should be slight.


Overland Encounters

I just realized I never posted this here, but here are my generic rules for overland travel and encounters for D&D-like games. The overloaded encounter die is pretty similar to the one Gus L uses in HMS Appolyon.

Checking for Events

Each day there are at least two checks for events: one during the day and one at night. Roll 2d6 to see if there are any additional events: if you roll doubles there’s an extra event that day.  If the number on the face of the die is even, it’s an extra daytime event; odd is an extra nighttime event. If there is an extra event roll again… keep doing this, tallying the extra events, until you don’t roll doubles.


You roll a 9.  No extra events that day, so just the one daytime and one nighttime.

You roll double 3’s, which is an extra nighttime event, and then roll again and get a 7.  So that’s a total of one daytime event and two nighttime events to check for that day’s travel.

You roll double 2’s, then double 1’s, then a 4 (3 and 1).  That’s an extra daytime event, and and extra night time event, for a total of two daytime event checks and two nighttime checks.


For the daytime, check the travel speed of the group in hexes and roll a die to indicate in which hex the event will take place.  E.g. if the group can travel 20 hexes a day on the current scale of the map, roll a d20.  If the number of hexes doesn’t neatly fit on a die, use the next higher die and re-roll any that fall outside of the range.  Count off the hexes traveled and when it reaches the number the event die shows, roll a d6 for the type of event.  Note that hexes that are difficult terrain count as multiple hexes.  E.g. if the event is supposed to happen in hex 7 of the day’s travel and after the fifth hex they enter a mountain hex that costs 3, the mountain hex counts as hexes 6, 7, and 8 of the day’s travel, so the event will happen mid-way through the hex.

If more than one event is going to happen in the day, roll as many times as there are events; if you roll a duplicate that means they happen at the same time.

Night Time

At night, roll once for the type of event, ignoring anything except an encounter or environmental.

If the players are setting watches, just roll a die to see which watch the event check occurs in.

Otherwise, or if you need an exact time (e.g. because some pre-planned event is going to happen at midnight) roll 1d12 to see what hour of the night the event occurs, starting at 5 P.M. You can either count, or add 17 to the roll, subtracting 24 if the result is 24 or higher and read that as the hour on a 24 hour clock.  E.g. a roll of 1 indicates the event is at 18:00 (6 P.M.), a roll of 10 indicates the event is at 27 – 24 = 03:00 (3 A.M).

If more than one event is going to happen in the night, roll as many times as there are events; if you roll a duplicate that means they happen at the same time.

Type of Event

  1. Encounter
  2. Environmental/Potential Encounter
  3. Exhaustion/Potential Encounter
  4. Clue
  5. Consume Resources
  6. Setback

Encounter: Encounter some potential hostiles.  See below.

Potential Encounter: Encounter some potential hostiles if the terrain cost is greater than or equal to the die roll. That is, if the hex costs 2 to enter then a 2 is an encounter but a 3 isn’t; if the terrain costs 3 to enter then a 2 or 3 is an encounter.  This is cumulative with any other results on the table: a 3 in a mountain hex means an encounter and Exhaustion.

Environmental: Non-combat event specific to the particular environment. This can include encounters that are unlikely to be hostile even if they get a poor reaction, such as local peasants, travelling merchants, game animals, and so on.

Exhaustion: Take a short rest (1-hour) or suffer one level of Exhaustion.

Clue: Gain some information about something: evidence nearby monsters,  settlements, other travelers, etc.

Consume Resources: Some of your resources are expended (lights, food, rope, etc.)

Setback: Something goes wrong and you lose some time, get lost, suffer an injury, find the way is blocked, etc.



Both sides roll a d6, on a 1 or 2 that side is surprised and cannot act this turn.

Encounter Distance

Roll a d6 during the day and a d4 at night, subtracting the hex’s terrain cost.  The result is the distance at first sighting.

  1. Bump into each other (can melee this turn)
  2. Close (can charge this turn)
  3. Medium (1d6 turns away, within direct arrow shot)
  4. Long (2d6+6 turns away, within indirect arrow shot)
  5. Extreme (2d6+12 turns away, 6 turns from being within indirect arrow shot)
  6. Barely Visible (10 minutes+ from being within indirect arrow shot)


If you want to avoid an encounter, then presuming you’re not surprised and the range is at least Medium, you can attempt to evade.  If you have surprise you can evade automatically. Otherwise, the difficulty of evading the encounter depends on the size of your party and the size of the group you’re encountering.  Roll less than or equal to the Target Number on 2d10.

Size of Party Target Number on 2d10
Small (<=4) 13
Medium (5-12) 11
Large (12-24) 9
Huge (25+) 7

If the pursuing group is larger than your party, the target number becomes one step easier; if the pursuing group is smaller, it becomes one step harder.  If the terrain isn’t clear, increase the TN by the terrain cost minus one. So, e.g. woods increase the TN (make it easier to evade) by 1, mountains or jungles by 2.

If you don’t like the odds, you can split your party into smaller groups in order to evade; of course the pursuers can do the same, but then at least if they catch up there are fewer of them.


When you encounter potentially hostile NPCs or creatures they aren’t necessarily going to attack, depending on their purpose in the area and how your party is conducting itself.  If you’re in enemy territory during wartime and you run into a patrol, a good roll on the reaction table isn’t going to save you from a confrontation, but guardsmen in a city are unlikely to simply attack you even if they’re “Hostile”…though they may look for an excuse to arrest you or run you out of town.

Roll 2d6 Reaction
2 Hostile/Attacks Refuses & opposes (further rolls on locals -1)
3-5 Unfriendly/may attack Refuses
6-8 Neutral/uncertain Hesitant, may try again with better offer
9-11 Indifferent/Uninterested Accepts
12 Friendly/Enthusiastic friendship Accepts eagerly (+1 morale if hired)

Overland Travel

Another post that I never posted here, with a general way of handling overland travel based on the underlying Outdoor Survival/AD&D terrain and movement rates, simplified for easy use with pretty much any D&D-like.

These templates show the cost to enter1 a hex on the overland travel map, with a key to how many hexes a party can move in a day based on the degree of encumbrance (for travelling on foot) or type of mount. The assumption is that roads and trails do not speed your travel enough to track, but they do allow you to pass over worse terrain as if you were on clear terrain. (mostly based on Delta’s discussion of the rates in Advanced Dungeons & Dragons 1e Dungeon Master’s Guide).

If the cost of entering a hex is more than a single day’s allotment (e.g. on heavy horse in a swamp with no road), you can either say it’s impassible, switch to a smaller scale map and have the party slog through taking multiple days, or make the minimum rate of travel 1 hex per day or 1 hex every other day.

1 Mile Hexes

3 Mile Hexes

5 Mile Hexes

6 Mile Hexes

  1. This is by far my preferred approach, since it means no tracking of partial hexes. It also matches the way Outdoor Survival worked, which was the original source of the all the D&D movement rules…and by extension almost everything that came after. 

SF Campaign Quiz

I stumbled across this when going through my old emails, and I thought it might interest some of you.  This was a survey I sent out for a group I was going to run a SF campaign for once a month online; they had agreed they wanted to play some kind of SF campaign, but they weren’t sure what.  Usually I’d start with an idea for the kind of campaign I felt like running, but since I was play-testing Zap! at the time, I was open to almost anything they wanted to try.


How serious do you want the tone of the campaign to be
  • Played for Laughs (Galaxy Quest)
  • Campy but played straight (Flash Gordon)
  • Straight, with leavening of humor (Star Trek Original Series)
  • Straight, with little or no humor (later season DS9)
  • Grim (Battlestar: Galactica remake)
  • Other:

Hardness of SF

How hard do you want the SF to be?
  • Sufficiently advanced science is indistinguishable from magic
  • Anything goes as long as you wave your hands sufficiently vigorously and invoke nano, quantum, or tachyons.
  • Stick to standard SF tropes like FTL travel and cloning, please.
  • At least make a stab at plausibility, don’t include anything known to be impossible without flagging it
  • Stick to actual speculative science
  • Everything has to be vetted by Scott (one of our two resident physicists)
  • Other:
Which of the following elements would you like to see? *
if there’s a conflict, these choices will override the previous answer in specific areas
  • Space ships
  • FTL Travel
  • Psionic powers
  • Alien life forms
  • PC alien races
  • Artificial intelligence
  • Teleportation/Matter transmission
  • Near Future
  • Alternate Present
  • Farther future, but Earth still known/relevant (3-400 years)
  • Far future, Earth history known but Earth lost
  • Earth? What’s that?
  • Terra-forming
  • Interstellar civilizations
  • Time travel
  • Extra-dimensional travel
  • Virtual worlds
  • Resurrection/Restore from Backup
  • Increased Longevity
  • Robot PCs
  • Interstellar War
  • “Uplifted” animals
  • Genetically engineered humans
  • Allegory and social commentary
  • Universal translators
  • Matter replicators
  • I’m good with any or none of the above
  • Other:

Campaign Structure

Episodic or Epic
  • Episodic: I want the stories to have discrete beginning, middle and end
  • Seasonal Arcs: I want the individual episodes to eventually add up to a larger arc, but that arc might be only one of several with these characters
  • Epic: I want one overarching story, with the bulk of what happens being driving that story forward
  • Non-dramatic: I want to explore and do stuff, and if I see any dramatic structure happening, I’ll zap it with my blast pistol.
  • Other:


Should PCs die?
  • Never.
  • Only by player choice.
  • If they do something everybody agrees is lethally stupid
  • If they do something that the GM thinks is lethally stupid
  • If the dice say so
  • If the dice say so, but with player veto
  • Inevitably
  • Multiple times per session, thank goodness for backups
  • Multiple times per session, thank goodness characters are easy to create
  • Other:

Are the PCs special?

ordinary schmoes or heroes?
  • Some are born great, some achieve greatness, some have greatness thrust upon them. And then there’s the PCs
  • Ordinary folks thrown into extraordinary circumstances, trying to get by
  • Competent professionals, doing their jobs
  • Elite, the special squad within the ranks of the pros
  • We’re the A-Team, we get called in when the elite have failed
  • Legends, the ones that taught the A-Team everything they know
  • Mary Sue Squad
  • Other:


How far and wide do the PCs roam?
  • Based in a particular city-sized locale
  • Globe trotters
  • Interplanetary is an adventure
  • Interplanetary is a commute, Interstellar is an adventure
  • Interstellar commuters, Intergalactic adventurers
  • Time travelers
  • Dimension hoppers
  • Other:


Why did nobody tell me how great Thorgal is?  (Ok, Trey Causey tried back in 2013, but I wasn’t reading his blog back then, and made the mistake of not crawling through all the archives when I added it to my list of must-reads.  Mea culpa.)

Despite the name, Thorgal is not about Marvel’s new female version of Thor, but a Belgian fantasy comic that’s been produced since 1977, by the team of Jean Van Hamme (writer) and Grzegorz Rosiński (artist).  It’s definitely in the science-fantasy mold, as Thorgal is an orphan from outer-space plopped down among the Vikings.  Not too much is made of that, actually, except him having a great destiny.  The first volume of the English translation goes into it, but apparently it was originally volume 7.  I think for the English editions they moved it up to its chronological position, because they wanted to start with an “origin”?. This gives it a slightly odd feeling, since it originally served as a flashback and doesn’t have any of the foreshadowing devices you might expect if it was really the beginning of the story, but if you just let it flow I promise you’ll be richly rewarded.

I’m particularly taken with Aaricia, the cleverest princess of them all (not her actual billing, just my reaction to her). Whether it’s rescuing Thorgal, rescuing a god, or solving an ancient riddle Aaricia can always figure it out. Unfortunately I’m only three volumes in and she’s currently sidelined, but I’m hoping to see a lot more of her in the future.

Thorgal is more than just a viking slab of beef, particularly in terms of conscience, but it’s Aaricia, pictured above, that I really like.

update just finished volume three, and Aaricia saves the day as usual. Go Aaricia!


You can get the first book here (Amazon associates link, so conceivably I could get some money if you choose to order it via the link)

Homebrewery – a tool for easy 5e formatting

Just ran across this tool for easily making pdfs and web pages in the style of the D&D 5e Player’s Handbook. Very useful if you’re writing D&D 5e home-brew material, or really any home-brew stuff that you want neatly formatted and don’t mind the D&D house style

For instance, here’s a link to one of my blog posts, basically just plopped into the Homebrewery with some minor fixup of the markup:


Check it out.

Tracking Individual Initiative

Despite what I said a while back about group initiative (was it really almost a year ago?), in our DCC game we’ve been using individual initiative, both ’cause that’s how DCC is written and ’cause it has some little flavorful fillips to it that make it more interesting.  In DCC only Warriors increase Init bonus as they level, and two-handed weapon wielders use a d16 for Init instead of d20, both of which I quite like.  But that means that I need to track individual initiative, so I came up with the following.  Instead of using the traditional count-down (Does anybody go on 20?  19?  etc.) I’ve made up a 3×5 card for each character with vital stats like AC, saves, etc. and I go through the count-down once, putting the cards in order of Init.  I make one more card for the monster init, and an extra card representing the end of the round just to remind me if I need to check things like spell effects wearing off or random encounters.

I’m ashamed it took me so long to come up with something like this, because it works perfectly.   Nobody ever gets missed, and there’s never any hesitation about what comes next.   It’s fully as fast as my old stand-by just go around the table I use when I just can’t be bothered with init. I’m sure I’m not the first person to come up with this, but all of the discussions I recall and printed GM aids I’ve seen involve writing the character names on a list and either updating the init numbers and skipping around the list or redoing the list when init is rolled…which unless you’re using a computer at the table isn’t so slick.  The one drawback I can see, besides the need for index cards or scraps of paper, is that if you roll for init every round putting the cards in order could be a drag…you’d essentially do one pass to order the cards and one pass through the cards to carry out the turn.  I still think it might be worth it, but for a system like DCC where the init is rolled only at the start of combat, there’s no such problem.